Before we get into the best headphones for music production, grab a snack, sit back and relax because…
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What I will bring you in this article
Introduction & some history
Before we get started, just know that I’m libel to talk a lot in this one, so maybe grab a few snacks and a drink! Depending on how much you enjoy culture, you may like my nostalgia-based ramblings. If not, just skip it! 😀
It was a humble setup, but I can’t remember what headphones I was using. Most likely the V150’s. Sony MDR V150 Review. They weren’t a terrible set, and in fact, I had many pairs over the years. They were my go-to low-grade dog food cans. Hehe.
It wasn’t until around 2010 did I buy a real set of reference headphones in the form of the venerable Sony MDR 7506. Sony MDR 7506 Review. I had researched quite a bit before purchase, and they got rave reviews nearly everywhere (and still do). It was my first time listening to a headphone that accurately portrayed the music, and boy howdy was I ever blown away. I think if it’s your first foray into music production, the 7506 is amazing, but I prefer its younger sibling, the MDR V6. The V6 is a bit flatter and more accurate across the board, with less treble harshness up top, and a more accurate sounding bass. It could be my imagination, but I do prefer the V6. In fact, the only reason that the 7506 was made stemmed from consumer demand for more bass. Interesting indeed. You’ll love either! Sony MDR V6 Review. I kind of spoiled my first 2 entry-level recommendations, but oh well. 😛
The 7506 served me well for a couple of years until I rage quit a Call of Duty match and threw them into a wall. I was very immature back then, so please don’t judge me! 🙁 They of course broke, with one side rendered mute. It’s quite a shame because they are fantastic sounding headphones that I will probably once again add to my collection in the near future.
Later on down the road in January 2013 I invested in a pair of Audio Technica ATH M50’s, and I still have them to this day. Audio Technica ATH M50 Review!
While I still love the M50, I don’t think they are worthy of being called a true mixing/mastering/reference headphone. The sound signature is much too boosted in all frequencies, and the mid-range will sound recessed/pushed back. They make for a great set of casual hip-hop headphones though! The best headphones for hip-hop.
In the years since I have demoed quite a few models, and currently own 10 pairs. Check my review page for all I have tried thus far.
Because I know quite a bit about music production (hip-hop in particular), I have a good idea of what you should be looking for in your first mixing headphone. Let’s go over some considerations to start!
What is your budget? There are plenty of entry-level models that will do fantastic, but we’ll also cover some mid-tier and upper echelon cans as well today.
Are you looking for the absolute best? Well, that term is a bit subjective but I’ll do my best to narrow it down according to my own research and experience. That said, the law of diminishing returns does tend to come into play after around the $300 mark, so we’ll stay semi-realistic today. That said, I still want to talk about some high priced models. 🙂 After hearing a bunch of different high-end headphones, I’m convinced of 2 big differences: One is that you’re getting more details in the music but at a significantly higher price. The second is that the lesser-known/forgotten instruments and musicians tend to get favored a lot more. Think about bands like Pink Floyd and Yes. Who were their keyboardists? Exactly. You probably don’t know, but you may. Richard Wright for Pink Floyd and Tony Kaye for Yes. A headphone in the upper echelon will bring these guys almost to the forefront, and it’s a real treat to behold. Their instrumentation becomes a heck of a lot more prominent, interesting, engaging, and profound, and you start to appreciate what they brought to the table, rather than focusing on the main guys so much. So is it worth it? It depends on you. How much is full transparency worth to you? I find that the HD600 provides about 95% of what you’re missing in junk headphones, and anything above that results in an incrementally smaller and smaller amount of added detail relative to the huge increases in price.
Closed vs. Open. There are some great options for both categories, and we’ll delve into it further in a jiffy. That said, what do you prefer? Open-back headphones will be much easier to mix over the long term, as the sound has room to breathe. It’s perfectly feasible to mix on a closed-back, but you will get fatigued faster. Just something to keep in mind. Closed back vs. Open back headphones.
Should you get an Amp or DAC?
An amp: If your headphones have a high impedance, they’re going to require more voltage (power) to perform optimally. Generally speaking, most headphones above 100 Ohm, (and even some below) need an amp of some sort. It just depends. I go into much more detail here: How to choose a headphone amp!
