Guide to choosing headphones (Part 1):
Studio and Live Sound

Need some headphones? You’ve come to the right place.

We’re going to try and simplify headphone choices – by focusing mainly on the BIG 3 (Audio Technica, Beyerdynamic & Sennheiser), to work out which models fit best for a whole bunch of pro audio tasks.

One size fits all

No it doesn’t.. well, at least not for professional audio applications.

There are a heap of reasons why we’d use headphones in a professional audio situation – including; live sound mixing, field recording, filming/sound recordist, studio recording and mixing, DJ, video editing, audiovisual monitoring and more. One headphone won’t suit every purpose.

While all of the above applications have different requirements, we do see that a few necessary features are prevalent across several pro audio disciplines.

Why ohmage matters Ω

This little symbol makes quite a bit of difference in the world of pro audio.

Here is where “Lifestyle headphones vs Pro Audio headphones” takes a noticeable fork in the road. You can pretty much guarantee that any set of popular looking headphones that are made to move with you and your lifestyle, are all going to sound ok right out of the box – because their impedance has been matched to the most typical lifestyle devices. But they’re not made for critical listening and decision making.

So what are you plugging your pro audio headphones into? Is it an audio interface in the studio, a portable field recorder like Zoom or Sound Devices, or is it a digital mixing console at the Front of House mix position? What is the output impedance of the relevant headphone amp?

As we highlight each popular choice below, we’ll make the recommendations for you – but if you’re really busting to know a bit more background technical information, try searching “what is the 1/8 rule for headphone impedance” and set aside half-an-hour or so.

Studio Headphones

A quick word on CLOSED vs SEMI-OPEN first.

If you use a pair of headphones to record in front of a microphone, make sure they are fully enclosed. This means that the sound won’t spill from the headphones back into the mic, giving you better control when it comes time to mix.

Our top 3 choices for Studio Tracking:

Beyerdynamic DT770PRO – Use the 80 Ω version. It will work pretty well with most audio interfaces and mid-range multi-channel headphone amps. The DT770 design hasn’t changed for years. They are comfortable and sound great – the extra large over-ear cups really put the performer in a nice space. Buy one set, you’ll hold on to them for years and years.

If your budget doesn’t quite stretch as far as the Beyerdynamic cans, either of these two are also rippers…

Sennheiser HD280PRO – Like the DT770 above, this pair of monitoring headphones has a curly cord, is comfy to wear, and surrounds the ear completely. They fold up for easy storage, and are very popular in store. Hint – they’re pretty versatile too. 64 Ω.

Audio Technica ATH-M40 – Not top of Audio Technica’s M-series, and also not the entry-level. ATH-M40 are comfortable, fold-able, include both a curly and a straight cable, and come in a nice pouch for storage. 35 Ω, and a great choice if you need to grab a few sets at once.

Studio mixing

There is a pretty good argument to suggest that it’s near impossible to mix in the studio without speakers. But even when you have got great studio monitors, a set of headphones will definitely help make accurate EQ, dynamic and mix decisions.

Our top 3 choices for Studio Mixing:

Beyerdynamic DT990PRO – the semi-open design of the earcups means that some sound leaks out, so don’t use these for recording vocals. When it comes to mixing though, the semi-open design means that the low bass frequencies don’t go bouncing around inside your head, so to speak, resulting in a natural bass response. They’re a great choice. 250 Ω.

Neumann NDH20 – A bit like a set of studio monitors strapped to your head. High sensitivity, low distortion, and super comfortable. They’re far more honest when compared with ‘hi-fi’ headphones, so be prepared for a dose of reality. (150 Ω).

Austrian Audio HIX55 – Far from the ‘new kids on the block’, Austrian Audio has oodles of experience from their engineers who had a long history with AKG. Any of their headphones will help you zoom in on the finer details of a mix, but we particularly like the HIX 55 (25 Ω).

Live Sound

Closed. Fully enclosed. With so much SPL horsepower coming back at you from the front of house speakers, when it’s time to make a critical adjustment, you’ll want to block out as much outside sound as possible.

You’ll want to whip the headphones off and stick them back on in a hurry sometimes – things are a little more rushed than in the studio – so something durable is definitely an advantage here!

Our top 3 choices for Live Sound:

Audio Technica ATH-M50x – they fold up for compact travel, and the ears swivel for a nice fit. Comfortable for long use, good sound isolation. 38 Ω impedance, will sit comfortably in the headphone jack of most mixing consoles. Three different detachable cables make for lots of flexibility.

Beyerdynamic DT770 – they don’t fold, nothing swivels, the cable is not replaceable, and there’s a choice of three difference impedances. So why are they popular for live sound? Because they’re comfortable and they sound great! You’ll be safe with the 80 Ω version, but plenty of FOH engineers run the PRO (250 Ω) version, and it’s usually ok… not always enough grunt out of every headphone socket though.

Sennheiser HD25 – So many ticks for this set of cans. Lightweight, split headband and swivel-able earcup for ultimate positioning. HD25 can handle as much SPL as your ears will let them and, due to the snug fit on-ear pad, provide a massive amount of ambient attenuation – more than any other headphone in this list. 70 Ω will sit nicely for most consoles.

Honourable mention HD280PRO – these are a budget alternative to the above choices, and we normally see them in the studio – but the fully enclosed ear caps provide 32 dB attenuation of external noise, they fold up, are comfortable and have a wide frequency response.

– Intermission –

Just before we go, HERE is the headphone adapter you’re looking for!

That’s it for now. Next week in Part 2, we’ll check out the remaining categories DJ, Film/Sound gathering, Podcasting…

Link for Guide to choosing headphones (Part 2) is here

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