The Best Studio Headphones


An Authoritative Guide to the Top Studio Headphones

– Feat. World Renowned Musicians

Before I start…
Disclaimer! My ratings are totally subjective, but my choices for this list is the result of:

– 10+ years of experience in the headphone and music industry
– my acquired knowledge as a regular member and lurker on Head-fi
– an obsessive curiosity that lead me to research what musicians use

Introduction

This is a super super long article. I’ll also update this as I have the opportunity to listen to more pairs. But for now if you just want to cut to the chase…

The best studio headphones are, in my tried and tested opinion:

Closed Back Designs
#1 – Audio Technica ATH-M50X Professional Studio Monitor Headphones
#2 – Beyerdynamic DT770 PRO – 250 version
#3 – Shure SRH840 Professional Monitoring Headphones
#4 – Beats Studio 2.0 Wired Over-Ear Headphones
Open Back Designs
#5 – Beyerdynamic DT-880 Pro Headphones (250 Ohm)
#6 – Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro Headphones (250 Ohm)

The Gods (within reason)
#7 – Beyerdynamic DT1770 PRO
#8 – Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro (new as of autumn 2016)

You can’t afford these (and I can’t give them a fair overview because they cost an arm and a leg)
#9 – Sennheisser HD800. I’m not even gonna link them. Their cables can cost more than most headphones
#10- Beyerdynamic T1. These are more fairly priced, but way outside of what I would normally spend on headphones.


With that out of the way…

A pair of high quality studio headphones can be a wonderful investment for anyone who wants to produce music.

Normally, these headphones are used for more specific tasks like mixing, recording and producing a variety of styles and genres like house, dubstep, hip-hop, ambient, trance, techno, electro and anything in between. However, more and more people today are acquiring studio headphones because they love the sonic accuracy they provide versus normal headphones.

Audiophiles also often tend to prefer the sound signature of studio headphones over normal consumer-marketed headphones because of their uncolored sound. Having a flat frequency response is great because it allows the listener to hear exactly what the producer intended, and it allows the producer to fine tune their songs with much more accuracy than using headphones that color the sound.

When you want to avoid making too much noise when dealing with audio production, using studio headphones is a practical alternative to using studio monitors. Spending money on headphones is far cheaper than what it can potentially cost to acoustically treat your room and buying a nice pair of speakers. These seem to be the go-to budget studio monitors. The Yamaha HS5.

This guide will feature headphones that cost between $90 to $350. But if you have the funds and want to make me incredibly envious, skip this guide and get the Beyerdynamic DT1770 PRO Studio Headphones or the Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro Studio Headphones already, as they are arguably some of the best headphones for recording. I’ll be crying in the corner with my normal human being budget. Seriously, the above two are godlike. The DT1990 recently came out and the sound is on par with some headphones I have heard costing well over $800.

What are studio headphones used for?

Studio monitor headphones are excellent for doing the following two tasks in music production:
– Monitoring while recording tracks
– Monitoring while mixing tracks

Using Studio Headphones for Monitoring while Recording Tracks

When you are recording a vocals or instruments, the vocalist or musician needs to hear what is already recorded so that they can sing or play the instrument in line with the track. It is difficult to play the guide track through studio speakers—the sound would likely spill into the recording microphone and ruin the take. The guide track can only be played through the headphones.

If you have several people recording simultaneously, you will need to provide each musician their own headphones and thus need to invest in a suitable headphone amplifier. Headphone amplifiers can allow 4+ outputs to connect multiple pairs of headphones. (See here for more information on headphone amplifiers… eventually I’ll have a link up here)

Using Studio Headphones for Monitoring while Mixing Tracks

The next situation where studio headphones are essential is when mixing the track. With recording, it was important to not let sound from your backing track feed back into the mic. With mixing, we want to isolate yourself from the surrounding world so you can focus on the intricacies of the music in an unbiased way.

Are Studio headphones still good for just listening to music?