A DAC: A Digital to Analog converters job is to convert the 1’s and 0’s from your computer, into an analog sound that you hear (and vice versa). During a microphone recording, the computer takes the analog (your voice) and converts it into data that it can understand (1’s and 0’s). Basically, either of these exchanges is always happening depending on what you’re doing. The only reason you would upgrade a DAC is if your existing one is crappy. You’ll know because it either won’t be loud enough or just generally sound bad (noise, crackling, etc). I also go into more detail about it in the article mentioned above.
For low impedance headphones, the Sensitivity will usually be fairly high, resulting in a can that generally does well with mobile devices. What is Sensitivity in Headphones? That said, the quality of the song will still largely depend on the source file, as well as your DAC.
For instance, if you have a bad DAC and buy an amp, you’ll only be magnifying bad sound by raising the volume level. This is why it’s important to consider just what you will need and not need.
At the end of the day though, I’m nitpicking a little. Most entry-level closed backs will sound great and the discrepancies in sound quality are somewhat marginal when you’re starting out.
Now let’s get into the meat and potatoes of this thing!
A good music production headphone will provide all of the following:
Mid-range. This is super important, as you’ll be able to hear what’s going on a lot better than a headphone that artificially boosts certain frequencies. Keep in mind that with all headphones, there will be a certain degree of boosted frequency. The best of these will minimally do so and come across as balanced as possible while still giving some extra in certain areas. The upper mid-range and treble are most famous for this.
Bass. The bass isn’t too rolled off, but it’s also not bloated in any way. The problem with not having enough is that you may overcompensate in the mix, causing the final product to have too much. The problem with too much is that you may mix it down to where there’s not a lot later. This will cause you to have to go back and fix it. A good production headphone doesn’t favor either. It kind of sits somewhere in the middle, with a certain degree of inevitable roll-off in most cases.
Treble. The treble here is crisp and will be on the brighter side. The reason for this is that you’ll be able to hear mistakes in the mix a bit better, with the headphone revealing what’s going on more effectively.
Instrument separation/Soundstage. Both of these are also very important, as most cheaper models tend to bunch things up. With these higher-quality models, you’ll find that the sound opens up considerably. Sounds are no longer stacked on top of each other, and now have a tremendous amount of room to breathe and separate. This is one of the main reasons that you’re able to hear stuff that was previously hidden away or covered over. What is Soundstage?
Comfort and Durability. This is actually one of the most important components, as you’ll be mixing for quite a while if you’re anything like me! That said, I can forgive a bit of discomfort if I know the sound is stellar. Why? Because I’m going to have to take a break regardless. A lot of times you can simply take off the headphone before that crucial moment when it starts to become uncomfortable.
Now that’s out of the way. Let’s discuss options and price ranges!
Entry Level ($0-100)
Sony MDR V6/7506. As alluded to earlier, both of these headphones are fantastic for music production and depending on your bass preference, you may prefer the 7506 over the V6. I happen to enjoy the V6 more for reasons already discussed. Both of these puppies will give you the sound you’re after; tight bass, marvelous mid-range, and a treble that is bright, sparkling, and revealing, without being too Sibilant. What does Sibilant mean? However, the 7506’s tend to be more fatiguing, but again, it may just be my imagination. Don’t stress too hard about which you go with here. It’s really not a night and day difference. Learn more:Sony MDR V6 Review!
Shure SRH440. The bass on these is much lighter than a V6, and overall it’s an extremely flat sounding signature, with a bright treble that sometimes can be a bit too in your face like Tim Hardaway vs. Charles Barkley. That said, these are great for music production because they are so honest and revealing.
Sennheiser HD280. I’ve talked quite a bit about these over the years, as I owned them at one point and thought they were fantastic for mixing. The only problem with the 280 is the somewhat hollowed out mid-bass. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out what my issue with the headphone was until I saw this graph and it made sense. Mid-bass helps give the song some intensity and excitement, but Sennheiser tried something different here. The good news is that it works fairly well for music production because the headphone tends to give you a blank stare most of the time. The sound signature is just that flat, bordering on lifeless actually. That said, still a good option but I would place it after the rest of the aforementioned models.
