Best Studio Headphones for Recording, Mixing & Music Production
When it comes to recording and mixing, nothing beats a pair of high-end studio monitors. But they are pretty expensive. Also, they can get very noisy which is not a desirable feature for home studios. However, there is an alternative – enter studio headphones.
In terms of duties, there are two main types of studio headphones – models made for recording and models made for mixing. The first type features closed back earcups and good sound isolation, while the second has open back cups and a wide sound stage. Both types have flat response.
Table of Contents
- Closed Back Headphones
- Open Back Headphones
- Recording and Mixing with Headphones
- Types of Headphones for Music Production
- In-Ear Monitors
- Health Concerns
Closed Back Headphones
These are ideal for recording, as they offer pretty good sound isolation.
Few companies can equal Audio-Technica in terms of build and sound quality and ATH-M50x is one of the best studio headphones for recording. This model is the successor of the famous M50 model. Though slightly more expensive, it delivers excellent value for the price.
Right out of the box, M50x headphones come with no cable attached. Instead, you’ll get a set of three interchangeable cables to choose from (4’ straight, 4’ coiled and 9’ straight). On the downside, the locking mechanism on the audio jack prevents you from using cables from other manufacturers. M50X’s foldable design increases its portability.
These headphones come in with closed back construction and 45mm drivers. The drivers provide plenty of power and great noise isolation. This makes them a great choice for recording both instruments and vocals.
Beyerdynamics’ 770 Pro headphones come with three different levels of impedance. The variants include 32Ω, 80Ω, and 250Ω. The first option is made for casual use on smartphones and laptops, while the latter two are primarily oriented towards studio usage.
770 Pro 80Ω variant comes in with a stealthy, all-black styling with company logo and model name being printed in white. This is a robust set with closed back construction. It also features replaceable earpads and a draw-string bag.
These headphones offer a crystal clear, high-quality sound. The frequency response ranges from 5Hz to impressive35kHz. This set is equipped a 10’ cable with 3.5mm audio jack. ¼” adapter is included into the package.
Thanks to the closed-back construction and sound quality, 770 Pro 80Ω excels at recording duties.
Sony’s MDR-7506 is probably the king of the lower-mid to mid range of studio headphones. This set comes with closed back construction, somewhat dated design, and great performance for the money.
MDR-7506 is a set of sturdy headphones with foldable construction which makes it great for musicians on the move. It comes with a 9.8’ non-detachable cable, gold-plated 3.5mm audio jack, and a ¼” audio adapter. When it comes to frequency response, 10Hz-20,000Hz range covers the entire human hearing spectrum.
40mm dynamic drivers with neodymium magnets provide lots of power and give a detailed, clear sound. MDR-7506 also provides a high level of noise reduction, making it a great option for recording. On the other side, high level of isolation makes this set a bad choice for mixing.
HD 280 Pro from Sennheiser is among my favorite headphones from Sennheiser. They are a great pair of affordable, studio-oriented headphones.
HD 280 Pro set is a closed back set with excellent noise reduction (up to 32dB), flat response, and closed back design. These characteristics orient them towards the recording side, making them one of the best recording headphones out there.
The overall weight of 285 grams makes them easy to wear for prolonged periods of time. Also, they feature non-foldable construction. Comfy ear pads are a nice touch. It is worth noticing that HD 280 Pros come with a rather heavy, coiled cable.
Big dynamic drivers with neodymium magnets are highly sensitive which, coupled with relatively low impedance, spells high SPL (high volume).
5. Shure SRH840
While not exactly a budget model, Shure’s SRH840 model brings great value for the invested money. This is a professional-level headphones set, made primarily for studio usage.
SRH840s come in with closed back construction and sleek modern styling. The left cup is marked with a blue dot, while the right is marked with red. Carrying bag (included in the package) and collapsible design make them travel-friendly.
These headphones come with a coiled, detachable cable with a standard (gold-plated) 3.5mm audio jack. A ¼” adapter (also gold plated) is included as well.
