Choosing the Best Headphones for Producing, Mixing, and DJing

  |  matt donner  |  

One of the most unsung heroes of the recording studio is the headphone. Anyone who’s tried to mix their record on "cans" due to pesky neighbors (why they don’t like bass coming through their walls is still beyond me) knows the trials, tribulations and disappointments found in this process.  This blog is meant to be a guide as to how to find the right pair of headphones. It should be noted that the information listed in this blog is not meant to be exhaustive -- it can’t be. There are hundreds of headphones out there and I can’t possibly review them all.

The other thing to note is that the best method to choosing headphones is to listen to them. As is the case with purchasing a set of powered monitors, getting a set of cans that tells you the truth is the ultimate goal. If you haven’t bought monitors yet, it's all the more reason to make sure you get the right headphones.

There are a few things to look for and questions to ask yourself when shopping for headphones. It's not like buying an iPhone -- the newest may not actually be best and, often times, the older versions work better.

What do I need headphones for?

The Sennheiser HD1

The Sennheiser HD1

The most obvious answer is “to listen to music without disturbing my neighbor/wife/husband/significant other/cat/dog/whoever.” That’s great, but if that's all you need then you can buy the cheapest pair out there and your problem is solved! More than likely, you're here because you need them for something specific, such as DJing, producing music, mixing music, having your singer wear them while they perform, etc. Each of these poses a different set of criteria and there may not be one set of cans that works for every situation. If you only have one set of cans that need to do all of this, you’ll end up making sacrifices somewhere. Be clear about your goals -- they’ll lead you to different answers.

Taking a closer look here, let's compare these situations and talk about what features might come into play.

DJing. Key criteria: Volume

Most DJs are constantly competing with the volume of the PA in the club. Louder clubs make it harder to hear what you’re cueing up on the decks so headphones that put out higher output are key. The spec you’ll look for on the headphones is called “impedance,” which is a measurement of how hard they will resist electrical signal. The higher the impedance, or IMP, the quieter the cans and the higher you’ll need to turn up your music. DJs should look for low IMP cans -- they get louder quicker than other cans and you’ll have less trouble fighting the PA to be heard. Check out the following cans to see which one might work best:

Model Impedance Rating
Sony MDR7506 63 Ohms
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro 250 Ohms
Sennheiser HD1 18 Ohms
Sennheiser HD280 Pro 64 Ohms
AKG K240 55 Ohms
AKG K702 62 Ohms
Beats Pro ?

The Beats By Dre website does not mention this spec at all. They may be great cans but this lack of information makes me question the product.

Short of the Beats cans, it's easy to see the winner. The HD1s kill here -- 18 Ohms is absurdly low. Which means they are absurdly hot! I’d classify these as the Lamborghini of headphones for DJs.

The Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro

The Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro

Producing Music. Key criteria: Comfort

When you’re listening to the same parts over and over again and are trying to come up with fresh ideas, you’ll likely find yourself in this position for hours -- if not days. Having a set of headphones that are comfortable is key. Again, there’s no better way to determine this than trying them on, but here are a few things to determine ahead of time if they might be comfortable over time.

Open vs. closed back

Closed-back headphones are the kind that don’t let very much air into the can itself and do a good job of keeping outside noise outside. This seems the best choice for comfort -- you can simply enjoy the sounds coming from your cans and you won’t be distracted by the outside world. I agree -- to an extent. After a few hours using closed-back cans, you’ll find that they've gotten sweaty (and maybe stinky over time), and that you've lost your sense of perspective. Conversely, open-back cans allow for some air to get in, which can improve comfort over long periods of time. If you don’t need to keep the outside world out, I’d consider partially closed-back cans for the long haul.

Material

Heaphones tend to be covered with either vinyl, leather or cloth, all of which tend to be padded.  Like everything else, there’s a tradeoff here in different materials. For you sweaty types, vinyl or leather will last longest and they wipe off easily with cleaning wipes or wet washcloths. However, if you’re a real sweater, they can slide off your head and get sticky like leather chairs in the summer. Cloth doesn’t suffer from that -- instead, it gets stinky and wet, which is nasty, especially if you ever share your cans with other folks. Consider this, as well: can you buy replacement parts or foam covers for an old and smelly set of headphones, or will you need to buy a whole new pair? It can get pricey over time if you need to replace them.

Size

Do you have big ears? You might want a larger-sized can to accommodate for your physical build. There’s no purpose in buying closed-back cans if they don’t cover the entirety of your ear.

Model Closed/Open Material Size Replacement?
Sony MDR7506 Closed Vinyl Large Yes
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro Closed Cloth Large No
Sennheiser HD1 Closed Leather Large No
Sennheiser HD280 Pro Closed Vinyl Large No
AKG K240 Semi-open Vinyl Large No
AKG K702 Open Cloth Large Yes
Beats Pro Closed Vinyl Large No
The AKG K702

The AKG K702

Mixing. Key criteria: Accuracy

There’s a great deal of debate on this subject. After all, what I think is accurate might not be what you think is accurate. In the end, what you want to listen for here is based on tests with material you know. Very well. Extremely well. The more you know the music you listen through during your tests, the better. The answer here is not -- I repeat not -- what sounds best. That’s usually an indication that they’re not accurate, but they’re pleasing. You’re listening for which cans tell you the most about what you’re used to hearing and what you never noticed before. If you can’t hear the detail you’re used to OR they don’t tell you something you never noticed before, they’re likely not accurate. The chart following this item is based partially on my own tests, as well as the cumulative responses from other users. This is a great place to trust other reviewers and whether they say things like, “Wow these are accurate” versus, “Wow these sound great!” The latter is likely better for leisure listening while the former is better for mixing in detail. Note that the comment “accurate on a budget” means that for the price, they do a great job. If you’re a professional seeking the best, they might not cut it.

Model Accuracy
Sony MDR7506 Not accurate -- heavy on bass and treble
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro Very accurate, but a bit light on bass
Sennheiser HD1 Very accurate
Sennheiser HD280 Pro Accurate on a budget
AKG K240 Accurate on a budget
AKG K702 Very accurate
Beats Pro Not accurate -- heavy on bass and treble

Price.

Ultimately, everything else you hear and read needs to conform to your budget. If you want champagne but can only afford beer, buy great beer, not cheap champagne. 

By now, you’ve likely selected a few options that have the features that you like -- volume, comfort, accuracy -- but can you afford them? My general advice for purchasing headphones is to compare the price to the value. Price is just a number, but value means longevity (how long until you destroy them with heavy use), replacement cost (can you fix broken or stinky cans?) and quality. I always suggest you buy the best of the affordable option. Buying the best is great, but once they break, you won't be so happy about having to replace them. I always say, “the poor man pays twice,” which means that if you buy cheap, you’ll have to buy again... Soon. 

Here’s the price breakdown, with prices found on Sweetwater and Amazon.

Model Price
Sony MDR7506 $99.99
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro $179.99
Sennheiser HD1 $349.95
Sennheiser HD280 Pro $99.95
AKG K240 $54.00
AKG K702 $349.99
Beats Pro $399.95

There you have it! As an additional commentary, Pyramind uses a combination of headphones for different purposes. In our Production department, where we need to turn in professional work to the likes of Microsoft, EA and others, we use the AKG K702s. They are super-comfortable for our talent who might be in the booth delivering voices on the latest game for hours on end, and we tend to trust the mixes we make on them. We purchase AKG K702s for our students, as well.


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