Best Headphones for Music Production
A good pair of headphones can be a key part to any producer’s gear collection. Headphones are useful in music production during the mixing and mastering stages. They can provide the listener with a second reference to compliment a pair of studio monitors. They are also useful to vocalists and instrumentalists during recording and tracking. In this guide, we’ll go over how dynamic (moving-coil) headphones work, their advantages and specific applications, and finally cover the best headphones for music production in 2019.
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Last Update: November 6th, 2019
In a Hurry? Here’s Our Top 3
10 of the Best Headphones for Music Production
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (Best Headphones for Music Production – Budget)
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro – 250 Ohm
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro – 250 Ohm
Sennheiser HD 650 (Best Headphones for Music Production – Mid range)
Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro
Sennheiser HD 800 S (Best Headphones for Music Production – High-end)
Best Headphones for Music Production Buying Guide
As a second reference, studio headphones have several advantages over a second pair of studio monitors:
- Room and desk space can be precious. They can provide a second reference without taking up as much additional real estate as a second pair of monitors.
- Can be portable – on-the-go music production is a great capability to have
- Noise attenuation (or elimination) regardless of outside environment. Room acoustics and background noise play less of a role when you’re mixing with closed headphones
- Good for checking panning settings
- Closed-back headphones eliminate feedback when recording
- Very low noise when mixing – your neighbors will love you for this.
- Can only be used for limited amounts of time do to ear fatigue and soreness
- Low-end response can be inaccurate in cheaper models
- Stereo imaging is limited with closed headphones.
- Not advised for an entire mix – headphones should be used mainly to reference something made with studio monitors!
How Do Dynamic Headphones Work?
Dynamic or moving-coil headphones are just a pair of electrostatic transducers, so basically small speakers that are mounted to your ears! Like speakers, they convert an electrical signal into sound.
Each side contains a permanent magnet mounted to the frame. A coil of wires called the voice coil is suspended in the magnet’s magnetic field by a diaphragm. The as the electrical signal is passed through the coil, it creates an induced magnetic field that reacts with the permanent magnetic field to move the diaphragm. The movement displaces air and creates sound.
What Goes Into Making the Best Headphones for Music Production?
Headphone design has many factors and variables that need to be considered when making a purchase. Below is a list of some of these factors and a description of what they are.
Build Quality & Materials
Padding material should be comfortable, durable, and easy and inexpensive to replace. Padding thickness should be thick enough to create an acoustic barrier between the listeners ears and the surrounding environment. The best padding material is memory foam. It molds to the wearers head, providing comfort. It is excellent for noise isolation and inexpensive to replace.
The padding should also be covered in a durable, but comfortable material. The ear cups experience the most wear, so leather is a common choice. However, it can get uncomfortable if the wearer begins to sweat. Some other common materials are velour, alcantara, and lamb skin. Alcantara is a nice synthetic material commonly found in luxury car interiors. It’s the best choice here.
Cable conductors should ideally be balanced and shielded from radio-frequency radiation and noise interference. This prevents any electromagnetic interference from distorting the sound. Conductors should also be made of copper. Oxygen-free copper (OFC) is more of a marketing gimmick than anything, and doesn’t significantly effect conductance, so therefore it isn’t necessary.
Replaceable and removable cables are preferable. Some headphones come with several types of cables which can be swapped out depending on the situation at hand. If you’ll be monitoring far away from the output source, a coiled cable may be the choice for you. They can stretch a considerable amount. If you buy aftermarket cables, make sure the connectors match the headphones. Some headphones use mini XLR or Y-type cable 2-pin connectors instead of the standard 1/4″ TRS cable and connector.
Connectors should be designed to eliminate and minimize stress at the interface between the connector and cable conductor. Connectors should ideally be gold or silver-nickel alloy plated to prevent corrosion that may impede the signal. Below is a gold-plated 1/8″ to 1/4″ threaded TRS adapter that comes standard with many a pair of headphones.
The headband should be some type of strong metal, usually stainless steel, that will resist breaking under high stress when the wearer bends and contorts it. The headband should be lightly padded and covered with leather or some type of durable synthetic material such as leather.
You’re also going to want to find a comfortable set that fits properly, and the springiness of the headband has a lot to do with this. Buying online makes it hard to gauge whether or not the headphones you want to buy will fit well. We can check forums and reviews on e-commerce and gear review sites to get an idea, though.