The SRH840 headphones feature an all-round quality tone, with clean highs, mids, and bass. Due to their studio orientation, they feature a flat response.
Thanks to the closed back design and good attenuation level, these headphones are a good choice for recording sessions. Conversely, they are not recommended for mixing duties.
6. KRK KNS 8400
KRK’s KNS 8400 headphones are among the best middle class options. Countless professional and amateur musicians and recording technicians around the world use them, and for a good reason.
The KNS 8400s offer amazing sound quality across the bass, mid, and high ranges. The response is flat, as these are primarily made for recording and tracking purposes.
The right side is marked in red, while the left is blue. The detachable cable with standard 3.5mm jack goes into the left cup. The cable is equipped with a detachable volume control.
These headphones are among the most comfortable options out there, with leatherette-covered headpad. The cups are large and cover the entire ear.
On the technical side, KNS 8400 headphones feature 40mm drivers with neodymium magnets. Sensitivity is rather high, being at 124dB. The Frequency response ranges from 5Hz to 23kHz, with attenuation up to 30dB.
If you’re looking for a set of quality recording and tracking headphones and don’t have a lot of money to spend, makes sure to check the CB-1 from Status Audio.
Once you get over their somewhat bland and uninspiring design, you will find that these headphones perform very well and are very comfortable to wear. They feature thick foam cushions on the ear pads and a nicely padded head band. Thanks to the plastic construction, CB-1s are among the lighter sets out there.
Sound-wise, the CB-1 set offers a pretty flat response, which makes it a good companion at recording sessions. That being said, the closed back construction makes it a somewhat bad choice for mixing and mastering sessions.
The CB-1 set comes with two cables -10’ straight cable and a shorter coiled cable (both with gold-plated tips). ¼” audio adapter is included as well.
Open Back Headphones
Offering a wide soundstage, open-back headphones are ideal for mixing.
HD 650 model is one of Sennheiser’s best mixing headphones in the high-end segment. These ultra-popular headphones are the weapon of choice of many mixing engineers. If you’re looking for top-notch performance and are willing to pay for it then, by all means, give this model a try.
The HD 650s come with open back construction, with metal grills over the ear cups. They feature dynamic drivers with lightweight aluminum coils which give them super-fast response. The frequency response range is staggering, starting at 10Hz and going all the way up to 39.5kHz.
These speakers come in with a detachable cable with ¼” plug and a 3.5mm adapter.
In terms of studio use, HD 650s are magnificent mixing headphones. Conversely, open back design makes them a bad choice for recording.
German-based Beyerdynamic is one of the heavyweights in the studio headphones arena, rivaling the legends like Shure and Sennheiser. Pricewise, their DT 990 Pro model belongs to the middle class, while performance-wise it belongs to the professional class.
DT 990 Pro comes in with three different impedance options, a feature characteristic of the DT series. The offered levels include 32, 250, and 600Ω. The 32Ω option is made for everyday listening, while the 250 and 600Ω variants aim at studio use.
With open-back construction and zero isolation, these headphones let the sound bleed into the environment freely. This makes them undesirable for recording. On the other hand, the combination of the wide sound stage and well-balanced tone makes them a great choice for mixing.
10. AKG K240 Studio
The K240 headphones have been around, though in many different forms, since the ‘70s. The current incarnation, the K240 Studio, is among the best and most popular professional headphone sets among pros and amateurs alike.
This set comes in with semi-open back ear cups which, in terms of studio use, orient it towards mixing. If you, however, choose to use it for recording, the sound bleeding into the environment might easily be picked up by the microphone.
K240 Studio set rocks classic design with non-foldable cups and simple overhead band. The cable is detachable and 9’ long. It also features a standard 3.5mm audio plug. A ¼” adapter is included.
This set offers fantastic mids and highs. The bass is strong, but not overpowering. The response is flat and even, due to the set’s orientation towards studio use.
11. Samson SR850
Samson’s SR850 semi-open back headphones are among my favorites in the super affordable class. While they won’t impress any pros, they are pretty decent for home studios on a tight budget.