Probably! But everyone has different ears. “Studio headphones” used to refer to a pair of headphones for professional studio use, but today, it’s a term that describes headphones that have a relatively balanced sound signature with certain properties that make it ideal for recording and mixing music. These properties are:

– Having longer cables
– Having a flatter frequency response
– Having better isolation from external sounds
– Having ear cups that surround the ear rather than laying on them

To some people this makes them less desirable–they may not be as portable or they may not sound as fun, but to others, these are all pros. I’d give them a try if you don’t need headphones that are very light and portable.

Is it possible to produce with headphones only?

You sure can, but it is not recommended.

We hear music and sound differently through headphones compared to using studio monitors (high precision speakers, basically the speaker equivalent of studio headphones). This difference is caused by the distance the sound travels to reach your ears. With headphones, the sound travels a shorter distance due to the close proximity.

In contrast, studio monitors allow the sound to interact with both the environment and room acoustics, often drastically changing the flavor of sound for the producer. Normally, you want to use studio speakers too to ensure that your songs sound good for both headphones and speakers. If you’re just starting out or have limited experience, it’s probably not a big deal to only use headphones. However, I often come across forums and people often come to me saying…

“I’ve been producing music for over five years now… and what I feel is holding me back is the fact that I don’t own a pair of studio monitors.”

– lawrencesayshi
r/edmproduction

If you use only headphones for mixing, you may only optimize your sound for headphones. With that said, there are many known artists that only use headphones for mixing, one particular example being Skrillex. People used to believe that it was essential to have studio monitors to ensure your mix was perfect, but audio gear has evolved over the past decades and what was once only possible on multi-thousand dollar equipment can now be done on a laptop, some software, and headphones (did I just lose credibility from naysayers?).

Can I use regular headphones (instead of studio ones)?

You sure can! However, studio headphones were designed for monitoring so they offer numerous advantages compared to regular headphones. The three main advantages being:

– A flatter frequency response curve for more accurate sound reproduction
With regular headphones that color the sound, what you hear won’t necessarily be what you get. If you record using a typical pair of headphones, your final product might sound terrible on other headphones and only sound good with the headphones you recorded with. Having a flat frequency response ensures that the final product has a neutral sound, so when the listener puts on their preferred headphones, the final product gets colored the way they want according to the headphones they like.

– A longer cable
Studio headphones were designed so that the listener can have lots of room to move around. Typically, cables are anywhere between 0.8m to 1.2m on standard headphones, and between 3m to 3.5m on studio headphones.

– Higher sound isolation levels
By higher isolation, I mean that external noise is more effectively filtered. Some studio headphones have active noise cancelling as opposed to passive. I don’t personally recommend these because it also changes how you perceive your voice when you record vocal tracks. It can be distracting.

The ear cups go around your ears as rather than on your ears. This is arguably more comfortable for listening sessions that last a long time.

Types of Studio Headphones

There are two types of studio headphones:

Open-back headphones
Closed-back headphones

Open-Back Studio Headphones
They have a more natural sound since they allow in environmental sound from your surroundings. More natural bass is created by pulling air in from the back and pushing out, similar to what subwoofers do. The open nature also means that the headphones often leaks out sound and it can cause problems when recording, especially for vocalists since they usually stand very close to the recording microphone. As a result, these headphones are best for mixing.

Closed-Back Studio Headphones
These isolate your ears with very little external sound entering your ears and very little sound escaping the headphones. Since spillage is minimized, closed-back studio headphones are best suited for recording.

Closed headphones also have more bass presence. This can be great for loud environments where you want to really hear that kick. As a result, most DJs tend to use closed back headphones for all-around use.

And now the million dollar question—are studio headphones better than regular consumer headphones?

The answer to this question largely depends on how you intend to use the two different headphones.

