What’s that? You want me to speak up? No! If you can’t hear me take off those damn Bose noise-cancelling headphones and pay attention.
I’m here to tell you the difference between your favorite sickly-bright color of Beats and headphones that are commonplace in the home and professional studio.
To understand the distinction between these two different models of headphone, one must think about the intended applications of the devices.
What Are Studio Headphones For?
Normal headphones are intended to make music sound good. They manipulate the frequency response of the music coming through their tiny speakers to accentuate certain tones.
Beats and Sony WHM’s are notorious for having powerful (to the point of overbearing) bass responses, while other consumer headphones have midrange dips, which brings clarity to vocals but removes grit from guitars.
In contrast to this, studio headphones have four predominant applications:
- to mix/master a track
- to record a track
- to reference a mix/master
- so the neighbors don’t yell at you for being too loud.
Let’s go through these purposes individually.
Mixing and Mastering
Much like a studio monitor, it’s the goal of a studio headphone to replicate a mix as flat and accurately as possible.
As explained in the previous article, it is impossible for manufacturers to create a completely unbiased representation of sound, however studio headphones intend to bridge close this gap as much as they can.
Unlike their casual counterparts, studio headphones are unlikely to emphasize certain frequency spectrums and won’t – I should hope – trick you into turning a vital bass track down -5db because your friend with Beats said ‘that bass was thumping hard man’.
I once – very lazily – recorded a song for my university class using a pair of ten-dollar gaming headphones.
The tune was intended as a joke and not much care was put into it, but even its lackadaisical nature still provided me with a valuable lesson.
Click tracks ruin songs.
You’re onto take number 45. Your vocal cords are as raw as that chicken that made you sick a few nights ago. You finally get that perfect recording – your vocals were smooth, your producer was happy, it’s all come up roses.
Then. You hear it. That noise. That high-pitched ‘tick-tock’, lurking in the upper-corner of the mix. Mocking you.
I assure you all, there is very little worse than a rogue metronome infiltrating the tight walls of your masterpiece. So how do we avoid such a dark fate?
That’s where headphones come in.
Technically the idea of closed-back headphones is that they won’t bleed. However, studio closed-backs are designed with the goal of total isolation in mind whereas earbuds/normal closed-backs are designed with the goal of eliminating MOST, but not all, bleed.
I’ve used expensive closed-back consumers before that have more bleed than studio open-backs.
Referencing Mixes and Masters
Now, while it’s handy to have an array of studio headphones on handing for mix and master referencing, the reality is most amateurs simply can’t afford that.
The purpose of reference headphones is to hear the mix on as many different sound systems as possible to gain a holistic view of your master.
The reality is, consumers won’t be listening to your track on a pair of $1000 studio monitors. They’re gonna be using five-buck eBay headphones, Beats by Dr. Dre, or car systems that have a blown left speaker.
The dream would be to own five or six different studio headphones of varying price points, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and use all of these to really nail-down the intricacies of your master. But this is mostly unviable and largely unnecessary.
Any sort of sound system will be effective for this stage of the mixing and mastering process.
So You’re Not Too Loud
I’m sure you might be thinking – yeah my digital piano is loud and I can’t play it at night. Headphones absolutely increase my quality-of-life, but in what way am I benefited by studio headphones?
True, perhaps they’re not as important when you’re simply practicing. The increase in sound quality and detail won’t technically affect how well you play, but particularly for ensemble/pieces with accompanying tracks, the better the sound, the more the motivated you will be.
It’s not a lot of fun to hammer away at a complicated piece for weeks on end, drawing closer and closer to perfecting the middle eighth that’s gotten you stumped, while having it sound like crap the entire time due to your tinny little earbuds.
Do you want to bear the fruit of all your hard work and hear your prowess with the keys in all its glory? If so, studio headphones are for you.
The Two Types of Headphones
A lot of people may not know this, but there are actually two different types of headphones.
Most casual consumers are only ever exposed to closed-back headphones, because these are more proficient at sound isolation (I know, I know, your public transport rides do suggest otherwise).
This means closed-back headphones are vital in the world of the music studio, as they are responsible for keeping those malevolent click tracks from bleeding into your recordings.
While the purpose of such a headphone is primarily recording, you still want a relatively accurate representation of the mix and playback of the track you’re working on so you know when to move on, or when you need another take.
However, achieving this detail can be hard, as the sound isolation these headphones provide comes at a cost – quality, and a factor many don’t consider, fatigue.
So how do you go about those long nights in the studio when you spend hours mixing and mastering?
Do away with isolation! Open-back headphones work in a manner that allows air to pass through the ear cups into their mini-speakers. This has a multitude of effects including:
- Removing a buildup of pressure in the headphones and ears
- Removing echoes from sound bouncing around the cups
- Having a more natural and clear sound.
