How to choose studio headphones for recording, mixing and mastering

How to choose studio headphones for recording, mixing and mastering

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Headphones for music production differ from commercial headphones such as Beats by Dre. For example, Beats headphones boost the bass and low-end frequencies in your music. In contrast, studio headphones should have a frequency response that is as flat as possible. Therefore studio headphones present sound as plainly as possible.

Another difference is that we often wear music production headphones for long periods of time. Due to the nature of making music, we sit with our headphones on a lot. And sitting in our studios for hours on end is all the easier when our headphones are comfortable to wear!

  • Studio headphones for mixing, mastering or monitoring?
    • Closed-back headphones for monitoring
    • Open-back headphones for mixing and mastering
    • What are semi-open back headphones?
  • On-ear or over-ear headphones?
    • Circumaural headphones
    • Supra-aural headphones
  • Does headphone impedance matter?
    • Headphone impedance and what to look for
  • Headphone sensitivity
  • What is a frequency response in headphones?
    • 20 Hz – 20 kHz: the frequencies that we hear
  • Noise isolation
  • Comfort and durability

Furthermore, durability is a huge factor to consider. Many studio headphones are pretty expensive. While many consumer headphones are also expensive, the cost of music production gear is generally expensive anyway. As a result, music producers and independent artists only want to spend money on headphones once every few years at the very least.

But there are more technical specifications to consider, much like the frequency response we mentioned. After all, there is more than one type of headphone for music production – and some serve specific purposes.

Sound engineers use headphones as a form of a magnifying glass to identify the smallest details of a soundtrack. Studio Monitors allow you to work accurately with tones, equalization as well as dynamics. This is due to the fact that the sound in the headphones does not depend on the space or room, which do not always have perfect acoustics.

SoundsightR

This article mentions “speaker drivers” or just “driversa lot. For a detailed guide as to how speaker/headphone drivers work, see the article below.

How do speakers work? Passive speakers vs active speakers


Studio headphones for mixing, mastering or monitoring?

Manufacturers build studio headphones to serve three purposes.

Professional producers and recording artists use monitoring headphones when recording – but what are monitoring headphones? As the name suggests, we use monitoring headphones to monitor our performance while recording. Musicians and vocalists performing in studios use them to monitor their performance because they isolate sound within the headphones from outside noise.

Monitoring headphones allow us to monitor our performance while we're recording. Monitoring headphones isolate sound within the headphones from outside noise.
Image Credit: Old Time Music

In other words, monitoring headphones inform the producer and performing artists exactly how everything is sounding in real-time. As a result, they can make informed decisions about what the song in question needs.

Mixing headphones do serve the same purpose – to inform the producer how the audio is sounding – although they go about it differently. Before we explore the technical specifics in the next segment, all you need to know at this point is that headphones for mixing allow the producer to make informed mixing decisions. However, note that engineers do most of their mixing via studio monitors. In effect, headphones are only a reference point.

speaker driver. As the air can pass through uncontested, no sound reflections occur within either ear cuff. Ultimately, because open-back headphones release sound pressure from the driver, they have a more “natural” sound. This directly affects the stereo-field and bass response too. Open-back headphones are the perfect choice for both mixing and mastering as a result. The design allows the wearer to hear an accurate or near-accurate reproduction of a mix – with no sound reflections in the earcup – and therefore make better mixing decisions.

audio interface. As a result, the headphone amplifier in your interface must meet that output capacity so your headphones can reproduce your signal with ample volume.

measure of the opposition that a circuit presents to a current when a voltage is applied“. In headphones, this resistance informs us as to how much we’ll need to turn the volume knob up before their volume is adequate to listen to. If your headphones have a high number in front of the Ω symbol, it means you have some power-hungry headphones that will perform far better with a juiced-up amplifier than without one. As a result, devices like smartphones and tablets won’t be able to provide the necessary power to provide enough volume in these headphones. As you may have now figured, headphone impedance really does matter when you’re choosing studio headphones!

To make things more complicated, the rate of impedance changes depending on what frequencies are present in the input signal too.

Headphone impedance and what to look for

Headphone resistance level determines the voltage your amplifier needs to output to generate one milliwatt (1/1000 of a watt) of output power. The higher your headphone impedance, the more output power your amplifier needs to generate so your headphones can reach optimal volume.

Any impedance up to 32Ω can be played quite happily off a simple portable device, like a smartphone. Impedance from 33-100Ω is a little bit of a grey area – you’ll probably be able to generate enough volume, but you could certainly improve things by adding in a portable headphone amp, which will both increase the power and sharpen the sound. Anything above 100Ω is almost certainly going to require an amplifier. These days, there are plenty of headphones that run from 100-300Ω, and even some that nudge the 600Ω mark.

The Master Switch

Beyerdynamic headphones have notoriously high impedance levels – some reaching 600ohms! As a result, headphones with high impedance rates are much harder to damage via overloading and you can use them with a wider range of gear too. And because high impedance headphones can handle electrical signals better, they can reproduce sound more accurately.

When looking for studio headphones, we recommend taking a look at impedance before anything else. The impedance rate will give you some insight into the headphone’s character in addition to what power your amp needs to output. A good rule of thumb is to look for studio headphones with an impedance value of at least 60 ohms or more. If you have a bigger budget, we recommend going big on impedance if your audio interface headphone amplifier can produce enough power.

What is digital audio? A guide for music producers


Headphone sensitivity

Headphone sensitivity is related to impedance, but it refers to how well your headphones will convert electrical signals into sound with the input power your amplifier gives them. We measure headphone sensitivity in decibels of Sound Pressure Level per milliwatt, or dB SPL/mW. In other words, we can use headphone sensitivity to measure how loud a pair of headphones will play at a particular power level. If one pair of headphones has a higher dB SPL/mW rating than another with one milliwatt of power, the first pair will produce louder audio.

What are the different types of microphones? How do they work?

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