Philips SHP9500. One of the easiest outright recommendations I’ll probably ever make, the SHP9500 is simply astounding given its price. It’s no secret anymore, but these cans are the real deal. In fact, out of all the entry-level models, this is my absolute favorite because it feels way more durable than it should be, and comfort is the bomb.com. The best part about it is that it’s actually just about as good as an HD600 at a fraction of the cost. Yeah, I said it! 😀 🙂 😛 Learn more:Philips SHP9500 Review!
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AKG K240 Studio. Another easy recommendation, the K240 has a similar sound signature like the others, with perhaps the leanest bass out of them all, and an extremely revealing mid-range. Placed last because they feel like a toy, but the sound signature is still worth the price of admission. Learn more: AKG K240 Review!
Mid-tier ($100 – 300)
AKG K550. This puppy mimics an open back in that the sound is extremely spacious and airy, with an almost flawless sound signature. Definitely the top dog in this price range, the K550 renders everything with a startling crispness that’s hard to define. The soundstage is awesome as well. The caveat is that it’s hard to get a good fit at first, but persevere and you should be fine. What is Soundstage?Learn more: AKG K550 Review!
Sennheiser HD600. Another easy pick, the HD600 is my favorite all-around headphone in any price category, and for good reason. This guy has stood the test of time, being around since 1997 and not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s the quintessential studio headphone and is just about the most balanced overall headphone you’ll come across. Like the 280, it will also give you an even blanker stare, with its sterile, clean, and an almost clinical sound signature that reveals much but won’t color anything. This is the perfect reference headphone and will serve you well for many years. Learn more:Sennheiser HD600 Review!!
Beyerdynamic DT880. A similar sound to the 600’s, but with a much brighter treble and an overall more surgical sound. I rate these second because the treble can become too piercing at times. Still a great overall buy and if you don’t want to spend as much but want a headphone now, the 880 delivers.
AKG K701/702/Q701. I’ve never really been able to decide between these three, as they’re all so similar. If I had a gun to my head, I would probably go with the Q701 because the unnaturally wide Soundstage was fixed on it, and it’s got a bit more bass. The 701 and 702 were both accused of an anemic, non-existent bass, but AKG listened and improved upon that with the Quincy Jones homie.
Audio Technica ATH AD900x. This one is extremely flat, almost to a fault but it makes for a great reference can. Also called one of the best for Gaming because you can pinpoint all kinds of stuff that other headphones simply can’t. It’s also much cheaper than the above options, so if you want to get your feet wet, look no further! The same applies to the bass: It rolls off like a boulder over a cliff. Learn more:Audio Technica ATH AD900x Review!
High End ($300 and beyond)
Audeze Sine. Simply one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a headphone, this thing has close to, if not the most accurate instrument Timbre I’ve personally come across. What is Timbre? Everything sounds so natural and revealing, that I have a hard time not throwing my credit card at the sales clerk at Audio Advice. Learn more:Audeze Sine Review!
Sony MDR Z1R. Wow. Incredible. Amazing. Words can’t describe this closed-back behemoth which actually sounds more like an open back somehow. It’s crazy. You gotta try it. Can you tell I’m getting tired? Upon first glance, this may look like it would knock your block clear off, but rest assured this beast of a headphone is no Audeze in weight. It’s rather light and feels like a feather on your dome piece. The sound? Out of this world, baby. Learn more:Sony MDR Z1R Review!
Sennheiser HD800S. The quintessential “expensive” headphone, these are some of the best cans on the planet, even before Sennheiser listened to user feedback by taming down the 6k peak which bothered many with the original HD800. Do you want a flat signature? The 800S delivers like the Pizza man! Or Karl Malone.
Focal Utopia. Oh. My. God. Yeah, you’ll hear everything with these. EVERYTHING. If someone pissed themselves in the studio, you’ll hear it. If someone farted, you’ll know. You’ll smell it THROUGH the headphones. Woo! Like Ric Flair baby! Yeah, get a whiff of these $4,000 monsters. They are everything you could ever want and then some. Check out my really entertaining Focal Utopia Review!!
Well, I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you, but those are the headphones you should take into consideration for sure. Here are my overall top picks in all categories.
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.