If you’re a record producer on the hunt for affordable but reliable equipment, then this is the guide that will help you get the best studio headphones within your budget. Before we get to that, however, here are basic things that you need to know.
The best studio monitor headphones retain neutral sound signatures, meaning they don’t emphasize or colorize tracks unlike how DJ headphones emphasize bass to deliver an earthly effect, or how dollar-store headphones mute special-signature sounds due to technical limitations of the hardware. So if you don’t have a set of your own yet, ask yourself these questions first before buying.
Things to Consider When Buying Studio Headphones
- What will I use them for?
The type of studio headphones you need depends on what you’ll use them for. If you’re a musician in the recording studio, then a closed-back headphone is the way to go. Studio headphones are designed to isolate sound completely, without any of it leaking out of its cups. Delivering quality sound is not as important as keeping external microphones from picking up these headphones’ output.
If you’re buying for sound mixers, then you need open-backed headphones. The best headphones for mixing prioritize quality of sound above all else, compromising on isolation, so that the people involved in the cleaning and mixing of tracks can hear all details and critical wavelengths. They should also be very comfortable because they are usually worn for long periods of time.
- What’s my budget?
Some brands offer good quality studio headphones for as low as $100 but as can be expected, they won’t deliver reference-quality sounds, and might not be as durable as high-end options. They are perfect for amateur recording studios, but if you need the edge that the best studio headphones for mixing and monitoring provide, then you should go for those in the $300 and above range.
- What are basic specifications to look out for?
The best monitor headphones are circumaural in design, meaning they wrap around the ears. They should have a minimum and maximum frequency response of about 10 Hz and 25 kHz respectively, an average sensitivity of 100 dB, and an impedance of around 50 ohms.
- Do I need an amplifier?
Most of the time, the answer is yes, so take this into the equation when you’re summing up your budget. Amplifiers make any sounds that run through them clearer and more controlled. Any speaker and most studio headphones can’t run without these. The built-in ones even in the best studio headphones for mixing often aren’t enough.
The above points will give you an idea of what to expect when looking around for any type of studio headphone. But if you’re confused by the wide spread of prices and can’t tell when a model’s undervalued or overpriced, read below for our reviews of the two hot pics in the budget and high-end tiers.
Audio Technica ATH-M50
This model is the low-end sibling of the ATH-M50X. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch; it comes from the flagship M-series of Audio Technica after all. At around $200, you wouldn’t find a better closed-back headphone for the price, even 4 years after its release.
A fan favorite, it has a good frequency response from 15 Hz to 28 kHz, with users praising it for its exemplary flatness of sound. Besides superb sound delivery, features include a straight or coiled cable, a gold-plated stereo jack, and cups that swivel 180 degrees, so you can use this also as a DJ headphone. To complete the package, it comes with a protective pouch.
It produces accurate, distortionless sound, even at the highest volumes of music, making it capable enough to be used without external amplifiers. And the ATH-M50 is tough. It can stand the daily wear and tear of the job but still give satisfactory comfort for its users.
The downside to this budget headphone, however, is the existence of its high-end sibling, the ATH-M50X, which is essentially the same model $40 more expensive, with upgraded specs and three choices of colors.
Though that might not seem like a huge difference in price, consider the timeless testament of the basic ATH-M50. If you don’t really need the upgraded specs, and you’re only starting out or are just looking for spares, this model is good enough for the job.
Audio Technica ATH-M70X
Hotly anticipated after its critically acclaimed predecessor the ATH-M50X, the closed-back ATH-M70X is a high-end device that starts at $420. Pretty steep, but that’s to be expected, considering it is the latest from the flagship M-series studio headphones.
You can feel the premium quality of this headphone from its metallic details, but what makes this model stand out is its amazingly clear and accurate presentation of sound, with frequency range from 5 Hz to 40 kHz. It has a flatter frequency response than the ATH-M50X, which makes it all the better for detailed mixing of tracks.
