A decent pair of monitoring headphones is a must if you want to create professional-sounding tracks. Our resident studio hound Chris Lyth suggests some good options for producers on a budget
As the old saying goes: you can only mix what you can hear. As we have previously discussed in these columns, one of the main obstacles to achieving a professional quality mix in a modest home/bedroom studio is that you’re monitoring in acoustic environments which are poorly tuned and inaccurate. Thankfully these acoustic limitations can be overcome, removing the environmental factors completely by creating an isolated environment with studio headphones.
While it is still important to check on monitor speakers and other systems, a great set of headphones is an absolutely invaluable mixing tool that will bring high-precision, full-range monitoring at a fraction of the cost of a similarly detailed pair of monitors. They are also a great way of judging the low-end of a mix when small monitors do not extend down far enough into the sub frequency. In addition to these practical considerations, it should be noted that many music listeners now use headphones as their primary listening environment, so it makes a lot of sense to ensure your track’s sounding great in the cans.
Can’t I just use my Beats by Dre headphones?
Well, yes, you can… but your mixes are likely to make the average listener envy the deaf! Many consumer headphones that I've used place what I can only describe as a gauze between me and the music. There's often a thickening of the higher bass register, scooping out the low-mids and a vagueness in the high midrange that can lead you down the wrong path tonally. There are other types of headphones that can go the other way and sound boxy, flat and lifeless.
Choosing the right pair for you is a personal decision, but with so many models on the market it can be a daunting process. So look no further than our round-up of the current best monitoring headphones to add to your auditions list…
1. Beyerdynamic DT 880 PRO (£179)
Beyerdynamic has a long history of making great studio headphones and whether you choose this model or other classics such as the DT 770 or 990 PRO, you can feel secure in the knowledge that your mix is in safe hands. These cans are used routinely by top engineers. They’re incredibly comfortable, for one thing, thanks to the soft cushioning and perfectly designed grip, which is great for those long, late-night mixing sessions. And they sound superb.
The midrange is clear and transparent, giving you a clear insight into exactly what is going on. Even in a dense mix you can hear delicate nuances like reverb tails and focus in on unwanted clips or distortions. The low-end is fast, detailed and extends right down to 5Hz, which is so low as to be ridiculous. What’s important here is that it’s not hyped or bloated and is perfectly balanced even at very low levels (many lesser products struggle to produce this level of bass detail at low listening levels).
2. Focal Listen Professional (£165)
French sonic alchemists Focal have recently dipped their toes into designing a studio monitoring headphone with, it has to be said, very impressive results. What is immediately apparent is the low-end presentation. The bass is defined and transparent: the detail and clarity down there is astounding and without hyped exaggeration, which is often crude and misleading.
The top-end is similarly detailed and open: you can practically hear what that 808 ride had for breakfast! The midrange is smooth and precise, with a slight dip around the 1kHz area leaving them slightly shy in comparison to the DT 880s and HD650s, but all frequencies appear well represented across the spectrum, making them well suited to detailed mixing duties. The general tone presents on the slightly warm side of neutral, with a very detailed low-midrange which is great for picking out boxy resonances in kicks and bass.
3. Mackie MC-250 (£81)
If you are working to a budget then you could do a lot worse than take a listen to a pair of Mackie MC-250s. There’s no stylistic frills about these:: they can have a rugged, workmanlike quality but they are genuinely no slouch in the sound department.
The midrange is even and revealing. Vocals and snares come across very naturally and, coupled with the plentiful high frequency range, they allow you to listen as deep into the mix as any good studio headphone should. You certainly won’t miss any bad edits or hiss. The low-end is full without being flabby, and although not perhaps as meticulously detailed as some of the more expensive models listed, it’s solid and provides enough low to high bass separation to get the job done. There’s a bit of a scoop in the low-midrange which I know many engineers enjoy – it’s a subtle bit of flattery, but it won’t steer you into any dangers tonally. All in all, they punch well above their weight.
4. Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (£109)
Producers who enjoy making bass-heavy tracks are in for a treat with the ATH-M50x, as the designers at Audio-Technica have put some serious work into the driver design and have managed to make a headphone with a huge, clean and detailed low-end. While they may not have the indestructible build quality of the Beyerdynamics, they’re lightweight, comfortable and provide good isolation from outside sources.
Tonally, while heavy on the low-end, they are very bright and airy which, while exciting, can end up being fatiguing to the ear during long sessions. You also need to to make sure you are aren’t taking too much high-end from cymbals and over de-essing vocals. The midrange, however, is very linear and will allow you to make mix decisions in this critical range fairly easily. Making a reference-grade headphone is an expensive business and I would say these are the most tonally hyped cans in this round-up, but they are well worth a listen if your budget is tight.
5. Sennheiser HD650 (£285)
The HD650 is the studio stalwart that’s used by many top-flight mixing and mastering engineers. It’s faithful, totally unhyped reproduction is even favoured by many classical engineers, further adding to its reputation as being the most neutral headphone on the market. It’s not a particularly new design, but it’s comfortable and great for extended mix sessions.
What is noticeable about listening to any genre through the 650s is how open-sounding, well balanced and engaging they are. The detail that they reveal is close to forensic level and they pull this off while sounding smooth and effortless. As they're not hyped anywhere across the spectrum, they may sound a little bass-lite compared to something like the ATH-M50x, but in truth you are much more likely to turn in powerful mix in the low-end with the HD650s due to their unflinching accuracy and frequency separation. In short, they are about as close to perfection as it gets.
Words: Chris Lyth