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Best studio headphones : How to choose the best model for you

October 08, 2019 • 9 min read
The most important part of setting up your home recording studio is choosing the equipment, regardless of the stage you’re at, of being a seasoned producer or a newbie. Your studio headphones, for example, will prove to be loyal companions for all occasions. They help you mix better. Having the best studio headphones you can makes a huge difference when checking the quality of your mixing. The overall quality of your recording will also depend on it. Rather than just looking at the design, it’s fundamental to understand the technical requirements when choosing one. That’s why you need to know a few facts. 

Studio headphones in music production: the most important facts

  • Yes, you can make music with only a pair of headphones: but mixing and mastering exclusively with them isn’t recommended. Because of that, you should be using headphones as a reference, to compare results with the speakers. 
  • Just any headset won’t do: gaming headphones or the famous Beats aren’t fit for monitoring. That’s because they cheat. Certain frequencies, such as bass, are artificially enhanced. 
  • The idea is to get a “flat” headset: This refers to the same concept of “flat” used with the studio monitors. The sound produced by the ideal headset or earphone will be as faithful to the recorded sound as possible. 
  • It’s also a matter of taste: if you like the perception of a certain pair of headphones, no problem! As long as you’re comfortable and the results are good during tests, choose whatever you prefer.
  • Different types, different goals: we separate the best studio headphones in two categories: for mixing and for recording. We’ll be talking more about this later. 
  • Pay attention to the preamp impedance: although it’s hard to find the impedance details on the preamp, this piece of information is worth googling. Studio headphones with low impedance will “scream”. If the impedance is too high, the headphones will rely too much on the gains of the preamp. This can worsen the quality of your final product and even change its frequency response.
Let us, then, understand each point better.

The best studio headphones and earphones

You’re probably already aware of what these two designs are like, but just in case: your put earphones in your ears and headphones over your ears. Both of them are quite common nowadays. As it is inside your ear cavity, the earphone blocks external sounds. Headphones, on the other hand, completely cover your ear with its foam. This may lead you to think that the best studio headphones all block external noise as well. But that isn’t necessarily the case. There are three different types of headphones to wear on different occasions: closed-back, open-back, and semi-open. There are also two other headset designs, just so you know. They are the supra-aural headphones, a variation of the over-ear model, which presses against the ears to stay in place, and the on-ear headphones, which provides anatomic support.

Closed-backs give you the best studio headphones for recording

The closed-back models were designed with the intention of blocking interference. External noises don’t distract your hearing and no sound leaks to the outside either. It’s perfect for recording, as it monitors what is being recorded, but the microphone doesn’t pick up unwanted reflections. However, when dealing with mixing and mastering, they can be problematic. Wearing them, you’ll have no notion of ambiance. The sound is trapped between the headphones and the listener. There may even be pressure variation, fooling you about what you’re hearing. That’s why the closed-back model is perfect for recording and privacy. But they may betray you during the production process, so that you'll need to redo your work later on.
Closed-back headset example

The Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO gives the impression of complete isolation, preventing any sound from leaking or invading the listening space.

When you want to get a feel of the ambiance and produce some sound leakage, you may prefer an open-back or semi-open model.

Open and Semi-open backs give you the best studio headphones for mixing

They’re favorites among music producers and ideal for mixing. These kinds of headphones provide no barrier between its back structure and the external environment. So, there is leakage from the inside and interference or reflection from the outside. Obviously, open-back models offer more interaction than semi-open models, which may make a difference, especially if one’s home studio isn’t acoustically isolated. It’s worth noting that both of these designs are awful for listening to music in public. Others will hear what you’re listening to, and you’ll hear them complaining about it as well. But they’re great when you’re in the studio. Its greatest strength is the feeling of ambiance you get. With this, it’s much easier to mix something that sounds right in other devices. After all, making something that works only with your monitors isn’t worth much. Therefore, the open-back and semi-open models will work perfectly along with monitors or speakers. Just be careful with the proximity effect and pay attention to bass sounds. Reviewing your mix is crucial with or without them. But beware: since the electronic components are exposed, they’ll deteriorate faster. Be very kind to your headphones, so they won’t be easily damaged.
Shure SRH1840 Professional Pair of Studio Headphones

Shure SRH1840 Professional combines quality with ambience, providing interaction between environments.

