Midi Nation is supported by our great readers. We might get a commission if you buy gear through a link on this page [at no additional cost to you].
Get hands on control over your monitor with our pick of the best monitor controllers in the market.
Our Top Picks
Best overall: Mackie Big Knob
“It's simple. It's affordable. And it just works.“
Best volume controller: Fostex Pc-1e
“Super simple and super affordable. Does what it's meant to do, but nothing more.”
Best for power users: Mackie Big Knob Studio+
“The Big Knob, all grown up, is perfect for getting more out of your monitor controller”
Best for pro studios: PreSonus MONITOR-STATION V2
“Tons of I/O options and studio-friendly features make this a big winner”
Best for home studios: JBL Professional Active-1
“Works great for small studios and bedroom producers alike”
Your audio interface plugs into your computer. Your monitors plug into your audio interface. And that's all there is to producing.
But there's a problem.
What if your audio interface doesn't have a dedicated volume control? Or if it does, what if it's out of reach, mounted on a rack right at the back of your studio? Are you destined to using cumbersome keyboard shortcuts to control your studio monitors?
Not if you have a good monitor controller on your desk.
Monitor controllers do exactly what you think they would do: give you control over your studio monitors. In their most basic form, you get a big knob to control volume/gain. More advanced controllers will give you the option to control multiple input options (such as a mic hooked up in a vocal booth) along with features such as talkback.
A simple monitor controller is great if your audio interface doesn't give you direct control over your studio monitors. For studios, a full-featured monitor controller is an essential. You want to be able to control I/O and talk to your artists as they're in the recording booth. Monitor controllers make it happen.
But what's the best studio monitor controller for your needs? And what should you consider when buying one?
I'll share some answers in this detailed guide to the best studio monitor controllers in 2020.
About your reviewer
Ryan Harrell is the founder of MIDINation and an experienced producer/DJ. His first experience with electronic music production dates back to Cubase 3.0 in the summer of 1997, and he's been a fan ever since. He prefers Ableton as his primary DAW these days, though he is still partial to Cubase and Pro Tools. He lives in San Diego and freelances as a producer and part-time DJ.
The 6 Best Monitor Controllers
Here are my picks for the best monitor controllers for different budgets and needs:
Mackie Big Knob
The Mackie Big Knob has legendary status among producers. It's not anything spectacular – it has no bells and whistles you'd gush about online. What it does have is unmatched simplicity and functionality. It just works. You plug in your monitors and that's it – you can control I/O options, turn up the volume, and mute whatever you want. It's simple, effortless, and in my opinion, unmatched.
- 2X2 I/O switching
- Mono, Mute, and Dim
- Lightweight (2.2lbs)
- Big, classic volume control
Desktop monitor controllers seem to be the product of the moment right now. This is in part due to the success of the Crimson series from SPL and the increasing trend towards multiple functions in the smallest of spaces. The combination of the controller and audio interface can no longer be stopped in the home studio area. Aware of this, Mackie smelled a fuse and positioned itself in time with a new edition of this Big Knob series.
The Mackie Big Knob Studio functions as a combination of controller and interface. Great still, the combination does not necessarily have to be used in parallel. The product can also only be used as a controller for analog signal routing. A total of three stereo signals can be routed to two monitor paths plus a stereo track, which can be switched between -10 dB and + 4 dB.
The Mackie Big Knob Studio can also take over the interface to the computer via a USB output. It also has two headphone outputs, which in turn have a talkback microphone connection.
In addition to the two headphone outputs, which can be supplied with the USB signal and inputs 1-4, there is a mini-jack on the front of the housing. This is under the designation Stereo In 3/4. You can use it to access devices quickly.
In addition to the on/off switch and the screwable input socket of the supplied power supply unit (+ 18V / 1.5 A), all other inputs and outputs have been placed on the rear of the housing. With the exception of the two lockable combination sockets from Neutrik, there are TRS sockets that can be used either symmetrically or asymmetrically. In addition to the outputs, inputs 3/4 are also available here, optionally with -10 dB and +4dB input sensitivity.
Once again, Mackie offers us a very solid construction. The device, made in China, has a solid steel housing and four non-slip rubber feet, which even stick to a glass plate as if glued. You have a very pleasant control feel, which offers exactly the right rotational resistance between limp and clumsy.
Due to the massive steel housing, the weight of the Mackie Big Knob Studio screws up to an impressive 1.6 kg. It has comparatively small dimensions of 81 mm x 251 mm x 163 mm (H x W x D).
