What is a Reference Speaker and Why Do We Use Them?

Norvan Martin

From casual music lowers to audiophiles, many people get confused with the term reference speakers. So, what is a reference speaker? In this article, we cover that and more!

A reference speaker is a type of speaker that convincingly and naturally reproduces the sounds of musical instruments and voices from the original recording. These speakers serve as a point of comparison because they produce an accurate or flat frequency response with uncolored sound and a detailed presentation. Reference speakers are usually an audio manufacturer’s best-in-class products. 

Reference is really a general term, used to describe audio equipment, not just speakers. For example, you may hear the term reference amplifiers, headphones, and amps. 

ELAC reference speakers

Read on for a deeper understanding of what reference equipment is and how we use them. 

What is a Reference Speaker?

Many people in the audio business often use the term “reference” to define their speaker’s qualities.

In many cases, the term is overused and abused as a marketing term to sell more speakers. What is a Reference Speaker

Others use it when referring to the amount of amplification that their specific speakers can produce.

What’s more, others use it to describe the characteristics of various AV components and loudspeakers.

However, none of these common usages are accurate or will help you understand the exact meaning of a reference speaker.

A reference speaker, also known as a studio monitor, is a speaker that produces a flat frequency response. In other words, these speakers only give out what comes in, so they are the best when audio accuracy is desired. They do not color (modify) the audio in any way and provide a detailed presentation of the original sound with all the instruments and voices accurately represented. They are very good audio reproduction systems and you can use them to judge everything else against them.

Why Do We Use Reference Speakers?

Remember we said reference speakers are used as a point of comparison. By this, we mean reference speakers represent an audio manufacturer’s definition of something good enough to compare all other similar devices with.

Why Do We Use Reference Speakers

This is similar to how people use reference color definitions or color bars for calibrating video monitors. However, we do not have a lot of agreed-upon standards in audio for what a reference speaker should be.

This means each manufacturer decides what reference means to them. In other words, the quality of Klipsch reference speakers may be slightly different from say the quality of Paradigm speakers.

In any case, audio manufacturers’ reference speakers are supposed to represent their best-in-class products.

These are often the speakers that they use for prototyping and are designed to be as close to accurate as possible.

When designing these speakers, manufacturers often give no great consideration to cost or decor. In other words, nothing is sacrificed for that accurately produced audio.

The main reason people use reference speakers is for their natural quality. This makes it much easier for you to categorize whether your music is of good quality or not. There are no other speakers that have this type of technology that makes the process of audio comparison so seamless and easy.

This is why many in the audio business like to use the term “reference”. The term is overused as a marketing term because they want you to believe that their products are top-tier. 

The term has truly gotten diluted over the years, similar to how terms like “studio” and “monitor” have been overused to the point where they have no consistent meaning anymore.

Are Reference Speakers and Studio Monitors The Same?

Many people often confuse reference speakers and studio monitors. Comparing reference speakers vs studio monitors, all studio monitors are reference speakers but not all reference speakers are studio monitors.

Studio monitors are normally used to give a true representation of the original recording in a recording studio. This is why they are referred to as “reference” or “near-field” monitors.

In a recording studio, it is always good to get a true representation of what is going on within your song while mixing. This is why they use reference studio monitors, however not all reference speakers are used in studios.

Quick History of Reference Speakers

The history of reference speakers may help you better understand the origin and contemporary usage of the term “reference” in the audio market.

History of Reference Speakers

In the olden days, many people used the term “reference” to refer to pretty durable speakers with the ability to mix and remix music 24/7.

The word was incredibly widely associated with big JBL speakers. However, even though the speakers were efficient, they were not reliable tone-wise.

Since we entered the era of technological advancement, things are no longer the same. The specification of what constitutes a reference speaker has changed, as we have seen above.

Nonetheless, some people still use it loosely to refer to any audio device that meets their need for excellent sound. However, excellent sound and natural sound are two different things. As a serious audiophile or music lover, you should know the difference.

Essential Features of Reference Speakers

Flat Response

There are many vital features of these speakers, but before considering them, let’s carefully reconsider the flat-response technology.

As we said, the speakers’ ability to show users what’s taking place within the tracks they are mixing is their most essential component.

Some of the devices/ features that enable reference speakers to produce flat responses are EQ settings, microphone pre-amps, and built-in mixers.

This means reference speakers use advanced software that ensures all your songs translate consistently across a wide variety of platforms.


Most modern reference speakers are bi-amplified, meaning each of them has two amps.

They also come with a woofer (mid and low frequencies) and a tweeter (high frequency). If you choose the right reference speaker, each of the speakers will have its own amplifiers.

Magnetically Shielded

Have you ever taken a magnet close to a TV’s built-in speaker? If so, you may realize that speakers are affected by strong magnetic fields. Typically, moving a magnet near the built-in speaker of a monitor or TV may temporarily distort the audio, but once the magnet is removed, the speaker should return to normal.

However, since reference speakers are magnetically shielded, your devices will not experience this issue type of distortion.

Different Types of Reference Speakers – Active vs Passive Reference Speakers

With regular speakers, we normally talk about active vs passive speakers. Reference speakers are no different.