If you are an enthusiast or professional either dabbling in music production or working in the audio and music recording fields, hearing an even, flat sound is vital for creating good mixes as well as finished products. A studio headphone offers a flat sound with no treble increase or bass boost. Recording engineers need to hear a perfect sound representation of the project they are working on, and the regular headphones meant for consumer use will not offer the same level of clarity.

Consumer headphones do not reproduce flat frequency sounds. Most have increased treble and bass along with slightly recessed mid-range sound, commonly called scooped mids. This results in a punchier and deeper baseline along with soaring highs, which are the perfect equalizer settings for most ears.

If you want to upgrade from the earphones on your music player or phone, you may want to consider ignoring studio headphones unless you want to listen to a neutral sound. Personally, I want to hear what the producer intended the sound to be like, so I absolutely adore studio headphones, and that’s why I came up with this guide. These are the top studio headphones. Or rather, these are my top studio headphones. I have heard all of these.

The Best Studio Headphones

These are, from my experiences, the best headphones for recording.
The open back headphones are the best headphones for mixing.
This list will be updated as I acquire and listen to more and more headphones.

Closed-Back:

The best all-rounder –
Audio Technica M50X

Here for current price.

One of the best studio headphones I have bought without a doubt, and probably amongst my top 5 headphone purchases (out of hundreds). I have owned these for 8+ years and while most headphones come and go, these have stayed with me. These might also be one of the best headphones unamped that I have heard.

The Audio Technica M50X offers great sound quality at a reasonable cost. There are actually two models—one with a coiled cable in case you want a short cable for using them on the go, and one with a straight cable for strictly studio use. Both cables are 3m long, but the coiled one is about 1m when not stretched. Luckily you can just buy one and if the cable is a problem, just buy the alternate cable!

Their collapsible design lets me easily store them and even wear them around my neck, which makes them an excellent choice of studio headphones for travelling.

The ear pads are very comfortable for extended usage without causing sore ears. They also fit very well and can stay in place even when I am moving around. The other benefit of this fitted design is that the headphones offer great sound isolation for and outstanding listening experience even in noisy surroundings.

Lastly, one of my favorite vocalists in the music industry uses them for recording! Just look how happy BoA looks wearing them.

BoA Audio Technica ATH-M50X

Audio Technica M50X Summary
Lows: 8
Very strong and solid. Convincing but not so strong that it overpowers the rest.
Mids: 7
Excellent vocals and clear mids. Highly recommended for recording vocals. BoA said in one of her interviews that she loves these headphones for casual listening!
Highs: 7
Pretty good! They have a bit of a sparkle, but it’s not overbearing or piercing.
Soundstage: N/A
It was a little hard to tell so I can’t give it a rating. There is definitely some level of instrument separation but it’s not too noticeable. I suspect this is the case for all closed back headphones apart from the more expensive ones.
Comfort: 7
They are very very comfortable. I can wear them for hours, although in the summer my ears do get hot and I need to take them off for a minute breather every 1-2 hours.
Looks: 8
Pretty retro!
Secret Tech:
In the winter, hoho… I wear them on the way to work and use them as earmuffs. I don’t blame you if you get these just to be able to have earmuffs that produce great sound.

Runner-Up – 
Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro – 250 ohm version

Here for current price.

Beyerdynamic. Ahhhh how I love their brand. For those not familiar, all their headphones have nearly the exact same design, but each model serves a different purpose.

they-all-look-the-same

Yep, they all look the same

I owned these for 4 years before finally selling them (cleaning out my collection before moving off to Japan). I prefer the comfort of these over the above Audio Technica M50X headphones. They lack the foldable design that the M50X has, and they also don’t have a removable cable.

So you might be wondering—where’s the trade-off? Why did I even bother including these when the M50 has more features at the same price point?

Well.. They sound better and have a better build quality.

It’s not even a contest. The bass is slightly less impactful than the M50X but they are so enjoyable to listen to that they can easily be used as a non-studio headphone.

Porter Robinson DT770 Pro

Porter Robinson used them in a live performance even!

