The Best Studio Headphones – November 2018
The headphone market is officially saturated. We’re surrounded by earbuds, over-ear headphones, Bluetooth headphones, noise-cancelling in-ear devices, and practically every other type of personal audio contraption the mind can conjure.
But you don’t need to be an audio wiz to know that most standard-issue headphones won’t cut it in the recording studio. Whether you’re trying to find the perfect mix, record vocals, or master a record, studio headphones set themselves apart from the crowd when it comes to quality and functionality.
And you also don’t need to be a professional recording artist or engineer in order to justify investing in a quality pair of studio headphones, many of which are reasonably priced and well within the budget of the average bedroom producer.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best studio headphones money can buy, while steering clear of the absurdly-expensive iterations (which tend to be overpriced and out of reach for the average reader anyway). Enjoy.
We’re the first to admit that there are plenty of fads in the world of high-tech audio, wherein certain pieces of gear are needlessly idealized simply because they’ve been idealized for so long. These fads have less to do with the gear’s inherent quality and more to do with old-fashioned gossip and a dash of unwarranted hype.
But sometimes the hype is there for a reason. These Sony headphones remain the absolute go-to workhorse headphone for the recording studio. Whether you’re working from a laptop in your bedroom or out of a Capitol Records studio, you really can’t go wrong having these phones in your arsenal.
One reason why the Sony MDR7506s are so immensely popular is that they’re surprisingly affordable. Not very many quality studio headphones come in under $80, and when they do there’s almost at least one thing wrong with them. These phones, on the other hand, are supremely durable, boast an even frequency response, and can endure the daily bumps and drops with which any producer is all too accustomed.
If you’re looking for headphones that enhance your tone and make you sound better than you actually are, these phones aren’t for you. But who wants that anyway? The entire point of a great pair of studio headphones is to provide you with a flat and accurate representation of the sound being produced, and in that regard these headphones deliver in spades.
They feature neodymium magnets and 40mm drivers that boast a powerful and detailed sound, along with a closed-ear design that’s comfortable during long sessions and that eliminates most background noise.
You get a 9.8-foot cord with a gold-plated plug along with 1/4-inch adapter, and there’s even an included soft case for when you need to take your listening on the go.
Even if you end up splurging for a more expensive pair of studio headphones, we highly recommend having at least one pair of Sony MDR7506s in your studio locker.
Deciding between the MDR7506s and these Audio-Technica phones for the top spot on our list was no easy feat, since in many ways they’re quite similar. Much like the Sonys, these extremely popular headphones deliver a reliable and flat frequency response will little-to-no coloring. They’re also extremely comfortable (even during extended listening sessions), and are designed to withstand more than their fair share of bumps and drops in the studio.
The only reason we opted to drop these quality headphones to the number two spot was that they’re not quite as detailed as the Sonys—especially in the midrange. Given the drop in price, however, this may not be an issue for many buyers, especially those who care more about the lower and upper frequencies.
We would highly recommend these headphones for EDM mixing, for instance, instead of vocal mixing—only because the latter tends to rely much more on a detailed and robust midrange.
All and all though, you can’t go wrong with a pair of ATH-M20xs. They’re built for both studio tracking and mixing, come loaded with 40mm drivers outfitted with copper-clad aluminum wire voice coils, and their enhanced low-frequency spectrum is important if you’re working with bass-heavy music.
And one area in which these phones beat out the Sonys is noise isolation. Due in part to the added padding around the cones, these headphones provide abnormally good noise isolation in the studio, which is incredibly important if you’re tracking instruments that require a high gain on your mic.
All in all, if you require a truly flat and supremely detailed midrange, we say go with our number one pick. If, on the other hand, you value bass response and noise-isolation above all else, you won’t regret picking up a pair of these Audio-Technicas.
We said we weren’t going to include studio headphones that were too out of reach for the average buyer, and we promise that these are about as high as we’ll go when it comes to price. We would be remiss, however, for creating a list of excellent studio headphones without including this industry staple.
Used by some of the most famed producers in the world’s most expensive recording studios, these headphones are truly exceptional when it comes to build, quality, and frequency response. If they were perhaps one-hundred dollars cheaper, they’d surely rank first on our list.
Sennheiser has earned its reputation as a world leader in headphone and audio technology. These headphones allow you to hear everything you play and record in stunning clarity (or what many producers would refer to as “merciless accuracy”).
They feature specially-designed acoustic silk that ensures precision damping over the entire frequency range, and their frequency response of 10 to 39,500 Hz means that no tone will go unnoticed during playback or tracking.
These phones have world-renowned drivers that deliver a surprising amount of power and depth, and have super-lightweight aluminum voice coils that allow for an incredibly fast transient response—making them ideal for picking up those tiny glitches that even some of the most detailed studio monitors can miss.
The open-back construction of these headphones also means that they emulate the “feel” and sound of a monitor session, so you’ll be able to get a far more realistic idea of where everything sits in the mix.
Bottom line: If you have the cash on hand, don’t miss out on mixing with these industry-standard headphones. Your ears will thank you.
Thankfully, Sennheiser does more than just build expensive headphones and audio devices. These phones are priced significantly lower than the HD 650s, and still deliver the high-quality build and sonic response that you’d expect from such an esteemed and reputable audio company.
Unlike the HD 650s, these headphones are best for tracking. Since they lack an open back, they provide far more isolation in the booth—meaning you won’t have to worry about noise from the track bleeding into your mic.
These phones are incredibly comfortable and lightweight, and feature and extended frequency response along with a warm, natural sound that’s accurate without being boring or needlessly flat. In fact, this pair of headphones is one of the few to feature a tight-yet-realistic low-end, which makes for more enjoyable listening without diminishing the overall accuracy of the playback.
As with most studio workhorse headphones, the ear pads, headband padding, and audio cord are easily replaceable—so you won’t have to worry about buying a brand new pair every time the inevitable wear and tear of the studio takes hold.
If you’ve been around recording studios long enough, you’ve doubtlessly encountered a pair of these ubiquitous headphones. Long thought to be an industry standard for both mixing and tracking, these phones have stood the test of time when it comes to build, durability, fit, and sonics.
These phones have been used for years by some of the most respected producers and engineers in the world, and come packed with large, 45mm drivers that feature rare earth magnets and copper-clad aluminum wire voice coils.
We found these phones to be exceptionally well-suited for vocal and guitar recording, due to the accentuated and defined midrange that doesn’t interfere with the low-end register. The bass response is also impressive—managing to be tight and rich while still accurate.
These phones are also well-suited for musicians and producers who find themselves frequently on the move, due to their collapsable build and compact design. They also feature a detachable cable, which comes in handy if you have a variety of studio inputs that require constant plugging and un-plugging.
Finally, we have the beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO headphones—perhaps the best all-around headphones for mixing and mastering on our list. Be warned: these phones are not for tracking. Their fully open construction means that there’s a ton of bleed through, and everything that’s coming through the headphones will end up passing through the mic, especially if it’s dialed up to a high gain.
But when it comes to mixing, these headphones reign supreme. The same open-backed design that makes these phones horrible for tracking makes them ideal for recreating a detailed, open-air listening environment—in which every element of your music is heard and every instrument can be situated in its proper place in the mix.
You can hear the smallest changes and nuances in tone, and the graduated tonal depth of the overall frequency response means that there’s practically no sonic exaggeration. There are very mild bass and treble boosts that act to ensure these often-neglected frequencies don’t get lost in the mix, but you still have an unfettered sonic image of your music without any disorienting coloring.
These phones are also incredibly comfortable during longer listening sessions, and you’ll be able to reduce ear fatigue through an optional third-party driver.