Having the best recording studio headphones are an essential part of the recording engineer’s tool kit. A must have for tracking, they allow musicians to hear themselves and the accompanying music while preventing unwanted sounds to enter the microphones.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say I’m recording an acoustic guitar track. In many situations, the other instruments have already been recorded and I will have to hear them played back as I play along and record my parts.
This process is called overdubbing. I need to be able to hear the drums, bass, other guitars, keyboards, and vocals but I only want my microphones to pick up the sound of my guitar.
If I used speakers for playback, I would end up recording my guitar as well as the playback coming through the speakers. That would result in a terrible recording.
After all, the engineer just wants to capture my acoustic guitar. Even if everyone is recording at the same time in the same room, headphones are still essential for allowing the musicians to hear themselves and hear the overall mix in a way that allows them to play at their best.
The best recording studio headphones are over ear designs
This allows for isolation of outside sounds, less leakage of sound from the headphones into the microphones, better frequency response, and more overall volume.
Over ear phones are also comfortable to wear for long periods of time. This is important because you’re often wearing them for hours at a time, sometimes entire days. It’s also important to have a smooth and balanced sound that won’t tire your ears.
Studio headphones serve two basic purposes
Tracking – Recording Stage
The first is tracking, which is the recording stage mentioned above. Tracking headphones are usually closed back or semi-open designs which keep the sound from bleeding into the mics and also keep outside noises out.
Drummers prefer closed back headphones as drums are loud and isolation is required in order to hear the music they are playing to.
If you’re tracking anything quiet, such as acoustic guitars, strings, or softer vocals, a closed back or semi-open headphone specifically designed for recording is preferable. Open backed designs give you too much bleed.
Monitoring – Listening to music after it is recorded
Many engineers like to listen on headphones because they allow the mix to be heard in a different way. Sometimes you can hear clicks, pops, mouth noises, and other imperfections better on headphones than through studio monitors.
Headphones also allow you to take the room out of the equation. Every room has a sound. Some are acoustically dead, while others are live sounding. Listening through a quality set of headphones allows you to hear the sound of the recording without the sound of the playback room.
While professional studios are specifically designed to be well balanced, home studios often lack this trait. Therefore, a good set of studio headphones is helpful for hearing the music as it truly is.
For these purposes, open backed or semi-open headphones are often a great choice.
Open backed headphones sound more, well, open. They breathe more than closed back designs and give you a clearer, fuller sound. Since bleed into microphones isn’t an issue at this stage, open backed models are often preferable as they are designed to give engineers the clearest most accurate sound possible.
A great service for checking the audio quality of headphones is Audio Check, click here for more information.
Whether you are a professional engineer, a home recording enthusiast or a professional DJ, there are many excellent headphone choices in every price range.
Among the best models on the market, these are the top 5 I recommend:
The 5 Best Headphones for Mixing and Monitoring
We hope this article has given you some helpful information to guide you in your search for the best recording studio headphones for you. Regardless of your budget, we are confident you can find the right set to fit your needs.
Audio-Technica ATH-M20x Closed-back Monitoring Headphones ($$)
The most affordable set in this review, the Audio-Technica ATM-M20X has a sound which rivals models twice its price.
Featuring a 40mm neodymium magnet driver, these headphones have a surprisingly accurate frequency response and rock solid bass, especially considering their price range.
The closed-back over-ear design gives you excellent isolation while allowing minimal bleed, making them perfect for tracking. They are ultra-comfortable to wear and will not get tiring during long sessions.
A long ten foot chord gives you plenty of room to move. I also like this model’s durable design.
You can tell that this is a pair that’s going to last. This is important in the studio, as headphones get taken off and put back on over and over. They also tend to get dropped, stepped on, and jerked around. You simply can’t afford to have a weak pair of headphones in the studio.
Overall, this is a great set, especially considering the low price. If you’re on a tight budget or are just getting started in recording, this excellent set will certainly get you going and give you reliable performance for many long sessions to come.
AKG K240 Pro Studio Headphones ($$)
AKG K240s have been a studio staple for over twenty years. In fact, I bought a pair new in the late 90s and they are still working great to this day.
This headphone sounds amazing, with an incredibly wide dynamic range, beautiful stereo image, and an open sound that really lets you hear the details.
When you listen to music through this headphone you hear things you never heard before. You might notice another guitar tucked low in the mix or a keyboard part that you never heard in your car. That’s the kind of detail these headphones are famous for.
The K240’s semi-open design is the ultimate balance between the qualities of closed back and open back headphones. You hear the smooth open sound, tight low end, clear midrange, and smooth, accurate high end detail of a superior open backed design. Plus, you get the excellent isolation and minimal bleed of a closed back design. This makes them great for tracking, monitoring, and mixing.
This set is also incredibly comfortable, with a sound that doesn’t tire your ears. I’ve spent many, many days with K240s on my head.
The only downside with this headphone is that it doesn’t get incredibly loud. For the vast majority of tracking duties, it will excel and provide more than enough output.
The only issues I’ve had are really loud drummers and guitarists who have to crank their headphones to 11 in order to hear themselves. If you’re in this situation, a fully closed back headphone might be a better choice.
Another thing I love about these headphones is how great they sound at low volume.
Some models just don’t take low volume well. These do and that saves your ears from fatigue, which allows you to work longer and more effectively. I also love to listen to music on the K240s, whether through my studio system or just on my phone. They bring the best out of everything. If my K240s weren’t so big, I would carry them to the gym, on my lunch break, and practically everywhere else.
