These 3 studio monitors are great speakers for a small desk

As someone who’s worked from home since long before the pandemic, having great sound at your desk can make the workday a lot more enjoyable. But if you, like me, have a small desk, you probably don’t want giant speakers taking up all your precious real estate.

Fret not, for I’m here to tell you you can get great sound from small speakers too. But to get the most bang for your buck, I make one important recommendation: consider buying studio monitors instead of mainstream or ‘hi-fi’ speakers.

No, not the kind of ‘monitor’ you use to watch YouTube; monitor is a term for speakers too, particularly in a pro-audio context.

The reason for my recommendation is simple: rather than attracting buyers with flashy looks or gimmicky features, studio monitors tend to focus on no-nonsense good sound. These speakers are generally aimed at people making music, not just listening to it, and they often have the data to back that performance up.

So in this article, I’m recommending three very-small speakers that I have personally used for at least a few months on my desk, and I’ll be providing some objective data to confirm important aspects of their performance. I may update this list as I test more small speakers, but right now, it includes the JBL 104 ($140), the iLoud Micro Monitors ($300), and the Neumann KH80($1,000).

Won’t studio monitors sound boring?

Contrary to what you might’ve heard, a good studio monitor doesn’t inherently sound ‘boring’ or ‘too neutral’ compared to consumer-oriented speakers. Although functionality might differ between categories, for the most part, a good speaker just sounds good — whether for a music professional or someone who just appreciates good sound while working from home.

Decades of acoustics research tell us that there are two basic ingredients that help speakers excel in listening tests: a flat-ish frequency response and smooth directivity. In my experience, studio monitors are more likely to exhibit these qualities.

What are frequency response and directivity?

Frequency response is the most common type of speaker measurement you’ll see. It describes the direct sound leaving the front of a speaker (‘on-axis), and this should be measured without the influence of reflections, such as in an anechoic chamber. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but as a general rule, a flat frequency response is a good frequency response.

Meanwhile, smooth ‘directivity’ (sometimes called dispersion) bit means that the speaker’s frequency response changes evenly away (or ‘off-axis’) from the speaker’s front.

This is important because when we listen to speakers in a room, we actually hear both the direct sound and the earliest sounds to reflect off our walls; the latter are particularly important for the soundstage. The more similar the off-axis sounds are to the on-axis sounds, the more realistic and stable a speaker’s soundstage is. The lack of early reflections is a big part of why headphones don’t have much of a soundstage beyond what’s in the recording.

Credit: Floyd Toole – Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms, page 121