Headphones for mastering and mixing: In this guide, you’ll learn everything that headphones should offer. Headphones are recommended alongside loudspeakers (at least) for supplemental monitoring during mastering and mixing sessions. Find out which criteria are really important to find the perfect model for your needs and budget – with specific recommendations for the best studio headphones in three price ranges.
In the following sections, you’ll learn what to look for in mastering and mixing headphones in terms of design, build, sound, wiring, comfort, and much more. Even if you don’t have any experience with headphones for mastering and mixing, most of the sound characteristics described here can only be verified by comparison. Therefore, we recommend visiting a properly stocked music store or ordering several models from a mail-order company with a limited return policy. You will find specific recommendations at the end of the article: Headphones for Mastering & Mixing from all price ranges.
Are studio monitoring headphones necessary?
A capable set of studio headphones designed for mixing and mastering serves as a useful complement to your speakers. It’s not unusual for them to reveal additional audio details, as well as provide a different perspective on stereo panorama and depth. Now you can mix and master your music tracks to sound great on both speakers and headphones.
Mix & Master only through headphones?
Most professional sound engineers answer the question of whether you can evaluate your music reasonably without suitable loudspeakers, i.e. with (very good) studio headphones alone, in the negative. Nevertheless, software aids like Beyerdynamic Virtual Studio, Sonarworks Reference & Co. can iron out certain weaknesses of headphones quite well – they serve to compensate for the irregular frequency responses of certain models and create virtual monitoring environments (concert hall, recording studio, etc.) with sounds that come close to loudspeaker systems.
It also depends on your needs: High-gloss productions at chart level are not to be expected with studio headphones as the exclusive monitoring tool. However, for a raw mix that is then sent to a mastering expert, they might be enough.
Studio headphones – mastering & mixing vs. recording
The classification of headphones we are interested in here is almost always called “studio headphones” by manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. However, this can be misleading, because there are also studio headphones for tape recording, which are used by musicians to monitor their voices or instruments during recording. With good headphones for mixing & mastering, you get a balanced, detailed, and spatially differentiated sound image, while sound isolation plays a subordinate role – with models for recording, the priorities are exactly the opposite. In addition, there are a lot of headphones that are specifically aimed at DJs or are simply suitable for music listeners who do not produce or DJ. Among these models, there are a few that offer the sound quality necessary for mixing & mastering, but in general, you should look for specialists – such as the models we have selected as examples for you in this guide.
Studio Headphones: What To Look For
- Technical Data
- Closed Headphones? Open Headphones? Semi-Open Headphones?
Mixing and mastering headphones are usually of open design because their sound is usually more spatially extended, sounding “freer” and “airier” than closed models. This allows individual elements to be better localized and mixed differently if necessary.
With open or semi-open headphones, sounds penetrate more loudly than with closed ones – provided your (home) studio is largely quiet, however, this is irrelevant. In addition, the sounds played by studio headphones of this type escape more to the outside, but that doesn’t matter either, because unlike in the recording room, there’s no microphone here to recapture that background noise.
- Neutral Frequency Response
Headphones for mastering & mixing should not emphasize too much bass, midrange, or treble. For example, if a headphone is too bass-heavy, this deceptive impression will initially mix a project in such a way that the bass will in turn be too weak on more neutral monitoring devices (representative of the average of all possible devices). The same applies if a headphone shows larger deviations in the mids and highs. Completely straight frequency response is technically impossible, so it rather depends on how far a model approaches this ideal. Slight to moderate deviations can be compensated with enough listening experience and supported by good studio monitors during mixing and mastering. Nevertheless, it is better to buy headphones that are well-balanced!
- Differential Surround Sound
In stereo productions, a good pair of headphones for mastering & mixing gives the impression of a stage on which individual sounds (e.g. the different instruments of a band) can be clearly located and separated from each other in the width and depth of the sound space. Only then can you make the right decisions in the DAW about the track balance controls and all the other parameters to create the spatial impression. However, the sounds in the center (classically, for example, voice, kick/bass drum, and electric bass) should be able to assert themselves over the sounds further to the left and right. In other words, there should not be a “gaping hole” in the middle of the mix, to put it that way.
- Impulse fidelity in headphones for mastering & mixing
Impulse fidelity describes how accurately the level characteristics of an audio signal are reproduced – how impulsive they are, in the transmitted and actual sense. This is particularly noticeable in the decay behavior of low-frequency signals. A kick drum that in reality decays abruptly should decay (approximately) as quickly after recording when played back through headphones, and should not trail a “tail” behind it. With impulse-true headphones, the dynamics of the individual elements in the mix can be shaped more “truthfully” – this is the basis for the purposeful use of transient designers, compressors/limiters, and other dynamic effects.
The cable should be able to be disconnected from the mastering & mixing headphones so that it can be quickly replaced with a spare cable in the event of a defect. Otherwise, the entire headphone will require time-consuming and costly repairs. A second major advantage of a detachable cable is the option to use one of a different type – there are basically the smooth form and the spiral form (“with spiral” or “coiled” called) as well as the ribbon cable. For some models, several cable versions can be found in the scope of delivery. For headphones, the normal smooth cables are common, because in this scenario, the elastic and comparatively space-saving cables with coiling are unnecessary – unlike in the DJ sector. Instead, it remains more a matter of taste. Ribbon cables have the small advantage of not tangling quite as quickly, which is relevant for listening to music on the go.