However, because these headphones have 250 ohms of resistance, they must be paired with a headphone amplifier to really shine. If you plug these into any regular audio player, they will not—and I repeat, will not sound as good as the Audio Technica M50X headphones. If you aren’t going to use a headphone amplifier, I suggest getting the 32 or 80 ohm version, as they will be much easier to drive. However, I have only heard the 32/80 ohm versions and have not owned them so I cannot speak about them with any degree of confidence.

Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro Summary – 250 ohm version
Lows: 9
SUPER addictive. They don’t have the impact of the Audio Technicas but they are very tight and controlled. EDM sounds extremely fun on these.
Mids: 7
Great mids.
Highs: 8
Their highs are underrated. Usually people buy Beyerdynamic DT880’s for the brighter sound, but I really enjoy the high frequencies on these.
Soundstage: N/A
It was also a little hard to tell.
Comfort: 8
More comfortable than the Audio Technicas. I can wear them for many hours. Remember when you were in grade 1-4 and the teacher would sometimes give you stickers with that fuzzy texture and you would spend entire minutes of your life rubbing and feeling up that fuzziness? That is what these ear cups feel like. They are just so soft and comfortable.
Looks: 7
…They all look the same and the shape and design hasn’t changed for decades.
Secret Tech:
I was transporting these from one city to another in a car with my desktop setup. The monitor somehow leaned very slightly on these headphones. That’s when I discovered the secret tech of these headphones—the DT770’s destroyed my monitor and to this day there is a crack on the corner of my monitor. I’m now convinced I can use the DT770’s as a helmet (please don’t actually try to).

For the Serious People on a Budget – 
Shure SRH840

Here for the price.
Shure is exceptionally well known amongst the professional recording industry for their microphones. It wasn’t until fairly recently (2010ish?) that they started getting serious about headphones. Prior to headphones, they dominated the IEM (in-ear monitor) market.

The SRH840 headphones have an excellent fit, though that is not synonymous with being comfortable. I owned these for 1 year.

Why did I title this “for the serious people on a budget?”, I included the SRH840 because unlike the above two headphones, this one is truly studio-spec. What I mean by that is that the sound signature is very, very flat. I’d argue that the Audio Technica and Beyerdynamic offerings, while acceptable for studio use, still carry the sound flavors of the respective brands. The Shure SRH840’s on the other hand, are true to the studio name—they have a very flat sound signature. This is important for mixing and recording, but boy do they sound dull to me. Of course, that’s because my ears are used to that V shaped frequency response curve.

Another thing to note is that it also comes with a two year warranty, where as most headphones only come with one. This could be a selling factor. Lastly, it has a removable cable, but I must complain that replacement cables are a bit on the pricey side for this.

Shure SRH840 Summary
Lows: 7
Neutral, perhaps a bit strong because of the closed design.
Mids: 7
Imagine a land of mids that got ran over and flattened by a truck. Interpret that as you will.
Highs: 7
So you know how most headphones have that V shaped frequency response curve? When you’re used to that and you receive a pair of headphones closer to a horizontal (flat) response, you tend to think it doesn’t have that great of treble at first. It took a while for my ears to adjust to it.
Soundstage: N/A
It was hard to tell.
Comfort: 6
It wasn’t the most comfortable for me, but maybe I just have a big head. People on amazon and head-fi seem to find them really comfortable.
Looks: 7
They look pretty nice!
Secret Tech:
For some reason, they have really high resale value. If you don’t like them, you can sell them used and only lose out on about 30% of your original purchase price. People like buying these I guess?

For the Hipsters – 
Beats Studio

Here for current price.

Well, what can I say. Beats are definitely not for me, but I try not to judge on the brand alone and I try to give every pair a fair listen. So I purchased these in 2013 and owned them for one year. This was the year I was dabbling in music production. They did their job and they did it pretty well.

