The Best Studio Headphones: Ultimate Guide for 2017

the-best-studio-headphones-for-your-money

All you need to know to find the best studio headphones

In this ultimate guide you’ll learn everything you need to know about the best studio headphones on the market. Studio headphones let you cut down on noise for late night sessions, and closed back varieties will help prevent sound bleeding into your mic. 

In the old days Bose was popular with older generations—for millennials, Beats by Dre is now king.

But if you’re reading this, you already know that these brands just don’t cut it for professional use.

Now that you’re stepping into the pro gear arena you’re probably asking yourself:

Are studio headphones worth it? 

Or… 

Do studio headphones sound any different?

The answer is yes, and yes… most of the time.  Before we dive in, for quick suggestions on the most affordable sets, check out our easy reference table below.

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Here are the best studio headphones for your money:

PictureModelRatingPriceMore Info
audio-technica-ath-m50xAudio-Technica ATH-M50x                                      

Style: Closed Back
For: Recording & Mix Reference
Response: 15 Hz to 28 kHz
Comfort: High

(5.0 / 5) 5 Stars

Best value overall.

$$

Current Price

User Reviews
 Sony-MDR7506Sony MDR-7506

Style: Closed Back
For: Recording & Mix Reference
Response: 10 Hz to 20 kHz
Comfort: Medium

(4.8 / 5) 4++ Stars

Great for home studios.

Current Price

User Reviews
 beyerdynamic-dt-770-proBeyerdynamic DT-770

Style: Closed Back
For: Recording & Mix Reference
Response: 5 Hz to 35 kHz
Comfort: Medium

(4.8 / 5) 4++ Stars

Professionals swear by them.

$$

Current Price

User Reviews
 Sennheiser-HD-650Sennheiser HD 650

Style: Open Back
For: Mix Reference
Response: 10 Hz to 39.5 kHz
Comfort: Very High

(4.6 / 5) 4++ Stars

Incredible sound quality and comfort.

$$$$

Current Price

User Reviews
 beyerdynamic-dt-880Beyerdynamic DT 880

Style: Semi-Open Back
For: Mix Reference
Response: 5 Hz to 35 kHz
Comfort: Medium

(4.6 / 5) 4++ Stars

Painfully accurate.

Good for higher budget home studios.

$$$

Current Price

User Reviews
 sennheiser-hd-600Sennheiser HD 600

Style: Open Back
For: Mix Reference
Response: 12 Hz to 39 kHz
Comfort: Very High

(4.4 / 5) 4+ Stars

Fantastic sound quality and comfort.

$$

Current Price

User Reviews
 audio-technica-ath-m30xAudio-Technica ATH-M30x

Style: Closed Back
For: Recording
Response: 15 Hz to 22 kHz
Comfort: Medium

(4.2 / 5) 4+ Stars

Great for low budget studios.

$

Current Price

User Reviews

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The Differences and What You Need to Know

Recording studios use two very specific types of headphones, and each serves a very specific purpose.

linethe-first-type-are-open-back-headphones

(mainly used for mixing music)

These literally have open spaces on the outside of the headphone drivers which lets sound out. You’ll be able to single these out by the open spaces cut out from the driver housing on the frame. Open back headphones are amazing for mixing music, but are just one tool for your arsenal. 

Sennheiser-hd-650-driver-closeup

Closeup of the 650’s open back

Why would they design a headphone that lets sound out?

It’s designed that way to provide a more accurate, real world representation of the audio. When listening to an open back set of studio headphones you’ll notice the soundstage and stereo width is often better and more transparent. You’ll feel transported to the music vs just listening in.

However, by letting noise out, they also let noise in. So if your room is noisy you’ll be able to tell with open back cans. Keep this in mind for studios with loud CPU fans etc. Another thing to keep in mind is that the sound leakage can bleed into your mic if you’re recording tracks.

