Choosing the correct headphones is essential for understanding how your recording truly sounds. In audio editing, you have to hear unaltered audio so you can perceive it accurately.
That’s what studio headphones are made for.
In this article, we will look at different types of headphones and what they are suitable for and we will talk about what is the best option for your budget.
Key aspects to look for
When you are choosing your headphones for audio editing, don’t make the mistake of buying headphones that are meant for listening to music. Those are made to enhance your listening experience, but they have curved frequency response and are not suited for audio editing.
Instead, look for studio headphones. They are meant to be used while editing your audio and have a flatter frequency response curve.
You want a flatter frequency response because these headphones should not be made to make your audio sound better. Instead, they should be able to expose flaws in the audio, so you can fix them.
Also, if you are planning to buy headphones for monitoring audio, you need a pair of headphones that don’t leak sound, otherwise, it will bleed into your recording and ruin it. You might even consider buying two headphones, one for monitoring and one for audio editing. But some headphones are good at both.
With all of this said, if you are not serious about audio editing and just plan to work on a project or two, then headphones that you already have will probably be fine. It is nice to have studio headphones, but for starters, I am sure anything you have will suffice.
Guide to headphone specifications
Headphone specifications are not like computer specs, where more is better. They provide much less information regarding headphones’ quality, but we will try and look at what they mean and what you should be looking at.
Frequency response range – Most of the headphones will have at least 20Hz – 20,000Hz (5Hz – 20kHz) frequency response range. It means that they are able to output these frequencies. Some headphones will go as wide as 5Hz – 40,000Hz, however from 20,000Hz additional range doesn’t matter much, because we can’t hear those frequencies anyway.
Besides, most of the microphones are limited to 20,000Hz frequency response range and a lot of them don’t even go as far. Also, most of us can’t hear frequencies over 16,000Hz. Some people can, however, even to them those frequencies are hardly noticeable.
So, as long as your headphones have 20Hz – 20,000Hz frequency response range, you are set and that’s more than enough for audio editing.
Frequency response graphic – This is not the same as a frequency response range, instead, you will be looking at a graphic, such as this one:
This is an important aspect to look for when choosing your headphones. It shows how your headphones are representing different frequencies.
Nevertheless, the frequency response graph could be misleading, you are better to trust your ears than the graph as there are many other factors that affect the sound of the headphones. Don’t make judgments on how the headphones will sound just from looking at the graph, rather use it as a rough reference.
This graphic will roughly tell you what kind of sound to expect from the headphones. Although it is always better to just try them on and listen, alas, that’s not always possible.
When choosing headphones for audio editing, you will want to look for flat sounding headphones so that you could accurately identify problems within the audio when editing.
Also, high-quality headphones from trusted brands more or less have decent frequency response graphics, while low-end headphones might not be as accurate
Impedance – Impedance determines the resistance to the current flow. We just need to know that the higher the impedance, the more power we need to drive headphones.
High impedance headphones will sound more clear and less distorted. Generally, they are more suited for professional use and audio editing. However, this comes at a cost. You will probably need a dedicated pre-amp to run them because they require more power than a laptop or a smartphone can provide.
Low impedance headphones are suited more for general use. They may not sound as good as high impedance headphones, but you will be able to power them with any device, including your smartphone.
32 Ohms is becoming a common impedance for many headphones, however, you will find headphones with impedance ranging from 8 to 600 Ohms and occasionally even higher than that.
Generally, anything below 50 Ohms is considered low-impedance headphones and above 50 Ohms – high-impedance headphones. You will find many studio headphones, meant for audio editing, have higher impedance.
Sensitivity – Sensitivity is determined by dB SPL. It refers to how loud your headphones can get with given signal strength.
More sensitivity will allow you to listen louder, but it doesn’t determine the quality of your audio.
Most of the headphones have sensitivity between 90-115 dB SPL, while earbuds usually have it in between 80-125 dB SPL.
For audio editing, sensitivity doesn’t matter much if you have headphones pre-amps that can power them.
Most of the headphones that we are familiar with are closed-back. They are made to not leak sound.
Closed-back headphones are great to use in a cafe or other public spaces, they are suitable at home when you don’t want to annoy your roommates or family and they are necessary for monitoring your audio when recording.
You don’t want any of the sound from your headphones to leak into the recording and create bleed effect. For this reason, closed-back headphones are used for monitoring audio. Usually, studio headphones are made to clamp your ears quite tightly to avoid this problem.