The semi-open back design should, at least in theory, make studio headphones suitable for both the recording and mixing duties. In reality, it is rarely so with most of the semi-open models landing squarely on the mixing side. These Samsons are no exception in this regard.
SR850s have a wide frequency response range – 10Hz to 30kHz. 32Ω impedance is quite low for a pair of studio headphones. 50mm drivers offer a decent amount of volume.
Sound-wise, SR850s have a pronounced high mid-range. The bass is substantial, though nothing to get excited over.
Audio-Technica’s ATH-R70x model is an upgraded version of the standard ATH-R70 model. It offers exceptional craftsmanship, professional tone quality, and a modern design. Of course, it also has a matching price tag.
ATH-R70x set features modern, minimalistic styling and hybrid plastic/metal construction. With the overall weight of around 210g and padded head wings, it is very comfortable to wear for prolonged periods of time.
The ear cups come with separate inputs, ensuring equal input. Both cables are detachable and sport the standard 3.5mm audio jacks. The impedance is 470Ω, which is one of the highest among Audio Technica studio headphones. R7x also has a super-wide frequency response range (5Hz – 40Khz).
The sound this model offers is well rounded and balanced. Open back construction and flat response orient ATH-R70x towards mixing duties.
Beyerdynamic’s DT 1990 Pro is one of the strongest candidates for the title of the best headphones for music production among open-back models. If the spotless performance is what you are after and are willing to pay for it, make sure to check this model out.
The DT 1990 Pro comes in with beautifully designed ear cups with laser-etched metal grills and a leather-bound headband. It also features two pairs of interchangeable ear pads. The color scheme is black with just right amount of chrome details.
The open-back design, flat, even response across the frequency range and outstanding sound quality make this one of the ultimate mixing sets.
In the comfort department, DT 1990 Pro has very little competition, being comfortable for even the longest studio sessions.
14. AKG K702
The popular K702 is one of the proud members of AKG’s K7xx line of reference headphones. It belongs to the upper middle/upper class and is among the best options in its class.
K702 set comes in with minimalistic, super-lightweight construction and interesting design. It comes with a simple, self-adjusting headband with no padding. Contrary to expectation, this approach works great and makes this set one of the most comfortable studio sets around.
The earcups sport open back construction and go over the ear. The pads are super soft and are easily shaped.
In the sound department, the response is flat and a bit on the bright side. It is highly detailed and very clean. Being a reference set, K702 has a balanced delivery across the frequency spectrum. Due to the open back construction, it is oriented towards mixing.
Recording and Mixing with Headphones
When you’re listening to music through monitors, the room’s reverb softens the harsher sound waves and gives it ambiance. Let’s say you have two speakers (monitors), one on the right and the other on the left and that they’re positioned in front of you. Your right ear will pick up more of the right speaker’s signal than that of the left one. Also, the signal from the left speaker will reach your right ear with some delay and at a somewhat lower volume.
However, if you’re listening through headphones, your ears will only hear signal from one channel – right ear will hear the right channel, while the left ear will only hear the left one. Besides, the sound you hear will, due to the proximity of the headphone drivers to your ears, sound like it’s coming from within your head instead of from a small distance. Also, room acoustics play no role in headphone sound. In turn, this lack of natural reverb makes clean vocals and sharp drum beats come off brighter and snappier.
Crossfeed is a common way to work around the channel isolation and simulate the sound you’d get from the speakers. Basically, crossfeed lets the left and right channels bleed into each other. This way, you’ll get a sort of a mono sound with reduced stereo width. You can increase/decrease the width through software plugins. If you want to up your game, add some reverb and delay to each channel.
Studio headphones will give you a more detailed insight into your tracks than a set of monitors. This is great when you’re sorting out the minor, hard to notice flaws and issues. Problems with pitch and vocal timing are more easily spotted and resolved with a good set of headphones than monitors. Also, headphones are great for solving issues with clipping, distortion, and clicks in samples.
