Studio Headphones – a studio monitor’s sidekick

Why headphones for home recording?

Every studio should have a set of headphones. From the smallest project studio to the largest commercial production studio, they play an important role in helping engineers, producers and artists hear and judge the music they are making. 

Headphones (or cans, as they're sometimes called) have totally different sound than a set studio monitors. The whole audio spectrum is different, largely because of the distance from the speaker to your ear. Even near field monitors are 2-4 feet away, while heaphone speakers are less than 2 inches. 

Because of this the tonal qualities will be different. The music will sound "up there", or right at you. Because the speakers are right beside your ear, a track panned to center will seem to come from inside your head, not in front of you. 

By putting the sound so close to your ear, headphones will let you listen more critically to the mix. Some eliminate external sound, and they all let you listen to the more subtle dynamics and other possible background noises that might've been introduced during recording. 

Since the speakers are so close to your ears, the sound doesn't need to be nearly as loud as nearfield studio monitors. The cones are much smaller, like 1 or 2 inches instead of 5 to 8 inches. (Just imagine an 8 inch speaker mounted in a set of phones!) 

But by being smaller, the bass response is limited. They do well at covering it up and sounding good at the lower frequencies, but you will never get the bass you can "feel". I make up for that by leaving my monitors on so it fills out the low end, but doing the critical listening with the cans. 

There are many kinds of headphones available; we'll look briefly at a few:

  • Open back
  • Closed back
  • In ear
  • Wireless
  • Noise canceling

Audio Technica Headphones

Sennheiser Headphones

Open back headphones are just what they sound like - open backed. They leave room for room ambience or other sound to come in to the ear as well as the signal coming. That eliminates the need for saying "Huh?" everytime someone wants to tell you something. If you are doing overdubs, either with an instrument or vocally, open backs will let you hear what you are playing or singing live as well as the recorded materal. 

Closed back headphones are opposite of open back - they close off that area and isolate the ear from ambient noises. I prefer these for mixing, because nothing gets in - just what you want to listen to. But wearing closed backs for a long stretch is a little taxing to the ears - mine start to feel stifled and ready for a break after a while. 

In ear headphones come in two formats - earbuds or in ear monitoring. Earbuds generally don't seal out sound, but just half the distance of regular phones to your ear. These may be ok for iPods, but not for studio mixing and listening. 

In ear monitors are designed to seal off outside noise, like closed back headphones, but to a much larger degree. These are used on stage sometimes, in lieu of stage monitors. They are better suited to use on the stage rather than the studio. 

Wireless headphones are becoming wildly popular it seems. The concept is exciting - just put them on and forget about the cords! They are nice, but you won't find them in studios for the same reason you won't find wireless microphones - wireless just doesn't give you the sound quality of wired equipment. 

Noise canceling is a technology that senses the ambient noise and tries to add counter balancing white noise to make it seem that the ambient noise is not there. In my opinion, it just messes with the sound quality. It's a great idea for subways and airplanes, but a studio (even a small project studio) needs something more. 

So what are some good models to look for? I like the Audio Technica ATH-M40 Headphones. I own a pair of Audio Technica headphones, and really like the quality and build of them.

In the meantime, why don't you let me know which are your favorite headphones, and why. 

About the Author Lee Weaver

Lee started his career in recording with an auspicious goal - record tracks of his own voice singing in harmony. As a hobby project, it didn't have the funding to go to a studio and pay for someone to do it for him. Like many of you, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps to learn the art of recording.

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