Best Headphones For Home Recording and Mixing: Choosing What Works Best For You
When it comes to recording and monitoring your audio, choosing your headphones will be a very important decision. Alongside your studio monitors/speakers they will help you make crucial decisions based on what you hear. With so many different types of headphones available, should you be looking for something specific? Absolutely.
Just remember right from the start, you are choosing studio headphones to give you accurate feedback from your audio. Their purpose is to give you a honest representation of what your audio really sounds like.
To be blunt, they are not there for your music enjoyment. To further my point, we are discussing proper over-the-ear headphones, NOT earbuds. You are adding a valuable tool to your recording studio to help you produce the best audio production. Once you realize and make peace with this fact, it will already start making your decision making easier.
Still, you are left with many options to consider, so that is exactly what we will be doing in this article. We look at all the different options and help you decide which one will be best for you.
Before we start analyzing each one in more detail, just know that you will read about various different descriptions like closed-back headphones, open-back headphones and and semi-open-back headphones. Then you will also have to deal with wireless and wired headphones. Don't let this confuse you. As we will go through each different type of headphone individually, these terms will start to become more clear and start making sense pretty soon.
Different Headphones For Different Functions
The best way to start understanding the different types of headphones for the recording studio, is to look at how they are defined in terms of what their main functions are.
Most studio microphones are divided into two categories, but I added a third one for a very practical reason. We take a look at closed-back headphones, open-back headphones and semi-open-back headphones.
These are the headphones of choice for recording. The reason for this lies in the design of of the headphone. They are designed with the maximum amount of isolation, meaning you can monitor your recording live with the headphones without any of the sound escaping the headphones and accidentally being picked up by the microphone.
The escaping of sound from the headphones is called "bleed". This means your voice or instrument gets recorded twice. First from the the source, followed a few milliseconds later by the sound from your headphones. As you can imagine this is one sure-fire way of ruining your recording.
(This is very similar to the "feedback effect" created while listening while recording over your studios monitor. If you are unfamiliar with this unpleasant sound it, simply place your microphone close to your speakers with both switched on. You will soon hear the loud unpleasant sound from the speakers. This is "feedback" and why you use headphones and never speakers to monitor your recordings.)
As a result, closed-back headphones are completely sealed around the back, allowing the sound to only reach your ears. (The cushions of the headphones basically provides a thorough seal around the ears.) At the same time it also isolate your ears from outside noise.
The reason for isolating the headphones, is not just to interfere with your listening experience. During the recording process you also need to be able to pick up the smallest amount of sound detail. Blocking out external sound makes this process a lot easier.
Unfortunately, while this stops any sound "bleeding" from your headphones, pressure is trapped inside the headphones. This means the sound is unable to "breath" and naturally develop. This results in the creation of some false low frequencies which have an overall negative effect on sound quality.
The more isolation your headphones provide the more your sound quality will suffer. This is the inevitable price of the complete isolation that close-back headphones provide.
Good examples of closed-back headphones are:
- Sennheiser HD280 Pro
- Audio Technica SonicPro
- Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro
- Sony MDR-7506
As with all other products these headphones vary in price from affordable to very expensive. Go with what best suits your budget. You will be able to find a good quality pair of headphones at almost any price range. Just don't forget to do some thorough research before making a purchase.
Just a final important note. Although these headphones are most suited for recording purposes does not mean they can not be used for listening as well. Just be aware of their intended use and limitations.
These are the headphones of choice for mixing. As with closed-back headphones, the same reason for mixing in this case, also lies in the design of the headphones. They are designed to provide the best possible sound quality, which means sound isolation (both in the from of bleed from your headphones, and to external sources noise interfering with the headphones) is not the biggest priority.
This emphasis on sound quality is very evident in the design of open-back headphones. The open back allows a much better and precise frequency balance. The sound is also given space to "breath" and develop naturally. The result is a much better sound quality than a dedicated closed-ear headphone are able to produce.
Naturally the big drawback here, is what you gain in sound quality you are loosing in sound isolation. (Basically exactly the opposite of the advantage and trade-off of the closed-ear headphone.)
When monitoring a live recording with a pair of open-back headphones, especially at a fairly large volume, the chances are very good that a fair amount of headphone "bleed" will occur which will almost certainly ruin your recording.
Good examples of open-back headphones are:
- AKG K240
- Shure SRH1840
- Sennheiser HD 800
- Audio-Technica ATH-AD900X
By now, it should start to become clear why you will find a professional sound engineer in a commercial recording studio using two sets of headphones. One for recording and one for mixing.
