Having a pair of studio headphones is essential for producing any kind of quality music. Unfortunately, most home music producers have a limited budget with a long ‘needs’ list.
Therefore, choosing the best studio headphones that fits within your budget is essential.
Thankfully, picking a pair of headphones isn’t rocket science. We understand that many of you will want as much information as possible on the best studio headphones. For this reason, we’ve done our best to create a helpful resource you can use to guide your selection.
Note: if you are looking for headphones that are suited for DJing, we’ve written a similar post outlining your best options.
This post is intended to be an easy-to-follow, comprehensive guide to studio headphones. While there is a lot of information (and opinions) available, educating yourself on a few key features will make the selection process much easier.
We’ll first discuss these features and then provide you with a list of the best studio headphones in each budget category. We’ve done our best to make this as interesting and as easy to follow as possible. I hope you enjoy!
A Comprehensive Guide To Choosing The Right Studio Headphones
So why studio headphones?
As many of you will know, studio headphones are an essential piece of the recording chain. Their role is to reproduce the recorded audio as accurately as possible. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, and has thus led to a number of styles of headphones (we’ll discuss each in turn).
When wading through the weeds, try not to lose touch with the main principle: accuracy. Your headphones must reproduce your recording exactly as recorded. Anything less should be viewed as a compromise. Or put another way, headphones using too much frequency ‘makeup’ or ‘color’ are inferior in the studio.
If you haven’t had the chance to try studio headphones yet, you will likely be accustomed to consumer headphones. These headphones are designed for entertainment purposes.
They will have been designed to artificially enhance frequencies that are known to add ‘color’ to the recording – in effect, making them sound better to the average listener.
You may have heard this described as the ‘smile curve’ frequency response. Both the bass and the mid-to-high range frequencies will be boosted. You need to avoid this in your studio headphones (same principle holds for studio monitors). Ultimately, what you are looking for is what is known as the ‘flat‘ frequency response. No coloring, no boosting of any sort – only an accurate representation of your audio.
Essentially, the idea is if you can get your mix sounding great with a flat frequency response, it will pop when heard on consumer gear. This may lead to an initial spout of disappointment when putting your studio headphones on for the first time. You might consider them lacking in sound clarity and punch.
However, as your ears become more attuned, you will learn to hear the natural frequencies of your recordings. This is key to producing a professional sounding recording.
As previously mentioned, we have a number of incarnations of the studio headphones. Luckily for us, it’s pretty simple – there are essentially two categories: open back and closed back.
Open Back Headphones vs. Closed Back Headphones
Generally (although some opinions are starting to vary), open backed headphones are best for mixing, while closed backed headphones are best for recording (vocals, guitars etc.).
Why? What it comes down to is the sound waves within the ear muff.
When the sound waves enter the ear muff, they either have the option to exit (open backed) or they’re confined within the muff itself (closed back). The tendency for the sound to exit – or remain – within the headphone gives both styles of headphones their strengths (and weaknesses).
By allowing the sound wave to have an exit, the open backed headphones prevent any superposition of the sound waves within the cavity. This prevents any artificial boosting (or canceling) of the audio wave.
They will have an open and airy feel with a much wider sound. They are the ideal choice when searching for the most accurate headphone – thus used for mixing. Be cautious: they should only be used in quiet environments.
Because they are open, they let in any surrounding sound. This can be disastrous if you are trying to work in a loud environment. If you will be working in a quite studio by yourself, open backed headphones will be ideal if you are looking for the perfect sound.
If you will be recording any instruments while using the headphones, or if you will be trying to mix in a loud environment, you need the other standard: closed backed headphones.
Closed back headphones have generally be used for monitoring recording sessions when loud instruments have been playing, or where sound isolation has been key. Although, the general consensus has been shifting.
Closed back headphones are now being used for mixing purposes and as a do-it-all studio headphone. We suspect this is due to the improved technology, as well as the actual effect of pressure build up on sound fidelity being minimal.
