Say the word headphones, and some people may picture those bean-size earbuds flimsily tethered to personal MP3 players. To recording musicians, however, the image conjured is more traditional, even historical in nature: the almost-toilet-plunger-size cups enveloping the ears, dangling from a semicircular headband resting on top of the head. For those of us in the recording business, the paradigm of studio headphones hasn't changed much since their inception, even though music-listening habits, recording technology, and even studio monitors have undergone drastic changes.
Just because today's headphones look and work pretty much as they always have doesn't mean they haven't seen improvements, especially with regard to construction and materials in the drivers, magnets, and voice coils. Because development is so active and production so healthy, recordists have a galaxy of models to choose from at surprisingly affordable prices. And all the phones auditioned here are a heck of a lot more comfortable than the set my father and I used in our ham radio days.
For this roundup, EM established a range of street prices between $150 and $220. The quality of the submitted products proved that for around $200, you can get a professional set of headphones that would not be out of place in top-call recording studios and would be a worthy addition to any project studio.
Round 'em Up
When EM approached the manufacturers about this roundup, the editors presented the price criteria and the headphone makers selected the appropriate models. As a result, you may find alternate models from the same manufacturer at about the same price. Some makers provided headphones that were better for tracking (with high SPL handling and an emphasis on bass response), whereas others submitted phones optimized for mixing (with balanced, flatter response). Because EM's only guideline was price, I received different types of headphones — mostly closed-back dynamic, but one open-air type from Grado Labs. Even with seven models that looked, felt, and sounded similar, I found differences in features, feel, and sound.
Unlike the iPod-listening masses, you will probably have multiple uses for your headphones. You may want them to be as transparent and sound as close to your existing studio monitors as possible. Or you may want heavy-duty transducers that can handle tons of bass, because you're a drummer playing along while tracking or you're behind the board doing spot-check prefade listens (PFLs) on your mix's low-end content, which is so important in urban music. A quick PFL on a soloed channel with a cranked kick has blown up many a headphone driver.
Many recordists don't need their phones to mix; they use monitors for that. However, they'll use them in other ways — to complement or augment their speakers, for example. If you're monitoring mixes to ferret out the integrity of individual performances, you might opt for headphones with a markedly different response than that of the speakers you're mixing on. A transcriber may want different phones for notating music than he or she would for creating a listening experience. Recognizing that headphones can serve different purposes, some of the participating manufacturers submitted models that weren't based on flat frequency response. For instance, Ultrasone and Sennheiser wanted to feature headphones that emphasize heavy-duty bass-handling capabilities rather than transparency.
Listening is obviously a huge part of judging headphones. My tests were centered around commercial CDs I know quite well and have used for many situations: room tuning, mastering, and other acclimating purposes. Before donning the cans for each listening session, I would warm up by listening to my faithful CDs over my Mackie HR824 close-field monitors. Once my ears were acclimated and things sounded as they should, I would then go to the headphone amp. Because some headphones are, for various reasons, louder than others, I used the different meters in my 2-track editor to monitor and compensate for any level discrepancies between models.
Listening is only one criterion I used in this roundup. I also considered factors such as comfort, isolation (with the exception of the open-air Grado Labs model), features (not many moving parts on headphones, but I was surprised at the ingenuity), and design (some unusual choices and nice surprises here as well). And now, on to the players.
AKG K 240 Mk II
AKG's K 240 Mk II headphones ($199) replace the previous K 240 model, which was one of AKG's best-selling headphones. The headband consists of a thin, unpadded leatherette strip with curved, coated steel rails above it that act as the ear-cup suspension system (see Fig. 1). This setup is unique among the seven models covered here; most use a stiff metal band with padding. The results are undeniable: AKG has one of the most comfortable and lightweight-feeling headphones in the group.
