Of course you can mix on headphones, but does that mean you should? It’s an increasingly relevant question because many people listen to music on earbuds or headphones, not the hi-fi speakers that resemble what’s used for traditional mixing. Furthermore, as more people work in home/project studios, mixing at high levels could lead to a grumpy spouse or complaining neighbor.
Another consideration is economics: Headphones take room acoustics out of the equation, which can be a factor with home studios, and top-of-the-line headphones cost less than top-of-theline speakers.
However, not all headphones are created equal. Those designed for consumers sometimes “hype” the low end, high end, or both. Finding headphones that provide an accurate listening experience requires effort.
To complicate matters further, some headphone amps are more of an afterthought (few are as sophisticated as Sound Performance Lab’s Phonitor, which seems to make just about any headphone sound better). But even if you get the right headphones and a great amp, there’s still a major psychoacoustic issue because music doesn’t sound the same on headphones as it does on speakers. The sound is in your head, not in front of it, and there’s no cross-feed between channels. (I had planned to cover some of the DSP software that claims to make working with headphones more like listening to speakers, but after working with them for a while, decided they deserve their own coverage—which we’ll do in a future issue.)
In any event, now you don’t just mix so something sounds good on different speakers: Your mix has to sound great on living room speakers, cheap earbuds, and in the car. What’s an EQ reader to do?
Well, start with this roundup. We looked at nine headphones intended for recording applications, and have included a roundtable discussion of mixing/mastering on headphones, courtesy of the “in the trenches” recordists who frequent my forum at www.harmony-central.com.
Ultimately, can you mix on phones? Whether you can or not, many feel they now have to be a part of the mixing process, even if it’s just a bit part.
ROUNDTABLE: MIXING ON HEADPHONES
EQ: If you use headphones for mixing, what’s your methodology?
Roy Brooks: I tend to mix with headphones late at night, but then listen to it the next day on monitor speakers to see if it needs changes. I’m pleasantly surprised when the mix I did with headphones sounds good with monitors.
Jon Chappell: I do a variation of this. I often mix with headphones (AKG K 271 MkII) because I can hone in on the individual instruments better and listen for timing, breath noise/fret squeaks, flams, etc., faster and more efficiently than with speakers. I do make individual EQ adjustments, but sparingly.
When working with headphones, I make it a habit to swap the left and right sides, sum to mono, listen to left only (through both earpieces), then right only. This was a trick I often employed when I was a professional transcriber and music editor; it helps you hear parts in a new light. This (hopefully) eliminates any fatigue or “stuck perceptions” that my ears have picked up in the process.
Then I break for the night, and fire up the mix on the nearfields the next day. That’s when I’ll EQ or employ light compression over the stereo bus, and perform any operations that fall more in the mastering domain.
Working with headphones so much in the preliminary stages lets me learn the arrangement and individual parts well. Then when I hear the mix over speakers, it’s a brand new experience, sonically. So I still experience the music fresh in one aspect, while knowing what I’m listening to in another.
Calfee Jones: My process is similar, but lately, I’ve been thinking about how people will listen to the music—for many, it will be on earbuds and small computer speakers. So after I do the initial mix on headphones, I’ll “tune” it on the nearfields, then listen on computer monitors. If I have to optimize for one or the other, I’ll usually optimize to the computer speakers on the assumption that’s the way most people will hear the music.
Jeff Klopmeyer: It’s really important to check a mix on earbuds. I’d even guess these days, there’s more listening being done on those than any home-based speaker system.
Angelo Clematide: If I would spend the time to listen to every production over the wrong playback system, then I would never come to an end! When it sounds excellent on high resolution monitors, then it sounds good on any playback system, including headphones.
Jeff Klopmeyer: That should be true. However, not everyone has access to really excellent monitors, and sometimes listening at SPL levels appropriate for mixing isn’t possible. In any case, I do prefer to give the phones a try when listening to a mix before it’s unleashed on the world.
ROUNDUP: NINE HEADPHONES FOR MIXING
Being Executive Editor of EQ has its perqs: I asked six companies at AES if they felt it was possible to mix on headphones . . . and if so, which headphone they would recommend for a roundup. A couple weeks later, I was surrounded by nine kick-ass headphones, and the process of evaluating them began.
