Buying quality headphones, favorites in the studio.

My friend Peter Julian from Brainspeak.com recently interviewed me for a podcast on Headphones. If you are looking for some new headphones, but find all the information out there confusing, here are some pointers to help you out.

There are several different types of headphones. The headphones I use in the studio go over the top of one’s head and lay on your ears. “Earbuds”, lay in your ears and the cable hangs below. “In Ears”  are similar to Earbuds, but, you insert them into the ear canal and they seal off noise from the outside.

I use over the ear headphones in the studio because they seal off  outside sounds from what you hear in the headphone mix. If one is mixing, or checking a mix you can use an open back over ear headphone. These allow some sound from the outside in, which can improve the sound field (the perception of space around you). In my opinion, this can be good for listening to classical music, show tunes, live recordings or generally any music that would benefit from an enhanced sound field.

There are several numbers on the box that applies to specifications for headphones. They can be quite confusing. Let me clarify some of them and help you sort through what you should and shouldn’t pay too much attention.

Driver size, which is the size of the driver, or in other words, speaker, that vibrates the air and allows you to hear the various vibrations as sound. I have seen earbud drivers range from 8 mm to 11 mm in size and while you would think that a bigger driver would give you better bass response this is not always the case. More important than driver size is the design of the earbud and how it is tuned. I don’t pay much attention to the size of the driver.

Frequency response is the range of frequencies that the headphones will produce. The human range of hearing is generally around 20hz to 20khz. That means 20 vibrations per second (very low sounds like bass guitar or the whooshes in Brainspeak) and 20,000 vibrations per second (very high sounds like cymbals, the clicks in Brainspeak would be around 3 – 8 khz I’m guessing). Everyone has a certain amount of hearing loss, or certain frequencies that they don’t hear as well as they used to. Adding to that, just because headphones rate themselves as reproducing the whole spectrum of sound (20hz-20khz) doesn’t mean that they are tuned to pleasantly reproduce the sound at the correct volume. For this reason, I don’t put too much into this number on the box. I have seen too many headphones have a good number and a not so great sound.

Ohms can be more important if you are wanting to listen on a portable device like an mp3 player or cell phone. Ohms is electrical resistance. The more ohms you have the higher the resistance and the more power is required to move the driver. Most earbuds will have a lower ohm rating. Anywhere from 16 to 64 ohms is good. This will work fine when used with portable devices. This rule also relates to headphones as well as earbuds. I have nice set of open back, over the ear headphones that I rarely use because they are 250 ohms, too high of an ohm rating to be driven by my portable devices. If you have a higher ohm rating, it forces you to turn up too much and drive the amplifier too hard and your music will become distorted.

Sensitivity is another number you may see on the headphones. It is related to ohms and is measured in decibels, (or sound pressure level) per milliwatt. This is written as db/Mw. Simply put the higher the decibels, the louder the headphones can be driven per milliwatt of power. So a higher number is better. I would shoot for a number of around 90 db or higher.

The bottom line is all headphones can have good specs, but the most important thing is sound! Some people prefer more bass, (low notes) others more treble, (high notes). Regardless, headphones should be relatively balance throughout the sound spectrum. They shouldn’t sound muddy (no treble and all bass) or shrill ) all treble and no bass) Read reviews, watch reviews  and remember you don’t have to pay a fortune for good headphones.

So… what are the best headphones for the money? Trick question! The best headphones for the money are the ones that sound best to the person that is wearing them. I can make some recommendations. Here are my favorites. I use Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, Sony, and Shure, in the studio.

My go to headphones are the ATH-M50 by Audio-Technica. They have a good balance of highs and lows and don’t take a lot of power to drive them. They have a newer model out now. I haven’t heard them but expect them to be close to the model I have. The only negative I have about these headphones is that the earpads seem to dry out after some use and become stiff. I eventually solved the problem by super glueing a set  of shure replacement earpads on to the top of the old Audio-Technica pads. It solved the problem and made the earpads a little more comfortable as well.

ATH-M50 Headphones with modded earpads

I use several different pairs of headphones in the studio when mixing. It keeps my ears fresh and every set accentuates a slightly different part of the mix. To me, however, I can get the best rough mix from a set of headphones when I use the ATH-M50’s.

I also have some headphones and earbuds that I use strictly for listening pleasure. There’s a nice on the ear bluetooth set that has a surprising amount of bass and still retains a decent amount of upper highs. They are bass forward, for sure. but they thump in a nice way and the portability is great. They are the Skullcandy Uproar Wireless and they run about 50 bucks.

I have a set of Skullcandy Ink’d headphones (newer model is linked) that I have modified with Comply foam replacement earbud tips. The foam ear tips expand against your ear and seal out the sound of the lawn mower. Thats about the only time I use these buds but they work great for mowing.

Skullcandy Ink'd Headphones with Comply Foam ear tips

My favorite headphones under 100 dollars are the Senheisser HD 280-pro. I use them in the studio for sessions and they seal off well, have good sensitivity and pretty good sound.

My favorite cheap earbuds of the moment are the Skullcandy Jib. 16 ohms and 100 db sensitivity. I believe the package says “Brilliant Highs, Unruly Bass” That pretty much sums it up. These babies really do put out impressive bass. Almost on the edge of too much, but, the highs are still there. For you tech-heads there is definitely a little bit of smiley face EQ going on there. But for $10 you can’t really put that against them. They do sound good for the price. And the silicone ear gels seal off well.

Well, there’s a few of my favorites. I definitely like to compare headphones. If I had the money I would be reviewing a lot more. That being said, I hope this has helped you a little in your quest for a set of headphones that you can enjoy. Feel free to comment or ask any questions. I’ll be glad to add to or clarify anything I can.

-Brent