For audio editing, you don’t necessarily have to use closed-back headphones, but they are preferred for monitoring, although getting good quality earbuds that don’t leak a sound is also an option.
With that said, if you plan to buy one pair of headphones and plan to use them for everything, closed-back headphones is the way to go.
Open-back headphones are, as the name suggests, open at the back and leak sound.
They are not as common as closed-back headphones and are used less frequently due to limitations where they can be used. Regardless, they excel at the audio quality when mastering and mixing your audio, which is a very important part of audio editing.
Their main advantage to other types of headphones is a wider soundstage. You will feel the most difference in bass when comparing open-back headphones to closed-back.
Compared to closed-back headphones, they are airier, less confined and compressed due to the pressure not being stuck into the headphones. With open-back headphones, you will experience a wider soundstage feel as they sound somewhat of a mix between headphones and speakers.
Open-back headphones will not protect you from outside sounds. This might be good or bad depending on where you use it. You might want some background sound coming in for a more natural experience, however, you don’t want any noise.
In general, open-back headphones will be more pleasant to listen to, however, they leak a lot of the sound and are not recommended for use in public or monitoring audio.
You need at least one pair of closed-back headphones for audio monitoring and general use, however, if you can afford it, buying a pair of open-back headphones might help you with audio editing.
Bluetooth headphones are rarely considered for audio editing and there are a few reasons for that.
Bluetooth headphones, obviously, use bluetooth connection which is vulnerable to interruptions by other appliances.
They have to integrate batteries into the bluetooth headphones which is not enough to power high-impedance headphones. Therefore, most bluetooth headsets will have low-impedance audio quality.
You are also paying extra for comfort features (wireless connection, battery) that are not beneficial for audio editing. It means you are spending money on comfort rather than audio quality and the same amount of money would give better audio quality if spent on wired headphones.
Wireless headphones will not connect to your dedicated pre-amp, which means they are limited to whatever measly built-in pre-amps they have and won’t provide much output.
I know it seems that I am bashing bluetooth headphones, which I am. But that is just for audio editing.
I am not saying they are bad overall, but they are not made for audio editing as they cater more for comfort and convenience rather than audio quality and the latter is much more important in audio editing.
You will want to use bluetooth headphones for casual listening, not for mixing or mastering audio. However, there could be an argument for using them as monitor headphones as the audio quality is not as important while monitoring.
Earbuds will produce lower-quality audio as they don’t have drivers as large as headphones, which makes them prone to distortion.
In addition, they provide audio directly into your ear canal, bypassing the outer part of your ear. The outer part of our air affects how we hear the sound and without it, the sound is not the same.
If possible, you don’t want to use earbuds for editing audio, however, they still might be used for monitoring. In fact, you don’t need the best quality sound when monitoring, that’s only essential when editing audio.
Some people prefer earbuds when recording long sessions because they don’t clamp on ears and are more comfortable for long wear.
Just make sure you are using earbuds that don’t bleed any sound as that might be an issue.
On-ear vs over-ear
In terms of leakage on-ear headphones sometimes can be better at containing sound compared to over-ear headphones. Although, that varies a lot with each pair of headphones.
On-ear headphones are smaller and easy to carry around, but similarly to bluetooth headphones, that is not the feature you should focus on when looking for audio editing headphones.
Over-ear headphones will block out more of the outside sound from coming in. But most importantly they are larger and can fit in bigger drivers to produce more accurate sound and therefore, are preferred for audio editing.
There are not too many on-ear headphones meant for audio editing.
Recommended studio headphones
We have overviewed different types of headphones and their differences. Now let’s look at specific headphones that you might want to choose.
I added some reviews from respectable Youtube channels, but it is all summarized in notes for a quick scan.