There are a few reasons why using two sets of headphones are not possible or even preferable. This brings us to a third type of headphone.
It will be ideal to have a separate pair of of headphones for recording and mixing respectively. Unfortunately very few home recording studio owners have the financial means to afford two separate headphones. Their budget simply does not allow it.
Many users get used to and enjoy using one pair of headphones for all purposes. You get used to the sound and feel of specific brand and model. Constantly swapping headphones is not just inconvenient, the different sound characteristics of each one can be more of a hindrance than a help.
Technically you can use a high quality pair of headphones (either open-back or closed-back) for both recording and mixing. If you are aware of the limitations of your chosen headphones, you can make the necessary adjustments during each session to compensate for any limitations.
If you want the best of both worlds however, there is a third option available. Making use of semi-open-back headphones will be a good compromise for both recording and mixing.
This means it my not have a complete open back, but have some openings to allow some sound waves to escape the headphone and potentially produce a better sound quality than closed-back headphone.
Similarly, it may not have a complete closed back, but limit the amount of the openings at the back to allow very little sound to escapes the the headphone, providing more isolation in the process than open-back headphones.
Like I said, this is a compromise, meaning you are never going to get the best possible sound quality or best sound isolation. This does no mean a semi-open-back headphone will be a bad investment or be a poor quality headphone. It simply means you will be able to use the headphone for both recording and mixing, but it will be slightly compromised on both fronts.
Good examples of semi-open-back headphones are:
- AKG K240
- PreSonus HD7
- Samson SR850
- Beyerdynamic AK T1p
Just please beware. The topic of semi-open-back headphones is a very divisive one and is highly debated. Many users believe these headphones are just a marketing gimmick and are so compromised that it will be a waste of money.
At the same time, there are plenty of reviews from respectable sources giving many of these headphones very high marks. Personally I do not have enough experience to make any kind of final judgement.
As a result the best advice I can give you, is to do as much research as possible. If possible try and get hold of a demo pair that you can listen to and judge for yourself.
Another Option When Your Budget Will Allow It
There is a fourth forth category, well sort of. I am a bit hesitant recommending, as I don't see it as a real solution for a home studio user. Some other leaders in the field has mentioned it as one-size-fits-all solution though.
After looking into it, gone through countless of reviews and opinion posts from professionals I really respect, I just feel I will do you disservice if I don't at least mention it, so here goes...
If you are in the fortunate position of having a really big budget and you determined to use just one set of headphones for both recording and mixing, while at the same time you are not willing to really compromise on sound quality - there is another option.
At the very high end of the price scale, you do get a couple of headphones (normally in the closed-back headphones category), that is engineered in such a way that they are able to deliver sound quality far superior to any "normal" closed-back headphone.
These headphones will easily set you back three times as much as very high quality close-back or open-back studio headphone set. The last time I checked the price of the AKG K872 closed-back headphones was in the $1500 range.
From what I experienced thus far , I would say that these microphones come very close to delivering open-back sound quality performance. At this price range they are also very comfortable and you can easily enjoy them all day long.
Do I think it is worth it? No, absolutely not. Where you can get two top-end headphones for less than half the price of one of these super expensive headsets, I find it really hard to recommend.
This is a personal opinion though. Like I already mentioned, if you are able to purchase any of these premium headphones, you will be happy and content using them all day long. With that said, here is a list of headphones that falls within this category.
- Shure SRH1540
- beyerdynamic DT 1770 PRO
- Sony MDR-V700DJ
- AKG K872
We have now extensively covered the main types of headphones used in the studio, as well as their variations. One "recent" development we haven't discussed yet, and is a question many home owners would like answered, is the emergence of high-quality wireless headphones.
Wired Vs Wireless Microphones
Wireless headphones have been around for quite a few years and are certainly not new. It is during recent years though, that high-quality professional grade headphones started becoming more readily available.
The biggest advantage of wireless headphones is the freedom that they provide. Being able to move around freely without the restrictions of a cable and over various distances within a given space, has greatly contributed to their growing popularity.
With these recent developments, the inevitable question among studio users, is whether a wireless set of headphones can replace a quality pair of wired studio headphones. Yes, it is definitely possible and the quality of wireless headphones have improved by leaps and bounds over recent years.
The more important question to ask is whether the wireless headphones are good enough to replace their wired counterparts while still being on par in terms of sound quality and overall performance.