Because of the open air style of this type of headphone, bass will seem less pronounced because your ear is not kept behind a hard plastic shell trapping the soundwaves. For professional music mixing applications this isn’t really a drawback since we want accurate, not just pretty sounding headphones.

linethe-second-type-are-closed-back-headphones

(mainly used for recording tracks)

These are completely sealed on the outside of the headphone drivers. Almost 90% of headphones on the market are of the closed variety. Visually it will be easy to tell which headphone types are closed because you’re just looking for a solid backing like the following example:

dt-770-closed-back-closeup

Closeup of the DT 770 Pro’s closed back

Why use closed back if they are less accurate in sound staging?

By sealing the sounds in, your headphones are less likely to bleed audio into your microphone during recording takes. You also will hear less room noise if you have things like computer fans whirring in the background.

Closed back headphones can also be very useful for tweaking effects like reverb tails and delays—this is because the seal on your ears is essentially creating a nearly soundproof room. This ability to hear more can really help you make tweaks when you want to zero in on “hard to hear” items.

linesemi-open-headphones

(mainly used for mixing music, rarely recording) 

These are partially sealed on their outsides, which lets some sound out, and keeps some in. Semi-open varieties are primarily used for mixing music, though in a pinch they can be used for recording.

dt-880-semi-open-back

Closeup of the DT 880’s semi-open back

Why use semi-open if the other two options exist?

Semi-open headphones try to give studio owners the best of both worlds. Transparency with an open sound stage, while maintaining some level of isolation from outside noise (though far less isolation than closed backs).

This partially open back also improves perceived bass response as more of the sound waves are kept within the listening chamber before being let out of the headphone.

linefrequency-response-matters-when-choosing

When studio headphones are engineered, their creators have to balance accuracy, features, and comfort with the cost constraints provided to them. One important factor when deciding on which studio headphones to choose, is the overall frequency response. You’ll often see this displayed as a range under the product specs, e.g. the DT 770 Pro’s range is 5 Hz to 35 kHz.

All sound waves (including music) are made up of frequencies. They are measured in Hertz (Hz), the low end (where you hear bass) is generally anything below 200Hz. Your basslines, kick drums, and anything with a ton of low frequency information “lives” there.

This is one of the factors that separates the rock stars of audio from the poorly designed stuff. If you had really poor headphones that only went down to 400hz, then you’d be missing out on your entire bass range… thankfully I haven’t run into a pair that terrible yet.

Understanding These Frequency Ranges for Headphones

When it comes to selecting the best studio headphones, your low end response is incredibly important in order to have a more accurate picture of your music.

Some of the best headphones extend as low as 5hz. For home studio applications you want to make sure your headphones have a decent low end response range.

On the other end of the spectrum is your high end frequencies. This is best described as the “air”, and sheen, when it comes to sound. Hi-hats, cymbals, and many other instruments live in the upper ranges.

Scientists often mention that the human range of hearing only extends up to 20,000 Hz (20 kHz). Whether or not you want to argue that point, the frequencies above 20 kHz do affect the ones below them… because of physics and all that jazz ha. Won’t bore you with the details, but there’s a reason manufacturers go through the effort of extending headphones past 20,000 Hz—trust the engineers.

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What About Bluetooth Studio Headphones?

As tempting as it might be to go cordless when using headphones in the studio, I highly recommend that you do not use bluetooth studio headphones. Biggest reason is the latency or sound delay that is introduced when your wireless headphones tether with your computer.

This slight shift in time can reduce the accuracy of your judgements when recording, or your tweaks when mixing since your adjustments won’t show up until a short time after you make them.

With where technology is at today I’d say avoid these at all costs for your home studio.

linewhich-headphones-should-you-pick

 Which Headphones Should You Pick?

Rule number one for home studio owners is never buy gear you cannot afford to replace. Studio headphones take a heck of a beating from hours of daily use and abuse. Keep your budget at the top of your mind to make sure you’re buying the best studio headphones within your price range.