The frame is the component that holds the magnet. The frames should be made of a strong and lightweight material such as anodized aluminum or high-strength plastic. They should also be sufficiently thick so that they will not crack when dropped, stepped on, or sat on.
The magnets are very important because they provide the magnetic field that interacts with the voice coil. We want magnets with a high strength-to-weight ratio that will not lose their field strength over time. For this application, the best headphones for music production will use rare-earth magnets like neodymium or samarium-cobalt.
Weight reduction is very important when it comes to voice coil design. Lighter weight means more precise movement, and that in turn translates to better and more accurate sound. One way to reduce weight is by using CCAW (copper-clad aluminum wire) for the voice coil conductor. Aluminum weighs significantly less than copper, but has only 61 percent of the conductivity. The skin effect allows the wire to achieve nearly the same resistance as pure copper, though.
Another weight reduction design choice is the use of thinner wires. This, however, will require more windings, which increases the impedance. Part of the reason high-end monitoring headphones have such high impedance values is because of the number of windings used in the voice coil. They will need a separate amplifier for optimal performance.
Electrical impedance is the resistance to current flow in an electrical circuit. As a rule of thumb, higher impedance means better sound reproduction quality. High impedance is a side effect of weight reduction in the voice coil. Considerations need to be made for amplification when purchasing a high-impedance pair of music production headphones. Low-impedance models can be used with smaller consumer devices like smartphones or MP3 players.
Ideally, we want our music production headphones to have a completely flat frequency response. This means that the audio signal coming in should be reproduced with as little change in gain across the frequency spectrum as possible. Frequency response is very important because it tells us how the headphones will color the sound. Some manufacturers will provide frequency response data to you on their website. Some like to keep it a secret. Independent frequency response testing is available online.
If we’re going with closed-back headphones, we want our them to eliminate as much outside noise as possible. Noise isolation will be dependent on padding material, thickness and fitment. For recording and tracking, noise isolation is paramount. Open-back designs are not designed with noise isolation in mind due to their ability to let noise in and out of the ear cup.
Fatigue & Breatheability
Shrillness and harshness, especially at higher frequencies, coupled with long periods of listening can cause whats called listener fatigue. Headphones with an exaggerated treble response can limit the amount of continuous time that they can be used. Most high-end headphones are built with comfort in mind. As a general rule, you get what you pay for when it comes to comfort.
Best Headphones for Music Production: Uses & Other Considerations
These are the more subjective items to consider when purchasing a pair of headphones for music production. You’ll need to think about each one and the situations you’ll be in while using your headphones to make a choice that is right for you and your specific needs.
- Size – How big is is your head?
- Foldability – Will you be carrying them from place to place, or mostly using them in a stationary studio?
- Cable length – Will your connection point be far from you when you use them?
- Open or closed
- Better suited for monitoring, mixing, and mastering
- Less suited for recording (the sound inside the headphones is allowed to escape)
- Better imaging and soundstage than closed headphones
- Usually more expensive
- Requires a noise-free environment (sound is let into headphones)
- Good all around for monitoring
- Better suited for recording
- Poor imaging and soundstage in comparison to open-back
- Can be used in moderately noisy environments
- Fairly priced, but can get expensive as well
- Amped or not amped – Depending on the impedance and the type of audio interface you are using, you may or may not need to buy a separate amplifier for your music production headphones. Many studio-grade Thunderbolt interfaces have great headphone amps built in, so that’s another thing to look into. This in turn will effect overall price of your purchase.
- Price – What can you afford? What level of quality are you willing to pay for?
These factors along with the prices were all accounted for while formulating this list of the best headphones for music production in 2019. Without further ado, let’s take a look.
Ultimately, your decision here will mostly be based on price and application. Cost-wise, it’s what level of quality you’re willing to pay for. As we’ve seen, there is a wide range of capabilities across the board on our list of best headphones for music production. Application-wise, the main decision will be between open-back and closed-back headphones:
- Open-back for those of you in a VERY quiet environment such as an acoustically treated studio – remember, noise can pass freely through the headphone frames. These are not suitable for recording, since the mic will pick up feedback from the headphones.
- Closed-back for general studio use and those of us without acoustic treatment who are in noisier environments. These are better for vocalists to wear when recording because they create an acoustic barrier between the drivers and the mic.
That wraps it up for this review. Thank you for reading, and I hope this list helps you make a great choice for your music production headphone purchase!