Headphones are a critical addition to any home recording studio. They come in handy for instant feedback as you record, and they are also useful for mixing.
It is important to purchase headphones specifically designed for studio use in this application. Consumer headphones are generally tweaked to ensure an enjoyable listening experience—in other words, you are not listening to the raw sound. Studio headphones are more transparent, letting you hear exactly what is going on in the audio, whether that is good or bad.
You can purchase studio headphones without breaking the bank. However, it is important not to cheap out and waste money on a pair of headphones that sounds distorted, acts up with age, or feels like wearing a vice on your head.
Here are some factors to consider when shopping for the right set of studio headphones.
For recording and mixing, a flat response is a must. Detailed sound is also essential. What you want to avoid is any type of “sweetening.” Good studio headphones may, frankly, sound terrible to you at first because you are probably used to consumer headphones that have been optimized to make everything sound good.
To make sure you get accurate studio headphones, try these two tests:
- Read online reviews.
- Listen to a few songs that you are intimately familiar with through the studio headphones. If they are any good, you should be able to detect details and nuances (good, bad, or indifferent) that you have never heard before.
Make sure noise will not be an issue with your headphones. A shielded cable will help. Also make sure the cable is no longer than necessary for your application, as longer cables are more prone to noise issues.
Why a cable instead of wireless? Because wireless headphones receive a compressed signal. Compression inevitably alters the audio. It may even reduce amplitude. For studio purposes, always use wired headphones.
Earbuds and headphones that don’t entirely surround the ear are typically not used in studio applications. For this purpose, it is important to have headphones that are circumaural, or completely surrounding the ear, to block outside noise and allow you to fully hear the nuances of the audio.
Within the world of circumaural headphones, you will find three variations:
- Closed back. This style allows for complete sound isolation and no bleed. It’s just you and the music with closed-back circumaural headphones, no matter how loud the room is. One warning—it’s also just you and the bass frequencies. If you aren’t used to having a lot of bass placed in close proximity to your ears, don’t get thrown off during the mixing process, and be aware that you may experience ear fatigue when using them for long periods of time. Close-back headphones are often used for recording rather than mixing.
- Open back. Why would we consider open-back headphones, knowing that they will let in more background noise and allow headphone bleed to get into the recording? Because they frequently have a clearer, more natural sound, and this can be very advantageous for mixing. Also, open-back headphones subject the ears to less air pressure buildup, an important consideration if you will be mixing for extended periods of time. Open-back headphones are often used for mixing rather than recording.
- Semi-open back. This type attempts to combine the best features of both styles. While it does allow some sound leakage, the isolation is much better than with open-back headphones. They usually have both good bass response and a realistic sound. Semi-open back headphones are commonly used for recording in situations where the microphones are unable to pick up any headphone noise.
Need the airy sound of open-back headphones, but can’t afford circumaural? On-ear (supra-aural) headphones may seem like a compromise, but their sound quality is usually not as good. You will have to spend a great deal of money to get professional recording-quality supra-aural headphones.
This criterion is not negotiable! If you are constantly battling your headphones, you will not be paying attention to the task at hand. Likewise, if you can’t wait to rip those things off your ears, you won’t be able to put in the time it takes to get a good mix.
To truly test the comfort of a pair of headphones, you need to wear them for at least 20 minutes straight. But what if that’s not an option before purchase? Here are a few tips:
- Look for large ear cups when buying circumaural headphones, and small ear pieces when buying supra-aural headphones.
- Make sure that the ear cups are padded with fabric or leather.
- The more adjustable the better. An adjustable headband is a must, and rotating ear cups are strongly recommended.
- Read reviews before making your final decision. Regardless of where you are planning on buying your headphones, head to the website of a good online music supplier and read what those with some experience have to say.
There are other things to consider when shopping for studio headphones:
- Protective case.
- Portable folding design.
- Plug and adapter sizes.
- Single- vs. double-sided cable.
- Availability of replacement parts.
There are no hard-and-fast rules on most of these. Just make sure you get a pair that fits your needs and is compatible with the rest of your equipment.
The Final Criterion—Price
Of course, you will likely have to set an upper limit on the price tag. That’s just the way it goes.
So what is a good price to pay for headphones? Professional sets are generally expected to cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000. Good news—you likely don’t need to spend this much to get a good pair. You may be able to find a nice pair of headphones for as little as $100, but you will have to do plenty of research to make sure you are getting the quality you expect.
A few tips for lowering the cost without compromising on quality:
- Look for a recording bundle that includes headphones from a reputable manufacturer. Buying the whole package at once usually allows you to save on the individual items.
- Shop the big sales. (Did you check your favorite gear supplier on Black Friday or Cyber Monday?)
- Compare the prices at different stores. For some products and on some days, Amazon is the way to go. On other occasions, you may actually get a better deal at a music company.
With just a little research and planning, you should be able to get quality studio headphones—without breaking the bank.