Studio Headphones Buying Guide
Anyone recording with a microphone will also need a good pair of headphones. When you're capturing sound live in a room, any noise will be picked up, so you can’t use loudspeakers because they will create loads of feedback. For that purpose, a pair of cans, preferably with a long cord, is essential. Comfort is also important, as you might end up wearing them for long periods of time. There is sometimes a small amount of bleed from headphones into a vocal mic, but this is rarely a problem in the context of the recording. Let’s not forget DJs either, who rely on headphones for cueing and mixing.
A pair of really good headphones can even be used for mixing, although it’s rare to rely solely on headphones for a final mix. The way we perceive music as played from headphones clamped to the side of our heads and from speakers projected at us in a much larger physical space are very different, and most music is mixed for speakers. Nonetheless your aim should be to get your mix sounding great both on speakers and on headphones.
Circumaural headphones have pads that completely cover the ears, and as such they isolate against any external noise, they also tend to be quite big and heavy as a result. Supra-aural headphones sit on your ears rather than around them and offer less protection from bleed and outside noise, but are lighter. They can be better for DJs, for example, where you don’t actually want to be fully isolated from the sound in the room, but still need to hear what’s coming through the headphones. Within each category there are also two sub-types – closed and open back. Some are technically semi-open, but the points below both apply in part to such models.
The trade-off, though, is that they feature less isolation between the inside and the outside of the phones, so sounds from outside can come in much more easily. As such, they are perhaps not the best choice when you want total isolation. Also, signal from inside the headphones can leak out and may be picked up by microphones, especially vocal mics which tend to be closer to the performer. This is especially problematic if there’s a click track provided as part of the headphone feed, since it may be heard on the recorded takes.
Open back models can be good for monitoring while recording, provided you are not too close to the mic which is capturing the sound. For mixing, open back phones are not ideal because they tend to suffer from bass perception inconsistencies, though they are good for checking a mix when you feel it is close to being ready.
Closed back headphones, on the other hand, tend to produce higher overall sound levels because they don't allow nearly so much sound in or out, and more completely surround the ear to isolate it. They can also offer a bigger bass reproduction because the low end is contained within the cup of the headphone and does not escape.
Studios almost always use closed back models for monitoring while recording, because they suffer far less from bleed issues and so help keep takes clean. Closed back phones can offer a slightly artificial sense of the soundscape if you are using them to mix on, though, because they make the sound appear as if it is coming from inside your head. As they block out so much outside noise and fire sound straight at your ears in isolation, they sound very different from the same track played from loudspeakers. As such, headphones of any type are important for checking mixes but should never really be your sole way of listening while mixing.
The frequency response of a pair of cans is also important, and as you might expect, a wider frequency range is better for mixing and more serious applications. The lower the Hz value quoted in a headphones' specifications and the higher the kHz value, the more bass and treble a pair of cans is capable of reproducing. A decent pair of closed back cans with a good frequency reproduction range can offer some really staggeringly big and accurate bass reproduction, especially if you've been used to cheap models or earbuds in the past.
If you’re going to be wearing headphones for prolonged periods, consider their comfort levels. Adjustable straps and bands are important, as are well cushioned pads and longer cables, allowing you to move around more freely. Headphone extension cables are available too, and these are inexpensive and useful to have around. You can also get dedicated headphone amplifiers which are perfect for driving multiple pairs of cans at good volumes, say for example when you're recording a band and everyone needs to listen. Also consider whether they can be rotated for one-ear operation, which is important for some vocalists.