The self-adjusting headband does not feature detents or any other way to maintain the ear cups' position. The K 240 Mk IIs are one of the three models in the roundup with detachable cords. They employ a locking mechanism so that no inadvertent yanks will disconnect them. The headphones use a mini XLR connection to the ear cup housing for security and signal integrity. And because the cord has a somewhat unusual configuration (3.5 mm stereo to mini XLR), AKG graciously includes an extra cord — a 16.5-foot coiled one at that. So users not only have a backup, but they also have the option of using a coiled or straight cord depending on preference. AKG also supplies an extra set of ear pads in a velour finish. The fit and feel are quite comfortable and natural.
Though the ear cups are gimbal suspended, they don't fold or rotate widely, so they're not completely collapsible. Nor do they favor single-ear listening without readjusting and repositioning the headband. However, the flexible nature of the band and suspension rods make this a quick adjustment that, once learned, can be performed instantly.
In addition, the K 240 Mk IIs feature AKG's patented Varimotion driver, which is thinner at the edge and allows for greater excursion. The results are better low-frequency reproduction and less coloring in the higher frequencies. In the listening tests, the K 240 Mk IIs had a very true, unhyped bass sound and the most transparent mids in the group. On balance, the highs, mids, and lows all occupied the soundstage with equal felicity.
Audio-Technica's ATH-M50 headphones ($159) feature ear cups that are not perfect circles but oval shaped, which enables them to fit comfortably and snugly around the ears (see Fig. 2). The ear cups are hinged on three axes: one that allows them to collapse inward for compact storage and transport, one for rotational movement on a spindle that goes into the headband, and one on a horizontal spoke for top-to-bottom tilting. This arrangement allows for maximum adjustment of the ear cups. A series of indentations in the blades that slide into the headband, though unlabeled, allow for precise, consistent adjustment to the listener's head.
The headband is substantial and stiff, so I could sense its presence when the cans were adjusted for a snug fit, but the padding afforded a comfortable feel. Care has been taken in the cord connection at the far end: there's spring for tension relief, and the knurled barrels on the adapter and cable end make it easy to connect and disconnect the adapter.
The manufacturer intends for these headphones to be used for studio monitoring applications. I found that for acoustic-oriented material (the transients on pizzicato bass, the bell-like clarity of a Dobro), the ATH-M50s excelled. Though not as punchy as some other models, the headphones had a bass response that sounded very balanced and not under-hyped, with nice detail in the midrange. There was an honesty and integrity to the sound, with all the instruments playing nicely on the soundstage. Going back and forth between my loudspeakers and the phones proved instructive; the results were consistent in terms of balance and evenness, but other aspects of the mix revealed themselves only in the headphones — some midrange detail in the snare drum and rhythm guitar in one of my test recordings, for example. The ATH-M50s are a good companion to studio monitors; they provide a different perspective, but one that's every bit as true.
Grado Labs SR225
If you aren't concerned with blocking out ambient noise or containing the audio from your headphones, you may prefer the sound and feel of open-air cans. Grado Labs' SR225 headphones ($199) are the sole open-air type in our roundup. The company states that this design is better for bass response, as the open-air connection, vented diaphragm, and nonresident air chamber all work to incorporate the space around your head for more-natural sound reproduction. Indeed, I found that the SR225s had a particularly appealing low end.
Their design is rather retro; the ear cup spindles that protrude through the headband caps recall headphones of yore (see Fig. 3). The ear cup material is unusual, too — a foam that has roughly the consistency of an ink pad. Because the SR225s are supra-aural phones, the cushions rest directly on your ears. They feel a little unusual, too — not luxuriant like the padded cups of the other six models, but not uncomfortable. The SR225s are lightweight, and the headband is a thin, metal-reinforced leatherette.
The cable connection to the ear cups is unique among the phones in this roundup. Separate cords exit the bottom of each ear cup and join at a nonadjustable point around chest level, forming a sort of yoke. Because you can flip the yoke over your head (where the joint will fall between your shoulder blades), I couldn't find anything disadvantageous with this approach.
The SR225s have a vintage look and no-frills housing (the package doesn't include an adapter) that make it seem like these phones aren't competing in the same league as the others. And in some ways, this audiophile-oriented maker isn't competing. But the SR225s have a lovely, open sound that definitely is on a par with that of their more well-appointed competitors.
