Any music producer will tell you that they monitor mixes through as many different systems as possible: a pair of studio monitors, a Bluetooth speaker, car stereo, and a pair of studio headphones. Indeed, no music pro would consider mixing a project without using monitor headphones at some stage. Here we have a guide to the best studio headphones to help you do the same.
Headphones (aka ‘cans’) are probably one of the most-often used items in the studio, essential for assessing the stereo image, low-end and fine detail within a mix. Like studio monitors, getting the right pair of studio headphones is as personal a choice as you can get when purchasing new studio gear.
For studio use, the best monitor headphones for you will be the ones that you can mix on and produce a result that’ll sound good wherever you play it. In this regard, the choice will be entirely subjective. Moreover, you may want a pair solely for mixing purposes, or something that can also cope with everyday music-listening duties, or a pair of workhorse headphones sturdy enough to cope with life on the road.
What you need is a round-up of the best studio headphones on the market, with reviews that highlight their strengths and weaknesses and discuss their suitability for different musical disciplines. And that’s exactly what we have for you right here.
So, read on for our pick of the top studio headphones, whether you’re a beginner or pro. Our price comparison widgets have also found the best prices on the web right now.
What are the best studio headphones right now?
If your budget is small, our choice for the best headphones for music production has to be the awesome Sennheiser HD-206. These are pocket-friendly headphones, yet sound anything but cheap. They’re fantastic for studio use, are supremely light, comfortable and durable for long days in the studio, and they're affordable enough that you can probably afford multiple pairs for your studio.
Toward the pricier end the choice gets tougher because there are so many options. We’d plump for the Focal Listen Professional. They're competitively priced and have an excellent pedigree (Focal is among the most highly-regarded monitor manufacturers), and we doubt you’ll find a better pair of headphones for the same money.
Best studio headphones: what are the main types?
There are three main types of studio headphone design: Closed-back on-ear, open back on-ear, and in-ear. Closed-back headphones are best for recording as they fully enclose the ears, and the padding around the ear helps to avoid spill; unwanted traces of the backing track leaking out and ending up on your recording.
Spill can be a problem if your performer likes to monitor loud, so when recording performers with microphones, closed-back is definitely the way to go.
Open-back cans tend to be lighter and therefore a bit more comfortable for long periods, but they’re generally not as common. Because of the higher risk of spill, they tend to be more suitable for programming and mixing duties, rather than recording, and they also don’t block out external noise quite as effectively as closed-back headphones.
In-ear monitors (aka IEM’s), meanwhile, are usually reserved for on-stage monitoring, unless they’re extremely high quality, in which case they can be suitable for use in a studio environment.
Choosing the best studio headphones for you
One aspect of headphone design that may influence your buying decision is impedance. Good ‘impedance matching’ will help your headphones work more effectively, so you need to consider what type of gear you’ll be plugging them into.
High-impedance headphones are designed for studio environments like a band recording setup, where you might find multiple sets of cans plugged into a headphone splitter box that’s receiving a high-level input signal from one source, eg. a professional headphone amplifier. Low-impedance headphones are designed to be plugged directly into a single source, like a hi-fi stereo amp, audio interface or mobile phone, so they’re able to generate sound more efficiently from the lower-level input signal these devices put out.
Generally, high-impedance headphones require higher signal levels to produce the same output level of low-impedance headphones. So broadly speaking, the higher a headphone’s impedance rating, the more ‘pro’ it was designed to be.
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It goes without saying that anything you’re expecting to be wearing for extended periods needs to be comfortable, and studio headphones are no exception. Padded ear pads are a must both from a comfort point of view and for acoustic exclusion, to stop outside noise getting in, and, if you’re going to be using them for studio recording, stopping noise from your backing track spilling out into the mics.
Having the ears comfortably surrounded by luxurious padding makes the listening experience profoundly inclusive, allowing you to block out extraneous noise from your surroundings and focus on the fine details of what you’re listening to.
There’s also the issue of hygiene – people tend to lose body heat through the top of the head, so make sure your headband and ear cups aren’t going to make you sweat.
The best studio headphones you can buy
The Focal Listen Professionals are exactly what they say on the tin; ideal for both listening and pro duties. This puts them firmly top of the class in the all-rounder category. Overall, the fit is snug, but not too tight that long periods in the mixing saddle are unbearable.
In fact far from it, the longest period of time we had them on for was around three hours, with the main issues just being back pain and the lack of blinking. While many engineers and audio specialists might prefer open-backed designs for their lack of fatigue, the closed Listen Pros perform admirably in this regard.
We found the response of these cans to be perfectly balanced, with remarkably neutral, punchy bass with plenty of extension, full, clear mids and sparkling, smooth highs. Complete with a beautiful hard-shell case, we don't think there's a better all-round studio headphone out there at this price.
Read the full Focal Listen Professional review
If you’re in the market for a cheap pair of headphones for everyday studio use, you need to check out the Sennheiser HD-206. Bearing the well-respected Sennheiser name on the headband, the extremely tough and durable HD-206’s are comfortable to wear for extended periods.
Remarkably accurate for the money, the HD-206’s measure up more than favourably to much pricier peers. The bass response in particular is rich and crisp, with plenty of detail also to be found in the mids and highs.
The hypoallergenic ear pads are more than adequate for blocking out extraneous noise whether in the studio or out on the move, and at this price, you need never fear recklessly throwing these in your laptop bag. Grab a pair before Sennheiser realise how good they are and raise the price.
The Sony MDR series has been around for years and has a solid studio pedigree, borne out by decades of daily use in the recording and broadcast sectors worldwide. The current incarnation, the MDR-7506 is a brilliant combination of comfort, practicality and value.
Extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods, these are designed to expose what’s wrong with a recording rather than what’s right. On a par with other cans costing twice as much, the sound is punchy and clear throughout the spectrum (with a moderate boost in the upper mids), while managing not to be overly-flattering.
So all in all the fact that these workhorse cans are available for well under a hundred quid is not to be sniffed at.
Another long-standing studio favourite, HD-25’s are acclaimed by pros for their ability to handle high sound pressure levels and deliver excellent sound reproduction. A stalwart of DJ booths thanks to their split headband, rotatable earpieces and reputation for durability, the HD-25 delivers punchy and accurate sound in a lightweight yet robust package.
Classified as an on-ear design, because the pads are circular and rest on the outside of the ear rather than enclosing it fully, the HD-25 is currently available in three flavours (Light, Standard and Plus) at three price points, for general studio/DJ duties you really can’t go wrong with a pair of Sennheiser HD-25’s.
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The reissued M50 ('x’ = detachable cable) is a popular model across the audio world, competing directly with Beyerdynamic and AKG. They are comfortable, fold and bend in all the right places, and are relatively light (285g).
The sound quality is good overall, though they do shy away from a detailed, airy HF region. The mids are clear and forward, while the bottom-end extends down without any peaky resonances. As with all the low impedance designs here (these are 38 ohm), they are easily driven beyond our comfort threshold.
Read our full Audio-Technica ATH-M50x review
Beyerdynamic is an audio heavyweight, responsible for the ubiquitous DT 100 tracking cans that were everywhere in the 1980’s and 90’s and are still available today. Their current range is huge, but designed specifically for mixing, the DT 1770s are exceedingly well balanced across the audible spectrum.
The mid range is free from audible phase shift, allowing the clarity essential for professional use. The sound stage projected into your head is as pleasurable as it is revealing. They provide a highly detailed view into your audio, from left to right, front to back, and even into the corners.
Being a high-impedance design, you’ll need to drive them hard, but from discrete reverb tails tucked behind a busy mid range, to tiny distortions and clips, they reproduce whatever your signal chain is capable of supplying. Audio restoration, mixing and tracking all greatly benefit from the quality the DT 1770s offer.
Read our full Beyerdynamic DT1770 PRO review
Headphones can be a good way to judge bass when the available monitors don't reach down too far, and in this regard the HRM-7s don't disappoint. There's no hyping, just a clear picture of what's going on down low. The low-mid and mid range are crucial for the real meat in any mix, and it can be easy to make a mess here without decent monitoring.
The HRM-7s present the detail in this range accurately; no carving out or pushing forward which are often the side effects of bass-hyped or bass light designs (respectively). The airy top, ie 15kHz and up, is all present and correct so you can control the 'twinkle' without second-guessing. The upper mid/early high range (5kHz) is a little overrepresented for our taste, which makes us mix this region too far back.
Read our full Pioneer HRM-7 review
Open-back designs like the ATH-R70x tend to be favoured for long mix sessions as they’re generally lighter and less fatiguing than closed-back cans, which is good news as this model has been developed especially as a reference headphone for mixing.
At this price and above we've used models with more apparent 'air', but we don't consider this a deficiency – if anything, it means you’re less likely to end up with a dull mix. Down the other end the response is no less smooth with all the extension you need without the slightest hint of boom or false fatness.
Moving up, the low mids continue unwrinkled, free from cheap scooping back (a voicing often employed to mask uneven response) so you can really hear what's going on, for better or for worse. It's all about the mids and low mids for us, and with the R70x all the juice comes through without complications; everything appears clearly delineated and unmuddled, unless the source is otherwise.
It’s a high-impedance model, so you’ll need a suitable headphone amp to connect them to for best results.
Read our full Audio-Technica ATH-R70x review
Nura’s Nuraphone system is unique in that it automatically generates a personalised user profile, then tailors its response to suit your hearing, creating a bespoke listening experience. There’s almost no point in us telling you how good these headphones sound, as they’re going to sound great to you, no matter what.
The profiling is voiced in a such a way to sound very pleasing, with a crisp and detailed top-end, slightly scooped mids and haptic drivers that deliver more than enough low-end to offer plenty of depth and immersion. Of course how this is achieved differs with each user, but they perform admirably when stacked up against other headphones at a similar price point, so be prepared to find yourself going back over old mixes and making some tweaks.
Even though the Nuraphones fit firmly into the ‘listening’ category of headphones, the technology is fascinating and they do prove useful as an alternative monitoring source in the studio – perfect for those hasty club mixes if you're missing a sub-woofer in your speaker setup.
Read our full Nuraphone by Nura review
The MP-240 uses a dynamic driver for bass and a balanced armature for the mids and highs (Mackie call it a dual hybrid design), and although this model isn’t substantially more expensive than the MP-220, we feel it’s streets ahead sonically. First up, the mid range is more defined yet overall feels less prominent, which should be less fatiguing.
However, it’s the top end where these really win, with clear yet smooth high frequencies delivering excellent articulation. Indeed, switching back over to the MP-220 only goes to hammer home how much better the MP-240 sounds.
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It’s hard to imagine IEMs delivering a sound you can rely on for production duties, but be it tracking, sound design or mixing, the E70s impress from top to bottom. They don’t quite rival an equally-priced set of headphones, especially in the bass, a region in which physics throws up some serious constraints.
Subs are audible and there’s no low mid scooping to mask poor phase response; the bass is just less punchy than you’d get with the average studio headphones.
The mids are clear and free from fatiguing peaks, so the meat of a mix can be tackled with confidence, and even if the high frequency range is slightly soft, subtle adjustments come through clearly enough that you’ll be happy using EQ in this region.
Read our full Audio Technica ATH-E70 review