Buying a set of headphones for music making can be a tricky business: how do you know what to look for and which models are worthy of consideration?
In this buyer’s guide we’ll answer the most frequently asked headphones-related questions and assess the relative merits of six pairs of cans.
First, one of the most common queries…
Can’t I just use my ‘normal’ headphones?
The cheap ’phones we use with mobiles or mp3 players aren’t up to serious recording. Better are larger sets that cover the ears fully (circumaural), comfortably and with good sound isolation both in and out. Consumer/mp3 player focused headphones (even the expensive ones) tend to follow a kind of make-the-masses-happy frequency response that might be fine for your iPod on the bus, but it’s not really what you want for recording: you want accurate and highly revealing.
How important is frequency response?
Very… to a point. It’s worth knowing that good human hearing spans approximately 20Hz to 20kHz. You feel frequencies below 20Hz, it should be said, but most commercial recordings gradually roll off everything over 20kHz.
Can you mix tracks using headphones?
You can, but the consensus of opinion from professionals is that headphones should play a secondary role to quality monitor speakers. That said, many recordists edit and mix on the road (or indeed the plane, train or bus), making headphones a must.
Power handling and sensitivity?
Power is usually quoted as ‘max’ (could be handled for a short space of time) and ‘nominal’ (regular, prolonged use). Your iPod outputs around 30mW per channel at 32 ohms. A quality headphone amp can be over 1.5 watts (1500mW) at 600 ohms. Sensitivity describes the sound pressure level for a given voltage; in short, higher sensitivity means higher perceived loudness, just like with loudspeakers.
What about impedances?
The higher the impedance rating, the more power is required to drive them. Between 30 and 80 ohms will work fine off your mp3 player, laptop or what have you (they work on lower operating voltages), and they play ‘louder’ with lower power. Get up to 250 ohms and over, and you’ll need a headphone amplifier or audio interface for optimum performance. Higher impedance, high-quality headphones used with quality amplification will sound more ‘natural’ and revealing than low-impedance types running straight off your laptop.
Open or closed-back?
Open-back (and semi-open back) headphones let air circulate through perforations in the back of the earcups and will let some sound bleed out. They can offer a more natural reproduction of music than closed-back headphones and would be a preferred choice for mixing, though you can of course mix using closed-backs. For recording, it’s more about the practicalities: a good set of closed-back headphones - crucially - won’t let sound spill out into your mics, and will also offer better sound isolation from outside noise.
Why are ‘good’ headphones so expensive?
For all the reasons above! Getting an accurate, high-quality, revealing sound requires a lot of high-quality components and exacting build standards. Add to that durable materials with replaceable parts for prolonged, professional use and the price starts creeping up.