Headphones are vital when you are recording music. At this point in my life I have probably spent more time wearing headphones than not. It doesn’t matter if you’re editing tracks in your room, recording new vocals for your latest YouTube video, or simply listening to your favorite artist. It makes sense to buy a pair of quality headphones for your home studio, but what are the best studio headphones? Are some headphones better for recording than others? What are the different types of headphones? Read on and I will answer those questions!
For those of you who just want the answer as quick as possible:
- The best studio headphones for mixing and mastering music are the $300 HiFiMan HE 400S.
- The best studio headphones for recording music are the $100 Sennheiser HD 280 Pro
- The best budget studio headphones are the $80 Sony MDR7506
Using Headphones vs Monitors
We all know that studio monitors are an important equipment to have to get professional mixes. So, why do you need headphones for your home studio?
The answer is that you need them for recording. When recording you obviously only want to record your instrument or singing right? If you have your monitors turned up while recording then your mic will pick up everything coming out of it. This can cause feedback, among other issues, and will not produce a good sounding track, so you will need to mute your monitors while recording.
You still need to hear what you are actually recording though, and that is why you need headphones. They act as your monitor.
While you can get away with recording without any type of monitor at all, and I do sometimes prefer to record this way, you are really limiting yourself. Usually when I record without my headphones I am just roughing out a song or instrumental part that will not actually be used in any finish song. Doing it this way feels more natural and I can focus on the creative part of my music, and not get caught up in making everything perfect.
When I am ready to make the actual song I will be publishing to YouTube though, I always record the vocals and each instrument on separate takes. This lets me focus on getting the guitar part perfect without worrying about hitting every note perfectly, and then later to give my best vocal performance even if I miss a note on the guitar. I can do multiple takes of each part until it is perfect.
When you produce music this way you can really create a lot of interesting layers with multiple instruments and vocal harmonies. Once I complete a layer I then run it through my headphones while recording the next. This is called “overdubbing”. It’s kind of the same thing as listening to a metronome or click track while recording.
If I didn’t mute my monitors and played the recorded layers or the click track over them, then my mic would pick them up and create all kinds of terrible noise on the recording.
On the other hand if you’re using your headphones to mix, then it is more important that you have very high quality sound. It’s less important that the headphone noise is completely isolated. Nice quality studio monitors are usually the best way to consistently get high quality mixes, but sometimes headphones are more practical.
What Are The Types of Headphones?
There are 3 types of studio headphones available and each one has its use in a home studio:
Open Back Studio Headphones
These headphones sit “on” the ear and do not enclose it. Open studio headphones generally give you the best sound. They reproduce the true sound of a recording and are similar to studio monitors. Open back headphones sound kind of like a concert hall and give a very “open” sound, mixing in a little of the ambient noise around you to making it seem like the sound is everywhere. The obvious downside is that the sound coming out of the headphones escapes into the world around you. If you are in your studio recording then your microphones will pick up the sound from your headphones and get recorded or cause feedback.
Open back are the best studio headphones for mixing and mastering tracks. They are also great for just listening to music. If you have an apartment with a lot of neighbors, open back headphones are a good alternative to monitors when mixing at 3am.
As the name implies the back of the headphones are closed to the world. Closed headphones (sometimes called “over the ear” headphones or circumaural) generally have a cup with a hard back that sits “over” your ear, completely enveloping it. The cups isolate you from any outside sound and vise versa. The music playing from your headphones will not be heard by anyone or anything but you. The downside to closed back headphones though is that they don’t give the best “true” sound, and they make it sound like the music is “in” your head instead of the open air sound you get from open back headphones.
Closed back are the best studio headphones when recording music. You can safely play a click track or previously recorded tracks to play by without your mics picking it up.
Semi-Open Back Studio Headphones
Semi-open back headphones claim to be the best both worlds. They supposedly give you better sound quality and the “open” sound of open back, and provide some sound isolation like closed back. For our purposes you can consider semi-open to be open. They do not fully isolate their noise from your microphones and will interfere with recording.
Semi-open back headphones are best used in the same settings as open back. Don’t worry about the term semi-open. If a semi-open headphone sounds and feels better to you than an open one, use the semi-open one.
What do I use?
90% of the time I use the industry favorite Sennheiser HD 280 Pro closed back headphones. They are very affordable and are used in just about every studio I have been in. They are lightweight, comfortable, ergonomic, and produce a great sound.
They completely isolate sound from escaping the headphones and any external sound from getting in. I put them on and I am in my own little world without distractions.
I have used the same pair of HD 280 Pro’s for over 8 years and they still work as well as the day I got them. About a year ago the ear pads and head band pad thing started to get worn and fall apart so I simply went on Amazon and ordered replacements. I popped them on and presto! Good as new. I can’t recommend them enough.
They are the best budget studio headphones out there. You can grab them on Amazon for about $100.
The best cheap studio headphones I know of are the Sony MDR7506. They go for about $80. I really wouldn’t consider any cheaper headphones as the quality really goes down quickly.
The other 10% of the time I wear a pair of HiFiMan HE 400S open back headphones I picked up a couple years ago. They sound great and do have a more “open” sound compared to the Sennheisers. I almost always use monitors to do my mixing, but when needed I pop on the HiFiMans.
Open back headphones that are the same quality as comparable closed back tend to be more expensive. This is the case for the HiFiMan HE 400S’ which go for around $300.
A quick video giving a great explanation of the difference between open and closed back headphones:
What are the best studio headphones? Well that depends, you have to consider the different types of headphones and what you are going to be using them for. If you are going to use them primarily for recording then you definitely want to get a pair of closed back headphones like the Sennheiser HD 280 Pros. If your studio setup doesn’t allow you to crank up your monitors when you need to mix your music, or you just prefer headphones for mixing, then you need an open back headphone like the HiFiMan HE 400S.
Put some thought into getting the right headphones, because if you’re anything like me then you will be spending more time wearing them than not!