While it’s true that studio headphones aren’t for everyone, there are still a few reasons why you should get some. Whether you’re working with audio professionally, just starting out, or want to try and recreate that live performance sound that everyone loves a good pair of studio headphones might be the tool you’re looking for. But first let’s answer a basic question: what are studio headphones?
What are studio headphones?
At the risk of stating the obvious, studio headphones are a pair of headphones made to wear in the studio—but there’s more to it than that. People who work in audio go to extraordinary lengths in order to try and control sound. When you’re recording audio you only want your microphones to pick up that particular instrument or voice, but that’s harder to achieve then you think. There are a ton of factors that need to be taken into account. Background noise, echoes, and reverb can all affect what the microphone records. Heck, even the room you’re in has a particular sound quality called room tone that you need to account for.
This is why studios are usually sound-treated to minimize echoes and reflections off of surfaces. All of that attention to detail is for the sole purpose of making sure the microphone picks up only the intended instrument. Studio headphones have a similar use case. They’re made with a flat frequency response so that you can hear exactly what was recorded, good or bad. That’s part of their job. Sure, headphones can be a form of enjoyment and entertainment, but in the case of someone that works with audio a pair of headphones is a tool. And in the same way that you want a proper level if you’re building a house, you want a neutral sound when you’re building a song.
What you should know
Flat frequency response
So what exactly is a “flat” frequency response? The frequency response of a pair of headphones refers to the ability of the components in that product to accurately reproduce the signal that’s going through them. You can think of it like the postal service. I know, it’s a weird analogy but follow me here, it makes sense. If you send a package to your friend on the other side of the country, there’s a lot that it has to go through in order to get there in one piece. From your post office to the airport, from the airport to the plane, from the plane to a truck, from the truck to another post office, and finally from that post office to your friend. When everything works perfectly, your friend can open the box and get that flashy new pair of socks you sent.
But as we all know, that’s not always how the story ends. Sometimes the box shows up damaged or it was dropped along the way and the contents destroyed. Every link on the chain has to work smoothly the bo and its contents to show up without any damage. The same concept can apply to your headphones. When the components are all working perfectly, then the sound you hear at the end is exactly what was supposed to be sent and is unaltered in any way. The signal that goes in is the one that comes out. In other words, the package shows up perfectly. But that’s the ideal situation and the real world is far less perfect.
No matter how much money you spend there’s no such thing as a perfectly flat frequency response, but studio headphones try to get as close as possible. If none of this made any sense, don’t worry because you can read the full explainer we have that was written by one of our resident geniuses Rob Triggs who is way smarter than I am.
If you visit SoundGuys often, you’ll notice that we always harp on how important isolation is (mainly because it is). Due to how humans evolved to hear, our brains don’t always translate the sounds around us perfectly. The reason you have a hard time hearing your favorite bassline on a plane is because of something called auditory masking. This happens when there are two sounds at a similar frequency. The brain will focus on whichever sound is louder. So the intricate details of that bassline get lost to the rumble of the jet engine. Of course, you could always invest in a pair of active noise cancelling headphones if you’re going on a plane, but that doesn’t help you in the studio.
For studio use, isolation is just as important but it has different consequences. If you’re recording, whether for music or a podcast, the sound in your headphones leaking out and being picked up by the mic is a bad thing. This is where a good pair of closed-back headphones with some decent padding like the Sony MDR-7506 gets the job done. It keeps the sound from leaking out and also has a fairly flat response so you can hear what’s really going on.
Intended use case: Making
This might all sound like studio headphones are exclusively for anyone who is working with audio, which isn’t true (we’ll get into that more in the next section). That said, creating or editing audio is the intended use case of these headphones. One way you can tell is how they’re built. Not only do studio headphones aim to have a flat frequency response for reasons we already went over, but they’re also usually super comfortable.
If you need proof, just put the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro on your ears for a while. Headphones meant for working with audio were designed for long use cases. For reference, the song Thriller by Michael Jackson famously took eight weeks to record. So yeah, professionals want headphones that are comfortable because that’s the tool they’re constantly going to be wearing for a very, very long time. Even if you’re an amateur podcaster, editing the audio could take a few hours. So the more comfortable the headphones, the better.
What if you’re not a professional musician or audio engineer? Are studio headphones for you?
Absolutely. Who cares what they’re made for, as long as you like how they sound? There are plenty of regular people (myself included) that prefer to listen to music that has not been drastically altered by the headphones they’re wearing. It’s how humans have listened to music since we started making it.
For almost all of humanity, if you wanted to hear music, you had to either physically leave your home and go see a performer or hum a little tune to yourself. There was no way to choose from millions of songs via a slab of glass in your pocket and there certainly wasn’t a way to emphasize whichever notes of the song you personally preferred. Imagine going up to Bach mid-performance and telling him you want more bass. Well, actually you might have to write it down (sick burn, bro). The point is, what you heard at the performance was exactly what the composer wanted you to hear.
Some people still like the experience of listening to a piece the way it was played, or as close to it as possible. Consumer headphones don’t sound bad, they’re just different. It might seem like the goal of every audiophile is to get the best sounding music possible, but that isn’t true. For that, any pair of consumer headphones will get the job done. Most headphones nowadays sound great. The journey of the modern audiophile is to get that same live experience in the comfort of your own home. If it sounds good, that’s great. If it sounds bad, then let it sound bad. Or at least give you the option to fix it yourself, which leads to the next reason you should get a pair.
You can tweak it yourself
Another reason why you might prefer a good pair of studio headphones is that they give you a better starting point if you want to tweak how your music sounds. It’s much easier to EQ your music if you’re starting from a neutral place. If you’re trying to add more low end to a pair of Beats Studio3 headphones, you’ll likely hit a point where you can’t go any further without adding distortion because the headphones are already adding emphasis to the bass. It’s like going out to dinner and trying to redo your dish after it’s already prepared and on the plate. Sure, you can add some more salt and spice but you can’t really change what you ordered. With flat studio headphones, you’re the chef.
While it’s true that some of the best reference headphones can get crazy expensive, there are plenty of great options that get the job done without costing you your rent money. Some of the best headphones used around the industry can cost two or three times less than those Beats headphones we mentioned. Both the Sony MDR-7506 and the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro headphones are prime examples of affordable options that are used in studios around the world.