Studio monitors are considered professional pieces of equipment, but it can be difficult to invest in your first set for less than the price of an arm and a leg. Fortunately, manufacturers recognize the need for entry-level monitors and offer products that meet the demands of bedroom producers on a budget. Cheap studio monitors don’t have to result in cheap-sounding mixes.
Editor’s note: This list was updated on August 14, 2020, to add the Alesis Elevate 5 MKII to the notable mentions section.
The best budget studio monitors are the PreSonus Eris 3.5
For less than $100, the PreSonus Eris 3.5 are a gateway pair of studio monitors, introducing newcomers to the world of proper audio mixing.
PreSonus Eris 3.5
These speakers feature 3.5″ kevlar-woven composite woofers and 1″ silk dome tweeters with sturdy cabinets, and produce sound you’d expect from monitors double the price. With a relatively neutral frequency response ranging from 80Hz-20kHz, you get balanced overall sound—especially with the mids, ideal for a home mixing environment.
The inclusion of an 3.5mm auxiliary input, two 1/4″ TRS inputs, and dual RCA stereo inputs make it easy to integrate the monitors into your setup. A 3.5mm headphone out is also included for quick monitoring with a pair of studio headphones. As an added bonus, the inclusion of acoustic tuning controls let you to fine-tune the speakers according to your mixing environment.
At its low price point, there are some notable compromises: emphasized low frequencies, where kick drums and synth basses fall, can make it difficult to accurately mix audio. Treble frequencies are de-emphasized relative to bass notes. This results in a lack of clarity when reproducing string instrument resonances during instrumentally busy segments. Fortunately, this can be affected via the speaker’s acoustic tuning.
Despite its shortcomings, the Eris 3.5 is a well-constructed, cheap pair of studio monitors that deliver a sound signature ideal for music producers who are just starting out. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that can rival PreSonus’ offering at this price.
What you need to know about cheap studio monitors
Although studio monitors may look like your typical bookshelf speaker, they are anything but. Studio monitors, also called reference monitors, are designed with a single purpose: professional audio applications. This includes music production, film post-production sound mixing, and radio production.
While consumer speakers might emphasize certain frequencies, studio monitors are configured to produce a neutral frequency response, colloquially referred to as a “flat response,” resulting in accurate sound reproduction. Having this unaffected sound signature allows music producers and audio engineers to balance mixes. Ideally, no matter where their audio is played, it sounds as good as it possibly can–whether played through the most expensive set of headphones or your phone’s built-in speaker.
What accessories do you need?
While most studio monitors can connect to your computer through a 3.5mm aux cable, it isn’t ideal—even for a home setup. In order to get the best sound out of your monitors, you will want to connect using either the two 1/4″ TRS inputs, dual RCA stereo inputs, or XLR inputs, all of which are typically found at the back of the monitors. If this sounds overwhelming, you’re in luck: we have all the information you could possible want on audio connections.
Using any of these inputs will require an audio interface, which contain a selection of I/O to use between your computer and your studio monitors. Fortunately, there are a range of computer audio interfaces to choose from, which vary in price and features according to your needs.
Active vs passive speakers: what’s the difference?
Speakers come in one of two variants: active or passive. Active speakers, which are the most common among cheap studio monitors, refer to those which have a built in power supply and amplifier. On the other hand, passive speakers require an external power source, such as an amplifier, in order to function. This is traditionally found in more powerful, higher-end speakers.
All the products mentioned in this list are bundled with both an active and passive speaker. The active speaker, typically the left, is referred as the master because it contains the unit’s power supply. The active speaker then powers the passive right speaker, known as the slave, with an included cable. Because of this configuration, none of the speakers on this list require the use of an amplifier.
What to expect from cheap studio monitors
If you think you will be getting the most pristine, Grammy-worthy mixdowns using a pair of sub-$200 studio monitors, think again. Due to compromises made with the goal of lowering their price tag, these studio monitors have their own drawbacks, particularly with their sound quality. Nothing comes nearly as close to a platonically ideal sound as higher-end monitors.
Despite their imperfections, using a pair of budget studio monitors will make mixing much easier, compared to using a set of computer speakers. Cheap studio monitors aren’t meant to be a replacement for higher-end audio gear. They are designed as starting point to help audio enthusiasts learn how to properly mix audio at an accessible price point.
The Mackie CR4 is a classic pair of cheap studio monitors
A few years before the PreSonus Eris 3.5 was introduced, Mackie changed the studio monitor market with its line of Creative Reference monitors. Since its introduction, the Mackie CR4 has become a darling of the audio community, touting studio-grade sound at a price aimed at novice musicians.
Sporting 4″ polypropylene woofers and 0.75″ silk-dome tweeters, these cabinets produce have a frequency response ranging between 60Hz-20kHz. The CR4 monitors perform very well in a home studio environment, and produce a relatively neutral sound when it comes to midrange and treble notes. There is a noticeable drop-off in lower frequencies nearing 60Hz, meaning that the sound of sub-bass lines and deep kick drums tend to lose their oomph.
These studio monitors offer similar connectivity options to the Eris 3.5, equipped with a 3.5mm aux input, 3.5mm headphone out, two 1/4″ TRS inputs, and dual RCA stereo inputs. For roughly $150, you can’t go wrong with the Mackie CR4, considering its long-standing fame within the audio community.
The JBL 1 Series 104-BT proves that big sound comes in small packages
Even though JBL’s reputation is based on its consumer-oriented headphones and speakers, the company has also won the hearts of professionals with its higher-end products. The JBL 1 Series 104-BT bridges the gap between consumer and professional, introducing home studio musicians to studio-like sound without the four, five, or even six-figure price tag.