Its cups can swivel up to 90 degrees, meaning that DJs can also use these in their mixes. It’s that flexible. The downside, however, is its size. At 4.1×11.4×10 inches and 2.6 pounds, ATH-M70X is a little bulky. Also, it’s expensive compared to others in the competition.
However, it has a clarity edge over those others. If you need the flattest response for a highly-detailed mix or, a monitor when you’re recording, consider getting this versatile studio headphone.
Benefits of Owning Studio Headphones
If you’re a serious record producer, you need the basic equipment to create a functional recording studio. Along with your computer, DAW, audio interface, microphones, and some other odds and ends, you need good studio monitors in the form of speakers and headphones.
Various forms of audio monitors are needed because music sounds differently through all of them. In fact, one of the final steps of music recording is hearing the final output played in a car, so that the capability of normal class speakers, which don’t have the same frequency response as studio monitors, will be taken into account.
Studio headphones are vital tools for everyone who will use them: the musicians and the mixers. Musicians will find it hard to hear themselves and keep time without closed-back headphones. Mixers will find it hard to manipulate high details of music if they can’t hear it clearly.
Tips for Use
- For musicians, observe natural cueing by offsetting one cup from your ear. This is good if you’re recording with your whole band so you’ll hear them as they play along with you.
- For musicians, don’t point the headphones towards the microphone at any time to avoid feedback loops, which costs precious studio time.
- Don’t turn the volume too loud. You will be needing your eardrums if you want to enjoy music. Take care of them.
- Bring your own for any set. Some people don’t practice good hygiene, and some don’t take care of equipment. To avoid the use of uncomfortable, sweaty headphones, use your own.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What are studio headphones for?
Studio headphones are primarily instruments for sound diagnostics and technical analysis, and are important for such excursions as the recording and mixing of sounds. They are indispensable in the process of optimizing recordings, so that the sound itself, not the consumer’s choice of headset, will determine music quality.
- What are the types of studio headphones?
Studio headphones are use-classified.
‘Closed-back’ headphones are used during the recording of tracks and are built with maximum sound isolation in mind. These are typically used by musicians monitoring their sounds as they play, with the idea that no sound should bleed into the microphone. As a compromise, quality of delivery isn’t stellar.
‘Open back’ headphones are the best mixing headphones used by sound technicians for whom reference-quality sound is important. Optimum sound quality delivery is the purpose of these headphones, and they often compromise on isolation.
- How are studio headphones different from other kinds?
Whereas consumer headphones colorize or flatten sound (depending on the brand), studio headphones do not attempt in any way to alter the recorded sound, revealing instead what the mix actually is.
Unlike studio headphones, the best DJ headphones are soundproofed, have large volume capabilities to cancel out the crowd noise, and often have swivelling cups: one to hear what’s playing on the house system speakers, and one for hearing the gain of what’s next in the mix.
- What are the base features of the best professional headphones?
Due to their diagnostic role, studio headphones should deliver clear, distortionless sound with a flat frequency response for total accuracy. They must pass standard durability tests because they will be subjected to a life of wear and tear, and should be comfortable enough to be worn for hours-long sessions. They should be capable of being driven by less-powerful amplifiers, and must also provide a good low-end sound isolation.
- What makes for a high-end studio headphone?
Building from the above set of features, high-end headphones typically provide better sound isolation, can receive and report a wider frequency range, and has more stylistic elements in its superficial design. They can be specialized, with some high-end headphones designed for drummers offering extreme low-frequency isolation, or they can attempt to be hybrids of ‘open back’ and ‘closed-back’ designs.
High-end also means greater comfort, with some brands featuring the use of memory foam in their cups that will hug the shape of the ear area.
For sound quality, the best headphones for mixing and mastering can deliver the closest-to-reference sound.
They can also possess beautiful materials, with some ‘designer’ models encased in precious metals and encrusted with diamonds or other precious stones.
The best studio headphones don’t try to colorize music. Audiophiles might not enjoy using these, for they deliver flat, distortionless sounds as an effect of their inherent design, but audio technicians use them like second ears, as one of the most important tools of the trade.