In order to do this, we need to take a look at the 3 relevant types of wireless headphones available and analyze their overall performance. The three types are:
- RF Headphones
- Bluetooth Headphones
- WiFi Headphones
The best way to best understand the pro's and cons of each type of headphone is to take a closer look at each one.
By far the oldest and most established type of wireless headphones available on the market, these headphones make use of the RF (radio frequency) radio signal to connect the base with the headset.
Sound quality has vastly improved over the years, to such an extend that it can very easily be used for casual listening. (I have personally been using my Sennheiser HDR120 with great satisfaction for years now.)
The freedom that these wireless headphones provide makes life a lot easier, and the reason why RF and all other wireless headphones are so popular and widely used.
This freedom comes at a price though. The first big drawback is headphones technology. RF (radio frequency), exactly as the name suggests use radio frequencies to communicate. The amount of radio waves present in most spaces means interference with the headphone signal is almost inevitable.
With almost every second electronic device generating some kind of electromagnetic signal, getting a clear signal can sometimes be real challenge.
Even having your base station next to or behind a computer, can badly interfere with the signal to your headphones. Combined with the different electronic audio equipment in a recording studio, the potential problems become obvious.
This RF signal has a secondary effect. A higher noise floor is produced by RF headphones, meaning more background noise is picked up, even at very low decibels. Although this may not have much of an impact for commercial use and in noisy environments, it has a much more pronounced effect in the quiet and controlled studio environment.
Over the last decade Bluetooth has firmly established itself as the wireless protocol of choice. From connecting components to devices, smartphones to car audio systems and headphones to home theater systems - basically every type of wireless connection happens via Bluetooth.
Basically Bluetooth is a wireless communication technology that connects a wide variety of devices over a relatively short range, with the aim of removing the need for cables and special interfaces.
It creates a small wireless personal network called PAN (personal area network) in a radius of roughly 33 feet (10 metres) around the main Bluetooth source. The process that is used to connect two devices is called pairing. (A process that used to be a big headache and struggle during the early years of the implementation of the technology.)
One more feature that sets Bluetooth apart from other wireless technologies like the RF Wireless protocol, is the fact that it allows for a secure connection to be established between devices. (One device has to give permission for another device to be connected.) This is not really relevant to headphones in the recording industry, but still worth noting.
As I just mentioned, headphones haven't escaped the mass adoption of Bluetooth. It has been embraced to such an extend by leading-edge companies like Apple, that they have done away completely with the standard stereo headphone jack in its latest iPhones, which has been the standard for audio devices as far back as I can remember.
The result is that thousands (or millions of standard headphones) have been rendered obsolete in an instance. To what an extend the rest of the audio industry will follow, only time will tell. Luckily it is very unlikely that components in the recording audio will follow this trend very quickly.
The reason for this is simple. For general commercial use and casual listening, Bluetooth is perfect and very convenient. As convenient as Bluetooth technology is however, it still has a few limitations that makes it highly unsuitable for use in the recording industry.
First it has very low bandwidth compared to wired headphones. To understand this in practical terms, is like comparing a 2 inch water pipe to a 50 inch water pipe. The amount of total water able to flow through the smaller pipe at any given time is so much less than the larger pipe. The Bluetooth data is like the water traveling through a small pipe.
To compensate for this smaller bandwidth and resulting smaller amount of data that can be transferred via Bluetooth, a fair amount compression has to be applied to allow sufficient data through. This results in a clear loss in audio quality. (Comparative tests between wired and Bluetooth headphones showed a clear audible difference in sound quality.)
It has to be noted that Bluetooth 5 has been introduced which will result in a vastly improved speed. (Much faster than the current Bluetooth 4 average speed of below 25 Mbps). This will result in much faster transfer rates and address issues like bandwidth and latency. This technology is still some way off from being adopted by the industry.
Latency is another big Bluetooth problem. It can take a signal up to to 150 milliseconds to reach the headphones. This may not sound like much, but when monitoring a live recording or doing post-production mixing, this delay in sound is clearly audible and can have a very negative impact on your audio production.
One more potential problem that has to be mentioned is the issue of connectivity. Establishing a stable connection between two Bluetooth devices used to be a very common problem in the early stages of development.
This problem has been resolved to a large extend, but it still remains an issue, where the pairing between devices can take some time to be established and this connection still gets lost too often. This has a negative effect on time and productivity. (Compared to a wired set of headphones that just needs to be plugged in without any further actions and works right away.)
WiFi Headphones are very similar to Bluetooth headphones, with a few fundamental differences. Like Bluetooth, it makes use of a network to operate.