In essence, this all equates to a simple conclusion: open-back headphones are superior in quality to closed-back.
Not only does the natural, pressure-free environment cater to extensive use without fatigue, open-backs are much better suited to mixing and mastering tracks due to the more detail and accurate sound they offer.
The formula to take away from this is very easy: Use closed-back headphones with strong isolation elements for tracking with a microphone, and open-back headphones for all your listening needs.
Why Not Just a Studio Monitor?
It’s true. Studio monitors are the gold standard for mixing and mastering. They are less ‘hyped’ (you hear less unnecessary detail) than headphones, more accurate than headphones and translate better than headphones.
These are just some of the reasons why you should always prioritize mixing on studio monitors over headphones.
So, you ask. Why headphones at all?
As previously mentioned, their place in tracking is simply non-negotiable. You need a good pair of isolation headphones to record music, or else bad things will happen. Trust me.
In terms of mixing, there are plenty of reasons to own a pair of open-back headphones.
Perhaps the most obvious one is for working late at night. If you’re anything like me, you won’t rest until all your ideas have come together. This can often mean working deep into the morning trying to perfect a specific reverb effect for a 10-second track that most likely nobody will ever hear.
I can’t be doing this with monitors at 4am! My family, pets and partner would never forgive me. So, out of necessity, I pull out a pair of open-backs and get to work. Once it is a more reasonable time, I’ll switch back to monitors and adjust any ‘inaccurate’ changes I made while working with headphones.
Another reason is if you are in a room with really, really bad acoustics. While most bedroom musicians should invest in acoustic treatment, it is expensive, time-consuming, confusing, and thus, many don’t.
This leaves their room vulnerable to echo, reflections, bass build-ups and a generally inaccurate representation of their music and recordings through speakers.
A pair of headphones immediately eliminates these issues.
Another reason is for a better understanding of a track’s sonic field. As many do, if you rely on panning in your mixes, it can sometimes be harder to tell just where everything is on a pair of monitors.
Headphones give you a different picture of your song’s width and how it is horizontally or vertically layered, which can be useful when combined with the information from your monitors.
Finally, perhaps the most important reason of all to have a pair of headphones:
I’ve harped on this enough above so I’ll keep it brief now.
While it is important to only employ a couple of monitors/headphones for the bulk of your musical work (so you can get to know their strengths and weaknesses intimately), having as many different speaker systems and sound sources to briefly reference your mixes will benefit you to no end.
The deeper you go into the technical side of sound, the more and more obvious it becomes that Boards of Canada were right — music is math.
Impedance refers to the amount of resistance that something offers to the flow of a current in a circuit or electrical system at a specific frequency. Make sense to you? Yeah, me neither.
Impedance is one of those lovely musical terms that makes plenty of sense to a physicist and absolutely no sense to everyone else.
The reality is, outside of an extremely simplified definition, there’s no necessity to know the technicalities of what impedance is when choosing your studio headphones.
What’s more important, is knowing the impedance rating of the specific headphone and how that correlates to your available headphone amplifiers.
This doesn’t eventuate to better quality, just that the headphone demands a higher amount of electrical power to deliver stronger audio levels.
It is important to keep in mind that 32 ohm headphones perform comparatively to 100 ohm+ headphones. It depends on much more than just the impedance and power of an electrical system for equipment to provide high-quality audio.
When to Use High- or Low-Impedance Headphones?
High impedance headphones were traditionally designed for use in professional studios.
Without going into the technical details, it was often paramount for an engineer to hook up five or more headphones to the same output source, either for mixing, tracking or any other musical task that involved multiple people.
For this circuit to work at full capacity, high impedance headphones were preferred, as the music source’s output voltage was kept stable while driving multiple headphones.
Low impedance cans are susceptible to ‘blow-out’s when met with such output impedance – they won’t quite explode into flames, but something close to that can happen if the cans are being driven too hard (so, keep an eye on the volume, folks).
Known as the ‘damping factor‘, you generally want the source output’s impedance to be far lower (8-10 times or more) than the headphone’s impedance.
Keep in mind that output impedance, headphone impedance, output voltage and recommended headphone impedance range (for the source) are all different things.
The flipside of this is a high impedance set of headphones will sometimes be extremely difficult to drive on lesser amplification systems (like a phone jack) resulting in a lack of clarity and loudness.
Low impedance headphones require less voltage, but more current to drive their sound. They are usually a bit more flexible than high impedance headphones, designed to work with portable devices, so are a better choice if you plan on buying a set of studio headphones that can be used outside of the studio too.
Today, most consumer headphones will have an impedance rating of around 32 ohms. This is because the most common form of listening to music on headphones is via our phones and tablets.
Such devices aren’t designed for dedicating power to headphones, and only provide a certain amount of voltage – often not enough to drive a high impedance set of cans.