M-Audio Studiophile Q40
The Studiophile Q40 ($149) is M-Audio's only headphone model, and the company itself is new to the headphone arena. Nonetheless, it has managed to contribute some canny design elements. For starters, the Q40s get the award for being the most portable: the combination of their collapsible ear-cup mechanism and detachable cord allows them to curl up into a tight circle, so you can stuff them into a coat pocket. The ear cup blades that slide up into the headband are detented and labeled for consistent setting, and the cord screws securely into the ear cup to avoid being yanked out (see Fig. 4).
When I first put them on, the Q40s felt a little too snug. The manufacturer told me they were intentionally shipped a little tight and that flexing the band would make them looser. Although that's true, you're actually creasing the soft metal strip inside the band when you flex it, so you must take care to make this adjustment symmetrically or you'll end up with lopsided headphones that are hard to restore.
The ear cups are hinged in two places (one for the collapsing mechanism and the other in a center axle for top-and-bottom rotation), but the cups don't move or flex side to side. In addition, the headband is rigid, making single-ear listening difficult. Still, the phones are well designed and handsome. They also sound very good, especially in the low end, which was tight and punchy. There was less breathing room in the mids, but the highs were sufficiently bright and airy. With their low price (the lowest here), M-Audio makes this solid performer a very appealing choice.
Sennheiser HD 25-1 II
Of the six closed-back units in this roundup, the Sennheiser HD 25-1 IIs ($199) stand apart in several ways. Every element has been designed to be lightweight, including the cable, which is made of steel instead of braided copper. Like the open-air Grados, the HD 25-1 IIs feature a supra-aural design, so they fit on top of and against the ear rather than around it. This creates a snug feeling, but if you're in a particularly loud environment, you will appreciate the fit because it helps to block out the sound. These phones had the best isolation capabilities of the bunch. And because they also had the highest SPL rating at 120 dB, they can handle those instant PFL checks on thundering kick drums and popping bass lines with aplomb.
The HD 25-1 IIs' size is unique for studio headphones (see Fig. 5). The cups are light and of smaller diameter, of course, because they go on top of the ear, but the headband is quite thin, lightweight, and scantily padded. Here's a twist: the band splits apart into two even thinner bands, allowing you to position them on two different places on top of your head, which creates a more secure grip without making you sacrifice comfort.
Another notable feature is that the HD 25-1 IIs are completely modular. Each ear cup disconnects readily from the split cable, and the ear cup housing detaches easily from the headband by means of two exposed hex screws. Sennheiser says that any element can be replaced, from the ear cup to the cable to the headband, without soldering. For road-based repairs, this is an important feature.
Despite their light weight and small ear cups, the HD 25-1 IIs are not particularly compact. The ear cups don't hinge, and the ear cup blades don't retract into the headband. However, this is the only model in the roundup whose ear cups easily detach from the headband, allowing for single-ear listening. Because the split cable unplugs from the ear cups, setting up a semipermanent single-ear listening configuration takes seconds.
These headphones would be quite at home for a mobile recordist or someone who works with particularly high SPLs. Indeed, the short cord (4.9 feet) makes them more ideal for a field recordist or video camera operator than for a desk-bound engineer who scoots around in a rolling chair.
Sony's MDR-7509HDs ($219) feature an auranomic design, in which the outer edge of the ear cup follows the contour of the pinnae. As with the Grado Labs model, the diaphragms are angled outward, parallel to the way the ears flare away from the head, rather than parallel to the sides of the head (see Fig. 6). This places the drivers more on-axis with the ear itself.
The headphones feature a collapsible hinge, and the cups rotate slightly on a spindle, but not in the more-than-90-degree angle of the Ultrasone HFI-580s or the 180-degree sweep of the Audio-Technica ATH-M50s. The Sonys are among the most comfortable of the group, and their detented, labeled ear-cup blades ensure a predictable fit every time. Another interesting feature is Sony's “reversible ear cup for easy single-sided monitoring.” The cup rotates on a horizontal axis and snaps into place with a sort of power-assist feel.
