Hey there! If you‘re just getting into recording, audio production, or sound engineering, you may have been looking at picking up a shiny new pair of studio headphones. Brands like Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Beyerdynamic are staples in professional studios around the world. However, before you spend big on a pair, I want to share 6 reasons why studio headphones may not be the ideal choice, especially when starting out.
Throughout this guide, I‘ll provide some extra context around studio headphones and alternatives worth considering instead. My goal is to save you some money and frustration, while still getting great audio gear that enhances your skills!
What Are Studio Headphones and Where Did They Come From?
First, let‘s take a step back and talk about what makes studio headphones different than regular consumer headphones and earbuds.
Studio headphones emerged in the 1950s and 60s as the recording industry matured. Engineers needed rugged, high-fidelity headphones that could reproduce the full range of frequencies with minimal distortion. This allowed them to accurately monitor and mix audio while recording.
Some key attributes that differentiate studio headphones:
Large-aperture drivers (40mm+) capable of deep, rich bass and clear highs. Many consumer headphones max out around 12-15mm.
Sturdy build quality with metal components to handle constant studio use. Consumer models often use more plastics.
Comfortable designs like open-back circular earcups that can be worn for hours. Recording sessions can be grueling.
Precise tuning aimed at producing a flat frequency response with minimal emphasis on any frequency range.
This flat frequency reproduction is great for analytical listening but, as we‘ll explore, not always the most enjoyable tuning for casual listening.
Now let‘s dive into the reasons you may want to avoid studio headphones as a beginner…
Reason 1: Studio Headphones Aren‘t Very Portable
Walk into any bustling city and you‘ll notice most people are listening to music on tiny earbuds, not massive studio headphones. There‘s a reason for this – studio headphones emphasize sound quality over portability and convenience.
Looking at popular studio headphones like the beyerdynamic DT 770 Pros, they weigh 285g – over half a pound! Compare that to AirPods Pro at 5.4g. Here are some other headphones and their weights:
- Sennheiser HD 600: 260g
- Audio-Technica M50x: 285g
- Sony WH-1000XM5: 250g
You‘ll tire of lugging around that bulk, not to mention fitting studio headphones over your ears isn‘t exactly subtle. Consumer models disappear into pockets and bags.
So if you plan on listening on the go, studio headphones become an anchor around your neck.
Reason 2: The Flat Frequency Response Isn‘t Ideal for Casual Listening
Audiophiles may covet studio headphones for their purist reproduction. However, for most casual listening like streaming playlists or watching YouTube, consumer headphones tuned for fun sound better.
Look at how studio headphones aim for a neutral frequency response versus consumer-focused models:
Those emphasized lows and sparkling highs of consumer headphones add excitement. The clinical studio sound can feel dull and lifeless without enhancements.
As sound engineers intentionally craft recordings to be lively, studio headphones reveal an analytical, but less engaging experience.
Reason 3: Design Trade-Offs Don‘t Provide a Complete Solution
Studio headphones come in two primary varieties – open-back and closed-back.
Open-back headphones allow external sound to pass through the earcups. This gives a more spacious, natural representation like listening to speakers. But it also allows unwanted ambient noise in.
Closed-back headphones isolate the sound but create an "in-head" cramped feeling. The music feels pressed up against your skull.
So neither design solves every scenario perfectly. You‘ll have to compromise based on your environment and priorities.
Reason 4: The Soundstage Can Feel Unnaturally Cramped
Along with open versus closed-back designs, studio headphones often sound much more closed in than speaker listening:
"Headphones generally create an artificial sense of space around the head rather than a realistic space extending out from the headphones themselves…a phenomenon known as inside-the-head localization." – AES Journal of Audio Engineering Society
Your brain expects sound to come from speakers at a distance, not millimeters from your ears. So headphone listening requires adaptation.
While great for isolation, even high-end closed-back studio headphones like the Audeze LCD-X can‘t overcome this. Your music may lose its big, sweeping sense of space.
Reason 5: Open-Back Headphones Leak Sound
Earlier I mentioned open-back headphones allow external sound to passively enter. Well, the reverse issue arises too…
The open earcup design leaks out the internal sound, which can be very distracting in shared environments. In a library or office, your music becomes a nuisance to those around you.
So for privacy, closed-back studio headphones or IEMs are preferable to limit sound transmission.
Reason 6: There‘s No One Size Fits All Option
As we‘ve explored, whether you choose open or closed-back studio headphones, there are always comprises:
No single headphone design does it all flawlessly. It takes testing and experience to determine what trade-offs work for your specific needs and environment.
Alternatives to Consider Instead of Studio Headphones
Given these drawbacks, you may want to consider other audio gear instead of studio headphones when starting out:
For serious mixing and mastering, having studio monitors (speakers) provides the most natural soundstage. The stereo imaging and frequency response surpasses any headphone.
You can start relatively affordably too. The acclaimed Yamaha HS5 studio monitors cost around $400 for the pair. No need to spend thousands to reap the benefits over headphones.
IEMs like Shure‘s SE215 provide isolation and great detail retrieval in a compact form factor. Their sealed design delivers expansive audio reproduction unlike typical earbuds.
The 1MORE Quad Driver IEMs I use pack clarity comparable to over-ear headphones in a package smaller than a nickel. All for under $100. Much better value than bulky studio headphones.
Corrective EQ Software
Apps like Sonarworks SoundID Reference can tweak even basic headphones to have studio-level flat response. This negates bloated bass or sibilant treble.
I use this with my Bose QC 35 IIs calibrated to be production-ready. Cost me under $300 total for incredible monitoring accuracy.
I hope this guide gave you some helpful pointers to consider before taking the plunge on that shiny new pair of premium studio headphones. While great tools for audio professionals, as a beginner they may not be the ideal choice depending on your goals and constraints.
Personally, I‘d suggest trying out some solid nearfield studio monitors combined with Sonarworks to get great analytical listening on a budget. Then down the road, add in some studio headphones with isolation to complement them once you‘ve grown more advanced in your skills.
Feel free to reach out with any other questions! I‘m always happy to offer advice to help new producers, engineers, and creators accelerate their audio journeys.