Studio Headphones or Speakers for Music Production?

Studio Headphones or Speakers for Music Production

Monitor speakers are common fixtures in most any recording facility, but studio headphones have their share of fans as well.

While many traditional mixing and mastering engineers turn up their noses at the idea of using headphones in the studio, they can actually be invaluable for checking the finer details of a mix and for comparison purposes.

Let’s take a look at perps of studio headphones or speakers for music production.


Table of Contents

Read the related guides:


Different Types of Studio Headphonesopen back headphones vs closed back headphones

Studio headphones come in three basic varieties:

  • Closed-back
  • Open-back
  • Semi-open

Closed-back headphones

These are more frequently used in music production and recording as opposed to mixing and mastering. These designs tend to be quite effective at blocking out noise, making them ideally suited to hearing minute details in the music at low listening levels.

Although it may seem that the noise-blocking properties of closed-back headphones lend themselves to mixing and mastering applications, they do have the disadvantage of causing pressure buildup in the ear cups.

This can give you the impression that there is more low-frequency content in the music than there actually is.

Closed-back headphones may also adversely affect the sound, due to the sound waves being reflected off the interior of the ear cups. This makes them less suited to critical listening applications such as mixing and mastering.

Note:

closed-back headphone are not be confused with their similarly designed close cousins, the noise-canceling headphones. Closed-back headphones offer “passive noise-canceling” which means they simply physically block out sounds.

Noise canceling headphones, on the other hand, use an internal microphone to generate and effectively cancel out environmental noise using phase cancelation. For this reason, noise canceling headphones are ineffective for music production. You can learn more about them from this Wikipedia article.

Pros

  • Effectively blocks out external sound/noise
  • Enables you to focus on minute details

Cons

  • Causes pressure buildup that gives false impression of more bass
  • Inaccurate sound reproduction due to reflected sound waves

Open-back headphones

Open-back headphones have ear cups with vents or perforations, allowing sound waves to flow freely. This results in more accurate sound reproduction, which makes such designs suitable for mixing and mastering.

The open design of open-back headphones also makes the speaker drivers respond in a more efficient manner than they would in a closed-back design. The result is a wider and more open sound than you would get otherwise.

As far as headphones go, open-back designs are about as close as you could get to listening with studio monitor speakers.

That being said, open-back designs do have some disadvantages in a studio setting. Sound tends to leak out of the vents in the ear cups, potentially ruining a recording take. They also aren’t as effective as closed-back designs in terms of keeping out external sounds or noises.

Pros

Cons

  • Doesn’t keep out noise effectively
  • Leaks out noise that can be picked up during recording

Semi-open headphones

Semi-open headphones are similar to open-back headphones, with the only difference being how open they are.

These types of designs typically have vents as well, although they may not be as many or as large as the vents in open-back headphones. In terms of advantages and disadvantages, semi-open headphones are pretty similar to open-back headphones. Expect a relatively open sound, but don’t expect them to be great at recording over a microphone with due to sound leakage.

Shure has a great video on the differences. Take a look.

Types of Monitor Speakers

In terms of intended usage, studio monitors can basically be grouped into two categories:

  • Near-field monitors
  • Far-field monitors

Near-field monitors

KRK Rokit 5 G3 studio monitor
Typical Near Field Studio Monitor

As the name implies, near-field monitors are meant to be positioned closer to the listener. They are typically placed at a distance of one to two meters from the listener, although they could be as far as three meters away in larger control rooms.

Near-field monitors are best suited to smaller spaces or untreated rooms. They generally provide more accurate sound than far-field monitors in less than optimal listening environments. However, they may not provide an accurate reproduction of the low end, due to the inability of the low end waveforms to form completely.

Pros

  • Better suited to small rooms and untreated environments
  • Helps compensate for less than optimal listening environments

Cons

  • Doesn’t accurately reproduce the low end

Click to find the best near-field monitors.

Far-field monitors

ATC SCM100ASL Pro studio monitors studio monitor
Typical Far Field Studio Monitors

Far-field monitors are typically positioned about 10 feet away from the listener. They are better suited to rooms that have been acoustically treated, and are designed for high volume levels.

Far-field monitors are especially suited to gauging the accuracy of the low end response in recordings. Low frequency signals are fully formed only at around 50 feet, so these types of monitors are the only effective means for hearing the bass response accurately.

Pros

  • Allows you to gauge the bottom-end more accurately
  • Better suited to large, acoustically-treated rooms

Cons

  • Not suitable for small rooms

Usage for Specific Applications

Mixing Music

Studio headphones and monitor speakers both have advantages and disadvantages for mixing applications.

Headphones allow you to really hone in on the finer details of the audio, enabling you to hear things that would otherwise go undetected with monitor speakers.

On the other hand, headphones tend to give you an exaggerated stereo image, wherein different elements of the mix may seem be positioned elsewhere than they actually are. This could cause a number of issues in the rendered audio.

Monitor speakers are generally considered to be better suited for mixing, although they do have their drawbacks. With near-field monitors, it can be difficult to get a big picture of the overall sound, as the impression tends to be similarly exaggerated as with studio headphones.

Read the professional mixing tips for a beginner.

Monitoring Recordings

The monitoring stage is usually a lot more forgiving of the equipment that you use, as critical listening isn’t really essential.

However, you do have to ensure that you can reasonably hear everything that is being recorded. Otherwise, you could miss out on a mistake that could be corrected immediately, instead of after a playback.

Headphones are also probably better suited for monitoring in the same room as the one you are recording in. Otherwise, any open mics will pick up the sound coming from the speakers, causing everything from phase issues to feedback.

Mastering MusicBalance audio frequencies

With mastering, you will almost always want to use monitor speakers, preferably of the far-field variety. This is quite probably the best way to get a truly accurate impression of the sound.

That being said, it might be advisable to keep a pair of near-fields and even some open-backed headphones close by. You will want to make sure that your master will sound great on a wide variety of listening devices, so you will want to have the option to compare.

Most mixing and mastering engineers do not simply rely on one set of speakers, and you shouldn’t either if you care about the accuracy of your final product.

Read the proper limiter settings to use for mastering a track.


Final Thought

Though there is controversy over the issue of which is better, both studio headphones and monitor speakers have their uses in the studio, regardless of their design.

In the final analysis, it would serve you better to get a pair of headphones and studio monitors, since both offer advantages you would need.

Rather than choosing one or the other, it would be best to equip your studio with as many different options as possible, so that you will be prepared for any scenario.

However, if budget is an issue, a good pair of closed-back monitoring headphones should do the trick for you until you can get better gear.

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