The Ultimate Guide: Studio Headphones

Whether you’re a DJ, producer, performer, mix or mastering engineer it’s essential that you have a pair of studio headphones at your disposal. Many are oblivious to the benefits of studio headphones, and those searching for them are often left confused and undecided on what to get. In this guide we cover everything you need to know when buying a pair of studio headphones to make your choice much easier.

Why do I need studio headphones?

AKG K701 Studio Reference
Those new to music production often have a low budget to work with and can’t afford studio monitors right away. A decent pair of studio headphones will definitely come in handy to any beginner looking to hone in on their sound. Rather than using cheap computer speakers or hi-fi systems, studio headphones will give you a more accurate and full representation of the frequency range.

If you do have a pair of studio monitors it is still advised that you own a pair of headphones tailored for studio applications. Having both of these at your disposal will allow you to reference off a second source which is crucial in analysing your mix-downs and masters to make sure they translate well on other devices.

Studio headphones are particularly good for checking the stereo field of a mix as well as the bass response. Both of which are difficult to do accurately if not in a properly treated studio environment.

If you are going to be recording from a condenser microphone it is essential that you use a pair of closed-back headphones to avoid any bleed into the microphone.

Why are studio headphones better than regular headphones?

This ultimately comes down to the sound character which is similar in the case of studio monitors vs hi-fi speakers. Headphones designed for casual listening and even DJ headphones are designed to hype up the sound that is being fed through them and to sound as good as possible for the listener. The sound is often exaggerated in the bass and high frequency range to achieve the most exciting sound possible.

Studio headphones on the other hand are engineered to reproduce the most accurate sound possible. This means you get none of the ‘exciting’ sound from regular overly bass driven headphones but rather a true representation of the sounds being fed through them with no added artifacts.

This of course is crucial when listening to your mixes as you want to hear the most accurate representation of your music, so if there are any issues you can fix them accordingly. For example, your track may sound amazing on a pair of regular headphones, the bass is punchy and the highs are crisp but when tested through a pair of studio headphones this isn’t the case, as in reality both the bass and highs of the track fall to pieces in the mix down.

What to look for in studio headphones?

Sennheiser HD 25 1-II Box
When you pick up a pair of studio headphones you be will greeted with the usual influx of fancy technical jargon on the box to let you know that you have made the best possible choice. Well, have you? Let’s break it down.

Frequency Response

Frequency Response Graph
This will tell you what range of frequencies the headphones will be able to cover. The low-end (bass frequencies) reading is represented by Hertz (Hz) and the high-end (treble frequencies) reading is represented in Kilohertz (kHz). The extent of human hearing ranges from 20Hz – 20000 Khz so it is important to make sure that this frequency range is covered above all others. Most studio headphones cover a much broader frequency range from 5Hz – 30 kHz.

Sound Pressure Level (SPL)

This represents the maximum output of the headphones in terms of volume loudness.

Impedance Ω

The higher the impedance the less noise there will be on the signal which means a much cleaner tone through the headphones which will make high impedance headphones the preferred choice for mixing applications. The trade off with this is that the headphones will be much quieter than lower impedance headphones as there is a higher level of resistance in the cable. This means certain audio interfaces and devices may not be powerful enough to drive these headphones. To solve this a headphone amplifier can be used to get the desired volume loudness.

Most headphones with low impedance (less than 25 ohms, approximately) require little power to deliver high audio levels. For example, low impedance headphones will work well with equipment with weak amplification like portable music players, phones, and other portable devices.

Open-Back Headphones vs Closed-Back Headphones

Open-back headphones allow air and sound to pass freely in and out of the headphone cups. Instead of the “in your head” experience that closed-back headphones provide, open-back headphones provide an “in the world around me” listening experience and offer a larger more realistic sound stage. These type of headphones however do not fare well in noisy environments as external sound is leaked into the cups which can interfere with the sound coming through the headphones. These type of headphones are not recommended for recording booths.

Closed-back headphones excel at isolating noise. The physical structure of the closed-back over-the-head design means there is often a big pad that cups your ear and an insulated shell of plastic or metal that covers your ears. Most closed-back over-the-ear headphones provide around 10dB of noise reduction. Once you plug the headphones in and turn up the music, the presence of the music combined with that light noise isolation does a pretty good job of, in most applications, dampening the sounds of the outside world and bringing the sounds of the music to the forefront.

Build Quality

It is important to get a pair that give you many years of use. Headphones such as the Sennheiser HD 25 1-II offer the advantage of replaceable parts. Every part of the headphone can be replaced if broken or faulty meaning you don’t need to fork out hundreds of dollars on a new pair if you blow out a cup, break the headband or snap the cable.

Comfort

Studio headphones are prone to long usage periods so comfort is an important factor to consider when looking around. Choosing a pair of headphones that fit your head and sit on your ears the way you want them to will ultimately affect the level of comfort you get out of them. When choosing headphones based on comfort it is important that you take the type of cups into consideration as this will determine how the headphones sit on your ears.

There are two types of headphones cups: circumaural headphones (over-the-ear headphones) and supra-aural headphones (on-ear headphones).

Over-the-Ear Headphones (Circumaural)

Pioneer HDJ 2000 MK2
Circumaural headphones cover the whole ear and fit the ear inside the cup thereby giving passive noise reduction/isolation (Pioneer HDJ 2000 MK2). The benefit of over-the-ear headphones offer a more effective means of blocking out outside noise. Many find these more comfortable than supra-aural headphones.

On-Ear Headphones (Supra-Aural)

Sennheiser HD 25 Aluminium
These headphones tend to place right on top of the ear and hence have less or no isolation (Sennheiser HD 25 1-II). The benefits of on-ear headphones offer a slight edge in portability and weight.

Conclusion

Choosing a pair of studio headphones should be much easier now that you understand how they work and what they’re good for. So what are you waiting for? Choose from our wide range of headphones available and perfect those mix downs and masters!

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