The manufacturer points out that the frequency response goes up to 80 kHz, which is way too high for human hearing but nevertheless figures into the high sampling rates of current recording and playback technology for which these headphones are targeted. Even without supersonic hearing, I found the highs quite nice — transparent and clear without being hyped.
The input power rating (see the online bonus material “Headphone Features Compared” at emusician.com) of these phones is the highest of our review units: 3,000 mW, which means they can take a beating. And beat them I did (sonically speaking). They held their own, along with the Sennheisers, as the least distortable in the roundup. Sony stresses that some models will overemphasize certain frequency bands for a pleasing effect, but the MDR-7509HDs are for reference monitoring, accurately producing what you should be hearing.
The comfortable fit, well-designed auranomic contour, and offset diaphragms show a well-thought-out ergonomic approach coupled with a top-notch sound that's good for high-SPL and highly dynamic program material. The MDR-7509HDs and the HFI-580s get the highest marks for ergonomics; they are the classiest looking and feeling of the group.
Based on the success of its HFI-550 headphones, Ultrasone has released the improved HFI-580 model ($199), which sports a gleaming black-and-silver motif that looks like it's right out of a German automobile showroom (see Fig. 7). The ear cups swivel, rotate, and collapse, making them good for storage and single-ear listening. The ear cup blades are detented (though not labeled) and slide into position with a substantial click, allowing for consistent positioning.
The HFI-580s feature Ultrasone's S-Logic system, which purports to create a natural three-dimensional sound field not through DSP, but by physically positioning the diaphragm lower than and to the front of the ear cup. This design aims the sound at the pinnae instead of directly down the ear canal. As a result, the sound gets filtered off the outer ear, as it does when you hear sound naturally. The theory is supported by practice, because I did experience a sense of depth and separation in the sound field that was quite apparent.
But the crux of the HFI-580s is their heavy-duty application — for tracking in loud environments, and for drummers and bass players who apply particular punishment to their headphones. The manufacturer reports using 50 mm drivers (along with the Sonys, the largest in the group) and even recommends the HFI-580s as being “perfect for bass players and drummers.” Listening bears this out, as the phones have a pronounced low-end punch. The mids and highs are well balanced, if a little undistinguished. But if you're in the music environment where the low end pays the bills, and you need to track loudly and monitor your low-frequency content with PFL moves during the tracking process, the HFI-580s will do the job.
For sheer comfort and ease of use, the Audio-Technica, AKG, Sony, and Ultrasone models get high marks, with a decided tip of the hat to the Sonys for their auranomic (ear-shaped) contour and forward-placed drivers. For value, M-Audio, the newcomer to the field, has apparently benefited from the wait-and-see approach, capturing all the right features and a competitive listening experience in its low-priced Q40s. But the Audio-Technicas, at nearly the same price, have amazing sound and more-versatile positioning. The Grados are an acquired taste, as the design is deliberately retro, and the ink pad feel of the ear cushions takes some getting used to. Still, there's a definite naturalness to the sound (afforded in part by the effective use of the open-air design), and the SR225s will appeal to certain audiophiles.
The Sennheisers are a breed apart, with their small, light drivers and ultralightweight frame, but their crisp, clear sound, low-impact presence, and all-modular construction have definite benefits for live, mobile, and studio applications. Only their rather short cord seems out of place in the recording environment. For people who like their music loud, the Sennheisers and the Ultrasones both fit the bill nicely, but the Ultrasones have the edge for classy design, luxuriant feel, effective S-Logic system, and more-maneuverable ear cups.
My personal, subjective choice is most influenced by sound, as all these phones are comfortable and ergonomic. In this regard, it's a toss-up between the AKG, Audio-Technica, and Sony models. All three reproduce sound in slightly different ways, and for my sensibilities, the AKGs and the Audio-Technicas are too close to call. Both produce a smooth, true sound with superior balance, but all three are transparent and revealing, and they wear well in terms of both physical comfort and faithful sound reproduction without fatigue.
Jon Chappell is the author of four music-based For Dummies books (Wiley Publishing) as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard, 1999), Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill, 2003), and Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books, 2002).