Affordable Headphones: A Musician's Guide

Closed-back models for studio and stage
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Closed-back headphone designs are used for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with the sound isolation provided, whether for the benefit of the listener or for others within close proximity. For example, this style of headphone is perfect for minimizing bleed from a click or backing track into nearby microphones when recording; drummers use these to better hear a guide track over the surrounding instruments when recording with a band, while sound engineers and DJs use these onstage to attenuate the surrounding noise while they work.

Of course, in a studio environment, a quality pair of headphones makes a nice complement to a set of close-field monitors when you are looking for different perspectives during a mix, not to mention when you are checking a master or editing source material.

Because of the many potential uses for headphones, this roundup includes several types of products— designs meant for critical listening, recording, mixing, DJing, and more casual purposes. However, we are sticking to an affordable price range of $99-$299 MSRP (with street prices appropriately noted).

FIT AND FINISH

Choosing the right pair of headphones involves more than simply checking the specs and getting the lowest price. The real-world sound quality of each model will differ, just as any transducer does, so it is important to get some listening time with the products you are most interested in.

Moreover, feel and fit are important, especially if you anticipate wearing the headphones for many hours at a time. Some products fit tighter than others or offer greater adjustability, for example—criteria that can help you decide on one pair over another.

In addition, features such as removable cables and replaceable ear pads are great to have but often add to the overall cost of the product. Consequently, it is worth considering how and where you will use your headphones when you go shopping: If you plan to use them on the road and they are likely to be damaged, it is worth considering models that have easily replaceable parts (even if it costs you a little more up front).

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AKG

AKG K553 Pro AKG’s K553 Pro ($299) pro-level headphones are intended for critical listening situations such as mixing and mastering. Featuring 50mm (nearly 2") drivers, the K553s are designed to provide the dimensionality of an open-back set of cans, but with the sound isolation offered by a closed-back pair.

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The company lists the K553’s frequency response as 20 Hz to 20 kHz (±3 dB), while promising “a strong, yet accurate and distinguished bass response as needed for monitoring and mastering contemporary music.” This model has a sensitivity rating of 114 dB SPL.

The ear cups on the K553 Pro turn sideways, allowing them to lay flat for storage. Although this model has a fixed cable, the leatherette-covered foam ear pads are replaceable.

AKG K271 MKII The K271 MKII ($299) has been around for a long time and remains popular. Designed with tracking and live mixing in mind, the headphones feature ear cups that provide a comfortable seal to minimize audio bleed that could get into mics, as well as external sounds that could hamper mixing. A handy function mutes the audio when the headphones are removed from your head.

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This model has an easily replaceable cable thanks to its mini-XLR connector, and it comes with velvet and leatherette ear pads, as well as a 16' coiled cable and a 10' straight cable, each with a 3.5" plug. The threaded 1/4" adapter screws on securely.

Intended for use by live-sound engineers, as well as bass players, drummers, and other instrumentalists, AKG’s K171 MKII ($179) boasts high noise isolation, while offering a slight boost in the bass and treble frequency range for a better listening experience. This model also features an interchangeable cable that uses a mini-XLR connector and comes with velvet and leatherette ear pads, a 16' coiled cable, a 10' straight cable, and a 1/4" adapter.

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AUDIO-TECHNICA

ATH M50x The new generation of ATH-M Series headphones from Audio-Technica was designed primarily for pro-studio use, with accessories and performance specs that help them stand out from the pack. Comfortable and lightweight, every model includes bayonet-style detachable cables with a 3.5mm end, a 1/4" adapter, a protective case or pouch, and a two-year limited end-user warranty.

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The ATH-M50x ($239; $169 street) has oblong ear cups that are slightly offset to fit easily around the ears. With its 45mm neodymium driver and copper-clad aluminum-wire voice coil, this model boasts a frequency response of 15 Hz to 28 kHz and a sensitivity rating of 99 dB. Designed for mixing or tracking, the ear cups swivel 90 degrees allowing singers and DJs to cover only one ear when working.

The headband and ear pads are durable and comfortable, and the product weighs 10 ounces without the cable. Three cables are included in order to support any studio situation—a 3.9' coiled cable, a 3.9' straight cable, and a 9.8' straight cable. This model is also available in a limited-edition, dark green color as the ATH-M50xDG ($259; $198 street).

ATH M40x The more affordable and lighter weight (8.5oz.) ATH-M40x ($139; $99 street) was designed for tracking duties and DJ use, and it also features an offset, oblong-shaped ear cup that swivels for singleear use. However, this model incorporates 40mm neodymium drivers and copper-clad aluminum-wire voice coils, providing a stated frequency range of 15 Hz to 24 kHz. The sensitivity is rated at 98 dB.

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It is worth noting that Audio-Technica’s top-of-the-line model, intended for critical listening, is the ATH-M70x ($419; $299 street), which offers a similarly sized driver and voice coil setup as the ATH-M50x, but with a stated frequency range of 5 Hz to 40 kHz and sensitivity rating of 97 dB. As we mentioned in our June review (available at emusician.com), the ATH-M70x has a clear and balanced sound across the frequency spectrum, but without the smiley-curve EQ that boosts the extreme ends.