- Fit & Comfort
If you often hold longer sessions in the studio, you will appreciate fit and comfort. The strength of the contact pressure is one of the decisive factors – usually the pressure can be adjusted by pulling out the forks because this way you can adapt your listening tool to your head shape and size as well as personal preferences. Furthermore, the material, as well as the filling of the ear and head pads, are crucial. Faux leather and leather are standard, while velour is more comfortable for most people, but is not as easy to wash (off) and leads to a slightly higher heat buildup.
If the earpads are replaceable, you can remove them after a long period of intensive use, clean/wash them, and put them back on. Most, but not all, headphones allow you to replace the pads. Occasionally, models with several ear pads are included, sometimes even with different types (velour and (synthetic) leather). In general, all kinds of accessories like padded bags, several cables in different designs (see above) or even exotic items like airplane adapters could be the deciding factor for your purchase decision. Especially if two candidates seem to be equal in terms of sound and construction.
If you want to mix music in headphones, you need a headphone that is as neutral, finely resolving, and spatially differentiated as possible. It is not enough to outline the quality of a model in detail here – everything you need to know can be found in the article above. Starting at around $250, you will find a few studio headphones that are suitable for ambitious and even (semi-)professional music production. There is always room for improvement, of course, even if the quality does not increase as much as the price. Studio headphones designed specifically for mixing & mastering have a different approach than those intended for artists recording at the microphone: For the latter, the focus is only on sound isolation. Nevertheless, you’ll also find closed-back models in our studio headphone suggestions that perform well to excellently in both disciplines.
Headphones Recommendations For Mixing & Mastering
Price: $100 – $250
If you are looking for headphones under $250 that are also suitable for recording thanks to their closed design, you should definitely test this model. Sound and construction are largely flawless and the flexibility stands out – even as DJ headphones.
The modern classic from Beyerdynamic sounds exemplary neutral, accurate in dynamics and with a very convincing surround sound. Except for the permanently installed cable, we have here a perfect studio headphone for its price range, which fully meets (semi-)professional demands.
The most affordable headphones in our roundup offer a neutral sound with a differentiated impression of space. The sound is not quite as “tangible”, but certain compromises cannot be avoided in comparison with more expensive models. The manufacturer-typical self-adjusting headband and the roomy velour ear pads are good foundations for high comfort.
These headphones deliver one of the best complete packages available. It was modeled on the HS series of in-house studio monitors, and the neutrality of the frequency response is indeed reminiscent of them. Spatiality and dynamics are just as commendable for this price range. In addition, the comfort, workmanship, cabling, and, last but not least, and flexibility like DJ headphones
Price: $250 – $500
These open headphones are the latest studio headphones in Beyerdynamic’s portfolio. It offers the usual high-quality workmanship that one has come to expect from the manufacturer. Although the headphone is not the lightest, it still has a high wearing comfort, so that even long studio sessions do not become a farce. It offers a very balanced sound that allows for good analytical assessment in the mixing and mastering process. Dynamics and spatiality are also reproduced in great detail, naturally three-dimensional and transparent.
The boundaries to the top class are blurred here – this is a consistently analytical headphone for mastering and mixing that is fun to listen to at the same time. At the most, it could be criticized for its slight tendency towards a present, pithy sound. The workmanship is first-class and the scope of delivery is convincing. One of the best open models in this price range.
The first thing that catches the eye about these magnetostatic open headphones is their external appearance. The unique rectangular shape and the choice between a black or a more striking red model contribute to this. Despite, or perhaps because of, this shape, the headphones offer a high level of wearing comfort. With its defined and neutral sound, it is very suitable for mixing and reference applications in the studio. Thanks to its very wide frequency response, it provides very good reproduction in all frequency ranges.
For use as headphones for mastering & mixing, the largely neutral, very impulse-resistant sound is to be praised. The earpads are filled with memory foam, and the sound isolation is exceptionally high. You can fold the ear cups for compact transport (in the included case, if desired). Two cables are included: coiled (max. 16.4 ft) and smooth with integrated microphone + remote control (4.6 ft).
This solid body has been on the market for a while, but it has not lost any of its sonic excellence. The design is comparatively voluminous and bulky, but the weight is still within limits. For some time now, there has been a sound-optimized version in the form of the HD 800 S – for those who can spend just under $400 more.
Sound- and construction-wise flawless, as has long been expected in this price range – a high-level monitoring tool that leaves nothing undiscovered. Apart from the somewhat above-average weight, the comfort is outstanding. A headphone stand is included, but you would have to purchase replacement cables or additional ear pads separately.
This headphone gets top marks for mixing & mastering – the company further strengthens its reputation in the headphone sector. The sound is balanced from the low bass to the tops, amazingly spatial, and very disciplined and transparent thanks to the highest impulse fidelity. For this sonic excellence, the wearing comfort, and the scope of delivery with case and two cables, one accepts the weight of just under 16 oz gladly.