We feel confident in saying that if you are unsure of which headphone style to pick up you can safely pick up a closed back headphone. Many mixing engineers feel that the technology of closed backed headphones has caught up enough for them to be competitively used for mixing.
They also will prevent any unwanted background noise from entering your headphones for recording and mixing.
This leads us to the second level category for headphones: on ear and over ear.
On Ear vs. Over Ear Studio Headphones
The styles of studio headphones can further be broken down into on ear headphones, and over ear headphones.
It’s as simple as it sounds – on ear headphones rest directly on your ear.
Whereas over ear headphones enclose your entire ear and rest the headphone padding against the side of your head.
The type of style has large implications for comfort and sound isolation.
- On Ear Headphones On ear headphones have the advantage of being compact and light. Unfortunately, to get any decent sound isolation they need to be pressing hard against your ears. From personal experience, this can be extremely annoying. It is very difficult to wear uncomfortable headphones for any length of time. Therefore, these are forced to make a comprise between good sound isolation and comfort. These also are considered to be more fashionable and are mostly used for consumer headphones. For studio headphones, we recommend over ear headphones.
- Over Ear HeadphonesLarger and more bulky, they are harder to transport around. Seeing as you are looking for a studio headphone, you most likely won’t be transporting them too often. This makes over ear headphones perfect for studio use. You will get the comfort as well as the increased sound isolation. We always recommend over ear headphones for studio use.
Further Considerations for Picking Your Studio Headphones
Now that you’ve got an initial grasp of the main purpose of a studio headphone and they basic styles available, you can start to narrow your search by making a few additional considerations. Once you’ve determined the headphone meets the main criteria for a studio headphone – a flat, accurate frequency response – begin to rank your options in the following order: budget, type, comfort, durability. We’ll discuss each below.
- BudgetIf you are anything like us, you are on a tight budget when it comes to gear. We add two items for every item we cross off. Hopefully by now you have realized that studio headphones are absolutely essential. They can be a great initial substitute for a monitor setup (ideally you will eventually do all your mixing using quality monitors). Likely saving you hundreds of dollars. But the cost of studio headphones still warrants a ton of research and thought. If you have been mixing with your earbuds, or computer speakers, picking up an entry level pair of studio headphones will make a huge difference. Luckily, this can be accomplished relatively painfully (around $100). If you are looking to upgrade, you can pick up some great quality studio headphones for around the $200 mark. The price of high end headphones increases from there.
- TypeMixing in a quite environment? Open backed headphones. Mixing and recording in loud environment? Closed backed headphones. Want to be able to listen to them outside the studio without annoying those around you? Closed backed headphones. Not sure about over ear vs on ear? We highly recommend over ear headphones for studio use. More comfortable with better sound isolation. Save your stylish Beats headphones for outside the studio.
- ComfortIf you are buying online there is no way to test the fit of the headphones. However, some headphones are known to excel at comfort. If you’re concerned, look for a headphone with comfortable padding that is known for easy wearing. If you are really concerned, head out and try some on before you pull the trigger. We’ve bought headphones before only to never use them because they were so uncomfortable to wear.
- DurabilityNot to be taken lightly. These will be an investment, and are a crucial part of your recording process. Ideally, your headphone will have replaceable parts. Therefore, if you accidentally snap the cable, or break the band, you can replace the individual part without having to replace the entire headphone. Having a durable headphone (the less plastic the better) will keep the headphone going for years, saving you the time and money of having to buy a new pair every few years.
Our Top Recommendations For The Best Studio Headphones
Below you will find a list our headphones that score high on all the criteria mentioned above. We have listed them in order of increasing price. We are happy to say there are two great entry level headphones if you are looking to pick up your first pair and don’t have hundreds of dollars to spare! Let’s dig in.
- Closed back
- Flat frequency response
- 9.8 ft coiled nondetachable chord
- Very affordable
A fantastic entry level studio headphone. These have been around forever. They are known for having an exceptionally flat response, which is exactly what you need. Best of all, they are under $100! They come with a coiled chord, which is convenient for moving around the studio. People have commented on their comfort and lightweight. One complaint would be the non-detachable cord, this is a pain if you break it.