In addition to the three detachable cables, the ATH-M70x comes with a tough, zippered clamshell case. The headphones lay flat in the case because the ear cups twist 90 degrees, like the other models in this series.

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FOSTEX

Fostex T40RPmk 3 Intended for use by DJs, broadcast engineers, and for electronic news gathering (ENG) situations, the Fostex T40RPmk3 ($199.99) utilizes the company’s proprietary Regular Phase “Orthodynamic” driver technology to improve the quality of audio playback over its previous models. The specs give the frequency response as 15 Hz to 35 kHz, with a 91 dB sensitivity rating.

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Fostex also re-engineered the headband, ear pads, and overall housing of the parts to make this T40RP more robust than the earlier models. Of the three new T Series headphones, the T40RPmk3 is the only one with a closed back and is touted on the box as having “Focused Bass.” The other two products in the T-series with Regular Phase “Orthodynamic” drivers are the T20RPmk3 ($199.99), an open-back set offering “Deep Bass,” and the semi-open-back T50RPmk3 ($199.99), featuring “Flat and Clear” sound.

All three models have a max input level of 3,000mW and come with a pair of detachable cables— a 9.8' cable with a 1/4" plug and a 3.9' cable with a 3.5mm plug for use with portable devices.

KOSS

Koss SP540 Unlike other headphones in this roundup, the Koss models have a distinctive D-shaped profile intended to provide a better seal around your ear, which, in turn, increases sound isolation. The Pro4S ($149.99) is designed for studio work and features SLX40 drivers that provide a frequency response of 10 Hz to 25 kHz and have a 99 dB SPL sensitivity rating.

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The coiled 4.5' detachable cable can be plugged into either of the aluminum ear cups: The jack on the opposite ear cup then becomes an audio output, allowing you to daisy chain the output elsewhere. The ear cups are covered in leather-wrapped memory foam, whereas the headband uses mesh-wrapped foam. Moreover, the leather pads on the ear cups are incrementally thicker at the back and bottom to balance the pressure of the headphones around the entire ear.

The Koss SP540 ($149.99) utilizes the D-shaped design, but with PLX40 elements that are “tuned for personal listening” with a frequency response of 10 Hz to 25 kHz and a sensitivity rating of 99 dB SPL. Also designed for casual listening, the SP330 ($129.99) is Koss’ on-ear model and features a PLX30 driver, providing a frequency range of 20 Hz to 25 kHz and a 101 dB SPL sensitivity rating. Both of the SP Series headphones have reinforced metal hinges and a single opening for the straight, 4.5' detachable cable.

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Koss also makes headphones with beat production and DJs in mind. The limited-edition ProDJ100w (white) and ProDJ100s (silver) ($99.99 each) provide a boosted bass response and feature spun-metal ear cups that swivel 180 degrees, allowing you to use one or both while you work. For that reason, this model includes an onboard switch that lets you change the audio output from stereo to mono. The ProDJ100 features oxygen-free copper voice coils and has an attached 8' coiled cable with a 3.5mm connector and a 1/4" adapter.

The ProDJ200 ($129.99) has the same bass boost, swivel feature, and stereo/mono playback capabilities as the ProDJ100. However, this model offers a removable cable and includes, in addition to the 8' coiled cord, a 4' iOS-friendly straight cord with a 3-button Koss Touch Control remote and in-line microphone— perfect for use with smartphones and touch pads.

All of these Koss headphones fold flat, include a carrying case, and come with a limited lifetime warranty.

PHONON

Phonon 4000 Another product that has just hit the market is the Phonon 4000 ($249), a stylish-looking “hi-fi” design that is meant for use by DJs as well as people who want quality headphones for casual listening. According to the manufacturer, the 4000 has 40mm drivers that are tuned by a “mastering engineer.” The factory specs provide a frequency range of 20 Hz to 22 kHz during playback.

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The Phonon 4000 has a fixed 4.9' cable with a 3.5mm end suitable for use with mobile audio players; a 1/4" adapter is included. Together, the entire setup weighs approximately 0.5 lbs. The ear cups fold flat for easy storage in the included pouch.

The Phonon 4000 is designed by Japanese visual artist Tadaomi Shibuya and is available in matte black and silver hairline versions. Phonon also offers the SMB-02 ($349), a pair of tuned headphones designed for critical-listening work.

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SAMSON

Samson SR950 The SR950 ($99.99) studio reference headphone features 50mm neodymium drivers in an acoustically tuned chamber. A dispersion plate sits behind the plush velour-padded ear cups. The stated frequency response is 10 Hz to 25 kHz, and the included chart shows a flat midrange with slight rise of about 5 dB at 10 kHz and another from 100 Hz to down below 20 Hz.

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The SR950 design includes a self-adjusting headband. The headphones have an 8.25' straight cable with a 3.5mm plug at the end. A threaded 1/4" adapter is provided.

SENNHEISER

Sennheiser HD380 Pro With the HD380 Pro ($199), Sennheiser offers a pair of studio-quality headphones intended for use in mixing or recording situations. They have a stated frequency response of 8 Hz to 27 kHz and are designed to handle 110 dB SPL.

