People love music, not headphones. Headphones are just tools that let us listen to music. Whether you’re a professional sound engineer or a musician, you’re going to want to hear your music the way it was intended to be heard. Studio headphones can help you with that.
Editor’s note: this list of the best studio headphones was updated on June 28, 2021, to clarify technical information and make note of the Sony WF-1000XM4 as a portable alternative to the Sony WH-1000XM4.
The best studio headphones are the Sennheiser HD 820
Sennheiser is an audio stalwart and remains one of the most reputable audio companies around. Sure, many debate over which of its headphones sound better, but the HD 820 dominates the hi-fi conversation. The large, closed-back design is a departure from the beloved HD 800, but the Sennheiser HD 820 retains the unique aesthetic Sennheiser fans have grown familiar with.
Sennheiser HD 820
Although listeners may be concerned by the transition from open-back to closed-back between the high-end models, Sennheiser claims that this design is able to achieve the same open soundstage that we’ve come to expect. What’s more, it’s also able to insulate listeners from external noise better as a result of the closed build.
For better or worse, these 300Ω audiophile headphones require the use of a DAC and amplifier, which will set you back quite a bit more. We understand that many people are simply in search of reliable studio headphones and aren’t looking to consider a payday loan to cover their next set of cans. Regardless, we felt it appropriate to tip our hats to the Sennheiser HD 820 and feature more financially viable options below.
Related: Best headphones under $1,000
What you should know about studio headphones
Studio headphones aren’t for everyone, as many of us prefer a bit of bass amplification for daily listening. But when you’re getting paid to do a job, accuracy takes priority over a consumer-friendly sound. While we could go on about all of the reasons why you should want some studio headphones, we’ll keep it simple with a few quick points.
What is frequency response?
Any set of headphones has a designated frequency response, which indicates how well a particular headset can reproduce all of the tones within a given range (typically 20Hz-20kHz).
If you’re recording or creating music, you’re going to want a pair of headphones that reproduce a relatively neutral frequency response, to allow for accurate, consistent mixing. When looking at our objective readouts in individual reviews, keep an eye out for relatively “flat” response lines. This means that the drivers don’t emphasize or de-emphasize any particular note more or less than the others. Nothing is perfect, but the closer you can get to that ideal studio response, the more accurate your mix will sound across a variety of consumer headsets.
Do you need an amp or DAC?
Should you get open or closed-back headphones?
Open-back and closed-back headphones refer to whether the back of the headphone driver is covered or revealed to the environment. While closed-back headphones are better for isolating the listener from their surroundings, open-back cans are typically better for studio applications: they recreate a more accurate representation of three-dimensional sound. Studio headphones are typically closed-back so the musicians can use them while recording without risk of sound feeding back into the microphones, but open-back headphones can be used for monitoring and mixing purposes.
Start here: Ultimate headphone buying guide
Hearing is imperfect
Your ears aren’t perfect. Most of us can hear sounds from 20Hz-20kHz, but that depends greatly on your age and how well you’ve been taking care of your ears throughout your life. You can even up to your ears to the test here.
Save money and go with the Sony MDR-7506
Ever since the mid-1980s, producers and artists alike have relied on the Sony MDR-V6 and its progeny. Boasting an accurate frequency response and very convenient design, the Sony MDR-7506 is all over the audio industry. If you want the gear the pros use, this is the starting point.
Sony MDR-7506Full Review
Of course, older headphones like this have some drawbacks. Namely, those ear pads don’t tend to last a long time even if you clean them often, so you may find yourself looking for replacements. Not to worry though, Amazon has a ton of those, and they’re fairly cheap to buy. Other headphones like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x and its series also use the exact same size of headphone pads.
Mix it up with the Beyerdynamic DT 880 PRO
Beyerdynamic is one of those companies that people trust just because of its reputation. It’s known for great quality headphones, and the Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro, like its junior, is no exception. The DT 880 PRO’s uniquely comfortable velour ear pads keep your ears comfortable, and the accurate frequency response is great for a variety of applications.
Beyerdynamic DT 880 PROFull Review
If you’re going to mix tracks and don’t want the headphones to affect the raw track, this is a good set of mid-tier headphones to look into. Of course, if you decide to use these with mobile devices you’re going to need an amp to power the 250Ω behemoths, but it might not work out for you as these are also semi-open back so sound leakage is going to be an issue. Anyone who plans on keeping their headphones deskside will be perfectly happy with the DT 880 PRO.
Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50X is a classic
The ATH-M50x has a reputation for being the go-to pair of budget studio headphones, but it’s not as accurate as many people think. Sure, Audio-Technica tuned these to have a more neutral frequency response than most consumer headsets, but the bass amplification is clearly audible. This isn’t inherently a bad thing as it makes the ATH-M50x a great pair of versatile headphones for daily listening, but be aware that the ATH-M40x has a more accurate sound profile.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50xFull Review
Because of the bass bump, this might be better for the musician who needs to feel that extra bit of emotion from the instrumentation while in the recording booth, and then still wants to listen to some music on the way home. The ATH-M50x will satisfy both roles well. The ear cups sit flat on your ears and provide a decent amount of isolation, not to mention that they also swivel up to 90°.
If you decide you like the sound of the ATH-M50x, you might be interested to know that there’s a wireless variant called the Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT. The Bluetooth model can also be used with a 3.5mm cable if need be, but it’s good to know that there’s a step-up model out there if you want your studio headphones to also be what you use on your commute.
