Gear Of The Year: Best monitors and headphones of 2019
Listen up! It’s time to decide which monitor and/or headphones receive our Gear of the Year awards.
WINNER: JBL 306P MkII
2019 might well go down in history for MusicTech as the year in which we could finally start recommending studio monitors that cost well under the four figures we usually recommend splashing out. Technology, performance and manufacture have all improved so much that we have seen small and compact models from several companies come through our tests with incredible results, and one company that seems to be delivering blow after blow of great – but well-priced – speakers, is JBL. We loved the company’s One Series 104 monitors – so much so we still have them set up in our studio – but the award for Best Monitors of 2019 goes to their slightly bigger and more expensive brothers, the 306P MkII.
The two-way active studio monitors certainly surprised reviewer John Pickford when he set them up to test, delivering a much bigger and broader sound than he expected. “Playing familiar material, the rich, expansive character of the monitors is quite seductive. Detail is there in spades, but it isn’t presented forcefully; rather, the subtle nuances of complex mixes are revealed from within a deep and solid soundstage,” he noted, before concluding: “Studio monitors are getting better all the time, and while there are many excellent designs with four-figure price tags, the sub-£500 market is currently thriving with some astonishing-sounding and good-value designs. Anyone looking for monitors in this range should ensure the JBL 306P MkIIs are at the top of the audition list.”
Highly commended: Neumann NDH 20
The legendary microphone manufacturer has an enduring legacy that resonates throughout the history of music technology. The company has recently started to re-make its classic mic range, as well as providing us with numerous sets of high quality monitors, such as the KH series. The NDH 20s are the company’s first set of professional headphones and transferred Neumann’s monitoring expertise into a closed-back, comfortable set of phones.
In our review, we said: “They offer so much in numerous departments that you will probably want to spend time with them to learn their nuances and then go on to mix well with them. Neumann has top speaker expertise and has transferred it into a very well-spec’d set of cans for the studio. Accurate mids and highs combine with a good vibe for long sessions.”
Brainwavz Audio HM100
These headphones deliver a wide sound which is flat and perfect for monitoring. Importantly, the detail is also there; clashing bass parts that you need to surgically move apart are always present and correct; not flabby, just distinct. The HM100s offer a studio sound at a consumer price.
Focal has a great reputation for studio monitors and has successfully transferred its genius to the headphone world. The Listen Professionals exhibit a pretty flat response with very little colouration that we could perceive, while still maintaining a pretty good vibe. This, combined with the comfort and weight, means accuracy and longevity for your mixing. Accurate and flat headphones can often be wearing, so these Focals have achieved a rare balance. They offer both accuracy and vibe plus great levels of comfort, so are ideal for secondary or even main monitoring.
Great-sounding Bluetooth headphones that are vibey and very pleasant indeed. Next to our superior mixing headphones, they sound better for playback but perhaps not as accurate for precision mixing. Sound isolation is very good, too, which is a plus for monitoring, as you won’t get too much sonic interference from the outside world. You can monitor with these in certain mixing scenarios, but they also double up as fantastic wire-free listening phones for the studio with a great feel.
ADAM Audio Studio Pro SP-5
These headphones from Adam Audio deliver a rich mix experience. They use Ultrasone’s S-Logic Plus technology which is there to add extra listening dimensions while also decreasing ear fatigue, and the ULE-Technology aims to reduce low-frequency magnetic radiation. In a sea of gimmicky releases this year, the Studio Pro SP-5’s stand out as offering a straight-up and sensible experience – your mix laid bare for you to fix – which is all you need from great headphones.
JBL One Series
JBL’s smaller mini-monitors stand up incredibly well, given price and size. They most definitely fulfil that brief of delivering a best-in-class performance – certainly, you won’t find anything at this price point that gets close. If you are strapped for cash or space, then we simply have to recommend them. These are about as good as it gets for the price and, size-wise, there’s simply nothing else out there that beats them. Monitoring history is being made, and we’re all the better off for it.
IK Multimedia iLoud MTM
iLoud MTM’s look like three-way monitors, but actually boast a two-way/three speaker setup, so you’re looking at two mid-range woofers and a tweeter in each speaker. This design is produced to deliver point-source sound, which minimises ear fatigue as the frequencies of the drivers arrive at the same time. They are not as cheap as some – but still relatively inexpensive for studio monitors – but we wouldn’t hesitate using them as secondary monitors and even possibly primary ones. They deliver a big sound and continue to redefine what we expect from compact monitors.
Quested S8R and V2108
Tonally these two sets of monitors from Quested are great, and among the very best loudspeakers we’ve heard, large or small, domestic or professional. Their ability to highlight subtle shifts in intonation as an instrument is being played is faultless, as is the way they portray individual elements of the densest and most complex mixes. The bottom line is that both of these monitors are superb, and will meet all your monitoring requirements.
Check out all the Gear Of The Year 2019 categories here.