This is a tricky one where money comes in. Of course, we all can't afford world-class studio monitors. But we also can't mix everything on laptop speakers and expect our mixes to translate. The truth is that if your speakers aren't good enough, you won't make good mixes. Why is that?
First, speakers can mislead you.
If your speakers have a mid-bass hump at 100 Hz, and if you have good taste as a mixing engineer, then your resulting mixes will come out with a dip at 100 Hz. Your speakers need to be accurate to help you mix accurately.
Second, speakers can provide you with insufficient information.
If your speakers just aren't clear or detailed enough, you can still paint the broad strokes of your mix, like balancing the volume of the lead synth or lead guitar with the volume of the lead vocal. But you're going to miss the subtleties, like whether or not your reverb sounds realistic, if your transients are too soft or too aggressive, if your vocal needs de-essing, if your EQ on the hi-hat is working or not, and if your bus compression is helping or hurting the micro-dynamics of your mix. All the small things add up.
What makes a good speaker?
My short list is that a speaker should sound clean, detailed, natural, easy to listen to, deep, and punchy. Technically speaking, you want it to have as flat of a frequency response as possible, as extended of a frequency range as possible, be as low distortion as possible, and have as simple of a crossover as possible. But since marketing departments fudge the truth, your ears will be the best judge, not speaker specifications.
Many love to say that speakers are defined by one genre: that these monitors are perfect for EDM, and that those speakers only sound good with jazz, not rock. I don't adhere to this at all. In my opinion, a good speaker is a good speaker. And if it doesn't sound good in one genre or another, then there's something wrong with it. Probably a flaw that certain genres may not reveal. You want your speakers to sound good with all genres, particularly if you produce or mix multiple genres.
If your speakers have all the attributes I listed above, and if the mixes you make on them translate well to other playback devices, then you probably don't need new speakers.
But if not, then it's time to upgrade.
But Milo, you don't know what speakers my fans listen to music on
That's true, I can't possibly have a comprehensive list. But I bet there's a healthy mix of laptop speakers, Bluetooth speakers, crappy earbuds, quality headphones, car stereos, and the occasional good living room stereo or pair of decent studio monitors. Most of these listening scenarios are not kind to your music.
The most common argument I hear "against hi-fi" is that "because my fans aren't listening on fancy speakers, my music will sound better to them if I don't mix on fancy speakers."
And this just isn't true. Yes, your fans will listen on bad speakers, but speakers can be bad for many different reasons: some might be too bright, and others too dark. You have to mix on speakers that are accurate enough to give yourself a balanced mix. And then, when a fan listens to your balanced mix on his too-bright speakers, it will sound just like all the other balanced mixes he listens to on his too-bright speakers. The belief that mixing on bad speakers helps you make better mixes assumes that all bad speakers are bad in the same way. And obviously, that's false.
So no, your entire musical fanbase won't be listening on high-quality speakers. But yes, you still need quality speakers in order to make smart mixing decisions, and to best prepare your music for the many varieties of bad speakers and headphones your fanbase will listen on. It's not pretty, but it's reality.
Though there can be exceptions to this now and then. For example, I love good, clean, tuneful bass, and I have a pretty weird and complex subwoofer setup. It sounds really good to me, but the bass is so clean that I often don't realize how muddy a mix will sound on other speakers. But that's why I do reference checks.
What if I don't have good speakers?
Then it's time to go shopping. The trouble is, the most well-known brands don't always sound the best. And for better or worse, the price isn't always that big of a factor in the quality of the sound you get. This makes it hard in that it's tricky to find good monitors. But easy in that it can be possible to find something great in your price range.
Shop for speakers you can hear instead of ordering online, based on opinions you have read online. I recommend bringing along a handful of tracks that you know well, and that are engineered well. Perhaps something busy and electronic, something clean and acoustic, something with natural-sounding female vocals, and something that exercises the low-end. Each piece of music is a test for each set of speakers: do they sound cloudy in the midst of busy music? Or can you hear new clarity in the many instruments playing? How real do real instruments sound? How natural does a female voice sound? Is the bass content powerful or absent, and is it muffled or precise?
A few years ago when I was shopping, I started reading online about the redesign of a speaker that was well regarded for mixing electronic music. I drooled over every aspect of new tech in the redesign, and I bought the marketing claims hook, line, and sinker. Until I went into a store and actually heard them. The frequency response wasn't very flat, they didn't sound very clear at all, and voices and instruments just didn't sound natural. I'm sure glad I didn't order them online.
