Are you researching how to buy headphones for music production, and confused by headphone terminology like drivers, enclosures, closed-back vs. open-back, headphone amp, and similar headphone terms?
That’s what we’ll cover in this headphones for music production guide.
This is not an audiophile headphone guide, but a music production headphone guide.. we producers have different needs.
So let’s talk about the headphone basics regarding music production to get you going, but first, what headphones for music production do I use?
Headphones I’m Currently Using:
I own both a pair of closed-back and open-back headphones.
I’ll quickly explain, review, then provide a link for you to view them.
(There are now new headphone models by this company).
My Current Closed-Back Headphones:
I currently use the beyerdynamic DT770 80 Ohm closed-back headphones for recording or protecting my ears from outside loud noise.
For recording, this is for recording vocals on my music albums.
For protecting my ears, this is when practicing piano with a mixer.
(Since a piano is loud, closed-back headphones protect my ears, and I can control piano volume with effects through microphones.. and even listen to a drum loop for AMAZING piano for producers practicing!)
I like these closed-backs with its straight cable, isolating outside noise half-decent, and preventing audio feedback when recording!
My Current Open-Back Headphones:
I currently use beyerdynamic DT990 250 Ohm open-back headphones for beatmaking, mixing, and mastering.
Since open headphones allow audio to escape, they are not a good choice for recording audio, such as making my FL Studio Courses.
They have been okay headphones.. I don’t like its coiled cable.. it’s heavy compared to the straight cable of the closed-back headphones above.
I use them as a form of testing, or at night to make music quietly.
Students of my platform, now you know my current headphones!
Headphone Basic Components:
Let’s now cover the basics of headphones.
You may find this student question about headphones for music production helpful.
The student was on the hunt for quality headphones, and I share a lot of information about how to buy headphones for music production, as well as headphone brands.
With that said, these are the basic headphone parts:
- Headphone Driver (Actual Speaker)
- Headphone Enclosure Type (Open or Closed Back)
- Headphone Band
- Headphone Ear Cushion (Plastic, Leather or Fabric)
- Audio Cable (Straight or Coiled)
- Headphone Jack (1/8″ or 1/4″)
- Amplifier (Separate from the Headphone)
Best Headphone Driver
For music production with reference monitor speakers, we typically want the biggest driver we can afford, as the bigger the speaker driver, the lower the frequencies that can be played back. (Like a subwoofer!)
But does concept hold true for headphones?
Does a bigger headphone driver mean better bass?
As music producers, hearing the low-end accurately is most important.
Why? Because the low-end is what people FEEL in their music. It’s what adds the body, the energy, and the final emotion and punch.
If you can’t hear the bass, you will choose very poor sound selection.
Wise sound selection is what makes you a good producer, and if you can’t hear your whole frequency spectrum, it’s like closing your eyes and trying to drive a vehicle!
Now I have heard people say speaker size doesn’t necessarily mean lower bass frequencies, and I don’t think that’s true.
A speaker driver needs to be big enough to handle low frequencies..
But the argument is confusing, because are we talking about can a speaker reach the low frequencies, or the quality of bass a speaker produces? (Two very different things!)
Quality of bass comes down to speaker driver type, as well as the components and its design.
Generally for headphone drivers, we look at speaker driver size, speaker driver technology, and frequency range of the headphones.
What Headphone Driver Size to Get?
As we know, most companies lie in their product specifications..
But looking at a headphone’s specifications before buying is important, as it usually shares Driver Diameter.
For example, a headphone model may offer 40mm Driver Size while another may offer 45mm Driver Size for a little more money!
Let’s say the 40mm Driver gives a Frequency Range of 30Hz to 18,000Hz, which is more than enough for mixing music and our hearing range..
But understand.. just because a speaker plays 50 Hz, doesn’t mean it plays it LOUD enough to hear it well. It can taper off at 60 Hz, trickle down to 50 Hz, but the company will still say it plays down to 30Hz..
This is why you cannot believe the specifications, as that example would mean the speaker is just BARELY passable to reproduce “30 Hz”.
Now, our 45mm Driver has a Frequency Range of 15Hz to 25,000 Hz.
This driver claims 15Hz, while the 40mm reached 30Hz.
When we talk about the low-end, 15Hz to 30Hz is DOUBLE in frequency! And because low frequencies are slow moving, with very long wave-lengths, the difference of hearing 50Hz down to 40Hz is HUGE..
Once we reach the higher range, like 400Hz to 500Hz, it’s not as drastic of a difference compared to this low-end for music production!!
The low-end area really has 3 main frequency areas.
Note, these are very general frequency areas, and are not scientific whatsoever, but a general concept to understand that bass has different areas, and it’s important that your headphones (or speakers) allow you to hear these areas for accurate mixing.
20Hz-35Hz is SUPER LOW bass that is almost not musical, but can add a lot of weight to your music.
36-70Hz is where those chunky fat basslines live!
71Hz-140Hz is where we can control a lot of the tone of that low-end bass. In a kick drum, if we increase this range, it knocks a little more.
