Whether recording or mixing, which set of headphones will work for you? We compare a selection of the best models. Every week, someone on the SOS forums starts a thread asking “which headphones are the best for recording and mixing?” but the answer isn’t simple. There are two broad design categories, open-back and closed-back, and each has advantages and disadvantages. When tracking, for example, closed-back phones are the only viable option, because of the need to prevent monitoring spill reaching the mics, and external noise affecting the perceived monitor signal.
Years ago, closed-back phones tended to sound coloured (‘boxy’) and pretty dreadful, but were fine for cue feeds and checking that a recording was being made. Mixing was performed with open-back cans, which still tend to sound far more open and natural, especially at the high end. The technology of closed-back phones has moved on, though, and many are now quite usable for mixing if necessary, although our preference is still for open-backed designs where feasible. Before we consider each model in detail, then, think about what you need from your cans, and what compromises you’ll find acceptable.
We invited manufacturers to send models they thought suitable for mixing, mastering or location recording and received a selection of closed-back and open-back designs. We also added models we already owned to that list. Specifications are all well and good, but the acid test of any monitoring system is how easy it is to use, and how good the results, so what follows are our impressions of each model, taking the manufacturers in alphabetical order.
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One of The Best: beyerdynamic DT 880 PRO
"Although only semi-open, these exclude a reasonable amount of ambient sound. I wouldn’t choose them for working in a noisy environment or location recording, but they’d be fine for studio mixing. Average sensitivity allows working levels to be achieved with plenty of range either way. EQ decisions made with these seem to translate well to speakers. The sound can tend towards hard when loud, but I suspect this is simply a reflection of the absence of any significant mid-scooping. Bass is not hyped at all, making them seem almost bass-light when A/B’ing against some others, but I find their smoothly extended LF to be a more accurate representation of what’s really there. They’re also exceptionally comfortable and stable on the head, when properly adjusted, which helps to make them easy to work with for extended periods. My all-round favourite headphone for mixing." Dave Lockwood
"This semi-open design apparently incorporates an innovative bass reflex loading. These phones give poor isolation, but are very comfortable to wear thanks to the circumaural verlour earpieces. The least sensitive of the group, the require more drive than the others, placing greater demands on the quality and the capability of the headphone amp. Performance is on a par with Sennheiser HD 600, but with a slightly fuller bottom end and more natural and accurate top end than beyerdynamic’s own DT 770s. Excellent dynamics and resolution. These are Beyer’s best-kept secret!" Hugh Robjohns
"You get firm head pressure and a nice solid fit, but you not appreciate that after a heavy night! The circumaural earpads fitted my ears without cramping, but there may not be quite enough space for some. The open-back design make these less suitable for overdubbing. Tonally, you get the same kind of slightly mellow highs as on the HD 650’s, and while this avoids fatigue it’s by no means lacking fine detail: you’re made perfectly aware of early-onset distortion or excessive sibilance, without them simultaneously chewing your ears off. The mid-range frequency balance seems very true, with tonality differences between different mixes and spoken-word recordings shining out, and balances feeling sold and dependable. The bass is cooler than from the HD 650’s, and while this might seem less ‘nice’ on first listen, I found it a fraction more extended, realistic and neutral, which meant that these phones presented a gentler learning curve. For me, the DT 880s are the top of the three: they’re not quite as subjectively engaging as the Sennheiser HD 650s on a musical level, but are the closest I've got to forgetting that I’m listening on headphones! If I didn’t already own a pair of HD 650s, the DT 880s would be a no-brainer purchase." Mike Senior.
Winner, Mid-Price All-Rounder: beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO, 80 Ohms
"Supplied with a large, padded case, these are very comfortable and stable to wear for long periods, and offer moderate isolation of external sounds. They’re the same sensitivity as the DT 250s and offer a very well-balanced sound spectrum, with extended bass. The top end’s not as open as some models, but isn’t bad. These would be fine for tracking and good for mixing, but you’ll need to become familiar with them before you stop making the high end too strong." Hugh Robjohns
"The comfortable DT 770s offer a solid, punchy sound, with a good balance of detail and smoothness. I use these myself for tracking and for ‘second option mixing’." Paul White
"This closed-back design has a secure, comfortable circumaural fit, with good isolation and spill stoppage. The tone feels quite balanced, but with an upper mid-range hardness, emphasised at higher volumes, which I found slightly fatiguing – so be careful to maintain a fairly consistent monitoring level if you are going to use these as a mixing reference. The low end goes down a long way, and although not quite as tuneful as some open-backed models, nevertheless presents a pretty trustworthy balance. The low bass balance varied considerably depending on the exact coupling of the earpads with the side of the head, so be aware of this when you’re working. I preferred the low end of these phones over the similarly priced MDR 7509s from Sony, but the latter outgun the beyerdynamics when it comes to picking apart the upper regions of the mix – so it’s tricky to say which will give you the best mix. If I had to choose, I’d go for the DT 770, because it gives you a better balance, albeit at the expense of slightly less reliable overall audio-quality judgements." Mike Senior
beyerdynamic DT 150
"This classic closed-back design mimics the company’s industry-standard DT 100. While this means easy field servicing, excellent spill stoppage and good isolation. I’ve always found DT 100s a bit heavy and struggled to find a fit that feels secure. The DT 150s combination of thick, warm tonality and softened transients is tailored for overdubbing purposes, where it significantly reduces fatigue at high listening volumes. They don’t really cut it for mixing, where the lack of detail and overblown, pillow-like bass militate against useful balance or EQ decisions, and I can’t recommend the DT 150s in that role, given the competition." Mike Senior
beyerdynamic DT 250
"The DT 250s are comfortable, stable and very robust, and offer a moderate isolation from external sound. Slightly less sensitive than the AKG K 702, they’re also mildly coloured and veiled through the mid-range, with limited bass extension and squashed dynamics. They’re great for tracking in areas of heavy use, but not recommended for mixing because of mid-range colouration and dynamic compression." Hugh Robjohns
These are versatile phones that offer a decent tonal balance, albeit with a slightly scooped mid-range, and I like the non-fatiguing high end: a solid studio workhorse for tracking or routine mix checking." Paul White
"I found the DT 250s comfortable and secure. Quite bright, though not unworkably so, they give a fairly good representation of mix details and balance." Sam Inglis
"I’d rather use a pair of DT 250s than the classic DT 100 in most cases. Lighter and with a more secure fit, they provide a clearer, though still warm, tone, with better-controlled bass – but they retain the good rejection of outside noise and control over leakage. Higher listening levels make things sibilant and fatiguing compared with the DT 150s, and you lose most of the field-servicing possibilities. These are much more useful for mixing, though, because despite an initially misleading low mid-range prominence, the bass is quite well extended and clean, so you can make useful balance judgements. You lose some ground to the AKG K240 Mk II in terms of laying bare mix details and dissecting layered sounds, but the DT 250s represent a better all-round choice if you need headphones both for overdubbing and mixing." Mike Senior