They are also one of the most well reviewed headphones on Amazon with around 3716 positive. If you have been in the game long enough, you are familiar with the MDR7506. A headphone that has stuck around this long must have legs. Still not convinced?
Bottom Line: If you don’t want to spend over $100 but still want one of the best headphones this is it!
- Reasonably flat response
- Exceptional sound clarity
- 90 degree driver swivel
- Very comfortable
- Hugely popular
There is no getting around this, the ATH-M50x is the king of studio headphones. They are hugely popular. You’ll be surprised to find that the frequency response is not exactly flat. Despite this, they remain to be one of the most recommended studio headphones on the market. We suspect this is due to they comfort, driver swivel, and exceptional sound clarity. For whatever reason, everyone who puts these on ends up loving them.
They have many features going for them. The over ear design is incredibly comfortable and the driver swivel makes wearing and storing them very easy. Many people have mentioned the quality of the sound. It’s difficult to find another headphone with a sound so well received in this price bracket. The build is very sturdy and they are easy to carry around.
They also (unsurprisingly) have an astonishing number of positive reviews on Amazon. It’s difficult to dispute 3640 customers liking them enough to take the time to leave a review.
Something we don’t like is the proprietary cable technology. If you happen to run out of the three cables in the box (unlikely, but possible), you will end up spending money on getting replacements.
Audio-Technica has put out a few higher end studio headphones that have a truly flat response. We speculate these were designed for a more enjoyable listening experience, rather than a pure representation. If you are okay with that and are happy to own a set of headphones that everyone falls in love with, then pick some up!
Bottom Line: While not perfectly flat, the sound quality of these headphones is still exceptional. They are the most well received headphone on the market currently with a lot of features to fall in love with.
Sennheiser HD 280
- Flat frequency response
- Durable with individual replaceable parts
- Great sound isolation
- Great sound quality
- Driver swivel
It’s hard to make a list of the best headphones without including a Sennheiser. The HD280s are the main competition for the Sony MDR7506. Even though they are an entry level headphone, they are still a worthy studio headphone that we would be comfortable mixing with any day. They score well on the most important criteria: sound. They offer a reasonably flat response with a good separation of each frequency band.
A great feature of the HD 280 is the level of sound attenuation (sound isolation). If you are debating between the MDRs or the HD280 and you are going to be working in a loud environment, the HD 280s are the better choice. As usual with Sennheiser headphones the durability is top notch. We have known people to have these headphones for over 7 years and they are still going (with a few bumps and scratches). These will be a great gift to pass down to your grandchildren.
Sennheiser is always good for designing their headphone parts to be replaceable. This may save you a lot of money if your headphones do happen to break.
Bottom Line: These will be great for people looking for good sound quality with a flat response, and a lot of sound isolation.
- Semi-open, diffuse-field studio headphone
- Very flat frequency response
- Very comfortable
- Robust and replaceable
- 2 year warranty
Our highest rating of the bunch and one of the higher end headphones we recommend. The Beyerdynamic DT-880 have an interesting semi-open driver. It strikes a balance between allowing sound to diffuse through the driver, while blocking any surrounding background noise. This gives it a unique ‘open’ sound that is perfect for picking up the small details during your mixing. The main attraction of these headphones is the true flat frequency response. These are the most accurate headphone on our list. As such, they are one of our top recommendations.
These headphones are known for being extremely comfortable. They have big, soft, pillow ear pads. They sit nicely on your head and leave plenty of room for your ears. They have individual replaceable parts, which is an added bonus.
Take note: you will need to run these through a headphone amp if want the best quality from them. Which can be a pain if you don’t have one. You can pick one up for around $25.00.
Bottom Line: If you are looking for true accuracy, these Beyers are your headphones. They just happen to be extremely comfortable. A great choice!