Building an Amazing Sound System on a Budget!

Introduction

I know budget and amazing don’t normally go in the same sentence, especially with audio, but there is a trick most aren’t aware of that can be used if you are willing to put up with a bit of inconvenience. What this trick requires you to do is to de-prioritise style and gorgeous materials and prioritise function. But if you are willing to make the sacrifice, you can save $1000s.

This is exactly what speaker manufacturers do when they create studio monitors for mastering and monitoring purposes.

The Full Package

The difference between studio monitors and consumer speakers are that studio monitors are designed as a system: the amplifier, the speaker cabinet, the speaker drivers and active crossovers are all designed with one purpose: to give you the cleanest and most accurate sound.

What this means is that manufacturers don’t necessarily use expensive materials in the cabinet and most often don’t even provide a speaker grill. After all, spending money on those will not improve – in fact sometimes hurt the sound.

What’s more studio monitors can be had for a lot less money than consumer speakers and they will perform 2x – 10x their asking price as compared to consumer speakers. You heard that right, they are the biggest bargain in audio.

The Standard

When I was building a monitoring system in my studio, I wanted to do it on a budget. I had my mind set on a certain brand of studio monitors and I took my partner to the store with me, who is a musician and has excellent ears.

After listening to many different brands, he flat-out said the best budget studio monitors he heard that day were the Yamaha HS7s. I wasn’t quite sure at the time, but I decided to get the HS7s. They certainly didn’t disappoint. Once properly run in, set up and room corrected, they provided a beautiful clear sound that I had not heard from consumer speakers – unless they cost upwards of $2000-3000 per speaker.

Yamaha HS7s

Yamaha studio monitors have been the standard in music production for ages – starting with the Yamaha NS10s and Yamaha’s new line of studio monitors do honour that heritage.

However, there are many other great brands on the market that will provide just as good performance – although might be a bit dearer if you’re on a budget (e.g. dynaudio). Do your research and your own listening tests.

The Drawbacks

There are a few drawbacks to studio monitors, which are as follows:

  1. You will need to power them on and off after each listening session unless you can buy ones with auto-standby. It’s a feature that’s not very common especially with the budget models. One option would be to put them all on the same circuit and switch off the circuit altogether. Or power them all from one socket and switch off the socket. This is what I was doing.
  2. They do generate some heat. So now instead of one large AVR generating heat, you have many little heat sources within the room. This means you may need to provide some extra cooling – especially if you’re planning to cram 11 studio monitors into a room. One way to reduce the heat output is to opt to use smaller studio monitors for your surround and height speakers such as the Yamaha HS5s.
  3. They will sound best with balanced connections – especially on longer cable runs. Balanced connections eliminate the chances of noise entering the line through power lines crossing or other equipment being nearby. The issue is that studio monitors will amplify any noise that enters the cable so the best connection you can make to them, the lower the noise floor.
  4. Studio monitors are built for near-field listening. What this means is that they may not be as good a choice for larger home cinemas or where a wide sweet spot is required. However, this isn’t normally an issue in domestic spaces.
  5. You need to be careful with volume handling. Some studio monitors won’t be able to handle reference-level listening in larger spaces so make sure to match the studio monitor to your space.

Setting up Studio Monitors for Home Cinema

To set up studio monitors for home theatre, I would recommend the following:

AVR Choice

It is best to run studio monitors with a pre-amp processor as opposed to an AVR. However, I have had success with the latest round of Yamaha AVRs which have very clean RCA outputs. The new Denon and Marantz receivers have pre-amp mode that allows you to disconnect the power amps from the pre-amp and use the AVR in pre-amp only mode. This is great when running powered speakers such as studio monitors!

Cabling

Make sure you can run balanced cabled to all the speaker positions if at all possible. If this is not possible, you much make sure to run high-quality shielded RCA cables – and try not to run them parallel to each other to reduce crosstalk and power lines and other equipment to reduce noise.

Yamaha HS7 back connections

Room Cooling

Ensure you have enough cooling capacity in the room to deal with the extra heat. While this isn’t usually a problem, not having any option for fans or cooling within the room can mean the heat builds up over time.

Power On / Power Off

You will need to decide how you will power them on and off. You could automate this using RF plugs, or design your home cinema to have these speakers on a separate circuit that can be controlled using a switch on the wall within your home cinema. Thinking about this in advance is important!

Lights, Camera, Action

Some studio monitors – such as Yamaha’s line – have bright status LEDs to tell you when they’re on. In Yamaha studio monitors, the LED lights up a Yamaha logo on the front. This can be incredibly distracting when you’re in a dark room. You will need a way to tape these LEDs up.

How to Hang

You will need to check the manufacturer’s website for hanging options. Yamaha provides “installation” speaker options for its studio monitors which come with the “i” moniker – so instead of Yamaha HS7, it is called the Yamaha HS7i. The installation speakers have mounting holes on all sides except the front face of the speaker, which allows you to use your own mounts or Yamaha’s mounts made specifically for these speakers.

Yamaha HS5i with its mounting holes

If a manufacturer doesn’t provide mounting options, you may need to build your own mounts.

Surround and Height Speakers

While I usually advise people to use the exact same speakers in all speaker positions for the very best imaging – it is possible to use a smaller version of the studio monitors for surround and height speakers. For example:

Instead of (best option):

  • Yamaha HS7s for Front Left / Centre / Front Right
  • Yamaha HS7is for surround and height speakers

use…

  • Yamaha HS7s for Front Left / Centre / Front Right
  • Yamaha HS5is for surround and height speakers

OR

  • Yamaha HS8s for Front Left / Centre / Front Right
  • Yamaha HS7is for surround and height speakers

Conclusion

Studio monitors can provide a budget-friendly way to build a kick-ass-sounding home cinema installation that will rival home cinemas costing many time more.

If you are looking for personalised advice for your own home cinema space, book some time with me and let’s have a chat.

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