Headphones come in more varieties and offer better performance than ever before. From entry-level earbuds to big-ticket surround-capable headsets, there is a set of 'phones for every budget.
Sennheiser MD280 closed-back headphones
Sony MDR-750 (note pivoting ear cup)
AKG K 702 open back headphones
With so many musicians working at home and with mobile laptop or portable recorder-based studios, headphones have become more central to music production than ever before. Factor in the reality that many fans now hear the majority of their music on portable music players and computer-based media applications like iTunes, Rhapsody, and Zune, and it's obvious that a good headphone sound has taken over for the old "car stereo test" as a litmus test for a good mix. And while a set of "cans" will never replace a good set of speakers, it pays to invest in at least one good pair of 'phones, even if you're only using them for tracking and reference.
Headphones come in a surprisingly wide of types. The two main groups are over-ear and in-ear. Within the over-ear category, you'll find closed vs. open and semi-open models; circumaural designs that enclose the ears vs. those that simply fit over the ear; wired vs. wireless designs; standard vs. noisecanceling phones, etc.
In-ear types include those with an isolating fit (the common style for live-performance in-ear monitors), those with electronic noise cancellation, and plain old ear buds. They also come in wired and wireless (with a belt-pack) versions.
Several of the top in-ear models have changeable ear-pieces, and some are designed to custom mold to the user's ear for even better isolation.
Within both categories are a wide variety of designs, features, and price points. A cheap pair of phones can be had for $10-20. Expect to pay a minimum of $40 for entry level professional models, while top-of-the line headphones can go for $300-$600, and more.
Open or Closed Case
Budget aside, which basic type of headphones to choose depends largely on your application, and most pros keep a variety around, just as they do with microphones.
DJs and drummers working with click tracks, for example, will probably want closedback headphones that isolate their ears from outside sounds. Some examples include the Direct Sound EX-29 Extreme Isolation Headphones, the Sennheiser HD280, and the AKG K 171 MK II and K 271 MkII.
The advantage of closed-back designs is that they offer two-way isolation: the listener is more isolated from external noise, but there's also less "bleed" from the headphones, meaning that mics will pick up less (if any) of the backing track when these headphones are used for tracking.
But while audio quality for closed-back phones has improved over the yearstop models can sound incredibly balancedsome musicians find the isolation of closed-back phones disorienting and the sound unnatural, especially on less expensive models. Singers, can find it difficult to hear themselves well enough to get comfortablesome even struggle to sing in tune.
One solution is to remove one ear of the headphones. A favorite feature on the popular Sony MDR-7506 is the way that each earpiece can flip up and be positioned on the wearer's head. The speaker is still covered by the head, so removing the ear cup doesn't increase bleed.
In contrast, open and semi-open models allow some sound to escape from the back of the ear-cup. This not only allows the wearer to hear more ambient sound, but also lets the sound produced by the headphones interact with the acoustical space, which some listeners find more pleasing. Singers, string players, and musicians tracking live with a band may find semi-open designs more comfortable; they can also be good for general listening in a studio when isolation's not an issue. Popular choices include the classic AKG K 141 and its newer relative, the K 241, as well as the Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro. On the higher end are AKG's new K 702 and Sennheiser's HD800, which are designed to offer audiophile sound in an open headphone design.
Look In Ear
Many musicians wear in-ear listening devices daily while listening to portable players, but should they be used in the studio?
Regular ear buds are not ideal, but higher- end models, like the Etymotic ER-6 and Shure SLC-4, provide stellar sound and excellent isolation from outside noise. In-ear devices, combined with wireless transmitters, are popular for onstage use, but can also be used in the same recording situations as closed-back over-ear headphones.
As for wireless headphones in general, sound quality continues to improve, and the convenience of working without that umbilical cord can be liberating. Similarly, headphones with electronic noise cancellation may be great if you're working in a noisy environment. But for ultra-critical listening, you'll probably want to stay with a premium set of wired 'phones.
Weighing the Features
As we mentioned at the top, you can buy a decent pair of headphones for under $50. But what’s the difference between those and models costing twoor 10time more?
Obviously, the first consideration is how well the headphones' sound fits your application. Can they deliver enough bass? Is the midrange crisp? Is the high end clear or does it sound hyped? When you turn them up, do they remain clean sounding, or is everything distorted? You may want smooth-sounding phones when you're monitoring in the control room and opt for cans with a more pronounced high-frequency response when tracking.
High-end phones use more sophisticated diaphragms and ear cup designs, and can therefore capable of producing frequency ranges that exceed all but the most sophisticated speaker systems. For example, Sennheiser's HD 380s go from 8Hz to 27kHz, and Sony's MD7509HD goes from 5Hz to 80kHzfar exceeding the recognized limits of human hearing on both ends of the spectrum.
In addition to frequency response, a headphone's impedance can also play an important role in its sound. The lower the impedance, the more efficient the 'phones arewhich means that lower impedance models like the 24-ohm Sony 7509HDs will sound louder than the 55-ohm AKG K 171 Mk IIs or 64-ohm Sennheiser HD280s when powered by the same source. Of course, with headphones, volume isn't always a consideration, and "loud" can equal "bad" when it comes to hearing safety.
Another nice feature found on many higher-end headphones is that they have replaceable parts, for example, audio cables that can be unplugged (or unscrewed) and swapped out, as opposed to the hard-wired cables found on cheaper models. Some, like the UltraSone Pro900, come with two sets of ear pads, as well.
Finally, don't ignore comfort. Although extended headphone use has its pitfalls especially if you listen at anything above moderate levelsmany musicians and producers spend hours at a time wearing them. Make sure they fit, don't weigh too much and can be adjusted for yourself and for anyone else coming into your studio.