Pay attention to the output impedance of the headphone jack

Like we said before, it’s important to bear in mind that every pair of headphones has its impedance rate established by the manufacturer. This happens , in part, because brands want you to buy their headset along with a preamp. But even if your headset and your preamp are from different brands, don’t worry. Just watch out for the details of each. Search the internet, check forums and get to know exactly what your preamp impedance is. When you know it, multiply that number by eight or ten. This means that the preamp can work with headphones within this value range. Important: Remember, we’re talking about the headphones preamp, okay? When referring to the audio interface, what you want to know is the output impedance of the headphone jack You should avoid having your headphones receive too strong a signal, stealing from what should be heard. The opposite is also bad. If the impedance is too high, there’ll be distortions when you play the file in other equipment. You’ll have to work with it with gains that are way too high. If you want to test it out, it’s quite simple. Just connect a high impedance headset (600Ω, for example) to a P2 cellphone jack. Notice how it sounds way too quiet, even in maximum volume.

Acoustic treatment is also important

If you’re mixing with headphones because you can’t afford studio monitors, it's quite alright. Since the monitors are a bit expensive, it's understandable to invest in the best studio headphones you can first. You should, however, arrange the environment to cancel out reflection and reduce echo. You don’t want the frequencies to clutter or the tracks to be too thin in your mix. So arrange your studio with the studio monitors you’ll surely have in the future in mind.

Size doesn't matter... It really doesn't

You may even distrust a small headset. After all, it’s difficult to believe that a small transducer is able to play the audio faithfully. But that is a mistake. Nowadays, small headphones are capable of playing powerful and resounding bass. What you should be paying attention to is the QTS parameter of the transducers. The lower the QTS, the greater the attack. The music will, however, sound “drier”. The higher the QTS is, the less controlled the components are, but the sound will be “smoother”. That’s why we can get nice bass even with small earphones. If the dimensions don’t support a dynamic transducer, the “balanced armatured drivers” will do. Considering this technical detail, remember that nothing would be better than trying out the headphones for yourself. Don’t just read the technical aspects, listen to your music with the best studio headphones you can find and see if they work for you. Bear in mind that's speaker theory - many manufacturers won't even reveal that parameter in their catalogs.

Some of the best studio headphones out there

You’ll be the one deciding which pair of studio headphones to use. However, it’s important to consider different opinions before making a decision. Let us talk about some of the favorite models of famous producers worldwide.

Audiotechnica M50X

Despite being a closed-back model, it’s one of the current favorites to mix with because of its almost completely flat frequency response and affordable price. (USD 90) Don’t be fooled when you apply effects to your mix or check the volume balance, though. It’s still a closed-back model, meaning it’s one dangerous reference. Give some love to the M40X along with it and you’re set.
M50X Audiotechnica, arguably one of the best studio headphones nowadays, in terms of cost-benefit.

Audiotechnica M-50X, a nice option for your first pair of headphones.

Sennheiser HD280 Pro

This is probably the most popular recording headset in the world. It’s a closed-back model with a very strong passive noise reducer, an attribute of its structure. Almost nothing escapes or invades the listening space. Just avoid using it when you’re mixing.
Sennheiser HD280 Pro, arguably one of the best studio headphones for recordings.

O Sennheiser HD280 Pro, a closed-back model made for recording.

Sony MDR-7506

The MDR-7506 is also a closed-back model. Many people like to record with it because it’s extremely comfortable. It’s a favorite for those who love Yamaha’s NS-10 monitors. These same sound engineers usually use it to check out mixes.
Sony MDR-7506 Pair of Studio Headphones

Sony MDR-7506, a favorite among the NS-10 lovers.

Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro

This one is an open-back model and it works wonderfully! The price is quite enticing and it delivers even more than it promises. The bass sounds are beautiful and the transducers offer a great range of frequencies. Maybe that’s why this one is so idolized among those who want to spend little and well.
Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro pair of studio headphones

Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro, the best cost-benefit opportunity.

AKG K240

This is a semi-open model. It’s really no wonder many producers are in love with it. With a perfectly anatomic structure, it works well for mixes and recordings. It’s considered one of the best studio headphones regarding versatility and comfort. And the best part - it only costs around $100USD.
AKG K240 pair of studio headphones

AKG K240, a unique model.


Many advantages come with having a good pair of headphones in your studio. The trick is to use them as a reference or for mixing. You only need to think wisely about which model to choose. Be mindful of its characteristics, if it’s open, closed or semi-open. Pay attention to impedance, so you won’t exaggerate or lose important frequencies. And, finally, trust your hearing. No one else is better prepared to turn your work into the best it can be than you.
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