What exactly are studio headphones?
The term studio headphones gets thrown around a lot, but what exactly does it mean? Studio headphones are headphones meant to be used for creating, recording, mixing, and mastering music – in other words, things commonly done within the context of a music studio. Of course these days, a proper studio space is hardly necessary. With little more than a laptop and some software, you can record and produce anywhere at any time.
Basically, you want studio headphones when critical listening is important, as opposed to more entertainment uses (like casual listening to music or gaming ect.). Let’s say you’re an electronic music producer, or a recording artist, and your goal is to produce a track or demo. You’re going to want headphones that have a flat frequency response, meaning they don’t “color” the sound by artificially boosting the bass or treble.
Consumer headphones (i.e. headphones & earbuds meant primarily for causal and entertainment use, and even some noise-cancelling headphones) are notorious for altering the frequency response. When the bass and treble are artificially boosted, everything just magically sounds better to us. As an artist who is recording or creating tracks – and more importantly mixing your tracks – you need more professional headphones that are honest; you don’t want any frequencies to be under- or overrepresented (again, that’s called a “flat” frequency response). Why? The idea is that if you can get your music to sound nice and balanced on flat/honest studio headphones, your music is going to “translate” well to wherever people listen to it – laptop speakers, cheap earbuds, car stereos, etc.
What to look for when choosing your studio headphones
Variety is the spice of life, but the many variables you’ll encounter when shopping for studio headphones can make things frustrating. You also have to be careful of marketing deception. Think of it this way – when a food says “low fat” on the box it doesn’t necessarily make it good for you, the same as if a headphone says the word “studio” on the box doesn’t at all mean it’s actually a good studio headphone. With more and more people getting into music production, brands want to make headphones that seem appealing for both that, as well as casual listening.
Well, fear not, we’re here to cut through the hype and clear up all the confusion. The following are the important things to understand and decide on when you’re ready to get yourself some great headphones.
Closed back vs. open back
This is a really important factor, since closed-back and open-back headphones are pretty different from each other. In closed-back headphones, the ear cup is completely closed off, and since the soft foam (or leather) pad forms a seal with your head around your ear, the sound has nowhere to go so it stays inside the ear cup. This is probably what you’re more used to, as the majority of headphones out there are closed-back.
Open-back headphones are, as the name implies, more open. The part of the ear cup opposite your ear – the one that faces the outside world – is open. This means that instead of the sound staying contained within the ear cup, it can travel outwards.
This has great implications on what the headphones are going to sound like. Closed-back headphones are great for isolation. If you’re producing in a noisy environment, outside noise will be kept out, and people won’t be able to hear what you’re listening to. The sound is tighter and more focused, and as a result one of the downsides is that the bass frequencies might be slightly exaggerated. Another downside is that the soundstage doesn’t sound as wide and open. In other words, it feels more like you have headphones on.
Open-back headphones are just the opposite. Sound will easily leak in and out, so if you’re in a noisy environment, forget about using open-back headphones. If you are in a quiet environment, open-back headphones can actually sound significantly better. That’s because everything will sound more airy and natural, and the sound space can seem like it’s huge.
In short, think about what you want to do with your studio headphones. If you’re always working in a quiet space, and you want to produce and mix as accurately as possible, consider open-back. If you’re in noisy spaces, or you want to record live instruments like guitar and vocals, closed-back is better since sound leakage would be a big issue. One last note – if your primary goal is mixing, open-back headphones tend to be more accurate for that task.
On-ear vs. over-ear
On-ear vs. over-ear is a pretty easy concept to grasp. An on-ear (or supra-aural if you want to sound fancy) headphone rests on top of your ear, and over-ear (a.k.a. circumaural) goes over and surrounds your entire ear. On-ear headphones tend to be more compact since the ear cups aren’t as large, although the main problems are that 1) the pressure applied directly to the ear can be uncomfortable, and 2) the sound isolation isn’t as good, since there’s no tight seal created.
An over-ear headphone has the advantage of sound isolation. That makes them better suited for recording, and working in loud environments. They also provide a more immersive listening experience. Because the ear cup needs to fit around your ear, these types of headphones tend to be a little bit larger – that might make them look less cool and sleek, if you wear them out in public. The majority of studio headphones are over-ear.
Budget is, of course, supremely important when it comes to selecting the best studio headphones for you. If this is your first pair of quality headphones, it might not make sense to jump straight to a $400 pair. If you’re currently producing on cheap earbuds, $150 Audio-Technica ATH-M50x are going to change your life. If you’re already using the ATH-M50x and want to upgrade, you’ll want to look at something in the $200-250 range to make a significant difference.
If we had to boil it down, our general recommendation is to get the highest ranked headphones from our list that match what you’re looking to spend.
Intended use – recording, mixing, both?
Your intended use of the headphones, as well as your level of experience, kind of ties everything together. If you produce electronic dance music on your laptop, and you frequently travel and produce on the go, delicate open-back headphones don’t make much sense for you. A nice durable pair of closed-back cans is what you should aim to get.
If instead you have a nice quiet home studio and you work on perfecting your mixes late at night and can’t use speakers for fear of waking up your housemates, open-back headphones would be a good bet.
Ideally, it would be great to own a great pair of closed-back headphones for producing and recording, open-back headphones for mixing, and some other pair for casual listening. However, owning that many headphones is not only pricey, but also not necessarily practical. Prioritize what’s most important to you, and make your decision that way.
You could read entire books on audio frequency, so we’ll stick with the very simple explanation. Frequency is measured in hertz (Hz). Humans can generally hear from 20Hz all the way to 20,000 Hz. Every headphone advertises their frequency response, which is the effective range they can reproduce of bass (on the low end), mids, and treble (on the high end). Some headphones have a frequency response that spans beyond that which humans can hear (5 to 35,000 Hz for example). This does not make their sound quality better. Make a note of the frequency response, but don’t base your buying decision solely on it.
A headphone’s comfort is important, no matter how you feel about any of the other criteria. If you find a pair so uncomfortable that you can’t wear it for more than 30 minutes or an hour at a time without your head, neck, or ears hurting, you’ll never be able to focus, get in the zone, and truly enjoy your music production.
Acolyte.Audio : Top 5 Studio Headphones
5. Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
[Best Low-Budget Studio Headphone]
4. Beyerdynamic DT 770 / 880 PRO-80
[Best Low-Budget Studio Headphone]
3. Focal Professional
[Best Mid-Budget Studio Headphone]
2. Sennheiser HD 650
[Best Mid-Budget Studio Headphone]
1. Sennheiser HD 800 / Audeze LCD Range / Focal Utopia
[Best High-Budget Studio Headphones]