12 tips for choosing production headphones

AKG's top line open-backers, the K712 Pros, give a huge soundstage that really is just like listening to monitors. Good enough to mix on...
AKG's top line open-backers, the K712 Pros, give a huge soundstage that really is just like listening to monitors. Good enough to mix on...

Choosing the right pair of studio headphones is a surprisingly tricky task. Unlike monitors, it's not enough for them to simply deliver decent sound - they also need to be comfortable enough to wear for hours on end, durable enough to survive the rigours of recording and, depending on your needs, offer noise isolation and portability.

Here we've gathered 12 tips to take the headache out of headphone hunting…

1. Decide your budget and stick to it

Factor in how much you rely on headphones and what that is worth to you. Do you really need new headphones, or are your monitors in need of improvement first? An amazing pair of headphones could make your monitors sound weak and just trigger even more spending.

2. Will you need a separate amplifier?

It will require a little more research to match amplifier and headphones as you'll want them to be in the same quality bracket - the combination will only sound as good as the worst component.

3. Consider your usage

Will you use them primarily for editing and mix work? If so consider open or semi-open back models for the most natural sound. If background noise is an issue then closed back is a must. If you are a performing musician, prioritise power handling; go for a lower impedance model with high isolation (measured in dB SPL - look for 20dB or more).

The same goes for mobile recording as background noise isolation and low impedance (for battery powering) are also advantageous. There are special models for drummers and other high noise users (eg Extreme Isolation EX range or Beyerdynamic DT770M).

4. List the most important features for you

Portability, durability, power handling, power consumption, clarity, isolation, comfort over long periods or even an extended low frequency range for bass enthusiasts.

5. Draw on any previous experience, be it good or bad

You may have had a good pair and want to upgrade within the range. You may have always hankered after a set you once used in a studio.

6. Wear and tear, and spares

Will your headphones get a beating, even if that's just going in and out of a backpack? Performers sweat, and this kills ear pads and headbands. Maybe you're just a bit clumsy. If you want hard-wearing then go for a model that has readily available spares (AKG and Beyerdynamic are good in this regard). Get a carry case if you're going to be regularly mobile.

7. Do you already have an amplifier?

It may be your monitor controller or interface. Find out its output impedance to narrow down your search. You'll want headphones between five and ten times higher. A 12 output impedance suits an 80 pair, whereas a 75 outputsuits 400 or 600 headphones.

8. Ask around and always try before you buy

Start with your friends and peers. It also takes no time at all to have a listen to some trusted reference material. Don't get hung up on A/B testing though, as it is easy to lose any decent reference and just end up spotting differences.

9. Cabling design

Do you need an easily detached cable for portability? Do you want a single-sided or double- sided cable? Some, like the AKG K267 Tiesto, have a single cable that can be plugged into either side.

10. Weight or mass

If you are going to spend long periods under cans look for a comfortable lightweight design - there's no point if they sound great but your head and neck hurt when you're working.

11. Be wary of internet forum opinions and discussions

There are plenty of sensible folk with good info on all sorts of products, but be aware that it is highly subjective and prone to prejudice. Avoid audiophile voodoo and pseudo-science. Whether it's ultra pure OFC cable or making everything out of gold, it is not worth blowing your budget on things that only make 0.01% difference. The law of diminishing returns applies, with every £20 over £150 bringing less and less audible difference.

12. Try them at a store

Try everything they've got, though don't stray too far over budget. If you're planning a large investment, buy from an established manufacturer as their product will carry a warranty.

Future Music

Future Music is the number one magazine for today's producers. Packed with technique and technology we'll help you make great new music. All-access artist interviews, in-depth gear reviews, essential production tutorials and much more. Every marvellous monthly edition features reliable reviews of the latest and greatest hardware and software technology and techniques, unparalleled advice, in-depth interviews, sensational free samples and so much more to improve the experience and outcome of your music-making.