These are also durable studio headphones. Like I said, I’ve had mine for almost twenty years. But in the event that an ear pad wears out, breaks, or you get a short in the cable, replacements are available and easy to install. This lets me know that AKG really expects their headphones to last for a long, long time.
Shure SRH440 Closed-back Headphones ($$)
Well, this is headphone I reach for in that situation.
The fully closed back SRH440 is a great sounding closed back headphone with superior isolation and minimal bleed. Drummers love this model as it allows them to hear what they are playing to, as well as hear the sound of their drums through the mics, offering all the gain anyone could ever need. Not just loud, these are great sounding closed back headphones.
While not as open sounding as fully open backed or semi-open designs, the SRH440 has a flat, accurate low end, a well-balanced midrange, and accurate highs that are clear and not hyped.
Studio headphones really shouldn’t have hyped sound, such as boosted bass or highs. They should be as flat as possible and these are flat, especially for a closed back design in this price range.
Even though hyped speakers may sound better to your ears, working in the recording studio requires the ability to hear what the tracks really sound like. This allows you to craft your mixes to sound good through many different playback systems, speakers, and headphones.
These studio headphone has soft cushy ear foam that is comfortable enough to wear for hours. A folding design makes it both portable and easy to store. It also sounds good at low volumes, which is an important factor for me. I want to be able to listen for hours without ear fatigue. When my ears get tired, I can’t do my best work.
Another great feature is that like the AKG K240, the ear cups and cable are replaceable.
It’s built tough and is rugged enough to handle most situations, but in the event an accident occurs, your headphones can be back up in running in minutes. The SRH440s come with a handy, protective carrying bag.
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro 250 ohm Open-back Studio Headphones ($$$)
The DT 770 is closed back and perfect for tracking and on stage applications; the DT 880 is semi-open and great for monitoring, mastering, and mixing; the DT 990 is built for critical listening.
The DT 990 is open backed and therefore, not ideal for most tracking applications, at least not tracking through microphones. It is ideal, however, for monitoring, mixing, and mastering.
This is a model that will let you hear everything. If you record with synths, soft synths, or mainly do MIDI programing, this is a perfect set for you. It has an incredibly flat frequency response which extends above and below the range of human hearing. The bass is tight and clear, not boosted or hyped, but just as it should be heard. The mids are clean and clear with plenty of definition and an overall smooth sound. Like the lows, the highs aren’t hyped but are nonetheless crystal clear and silky.
The open backed design makes you forget you are listening through headphones, with none of the “band in your head” feeling you get from most closed back designs. The sound is best described as full, open, and 3D, with lots of depth.
I love a set of headphones that provides depth where some instruments seem closer, others seem farther back, and you can really here the details of the recording space.
Ultra-comfortable, the DT 990 can be worn and listened to for hours on end without fatigue. Although expertly engineered and durable, if an accident happens, all of the parts are replaceable.
If you’re a mixing engineer you will love how well mixes done on these headphones translate to other systems. With many headphones, you create a mix and then listen to it in your car or on another speaker system and it sounds dramatically different.
If the low end in the phones is hyped, for example, your mix will sound weak in your car because you didn’t add enough bass. If the high end is hyped, your mix will lack clarity on other systems. If the midrange is wrong, your mix will sound muddy. The DT 990 Pro allows you to mix and monitor with confidence.
Avantone Pro MP1 Mixphones Multi-mode Reference Headphones with Vari-Voice ($$$)
The truth is, few of us listen to albums on speakers of the same quality as those available in a world class recording studio. Because of this, engineers like to check their mixes on small, “real world” speakers such as Auratones that give them a better idea of how the mix will sound to the average consumer.
After all, we want our music to sound good to everyone.
Unfortunately, Auratones were discontinued and unavailable on the market for many years, with engineers paying big bucks for vintage pairs.
Avantone stepped in and created their own versions of the classic Auratones, called Mix Cubes, to give modern studio users a new real world reference. Now Avantone has brought the sound of their popular Mix Cubes to headphone users.
The Avantone Pro MP1s feature Vari-Voice technology which allows the headphones to function in stereo, in mono, and in a unique Mix Mode which emulates the real world midrange qualities of the Mix Cube speakers.
Smaller speakers like Auratones and Mix Cubes have a midrange emphasis. They don’t have high highs or low lows. This is important because midrange is really the critical part of the recording, the part you have to get right, and a part that’s easy to get wrong.
Listening in Mix Mode really helps with balances. It also allows you to hear how much midrange information is in your kick drum and bass. This is important because while kick and bass may sound massive on a pro system or through a sub, it may almost disappear when listening on an average speaker system.
Mix Mode will help you make sure your mixes translate to every system, whether in a car, on a portable music player, or on a pro level system. Having the ability to do this without switching phones or switching over to a different set of speakers is an invaluable tool I know mix engineers will love.
It’s been a long time since a studio headphone has come out with a new, original idea. If you love Auratones or Mix Cubes, you will love having this option available in your headphones.
When Mix Mode is turned off, the Pro MP1 has a great sound with a smooth, even frequency response comparable to many top studio models. In this mode they are great for both monitoring and tracking. Their closed back design ensures that there is minimal leakage to microphones.
They are well built and rugged, for years of dependable use. If you are looking for a reference pair of headphones with the ability to check your mix on a “real world” sounding speaker, this is the perfect set for you.