WHEN WE record music, we typically choose mics that are suitable for the instrument we’re tracking—for example, a dynamic mic for a snare drum, a ribbon mic for a trumpet, or a large-diaphragm tube mic for vocals. Yet when it comes to another important set of studio transducers—stereo headphones—we often use the same set for critical listening that our drummer uses for tracking and overdubbing.
Headphones are available at a wide range of price points, and it’s not uncommon to find that the models engineered to reproduce sound in a balanced and accurate way are the most expensive. In this article, we examine a handful of mid-priced headphones, ranging in price from $199 to $499, that are designed for editing, mixing, mastering, and overall critical listening. All of the prices indicated are retail, unless otherwise noted.
All of the models in this roundup are circumaural, which means they surround the ear entirely, and the majority of them have closed-back designs, which provide isolation from external sound. Every model has a 3.5mm plug at the end of the cable, so that each is compatible with consumer devices, but an attachable 1/4" adapter is always included.
Listen Before You Buy I listened to a variety of musical styles as I tested the headphones. This included raw, unmixed vocal and instrumental tracks from sessions, as well as mixed and mastered files in various resolutions. It was not surprising that each set had its own sound, which was almost immediately identifiable.
Consequently, while materials, build quality, durability, and price of the headphones will be an important part of your final decision, much of what makes one set of headphones better than another is subjective. Your choice should be based on personal listening preferences, the type of music you work on, and how the product feels when it sits over your ears and head. Even if you don’t plan to mix an entire record with them, you will occasionally wear the headphones for long periods of time, so it is important that they feel comfortable and are not fatiguing. The only way to find this out is to try the products that interest you in person.
AIAIAI TMA-1 Studio: Young Guru Edition
TMA-1 Studio: Young Guru Edition
For its set of critical listening headphones, AIAIAI enlisted the feedback of Grammy-winning engineer/producer Young Guru to develop a product that not only works well for mixing and mastering, but are also suitable for more casual listening. The TMA-1 Studio has 40mm drivers and a frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz. I have used other models of AIAIAI headphones and this pair is the most balanced sounding of the bunch. Still, they displayed a brighter top end, a bit more bass, and a sharper sound than the other models in this roundup, which the supplied frequency-response graph clearly demonstrates.
While some might find the frequency boosts fatiguing when working with the TMA-1 Studio for long periods of time, I found them to be very helpful when editing and processing files because the extra top end helped me identify unwanted artifacts (in a similar way that the lower cost Sony headphones often do). If I had to sum up the TMA-1 Studio in a sentence, I’d say they have a “contemporary” sound.
The TMA-1 Studio is also the lightest set of headphones in this roundup and they are very comfortable to wear. According to the manufacturer, the round ear-cups are made from Japanese memory foam, which allows you to shape them to fit around your ears for maximum isolation. Should they wear out, the cups are user-replaceable.
The package also includes two removable cables that lock securely into place with a clockwise turn. The standard cable, which is straight on both ends and coiled in the middle, is tightly wrapped with material and has a 3.5mm plug with a spring cable-relief at the end. The other cable has a 3.5mm TRRS connector on one end, a built-in mic, and three buttons designed for controlling iOS products: That means you can use these for non-critical listening while taking calls from your manager and clients without removing your headphones—sweet!
The ATH-M50 remains a popular model of mid-priced headphones, and for good reason: Although not as punchy or as loud as other models in this article, these headphones reproduce transients in a very natural way. This was particularly evident on acoustic instruments, such as strummed guitar and metallic percussion.
The ATH-M50 uses 45mm neodymium drivers that yield a published frequency range of 15Hz to 28kHz. Remarkably, the high-end is smooth and doesn’t have the modern-sounding brightness of the TMA-1 Studio or the Sony MDR-7520 headphones. In addition, the ATH-M50’s low register feels solid, with plenty of definition, and there is good articulation in the midrange. Consequently, the ATH-M50 makes a nice complement to a pair of close-field monitors, which is good when you are looking for different perspectives during a mix.
Overall, the ATH-M50 feels well built, even down the plug at the end of the cable, which has a strain-relief spring. The headband is moderately padded, while the ear cups are slightly oval in shape and fit well around the ears to provide good isolation from external sounds. The cups are hinged at three points, making them easy to adjust into a comfortable position on your head or collapse into a ball that fits into the included drawstring pouch. At 10 oz. without the cable, they feel remarkably light.
The ATH-M50 is available in black, white, and, for a limited time, red. The black model can be ordered with a coiled or a straight cable; red and white are only available with a coiled cable. Audio-Technica offers a 2-year limited warranty on this product.