JBL 1 Series 104-BT
The 1 Series 104-BT isn’t traditional from a design perspective: it foregoes a cabinet shape and instead favors an oblong, low-profile aesthetic. However, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. With the 104-BT’s 4.5″ woofer and 0.75″ soft dome tweeter, these speakers produce a frequency range from 60Hz-20kHz. As a bonus, these speakers feature Bluetooth connectivity options, on top of the standard 1/4″ TRS, RCA, and 3.5mm auxiliary inputs.
In regards to sound, the 104-BT speakers are impressive. They provide good stereo imaging with accurate mids and treble clarity. This means you never lose the minute tonalities from an acoustic guitar, or the subtle nuances of a vocal lead. These speakers can also get pretty loud, which is surprising considering the product’s compact design.
Just be careful not to push the 104-BT, as higher volumes can lead to over amplified treble notes. The product also struggles when it comes to low frequencies. While you can still enjoy the boom of a bass drop or kick, it may not be as punchy as you’d expect it to sound on the 104-BT. Even still, the JBL 1 Series 104-BT is worth considering for any home studio producer looking for big sound in a small package.
For the serious home-based producer, there is the PreSonus Eris 4.5
The PreSonus Eris 4.5 builds from the success of its little brother, the Eris 3.5, with internals that toe the line between a novice musician and an audio enthusiast.
PreSonus Eris 4.5
In terms of features, the Eris 4.5 shares the same capabilities with other products in the Eris lineup: a 3.5mm aux input, 3.5mm headphone out, two 1/4″ TRS inputs, and dual RCA stereo outs. The speaker even includes the Eris line’s signature acoustic tuning controls.
With bigger 4.5″ kevlar-woven composite woofers, the Eris 4.5 makes up for some the shortcomings of its lower-priced counterpart. Clarity in the highs and mids is improved, contributing to a sound signature that more closely resembles the neutral response expected of studio monitors.
Although the Eris 4.5 has an extended frequency range from 70Hz-20kHz, its low-end response is limited. While its bass response is an improvement from the Eris 3.5, these speakers don’t fully reproduce the depth of bass instruments. Listening to 808’s and sub-basses on these speakers will still be a pleasant experience, but don’t expect to be blown away. Audio enthusiasts looking to invest in studio monitors for more serious work should consider the PreSonus Eris 4.5.
The Monoprice DT-3 puts the cheap in cheap studio monitors
Monoprice has redefined the idea of ballin’ on a budget through its line of affordable, high-value audio products. Monoprice’s DT-3 speakers are no exception.
While these cabinets are not studio monitors per se, these speakers belong on this list as they meet the demands of casual musicians getting started with basic music production. From a hardware perspective, the DT-3 ticks all the boxes in terms of specs. The speaker is equipped with 3.5″ polypropylene woofers and 0.75″ silk-dome tweeters, producing a frequency range between 75Hz-20kHz. For inputs, you have a traditional 3.5mm aux input, two 1/4″ TRS inputs, and dual RCA stereo inputs.
Sound quality is surprisingly good, especially when you consider the fact that these cabinets cost just $80. Midrange frequencies are good enough for basic mixing tasks; the sound inches close enough to neutral and is worlds better than a generic set of computer speakers. There’s virtually no auditory masking of treble frequencies, which is a pleasant surprise.
When it comes to sub-bass and bass notes, the DT-3 place a bit more emphasis than you’d expect from studio monitors, especially from 120-130Hz. There’s also a significant de-emphasis around 75Hz, reducing the accuracy of your mix. You could correct these imperfections through software EQ, but doing so isn’t a perfect solution. The Monoprice DT-3 are a pair of cheap studio speakers to suit your needs.
Best cheap studio monitors: notable mentions
- Alesis Elevate 5 MKII: With its 5-inch drivers and 1-inch tweeters, these produce a relatively flat sound that will suit any bedroom producer’s setup—all for roughly $130.
- JBL Professional 305P MK II: A significant step-up from the 1 Series 104, this is a great upgrade for more serious musicians looking to hone in their mixes.
- M-Audio AV42: For less than $200, these offer a relatively balanced sound across all frequency ranges; a formidable budget studio monitor.
- PreSonus Eris 3.5BT: This Bluetooth-equipped studio monitor is perfect for work or play, and can stream music from other devices.
- PreSonus Eris 4.5BT: Get studio-level sound right in your home with these monitors. It includes everything users love about the Eris 4.5, with added Bluetooth capabilities.
- PreSonus Eris 5: These cabinets build of the success of the Eris 4.5 and 3.5 with bigger woofers, bordering studio-grade sound.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
Each writer at SoundGuys has accumulated years of experience reporting on the consumer audio market, and our staff adheres to a strict ethics policy. We don’t use ads or sponsored content on the website at a time when doing so is the norm. SoundGuys’ survival depends solely on readers enjoying their purchases. We pride ourselves on transparently outlining objective facts, while accounting for the subjective experience to contextualize an audio product’s performance. When we do misspeak, we correct and own up to it.
Frequently Asked Questions
While studio headphones are useful for recording, tracking, and avoiding noise complaints from your neighbors, studio monitors are still superior when it comes to mixing. This is because with headphones, you're subject to a phenomenon called crossfeed, where some sounds from your left and right earcups bleed into the other, resulting in a perceived stereo image that is narrower than it actually is. With properly positioned and calibrated monitors, you're getting a more accurate reproduction of your mix's stereo image, which is essential for mixing.