Choosing Studio HeadphonesMarch 07, 2012
So you have spent months reading about and testing out different digital audio workstations. You have spent endless hours on forums and websites trying to decide what monitors you should use in your studio. But for most of us choosing headphones to use in our studio's seems to require a lot less thought and planning. Why is it that a great number of us that have home studios put very little thought into what kind of headphones we decide to use in them? Hopefully after this week's article you will look at headphones differently and see the importance of this valuable studio tool.
I was recently asked by a friend to help paint his home studio. I agreed to help my friend out as he always has some goodies lying around that he is willing to depart with. I was also interested in the soundproofing paint we would be applying for possible use in my own studio, so I made the three hour drive. The painting job went will and as we were putting everything back into his studio, I came across an open box of headphones. There must have been about 10 to 20 pairs of cheap, junk headphones in there.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Oh, that is just all my headphones.” he said.
“Yeah but these are all cheap pairs of headphones in here. How come?” I questioned.
“I only use headphones to check out what my mix sounds like in them,” he said sarcastically. “They are cheap and that is what most people are listening to music on anyway...cheap headphones! When they break I those them in there.”
STYLES OF HEADPHONES
With all the money my friend spent on these cheap headphones he could have brought a decent pair that would last him awhile instead. It is good to check your mixes with headphones to see how they translate on cans, but there are so many more uses for them in the studio besides this. So let's take a closer look at the different styles of headphones you may want to use.
There are lots of different types of headphones and earphones around like, noise canceling, wireless, ear buds, etc. But for use in the studio most professionals use an around the ear type headphone (also called circumaural ). This type of headphone is made up of two large full size earcups. They come in a open back or a closed back style (there is also a semi-open version if you prefer).
Open Back – An open back style gives you the most natural sound. But since it has an open design it will pick up some outside noise. Also this style is not great for recording because of the headphone bleed that you are likely to get with them being open. However an open back headphone is really great for hearing the balance of a mix. When it comes to critical listening of your mix, a good pair of open backs are hard to beat.
Closed Back – This style of headphone is quite the opposite of the above. Where the open back allows you to hear what's around you the close back's job is to isolate you from the outside world so you hear the sound coming from the headphones not what is around you. Closed back headphones (also known as sealed headphones) allow for better concentration and limited sound leaking. They won't block out all the outside noises like sound canceling headphones will, but they still do a good job of taking care of most unwanted noises. Closed back headphones are used by artist, dj's, sound engineers and producers alike. Closed back headphones tend to sound more bassier especially in the low end models. I think this is due to the sound being isolated directly to the ear not because a closed back headphone handles the low end any better. This in my opinion is more decided by the headphone itself and not the type of headphone it is. It is important to read the specs on a model to see it's true frequency range to get a better idea of how the low end will be handled.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
When will talk about studio headphones we have good ones, bad ones and real ugly ones that you wish you hadn't spent your money on. The pricing of these headphones falls into five general categories.
Low end – generally headphones under $100 USD
Mid low end – generally headphones from $100 to $300 USD
Mid level – generally headphones with a price range of $300 to $500 USD
Professional grade – generally headphones in the $500 to $1000 USD range.
High end – these are cans (just another name for headphones) priced over $1000 USD
Please take this list as a generalization and not the gospel. This does not mean that you will only find professional headphones in the $500 to $1000 range or that there are no decent cans under $100. There is a lot of bleed over from one grade to the next when it comes to headphones. It is important to note that there is good, bad and ugly in just about every category. I won't list the names of the headphones that I think are in the ugly categories, but instead I will say that there are some very good cans in every price range.
WHY DO YOU NEED HEADPHONES ANYWAY?
When it comes to using cans in the studio there are many task that without a good pair of headphones would be pretty tough to do. If you record for example it is tough to do without a good pair of closed back headphones. If you use headphones to check your mix then you need headphones that are flat in their response. Different cans will do different things for you so you may need more than one pair in your studio. But one good pair of headphones is a great start.
To start with you need to know what you are going to be using your headphones for. Will you be using them for mostly recording, mixing, checking finished mixes or what? Once you answer this question then you will have better idea of what type of cans to buy for your situation.
So let's say that you are looking for headphones to mix with. I personally do not recommend mixing on headphones at all, but if you are going to then I would recommend a headphone room simulation software. Simulation software is designed to emulate a room as it would sound with certain speakers in that room. This is a great tool for mixing on the go. With this software and a laptop you can mix anywhere that you are. I must admit that I do start mixes in the park during the summertime with simulation software and it comes in handy if I am out of town and need to whip up something in the hotel room. There are several different brands of room simulation software on the market so if you are interested do your homework first. Most take a long time to set up as it is listener dependent. Meaning it needs to be set up to work with each individual user.
I use Focusrite's VRM Box which you can get under $100 USD
Here is a link to their website for more information: http://www.focusrite.com/products/audio_interfaces/vrm_box/
DON'T FORGET THE AMP
Headphone amps are a must have unless you are going to be going directly into a hardware console or something with built in amplification. Headphone amps come in multiple channels, styles and prices. It is a really good idea to read up on these before you buy one as there are some very good ones and there is some garbage out there too. Some that make your headphones sound worst when ran through it then without as far as amplification goes. There are some that are as low as $20 USD, but for the most part a decent one will run you about $100 USD.
You can keep using those cheap headphones that you got free with a tank of gas or you can step your game up and get some professional sounding cans. Just keep in mind that not all headphones sound the same and more money does not always equal better headphones, so it is important to check them out to see what works for you and your situation.
Here are some key to remember when it comes to headphones;
Response - You want them to have a flat sound response.
Comfort - They need to be comfortable to wear for long periods of time if necessary.
Cord - The cord length is important if you do a lot of moving around in your studio.
Style – Yes the style! You don't want to wear pink with purple dot headphones do you?
You should choose your headphones the same way you would monitors. That would be to do your research, ask questions and take a listen for yourself.
Stay tuned for more weekly tips and tutorials every Wednesday.
Article written by Alex Butler
Alex is an audio engineer, studio producer and freelance writer based out of Seattle, WA.