The Importance of Having Good Quality Headphones When Recording and Mixing Music
Have you ever heard of the term ‘bleed’? No, this isn’t about blood or anything related to medicine. In recording, a ‘bleed’ happens when another sound compromises and leaks through into a recorded track. A good pair of studio headphones seal tightly around the ear, isolating the audio inside the headphones and preventing anything from ‘bleeding’ into another microphone.
We recommend the Beyer Dynamic DT770 studio headphones. They sound excellent with a natural and accurate response across all frequencies and they are comfortable to wear.
What is the difference between closed back and open back Headphones?
Most people don’t know this, but there are actually are two types of headphones generally available in the market – closed-back headphones and open-back headphones. But what’s the difference between the two, you ask?
Closed-back headphones are the more commonly known – they have a solid shell or ‘ear cup’ on the outside – you can think of them like airtight containers: they are sealed shut. They are designed to isolate the audio within your ears – they’ll attenuate outside noises. Using a pair while recording also reduces the risk of ‘bleed’ (the microphone picking up the click track or other audio that you’re monitoring in your headphones while recording). Closed-back headphones are generally reasonably tight on the ear to create a seal – this can generate pressure and mild discomfort on the ear after long periods of listening.
Closed-back headphones are more widely used for recording. They work well for recording quieter instruments like vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano – reducing bleed from the headphones into the recording microphone. They are also great for louder instruments like drums and electric guitars – as they’ll cut out the ambient noise of the instrument in the room so you can only focus on the audio that’s being played back through the headphones.
Closed-back headphones are generally more versatile – you can listen to music on the bus without everyone hearing what you’re listening to!
Open-back headphones have holes or slits in the outer shell – allowing sound and air to pass through more naturally. They are usually more expensive and fragile than closed-back headphones. They don’t attenuate or isolate outside noises like closed-back headphones and more sound leaks out of them – making them less suitable for recording (in my opinion!)
On the plus side, open-back headphones create a feeling of spaciousness in your head while listening and are more comfortable for listening to audio for longer periods. This makes them great for engineers and producers editing and mixing audio in a quiet studio environment.
Are closed back or open back headphones better for recording?
Closed-back headphones are better for recording as they’ll isolate outside noises, and keep the audio that you’re listening to contained within your ears. If you’re not recording live instruments or vocals, but mainly mixing and editing – and your budget stretches a bit further – then you may want to consider open-back headphones which can offer more comfort for longer periods.
A Few Things to Consider When Choosing the Right Headphones
As you would with any purchase, there are few factors to consider when searching for the perfect headphones to suit your needs. We’ve listed a few factors below to help you in your decision making.
How comfortable are the headphones? What is the padding like, what is the shape of the cups like – and how well do they sit on the average ear? How tight do they feel after using them for an hour or so?
How does the price point compare with your budget? We’ve reviewed headphones from around the $100 mark up to $400 +. This may seem to be a lot, but it is well within the affordable price point of professional headphones. This is an investment into something that you can use for years to come – the right headphones can become like old friends – familiar and comfortable to be with!
What is the quality of the sound like? Some points to consider around quality are;
- Accuracy of the sound: Are they pleasant to listen to? Do they provide a flat response across all frequencies, or do they unnaturally accentuate bass and scoop out mids like some headphones?
- Frequency response: What is the rated frequency response?
- Sensitivity: This is usually a rating in dB (decibels) – the higher the better
- Maximum input power: How much power can they handle before they begin to distort? Rated in watts (W) or milliwatts: (mW)
Impedance is measured in Ohms and is often shown using the Greek capital letter Omega (Ω).
Impedance measures the resistance that headphones give to the audio source. A pair of headphones with a higher impedance requires a more powerful amplifier to drive them – but the resulting output sound is clearer with more transparency and better bass definition.
If you want to use your headphones on the go with your phone or portable music device, better to go for a pair with lower impedance – around 32ohms. If you want the best possible sound and your audio source can drive them – go for a higher impedance rating.
Size and Weight
Artists may have to wear headphones for a long period of time and anything that weighs more will only add to the pressure on your ears caused by sealed closed-back headphones.
Accessories and Spares
It is always a plus factor if accessories and spares are easily accessible. This can include replacement cables, ear pads, headbands and even the drivers themselves. This also reduces a ‘disposable’ mindset and encourages a more sustainable way of working. If something is broken, fix it: don’t throw it away!
Depending on an individual’s personality, one may prefer an aesthetically pleasing design over functionality and vice versa.
9 of the Best Studio Headphones in Today’s Market
As promised, we’ve compiled nine great products that function impressively in studio recordings.
Let’s chop the list up into three parts depending on their price range. Ready to start?
Studio Headphones Under $100
Sennheiser is a well-known and respected audio equipment manufacturer. They have been around for decades and produced some legendary equipment over the years.
The Sennheiser HD280s are popular with many and are very affordable. They are closed-back and generate a detailed accurate sound with reduced bass.
Update: 2 May 2020.
Sennheiser have released a ‘new’ version of the HD280 – with a new headband design that is much more comfortable. I definitely recommend you purchase the ‘new’ version!
