What features are required for home studio headphones?
You may be saying to yourself, “why do I need to spend money on a pair of special studio headphones?” You might already have a pair or two lying around the house, what’s wrong with those?
Well, the requirements of studio headphones are different from the requirements of other headphones. You want an accurate representation of the sound you are either monitoring or mixing so that you know when your song is finished you are hearing the ‘true’ version of the song and not a song that has been enhanced in any way to make up for the faults of your headphones.
Accurate representation of sound
Small ear-bud type headphones which come with your phone or iPod are designed with portability in mind. They are great for fitting in your pocket and taking with you everywhere. But being so small means that it is very hard to create sounds at bass frequencies. For lower frequencies, you need a larger speaker and this just isn’t possible in these tiny pieces of equipment.
So if you imagine trying to mix with a pair of these portable headphones you will turn your bass instruments right up in order for them to be audible, you may even get the mix sounding ‘ok’ on those headphones. But then if you take that mixed song and play if on some good speakers which have better bass frequency representation, those bass frequencies are going to be too dominant and the song will sound weird!
The opposite is true of headphones that are designed for making music sound great. Think of headphones such as ‘Beats by Dre’ for example. These headphones are great for listening to music and making it sound amazing, but this is most likely done by over-hyping the bass frequencies.
Yet again if you mix on these headphones you will be very disappointed at the lack of bass frequencies when you come to listen back on your laptop speakers or through smaller headphones in the future.
Closed back, semi-open or open-back headphones for music production?
These are the three main types of headphones you are likely to encounter when browsing for studio headphones. But what’s the difference?
Use for – tracking/ recording instruments
Avoid for – mixing
Closed-back headphones give you full-isolation from external sounds and so are ideal to use when recording instruments. This is because you want to be able to hear the click track or other instruments, along with yourself playing clearly in your ears as you play along. This will allow you to monitor how the instrument you are recording actually sounds through the audio interface rather than just the live sound, which is an unfair representation of the recording (as it will have natural reverb from the room etc.).
This isolation comes with some downsides. For a start, it causes a cavity effect. As the sound has nowhere to go apart from into your ear and with no air flow a cavity is formed in which the sound is trapped and this can give an unrealistic impression of what the mix will truly sounds like.
The closed-back design can cause ears to get warm and uncomfortable after a few hours of recording.
Use for – mixing
Avoid for – tracking/ recording instruments
Open-backed headphones are not fully closed off from the outside world and are designed to allow air to flow through them. This is usually in the form of a metal or plastic grill as you can see on the example below.
Open-backed headphones are often favoured for mixing for a number of reasons. The airflow creates more ‘space’ for you to be able to distinguish between different instruments and frequencies when mixing making them more suitable than the closed-back options. Things like getting levels right much easier than when you have the confusing cavity effect of closed-back designs.
Another advantage is they are more comfortable to wear for long periods of time than close backed designs. The air flow to the ears will mean you can mix for hours (which is often required!).
If you are using these headphones in a noisy environment they will be very frustrating. Because they are open backed they allow sound to pass through from the external environment so you can hear all the distracting sounds in the room.
Because they are open backed the sound bleeds out of the back of the headphones freely. This means they are pretty useless for recording with microphones because the sound from the headphones will end up being picked up in the recording. This is also not good if you want to do any listening/ mixing in a space where there are other people as they will be able to hear what you are listening to pretty loudly.
Semi-open headphones try to meet in the middle, giving you some of the advantages of open-backed headphones but with a little more isolation.
You may think they are a good way to try and save money as a compromise rather than having a pair of open-back headphones for mixing and a pair of closed-back for tracking….but in reality, you are probably going to end up with a pair that is average at both.
Comfort is something that shouldn’t be underestimated when choosing your studio headphones. These are headphones that you are going to be wearing for a long time, often hours at a time. Making sure that your headphones have comfortable leather or material ear cups will be really useful. A nice leather strap on the band also provides additional comfort on the top of the head.
Most studio headphones will come with a lengthy cable, much longer than that on conventional headphones used for playing music. The reason for this is so you can use them for monitoring when recording and be stood a decent distance from your computer or audio interface where the headphones are plugged in. If you need to record some guitar or stand up to sing some vocals, for example, then having a decent length cable is essential for this so you don’t have to be sat at your desk to record everything.
How many ohms? What is impedence?
A figure you will see popping up in headphone specifications is ‘ohms’. But how many ohms do you need for music production?
Ohms is the measure of impedance. The lower the number of ohms the lower the impedance.
A lower impedance pair of headphones require less power to produce sound. So a pair of low impedance headphones are ideal for a portable music player or your phone. Higher impedance headphones will therefore require higher power to operate but come with the added bonus of being able to withstand higher amounts of power and therefore can be used for more applications such as monitoring live instruments.
Generally the higher the impedance the higher the sound quality. You will get a clearer sound with a better bass definition. I won’t go into too much technical detail here but the main reason for this is that in a higher impedance model you have thinner wires in the cable. These thinner wires are wound more tightly together than thicker wires in a lower impedance model and therefore create a stronger electromagnetic field. All this means less distortion and a clearer sound.
