Your audio philosophy may differ from your co-worker in the adjacent cubicle, which likely differs from that of an audio engineer. Regardless of where your belief system aligns, at the end of the day, headphones are simply a tool, a means to an end. As much fun as it is to lust over the latest and greatest, why spend a bunch of money you don’t have to? After all, most of us don’t want studio headphones. We want a subjectively pleasing sound.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on July 9, 2021 to expand upon a few points.
Grounding the subject with coffee
Let’s step back for a thought exercise and discuss one of your Sound Guys’ favorite topics: coffee. Those who take their coffee black are most comparable to audio engineers. They’re able to appreciate the nuanced notes of a given roast and can tell when something is too bitter or diluted. On the other hand, others prefer a dash of half and half, some sugar, or both; this is equivalent to those of us who are accustomed to consumer-oriented headphones, which have a treated sound. Give a chronic cappuccino drinker a French roast, and they may be lost beyond describing it as “black” in the same way that a consumer may fail to pinpoint why some prefer the less exciting sound of studio headphones.
Regardless of your preference, everyone’s still able to enjoy the effects of caffeine, and just like adapting your taste buds from cappuccinos to black coffee, you can adjust your ears to appreciate studio headphones. For the majority of use-cases, however, this isn’t necessary.
Why is it that I don’t want studio headphones again?
It’s all too easy to speak pedantically on headphones, but for most of us, listening is all about enjoyment. That enjoyment, well… oftentimes it goes beyond a flat frequency response. Headphones that reproduce flat responses—like black coffee—are great on a functional level. They provide a one-to-one, input-output relationship (or as close as is physically possible to achieve), making it easier to be aware of instrumental hiccups and spots where edits are necessary.
You’re not paying for someone else to use your headphones, you’re treating yourself to a spectacular listening experience.
You and I, though, we’re more likely to opt for something with coloration—a splash of cream, if you will. For example, if someone has only ever listened through Beats, donning a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones will be devastating. Okay, that may be teetering on the edge of melodrama, but the MDR-7506 won’t sound pleasing, relative to Beats’ bass-heavy sound. This is often an issue that arises when listeners who are accustomed to consumer-oriented cans dip their toes into the world of studio headphones.
You would not believe how many comments, tweets, and other remarks from readers we get decrying certain headphones’ “lack of bass” or “terrible sound.” While it’s possible that there’s some deficiency in the tuning of these products, nine times out of ten the complaint arises from someone who simply isn’t used to that kind of sound and has a different baseline than others do. They’re not wrong… but they’re miles away from “right” too.
Not only does it come down to an issue of sound—with studio headphones erring on the side of bland relative to consumer cans—but there’s also the matter of aesthetics. As one may expect, studio headphones tend to take on a more utilitarian look, while portability, style, and weight fall to the wayside. There aren’t many (if any) bells and whistles either; durability and functionality come first and foremost. Something like the JBL E55BT serve fashion-conscious users well. They come in five colorways, provide plenty of features, and will please the lay-person’s ear with low-end accentuation.
So if not studio headphones, what do I want?
Great question, and one that we can’t answer for you. Though it may be disheartening to hear that there isn’t a one-stop-shop answer for this, that’s the fun of headphones: figuring out what you like and don’t like. It’s like when I first bought an AeroPress and began reading up on the innumerable recipes. Expanding your audio knowledge takes time; figuring out what you like takes time, but once you have it all squared away, your ears will reap the reward.
Well, within the realm of consumer headphones, there are countless options. Do you like open or closed-back headphones? On-ear or over-ear? Oh, yeah and how about those earbuds? Bluetooth or wired? And the list goes on and on. Though we can’t tell you what the ideal pair is for your ears, we can point you in the direction of a few lists.
If you work out a lot, check out our list of the best workout earbuds of 2018. On a budget? We’ve made a list of the best headphones under $50 (also under $100, $200, and best in general). If you’re wed to earbuds but realize that yours are in need of an upgrade, check out our list of the best earbuds under $100.
Hopefully this clears up why most of us don’t actually want studio headphones. At the end of it all, it’s important to remember that you’re the one who’s listening to the headphones. In the same way that I like my coffee black, you may be a habitual latte guzzler; what sounds pleasing to you may sound grating to me, and that’s perfectly fine. As long as you enjoy how your music is reproduced, that’s what matters. You’re not paying for someone else to use your headphones, you’re treating yourself to a spectacular listening experience. Now, go grab a coffee, a nice pair of consumer cans, and enjoy the experience.