Every speaker brand has a marketing department, and the job of every employee in that department is to make customers believe they make the best speakers on the planet. Even when that's not exactly true. And even when that's a bold-faced lie. So don't shop based on marketing material or sales-talk.
This may not be comforting advice, but it's often better to stay away from brands the public considers to be "premium". Some of these brands make fine products, but they are severely over-priced. Some of these brands can make good products, but they choose not to in order to fit in an unusual form factor, or to look beautiful and original, or to increase the company's margins. And other "premium" brands have never made good products, but instead have bought the public's opinion through creative marketing and excessive product placement. That may work on a lot of people, but you don't have to let it fool you.
Check your expectations
Just this week, a friend brought me along as an extra set of ears as he looked for his next set of speakers. He's working with a good-sized budget, and he did loads of research ahead of time, forming opinions from what he read on which brands sound good and which ones don't, and which brands are good value and which ones aren't. He told me which brand and model he expected to love, and I expected to love it too. But when we heard the speakers at the store, they completely disappointed: the highs were too bright but somehow also cloudy, the bass was super muffled and rumbly, and voices just didn't sound natural through the speakers. So much for brand recognition and reading quality reviews.
He decided not to buy those speakers, which was a smart choice. But the same day, he discovered a couple of new brands he hadn't listened to before and found he really likes them. And I agree: they sound nice for the money. I think he'll have an easy time shopping now that he's listening to his ears instead of listening to the opinions of others.
I wish I could give you a list of brands that never do wrong, or a list of speakers that sound great for the price. Unfortunately, quality brands mess up designs all the time: I've heard fantastic older designs from the brand my friend expected to love, and I respected them as a designer and manufacturer. I even toured their factory once and left impressed. There are just too many brands with too many models that receive too many redesigns for me to keep up, as a producer and not a speaker reviewer.
And also, my tastes may not reflect your tastes. You might like speakers that sound much brighter or darker or have much more bass than I prefer. Make sure you bear in mind your preferences when shopping so you can buy the right speakers for you.
But, if you want a hint, I wrote about one of my favorite brands for quality and value in another post.
What if I don't have the budget for good speakers?
Within reason, this is an area you do have to invest in. But good speakers can be had for cheap. Some budget studio monitors can sound surprisingly real. And you don't need to pass up traditional stereos built for the living room. I found the smaller Pioneer bookshelf speakers designed by Andrew Jones to sound quite nice, and I bought them new on a sale for $50/pair. Some Polk or Infinity speakers in that range can sound good, though I've heard others that don't. Listen before you buy, and trust your ears.
Remember, you can buy used. And you certainly can buy old. Despite what marketing departments would lead you to believe, speaker technology advances very slowly, and some of the best sounding speakers in the world have paper cones for their woofers, not exotic weaves of recently invented materials. It can be a dynamite decision to find which 10-20 year old discontinued hi-fi speakers are for sale right now on Craigslist in your area. And you can pair them with an integrated receiver also from Craigslist. If you're smart about your purchase, you can get both speakers and amp for $100-200. And if you carefully audition before you buy, you can find speakers that sound fantastic in that price range. It just takes creativity and patience.
Or, maybe you already have speakers in the other room that match what I'm describing, but didn't consider them because advertising convinced you that you need modern-looking plastic speakers with glowing power lights in order to make music. You don't. You just need speakers accurate enough to let you hear what's really going on.
Of course, if you're buying used studio monitors or bookshelf speakers or older hi-fi speakers, you still need to listen to music you know on them first to hear how they sound, and if they'll be good for you. There's no rating system or technology or size or brand that can guarantee good sound. So again, trust your ears.
It's also worth considering that good headphones can be had for a lot cheaper than good speakers. You'll have issues if you only mix on headphones, but good headphones are better than bad speakers.
And if you don't have any money at all for better speakers at this time, you can double-down on your reference checks. It's not a replacement for great studio monitors, but it sure does help close the gap.
Also, consider tweaking your speaker placement. Honestly, a little research and a little time are as good as an upgrade.
Speakers aren't free. Good equipment is going to require some cash. But if you think outside the box and are willing to go used, you have a lot more options than you expected. And if your current speakers are sub-optimal or you're mixing on headphones, then there's a lot of benefit to be found from upgrading.
I'd love to hear about what speakers you use, and what you like and dislike about them. Also, if you have any speaker buying tips, please share them in the comments below.