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What are studio, monitoring, mixing, and reference headphones?

Buying the right headphones is often a more confusing task than it needs to be. Most headphones look relatively similar, so if you’re a newbie, you’d be forgiven for assuming they all do the same thing.

However, there are a few fundamental features that make certain types more suitable for particular uses. We are taking a look at the different kinds of headphones available, what they are good at, and why you should buy them.

Our main focus will be on studio headphones and the various roles they play in music production and editing.

What are studio headphones?

In the studio, headphones serve several purposes, including monitoring, mixing/mastering, and listening to music. Listening to music can be listening to reference tracks for a project or just general listening if you’re looking for inspiration.

So, when people say studio headphones, it’s a fairly broad term that covers a few more specific uses. Studio headphones can be cheap, workhorse, jack of all trades, or expensive, high-end, specialist headphones.

Being suitable for use in the recording, production, or editing of music is what makes them studio headphones. There are a few features that all good studio headphones share.

A flat frequency response

You might have heard the phrase flat frequency response and been unsure what it meant, so here’s a simple explanation.

A flat frequency response means that no frequency range is artificially boosted or attenuated.

The idea is that the headphones don’t color the sound, and you hear a true and accurate representation of the music.

Nothing is masked or sugarcoated, you hear the good, and more importantly, you hear the bad. A flat frequency response is vital for any kind of critical listening.

Great build quality

Studio headphones see a lot of use, and broken headphones are no use to anyone. Whether they stay in the studio or go on the road with you, they have to be robust.

What are monitoring headphones?

Monitoring headphones are used to monitor your performance while recording. There are a few reasons that you need to use monitoring headphones.

Let’s say you are recording electric guitar through an amp with a mic; you’d monitor the output from your DAW; that way, you hear exactly how it’s being recorded and not just how the sound leaves the amp. You can then adjust levels accordingly.

using headphones for monitoring

If you are recording vocals, you need monitoring headphones not just to hear yourself but to hear the track you are using as a guide for timing. With some recordings, vocal or instrumental, you might just use a click track for timing.

Either way, you can’t use your studio monitors, or your microphone would record them along with your performance.

Although good monitoring still requires a flat frequency response, you have more wiggle room than you do in other areas. What we are getting at is that if you are exclusively using them for monitoring (never mixing), there’s no need to spend $750 when $100 will do.

Budget studio headphones will provide enough of a flat response for most monitoring needs. Monitoring headphones tend to be closed-back and over-ear for their better noise-cancellation.

What are mixing/mastering headphones?

Mixing and mastering are the final steps before releasing music for distribution. It’s when you make sure everything sits where it should in the mix, and everything sounds as it should across all platforms. It’s when having headphones with a flat frequency response really matters most in the studio.

You can’t mix on jack of all trade headphones that slightly boost the low-end. That might work for monitoring, but you need to hear things as true and accurately as possible when mixing or mastering; it’s about critical listening.

Otherwise, you will cut the bass to account for the artificial boost the headphones are giving, only to find when you play your mix through other sources, your bass is low-end is non-existent.

Whether it’s the bass, mids, or highs, you can only make correct decisions if you hear the track without artificial coloration.

If you plan on doing a lot of mixing or mastering, spending a little more to get closer to a truly flat response isn’t a bad idea if possible.

Another thing to consider is the length of time you’d be wearing mixing/mastering headphones. Even expensive headphones can become very uncomfortable in extended use, so over-ear is probably better than on-ear for this use.

What are reference headphones?

Reference headphones are also referred to as audiophile headphones and commonly intended for personal use rather than studio use. They are the perfect addition to any audiophile’s high-end hi-fi setup. Like most high-end hi-fi equipment, they can be very expensive indeed.

When people say reference or reference-grade, they are talking about very high-quality headphones with the flattest frequency response.

Reference headphones let you hear a track just as the artist/producer intended, and if you are a serious audiophile, that’s all that matters to you. Depend on what you are willing to spend; reference headphones could run you anywhere from around $200 to $2000.

Given that they have such a flat frequency response, reference headphones might seem like the perfect choice for mixing/mastering. However, they tend to be open-backed, and with the sound escaping from them, they aren’t great all-rounders.

So, even if you got one of the cheaper pairs, you might end up spending more on monitoring headphones later on. Alternatively, you could pay $2000 for the flattest response, and it would be a waste of money for mixing/mastering.

It’s just not necessary because you shouldn’t spend that much time mixing in headphones anyway. So, save the audiophile stuff for relaxing at home, listening to your favorite artists.

Why shouldn’t you mix/master in headphones?