Best Headphones Music Production 2019
What I’m currently using: beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 80 Ohm
I pretty much always mix with speakers and so use headphones pretty much exclusively when recording. For that reason, I have a pair of closed back headphones. These are the beyerdynamic DT 770 pro.
I’ve owned a pair of these for around 2 years now and I love them. They isolate sound really well so are ideal when tracking. The leather strap and soft ear pads make them super comfortable and so I can wear them for hours on end without any discomfort.
The lengthy cable is very handy when recording a guitar or something where I want to be a few meters back from the computer to record.
Finally, I find them quite ‘truthful’ in terms of their frequency response giving a pretty good representation of bass for example. I have mixed with them occasionally and although not my preference still do a pretty good job.
Best of the best open-backed studio headphones: Audio-Technica ATH-R70x
Pros: Sound quality, build quality, comfort, very accurate representation
If you have the budget then the Audio Technica ATH-R70x headphones are amazing headphones. I’ve had the opportunity to mix on these a few times and they sound amazing. They are probably going to give you the most accurate representation and best frequency response of any headphones on the market, giving decent monitor speakers a good run for their money.
They are ridiculously comfortable to wear too with breathable fabric on the ear pads and extra support on the head strap designed to be worn for extended periods of time.
Best value open-backed studio headphones: beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro 250 Ohm
Pros: Comfortable material ear cups, reasonable price, good frequency response
Cons: Fixed cable length
There is a reason why beyerdynamic are becoming something of an industry standard headphone. The high-quality German manufacturing produces an amazing sounding product and always for a very reasonable and affordable price.
The DT990 Pros are an open-backed model which makes them a good option for mixing, providing that space for all frequencies to come through.
As with the DT770s that I own, the DT990s have the comfortable leather strap and soft ear pads for extended use, arguably even more important when mixing.
The fact they are 250Ohms means you will get high quality with minimal distortion.
Best Closed-Back Headphones: Audio-Technica ATHM40x Professional Monitor Headphones
Pros: Great price, adjustable cable length, collapsible design
Cons: Not as comfortable as some models
I would actually say the beyerdynamic are my favourite closed-back headphones but I’ve already mentioned them so my second choice for top closed-back headphones is the Audio-Technica ATHM40x Professional Monitor Headphones.
Coming in slightly cheaper than the beyerdynamics, the Audio Technica monitor headphones are also seen in many professional studios. They produce an accurate sound and isolate well which is ideal for monitoring and recording. They are very comfortable although I do prefer a material ear cup to the leather on these but that is a matter of personal preference.
A handy feature which I wish the beyerdynamics had is the detachable cable. This means you can buy different length cables depending on your needs. The beyerdynamic headphones have a fixed cable length of 3m that can’t be changed so sometimes I wish it was longer and other times (when I’m closer to the desk) I wish it was shorter.
Another cool feature is the collapsibility. They fold down into a nice neat package for easy storage.
Best Budget Closed-Back Headphones: LyxPro HAS-15
Pros: Very low price, surprisingly good sound quality
Cons: Low impedance, not the most comfortable
If you are on a tight budget and simply want some headphones to help you start recording the LyxPro range are a great budget option. For under $50 you get good isolation of sound, a decent level of comfort and surprisingly good and accurate sound.
Bear in mind the fairly low impedance of 32Ohms, so be careful not to blow them when using a powerful guitar amp. But if you are just using them to monitor vocals or similar then they are very good value.
Do I still need monitor speakers for mixing?
So can you simply buy a pair of headphones and not buy monitor speakers for producing music in the home studio?
Headphones provide several advantages over monitors when starting out recording music at home.
- They are mostly cheaper and so you can get started quickly and on a budget.
- You don’t need to worry about the ‘acoustic treatment’ of the room you are in. For many people starting out they are just using a corner of an apartment or a spare bedroom, not all of us have the luxury of a fully treated studio.
- They are portable so you can mix on the move, in bed or on the sofa which is always handy.
However, there are of course some drawbacks. For this reason, I do recommend getting speakers too if you can afford it as it will give you a much better mixing experience. Check out my speaker buying guide for more information on the subject.
The main reason mixing on headphones is a compromise is that you lack crossfeed into each ear from the opposite speaker. So if you imagine listening to a pair of speakers, although perhaps a higher amount of the sound reaching your right ear is from the right speaker, your right ear also picks up sound from the left speaker, but ever so slightly later. The opposite then applies for the left ear. This creates a different audio experience than if you are listening though a pair of headphones where your left ear can’t hear anything from the right side and vice-versa.
Headphones also blast sound directly into your ear and take away some of the function of the outer ear. The outer ear is that weird shape for a reason, it allows us to figure out the direction and distance a sound is coming from as well as funnelling it towards the eardrum.
So speakers are ideal for mixing but headphones do have lots of advantages and you will probably get a better sounding mix on headphones than using speakers in an untreated room with cheap speakers. So decide what your budget and situation is and how professional you need a mix to be when making a decision on speakers or headphones for mixing.