- Comfortable and fatigue is less likely to occur
- Replaceable parts are available
- Works great for isolation
- Great value
Sony’s entry-level headphone champion is super lightweight at only half a pound! Like the Sennheiser HD280, this pair is also closed-back with a reliable wired cord. Every pair includes a carrying case and a unimatch 3.5mm to 1/4″ adapter that saves you the hassle of having to purchase one separately.
Users offer great reviews of Sony’s MDR7506, emphasizing how well-balanced and crisp the audio output it produces. There is a certain kind of vibrancy that this pair of headphones can bring out – they certainly defy their pricepoint.
- Lightweight and compact
- Structurally well designed
- Sound neutrality makes for a well-balanced output
- Cables are extremely long
- Can become uncomfortable after a few hours of use
- Gets ears warm easily (great to use on winter days)!
AKG K240 MK II
The AKG K240 MKII headphones feature a unique semi-open design that offers its users the best of both worlds. AKG’s patented Varimotion diaphragm has two layers of windings – as a result, the highs are airy and spacious and the bass is full and warm.
The K240 MK II comes loaded with accessories and options to choose from. It’s cables and ear pads are interchangeable and replacement parts are readily available.
- Excellent natural sound with good definition in the highs and full-bodied lows.
- Interchangeable Cables and Ear Pads
- Accessories come with the box and replacements are available
- Not the best for studio recording due to being semi-open
- Quite bulky
Mid-range Budget Headphones
The first competitor in the mid-range budget category is Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50X. Launched under their M-series line featuring closed-back headphones, the model is extremely versatile and advertised for a wide range of use whether it be mixing in a studio or DJ monitoring, or simply for personal listening. The ATH-M50X comes with two cables out of the box: one coiled and another uncoiled.
- Excellent audio quality – accurate and detailed sound
- Parts are readily available
- Heavier than most headphones
- Quite a tight fit – less comfortable after long periods
Beyerdynamic DT770 | Closed Back
The Closed Back DT770 by Beyerdynamic was first released in 2004 and is massively popular with professional artists and musicians. The DT770 is made with comfort and durability in mind. It features a unique bass reflex system that produces warm detailed bass – without being overbearing. It’s available in 32, 80 and 250-ohm versions.
- Comfortable ear cup material
- Clear and neutral frequency response
- Sturdy with a premium feel
- A little bulky and less portable
Last on our list of headphones on a mid-range budget, Shure’s SRH840 Professional Monitoring Headphones. The closed-back headphones are designed ergonomically to provide a comfortable fit. They come with a carrying bag for ease of storage, as well as spare ear pads and a threaded 3.5mm to ¼” jack adapter.
While Shure’s quality can undoubtedly withstand the wear of daily use, a few users have complained about the SRH840’s material breaking down in under a year.
- Superb sound balance
- Interchangeable ear pads and cables
- Product material quality
- Headband fit takes a while to get used to
- Part replacement and repair can be expensive
Sennheiser’s HD650 open-back headphones feature an amazing aesthetic finish. Because they are open-back, our view is that these are better suited for editing and mixing and not so good for recording.
- Made with high-quality materials
- Wide stereo soundscape
- Comes with an upscale padded case
- Open-back design means they are less versatile
- Some bleed can occur when recording quiet instruments like vocals
AKG K712 PRO
AKG’s K712 PRO is the K240 MK II’s high-end big brother – with a full open-back design. The K712 is very comfortable and delivers beautiful accurate sound – perfect for mixing and editing or just enjoying the music you love. Again, considering that it is open-back, it is not recommended for recording live instruments as they will bleed.
- Super lightweight for a professional headphone
- Worth the investment for mixing and editing
- Sound quality is superb, balanced and almost perfect
- Amazing comfort – even for longer periods
- Less portable
- Open-back design means everyone can hear what you’re listening to on the bus or train!
- Some bleed when recording quieter instruments like vocals
Last on our high-end list is another contender from Shure, the SRH1840. Again, an open-back option, it’s also lightweight like the AKG K712 Pro. It’s made of aircraft-grade aluminum alloy for excellent durability. The SRH1840 has excellent reviews on the quality of the sound – they are transparent, full and accurate.
- Highly durable
- Made with high-quality materials
- Top-notch sound quality
- Not recommended for monitoring while recording quieter instruments as the open-back design can bleed.
Where to buy the Shure SRH1840: Check price on Amazon
Frequently Asked Questions
Curious about a few things about headphones? We’ve rounded up a few common questions below. Enjoy!
Why do singers wear headphones when recording?
Singers use headphones while recording for a few reasons. Firstly, they need to listen to the backing music and click track while they are recording. Singers use headphones to avoid other music bleeding into the microphone while recording. If they used monitor speakers or a PA system while recording, the microphone would pick up a lot of additional unwanted audio – making it harder to mix the vocal track later. Using headphones also provides more control over what the singer hears in their mix while they are recording – they can get just the right mix of their own voice blended with other instruments.
Do you need headphones to record music?
Headphones are not absolutely essential for recording, but you’ll get a much better result – particularly when recording vocals or any live instrument.
As good as our review can get, every person’s preference will vary – and there are many other models out there. Use our helpful buying criteria to evaluate and choose the studio headphones that best suit your needs.
Here’s a quick summary again of the important criteria for choosing the right studio headphones;
- Size and Weight
- Sound Quality
- Availability of spares
- Design / Visual Aesthetics