On the flip side, the overall sound might come off as more sterile on headphones. It might be hard to properly dose the reverb you put on your synth and vocal tracks and leave them too dry. Also, mixes done exclusively on headphones might suffer from a too narrow stereo field.
Have in mind that your mix will sound far more detailed on your headphones and that all changes will sound more drastic on them than they would on monitors. Also, have in mind that the headphones will augment panning, delay, and reverb effects.
So, when you’re mixing through them, you will most likely have to pan your channels further apart and raise the plugins’ wet levels. Besides, make sure to turn up the backup/harmony vocals and background keyboards a bit, so they can be heard on the speakers.
In order to sound good over the speakers, bass drum and the snare might need to be turned down a bit, while the shakers and hi-hats might need to be kicked up a notch. Also, consider adding some compression to guitar and vocal tracks.
Types of Headphones for Music Production
When shopping for the headphones you will use in studio, it is important to consider what type of headphones you want. There are three main types of headphones, each with its strengths and weaknesses. The available types include open back headphones, closed back headphones, and semi-open back headphones. The choice should depend on what you want from your headphones for. Here are the main characteristics of each type.
Open-back headphones are a great solution if you’re aiming for the top-notch accuracy in frequency balance. Due to lacking a back cover, open back headphones do not isolate you from the ambient noise. Their wide sound stage and balanced tone orient towards mixing tasks.
On the other hand, open back headphones might not be the best solution for recording duties. This is due to the fact that their open back construction is typically poor at stopping the sound from bleeding into the environment. However, some top-shelf models can match the closed back models in this area, but they’ll cost you an arm and a leg.
Closed back headphones are the polar opposite of the open back models. Their key feature is the isolation they provide. With them, the sound can’t bleed into the environment and the ambient noise can’t reach your ears. These characteristics make closed back headphones a great choice for recording and tracking duties.
The tricky thing with the closed back design is that as the isolation increases, the quality of the sound decreases. Closed back headphones trap the pressure inside and create false frequencies in the bass range. Due to this, closed back headphones might be a bad choice for mixing and mastering tasks.
Semi-open back design represents the middle ground between the two previously discussed styles. Usually, a pair of semi-open headphones will offer you more isolation than your average open backs and a more natural tone than the closed back models. A quality semi-open model might be a good option if you’re looking for an all-round solution.
Of course, the average closed back headphones will still be better at blocking out the ambient noise than a pair of average semi-open models. Likewise, they will give you better frequency accuracy than closed back headphones.
The fourth option is a pair of in-ear monitors. While less common than the previous options, IEMs (short for in-ear monitors) are the weapon of choice of some mixing engineers. The more expensive models can be bought with custom-made earpieces and can also have multiple drivers. IEMs are also far lighter and more portable than the other three options.
While they do provide some level of isolation (IEMs are made to lower the ambient noise, not block it completely), IEM’s are not a great choice for recording duties.
After you decide on the type of headphones you want for your next studio session, you should give the drivers a thought. What is a driver? It is the part of the headphones which translates electrical signals to the sounds you hear. There are several major types of drivers headphones use and here’s a quick overview of each of them.
Planar magnetic drivers (sometimes referred to as orthodynamic drivers) have a diaphragm sandwiched between a pair of permanent magnets, with a wire coil running through the diaphragm. When electric current passes through the wire, the two opposing magnetic fields react with each other. This reaction makes the membrane move and create sound. Planar drivers are usually found in the middle class headphones.
Dynamic drivers are the most prevalent type of headphone drivers. They consist of a fixed magnet (mostly made of ferrite or neodymium), a membrane on the top, and a voice coil (usually made of copper) in between. When the current runs through the coil, it creates an electromagnetic field around it. This field interacts with the magnet’s field and causes the membrane and the coil to vibrate, thus creating sound.
Larger membranes can move more air and produce stronger bass. On the flip side, dynamic drivers are prone to distortion on high volume levels. Though very simple and inexpensive, dynamic drivers can also be found on many middle and upper class models.
