Tech Talk: Headphones vs. Monitors

It’s a debate as old as, well, headphones and monitors. Is one better than the other to mix or master with? Should both be used at different stages of the process to ensure that all bases are covered? Here, two audio professionals and friends of AMI, Wes Maebe and Nuno Fernandes weigh up the pros and cons of listening to sound professionally through cans on their heads or speaker boxes on their desks…

Wes Maebe:

The topic of working on monitor speakers versus headphones triggered a memory of a situation that made me giggle. I was asked to master a project and on the day it was set to take place, I was told by the producer that the band had decided to give the job to one of their college mates. When I asked for a reason this is what I got as a response:” Well, he’s going to do it for free and he’s going to use his Skullcandy headphones!” I just burst out laughing.

However, this remains a valid question. Should we use monitors or headphones? My immediate reaction to this question is that we should immediately dispense with the notion that one thing is good and the other is bad. As with the eternal digital versus analogue debate, I feel there are pros and cons to both sides and they should work in harmony. For those of us who are lucky enough to spend our time working in beautiful recording studios, mix and mastering rooms, we tend to get a bit spoiled with finely tuned monitor systems that cost several thousands of pounds. Having said that, these setups are, mostly, tweaked to operate in conjunction with the room acoustics which in turn have also been perfected for the studio environment. We work in these rooms for 10 plus hours every day and the material being recorded, mixed or mastered is constantly under the microscope until the moment of delivery.

 I hear people say that you don’t need this amount of perfection because no one will ever listen to the music that way. Correct, however, this is where the art and passion is captured and blended together and if we don’t take great care making sure that everything is exactly how we as engineers, producers and more importantly, the artists want it, the end result will not be worth releasing.  It draws parallels with the sample rate discussion and my opinion is that if you put mediocrity in, the most you’ll get at the end of the process is, you guessed it, mediocrity.

I am a big fan of great monitors that allow you to put out the best possible result. But that does not mean there’s nothing to say for working on headphones. You may find yourself in a less than ideal working environment and the headphones will eliminate bad room acoustics right of the bat.

And of course, there’s a lot to be said for checking your work on various systems and make sure everything translates across the board. Even when you’re working on a beautiful monitor system, it pays to double check what it sounds like on a nice pair of headphones and a set of less than satisfactory earbuds as a big chunk of the music consuming demographic will end up listening to the end product that way.

Of course there’s the added benefit of popping on the cans to block out the chatter generated by hangers -on in the control room when you’re trying to work! When you work in the same studio all the time, you get to know the room. You learn how to compensate for its quirks and possibly its shortcomings.

Most of us tend to work in multiple rooms and you don’t always have the time to fully familiarise yourself with the idiosyncrasies of every studio in the world. It’s always a good idea to take some music with you that you know very well and have a listen to the room and its speaker system. You can take it a step further and take the monitors you work with and know intrinsically. Having your own speakers with you brings a little more familiarity to the workflow and similarly, headphones you know well will provide a good reference.

My personal preference is to get acquainted with the resident rig and supplement those with pair of PSI-A17Ms, my Ultimate Ear Capitol in-ears and a pair of Grado Labs SR325e. The most recent addition to the workflow just ties it all together for me. Inserting the Soundways Reveal plugin on the master mix bus bridges the gap between monitors and headphones. The ability to check the high end, the LF information and dynamics through a variety of listening curves makes total sense. It’s a little like having NS-10s, Auratones, a car stereo and an iPhone to reference on in one neat package.

As producers and engineers we are responsible for the quality and integrity of the music our artists entrust us with. Whether you work on speakers, headphones or make use of both, the results have to speak for themselves. Ultimately it all depends on the quality of the headphones and the monitors. Don’t go by what is considered “right or wrong”, use your ears.

Nuno Fernandes

Our job as mix engineers is to make sure the song we work on connects emotionally with the widest audience possible. That means that we have to make sure that our work translates in the most number of listening environments and systems possible as we have no control over how and where the song will be listened to.

The amount of speakers, earbuds, and headphones out there is enormous and not all of them will have the highest fidelity. That being said, it is of the utmost importance that we can trust the information our ears are receiving… So, should we trust monitors or headphones? Or maybe both?

There is nothing quite like listening to a great song, mixed really well, loud on an amazing pair of speakers in a great room, with the stereo spread and beautiful phantom image, the sound picture painted before you with depth and width. It is quite the experience.

Unfortunately, not all rooms are great and acoustically treated. Not all speakers are created equal and some are more transparent than others. Speaker placement is not always ideal. Sometimes you have rear ported speakers and not enough room to place them away from a wall, or your room is not symmetrical, or you cannot put any diffraction or absorption in the room.

There is software out there that might help you solve some issues in your monitoring environment. I have used Sonarworks Reference 4 with quite a bit of success in my room, but that is no substitute for a great sounding room. Some monitors have internal DSP and a measurement microphone to calibrate themselves to your room. The truth is, your environment can create a very unbalanced picture and lead you to unbalanced mixes, no matter how many references you use. You can’t fix or correct what you can’t hear properly.

In the fast pace of today’s world it is important to be able to work wherever you are. A last minute mix adjustment while you’re on tour in some hotel room? At the airport waiting for your next flight? With all the portable equipment available these days you are expected to be able to work anywhere. The only thing you can monitor on and avoid having to control your environment? Headphones.

They are great tools and there are some great sounding headphones out there. If you have something that is balanced, you can make informed decisions. Be careful of trendy headphones that are hyped in certain frequency ranges, they will fool you. Still I feel they all suffer from this “super stereo” effect, where, to my ears, everything is coming from left or right, with no true spread. The nice width and sound field presented by speakers is missing. Also, that nice chest thumping low end when you monitor slightly loud is gone (although Ollo Audio has a solution for that with their Body Sound Experience Pillow).

There are plugins, such as Waves NX, that offer you a virtual mix room and correct a little of that “super-stereo” effect I described earlier. That might help you to get a better sound field. The rise of binaural, ambisonics, and VR creates a big opportunity for mixing in headphones. Maybe some of that technology can, in the future, be used to recreate famous mixing rooms. The possibilities are quite interesting to maybe spot check your mix in different listening environments quickly.

Another interesting tool to correct headphones is, once again, Sonarworks Reference 4, where you can use an average correction for several popular headphone models or, if you want something really accurate, send in your trusty pair of headphone in to be measured and you’ll get a custom correction profile made for your specific headphones.

Both options for monitoring have their advantages and downfalls, and as much as we like to divide things into two opposite fields, the truth is most things are a huge grey area with no right and wrong answers. Each person is different and will have different tastes and preferences for their monitoring.

There are no simple answers. Take the time to get to know your tools, understand how your speakers and headphones work at loud volumes and when played softly. In the end you need something you know inside out, have listened to for hours, and intimately trust. Always use references to check if you are straying away from the desired result.

Always check the final mix in a couple different systems. And always, always, protect your ears, as these are the only parts in your monitoring chain that are not repairable or replaceable. Only listen at loud volumes for short periods of time, and if the client insists in monitoring too loud, don’t be ashamed to put some earplugs on or leaving the room to grab a cup of tea.