What I don’t like:
The controller lacks the features which its brothers, the Big Knob Studio and the Big Big Knob Studio Plus, offer. It has no talkback feature, Mic Preamps, and dedicated recording outputs.
Recommended for: Anyone producing music – at home or a studio. It's – in Mackie's own words – “excruciatingly simple”. Get it if you want quick access to all your sound sources right at your fingertips. It might not be the best monitor controller in terms of features, but it's definitely the most useful and user-friendly.
- Super simple to use
- Massive knob feels great to use
- Most common features are missing – talkback is particularly missed
Best Volume Controller: Fostex Pc-1e
- External rotary volume control
- 1\4 dual input stereo
- Cinch sockets
- Professional quality casing
- 10K pot
What if you want a simple external volume controller – with not even the “bells and whistles” of the Mackie Big Knob?
That's where this little piece comes into the picture.
The Fostex PC-1e is a small-sized volume controller that is ideal for all mobile use. It can actually disappear when tucked in your shirt pocket. It is also a good, inexpensive choice for computers such as MacBook or iMac, which have a very usable sound card built in. An external D/A conversion is not absolutely necessary.
The PC-1e is also available in white. The exterior design is really delightful. A metal box that can be described as almost tiny slips out of its almost equally tiny cardboard packaging. There is a mini-jack input (stereo) for the input signal. There’s also a stereo output in the form of cinch sockets and the rotary control for the volume.
A notebook, PC, tablet, smartphone, MP3 player, or even a hi-fi device can be connected to the mini-jack input. Usually, the headphone output of these devices is used for this. A short connection cable is already included with the PC-1e. A cinch cable for the monitor speakers has also been thought of.
The sound of the small PC-1e always depends on the quality of the sound card or the sound chip of the PC or the player. Here the volume is only attenuated, but the Fostex PC-1e does this without any audible sound changes.
If you control the volume in the computer yourself, this is done first on the digital level. This means that the lower the volume is set there, the coarser the resolution of the audio signal is. You can only get around this if you always select a high volume on this first level. But this must then be somehow adjustable for the active speakers. And that is exactly the job of such monitor controllers: You run the audio signals as “hot” as possible and go with them in a well-resolved manner to a separate controller. This then regulates the volume on the analog level and forwards it to the loudspeakers.
What was particularly noticeable in the Pc-1e is rock-solid workmanship and the excellent stability with connected cables. I also liked the volume control on the device, which turned with a pleasant resistance.
What I don't like
The Fostex Pc-1e Volume Controller doesn’t feature an On and Off switch. The volume control also has a little volume imbalance. It only balances out at around the 8 o’clock position.
Recommended for: The unit is for anyone who is tired of the volume fiddling on the computer, tablet, iPad, etc. It’s for those who want to have a nice, full volume control like on a hi-fi system. You can use it in studios, but it's best for an enthusiast who wants easy control over his audio right on his desk.
- Effortlessly easy to set up
- Stable despite the mini size
- Very inexpensive
- No on/off switch
- Imbalanced volume
Best for Power Users: Mackie Big Knob Studio+
- 2-in-1 combination: interface and controller
- 4X3 I/O switching
- Talkback feature
- Mono, Mute, and Dim
- 24-bit/192 kHz resolution
- Big, classic volume control
On the occasion of the NAMM Show 2017, Mackie renewed and expanded its Big Knob monitor controller series. The largest and most extensively equipped variant is the Big Knob Studio Plus.
The Big Knob Studio Plus is solidly designed. The monitor controller is in a sturdy metal housing, which has the external dimensions of 302 x 173 x 81 mm, and a weight of 2.1 kg. The housing consists of two individual parts that are firmly screwed together. All screws are embedded in the housing so that no sharp edges protrude.
All control elements are made of plastic, are easy to touch, and are haptically pleasing. The large volume wheel sits comfortably in the hand and, with a diameter of a little more than 4 cm, offers enough “contact surface.” Directly above it is the 2 × 16 LED meter. This displays the applied input level in green, yellow, and red. The buttons Mono, Mute (-60 dB), and Dim (-20 dB) are located below the volume wheel.
The right side of the monitor controller is initially used to control the volume of the rear stereo outputs A, B, and C. Up to three pairs of studio monitors can be operated on the Big Knob Studio Plus. Alternatively, one of the outputs can also be used for a subwoofer, and this can be connected to the monitor controller. All three outputs can be active at the same time. They can be conveniently lowered from the ideal listening position by up to 12 dB in level and thus coordinated with one another.