The order in the table above was a mix of considerations, from price to performance, function, and value. I’m going to distill things even further by offering my top three recommendations for professional uses.

linemy-top-3-best-picks-for-home-studio-owners

My top three best studio headphones for home studio owners:

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The Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro

If your primary focus is recording, and you have a higher budget; closed back headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT 770s are perfect. 

Recommendation-1-for-Best-Studio-Headphones

 

Soundstage:

For being a closed back headphone, it has a surprisingly large sound stage. This is for the most part because the drivers are enormous, and the physical space allocated for your ears within its interior chambers.

It’s difficult to put into words, but the size of the soundstage makes the stereo width seem less extreme. Sounds have more space to live, and the engineers have designed this headphone for accuracy over hyper-exaggerated width.

Frequency Response:

The Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pros have an astounding range of 5 Hz to 35,000 Hz. Many reference grade studio monitors don’t even extend that far. You’ll have not only a great, but accurate picture of what’s going on in your music.

Character:

The DT 770s have a uniquely recessed midrange… more accurately they have a more accurate midrange than what is typical for consumer headsets. Most headphone manufacturers hype the midrange frequencies in order to present things in a more “upfront” manner. A side effect of this “hyping” is that you get a headphone that won’t translate as uniformly to other listening systems. It takes some getting used to, to hear something accurate, but once you’ve adjusted yourself to it, few other headphones will compare.

Comfort:

It might surprise users that I place such importance on comfort when it comes to finding the best studio headphones. Comfort is incredibly important because studio professionals wear these things for ten plus hours a day. If your headset is weighing you down, if it clamps too tightly, or if it constantly slips, all of these things can impact your session. Many of the headphones on this list are circumaural, meaning they surround the ear completely, and that the ear pads rest on your skull instead of your ears.

The DT 770s are comfortable with a unique velour ear pads. If your studio is cooler, these are fantastic for keeping your ears warm, but in the summer months or in a warm studio they can be brutal. But you are an artist right? Function over comfort? 🙂

Mostly kidding. Thankfully Beyerdynamic have come out with an alternative set of leatherette ear pads for those who get too warm, you can find those here. An added benefit of the replacement pads is you’ll notice better isolation and improved bass response.

The Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pros are my number one pick because they can serve as a headphone mix reference, with all the utility of having a closed back. You can’t go wrong with these.

Note: Originally these were in the $200+ range, I’d say now would be the perfect time to get a pair before they go back up.

Click to see Current Price.

Click to see User Reviews.

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The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x

ath-m50x-closed-back-best-studio-headphones-recommendation-2

If your primary focus is recording, you cannot go wrong with closed back headphones like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x. With their lower cost, and well rounded set of features, they are perfect for budding artists on a budget.

Soundstage:

The ATH-M50xs have a more confined sound stage than the DT 770s. There are pros and cons to this, as with all decisions, there’s always an element of “give and take”. Having a narrower sound stage gives you more detail and precision, because sounds will seem closer to you. This can be great for judging punch, and transient behavior within a mix, but making small adjustments to the “position” of sounds within a mix can be more difficult. Subtlety in exchange for a more upfront and a “precise” sound.

Frequency Response:

The Audio-Technica ATH-M50xs have an great range of 15 Hz to 28,000 Hz. While they don’t extend as far in the low end as the DT 770’s they still offer plenty of bass.

Character:

The ATH-M50x has a clinical sound suitable for a wide range of genres. These hearken back to a golden era of studio headgear and are in the same arena as the Sony MDR-7506s but with a few extra benefits. You might find that the mids are more pronounced than what is typical for a studio headset. Multiple things contribute to this; a narrower soundstage, with slightly less bass extension contributes to this overall character, and “precise” sounding set of studio headphones. These would be perfect to complement a set of KRK studio monitors as they have a similar character.

Comfort:

Leather ear pads make for a very comfortable set of headphones. While the specs suggest that the ATH-M50xs are circumaural—they just barely make that classification. The pads while large do press slightly on the ears, leaning them towards the supra aural varieties. But it’s a minor detail. One of my favorite things about this set is how light they are. When you wear a pair of DT 770s, you’re essentially putting on a helicopter helmet ha. These comfortably differ from that experience and provide the best overall value for home studio owners.