But first, a caution: Listening to headphones is even more subjective than listening to speakers, because the headphones interact with your ears physically. Someone with a different ear and head shape might take issue with my conclusions, and they’d be right—because any given headphone might be a better physical, as well as aesthetic, fit. So, while I have definite opinions about the sound of these phones, unfortunately they’re “all about me.” What I hope is that this roundup points you in the right direction, so you can narrow your search to the ones that seem most appealing to you. The good news is that even the inexpensive phones are solid, useful transducers. Paying more does refine the sound further, but that’s not a deal-breaker for the lower-priced models.
I evaluated each headphone by listening to music that I’d recorded—classical harpsichord and guitar, as well as full rock band with drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. I chose these because I was in the studio when recording, and know what the instruments sound like by themselves as well as when mixed and mastered. My goal was to find out if the headphones preserved the original sound quality, or added qualities of their own.
I used an Aphex headphone amp so I could plug in four sets of phones simultaneously, and switched constantly between them. During this process certain favorites developed, and I’d A/B those with other potential favorites. But I also compared the expensive phones against the inexpensive phones as a “reality check,” and this was a good move because it emphasized just how much of an overachiever some of the less costly models could be.
So let’s get to the headphones. Except for the Monster earbuds, they’re all circumaural (the ear pads go around your ear), and most come with detachable cords, some kind of carrying pouch, and a 1/8" to 1/4" adapter—check the respective websites for specs and details. In no particular order, here’s how they stack up (all prices are MSRP):
- Audio-Technica ATH-M50 ($199)
- AKG K 271 Mk II ($299) And AKG K 702 ($539)
- Shure SRH440 ($125) and SRH840 ($250)
- Sony MDR-7509HD ($265)
- Monster Turbine Pro Gold ($299.95)
- Ultrasone Proline 750 ($389) and Edition 8 ($1,499)
What’s interesting is that you could mix on pretty much all these headphones; the main difference is how much you’re going to enjoy the process, both physically and sonically. They’re all reasonably comfortable, especially compared to some older cans I used back in the day.
Let’s get the easy conclusions out of the way: If you’re going to use earbuds, do yourself a favor and get the Monsters—I’ve never heard any earbuds that come close. If your budget is really tight, the Shure SRH440 is vastly better than you’d expect for the price. The high end is a little harsher than the more expensive models, but they’re solid, accurate phones that need make no apologies.
Moving up a notch cost-wise, I was pleasantly surprised that the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 does such a valiant job of holding its own against more pricey headphones. However, in a side-byside comparison, there’s no question that the extra $340 for the AKG K 702 buys a much silkier, smoother high end and greater comfort over hours of mixing.
Similarly, when comparing the ATHM50 to the 50% more expensive AKG K 271, the ATH-M50 comes surprisingly close. I hesitate to say the ATH-M50’s high end is “harsher,” because it’s not really harsh—it’s more like the K 271 is “anti-harsh.”
The Ultrasone 750 is less expensive than the K 702, and here’s a case where I feel someone’s subjective desire of how they want to hear music on headphones comes into play. Both give less of a “headphone” sound, and both have very clean responses with excellent detail. However, they have different “personalities” and how you would react to them is a subjective call.
Which leaves us with the Sony MDR-7509HD and Ultrasone Edition 8. The Sony is about the same cost as the Shure SRH840, and would be my recommendation if you also expect to do tracking with the phones—they’re durable, and the midrange lift puts the spotlight on the all-important instrumental frequencies. However it wouldn’t be my first choice for mixing and to be fair, many of the other headphones wouldn’t be my first choice for tracking. I also think the MDR-7509HD would be ideal for DJs because of the power handling capacity, and the midrange being able to stand out compared to the huge amount of bass leakage to which DJs are typically subjected.
The Edition 8—well, they sound really great, but there’s that issue of them making something like excessive sibilance sound acceptable. It seems totally insane to urge caution because a product can be too good, but remember that the topic is mixing on headphones, not which headphone is best-suited for audiophiles. In any event, listening to music on the Edition 8 is a wonderful, enveloping experience where you almost bond with the music. It’s fortunate the 750 comes so close for so much less.
If I had to pick a winner, I’d say AKG’s K 702 hits the sweet spot—but aside from the astounding Edition 8, it’s the most expensive product in this roundup. Still, I think anyone would agree after hearing these phones that the price is more than fair, because the sound quality and comfort is undeniable.
Having said that, though, don’t feel bad if money’s tight for you right now. The lower-cost headphones are perfectly suitable for mixing—surprisingly so, particularly in the case of the bargain Shure SRH440 and “near-bargain” Audio-Technica ATH-M50—and what it really comes down to is “you get what you pay for.” Fortunately, though, with these phones you don’t have to pay all that much for something that does the job with competence and style.