The Beats Studio are pretty nice! They sound great and lots of musicians use them for studio mixing. Such as the wonderful (and perhaps overrated??? who knows) Skrillex.

Skrillex Beats Studio 2.0

They are easily one of the most comfortable headphones I have used. They made this list because they have unparalleled lightness, comfort, and fashion while still offering a sound suitable for music production. They also come in 10 different colors. I think that’s the most choice we’ve been given for buying the exact same headphones.

If you value these factors, then they will probably be a good investment for you.

Beats Studio Summary
Lows: 7
A bit boomy on the bass, but they’re quite addictive due to this.
Mids: 7
A little recessed, but it’s hard to notice with the adaptive noise cancelling on.
Highs: 7
This has the typical V sound. They’re quite enjoyable to listen to!
Soundstage: N/A
It was hard to tell.
Comfort: 9
Absolutely insane. I can probably wear these for over 8 hours without getting too exhausted.
Looks: 9
Very fashionable. Comes in many colors. Even the cable is colored!
Secret Tech:
Adaptive noise cancelling. It’s pretty neat stuff—ideal for noisy environments where passive isolation isn’t enough. I can’t tell if I’m being ironic or not for teasing the other headphones and then reviewing this one with a more serious tone. I’m sorry, head-fi.

Open-Back

And here we go again

Beyerdynamic DT880 / DT990 Pro

Here for current DT880 price.
Here for current DT990 price.

My choices would be vastly different if given an unlimited budget. But this is my choice for people with a *reasonable (100-300) budget. I owned the DT880’s for 3 years and the DT990’s for 1 year. I sold the DT880’s to a dear friend but totally regretted doing so, and I sold the DT990’s to try the Denon D2000’s, which I also regretted because the Beyerdynamics had outright better sound to my ears.

As mentioned above, these headphones all look the same. The cables are gigantic and long, they are indestructible tanks that are capable of breaking my monitors and making me sad.

I don’t have much else to say about these, other than the fact that you will want a headphone amplifier if you get the 250 ohm or higher versions. I have only heard the 250 ohm versions for these headphones so I can’t comment on the other versions.

Also you should keep in mind that because these have open backs, they are not the most ideal for recording as sound can leak from the headphones and feed into the mic.

Beyerdynamic DT880 Summary
Lows: 8
Incredible. They have a tight, punchy, airy bass aura and they sound better than any of the listed studio headphones on this list.
Mids: 8
No other mids from studio headphones have given me as much enjoyment as these when listening to edm. They are so, so godlike. Sometimes you hear vocals that just send chills up your spine—the DT880’s have managed to consistently give me that sensation.
Highs: 7
A slight sparkle at the top. I love it.
Soundstage: 7
Finally, a pair of headphones with great instrument separation. I debated having numeric ratings for this category, because it’s either non-existent, simply there, or great. I don’t think I can discern a 1 to 5 for this category, so I may remove this rating in the future.
Comfort: 8
Fuzzy sticker feeling all day. Oh yeah baby.
Looks: 7
They all look the same!
Secret Tech:
Capable of breaking your monitor if you try to lean your monitor on it.

DT990 Pro Summary
Lows: 8
Similar to the DT880. A bit more pronounced, but otherwise almost the same.
Mids: 7
Not as engaging as the DT880, but this is possibly due to the slightly increased bass response.
Highs: 7
V all day. Gotta love them V’s.
Soundstage: 6
It’s there. Clear instrument separation and orchestrated music sounds fantastic on these.
Comfort: 7
The material is the same as the DT880. The score is one notch lower because the clamping force of the headband is stronger. Can be good if your head is smaller.
Looks: 7
They are all the saaaaame!
Secret Tech:
Capable of breaking your monitor if you try to lean your monitor on it.

Conclusion


I hope I was able to give you a better idea of what to look for or what to look at. I still have the M50X’s with me, but I don’t produce music, I only listen to other peoples’ creations. =)

Stay tuned for more in-depth reviews and thanks for reading!