No matter what area of audio production you work in, you’re constantly listening. Loud and proud or whisper quiet, through headphones or speakers, in your studio or on the road, you’re constantly listening. And naturally, you need to hear your productions through various transducers to accurately assess how they translate.
What you don’t want is to be relegated to a life of vibe-killing, time-wasting repatching—you know, power-down those speakers, unplug them, plug in the other speakers, power them on, etc.—or adjust your DAW’s master fader to change monitoring volume. When it comes to that process, you need something that lets you bypass the hassle of physically disconnecting and reconnecting your array of sound-producing contraptions. You need something with buttons, knobs, jacks, and routing capabilities. You need a monitor controller! A monitor controller will grant you the power of button-based selection of a source (e.g. your DAW output or your smartphone) and destination (e.g. speakers or headphones), plus easy volume adjustment and more. There are many models on the market, and I’d like to highlight ten examples from Antelope, Dangerous Music, ESI, Grace Design, Heritage Audio, JBL, Mackie, Palmer, PreSonus, and SPL.
Portable and Passive for Speakers Only
Not only are the following monitor controllers small, lightweight, and portable, but they also boast the additional convenience of being passive—no batteries, bus power, or wall warts required! However, the lack of active circuitry means that they can’t drive headphones; they output line level for connection to power amps or active speakers. Still, they’re great for tabletop or mobile use with a couple of pairs of monitors.
First up is the Mackie Big Knob Passive, a 2 x 2 unit about the size of an open hand. With two sets of 1/4" inputs and outputs that accommodate unbalanced or balanced equipment, it’s friendly to lots of gear. A 3.5mm input is present should you need to check out music from a mobile device. Operations are simple, thanks to buttons for source and monitor selection, mono, mute, and dim, plus a large volume knob. Simple!
The ESI MoCo starts with a similarly sized enclosure and big-knob design, then expands functionality and connection types for people with slightly more complex needs. Its left/right swap functionality is a nice bonus, in addition to the expected switches for input and output selection, mute, and mono/stereo mode.
Portable and Passive/Active for Speakers and Headphones
Compact, easy-to-use, and a great fit at home or on the road, the PreSonus MicroStation combines a Bluetooth receiver with the functionality of conventional monitor controller, allowing you to stream audio from any Bluetooth-enabled source to your setup. The MicroStation also offers two 1/4" balanced inputs, which you can route your mixer or interface through, then route the sound via the 1/4" jacks. Now you'll have a big volume knob to surgically control the level of signal going to the monitors. Headphone monitoring and auxiliary inputs are also on hand to round out the system's functionality.
The Palmer Monicon L features nearly identical inputs, outputs, and functionality as those on the M-Patch 2. However, its always-active mono XLR output—great for a subwoofer—and independent source selector for the headphone output give it added versatility in recording and mixing scenarios. Plus, it sports solid wood side panels to impart a touch of class
Active Desktop Models with Special Powers
The next four products expand flexibility while remaining moderately compact for desktop setups.
The PreSonus Monitor Station V2 packs in facilities for three sources (including one S/PDIF digital), three pairs of monitor outputs with separate trims, line outputs, and four headphone outputs! It even manages to squeeze in a talkback function, stereo meters, and a level-adjustable dim. Oh yes, it has a main volume knob, mono, and mute, too!
Like the Monitor Station V2, the Heritage Audio RAM System 2000 has three sets of monitor outputs, talkback functionality, and stereo meters. It also features a 64-step master level control, a dedicated subwoofer output, two headphone outs, and five stereo inputs—three 1/4" pairs, one S/PDIF, and oh-so-slick Bluetooth. Say hello to streaming reference tracks wirelessly from your smartphone!
The SPL SMC Surround Monitor Controller is an audiophile-grade speaker and source-management processor. The special power of the SMC Controller is its ability to handle 5.1 surround sound (hence, its name). Use it for surround and stereo production as well as postproduction for film and multimedia projects.
Another cool beast is the Dangerous Music Source. Its two headphone outputs and two pairs of speaker outputs are fed by independent input selectors and precise level controls. Choose from four stereo sources—two analog, one AES3 or S/PDIF, and one USB—and work confidently knowing that the digital inputs are routed through mastering-grade, high-resolution D/A conversion to the analog outs. Use the extra line outputs for external meters or a mixdown recorder.
Rack Ready and Remotely Controllable
These last two monsters are designed to reside in a standard 19" equipment rack (perhaps one that’s out of reach) without compromising ergonomics and usability. How? They come with full-featured desktop remotes that need just a single cable, keeping your work surface neat.
The Antelope Satori occupies just 1 RU of rack space, but allows immense versatility. How does eight stereo inputs, four stereo monitor outputs, and four stereo headphone outs sound? Well, Antelope didn’t stop there! The Satori’s capable rear panel also sports an LFE (subwoofer) output and stereo sum outputs, which can receive a user-selected combination of input sources. Recording engineers will take kindly to the presence of the talkback function, built-in talkback mic, and external talkback mic input. All users will appreciate the 0.5 dB source/destination offset trim ability and 0.05 dB stereo accuracy!
Last up is the Grace Design m905, available in silver or black. This 2 RU mastering-grade monitor controller has a deceiving front panel, offering just a power switch and one lonely headphone output. At first glance, onlookers may think, “Huh, 2 RU for one jack?” However, a quick walkaround to the rear of the m905 reveals the truth… this thing is loaded! Three pairs of speaker outputs, balanced and unbalanced analog inputs, AES3 I/O, S/PDIF I/O, an ADAT optical input, and a USB Type-B input spring into view. Also hiding back there are cue inputs and outputs, word clock I/O, talkback I/O, and two sub/DAC outputs—assignable as sends to subwoofers, your stereo mixdown recorder, or outboard meters. The remote unit adds another headphone output with a cross-feed option, and a built-in configurable SPL meter.
Even if your setup technically works without a monitor controller, having one will positively affect your workflow, speed, vibe, and results. There is lots to see, so thoroughly investigate these, spread the good news, and feel welcome to share other monitor controllers you enjoy. Leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section—we’re listening.