Unlike Bluetooth though, it uses your computer's local area network to connect your headphones through your router to the target output device. With this type of connection comes a couple of advantages.
The first big advantage is speed. With modern LAN (Local Area Network) reaching speeds of up to 250 Mbps, it eclipses the comparatively slow Bluetooth connection (with Bluetooth 4 running at less than 25 Mbps).
As a result a lot more data can be transferred at the same time and also be delivered much more quickly to the headphones. This means both the bandwidth and latency issues that are negatively influencing Bluetooth have largely been addressed by WiFi headphones.
The one big drawback however, is that WiFi based headphones haven't really taken off yet. Very few big players in the market have really embraced these headphones and produced almost no headphones based on this wireless protocol. As a result there is still a very small selection of these headphones available. (To be honest, none that I could find that will be in any way suited for recording studio use.)
It is still very unclear as to what direction the adoption of WiFi headphones will go in, if it will be widely adopted at all. The best thing to do here is to adopt a "wait and see" approach.
The historic and current standard in headphone technology, the fixed-wire technology, still remain the most superior and widely accepted one used in all commercial and professional home studios.
The sound quality, zero latency and reliability that these headphones provide, can simply not be matched by any current wireless technology.
The advantage that wireless headphones provide is also fairly irrelevant in the studio where sound engineers and recording artists are relatively stationary, and not such a lot of freedom of movement is required, as is the case of consumer use with potable audio devices.
This does not mean that this is the way things will stay. At the rate with which technology advances, some revolutionary technology may be developed, rendering the use of any cables or wires obsolete.
For the time being though, wired headphones reign supreme and no current wireless technology are able to compete without sacrificing one more very important requirement (such as sound quality and latency).
What Is Best For You
By now you cannot be blamed to think that wireless headphones are the worst piece of equipment to ever be developed. This was not the intention at all. It is just their current drawbacks make them unsuitable for practical use in the studio.
Like I said, I still use my own Sennheiser HDR120 wireless headphones and get hours of satisfaction from their high-quality audio. Watch this space, as various current and future wireless technologies may start advancing so quickly, that they may become a viable alternative to current studio headphones.
For the time being though, rather stay away from wireless headphones for serious studio use.
This brings us back to the two different headphones for recording and mixing. I will still recommend using closed-back headphones for recording and open-backed headphones for mixing, if your budget allows it.
If you can only afford one set of headphones to start out with, use a closed-back set of headphones, but since you will be doing mixing with them as well, spend some time doing some thorough research.
The fact that they are optimized for sound insulation, does not mean all of closed-back headphones produce a compromised sound. You may be pleasantly surprised with the surprisingly accurate and high-quality sound some models can produce.
Then as soon as you can afford it, I would still highly recommend to start looking out for a second pair of dedicated open-back headphones for mixing.
If you are in the very fortunate situation of having a really big budget, you have the ability to spend the money necessary to buy closed-back headphones that produce both great insulation and accurate sound quality as well.
(Personally, I would still go for two separate pair of headphones. To be honest, with the amount of money you will spend on such an expensive set of headphones, you will be able to buy two separate high-quality headphones, as well as a pair of good quality studio monitors/speakers to complete your monitoring setup. Having said that, I realize it is a personal preference and there may be very legitimate reasons for choosing such a high-end product.)
But what if you don't have any headphones and are unable afford any at this stage. Maybe you just have the earbuds from your old iPod or the ones that came with your smartphone. You know what? That is just fine!
They produce sound which provide instant audio feedback to your ears, and are able to differentiate between different instruments and changes in your vocals, don't they? Yes, they will not be nearly as accurate or provide the sound quality of professional studio headphones.
We all have to start somewhere though, and if it takes a pair of cheap earbuds for recording and mixing your audio, so what? At worst you may have to do a few more recordings or do a few more tests on different devices outside the studio to get an accurate indication of what your audio production will sound like.
(By the way, the sound quality from those cheap earbuds is still much better than the "professional" headphones, used in studios 50 years ago. And from what I can remember, they still managed to produce some pretty legendary records and songs during those years.)
With all the options available in the headphone market today, you really are spoiled for choice, to such an extend that it can sometimes be more confusing than anything else.
The aim of this article is to clear up most of the confusion and help you make the best possible decision for your own personal needs. Hopefully you now have a much better idea of how to proceed when you start looking to add those important set of headphones to your home recording studio setup.
No matter what your situation, you will be able to find some kind of headphone that will help you get started or continue with your home recording journey. Yes, even those temporary earbuds will do the job!
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!