There are two types of reference speakers, but does that matter? Yes, it does. Whether you will choose active or passive reference speakers depends on your needs.

Let’s see the difference between these two speakers:

Active Reference Speakers

If you are like many music lovers and audiophiles, you prefer active reference speakers to passive ones. These speakers have built-in amps.

So, if you have one, you need to power it independently. This means it will be connected to the mains.

Once you plug in the speaker cable, turn it on, and then turn up the Audio Interface volume, you are set to start enjoying your music or movie.

Active reference speakers come in different features and designs as some of them have EQ settings, microphone pre-amps, and built-in mixers. These additional features let you mix sound fast and with ease.

Due to these features, reference speakers are ideal for professional public orators, bar owners, bands, and DJs who desire to play pre-recorded music as well as live ones without struggling.

Passive Reference Speakers

Passive reference speakers are designed differently. They do not have built-in amplifiers. So, after buying the speaker, you must purchase an amp or mixer as well.

Then, you need to connect your passive speaker to your amplifier. Of course, you may also connect your passive speaker to a mixer if that’s what you’re using. 

This means you need more gear and space.

Since this is not an all-in-one speaker system, you need to ensure the speaker and amp are compatible. Check the impedance and power ratings before buying any of the components. To find out more, learn how you can connect your passive speaker to your amplifier

If you opt for a passive reference speaker, you can also connect a sub by installing separate crossover components in the speaker or the amplifier.

So, which one is better for you, passive or active reference speakers? It all depends on your own preference. If you have an external amp or can easily find a cheap one, a passive speaker will serve you well.

However, you must also consider that you need more space.

On the other hand, if you want an all-in-one speaker, you should opt for an active speaker. You do not need complicated technical know-how to connect the system. Besides, you need a relatively small space.

Nevertheless, it’s not portable due to the building. If it is damaged beyond repair, you may have to purchase the entire system. As such, after weighing the pros and cons, you can choose any of them that best suit your needs.

Difference Between Regular Speakers and Reference Speakers


Regular speakers improve audio quality with rich low, mid, and high frequencies. On the other hand, reference speakers do not enhance the sound, but they strive for a flat-frequency response.


Ordinary speakers project sound consistently throughout the room. However, reference speakers project sound within a short distance to prevent sound coloring.


Speakers produce enhanced sound and evenly disperse it. On the other hand, reference speakers produce pure sound for efficient and accurate mixing.


Speakers provide listening satisfaction in the finished state of music, but reference speakers help musicians create and build music mixes.


As we have said earlier, many modern reference speakers come with built-in amps designed for the demanding work of producing unadulterated sound.

Un-powered or passive reference speakers are paired with compatible power amps. Nonetheless, regular speakers are typically passive. So, you need to look for an external amplifier or tuner to drive them.


Are Reference Speakers A Manufacturers Best?

As we mentioned, reference speakers normally represent audio manufacturers’ top-line speakers.

In many cases,s they are the manufacturer’s best/most expensive electronic equipment.

Are Reference Speakers A Manufacturers Best

Of course, not all speakers labeled reference are a truly accurate representation of the original audio.

A good example is Infinity and its IRS models. Infinity is used in making these room-sized modular panel speakers with multiple driver arrays. These speakers have typically been used for lab testing but became so popular in public demos that they became consumer-grade speakers. 

However, over time, these speakers were diluted in terms of quality but people still used the term reference speakers to refer to them.


What is A Reference Speaker’s PMPO?

Reference speakers are normally expected to produce an enviable amount of power. The term stands for “Peak Momentary Power Output” and measures how much power speakers produce, over a short amount of time.

In other words, it is the maximum amount of power a speaker can produce under perfect conditions and how much incoming wattage a speaker can withstand.

Let’s take an example.

A 300 Watts PMPO means a speaker can withstand 300 Watts, which also means it can produce 300 Watts. 

Many people use the term with reference speakers to indicate that their speakers are of exceptional quality. However, this term does not indicate that a speaker will sound any better. 

What is the Difference Between a Reference And A Bookshelf Speaker?

A reference speaker is one that is used as a standard to represent the original or authentic sound of audio and can be used to determine how good a speaker is by comparison.

Meanwhile, a bookshelf speaker is used majorly for recreation and entertainment. It is used most times by people that just appreciate the sound and are not concerned about the accurate representation of the audio.

Best Reference Speaker

Below is a list of the top 5 reference speakers that are mostly used as studio monitors in 2021:

1. Adam Audio A7X
2. Yahama HS8
4. Neuman KH120
5. IK Multimedia iLoud MTM


It is the sound quality of reference speakers that makes them favorites for many DJs, music lovers, and audiophiles.

We hope you fully understand why the popularity of these speakers is on a steady increase today. The fact that they produce natural, unmodified sound sets them apart from regular speakers.

Reference speakers are designed to produce a flat or linear response. So, you can use passive or active reference speakers whenever you need to reproduce sound accurately.

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Norvan Martin is the founder of BoomSpeaker.com. He is a professional Electronics Engineer and is passionate about home theater systems and AV electronics. BoomSpeaker was created as an online hub to share his knowledge and experiences as it relates to home theaters and home audio electronics. My email: [email protected]  Connect on Pinterest and Linkedin