With the Big Knob Studio Plus, Mackie shows once again that good audio quality and practical functions do not necessarily have to be expensive. The difference between upper-class recording equipment and budget class is smaller than ever today. And the Big Knob shows this in its largest of three variants.
The controllers work absolutely cleanly and without interference, which also applies to all operating elements of the controller. In addition to being used as a monitor controller, the Big Knob Studio Plus also offers the option of using it as an audio interface, including preamps. Calculate the price down to the dual functionality. Then you’ll see that’s a pretty attractive package that Mackie is offering here.
What I don't like
Except for USB, there are no digital inputs. There is nothing to criticize concerning the audio quality of the outputs. All functions are executed cleanly, crack-free, with no falsifications in the sound.
Recommended for: The Big Knob Plus is recommended for anyone who works with audio – podcasters, home producers, studios, audiophiles. It combines the Mackie Big Knob's simplicity and adds all the missing features. For power users, this is one of the best monitor controllers around.
- Classic Mackie Big Knob feel
- Built like a tank
- Wide range of functions
- Lacks digital outputs
- A little too large for small home production desks
Best for Pro Studios: PreSonus MONITOR-STATION V2
- Dedicated volume level control
- Headphone amplifier built-in
- 4 1/4-inch headphone outputs
- Talkback mic
- Switches for mute, Mono, and Dim
The Monitor Station V2 is a monitor controller with a sturdy, professional-grade metal housing that weighs around 4.6 kg. With dimensions around 229 x 216 x 64 mm, it’s big enough to reach all controls easily. And yet, it’s compactly built so that you don’t have to convert the entire studio for it.
The overall volume of the Monitor Station V2 can be adjusted very precisely and in small steps using the volume wheel. If desired, the signal can also be muted or reduced between 6 dB and 30 dB using the dim switch. With this monitor controller, the level to be lowered can be freely set between these two values using a potentiometer. Other monitor controllers do this with a fixed value. But, here, you have a little more freedom. Monitoring in mono can also be done with a button without any problems.
As already mentioned, the Monitor Station V2 can also be used as a headphone amplifier thanks to the internal headphone connections. In addition to the four connections on the user interface, even more, can be implemented at the cue output. Simply connect an external headphone amplifier, and you can supply four musicians or singers with signals, as well as the background choir. This can, of course, also be used for other purposes. The signal present here is controlled via the cue source buttons, and the volume depends on the cue control.
The three trim potentiometers for adjusting the volume of the monitors were simply moved to a different location. As described, these are now on the back, which is certainly the better place. Once adjusted and calibrated, you don’t need them for everyday work with the monitor controller anyway.
With version 2 of the Presonus Monitor Station, the manufacturer is significantly upgrading its monitor controller. The sound quality is and remains at a very good level. The controller’s functionality covers a wide range of applications. Three inputs plus an additional digital input can be routed to a maximum of three monitors. A 2.1 setup can also be operated on the controller.
Also, the Monitor Station V2 offers two additional outputs, as well as four internal headphone amplifiers and an integrated talkback microphone. Everything is there not just to listen, but to fully incorporate the Monitor Station V2 into your personal way of working.
What I don't like
The volume knob is poorly placed. Depending on your seating position, you might find that it always covers the bottom LED of the 8-digit level meter.
Recommended for: I recommend the Monitor Station V2 for recording, mixing, and monitoring in pro studios and serious home production setups. It can be used as a headphone amplifier thanks to the internal headphone connections. With all its features, it's easily one of the best monitor controllers on the market right now.
- Tons of features and I/O options
- Rock solid build quality
- Good value for money
- Small, awkwardly placed volume knob
Best for Home Studios: JBL Professional Active-1
- 4 inputs and 4 outputs
- 2 headphone amplifiers
- TalkBack mic
- TalkBack controlled by a footswitch
This is a pretty amazing tool over here if you have multiple connections set up with speakers. The Active-1 offers a seamless switch of speaker systems and input sources, thanks to the A/B switching. It features the USB I/O. This is useful for direct digital recording and playbacks when you connect it into an audio system on a computer.
The precision controller also allows you to monitor up to 4 stereo sources through the 4 stereo outputs. This ensures it can deliver audio monitoring functionalities, which include precise volume control, muting, dimming, and mono summing. There’s a built-in TalkBack functionality that you can activate through the footswitch. Also, you have on-board the condenser microphone with the selectable routing. This makes it the perfect solution for a lot of applications in studio productions.
