Even if you aren’t a music producer, you probably own a pair of headphones. They’re the obvious choice when listening to music in public, and even at home as well. If you're an aspiring music producer, a good pair of headphones is more than essential. Aside from a laptop, they’re pretty much the only other necessity.
Just like all musical equipment, not all headphones are created equal. It might be tempting to just plug in your cheap earbuds into your laptop and get to writing. However, you might find the results to be underwhelming. If you under invest in a shotty pair, your music will suffer as a result. All it takes is a low quality pair of headphones to give you the false impression that your mix sounds finished, then you might hear it on a pair of high quality speakers or in a nice car, and realize your hi-hats are way too harsh and your low-end is mysteriously absent. Think of it like this: imagine standing in front of a massive Jackson Pollock painting that takes up a whole wall. You have the room to yourself, and you can view it from the back of the room, taking in the whole piece. You can walk right up to it and observe the intricate details, every brushstroke and texture. Now, imagine you’re looking at the same painting on a smart phone with a highly compressed JPEG. It’s the same painting, but the experience is completely different. A good pair of headphones allows you to be in the room with the painting, whereas a poor pair is trying to fully understand the painting from a low resolution google JPEG on a iPhone 5.
Investing in the right pair of headphones is integral for producing quality music. Think of your headphones as an instrument. You don’t want to go on stage playing a cheap guitar that can’t stay in tune for more than two minutes. The same rules apply to headphones. And the good news is you don’t have to break the bank for a quality pair. There are a variety of professional quality headphones in affordable price ranges that will allow your music to flourish. Here are some things to look for and consider in your next pair of cans.
What makes a good pair of headphones? Well, the first is control. Ideally, you want your pair of headphones to have the flattest response possible. This means that there are no boosts or cuts in the high, mid or low frequencies. Think of it in terms of a visual EQ. If it’s totally flat, no frequencies have been altered – if they have, your song might be a bit more bass/treble/mid heavy.
A completely flat response will make your mixes much more accurate. This way you will hear the exact signals coming from yourDAW without any modifications from your headphones. What you hear is actually how it sounds. What makes one pair of headphones better than the other in terms of producing music is frequency response. For example, let’s say you buy a pair of headphones “for hip-hop.” They likely will have a huge bass boost to give them a more boomy feel. That might be fine for the casual listener who just wants their music to sound more “epic,” however, for a producer, that will completely ruin your mixes. You will be cutting all the low-end out of your mix because the headphones will give you a false illusion of having enough bass.
It’s also important to have a wide frequency range in your headphones. If they cut off all frequencies below 100 Hz for example, that is a large range of sub frequencies that will go unnoticed as you work. You might then start beefing up your bass to compensate, or even mixing low frequencies in stereo that should be in mono because you can’t hear them. Look for a wide stereo frequency range in your headphones—the wider, the better—because the more you can hear, the more you can sculpt your sound properly.
Another factor is comfort. As music producers, we can be in the studio for hours on end, putting a significant amount of strain on our eyes and ears. If the equipment you are using is low quality, it can tire you out much faster for less efficient production.
It should go without saying that when investing in a pair of headphones for your production, we recommend over-the-ear headphones—no earbuds of any kind please. Over-the-ear headphones come in two models: open back and closed back. It’s important to know the difference before you buy your own pair, because they do come with different benefits.
Closed back headphones are ideal for noise cancelling. With an insulated shell of plastic that covers your ear, they conceal any outside noise from coming in or out of the headphone. As a result, they typically provide around 10dB of noise reduction. These are ideal for a producer who also records audio, such as vocals or acoustic instruments. The closed back design keeps the sound in, so if you’re listening to your playback track and recording yourself singing, the playback does not leak into the vocal recording. This style of headphone also does a great job of really isolating the sound you’re listening to. If you live in a noisy building or loud environment, closed back headphones might be right for you. They are the essential design for getting lost in your music.
