Headphone Buying Guide: How to choose the right headphones for your studio needs.

Table of Contents

Audio Assemble dives into choosing the right headphones for whatever the job is.

Picking out the right pair of headphones can be a daunting task and is completely determined by your need for them; it’s about what your focus is. If you’re a casual listener you don’t necessarily want to buy headphones designed for an audiophile, and if you’re a mixing engineer you don’t want the same headphones as a studio vocalist.

Headphones are broken down into a few categories, mainly noise-canceling, reference and an array of general consumer variations. Of the consumer variations, earbuds have long been the choice of the general public even though as of late over-ear Bluetooth headphones have had a large splash, due in major part to Beats by Dre honing in on headphones as a fashion accessory and moving into a veritable lifestyle brand category.

Earbuds

Even as a professional, earbuds are a very important part of the music production process. The most important headphones in the world are the Apple’s EarPods. Yes, a computer and cell phone manufacturer have the world’s “most popular” headphones, and yet the reason has nothing to do with their 2014 acquisition of Beats. The reason is simple, EarPods are the only consistent headphones on the market that a majority of the world’s smartphone using population have heard.

Earbuds

Even though every producer or engineer should have a pair of EarPods on hand, they are hardly the right pair of earbuds for every occasion. The things you should look for in a good earbud are:

  • Comfort: This should be a no-brainer, but the shape, size, and materials used for earbuds can make the best sounding headphones the worst pair.
  • Fit: How does this work in the context of being in your ear, does it have a band that wraps behind your ear. What shape is going in your ear, will it fit in? There is nothing worse than an earbud that keeps falling out of your ear unless it’s an earbud that is too wide for your ear.
  • Passive Isolation: There is really no point in using earbuds if you can hear the outside world around you, wearing earbuds are the equivalent of saying “don’t talk to me.”
  • cActive Isolation / Noise Canceling: Though it doesn’t come cheap, noise canceling headphones are not only better for audiophiles they are safer for long term listening due to the fact that users don’t have to turn up their music to drown out the noise.
  • Bass Response: The right earbud will have a good bass response but not enough to distort the actual drivers or trample the mix and make things so muddy.
  • Drivers: Having multiple drivers doesn’t automatically make earbuds sound better, but well-made earbuds can show a world of a difference with well placed and tuned drivers.
  • Wireless: The comfort and convenience factor goes way up when moving to a pair of wireless headphones but with the loss of the wire we’ve also come to the end of lossless audio due to the digital compression that must happen to get the audio from your device to your headphones.
  • Impedance: This will control what type of equipment you can use with your headphones. Low impedance headphones generally require about 25 ohms, meaning they can work with low power amplification sources like phones, this also means they have a greater possibility of becoming blown out by your studio gear. Inversely, if you’re going to the higher end of mastering and mixing headphones you may need a headphone amplifier.

A good place to start for budget-friendly headphones would be brands like Philips, Sennheiser, and Skullcandy. If you want to step up your earbud game, V-Moda, Sony and Bose.

Reference Headphones

As a burgeoning producer or engineer, a totally different set of criteria should be used when deciding what are the best studio headphones for you. There are three types of headphones that are meant for professional use: open-back, closed-back, and semi-open-back headphones, often referred to without the “back” suffix attached. When it comes to the three types of headphones there are two styles, circumaural and supra-aural.

  • Circumaural Headphones: Also known as “over the ear” headphones, circumaural headphones fully encompass the ear with ellipsoid earpads that rest around the ear. This fully encompassing style can block outside noise due to their physical shielding, though, all 3 types of headphones commonly made in circumaural styles.
  • Supra-aural Headphones: Also known as “on-ear” headphones, supra-aural headphones physically rest flush on the ear. This style of headphone used exclusively for closed-back reference headphones though leak can still occur due to them resting on, and not around, the ear.

To truly know what headphones you need it is important to know what the purpose of each is, and where their strengths and weaknesses lay.

