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Studio Headphones — Your First Gear Purchase | Music Making for Techies

Check the previous post in the “Music-Making for Developers and Other Techies” series

Photo by Caught In Joy on Unsplash

The first item on your shopping list, in my opinion, should be a pair of studio headphones. And that’s one item that I think is worth spending money on right away. Maybe not before you play around with some DAW and decide that this is a hobby you really want to pursue. But shortly after — for sure.

What are “studio” headphones?

Most of the consumer and even audiophile headphones are designed to sound as good as the budget permits. Many are optimized for the target audience. Like Beats have notoriously emphasized bass frequencies, which sounds good to fans of bass-heavy genres. But when you try to mix bass-heavy music on a bass-emphasizing pair of headphones you inadvertently end up with a mix that doesn’t have enough bass on other speakers and headphones that are more neutral or even lacking in the bass department.

As geeks we may love our noise-cancelling Bose QuiteComforts or Sonys (affiliate links), but their core function is not helping you make music. Additionally, you want your studio headphones to be wired — you don’t need the audio artefacts and latency (however minimal) that comes with Bluetooth.

By now you have probably figured that “studio headphones” are just a pair that gives you the most neutral frequency response with no bells and whistles. Luckily, this also means that the headphones that many professional top-level producers and musicians use are not that expensive. The most popular studio headphones you see platinum producers wear are in the $100-$200 range.

Why not speakers (aka studio monitors)?

Yes, most professional producers and mixers you’ll see primarily use studio monitors (an industry term for speakers) to make and mix music. You will also see that they work in dedicated (or at least semi-dedicated) rooms that are acoustically treated. If you have the space, the budget, and the determination then by all means go for it. But in any case, you will also need a pair of headphones for when you need to “work” late at night, or just for reference. So, I say just start with the headphones and graduate to studio monitors whenever you are ready (more on this later).

But what will I be missing by producing in headphones? Good question! The main thing that is very different between headphones and monitors is stereo separation. When listening on speakers your left ear still hears what’s coming from the right speaker and vice versa. Not the case with headphones. So, it’s a good idea to always test on both. Luckily, you can test this aspect on your stereo or a consumer-level computer speakers in the early stages of your “career”.

Open or closed back headphones?

Speaking about over-the-ear headphones (studio earbuds is a rare bread that we will omit here), there are two distinct types — open back and closed back.

The names are descriptive. Open back headphones are generally considered higher quality but “leak” sound, making them a tough choice for shared spaces and a non-starter when recording vocals (or other things involving microphones). They are also generally way more expensive than the closed-back ones.

With that in mind, unless you have a budget to get two pairs or are absolutely sure that you will never record any live sounds while listening to other material, you should get a closed-back pair as your first set.

So, what do I get?

Unlike with DAWs, I will not bore you with a long list of choices. There are dozens of very solid choices on the market but there are two options that stand out in terms of how widespread they are across the whole spectrum of musicians — from total amateurs to platinum-selling artists and producers.

These two are Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (Amazon, Thomann — affiliate links) and Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro (Amazon, Thomann):

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro

Both are very popular, should be quite easy to get wherever you are, and cost approximately the same ($150-ish). Audio-Technicas fold and you can unplug and change the cable (they come with 3 cable options included) while many consider the Beyerdynamics more comfortable for longer periods and some think they sound better. Which ones to get is a matter of personal preference and you can’t go wrong with either. Ideally, if you can get both to try before buying you should do that.

One word of caution about the Beyerdynamics is that they come in three impedance variants (32, 80, and 250 ohms). If at first you will be plugging them directly into your computer’s onboard audio jack, you should avoid the 250-ohm version as your sound card is most likely not powerful enough to drive those.

These are, obviously, not the only game in town and you should explore other options if neither of these two appeals to you or if they are out of your budget. But these two are the safe bets.

In the next part we switch to things you may want in your home studio, but not necessarily need. We start with MIDI controllers.

This is a chapter from the book I’m writing. I will be posting a new chapter each week. But there’s a way to get new chapters early or even get everything I’ve written so far and support this endeavor. Click here for the details.

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Alan Mendelevich

Alan Mendelevich

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I run AdDuplex - a cross-promotion network for Windows apps. Blog at https://blog.ailon.org. Author of "Conferences for Introverts"