Open back headphones, on the other hand, do not isolate sound — they do the opposite. The outer shell around the ear is perforated to allow sound out of the headphone. If closed back headphones isolate you from the world, open back headphones put you in the world around you. They give you a more representative sound experience of the environment you’re in, rather than trapping you into a box. This provides you a greater sense of space, which in turn gives you a more clear audio signal for mixing. Most professional mixing engineers turn to open back headphones when doing the job, whereas closed back headphones are more typically used in studio settings when recording.
Both have their place for the modern bedroom producer, but it really depends on the environment you create in. If you have your own space and are keen on mixing your own song, we would recommend open back headphones. However, if you share a room or are often recording audio, we recommend closed back headphones.
An important thing to consider when buying a pair of headphones is whether or not you will need to purchase a separate amplifier. In most cases, having an amplifier or interface to increase the audio clarity and capacity is ideal, but not every pair of headphones needs the extra boost. Some headphones come with enough built-in gain and clarity that you can just plug them into your computer and get to work. On the other hand, some headphones will only deliver a percentage of their potential without a separate amplifier of sorts. You might find a great pair of cans in your price range, but if you have to purchase another piece of equipment to properly use them, suddenly they can become too expensive. Make sure to do your research before buying.
Our pro-tip is to invest in a quality interface that can act as the bridge between your computer and your headphones. If you’re a Mac user, the Apogee One is an excellent, budget-friendly interface that allows you to record and listen to music with high audio quality.
The final factor is of course price. Headphones can range anywhere from $100 to $1000 to $10,000 (there are even some pairs that exceed $100,000). It would obviously be best if you could get the most expensive and best quality headphones, but sometimes that’s just not in the budget. Also, you really don’t need to spend that much to get a good mix.
In my opinion, the best headphones to get for music production are the Audio Technica ATH-M50X monitor headphones. These headphones are fantastic quality, and I along with a lot of my musician friends will give you a glowing testimonial. At only a $150 price point, these critically acclaimed headphones have been praised by award winning producers and engineers. The materials are super high quality, they’re fairly comfortable, and most importantly they sound great. They’re also good for DJing.
There are, however, a few drawbacks to these headphones. After a while, they start to put a bit of strain on your ears, although this will happen with most over-ear headphones. They’re also a bit leaky, and they don’t have the flattest frequency response.
With that being said, with an $150 price tag, these are one of the best headphones you can get for music production in that price range. As an essential part of any studio, these headphones are a great choice if you’re just a beginner and even if you’re an experienced music producer.
Another pair we recommend are the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, which are about $50 cheaper, and provide much of the same benefit. These headphones are often rivaled with the Audio Technica on several corners of the internet. Both pairs will suffice and give you all you need to create professional quality music.
However, both pairs are closed back headphones. If you’re looking for a pair of open backs, we have other recommendations. To start, the Sennheiser HD 650 are considered some of the best headphones for mixing. They are a bit pricey, though. The good news is that Drop (formerly "MassDrop") has done a collaboration with Sennheiser and made a replica of the HD 650 at a fraction of the price for just $195. They call them the Sennheiser HD 6XX. This headphone can be your one-stop-shop for all things mixing.
If you can afford it, having a pair of closed back and open back to alternate between is helpful: one for recording and tracking, and one for mixing and sound design.
Finding the right pair of headphones is a unique experience. Message boards, Amazon reviews, and articles like this are here to guide you as best as possible, but it’s ultimately up to you, the producer. If you can, go to your local music equipment store and try out a few pairs. Test one of your songs, as well as a few of your favorite artists’ songs. You want to make sure you like the sound of both. It’s also not a bad idea to have a pair of “on-the-go” headphones, such as a pair of mid-range quality earbuds. Even Apple’s standard iPhone earbuds can help here. This is because you want to reference your music in “average” headphones, too. If your mix only sounds good in high-quality headphones, then the average listener might not be able to enjoy your music the way you intended. But most importantly, remember that music is an investment, and headphones are one of the most essential tools for a producer’s music.