Types of Studio Headphones

Open-back Headphones: The Mix Engineers Headphone


Open-back headphones are generally the go-to choice for mix engineers of all types. Generally, circumaural, open-back headphones are comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time without entering a state of physical or mental discomfort. I have even found myself sound asleep (pun intended) at a mixing console after days of being stuck in a session with the pillowy goodness of a great pair of open-back headphones still firmly wrapped around my head.

Aside from avoiding the dread of ear-fatigue, open headphones are designed to allow the real world “noise” in. Though circumaural designs physically block sound from filtering in around the ear, open-back headphones allow sound to bleed through the back of the drivers to enter into user’s ears, providing an audible openness to a mixing and mastering.

Though a friend to a mixengineer, open-back headphones are a foil to the public. Too many times have I seen a stranger jamming out to the latest trap-influenced anthem entering a crowded train with a dab in their hearts and clearly open-back headphones on their heads, which have now become the bane of my, and everyone else’s existence.

What they’re good for:

  • Sound Clarity: Generally not thought of as an audiophile’s headphone, open-back headphones can enhance listenability to acoustic music types, and things based in realism. They generally give everything a “wide-open” sound.
  • Ear Fatigue: Because of their build and style, open-back headphones are the headphones which will create the least amount of ear fatigue.
  • Critical Listening: If you want a headphone that is closer to listening in the real world as opposed to listening in a soundproof room, open-back headphones will basically give you a nice diffusion of sound mixed with the outside life, and stay true to the frequencies that are actually in a recording.
  • Behind the Board: In the control room, you have the luxury of allowing sound to leak, you also have the task of staring at a screen, knobs, faders and buttons for what may seem like all eternity, so you should probably treat yourself to an ear-fatigueless session with a comfy pair of open-backs so you don’t have to feel the deafening silence of an ISO booth if you don’t have to.
  • Tuning Vocals: Now a common part of engineering, it is highly recommended that tuning vocals should be done in a pair of open-back headphones for their frequency range; harmonics are everything.

What they’re bad for:

  • Fashion Statements: I get it. Since Beats by Dre’s first music video introduction, the normalization of wearing over-the-ear or on-ear headphones had begun. When it comes to open-back headphones THIS IS NOT NORMAL. These are high fidelity tools, not Yeezy Season 5’s newest accessory. If you publically wear these, I hope people publically shame you since they now have to publically listen to your music.
  • Behind the Mic: Many singers like to take one of their headphone ears off so they can “hear themselves,” this can cause an insurmountable amount of bleed into the recording, which can be detrimental if the song isn’t in its final state of production, or if anyone ever wants to use an acapella of this, and is an all around pain. Imagine all of that headache with the added stress of headphones that are bleeding regardless of if they are completely on or off a vocalists head. The only time that open-back headphones are appropriate for recording is in the case that you have a high-end set that has extreme bleed isolation that you use for vocal tracking.
  • Audio Cleanup: This is sort of a no-brainer, but outside noise has no place for noise cleanup.
  • Public: I know I already said it, but I just want to reiterate, these are not for you to wear in public spaces if you need to hear your mix in a natural environment go to a park and bother the birds.

Semi-Open-back Headphones: The Musician’s Headphone

semi-open-back headphones
What I generally like to view as the headphones of compromise, professional semi-open-back headphones sit somewhere between an open and closed headphone, giving both the engineer and the artist what they need at a mild trade-off to both. Ideal for most tracking applications where a musician may want to hear the open-air sound, semi-open headphones really shine when playing with live musicians.

Though, I would never recommend using semi-open-back headphones to mix or master, they are a perfect tool to listen to a mix without being distracted by the tone of your room; if you are a person with a perfectly tuned room, we get it, you’re better than the rest of us and find mixing or monitoring with headphones ludicrous.

What they’re good for:

  • Project Studios: Recording in your semi-pro studio? A great pair of semi-open headphones can take on the role of both an open and close pair of headphones while also allowing the power to track whatever you need with minimal bleed.
  • Playing an Electric Instrument in a Live Session: Digital monitoring has come a long way, but there is nothing that quite matches the intensity of the live quality of playing surrounded by other musicians. Semi-open headphones allow for the ideal amount low-bleed tracking that is perfect for Electric Guitarists, Bassists, and Synth Players.

