How to select the perfect studio headphones

Jamey Warren, CEO of specialist headphone retailer HeadRoom, gives us the whys and wherefores of headphone purchasing:

Headphones are an essential tool for recording studios. Having spoken with a variety of recording engineers, producers, mastering engineers, and musicians, I’ve learned a few key aspects about headphones, and there are questions I always ask when somebody is looking for their first pair or for a pile to fit their needs. I’ll start off by covering what I consider to be the three main concerns when choosing headphones for your studio.

1. Open vs. Closed Headphones?

This is the first big question to answer and it’s a relatively simple one. If you will be using a microphone to record sounds such as an acoustic guitar, voice, or drums you’ll likely want closed headphones. Closed headphones help to keep sound from leaking out and getting into your microphone feed. If you’re recording or producing music using direct input or software-based instruments this is not an issue.

If you’re only mixing or mastering music and don’t need isolation then you can use open headphones. It is usually easier to get more natural, accurate sound from an open headphone than from a closed headphone of similar design. This is not always the case, as we have heard a few open design headphones that sound worse than good quality closed headphones. Ultimately it depends on how much attention the manufacturer paid to sound quality versus cost/style/comfort, etc.

2. Durability

Studio headphones need to be durable and repairable. Many well-respected studio cans these days have removable cables and replaceable ear pads and headbands. Some manufacturers, such as Sennheiser, go so far as to make almost all parts replaceable. All of the headphones we have listed in this guide offer replaceable cables and parts.

3. Sound Quality

You would think I would have put this as the first criteria but the truth is if your headphones don’t work or break often you’ll be making less music. The quality of sound you get from a headphone depends on many different factors, including design and price. Once you’ve settled on your needs and budget we can narrow down your options.

Entry-level or Low-cost Headphones

When outfitting a studio with headphones for the whole band it’s helpful to keep the cost per unit down. Our best recommendation is to keep it affordable, but don’t skimp to the point where you’re buying something disposable.

The Shure SRH440’s are great-sounding headphones, providing plenty of isolation for recording with microphones. They also sound good enough to be the only headphones for those on a budget.

For a small increase in price, stepping up to the Audio-Technica M50x will get you a little more natural and accurate sound and a few extra cables included in the package.

At the higher end of entry-level headphones we often recommend the Shure SRH840, which provides more comfortable ear cups, fuller bass response and an extra set of earpads.

Mid-priced Headphones

If you’re wanting the best bang for your buck without compromising your mixing or mastering abilities we recommend the Sennheiser HD600 and HD650, as well as the AKG K712. These are open-style headphones providing very natural and accurate sound. Remember, open headphones are best used when a microphone is not in use.

A nice mid-priced closed option is the Shure SRH1540. While they leak a little more sound than your standard closed headphones, they isolate enough to be our top recommendation for tracking in the studio.

High-end Headphones

On the extreme end of the spectrum we are seeing a lot of new products from all the known manufacturers. From Sennheiser we have the HD800, possibly the world’s best headphones – their open design with angled driver and proprietary ‘ring radiator’ driver yield the widest soundstage and precise details of anything we’ve heard.

AKG released the K812 this year, offering its signature sound in a more refined package.

A newcomer to the audio world, Audeze released its LCD-X in 2013, delivering planar magnetic headphones with a luscious, dynamic, and very linear bass response.

If you’re looking for the top of the line in closed headphones, the Fostex TH-900 and Audeze LCD-XC are sure to delight the ears of any musician or engineer.

Headphone Amps

A word on headphone amps. Why would you need such a thing? Behind every headphone jack is a miniature power amplifier to drive headphones. Sometimes the manufacturers put this in as an afterthought, or simply don’t pay much attention to the headphone output. If you’re considering investing in high-end headphones you should consider pairing them with a dedicated headphone amp.

High on our recommended list of headphone amps is the Grace Design m920. While it costs more than any headphone we’ve mentioned, this could be the centre of your production. The m920 includes a digital-to-analogue converter with all standard connections, switchable inputs to act as the heart of your monitoring centre, and it can be used as a preamp for your main speakers. Also included with the m920 is a crossfeed setting, which is meant to more closely simulate the sound of speakers, reducing listening fatigue.

If the idea of crossfeed is appealing to you, also consider the SPL Phonitor, which offers a very customisable crossfeed to suit your own listening tastes.