The Ultimate Guide to Studio Headphones
Hear your recordings with incredible clarity
They’re comfortable, durable and indispensable for the home recording studio. Hears why you need studio headphones.
You’ll need two pairs, for two jobs:
Open back headphones
Open back (and semi open back) headphones are perfect for mixing music. They have a grille section which allows sound out into the room.
This produces a natural airy sound. You’ll hear a high level of detail. It’s like looking through a magnifying glass, with any pops or distortions becoming obvious.
Stereo imaging becomes clearer and wider, so you can hear exactly where the sound sources are placed on the sonic stage.
When listening to music on your studio monitors, you’re also hearing the sound of the room you’re in. And your ears act as little filters, gently rolling off the high frequency.
You can use studio headphones to hear the sound directly. It’s not the most natural way to experience music, but it does give you a clear indication of what you’re working with at source.
Mixing on studio headphones
If you have poor acoustics or irritable flatmates, it is possible to do the majority of your mixing on studio headphones.
Because you’ll be hearing everything in detail on headphones you might find yourself leaving some parts too low in the mix. So make sure to check the sound on speakers from time to time.
You’ll soon get used to the sound of the headphones, and intuitively know what will translate well to speakers.
I use a pair of Sennheiser HD650 headphones for late night mixing, or getting a quick second opinion on my mixes.
They have a very natural sound and reveal hidden details I wouldn’t have otherwise heard.
A flat response?
Studio headphones aim to deliver an accurate sound, rather than something that makes the music sound good.
But does this mean they have a flat response? To sound natural, there has to be a boost in the bass, to make up for the lack of physical bass felt from a speaker.
This can make it difficult to judge the right amount of bass in your mixes. Try comparing with commercial mixes of a similar genre. And check on big speakers whenever possible.
Closed back headphones
Use closed back headphones for tracking – that’s when a musician records into a microphone while listening to a backing track.
The priority in this situation is to stop sound from the headphones reaching the mic, and ruining the recording.
Closed back headphones lack the clarity and accuracy of open back headphones. But they’re great at containing the sound within the ear cups, which is far more important here.
I use Sennheiser HD25 headphones for tracking.
Mixing on closed back headphones
Though not sonically ideal, it is possible to mix on closed back headphones. If you’re in a noisy environment, the closed design will help keep sound out. Or if you’re mixing on the move, and find yourself in a library, the closed ear cups will keep the sound in.
You might be wondering if you need a separate amplifier to go with your high quality open back studio headphones.
It depends on something called impedance. Don’t worry if this confuses you – you’re a musician, not a physicist!
Standard headphones are commonly 32 ohms, which is considered low impedance. These don’t need much power, and are well matched to potable devices, like mobile phones.
But high quality studio headphones can be anything up to 600 ohms. If you plug these into a mobile phone, they won’t have enough power, and will suffer in sound quality.
Normally every model of headphones has its own impedance rating. But the Beyerdynamic studio headphones come in a choice of 32, 250 and 600 ohm models.
When looking at amplification requirements, there’s something else to consider too – sensitivity or efficiency. This is a measurement of volume at a specific power input. It’s typically measured as decibels per unit of power (dB/mW). Like impedance, sensitivity also affects volume, but in a different way.
Do I need a headphone amplifier?
My Sennheiser HD650 is 300 ohms. I plug them into the headphone socket on my sound card, which works with a wide range of impedances. I’m happy with this quality of sound.
If I was plugging them into my Mac laptop or iPhone, they’d still work fine, just a little quieter.
For pro editing and mixing with just a laptop, I’d consider a separate headphone amplifier, known to match the HD650s.
Circumaural vs Supra aural
Most studio headphones are cup shaped – they completely envelop the ear. This is the case for both open and closed back headphones. The technical name for this is circumaural.
- Circum = surrounding
- Aural = the ear
Some other consumer headphones sit on the ear, and are called supra aural.
- Supra = on top of
- Aural = the ear
Investing in a pair of quality open back studio headphones is a wise choice. It will give you the clarity needed for checking tiny details in the mix.
You’ll get used to the sound of your headphones, and will learn to know how they’ll translate onto a pair of loudspeakers. This is really handy if you find yourself mixing at someone else’s studio, and need a familiar reference.
You can even do the majority of your mixing on studio headphones. Just make sure to check regularly on your studio monitors or another sound system.
Author: Daren Banarsë
Daren Banarsë studied classical piano and composition at Trinity College of Music, at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
His music has been performed at the Southbank Centre, Tate Modern, and the Courtauld Institute, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Radio 4 and countless TV shows, including The Apprentice, Top Gear and Horizon.
Daren is a former lecturer on the BA Music Course at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He currently works in London as a composer and psychotherapist.