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Studio Headphones Buying Guide

Why use studio headphones?

Studio headphones are an essential piece of any producer’s arsenal, whatever kind of music you make. With increasing numbers of people producing music at home, noise can be a real issue and to avoid annoying neighbours or housemates, a decent pair of cans is a must. They can also help you concentrate on your music where there is external noise that might interfere with you listening on loudpeakers. And let’s be clear - the headphones that came with your iPod just aren’t going to cut it when it comes to producing real music. You'll need something a bit more serious, to go with the rest of your kit.

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.

Types of studio headphones

There are various types of headphones. For the purposes of clarity we’re not going to bother with 'earbud'-style models, since they don’t offer the kind of sound reproduction you need for producing, and don’t fix firmly enough to your head. They can also suffer from too much bleed, as anyone who has sat on a bus or a train next to an annoying passenger will realise.

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.

Open or closed headphones?

Open back headphones make use of a transducer that is mounted in a space slightly away from the head and have a foam-filled enclosure that is often ventilated using slots or holes. Open backed phones do not colour the sound as much as closed ones because they allow some sound in from outside, rather than completely isolating the ears. They therefore offer a more natural sound to the listener.

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.

Important things to consider

Think about what you will be using the headphones for. For casual listening and monitoring, a less expensive pair will do. For more prolonged listening or for checking mixes, go for something with more pedigree. Both open and closed headphones come in a range of impedances, from 8 Ohms or so, up to several hundred Ohms. Low impedance headphones can produce a louder sound from a standard headphone jack, and require less voltage to achieve a target sound pressure level or SPL, though if you're using pro audio kit this is less of an issue than it is with a portable device such as an iPod.

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.