Audio-Technica ATH-M20x – $49 | £39 | Closed-back | Over-ear | Frequency response 15Hz – 20,000Hz | Sensitivity 96 dB | Impedance 47 Ohms | 40mm driver | Weight 190g | Website | Consumer Research Studios review| Notes: Enhanced Bass frequencies | Good clarity | Budget headphones | Decent build quality
Audio-Technica ATH-M30x – $69 | £53 | Closed-back | Over-ear | Frequency response 15Hz – 22,000Hz | Sensitivity 96 dB | Impedance 47 Ohms | 40mm driver | Weight 220g | Website | Consumer Research Studios| Notes: Slightly enhanced bass | Enhanced mids | High clarity | Budget headphones | Good value | Decent build quality
Sennheiser HD280Pro – $80 | £99 | Closed-back | Over-ear | Frequency response 8Hz – 25,000Hz | Sensitivity 113dB SPL | Impedance 64 Ohms | Replaceable headband and earpads | Weight 285g | Website | Sanjay C review | Sweetwater review | Tomas Villegas review | Notes: Industry-standard | Enhanced bass | Subdued highs | Amazing isolation | Often recommended
Shure SRH440 Pro – $92 | £58 | Closed-back | Over-ear | Frequency response 20Hz – 20,000Hz | Sensitivity 105dB | Impedance 44 Ohms | Detachable cable | 40mm driver | Weight 272g | Website | Sweetwater review | Notes: Good clarity | Good isolation
Sony MDR 7506 – $95 | £92 | Closed-back | Over-ear | Frequency response 10Hz-20kHz | Sensitivity 106 dB SPL | Impedance 63 Ohms | Driver 40mm | Replaceable earpads | Weight 230g | Website | Booth Junkie review | Sanjay C review | Consumer Research Studios review | Notes: Flat sound | Industry-standard | Good sound isolation | Very crisp and articulate | Perfect for detecting flaws in audio | Often recommended
Audio-Technica ATH-M40x – $99 | £75 | Closed-back | Over-ear | Frequency response 15Hz – 24,000Hz | Sensitivity 98 dB | Impedance 35 Ohms | Detachable cable | 40mm driver | Weight 240g | Website | Podcastage review | Consumer Research Studios | Notes: Flat sounding | Comfortable for long wear | Slightly enhanced mids | High clarity
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x – $149 | £113 | Closed-back | Over-Ear | Frequency response 15Hz – 28kHz | Impedance 38 Ohms | Sensitivity 99dB | Detachable cable | Multiple cables | Weight 285g | Website | Marques Brownlee review | Consumer Research Studios review | Sanjay C review | Notes: Good isolation | Heavily enhanced bass | Not very neutral | Pleasant for listening to music | Good all-around headphones | Good value | If you had to buy one pair of headphones for everything, these are a great choice | Often recommended
Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO 250 Ohms – $159 | £109 | Open-back | Over-ear | Frequency response 5Hz – 35,000Hz | Sensitivity 96dB | Impedance 250 Ohms | Removable pads | Weight 249g | Website | Notes: Sounds similar to speakers | Wide soundstage | Great sound separation | Enhanced treble | Comfortable |Not recommended for public use or monitoring audio | Often recommended
Beyerdynamic DT 770 250 Ohms – $165 | £105 | Closed-back | Over-ear | Frequency response 5Hz – 35,000Hz | Sensitivity 96 dB | Impedance 16/32/80/250 Ohms | 45mm driver | Detachable pads | Weight 270g | Website | Notes: Enhanced treble | Comfortable | Great sound separation | Often recommended
Beyerdynamic Dt 880 Pro – $185 | £155 | Semi-Open | Over-Ear | Impedance 250 Ohms | Frequency response 5Hz – 35,000hz | Sensitivity 96dB | Replaceable headband | Weight 290g | Website | Joshua Valour review | Notes: Enhanced treble | Crisp | Good separation | Not recommended for public use or audio monitoring
AKG K702 – $198 | £108 | Open-back | Over-Ear | Frequency response 10Hz – 40,000Hz | Sensitivity 105 dB SPL | Impedance 62 Ohms | Replaceable pads | Detachable cable | Weight 231g | Website | Marques Brownlee review | Notes: Wide soundstage | Flat sound | Very comfortable | Not recommended for public use or audio monitoring
Neumann NDH20 – $500 | £503 | Closed-Back | Over-Ear | Frequency response 5Hz – 30,000Hz | Sensitivity 114 dB SPL | Impedance 150 Ohms | 38mm drivers | Foldable | Detachable cables | Two cables | Weight 1170g | Website | Sweetwater review | Notes: Flat sound | Durable | Comfortable | Often recommended
If I had to choose one pair of headphones for everything, including listening to music, audio editing and monitoring I would choose Audio-Technica ATH-M50x.
If you are in a position where you already have headphones for listening to music and are only looking for closed-back audio editing headphones, then I would look at Sony MDR 7506 at ~$90, Beyerdynamic DT 770 250 Ohms at ~$165 or Neumann NDH20 at ~$500 depending on how much money you are willing to spend.
If you would like a pair of nice open-back headphones for audio editing, I would get Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro 250 Ohms.
If you are on a tight budget I would just get the cheapest headphones that you can afford from the list.