Click to see Current Price.

Click to see User Reviews.

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The Sennheiser HD 650

 Sennheiser-HD650-best-studio-headphones-open-back-recommendation-3

If your primary focus is mixing music, and you have a higher budget, open back headphones like the Sennheiser HD 650s are the perfect choice. If mixing focused headphones were superheroes, the HD 650 would be Ironman. An army of them. With rocket launchers.

Soundstage:

Of all of the studio headphones covered in this ultimate guide, the Sennheiser HD 650 has one of the best soundstages. The largest contributor to this being the open backed design. Laid back and relaxed while still maintaining incredible detail and precision with sound placement. Note: A rare exception to the other headphones on the list in that this one will need a headphone amp to be driven most effectively. A FiiO K5 would be a great affordable pairing.

Frequency Response:

The Sennheiser HD 650 has an incredible range of 10 Hz to 39.5 kHz. While like the ATH-M50x it doesn’t extend as far down as the DT 770, it makes up for it with incredible character and unfatiguing detail. For those who enjoy nerding out with specs, the transducers are hand selected to be matched within ±1dB. This attention to detail ensures you’ll have a perfectly matched set of drivers.

Character:

The frequency response of this studio headphone is very well balanced. The bass has excellent extension, with accuracy that rivals most nearfield studio monitors. Given that these are open backed headphones this is to be expected without frequencies being trapped by the frame. The character of this headset can be described as mellow, and laid back, while maintaining precision and detailed warmth. The mid range is superbly revealing, and overall this studio headphone offers great separation. From a mixing standpoint it’s almost detailed to a fault, where you’re so aware of the finer details you forget the bigger picture. If there was one set of headphones I’d trust my mixes to translate on, it would be the HD 650s.

Comfort:

When you first put them on, the head pressure does feel firm, but within minutes you become adjusted and they no longer feel that way. Circumaural in design, the ear pads surround your ears completely. They’ve even used an acoustic silk for the ear pads that is designed to reduce total harmonic distortion. Not only are they comfortable, they are very easy on the ears from a fatiguing standpoint allowing you to work on your music for extended sessions.

Click to see Current Price.

Click to see User Reviews.

(Note: These will leak noise as they are completely open backed. Best for mixing, not recording.)

linefinal-advanced-tips-ohms-and-more

If you’re planning on spending several thousand dollars on your studio headgear then the following information will apply to you. Ω is the symbol for “ohms”, this is the measure of electrical resistance something has. Every single headphone has an ohm rating which will dictate how much electricity they need to play audio.

Ohms are a double edged sword, a higher rating means that the headphone is resistant to weak signals. This is good because it means that your headphone will take in less noise and electrical interference from outside sources, attempting to blend into the music.

However when you reach a certain ohm threshold (typically anything over 100 ohms) you’ll then need a headphone amplifier to power them. If you fail to obtain one for a high end set you’ll eventually burn out your drivers… the headphones will then be useless and not produce any sound. Speaking from experience here ha.

When I first started making music I didn’t realize this and destroyed a $350 set of 600 Ω ohm studio headphones. My situation was a rare fluke, but it’s just not worth the risk of underpowering your equipment. In truth, you don’t need this extreme of gear unless you’re a mastering engineer, which is why almost every recommendation on this list does not require a headphone amp.

The only exception for this list is the Sennheiser HD650 which sits at 300 Ω ohms. Should you get that headset I recommend a FiiO K5 as the headphone amp paired with it. If your audio interface’s manual states it can drive 300 Ω ohms then the amp is not necessary.

linewrapping up

 

Remember, rule number one for home studio owners is never buy gear you cannot afford to replace. Things break, fail, fall apart—don’t tie your career to a piece of gear.

Make sure you can afford to replace whatever you buy.

You finished another article, you’re officially a Smarter Rapper.
Thanks for reading, be sure to check out more of our articles!

 

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Author: J. Rogers

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