Mixing and mastering in headphones can be a pretty divisive topic. It’s not unusual to find people who will tell you that you should never ever mix or master in headphones.

Realistically, it would be more accurate to say you should never mix/master exclusively in headphones.

The main reason that you shouldn’t mix/master exclusively in headphones is that you don’t hear the sound naturally as you would in the room. While you do get an accurate representation of the audio, having the source so close to your ears and closed in isn’t natural. You lose the space and ambiance of the room.

You have to mix/master according to how your audience will listen to the music.

The other side of that argument is that many people might listen to your music through headphones. So, you should spend some of your process on headphones to account for that.

By the same logic, you should listen to your mix on any other platforms you can; smartphone, laptop, hi-fi speakers, and so on.

When you are working on a project, your ears get fatigued, even when working with studio monitors. Once your ears get fatigued, you start to make bad decisions because you aren’t hearing properly, or even lazy decisions because you just want it to be over.

At the first sign of ear fatigue, you should step away and have a break. Understandably, you might be on a deadline, but a short coffee break could prevent you from turning in poor work.

Now, if your ears can get fatigued just from listening to the same thing over and over, imagine how much worse it is when they are sore from uncomfortable headphones. Even initially comfortable headphones become uncomfortable if you don’t take a break.

If you are mixing on the road and more in headphones than usual, there are a couple of things you can do:

  1. The first is to make sure you step away as often as you need to.
  2. The second is to use a plugin like NX Ocean Way Nashville from Waves. Plugins like that recreate the acoustics and monitoring systems of a studio. Basically, you hear the room inside your headphones.

Is it the same as being in the room? Most probably not. However, going between plugin and no plugin gives you as close to going between headphones and monitors as you’ll get.

What’s the difference between studio headphones and consumer headphones?

On appearance, especially as a beginner, it can be difficult to say what the difference is. But, the most important difference is actually a pretty simple answer.

Studio headphones are designed to let you hear audio without artificial coloration, without masking any flaws. It’s the flat frequency response we already mentioned, and depending on how much you spend, some do it better than others.

consumer headphones

On the other hand, consumer headphones are designed to provide the best listening experience possible. Sometimes that means boosting the bass; sometimes, it means reigning the highs in a little.

Whatever the case, consumer headphones will do their best to mask any flaws from a bad mix or master.

Another common difference is that studio headphones, especially at the higher price range, tend to have superior build quality.

Consumer headphones are often a fashion item as much as anything else. That statement is unfair to the many high-quality consumer headphones available, but it’s undoubtedly a factor in how people choose a pair.

While some people might be happy to trade audio quality for an attractive look, studio headphones should never sacrifice quality for style.

Can I use gaming headphones in the studio?

By all accounts, gaming headphones and headsets have come a long way with the rise of online gaming. There are plenty of gaming headphones/headsets that sound absolutely amazing when you’re playing Call Of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. In fact, there are plenty that will sound awesome when listening to music.

The problem is, just like regular consumer headphones, they are designed to deliver the nicest sound possible. That means they are no good for critical listening.

Technically, the answer is yes; you can use gaming headphones in the studio; the question should be, do you really want to?

If you aren’t going to be doing any mixing in them, and you just use them for monitoring, and as a test platform for your mix, you might get away with it. If you’re in that situation and your budget is tight, it might be a short term option to save some cash.

Our opinion is to get some studio headphones as soon as you can and keep the gaming ones for gaming.

Headphones variations

We mentioned a few different headphones variations in this article, so let’s give some short explanations.

Closed-back headphones

Closed-back headphones are more common and far better when it comes to sound isolation. As we already said, when monitoring, you can’t have any sound bleeding out of your headphones into your recording.

The downside is that they are often a little heavier and start to feel less comfortable sooner. On top of that, they sound more closed in and less natural.

Open-back headphones

Open-back headphones aren’t closed in, so they have a much more open and natural sound. Because sound gets out and ambient noise gets in, you feel more like you are in the room and not just in your head. They also tend to be a bit lighter, and that can make them more comfortable for extended use.

The obvious downfall is that they are far from ideal for monitoring/recording because they don’t isolate sound well.

On-ear headphones

On-ear headphones tend to be far less comfortable for extended use because they sit on the ear. It’s not such an issue for shorter use, and many people still prefer them because they are more compact.

Over-ear headphones

Over-ear headphones have larger cups that encompass the whole ear. That makes them generally much more comfortable, especially for extended use. If there is a downside, it’s that they are considerably larger, and some people won’t like that.

Buying the right headphones should now be an easier task. There are lots to choose from, but you should have a clearer understanding of what type you need most. Whatever you spend on them, choose the pair that will allow you to be most productive.