So just keep in mind that your headphones driver size allows you to hear the full frequency spectrum, and most importantly, the low-end, which small drivers won’t reproduce, even though their product specifications may say they can reach (but just barely).
I just know from buying speakers myself.. even an 8″ woofer on a studio speaker doesn’t play low bass loud enough to accurately mix.
What Headphone Driver Type to Get?
So driver size dictates the frequency spectrum your ears will hear..
But the type of headphone speaker driver is where things start getting a little more nerdy, and since I’m not a headphone expert, I just want to talk about two main headphone driver types you’ll see in music production headphones.
It looks like there’s 6 Types of Headphone Drivers, but some are for IEM (In-Ear Monitors).
Music production headphones drivers are mainly:
- Dynamic Drivers (Moving Coil Drivers)
- Varimotion Diaphragms (Unique to AKG Brand)
- Planar Magnetic Driver (Expensive)
Dynamic Drivers are the most common in music production headphones for the sake of affordability, and producing low-bass. Unless you jump into the audiophile level, most headphones are dynamic drivers.
Varimotion Drivers are unique to AKG, included in some of their headphones and microphones. (Here’s a video about Varimotion).
Planar Drivers are VERY expensive, and hard to find in music production headphones.. most of the time you’re entering Hi-Fi audiophile here.
In short, the type of driver is just how the speaker operates to produce audio. It’s the type of technology used to output your audio through the speaker. This is most often through some type of magnet powered based off of the amplitude of your audio.
The driver technology research and development, as well as the cost of materials is the driving factor to how much headphones cost.
Also keep in mind that more expensive doesn’t always mean better in the audio world. The audio industry is one of the best industries that can take your money FAST for very small gains in audio quality improvement.
Headphones Enclosure Types
The headphone enclosure (also called Headphone Cans, or Headphone Housing) is where your headphone speaker driver is installed.
This headphone housing can either be open-back or closed-back.
You must understand the difference between Open-Back and Closed-Back Headphones for the best music production headphone purchase.
Besides that in-depth article, I’ll quickly explain closed and open enclosures for studio headphones here.
What is a Closed-Back Headphone?
In short, a Closed-Back Headphone traps audio in the headphone enclosure. This makes them EXCELLENT for recording audio because noise does not escape, and the audio will not bleed into the microphone, or cause mic feedback!
However, the downside of Closed-Back Headphones (poorly designed ones), is you can get frequency build-up, because the audio energy is trapped in the closed-back headphone enclosure.
This doesn’t mean closed-back headphones can’t be used for mixing music.. you just have to learn how the headphone sounds. Just know closed-back headphones are very powerful in the right situation.
Open-back headphones were designed to fix frequency build-up.
What are Open-Back Headphones
An Open-Back Headphone allows audio to escape the headphone to prevent audio build-up inside the headphone housing.
Open-Backs are most often used by beatmakers, mixing and mastering engineers, as well as sound design purposes for critical listening.
They should be neutral (flat) sounding, meaning they don’t add anything to the music so you can make accurate mixing judgements.
But do open-back headphones have any negatives?
Yes! Because open-backs allow audio to bleed, it will be picked up by microphones, making mixing harder, or causing feedback!
This is why understanding closed vs. open headphones is so important to spend your money wisest on music production headphones!
Headphone Band Types
For Headphone Headband Types, here’s some things to think about.
The first thing to consider is how heavy headphones are.
The headphone headband won’t be too noticeable if your headphones aren’t too heavy..
But if your headphones have weight, the headband can be annoying..
For heavier headphones, you’ll want enough foam cushion on the headband to allow for longer listening sessions.
Also understand that headphone comfort is always #1 priority, but everyone’s head is difference size, so that’s subjective..
For headphone durability, a headphone band that twists and bends is also something to help make headphones last longer.
I also recommend headphone cans that swivel, which allows for absolute maximum headphone comfort!
So to recap this headband section, I look for:
- Headband Twist / Bend Durability
- Headphone Ear Cup Swivel
Headphone Ear Cups
When it comes to Headphone Ear Cups, there’s two things to understand:
- Over-Ear Headphones vs. On-Ear Headphones
- Headphone Cushion Material
Over-Ear vs. On-Ear Headphones
On-Ear Headphones are placed directly on the ear. They have a smaller footprint, but can cause pinch points, especially if you wear glasses!
Over-Ear Headphones go over your ear, and in my opinion, with the most comfort. Over-Ear Headphones can mess up your hair for the day, so make sure to understand your working environment.
Headphone Cushion Material Types
There’s a few Headphone Ear Cup Materials like Pleather, Leather, or Fabric. Most headphones allow for ear pad replacements.
My thoughts are Pleather and Leather gets warm and sweaty in longer sessions, especially in warm months, and in cool months, leather is cool when first putting on.
Another point on pleather/leather is if the ear cups crack, they can become REALLY uncomfortable, and look really bad.
