5 Tips for Choosing the Best Headphones

Headphones have experienced explosive growth over the past decade, and are now the primary way many people listen to music—so before signing off on a mix or master, it’s worth listening over headphones. You’ll also need headphones for doing overdubs…or maybe you want to listen to rough mixes on your smartphone while traveling.

Regardless of how you plan to use headphones, with the plethora of choices it’s more important than ever to make sure you choose the right tool for the right job—which brings us to these five essential tips.

1. Use Closed-Back Headphones for Overdubs, Open-Back for Mixing

Open-back designs may produce a more “open” sound, but they don’t seal the sound in as well as closed-back types (Fig. 1). When doing overdubs while listening on headphones, you don’t want any sonic leakage to get into microphones, especially with vocalists who like to hear lots of volume in their headphones.


Fig 1 Sennheiser HD 280
Figure 1: The Sennheiser HD 280 is a popular choice for overdubs—it’s closed-back, and under $100.

Similarly, for overdubs you’re better off with over-ear (circumaural) headphones that surround the ear, even though they tend to weigh more and are bulkier than the on-ear headphones that rest on your ears.

However for mixing, when isolation doesn’t really matter, open-back headphones are not only more comfortable but add some space between your ears and the earcups. This can help reduce standing waves that could influence the sound of the mix.

2: Beware of Headphones Targeted at Consumers

Not all headphones are created equal: Some consumer models hype the bass, treble, or both. You’re not doing a mix any favors if you’re not listening on headphones intended for the studio.


Figure 2: KRK’s KNS-8400 is designed to produce the same type of sound as KRK studio monitors, but with headphones.

Headphones like the KRK KNS-8400 [Fig. 2], Audio-Technica ATH-M40x, Beyerdynamic DT990-PRO, and others designed for recording are a far better choice than consumer-oriented models like Beats. Tip: Also look for studio-friendly features like a volume control, detachable cable, and replaceable earpads.

3. Use Headphones to Save Your Hearing

If you mix live sound, or play drums in the studio and need to hear the mix without blowing out your eardrums, isolation headphones are the answer. For example, Telefunken’s THP-29 headphones provide 29 dB of acoustical isolation (Fig. 3).


Fig 3 Telefunken THP-29
Figure 3: Isolation headphones, like Telefunken’s THP-29, are designed to give maximum isolation from ambient sounds.

Beyerdynamic’s DT 770 M headphones cost a bit more, but attenuate ambient noise by 35 dB or better

4. Headphones Can Idealize Your Room Acoustics

Headphones take acoustics out of the picture, but exaggerate the stereo imaging and make balancing levels difficult. Also, mixing on headphones may not give an accurate indication of the amount of bass (headphones don’t move air like speakers), which can cause people to mix the bass too high.


Fig 4 Waves NX
Figure 4: Headphones eliminate room acoustics, but exaggerate elements of a mix like reverb and stereo placement. Waves NX emulates the sound of working within an acoustically treated room.

Waves NX – Virtual Mix Room over Headphones (Fig. 4), available as part of Waves’ AMBTOOLS, addresses this issue head-on by emulating the studio environment for stereo and surround monitoring.

5. Yes, You Can Fix Your Phones

Headphones get a lot of abuse in the studio, and are often the worse for wear. Sure, they’re plastic and a lot less expensive than speakers—but they’re not designed to be throwaways. For example, you can replace the KNS-8400’s cord jack, buy a new ear element, or even the in-line volume control. You can get replacement earpads for just about all professional headphones—and if you blew out your Audio-Technica ATH-M40’s ear element, you’re covered (Fig. 5).


Fig 5 ATH-M40 ear element
Figure 5: Did you forget that the cue mix level was at maximum? You can replace headphone drivers for a fraction of the cost of new headphones.

You’re also covered if someone broke off the ATH-M40’s left arm assembly. The point is for a couple dozen dollars, you can return your $100+ headphones to being a productive member of your studio.

Full Compass offers an extensive selection of headphones replacement parts. Once you’re on our replacement parts page, simply filter by headphones and brand.


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