Pro headphones buying guide
How to choose the right headphones for your home recording studio
David Brown is a member of Crutchfield's Home A/V writing team. He studied writing and politics at Ithaca College in upstate New York, where he grew up. He spent 12 years in Washington, D.C., where he earned a Masters degree in journalism and wrote an award-winning humor column. David relocated to Charlottesville, VA, in 2012. He enjoys listening to music, playing the guitar and piano, and hiking with his wife and children.
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No matter where you are recording, good headphones are a necessity. They’re vital as you perform, so you can clearly hear backing tracks. You'll use them during the editing, mixing, and mastering processes to focus on the fine details of your recordings.
With so many kinds of headphones to choose from, which are the best for recording? Pro headphones are designed for studio applications, so they’re a great place to start. But they’re not the only headphones that have value in the recording process. Check out these tips for finding the right headphones for your studio and distribution systems for connecting headphones for multiple performers.
The right fit: around-the-ear headphones
Most recording musicians prefer large around-the-ear – or circumaural – headphones. Pro-style headphones typically feature this type of design for its noise isolation (the ability to keep external noise from leaking in). On-ear (supra-aural) headphones are less common in studio settings as they are less effective at isolating noise.
Also, around-the-ear headphones usually have thickly cushioned padding on the earcups. Comfortable earpads are an important factor when you consider you’re likely to spend long hours recording and mixing your music.
Open-back vs. closed-back
Closed-back headphones are usually preferred in recording settings for their noise isolation.
Anytime you’re recording using microphones, you have to be aware of noise. That’s why most pro headphones feature a closed-back design. This means that each earcup is completely sealed, so no noise leaks out into a live mic. They also improve noise isolation to keep external sound from leaking in, so you can concentrate on your performance. Open-back headphones do have one advantage over closed models: they usually offer more natural sound. Given the importance of hearing your music accurately, open headphones can be useful in some recording applications.
If you're having trouble deciding between open- and closed-back headphones, there is a compromise. Semi-open headphones allow a restricted amount of airflow through the earcup. This helps them deliver more natural sound while still offering deep bass response and minimal sond leakage. Here are our recommendations for when to use open or closed headphones:
- Vocals: open-backs are good for giving vocalists the most accurate reflection of their voice. Semi-open headphones are also a good choice for vocals.
- Drums: closed-backs are a must so drummers can hear the click track as well as other instruments.
- Guitar/bass/keys: closed is preferred to keep sound from bleeding into live mics.
- Mixing/Mastering: A high-quality open-back pair will give you the most accurate sound and allow you to hear all those details that end up in the final recording. But keep a pair of inexpensive earbuds around to hear how many of your listeners will likely experience the music.
- Solo production. If you’re creating music on your own without microphones, such as electronic music, open-back headphones are fine. Semi-open headphones are a good option if you're looking for a single pair of headphones for recording live instruments as well as mixing.
- Live Sound: A rugged pair of closed-back headphones are a must if you're mixing live sound. But performers demand a completely different type of headphone for monitoring sound. While many musicians use floor monitors, more and more are moving toward in-ear monitors. These are specialized (often custom-fit) in-ear headphones that offer high-quality sound, as well as excellent noise isolation. They allow performers to hear their own custom mix of the whole band as well as their own performance.
A high-quality pair of open-back headphones offer natural sound that's useful for recording vocals.
What about sound quality?
Obviously, you always want headphones to deliver the finest sound quality possible. But for pro audio, it’s not just about good sound, it’s about accurate sound. Your headphones need to reflect your music as it truly sounds. So while some consumer headphones may have tipped-up bass or treble response, studio headphones should have a flat or even frequency response. Also, better headphones will reveal more of the details in your music. This helps you determine what’s missing from your song and pinpoint what shouldn’t be there.
Other useful tips
If you’re shopping for a small home studio, it’s a good idea to purchase one set of open-back headphones and one pair of closed-back headphones. The former will give you incredible accuracy and natural sound for mixing and recording vocals, while the latter offers proper noise isolation for recording instrument tracks.
If you’re outfitting a project studio with multiple sets of headphones, you may want to experiment by purchasing different brand and models. Get at least one pair of open headphones along with several pairs of closed-back phones. Different musicians may prefer different fit-styles and sound signatures, so it’s helpful to offer a variety.
Many headphones are designed for portable devices and feature a 3.5mm plug. That’s fine if you’re plugging them into your smartphone, but many audio interfaces and headphone amps designed for music production require a 1/4” connection. Better to be safe and get an adapter if your headphones don’t come with one.
Protect your ears
When you’re using headphones in the studio, remember to be careful with your levels. You don’t want to surprise your eardrums (or anyone else’s) with a potentially damaging signal from a level that’s way too loud. Be sure to turn your headphone monitor’s level all the way down before you start playback or recording. Then you can gradually bring the level up to a comfortable volume. Also, don’t plug in or unplug components while wearing headphones. It’s easy to forget to drop the gain all the way down before doing this, and the resulting pops and clicks are more painful through headphones than they are through studio monitors.
Headphone amplifiers allow several performers to monitor signals from a mixing board or interface.
Headphone amplification and distribution
For small home studio setups, getting sound to your headphones is usually pretty simple. But as you add musicians and equipment, you’ll definitely need to purchase a headphone distribution system. These are headphone amplifiers with outputs for more than one pair of headphones. What kind you’ll need depends on how many people you’ll be recording with, along with other factors.
If you’re working solo at your computer, you’re likely going to be plugging your headphones into an audio interface or mixing board. This will usually be a 1/4” jack, though 1/8” minijack connections are becoming more common.
Most interfaces or mixers should provide enough amplification for a single pair of headphones. However, some pro headphones have high impedances, meaning they are less efficient than most consumer-grade models. This can have two effects:
- You won’t get the best sound quality from your headphones.
- You’ll have to increase the gain in your signal to make your headphones loud enough, thus potentially introducing noise into your recording.
A separate headphone distribution amplifier offers more robust amplification and better sound quality than some interfaces and mixers. Plus, they have connections for at least two pairs of headphones. While they can be useful with high-impedance headphones in solo work, they’re mostly used in studios that need to accommodate more than one performer.
If you’re working with multiple performers, you’ll definitely need some sort of headphone distribution system. This allows the signal to flow to multiple sets of headphones so all musicians can monitor their performance as well as hear any backing tracks and other musicians. These systems run from simple boxes with multiple headphone jacks to sophisticated systems with separate devices for each musician.
Basic headphone distribution
These are often small desktop boxes with inputs to accept a signal from a mixing board or interface. They usually offer two to six outputs for headphones and can include the following features:
- independent volume control for each headphone output
- tone controls (bass/treble)
- left/right panning
- mono/stereo switches
- LED level indicators
This diagram shows the connections for monitoring with headphones or studio monitors using the PreSonus HP4 amplifier (bottom) along with a computer audio interface (top). Up to four headphones can be connected to the HP4's front-panel 1/4" jacks (see preceding photo) while studio monitors can be connected to the rear-panel 1/4" outputs shown here.
If you’re putting together a simple home studio, it’s a good idea to get a couple of pairs of headphones and a basic distribution box so you can power headphones for two or three musicians to record duets and small combos. Project studios will need larger distribution systems with several sets of headphones to accommodate full bands. Proper monitoring ensures you’ll have happier musicians who are better able to deliver that killer performance you’re trying to capture.