Next, there are balanced drivers. They have a small arm (with a wire coil around it) positioned between a pair of magnets. It sits perfectly balanced between the magnets and is connected to the outside membrane. When the current runs through the coil, the arm gets magnetized and moves slightly towards one of the magnets. This move makes the membrane move and produce sound.
The balanced drivers are harder and more expensive to make than the dynamic ones. They can be tuned to a specific frequency and have better high-range frequencies than the dynamic drivers. On the other hand, it takes additional drivers to solve the poor response in the bass range.
Hybrid drivers are a compromise between the dynamic and balanced drivers. They combine the elements of the two to retain both the strong bass of the dynamic drivers and the superior treble of the balanced drivers. Hybrids have excellent sound and are found on expensive headphones.
Bonephones or magnetostriction headphones use magnetostriction (bone conduction) to create sound. These headphones completely bypass the ear, transferring vibrations directly to the skull. The vibrations are then transmitted to the inner ear. In terms of studio use, these might be helpful in the mixing phase. The lack of isolation makes them a poor choice for recording.
Electrostatic drivers, as their name suggests, exploit the properties of static electricity. They have electrically charged membranes housed between a pair of conductive plates or electrodes of opposite polarity. When the electric current runs through the electrodes, it makes the diaphragm move and push the air out, thus creating sound.
Electrostatic drivers are complex and expensive to make. They also need special amplifiers (energizers) to work. However, they offer superior sound quality and are commonly found on expensive open-back models.
Electret drivers are the affordable cousins of the electrostatic drivers. They feature similar construction, but have permanent charge instead of variable which can be found in their more expensive electrostatic counterparts. These drivers are not very popular and offer notably poorer performance than electrostatic drivers.
Cables which the headphones come in with should also play a part in your overall choice. The more affordable models will usually have fixed cables. This means that if the cable breaks, your headphones will become useless. Cables on budget models also tend to be of lower quality.
On the other side, mid-range and expensive models will almost certainly have detachable cables. Some of the expensive models even come with multiple cables. Most commonly, the cables will have 3.5mm audio jacks. Some headphones also feature ¼” adaptors.
Sensitivity of headphones is no different than the sensitivity of speakers and monitors. It is a measure of how much decibels a headphone driver will produce at a certain voltage. Higher sensitivity means that a driver can produce a louder sound. Conversely, the ones with lower sensitivity can reach lower volume.
Though some studio headphones can reach 120dB and more, American Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA) recommends no more than 90dB for prolonged use. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends no more than 85dB.
Impedance represents driver’s resistance to the electric current supplied by the power source. It is measured in ohms and is marked with the Greek letter “Omega” (Ω).
Basically, the lower the impedance, a driver needs less power from the source to reach a certain level of decibels. Conversely, high impedance will put more strain on the source. It is very important that the impedance of the source is equal or lower than that of the headphones’ drivers.
Attenuation, or the reduction of the ambient noise, is one of important features of studio headphones. Attenuation represents how much of the background noise a pair of headphones can block out. It is measured in decibels (dB).
On average, closed back headphones are the best among the three standard types of headphones in this area. Semi-open back models are in the middle, while the open-back headphones offer the least amount of protection. That being said, some top-shelf open back models can rival the closed back headphones in this area.
In-ear monitors also offer a decent amount of attenuation, especially the expensive models with custom-made earpieces.
Of course, when shopping for the best studio headphones, you should also take budget into consideration. The price tags can range wildly, depending on the construction quality, quality (as well as the number and the type) of drivers, and quality of performance they deliver.
An affordable pair of headphones with decent sound can be found under $100, but a pair of high-end headphones might cost several hundreds. Here, the choice should depend on your needs and preferences, as well as the amount of money you can afford to spend without regretting later on in case the difference in quality isn't that noticeable.
Picking the best studio headphones for music production, or picking just the right pair for you, can be a hard task as there are numerous things to consider and an almost limitless number of models to choose from. Hopefully, this will help you find the one that fits your needs.