If you want to mix and master music in your studio, you’re going to need the right gear.
A pair of quality studio headphones can make your job much easier. You will likely need proper studio monitors too, but headphones also play an important part in the process. This is especially true in an instance where you’re recording and mixing from home or in an apartment where constant noise may not be appreciated. Plus, it’s always good to have more than one source to check.
Whether you’re looking for a pair of low-cost headphones that deliver quality sound, or you’re seeking ultimate comfort and luxury, we’ve got your needs covered. Review the following list to find your perfect pair of studio headphones.
AKG K701 Reference Class Premium Headphones
We can’t talk studio headphones without referencing AKG at least once. I use a pair of K141s myself.
But the K701 is nothing short of legendary (Quincy Jones uses them and even has his own signature series), and some even refer to them as the best pair of headphones money can buy. Not bad for $200 or less.
The flat-wire coil technology gives you more low-end, and allows the headphones to be driven by amplifiers with less power than in the past.
Some say these AKG phones aren’t the most comfortable, and others have even described them as being “too bright”, but they will always be contenders on any “best of” list. For more comfortable options, keep reading.
Samson SR850 Semi-Open-Back Studio Reference Headphones
If you’re on a budget, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a pair of headphones that give you better bang for buck than the SR850. Even at $41.93, they still offer studio quality sound. Seriously.
Will you find SR850s in your local high-budget recording studio? Probably not. But reviews show that not only are these great headphones, they’re loaded with the same features that other higher-priced headphones offer. Good deal.
If you can’t afford to spend a lot on your headphones, this Samson pair is a sure bet.
Audio Technica ATH-M40x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones
Here’s another affordable pair of headphones that are surprisingly good. At just under $90, the ATH-M40x are lightweight, extremely durable, and feature a detachable cable (making it easy to replace if you ever need to).
The sound quality is reasonably good, and for the price, it’s hard to go wrong.
As an alternative to the Samson SR850s or other low-cost models at or under $100, the Audio Technica pair is worth checking out.
Beyerdynamic DT-990-Pro-250 Professional Acoustically Open Headphones
The AKG K701 may be lauded as the best headphones one can lay their hands on. But the DT-990 Pro is a major contender in the semi-affordable quality headphone arena, at a little under $180.
And they are worth every penny you pay for them, with a great frequency range, good bass response, and are lightweight and comfortable besides.
Most customers are very satisfied with the Beyerdynamic pair. There are better headphones in the upper price ranges, but if you’re looking for something that’s comparable to the AKG 701 pair, and you demand more comfort, have a look at these.
HIFIMAN HE400S Full-Size Planar Headphone
The HE400S offers a quality, spacious, detailed, natural sound, making them incredibly transparent. At just under $300, these cans land themselves in the upper-middle range price point.
Interestingly, these headphones also work great with a smartphone or tablet, though you will still get the best response with an amplifier.
HIFIMAN also offers the well-received HE-400I headphones, another model worth considering if your budget allows for it. Many pros have found something worth talking about in these products.
Sennheiser HD 700 Headphone
We’ve looked at several cheaper and middle-of-the-road options for headphones, but if you’re looking for a pair that screams pro audio, then you’ll want to have a look at HD 700.
Now, these babies do cost over $400, but in addition to audiophile sound quality, they’re also incredibly comfortable. This is an essential feature when you know you’re going to be spending hours in the studio mixing and tweaking.
Sennheiser is also a major contender in the high-quality microphone niche, so they know what they’re doing in the audio realm. Just in case – the HD 600, 650, and 800 are all worth a look too. Older models will cost less, and newer models will cost more, but ultimately, they’re all great and at the core they are the same product.
Shure SRH1540 Professional Open Back Headphones
At $500, you wouldn’t expect anything less than a stellar pair of cans, and the SRH1540s do deliver. If you’re planning to buy these, you’re leaving the amateur arena for good and moving into pro audio.
They may look ordinary, but they’re surprisingly lightweight and durable, and they’re also made of airplane-grade aluminum alloy (yes, you heard right). To get the most out of these headphones, you’ll want to use them in conjunction with a quality amplifier. They also have excellent bass response.
By the way, the Shure SRH1840s have equally good reviews and are priced the same. Whichever you choose, you can’t ignore Shure in the quality headphone niche.
What Should I Look For In A Pair Of Quality Studio Headphones?
There’s a good chance you’re starting to get an idea of what to look for in a pair of studio headphones. But again, here are some of the most important factors to consider:
- Comfort. This is easy to forget. A pair of headphones can look cool, and sound great besides, but if they don’t feel good on your head, you’re not going to use them. Most headphones are at least somewhat adjustable, but you won’t know for sure what works for you until you try them on. Some headphones can irritate your ears (not just because of the frequency response), and others can feel too tight or too loose around your head. For quick reference, that might be okay, but if you’re planning on using them for hours on end, you need a comfortable pair.