Chances are, your computer’s native sound card will not provide sufficient voltage to drive a set of high-ohm headphones.
Pairing such devices with high impedance headphones is depriving yourself of their full potential. This is where headphone amplifiers come into the picture.
Most high-quality audio interfaces and external sound cards should have a high enough impedance rating to provide vastly superior power than your average phone or computer headphone jack.
For those who don’t need the versatility of an audio interface, a dedicated headphone amplifier is a great choice.
To summarise – don’t just buy the most expensive, highest-impedance pair of cans your excited, yet impulsive eyes see.
Make sure you have the supplementary equipment – be it a highly-rated audio interface, or an intermediate or above headphone amplifier, to support your 600 ohm headphones before purchase.
Otherwise you’re going to be very, very disappointed.
SHOW ME THE PRODUCTS!
Frequency response: 8Hz to 25kHz
Impedance: 64 ohms
I’m not too sure why, but the Sennheiser HD280 PRO seem to be a staple for up-and-coming electronic producers mixing from their home bedroom.
Seeing as most of their composition is done digitally, there is very little need for the isolation of a closed-back headphone – but they are good looking, ergonomic headphones suited for long periods of use (as far as closed-back’s go).
Sennheiser are a trustworthy brand, known for reliable, durable and high-fidelity products. The HD280 is no exception to these rules.
In terms of sound quality, these cans wouldn’t be your first choice for casual listening, but the purpose of studio headphones is neutral listening, an area the HD280’s are quite proficient in for their price point.
The sound isolation (leakage) on the HD280 isn’t fantastic compared to its counterparts (this might be the explanation to my earlier query), but will still be a step above consumer headphones like Bose QC II’s or Beats.
Moreover, noise isolation is pretty damn good – the HD280 block out almost everything that’s going on around you sound-wise. Another plus of the HD280 is they come with a detachable cable, which really should be mandatory for modern headphones.
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 20kHz
Impedance: 63 ohms
Two words: Industry standard.
Sony MDR’s have been used in professional studios since their inception, and will continue to be used in such environments for decades to come.
Their price, versatility and ease of use are all factors that ensure their popularity, but there is one standout reason for the industry’s enduring love affair with these headphones.
As I stressed earlier in the article, the importance of low sound bleed from a set of cans is paramount. So much so, that engineers cast a blind eye to the somewhat shoddy build of the MDRs (made mostly of plastic) and their rather lackluster noise-canceling properties.
None of this matters in the face of accurate sound reproduction and fantastic sound isolation.
Unfortunately, the cable isn’t detachable which may impede the longevity and portability of the MDR-7506. They are also perhaps slightly less comfortable than the HD280’s, but commenting on comfort outside of a general sense isn’t all that reliable because everyone’s ears are different.
Frequency response: 15Hz to 28kHz
Impedance: 38 ohms
The ATH-M50x is a powerful studio closed-back headphone that is very popular among both professional and amateur musicians.
They’re slightly more expensive than the MDR and HD280 mentioned previously, and for this bump in price you get superior, more detailed sound reproduction.
Where the M50x’s fall short is, however, in sound isolation. They tend to be a little leaky, and both in my experience and the experience of many other reviewers, those godforsaken click tracks can indeed weasel their way into your recordings when equipped with a set of M50x’s.
That being said, if you adjust accordingly – by turning the metronome down – you will not be disappointed by the quality of these headphones.
Another pro for purchasing an ATH-M50x is the detachable cable. They’re not the most portable of headphones, being a bit big and bulky, so their usage in everyday activities like sport and transit may be suboptimal.
Frequency Response: 5Hz to 35kHz
Impedance: 80 or 250 ohm
Look. A hundred different people could put on a hundred different sets of good headphones, and when asked which sounds the best to them, give a hundred different answers.
Truth is, music is subjective, and so is what sounds good (though perhaps to a lesser degree). So take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt, but:
The cable is also non-detachable.
But for the quality of sound that these provide, if you can get past wearing an almost ludicrously big yet somehow tight set of headphones, you’ll be laughing your way to the bank.
The DT 770’s bass response is more accurate than any other set of cans in its price range, it has luscious midrange detail and will really make your accompanying tracks sound nice when recording other instruments.
Beyerdynamic is a long-standing brand known for luxury products, and the DT770 does little to tarnish this reputation.
Frequency Response: 12Hz to 35kHz
Impedance: 32 ohms
Talk about making an entrance. The SHP9500s were released four years ago to a FRENZY of publicity, rave reviews and excitement. People were losing their minds at the price point, sound quality and even the comfort.
When such fervor comes out in a flurry, it is a good idea to stay cautious and not buy into the hype. Wait a little bit for the enthusiasm and excitement to die down and then see if the reviews are still as positive.