What they’re bad for:

  • Around the Mic: If open-back headphones are bad for being behind the mic, semi-open headphones are bad for being around the mic, unless you’ve spent the cast to get a great pair of highly isolated semi-open headphones, but then why wouldn’t you just buy a great pair of isolated open-back headphones? Regardless, if you’re recording a mic’d acoustic instrument, your best bet is to use a headphone that doesn’t have the word “open” in its description.
  • Ear-fatigue: Unlike their fully open counterpart, semi-open headphones are normally supra-aural as opposed to circumaural, which means they are sitting on your ear for the duration of whatever you’re doing.

Closed-back Headphones: The Producers Headphone

Closed-back Headphones
If open and semi-open-back headphones let the world in, closed-back headphones completely take you out of the world and bring you to a place all your own. The most isolated of all of the headphone types, closed-back headphones are perfect for tracking, producing, DJ’ing and in live sound situations, troubleshooting.

As the most versatile tracking headphone, their downfalls are not absent. If you have ever wondered why we don’t live in soundproof rooms, sit in a good pair of closed-back headphones and you will have your answer. Though it is sometimes essential to drown out the rest of the world when in the midst of the creative process, it can become literally dizzying.

What they’re good for:

  • Tracking: Closed-back headphones are they go to options for tracking vocalists, drummers, acoustic instruments and pretty much everything that isn’t a DI in. The amount of bleed from these headphones even at acceptably loud levels is nominal.
  • Producing “in the Box”: I personally love producing music with headphones on if I’m strictly doing it “in the box.” Living in a loud city like New York, closed-back headphones afford me the opportunity to step outside of my noise-filled world and go to a world where I’m only left with my thoughts.
  • Audio Cleanup: There is nothing worse than hearing an artifact and realizing that what you’ve been looking and listening for is something coming from your real-world space rather than your recording. So before you go tuning things, make sure you’ve got a perfectly isolated perspective of your recording that you’ve had the chance to clean up.
  • DJing: Clubs are loud, with respectively low impedance levels, DJ headphones are seemingly louder. Headphones like Sennheiser’s HD25ii are a pair of studio headphones that can go straight to the DJ’s mixing booth.
  • Bass Response: The bass of a closed-back pair of headphones is a double-edged sword, mainly because a good bit of the bass will be false due to their designed; we’ll come back to this below.
  • Fashion Statements: Closed-back headphones are [generally speaking] perfectly fine for consumer use, Beats by Dre made a 3 Billion dollar company out of that exact premise. The closed design provides minimal external bleed, but also keeps your music with you and not the masses.

What they’re bad for:

  • Mixing: The same reason that makes closed-back headphones great for consumer listening, makes them bad for high-fidelity critical listening. Because of their closed configuration, all of the pressure is trapped, which then creates false low frequencies, which can make listening more pleasurable, but not at all true to a mix.
  • Ear-fatigue: Though your ears may not get sore, you may end up experiencing mild amounts of disorientation after sitting with a closed pair of headphones for hours on end. Closed-back headphones are also built to be slightly tighter on the head, so when buying the right pair of closed-back headphones make sure they’re comfortable enough for you to endures hours of breaking them in.
  • Vocalists: Though ideal for engineers, vocalists want to hear the voice they hear in their head in the real world, and that is not a luxury afforded them with closed-back headphones.

A Quick Look at Choosing the Right Studio Headphones

In conclusion, the steps you should follow in finding the right pair of studio headphones are as follows:

  1. Where am I using these? Studio, on-the-go or both?
  2. What is my main use for this pair of headphones? Producing, mixing/monitoring/mastering, tracking, live settings, DJing or a combination of any?
  3. What is their frequency response? Bumps in the highs, lows or mids?
  4. What do they actually sound like? Transparent, wide, warm, colored, harsh?
  5. Can I wear these for a long time? If not restart your search.
  6. Can you hear these for a long time? If yes you’ve found your headphones.