Sennheiser HD 600 Avantgarde
HD 600 Avantgarde
Touted as audiophile headphones that work well for engineers recording classical music, the Sennheiser HD 600 is the only open-back model in this roundup. Consequently, this model isn’t a good choice if you’re looking for something with a great deal of isolation, either internally (for you, the listener) or externally for those around you. However, if you’re looking for headphones with a natural, un-hyped sound, you’ve come to the right place.
The open back is one aspect that helps give the HD 600 a smooth sound across the frequency spectrum, although this is an occasion where the printed specs don’t tell the entire story: The manual gives a frequency range stretching from 16Hz to 30kHz with a –3dB tolerance, as well as a range of 12Hz to 39kHz with a –10dB tolerance at 1kHz. Yet a look at the frequency response chart reveals that this pair of headphones is surprisingly flat between 90Hz and 15kHz (±4dB).
Not surprisingly, playback also feels less intense. This is due in part to the HD 600’s open back, which mitigates the claustrophobic feeling that some people experience while wearing closed-back models for critical listening when they don’t need sound isolation. This is definitely a pair of headphones you can comfortably wear for a long time.
The HD 600 has elliptical ear cups that are snug around the ear, and the velour material adds to the comfort. The adjustable headband fits tightly with additional padding on the underside. The pair weighs a total of 0.5 lbs. without the cable.
The HD 600 comes with a 9-foot straight cable that is detachable, and the velour ear pads are user replaceable. In fact, these headphones can be completely dismantled and repaired if you need to replace any of the parts. Unlike the other models in this roundup, however, the HD 600 does not include a storage bag or pouch but comes in a box with a hinged lid.
Another open-back model from Sennheiser is the HD 650, which reportedly has more of the “smiley curve” frequency response in which the bass and treble frequencies are subtly enhanced. Its frequency range goes from 16Hz to 30kHz with a –3dB tolerance, and 10Hz to 39.5kHz taking into account a –10dB tolerance. The manual states that this model’s transducers are selected as pairs with a ±1dB of tolerance between the two. The HD650 also has a detachable cable and user-replaceable ear pads.
Shure designed its reference headphones, the SRH940, with slightly smaller neodymium drivers—40mm in diameter—than many of the others here. The published frequency range is 5Hz to 30kHz. Remarkably, these headphones sound as if they lack any significant boosts at the extreme ends of the spectrum.
The SRH940 provided a noticeable amount of detail from every recording I played through them. They translated transients well, providing warm and realistic timbres from hand drums in a Latin recording, with just the slightest bit of extra brightness in higher-frequency sources such as shakers and hi-hats. The low-end response was exceptionally good, making it easy to differentiate between Moog bass, electric bass, and a low kick drum that were competing for space in a synth-pop tune. The midrange reproduction was equally nice, providing an uncluttered sound from the percussive and melodic instruments in this area. If I had to sum up the SRH940 in a word, it would be “smooth.”
The SRH940 comes in a zippered, hard-shell box that includes two removable cables—one is a 10-foot coiled cable and the other a nearly 9-foot straight cable. The ends lock into the ear cup with a clockwise twist. The soft velour ear pads are replaceable and the package includes a second set. The ear cups swivel 90 degrees in one direction and fold in towards the headband for compact storage. The four foam pads on the underside of the headband help makes this set of cans comfy on the head.
The first thing you notice about the MDR-7520 is that the ear cups are an oblong shape, so they fit over the ear in a natural way. In addition, the cups are offset by about 20 degrees so that the headband is tilted slightly forward on the top of your head. Together with the lightweight design, the MDR-7520 are very easy to wear.
Sony describes the 50mm transducers as being “High-Definition”, and they certainly sound that way: I felt that I could hear into recordings a bit farther with this pair than some of the other models in this roundup, even before I looked at the marketing copy. They reproduce bass and midrange frequencies in a very focused way, and I felt like the MDR-7520 revealed more background detail in the recordings I auditioned during the review period than all of the other headphones here. However, the MDR-7520 also exhibits the high-end crispness that I associate with other Sony headphones I’ve used over the years. The documentation states that the frequency response is 5Hz to 80kHz, although it doesn’t show the tolerances.
Nonetheless, I wouldn’t hesitate to use this pair for critical listening because they provide a sonic perspective that I didn’t get from the other models or from my studio monitors. The MDR-7520 could help me hear the end of the reverb tails on an instrument within a mix or judge whether there is too much energy in the sibilance of a vocal part. On well-recorded material, the MDR-7520 is not fatiguing for long periods of listening. However, if you’re listening to over-compressed and badly mixed music, these headphones will let you know immediately.
The MDR-7520 has a removable cable that screws securely into the left ear cup. The phones are not fully collapsible, but they do fit easily into the included drawstring pouch for storage.
Gino Robair is Electronic Musician’s technical editor.