There are instances of sneaky marketing campaigns, over-the-top publicity stunts, paid reviews, etc. that have led to products in the past being hyped as ‘must-buys’ that ended up being nothing more than average.
But this is not the case for the SHP9500s. They were not a one-month wonder. The love for these headphones has endured long past their release date.
Even today, four years on, reviews proclaiming these as the holy grail of budget headphones are still pumped out on a monthly basis.
Their sound quality is simply gorgeous. These cans are super accurate, with a strong bass response, broad mid-range and a fair representation of a song’s treble frequencies – it is commonplace even for studio headphones to hype higher frequencies to give songs an artificial sense of clarity.
The Philips bleed a fair bit, as well as allow a lot of ambient, room noise into the listening experience, but if you’re buying open-backed headphones and expecting this to not be the case…you got another thing coming.
I don’t want to be one of those guys but – the Philips SHP9500 are an absolute buy.
Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz
Impedance: 32 ohms
Grado is most likely the least known brand mentioned on this list for headphones, however they have a long-standing reputation as being strong performers in their industry.
What is unique about the SR60e is that, unlike every other competitor on this list, they are on-ear headphones, like you would expect from an old Sony Walkman.
I know, it sounds HORRIBLE. Uncomfortable, grating, and like it would be bleeding sound quality as it doesn’t properly wrap around your ears.
Let me tell you otherwise.
The Grade SR60e’s are the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever used. Yep, ever.
Of course, your mileage may vary, but the open, spacious design (there is a lot of ambient noise when using these headphones) allows for long mixing sessions with minimal fatigue.
In terms of quality, the Grado brand is top-notch. Their focus has always been sound quality while maintaining sound accuracy as much as possible.
While this makes for a great casual listening experience, the SR60s have a rather ugly design, so you may be best advised to avoid dumping them on your head in public.
But hey, who’s to pass off a good time in favor of fashion. We’re musicians, not models.
But if you can look past these flaws, for the price point the Grado’s are a tremendous set of headphones.
Their extreme, unexpected comfort makes them among the best on this list for longer sessions, and their sound quality makes them an all-round choice for practicing instruments or referencing mixes.
Just…you know. Leave ‘em at home.
Frequency response: 5Hz to 35kHz
Impedance: 600, 250 or 32 ohms
You know what’s weird? When models increase in number, you generally expect a corresponding increase in value.
For example, you’d think a Beyerdynamic DT3000 MK ULTRA edition would be more expensive than a Beyerdynamic DT10. Apparently, that’s not how they do things in Germany, seeing as the DT990 is cheaper than the DT770. I digress.
I mentioned before that Beyerdynamic headphones are great quality. I get the feeling if this company were contracted to manufacture a bad sounding headphone, they wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to do it.
The treble readings on this headphone are a bit hyped, which makes them sound superb but also may mislead you somewhat when mixing your music. This is why it’s always a good idea to reference your music on as many sound sources as possible.
Of course, as we’ve established with open-back headphones, they are super comfortable, very decent to use for long periods of time, and allow a sense of ambiance and space when listening to music. This naturally incurs loud leakage of sound.
The build quality of the DT990 is top-notch. Though they may be bulky and not very good for physical activities, you know that the metal frame isn’t going to snap very easily. Unfortunately, there is no detachable cable.
Frequency Response: 12Hz to 40kHz
Impedance: 300 ohms
Go to any music forum on the internet and ask what headphones you should use for mixing. You’ll get a myriad of answers, many of which yelling at you for deigning to mention ‘headphone’ and ‘mixing’ in the same sentence, but chances are, the most common name dropped will be the Sennheiser HD600s.
The Sennheiser HD600s, or Sennys, as true fans call them, are industry-standard, famous, and just all-round good. Though they represent a steep uptick in price compared to the rest of the list, there is a solid reason for this.
These are better headphones.
Sure, they might not be the best-sounding headphones on the list. They aren’t what I would recommend for leisure listening on the train, due to their bulky and cumbersome design, not to mention that both cups are wired. At least the cable’s detachable.
If your primary goal is mixing tracks (your own or otherwise) and you want a pair of primary reference cans, the HD600s are your best bet.
There are many more options available in the world of studio headphones not mentioned in this article. Sennheiser HD650s, AKG K702s and Beyerdynamic DT880s are just some of the great products worth considering on your road to purchasing a set of long-lasting cans.
I say this every article, so I won’t hold you up with it for too long. But no amount of reading reviews, watching YouTube videos or listening to what I say will substitute the confidence in your decision you get by trying the headphones before you buy them.
Everyone responds differently to music, to sound, to quality. Some builds may stifle your ears and leave them red, while others’ thumping bass might be perfect for your style of music.
If you want to avoid buyer’s remorse – go to your local music shop and harass their employees with demands of demos.
Just remember to never use Beats as your sole mixing headphones, and you’ll be fine.