Guide to Picking the Right Headphones For Your Studio
You definitely want to have a nice set of headphones for tracking and mixing. With all of the hours that you’re going to use headphones, it’s arguably one of the pieces of audio equipment that you’re going to get the most use out of.
I’ve had a few of them over the years and they’ve run the gamut from great to terrible. I’ve recorded in studios where the headphones felt like they were made out of cardboard and sandpaper after 3 hours, and I’ve used headphones that felt like they were made out of clouds.
I hope that my personal experience will help you to choose the right headphones for you.
How Much Do Studio Headphones Cost?
There is a sweet spot between $99-$300 when it comes to studio headphones. Anything cheaper than that is usually made of flimsy materials that feel like garbage and fall apart. When it comes to something like headphones, they need to be sturdy and hold up.
Headphones over $300 are rarely worth the expense. You might think that better headphones will result in a better mix, but the truth is that you shouldn’t rely on headphones to mix in the first place—that’s what your monitors are for. If money isn’t an object, go ahead and buy a set of $600 headphones, but they aren’t going to result in a better recording.
There Are Two Types of Headphones Used in Music Production
Open-back headphones are typically used for listening to your mix but not tracking. As the name insinuates, their open design provides better listening quality, but allows for sound to escape.
These tend to get into the audiophile range and are a significant step up from the Beats by Dre that you wore in high school. If you have to mix with headphones, this is what you want to get.
The last thing you want is for your cans to get rerecorded by a sensitive mic as you’re laying down vocals or recording an acoustic instrument. I remember hearing an audible “beep” from a metronome in a song by Christina Aguilera a few years back; I can only imagine the fury of the mixing engineer when he came across that little Easter Egg.
Closed-back headphones offer isolation, which also means not as good sound. If you’re recording vocals or an acoustic instrument, this is what you want to use. If you’re an EDM musician that won’t be tracking any acoustic instruments or vocals, get yourself some open-back headphones, which are certain to sound better.
What Are the Best Closed-Back Headphones for Tracking Vocals?
I’ve owned a lot of headphones over the years. I’ve either owned or used all of these on a session before.
I’m not going to list these in any order, but I am going to say what I do and don’t like about each one.
One more thing: assume that all of them sound great. I wouldn’t include them on the list if they didn’t; the idea is to help you to find the headphones that fit your budget and have all of the features that you want.
There are basically three types of closed-back headphones that everyone uses:
Sennheiser HD280 Pro
I walked into Guitar Center to buy Sony MDR-7506 headphones around 12 years ago. They were the only type of headphone that I had ever recorded with and I knew that they were used in studios all over the world.
The salesperson said to me “the MDRs are industry-standard and they’re great. Before you get them, try on the Sennheisers and compare them to the MDRs.”
I walked out with a pair of Sennheiser HD280 Pro headphones.
They sounded great, but I woundn’t say that they sounded any better than the MDRs. They were just sooo comfortable. With all of the hours that I knew I would spend with those headphones on, I needed them to be comfortable, and they were a dream.
Maybe I have big ears or an odd-shaped head, but I didn’t find the MDRs to be as comfortable. The HD280 Pro has cups that go around your ear, while every other set of headphones sit on top of them. I can’t imagine having my ears mashed into my head for a 3-4 hour recording session, so I’ve used this model ever since.
One other thing—I still have those headphones that I bought so many years ago. I did have to change the pads, but they are still as good as new.
There is a reason that every studio has these headphones.
The isolation is great and they sound great.
If it hadn’t been for a salesperson at Guitar Center in the mid 2000s, I’d probably have a few pairs of them in my house still. As I said in the previous section, I don’t think that they’re as comfortable as the HD280, but I imagine there are people that disagree.
You can’t go wrong with these or the HD280. If you have smaller ears than me, these will wrap around your ears more snugly than the Sennheisers. Unfortunately, I needed the extra space to get these wings in there.
Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro
The MDR-7506 and HD280 are nice, comfortable, affordable, and they get the job done well.
You can just look at the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro and see that they are more comfortable and luxurious set of tracking headphones. They are really nice, really comfortable, but cost a bit more. If you’re not on a tight budget, you should really consider checking these out.
Focus On Comfort When Buying Headphones for Tracking Vocals
All 3 of these headphones sound fantastic. Choosing one vs. the others is not going to have any sort of discernible impact on your recordings and you will not have any trouble hearing your backing tracks regardless of the model that you choose.
Unless you have some seriously intense sound isolation requirements, all of them should do a decent job of minimizing bleed into your microphone as you track.
Neither sound isolation or sound quality should be the deciding factor when making a choice of closed-back headphones for tracking: comfort should be the deciding factor.
Given that a recording session can last hours and hours, there’s a good chance that you’re going to have these headphones on for 3+ hours at a time. Pick the ones that are the most comfortable. I’ve experienced the discomfort of have uncomfortable headphones on for 5 hours straight, and if you’re going to spend $100+ dollars on a new set of cans, you don’t want them to crush your ears.
The Shape of the Padding Makes a Difference
I’ve tried on all three of these headphones and I own the HD280.
Here are pictures of all three:
As you can see, the shapes of all three vary quite a bit. I’d say that without a doubt, this is the order of comfort for these headphones
- Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro – By far the most comfortable. They have a plush, soft foam that fits over the ear. I would have no problem wearing these 6+ hours.
- Sennheiser HD280 – Comfortable, but not as much so as the Beyerdynamic. The foam cups around your ear, as does the Beyerdynamic, as opposed to sitting on top of your ear and squeezing it against your head.
- Sony MDR-7506- Sounded good, but not very comfortable. I wouldn’t look forward to wearing these for 4+ hours.