Take your mixing anywhere with the AKG K371
The AKG K371 reference headphones are a great pick for anyone whose job requires frequent travel. Despite the over-ear design, these headphones are slim and portable: the ear cups flip up and into the headband similar to Audio-Technica’s design. What’s more, the K371 is good for DJs as you can rotate either ear cup backward and up to keep one ear on the crowd.
AKG K371Full Review
The natural-leaning frequency response is a necessity for creating an accurate product. The midrange frequency response nearly meets the platonic ideal, making this a pristine pair of headphones for vocal-heavy recordings. What’s more, AKG supplies you with three cables, two straight and one coiled, so no matter your environment, you’ll have something that works with you.
Despite the plastic build, the headphones are durable and withstood multiple trips at the bottom of a backpack during our full review. Don’t drop an unabridged encyclopedia onto this headset, but the build can withstand some roughhousing. What’s more, these headphones are great for listeners with glasses because the slow-retention memory foam wraps around the glasses arms.
Best studio headphones: Notable mentions
- AKG K240 Studio: These headphones serve as a great alternative to the Sony MDR-7506 and feature a more modern, stylish design with larger ear cups.
- Audio-Technica ATH-AD900X: While you don’t want to use these in the recording studio because their open-back nature will cause sound to bleed through, they are excellent to use in the mixing phase of music-making. They reproduce audio very accurately and clearly with their 53mm drivers, and they also create a wide soundstage.
- Audio-Technica ATH-M40x: Although the ATH-M50x is often in the limelight, the M40X cans are no slouch, and provide a less emphasized low-end.
- Audio-Technica ATH-M70x: These headphones feature an extended frequency range (5Hz-40kHz) with a more neutral-leaning response compared to the ATH-M50x. At double the starting price, the more accurate sound may be worth the cost for professionals.
- Beyerdynamic DT 240 Pro: This set of on-ear headphones is compact enough for transport with the inclusions of studio headphones, like a removable coiled cable.
- Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro: This is a good budget option if you want the highest-quality drivers that Beyerdynamic has to offer, but don’t want to spend a lot on creature comforts.
- Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro: If you want absolute luxury and don’t mind paying for it, these open-back cans look, sound, and feel premium.
- Philips Fidelio X2: This is a great 0pen-back pair of headphones that packs 50mm drivers and a neutral-leaning frequency response. The suspended headband design is comfortable, and the velour earpads are great for bespectacled listeners.
- Sennheiser HD 800: This headset was the best all-around pick until it was dethroned by its predecessor, the HD 820. This, however, is available for less than half the price of the best pick.
- Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: This monitoring pair is widely regarded as some of the best budget-minded studio headphones that take a tank to kill. For under $100, that’s not a bad return.
- Sennheiser HD 598SE: The large, circumaural design makes these headphones comfortable for extended periods of time, while the open-back design allows for a more realistic reproduction of 3D space.
- Sennheiser HD 58X Jubilee: While these are a Massdrop exclusive, they’re still a great pair of open-back headphones you should check out if you want one great pair of headphones that can do it all (as long as you don’t use them outside with a lot of noise).
- Sennheiser x Drop HD 6XX: This is the closest you’ll get to a true HD 650, but for half the budget. These are outstanding headphones for the mixing station—not so much for the booth.
Don’t need studio headphones? Get the Sony WH-1000XM4
If you want good quality headphones and have money to spend but don’t want studio headphones, try the Sony WH-1000XM4. This set of active noise cancelling (ANC) Bluetooth headphones sounds great and presents a host of advanced software features to up its value and longevity.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is among the best active noise cancelling headphones on the market. What’s more, if you’re not fond of the preset sound signature, you can EQ it in the Sony Headphones Connect app. The WH-1000XM4 supports SBC, AAC, and LDAC Bluetooth codecs, but can also be switched to wired listening if you prefer. For a more portable version of this headset, check out the Sony WF-1000XM4.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
Working at SoundGuys allows each of us to have plenty of hands-on time with the latest and greatest audio products. While we do spend ample time testing out great products, we also receive some ones that need work. Regardless of how one pair of headphones stack up against another, it gives us a different reference point for understanding what’s good and what’s not when it comes to consumer products.
Ultimately, we want to make the research process easier for you, so you can spend more time enjoying your headphones. And while you can read all about our ethics policy, we’re transparent in that none of our writers may benefit from championing one set of cans over another.
Again, our picks tend toward the midrange and lower as far as pricing goes, but there are many other headphones out there that will cost you a whole lot more than what we’ve got here.
Frequently Asked Questions
The Sony WH-1000XM4 have a relatively neutral frequency response, and they do let you equalize the sound signature in their app. Their passive isolation is also pretty decent, which means you won't risk sound leaking out of them when you're in the studio. A neutral frequency response and good isolation are two of the key reasons why someone might want to buy a pair of studio headphones, so the Sony cans will make a pretty good substitute.
Ideally, you will have both studio headphones and studio monitors at some point. Studio headphones are necessary for recording and tracking, but studio monitors are much better for mixing. They create a more accurate soundstage than headphones can, and don't fall victim to crossfeed, which is a phenomenon that occurs when sounds from one headphone bleed into the other, creating a narrower perceived stereo image than what is accurate.
More corporations than just Amazon have quick and cheap shipping now, and plenty of small businesses sell your favorite products too. Where you choose to buy your headphones could depend on a lot of things including your shopping ethics, how much customer support you want, and the warranty of the company. Check out our guide to get a run down of some options and their stats.