Best Studio Headphones for Home Recording & Mixing​

I’m going to be taking a look at the best types of studio headphones for your home recording and mixing. As you gradually get together equipment for your home recording studio setup, a good set of studio headphones will almost certainly be one of the first things you purchase, and here, I’m not going to run through a series of products and make specific recommendations. What I am going to do is look at why you need at least one good set of headphones, the different types available, the difference between closed-back and open-back, things to look out for, some of the benefits and pitfalls of using headphones in your home recording studio.

There are two main kinds of over-the-ear headphones, open-back and closed-back. Each has benefits and each has drawbacks. Most headphones are closed-back or circumaural, which basically means the outer part of the headphone cups have a hard enclosure. For example, these Sony MDR-7506’s. Open back headphones leave the back of the headphone cup open. For example, these AKG K702’s. So far, so simple, but what does it mean? The small speaker drives in headphones emit sound in both directions, towards your ears, directly into your head, and away from your ears, out towards the rest of the world. Closed-back headphones largely aim to block the sound aimed towards the world. Open-back headphones let this sound largely go free. Closed-back headphones are designed to isolate you from the outside world, it’s just you and your music. The downside is the music is a lot more in your head sounding. It’s less of a band in a concert hall, and more a band in your head. However, this makes closed-back headphones the best choice for monitoring and tracking while you are recording. While you are recording, you are more cut off from unwanted sounds, such as foot tapping, shuffling, rustling, so it can take a bit of practice to get a good headphone recording technique. The other problem is they can make you feel very closed in and a bit nasal, it might be a good idea to pipe your backing track through one channel and just have one cup over your ear. You’ll have to just practice and see what works for you. 

Open-back headphones sound significantly larger and less closed in than closed-back headphones. They’re just more open sounding. They’re less like music beamed into your head and more like music in a room. In other words, they’re more realistic. So for mixing, generally, open-back headphones are preferable, although this is a bit of a matter of personal choice. The disadvantage of using open-back headphones for mixing is that you have any ambient sound going on around you in the room while you are mixing, you’re less isolated from it, so it may end up interfering with your mix, or it might sort of distract you while you are mixing because you’re not so isolated from the things that are going on around you. Whichever headphones you’re looking at, and when you are comparing, make sure you study the frequency response. For mixing and editing, you want a good, even frequency response so you can hear the top end clearly, and though the bass is thick and full, you don’t want sounds to be tinny at one end or too muddy or boom-y at the other end. 

So do check the frequency response graph for any headphones you’re thinking of buying. Let’s have a look at recording in more detail. Generally, in a home studio setting, audio equipment is in one room. This means if you’re going to record using a microphone, you need a set of headphones. You can’t monitor recordings through your studio speakers. Firstly, you will probably get into a feedback loop between the mic and the monitors, and secondly, even if that doesn’t happen, your mic would be recording whatever sound was coming out of the speakers, as well as you. So in this case, you need to have a reasonable pair of closed-back headphones for monitoring. These will enable you to hear the backing track and to monitor yourself, while at the same time recording, without that bleed or leakage we looked at. So some examples of industry standards of closed-back headphones, at suitable prices for a home recording studio setup, you could have a look at the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, the Sony MDR-7506, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, or the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro. All of these are hugely popular headphones. If you’re on a tight budget, then the Status Audio CB-1’s are an excellent choice too. If you’re mixing and monitoring, in an ideal world, you’ll have a decent pair of studio monitors and a great pair of headphones for mixing and mastering.

 However, if you’re just starting to get together your first studio and you have a tight budget, then you may only be able to afford a set of headphones, you’re not ready to buy the monitors yet. Now I prefer the wider sound and listening comfort of open-back headphones, and some of the great examples of top selling industry standards, again, priced for a home studio budget, are the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro studio headphones or these AKG K702’s, which are massively cheaper now than when they were first launched, or the Sennheiser HD 600. You could go and have a look at those, compare and contrast the reviews. Bear in mind, many of the closed back headphones can also be used for mixing, as well as monitoring while recording, and so it’s worth studying the reviews and specs. Some are excellent. If you’re only able to buy one set of headphones that you have to use for recording and mixing, then go for closed-back. If some of the advantages of using headphones in your home studio. The obvious one is they don’t annoy the neighbors or your housemates, so obviously you can get on with all your music making and mixing and recording and editing without disturbing anyone else, and they cost much less than an equivalent set of studio monitors. 

They’re essential if you want to monitor yourself while recording, and the good thing about mixing with headphones is there’s no coloration from room acoustics while mixing, like there would be with a set of monitors. The tone quality is exactly the same in different environments, so they’re very consistent. They’re obviously very convenient for on-location monitoring and mixing, and it’s easier to hear small changes in the mix through headphones than through monitors. Transients are sharper due to the absence of room reflections, so even if you do most of your mixing using studio monitors, you should also check out the mix in your headphones too. However, there are some disadvantages to using headphones that you should be aware of when you’re running your home studio. One of the main ones is they can become uncomfortable and tire you out after long listening sessions, and cheap headphones have inaccurate tone quality, so spend as much as you can in the first instance. Headphones don’t project bass tones through your body like speakers do, so you don’t get the same kind of feel for the music as you do when it’s coming at you through studio monitors. The bass response varies due to changing headphone pressure, so you have to watch out for that. The other thing is the sound is very much in your head, rather than out front. You don’t hear any room reverb through headphones, so you may be adding too much or even too little reverb in the mix, so you must be aware of that, and so it’s a good idea, if you can, to listen to your mix after you’ve made it on headphones on some speaker system. 

And finally, it can be difficult to judge your stereo spread with headphones, because panned signals tend not to sound as far off center as the same sounds heard over speakers. So if your budget allows, it’s really good to combine using headphones and studio monitors for mixing and mastering in your home studio, but it is really likely that you will purchase headphones first, so hopefully this has given you a few things to think about when you’re making your decision. Thank you for reading. I hope this article was useful for you.

Sennheiser HD280PRO

Headphone (new model)

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