Buying a good pair of studio headphones for mixing and referencing is essential these days to complement your mixing and editing decisions at the studio, and even more so for a home studio where the listening environment may not be well-calibrated. There are also many video editors who rely primarily on headphones when editing their footages and putting together a good draft mix before sending it for audio post-production at the studio.
Over the years, I’ve personally used various studio headphones ranging between USD $100-$200 to check my edit and mix decisions that were made on the Adam-A7s, Dynaudio BM6As and Yamaha NS10s. These headphones include Sony MDR 7506. Sennheiser Hd280, Gradio Sr80, Audio-Technica ATH-M5-, KNS 8400 (KRK) and Beyerdynamic DT-700 Pro.
These are the usual suspects that would make the shortlist of anyone looking for a studio reference headphones, so let me share with you my thoughts on the merits of each as a user, so that you can make a better buying decision.
The famous workhorse studio for many studios for decades, and it’s still one of the best utility headphones to get if you are looking for the first pair of studio-grade heaphones that can double-up for both tracking and monitoring work. Their closed cups with minimal bleeding make them ideal for tracking your musicians or voice talents and they are the most comfortable pair of headphones you can put on your ears among the list I’ve shortlisted here. For mixing, they are more than decent to deliver a good mix for your clients though they are somewhat hyped in the trebles and less detailed in picking out for noises and blips compared to the Sennheiser HD280. But for a street price of around USD $90, they are quite a steal in my opinion, except that the ear cushions tend to wear and tear pretty fast under heavy usage (approx a year). Other than that, they are pretty good value for money. Not available in most local Sony stores. Best to buy them from Amazon.[/tab]
I received this as a freebie when I bought some other studio gear. “Free usually can’t be that good” I thought, but this headphone ended up being one of the heavily used headphones at the studio as they are very detailed in bringing out noises, blips, breaths that you might missed out when using other headphones or when you are editing with a wall of client-chatters right behind you. Especially useful for voiceover work where you really need a cleanly edited cold voice for delivery. The HD280s (street price around USD$75) have good soundstage but are however not very comfortable on the ears. Hence I would not recommend this for people planing to use them for long hours on music projects or video-editing projectsas their primary monitoring headphones.
There’s a newer HD380 model which seems to address this comfort issue as it sits better on the head and cover your ears with less cupping grip. For a price difference of about USD$15, the Sennheiser Collapsible Headphones HD 380 Pro, Black with a sleek collapsible design may well make a good upgrade. [/tab]
[tab title=”Audio Technica ATH-M50″]
Another free gift at the studio that came along as part of some gear purchase. The performance of this headphones surprises me a bit when I first used them. I’ve heard many good reviews of it, but I’m unfortunately not a big fan. It has a very unnatural width to its soundstage when referenced to a pair of standard studio monitors. That makes it quite hard for consistency in your edit and mix decisions if you are planning to use this headphones to complement your studio monitors. It may also be hard for you to translate your mixes well on other platforms. So, popular they may be, their good reviews may stem more from validation of popular vote by singular headphones users, rather than based on comparative usage… [/tab]
This is probably more of an audiophile headphones for enjoying music rather than a referencing headphones with a typical flat EQ response.
Prior to using the Grado Sr80, I’ve only been using closed-back headphones. But it was inevitable at some point in one’s journey as an audiophile to be tempted to buy an open-back earphones to hear how they sound. Hence, this is not suitable for tracking. I mainly employ them to check mixes of mp3s on itunes, which is how music is predominantly consumed these days. Soundstage is detailed with sufficient separation, and not bass heavy. If your mixes are too harsh sounding — typical result of mixing for too long where your ears start to fatigue and you start to push the 2k-4k region to keep your mix hyped or for your vocals to cut through , these grados will reveal them to you very, very “earnestly”, almost telling you in your face to get back to the mixing board tomorrow and fix your highs! Like a good friend who stabs you from the front as Oscar Wilde puts it — up to you whether you would like to keep such a friend in your team. [/tab]
[tab title=”KRK KNS 8400″]
The KNS 8400 was marketed as the mixing headphones that sound as close as you can get as if you were mixing on the popular KRK Rokit monitors. The KRK Rokit monitors were of course a very popular choice for many freelance or home producers because of its quality-to-price-point ratio, and to have a pair of headphones that can replicate the same monitoring soundstage (as claimed) would be amazing indeed.
I’ve not used the Rokit monitors before to offer any qualified opinion on how the KNS 8400 headphones would stack up against them. I recall however my first ever experience with the KNS 8400 was to check a punk rock mix done by my assistant engineer in the presence of band. It was a mix with an overdose of delays and pans. The mix sounded fantastics through the studio monitors, but I was quietly monitoring the mix on these 8400 and realised there were a lot of panning and phasing imbalances that were somehow messing up the whole soundstage when the mix were played through the cans. These 8400s were like a brand new pair of ears for my studio. Definitely a good-to-have! I make sure I run my mixes through them and are pretty much assured that if they sound good in these cans, you pretty much will have very happy clients too.
By the way, the 8400 are extremely comfortable on the ears and have an in-line detachable volume control on its cords, making it very convenient to quickly adjust the volume without reaching for the knobs on the audio interface or headphone amp.[/tab]
This is a pair of headphones which will elevate your “pro” status for its look and branding. It’s a monitoring headphones that will be recommended by most “professionals”, but will require a dedicated headphone amp to drive it if you are using the pro 250 ohm version. There’s a consumer grade version of 32 ohms that might be better suited for many people who do not wish to invest in a dedicated headphone amp.
I would say it sounds good and balanced right out from the box and is probably the flattest in terms of EQ response among all headphones listed here. It fits pretty snugly and is therefore a good choice for tracking purposes. In my case, however, I’m not a big fan of the mufflers-style snug fit design at the moment, so it’s losing a bit of flavour at my studio. Only using them as a quick reference check these days.[/tab]