- Durability. In an ideal world, we would all take good care of our gear. Unfortunately, you can still end up inadvertently dropping, slamming, or sitting on equipment you never meant to. With headphones, the main concern is usually the cable connecting your headphones to your mixer or other device. It’s easy to trip over, and if you venture too far from the mixer, you could end up ripping the cable right out of the input, wrecking it in the process. Quality headphones aren’t always cheap, so the more durable, the better.
- Sound quality. It seems obvious enough, but you should buy a pair of headphones that give you good frequency response, clarity, and transparency. When mixing and mastering, you want to be able to hear all the tracks with good separation. They should also enable you to hear the stereo spectrum. Sound quality is more important than isolation in mixing.
- Good bass response. One thing often missing from traditional earbuds and headphones and even studio headphones is bass response. Granted, things are starting to change. Today’s in-ear earbuds allow you to hear more of the bass, and some consumer headphones have also started exaggerating bass frequencies. But if you can’t hear the bass when mixing and mastering, it typically results in one of two problems: 1) mixing the bass too hot, or 2) mixing the bass too quiet. Hopefully you’re using more than one source to check your mix if you aren’t sure.
- Open back. We’ll be talking more about this in a moment, but for mixing, you should purchase a pair of open back headphones instead of closed back headphones. If you’re recording too, and you have a bit of a budget, then you could purchase a separate pair of closed backs.
Aren’t All Headphones Exactly Alike? Why Do I Need Studio Headphones?
The short answer is no, not all headphones are created equal. Even with studio headphones, there are many that get the high end and midrange right, but do not have great bass response. The same could be said for studio monitors.
There’s a big difference between passive listening and active listening. Listening to music often falls under the former category. You’re hearing the music, but you probably aren’t paying full attention to it.
Thus, consumer headphones can get away with a tinny sound, excessive compression, or exaggerated bass frequencies. Their goal isn’t to give you a clear, transparent sound – it’s to give you a colored sound, one that’s unique and specific to their brand or model. The same could be said for guitar amps, which explains why different brands of amplifiers sound different from each other.
But when it comes to mixing and mastering, you do want a clear and transparent sound. You want to be able to hear the pick scrapes, breathes between melodies, and hesitations of the performers. You don’t want the sound to be overly colored. You want to be able to hear everything in its context, so you can pick up on flaws or imperfections in the audio, or even just to make finer adjustments to the EQ of specific tracks.
So, consumer headphones/earbuds and studio headphones are very different. You can use consumer products as a potential reference point, but little more than that. For professional mixing, use studio headphones.
Can I Do All My Mixing & Mastering With Studio Headphones?
You can if you must, but it isn’t recommended.
While you can probably achieve decent mixing and mastering results with headphones (especially a quality pair), rest assured your mix will sound considerably different on other sources, whether it’s computer speakers or studio monitors.
The best studio engineers use many different sources when mixing and mastering music. This is what enables them to prepare the recording to be heard on a variety of different systems. Mastering doesn’t necessarily preserve consistency across all speakers or earbuds, but it does ensure the music is listenable on all systems.
It is worth noting that most people today are listening to music with earbuds, which don’t offer much by way of bass frequencies, and can make music sound “tinny”. To be fair, most consumer products today are “in-ear”, which give you more bass. But don’t listen to anybody that tells you that you can hear what a mix is supposed to sound like on a smartphone or iPod (earbuds or not).
The absolute minimum you should have for mixing and mastering, even in your home studio, is a set of low-cost (but good quality) studio monitors, and a pair of studio headphones.
Should I Purchase Closed Back Or Open Back Headphones?
If you have the budget for it, both. But where closed back headphones are usually used for recording, open back headphones are usually used for mixing. In this guide, we’ve mostly been looking at open back headphones.
Closed back headphones allow you to clearly hear yourself in the mix while you’re tracking in the studio. They also prevent the sound you’re hearing in the cans from bleeding into microphones, which can make the take unusable. Closed backs sacrifice sound quality for isolation.
When you’re mixing and mastering, open back headphones are ideal, since sound quality is a higher priority than isolation. Mixing on studio monitors is still better, but if you’re going to mix on headphones at all, use open back headphones.
With plenty of options to choose from, finding a quality pair of studio headphones is easier than it’s ever been. It mostly comes down to budget and whatever goals you have in mind.
Independent engineers and producers may spend most of their money on monitors compared to headphones, so they’re more likely to go with a low-cost option like the Samson SR850s. Meanwhile, a big budget studio will have the works – great monitors and headphones.
A good engineer can create a great mix with any gear, old or new, but that takes considerable experience. But this is a key point – know your gear. The better you understand your equipment, its quirks, its imperfections and its advantages, the better you will become at mixing and mastering.