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The HD380 Pro comes with a two-year warranty, replaceable ear pads, and a replaceable 3.2' coiled cable with a straight 3.5mm plug, as well as a threaded 1/4" adapter. The headphones fold flat to fit into the included carrying case.

Sennheiser HD280 Designed for monitoring use, the HD280 Pro ($99) can handle 102dB SPL and has a frequency range of 8 Hz to 25 kHz. It comes with the same warranty and cable configuration as the HD380, but without the case.

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Made with the DJ in mind, the HD 25-1 II ($249) provides a maximum output of 120 dB SPL—very useful when working in a loud environment! The frequency response is rated at 16 Hz to 22 kH. This set includes a 4.9' detachable cable with a right-angled connector and a 1/4" adapter. A carrying bag and a pair of soft ear pads are also included.

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SHURE

Shure SRH750 DJ With a long history of designing pro-quality transducers, Shure offers lines of headphones designed for studio work as well as DJing. The SRH840 ($250; $199 street), intended for mixing and monitoring, features a collapsible design, 9.8' bayonet-style removable (oxygen-free copper) cable, and offset ear cups for maximum sound isolation and fit. The 40mm neodymium drivers offer 102 dB sensitivity and have a rated frequency response of 5 Hz to 25 kHz. The package includes a threaded 1/4" adapter, a storage pouch, and a set of replacement ear pads.

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Developed with studio and home recording in mind, the SRH440 ($125; $99 street) has a detachable 9.8' coiled cable with 1/4" adapter, replacement ear pads, and carrying bag. With a 10 Hz to 22 kHz frequency range and sensitivity rating of 105 dB, this affordable pair offers output and sonics that work well for many situations—from tracking, overdubbing and practicing to casual listening on mobile devices.

Whether spinning vinyl or playing digital files, the SRH750DJ ($188; $149 street) was created with high-output DJ mixers in mind. The design includes 50mm neodymium drivers that provide 106 dB of sensitivity and a frequency response of 5 Hz to 30 kHz.

Shure SRH550 DJ This model is collapsible and allows the round ear cups to swivel 90 degrees, so you can move one out of the way or easily store the pair flat in the included pouch. Lightweight at 8oz., the SRH750DJ also includes a detachable 9.8' coiled cable, a 1/4" adapter, and replacement pads.

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A more affordable and lighter weight (0.5lbs.) option, the SRH550DJ ($125; $99 street) is designed for use with mixers as well as portable devices. Built with 50mm neodymium drivers, the headphones offer a frequency response of 5 Hz to 22 kHz, and provide and a sensitivity rating of 109 dB. However, the straight 6.5' cable on this model is attached, but the package includes a pouch, extra ear pads, and 1/4" adapter.

SONY

Sony MDR7510 The MDR-7510 ($149.99) has 50mm neodymium drivers and can handle 2,000mW input. The stated frequency response is 5 Hz to 40 kHz, with a sensitivity rating of 108 dB. This model features rectangular ear cups for increased isolation over the ears, yet it remains surprisingly lightweight at just over 9 ounces. The headphones have an attached 9.8' coiled cable with a 3.5mm plug. A 1/4" adapter and a carrying pouch are included.

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At 8.1oz, the MDR-7506 ($130), by comparison, is even lighter and slightly more compact than the MDR-7510. It features 40mm neodymium drivers in ear cups that are less rectangular than the 7510. In addition, the MDR-7506 provides a stated playback frequency response of 10 Hz to 20 kHz as well as a sensitivity rating of106 dB. It comes with a 9.8' coiled cable, 3.5mm and 1/4" plugs, and a storage pouch.

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YAMAHA

Yamaha MT120 The Yamaha HPH-MT120 ($299) headphones utilize a copper-clad, aluminum-wire voice-coil design and feature rectangular ear cups that fully cover the ears, with ergonomics intended to provide a comfortable fit during long periods of use. Each ear cup can be rotated away from the ear, allowing you to cover only one ear—great for singers when tracking, as well as DJs.

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The HPH-MT120 has 40mm drivers that can provide 96 dB SPL, and a listed playback frequency response of 20 Hz to 22 kHz. An attached 9.8' cable has a 3.5mm plug and a 1/4" adapter.

The lower-cost HPH-MT100 ($99) has rounded ear cups that are designed for comfort during tracking and overdubbing or mobile listening. The ear pieces can turn 90 degrees, giving you a great deal of positioning capability on your head, as well as allowing them to flatten for storage.

The HPH-MT100 sports 40mm drivers, but has an SPL rating of 103 dB—recording drummers, take note! The stated frequency range is 20 Hz to 20 kHz. This model comes with an attached 6.5' straight cable (with a 3.5mm angled end and a 1/4" adapter) and is available in two colors—all black or all white.

Manufacturer Websites

AKG akg.com
Audio-Technica audio-technica.com
Fostex fostexinternational.com
Koss koss.com
Phonon phononstore.com
Samson samsontech.com
Sennheiser en-us.sennheiser.com
Shure shure.com
Sony pro.sony.com
Yamaha usa.yamaha.com