The Active-1 is very compact, lightweight, and portable. It weighs just 2lbs (less than 1kg) and has dimensions of 13.0 inches x 7.5 inches x 5.0 inches.
The user interface of the monitor controller is tilted forward for convenient operation, so you always have everything in view. The control elements of the Monitor Station are made of plastic, although they look deceptively real to be metal. Never mind, they are fluted all around on the sides and leave a very good haptic impression. Fortunately, the buttons are not the otherwise widespread “extremely soft buttons” that tend to wobble left and right. Here you get the somewhat harder version and thus also a decent pressure point – very lovely.
What I don't like
The only downside is the price. While I don't doubt the value it brings to the table, home studios can get a lot of mileage out of far cheaper controllers like the Big Knob.
Recommended for: Home producers who want more features than a simple Mackie Big Knob. If you have multiple I/O options, need talkback, and good build quality, choose this JBL – not the best monitor controller around, but definitely one of the best options for home studios.
- Headphone input
- Clean sound quality
- Extremely practical.
- A bit expensive for what it offers
Honorable Mention: Behringer CONTROL2USB
- LED meter on-board
- TalkBack microphone
- Mono, Mute, and Dim function keys
- Voltage-regulated VCA potentiometer
- Monitor switcher
- Source selector
The Behringer CONTROL2USB Monitor Station is one of the cheapest controllers out there. With the Control2USB, Behringer is expanding its range of combination devices comprising a monitor controller and audio interface.
The first impression of the monitor is that it weighs heavy and is big too. With 39 x 20 x 8.7 cm, the Behringer Control2USB takes up a lot of space on the work surface and weighs 2.4 kg. The housing of the monitor controller consists of a plastic-metal mix. There’s a solid hull made of metal and side panels made of plastic. The processing is perfect; everything is made to fit, neatly processed, and screwed.
The 7 cm volume control characterizes the control surface of the Control2USB. Around it is an illuminated wreath of numbers that you can use to orientate yourself thanks to the white marking on the rotary wheel. However, if you turn the wheel to position 0 or 100, you will notice that the marking deviates by 1 mm (position 0) or 2 mm (position 100). So, the potentiometer and number ring do not quite match. The signal is only 100% mute when the rotary knob really hits the end. The rotary wheel is very easy to turn. Here, I would have liked a little more stiffness and overall, more grip.
The three self-explanatory function keys Mono, Mute, and Dim (-20 dB), are located above the volume wheel. On the right is the internal talkback microphone with volume control and the two buttons “To 2-Track” and “To Phones/Studio,” which assigns the talkback signal to the corresponding outputs as long as the corresponding button is pressed.
Compare the equipment of the Behringer Control2USB with monitor controllers from other manufacturers. You’d immediately notice that there’s a lot of difference. No other monitor controller is so extensive and flexible. And yes, of course, the similarity to the Mackie Big Knob or the predecessor Behringer Control1USB is immediately noticeable. In contrast to this, Behringer has given the Control2USB a voltage-regulated VCA potentiometer, called “true VCA controlled” on the Behringer website. According to the manufacturer, this results in an even finer adjustable volume.
The sound of the Behringer Control2USB is correspondingly clear and clean. The volume increases evenly over the entire bandwidth of the volume potentiometer. Switching the inputs and outputs is entirely trouble-free.
The Behringer Control2USB is an inexpensive monitor controller that can convince with the multitude of connections and routing options. A maximum of three studio monitors plus headphones and an additional studio output can be operated on the monitor controller. All signals can be recorded on a computer via USB. An LED meter is on board, as well as a talkback microphone. All in all, it’s very recommendable.
What I don't like
There is hardly anything to criticize at this point. Only the missing connection for an external talkback microphone can be seen as a drawback. .
Recommended for: This is one of the best monitor controllers on this list if you have tons of I/O needs. It's a little too much for home studios, but if you run a small pro studio, this unit will be right at home in your setup.
- Price-performance ratio
- Tons of I/O options
- Practical functions
- Missing external mic talkback option
Over to You
A good monitor controller is an essential for any studio. Hopefully, this list of the best monitor controllers will help you zero-in on the right product for your needs.
For more recommendations and advice, don't hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Our favorite studio monitors, hands down.
- Complement your monitor controllers with a control surface for your DAW.
- Mackie (official website)
- JBL (official website)
- PreSonus (official website)
- Behringer Control2USB (official website)
- Sep 17, 2020: Article first published