After trying a Soft Fabric Headphone Cushion, I really like these for overall temperature comfort, and breathability. Fabric ear cups can get dirtier easier, but after many years, my fabric ear cups are still perfectly usable
Audio Cable (Straight or Coiled)
You have two options for audio cable style.. which you really need to think about.. that’s Coiled Cable vs. Straight Cable for Headphones.
Most of my headphones have been straight cables, and never realized how much I liked straight cables because of how light they are.
I then purchased a music production headphone with a coiled cable, and was disappointed with how heavy it felt.. with a pulling feeling.
Straight cables often feel longer than coiled cables of the same length because a lot of the cable is inside the coils, which are really hard to stretch out, making coiled cables feel shorter!
I’ve found a straight cable stays out the way, is lighter, and gives the normal experience I’m used to.. I’m still not used to a coiled cable!!
It’s wise to look at headphones with replaceable cables to make them last a LONG time, as headphone cables are a popular point of failure!
Sometimes companies offer both coiled and straight cables!
In short, from my own experience, I prefer a straight headphone cable!
Headphone Jack (1/8″ or 1/4″)
Professional headphones have a 1/4″ TRS connector. (This is not a balanced cable, it is a left and right cable).
Because there’s a huge cross-over between music production, gaming, hi-fi, and consumer listening, headphones companies often give a 1/8″ jack on the cable (to plug into your phone), then provide a screw-in 1/4″ adapter for professional music equipment, like your audio interface.
Amplifier (Separate from the Headphone)
I will quickly talk about a separate headphone amplifier.
As a music producer, I use my Audio Interface Headphone Amp, but understand low-end audio interfaces may struggle to power headphones with a higher ohmic value.
The difference between a low ohmic value headphone and a high ohmic value headphone is how hard it is for the amplifier to drive it.
If you select a headphone with low-ohmic value, any headphone amplifier can easily drive the headphone.. for high-ohm (like 600 Ohms), it probably requires a dedicated headphone amp for clean power.
Notice how the MOTU M-Series Audio Interfaces really stress the quality of their Headphone Amp.
Once you start entering Audiophile level audio equipment, a headphone amplifier is a must for clean power that EASILY powers your headphone.
If your headphone amplifier can’t power your headphone well, you will face noise and subtle distortion, or you just won’t get the fullness of how the headphone drivers were designed!
Things Music Producers Should Not Get in Headphones
Now, just because headphones offer common features on consumer gear, doesn’t mean we producers need to purchase them.. and there’s some features you should NEVER buy in music production headphones.
Those features are:
- Bluetooth (Wireless)
- Noise Cancellation
Wireless Headphones for Music Production (Bluetooth)
Whenever listening to audio over Bluetooth, there is audio degradation. Newer Bluetooth versions have improved, but this still holds true.
In a music production environment, purchase WIRED HEADPHONES for the best audio quality in terms of latency, and audio fidelity.
Bluetooth audio can skew the audio pitch by slowing-down the song, or reducing bitrate so it can stream the audio without choppiness.
Noise Cancellation in Headphones
Because our studio environment should already be half-decent quiet, this is not a feature music production headphones should have.
Active Noise Cancellation works by monitoring the outside noise with its built-in microphone, then flipping the phase so it literally cancels out the real world audio to focus on music listening, or remove annoying noises.
It’s up to you, but I’d assume active noise cancellation skews the audio quality somewhat. I’d say disable it when in the studio.
Do Glasses Change Headphone Sound Quality?
Ever wondered if glasses effect the sound quality of your headphones, or make you hear headphone audio different because of glasses?
The answer is YES, glasses effect how you hear headphone audio.
The problem is that glasses push the headphones off the ear slightly, which skew the audio you’d normally hear. (Test it yourself!)
To prevent this, purchase On-Ear Headphones, or In-Ear Monitors.
I’ve found In-Ear Monitors (Ear Buds) the best solution when wearing glasses to hear audio consistently.
Did you know that even without glasses, if you move the headphones around your head, you will also hear the audio different?
Try it yourself! It’s really hard to hear audio the exact same way with headphones on each listening session! The way headphones sit on ears is not the same every time.
This is why it’s so important to listen to our music on multiple audio systems before releasing music publicly for mix translation!
- LISTEN: How to Get Your Music on Spotify
Recap: How to Buy Headphones for Music Production
You need to think about your music production situation.
Are you going to be recording your voice, or need to protect your ears? Then look towards Closed-Back Headphones.
Are you going to be making beats, mixing, mastering, and sound design? Then look toward Open-Back Headphones for more truthful audio!
You may wonder about calibrating your headphones and speakers with calibration software.. I personally don’t (at least for now), as it’s more important to learn how to make beats, and you can easily test on multiple audio systems (which you should be doing anyway).
This seems like an extra cost and a lot of time invested.. Have you noticed any significant improvement in your mixes, or is it just head games (like many audio products out there!). Let me know!
Finally, be careful about how the headphone wire connects to each headphone driver, as it can be very vulnerable to damage..
I hope that helps you on your way. If you want to learn professional beatmaking, try my Beatmaking Training Platform.