A Headphone Guide for Audio Production
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Audio production is a broad subject, and equipment recommendations vary from genre to genre. #Musicproduction is different from #podcastproduction, #editing is different from #mastering, and so on.
In this guide, we'll be looking at different types of headphones to give you a general idea of how to invest.
First off, there are some important things to know that apply to most headphones.
Most headphones have a built-in EQ This is in order for the headphone to sound better in most situations, but it also means that what you hear is not a fair reflection of whatever is playing - because the EQ is altering it. If you want to produce with a "neutral" ear, either make sure to get headphones that have no built-in EQ, or get an EQ-correcting software (AKA headphone calibrator). I recommend Tonebooster’s Morphit or SonarWorks’ SoundID Reference.
Different headphones require different amounts of power (impedance/ohms). Just to give you an idea of what this means: a regular laptop provides some 32 ohms, and standard studio headphones tend to require between 70 to 250 ohms. While a pair of earbuds will be working at maximum capacity plugged into a laptop, or even a phone, popular headphones, like Beyerdynamics, require more juice. You’ll most likely need an digital-to-analog-converting amplifier (DAC). Amplifiers come in many forms (and most audio interfaces have them built-in), but simply put, they take the digital audio signal and amplify it - like the shiny boosters on the ground in Mariokart! So look up your headphone’s required impedance (ohm) and make sure your audio interface can supply it.
Over-Ear, On-Ear, or In-Ear?
Most people know the difference in appearance between the three, but the fine details are perhaps not so obvious.
Or ‘circumaural headphones’, cups the ears, and are probably the most common type among audio engineers.
Over-ear headphones are not only a great alternative for those who cannot house a complete set of studio monitors, but a great compliment even for those that can! They are really good for critical listening, especially for low-end frequencies.
This type of headphone provides the most amount of quality and comfort, as they are built without holding anything back. This also makes them more expensive, but worth the investment for the serious producer. In the end, it’s the best value for money you’re going to get.
The only downside with over-ear headphones tends to be their size. They’re not as portable as the other types, and a bag, or box, is generally recommended for their safe transportation.
They are the first choice for audio- and especially music production.
Highest audio quality
Great for critical listening
Best value for money
Need amplification (DAC)
Can get quite warm
AKA ‘supra-aural’ headphones, rest on the ears, and are the casual choice as they work in pretty much any environment and situation - from your studio recording to your gym workout.
For audio production they’re fine when playing, recording, monitoring and arranging, and even mixing to a degree, but beware that any fine, fine tuning is better left to the big boys... and by that I mean over-ear headphones.
On-ears will work for mastering simpler productions, such as #podcasts and #audiobooks, because you can't go wrong as long as you hit the target levels. With music production, taste comes into play a lot more, and sticking target levels is not enough.
Dj's (and bodybuilders) tend to use over-ears as they are easy to take on and off during sets.
On-ear headphones vary in regards to how much external sound they can keep out, and when they do so effectively, it often comes with the trade-off for comfort.
Great for DJ's
Might need amplification
Somewhat limited frequency response range
Or earbuds, require little introduction. The first thing you’re thinking about when it comes to in-ear headphones is most likely that they are very portable… and really annoying to untangle. Thank goodness for wireless, am I right?
In-ear headphones are generally not great for audio production, as they are built with compromise due to size. In-ears cannot compete with the frequency response range of the other types.
The audio production-related areas you actually might want to use them for are: playing, recording, editing and mastering… Yes, that’s right, mastering! Kind of.
Ok, not mastering as in making creative decisions, but rather reference listening. Earbuds, together with crappy bluetooth speakers and car stereos make for great reference listening, as it gives you a good indication of what your production will actually sound like to many end-users.
More on reference listening in a future guide.
Basically, in-ear headphones are practical, but not much more. The audio quality you get for your money is quite low compared to our over- and on-ear friends.
Good for reference listening
Limited frequency response range
Low value for money
Closed-back vs. open-back headphones
“What, like the plastic on the outside of the headphones? Is he making this up?”
Well, when you put it like that, it sounds totally silly, but hear me out....!
Open-back headphones are made for critical listening like editing and mastering, as well as allowing more heat to escape, making them the ideal choice for long sessions. The downside is they let in more external noise and leak out more sound than closed-backs (careful when recording!).
Closed-back headphones seal out more external sound, which is great - but not as good for critical listening. The backplate of closed-back headphones might colour the sound somewhat, especially the lower frequencies, so keep that in mind when making low-end decisions wearing these.
Naturally, they get clammy a lot quicker than open-backs do.
Wired vs. wireless headphones
It’s obvious that wireless headphones need charging, but the real difference worth considering here is #latency.
Latency is the amount of time it takes for a sound to occur and to be heard in your headphones.
Wireless headphones can sometimes introduce a bit of latency, so beware of that when considering using them for audio production.
However, wireless headphones that automatically connect are extremely convenient, and great when traveling, but if connection is lost mid-session, your DAW might hiccup, and changing the output settings back and forth can be annoying.
Active noise cancellation (ANC)
It’s been widely debated whether active noise cancellation can be used for audio production, and the short answer is: yes they can.
ANC uses external microphones for picking up outside sounds, and then creates a reversed sound signal that cancels out the external sound to the comfort of the wearer. It’s almost like magic.
Many have expressed their concern as to whether noise cancelling headphones might accidentally cancel out sounds that are supposed to be heard. While this is technically a possibility, it would take some serious bleed (sound leaking out) for that to happen. Presumably, the manufacturers will have thought about this while designing their products, so I wouldn’t worry.
The real concern with active noise cancelling headphones for audio production is reliability. Wind, sudden loud noises, as well as touching the headphones while wearing them, tends to screw with ANC. So yeah, not a huge downside, in other words.
In general, you want as little interference with the audio quality as possible while producing, so active noise cancelling headphones might not be first-choice for critical listening, but certainly an option for comfort’s sake.
Unreliable in some conditions
The ultimate headphone type for audio production
There are many factors to weigh in, and there is not a single type of headphone that can do it all. In order to make informed decisions, listen through several devices!
But to actually answer the question, wired open-back over-ear headphones are in general the most comfortable kind, providing the richest sound (frequency response range), without introducing latency, and the least likely to cause ear-fatigue. So, if you could only pick one kind, this is it. This recommendation applies to music- & video production, as well as podcast-, audiobook- and visrtually all other kinds of audio production.
If you have any questions or opinions, feel free to leave a comment and let's get a discussion going.