Which are the best headphones to use in your home recording studio? You probably already own a set of headphones and are wondering if they are suitable.
If you are on a tight budget then headphones aren’t necessarily the first thing that you’re going to have to upgrade. It is more important to purchase a suitable recording interface and microphone – or a USB microphone with headphone port.
And if your main aim is to produce a podcast or voiceover, you may be less concerned with direct monitoring and more interested in investing in good quality recording.
But when you are ready to invest in a pair of studio quality headphones there are a few things that you need to think about.
In this guide we are going to look at the differences between closed back and open back headphones and which of the two are most suitable for recording and mixing. Let’s look quickly at the best budget, mid-price and top of the range headphones in each class, then find out more about the differences.
The Best Open-Back Headphones
The Best Closed-Back Headphones
What Is The Difference Between Closed-Back, Open-Back and Semi-Open?
This distinction between the two main types addresses the design of the part of the headphone that covers the area behind the driver in a straight line away from the side of your head.
Recording studios and professional recording engineers generally own more than one set of ‘phones: there are 2 very specific types of headphones for 2 very specific purposes, plus a compromise if you can only afford one pair:
- Closed Back Headphones are used for recording tracks
- Open Back Headphones are used for mixing
- Semi-Open-Back are a hybrid solution you can use for both recording and mixing
Some really high-end open headphones do also have good sound insulation, but these will almost certainly be beyond the budget of many home recording studio setups. This means you may have to choose one pair that is most suitable for your needs now, then purchase another pair when budget allows. Or compromise with a pair of semi-open headphones instead.
Now let’s take a closer look at each type.
Closed-Back Headphones In More Detail
When you are recording tracks in your studio you want to make sure they have maximum sound isolation. This is so you can direct monitor the headphones mix as you play, sing or speak without the sound being re-recorded into the live mic, and ruining the take.
In other words, when you are trying to record vocals or acoustic guitar (for example) over a backing track, you do not want any “bleed” – ie you don’t want to be making a recording of the sound coming out of the headphones back into the mic.
A pair of good quality closed headphones will be essential to get a recording without bleed unless you can afford the most expensive open headphones which do have good sound insulation as well as superb reference quality. Most people starting out are not on that kind of budget.
The unfortunate side-effect of closed back headphones is that as the sound isolation goes up, the sound quality often goes down.
Why? Closed headphones prevent sound from escaping. The downside of this design is that it traps pressure inside the headphone, which creates false low frequencies. These bass frequencies are fine for most professional uses (and even desirable in consumer products), but less desirable for critical listening.
This is not so much of a problem for tracking, since it’s NOT a high priority when recording.
These type of headphones would be a good choice if you were pairing them up with a USB microphone. If you are looking to purchase both headphones and a USB mic then you could read our comprehensive guide to choosing a USB Mic where we have listed all the main features of the most popular mics and uploaded raw recordings of each one to help you decide.
But when it comes to mixing, where reference quality monitoring is THE priority, then open back headphones are the ideal option.
Open-Back Headphones in More Detail
Open-back headphones are essentially almost the opposite of closed-back, because optimal sound quality is the most important thing often at the expense of isolation.
Ideally, mixing is best done on studio monitors, but this is not always possible and in today’s world of mobile recording and budget home studios, headphone mixing has become widely accepted in the process of music production and audio recording.
For critical listening, headphones with an open back often provide a more accurate frequency balance, with the trade off of providing less isolation – in other words great for working on your mix but as discussed before, less good for recording acoustic instruments and voice.
There is clearly a bit of a trade-off between the ideal headphones critical listening and and the best headphones for recording.
Extremely well engineered open-back headphones provide almost the same isolation as high quality closed back headphones, and if you can afford them that would be one solution, but it is a luxury you’ll have to pay for.
So either you probably need to think about investing in two sets of headphones, one for recording, one for mixing, or go for a compromise.
The Semi-Open-Back Compromise
As a reasonable compromise for those on more of a budget, and especially if you can only afford one pair of headphones, there are some excellent “semi-open-back” headphones that are affordable, well balanced, and provide enough isolation for professional tracking applications.
In the long run you may well need want than one set of headphones for recording and mixing. But in the short run you could check out the semi-open designs as a good halfway solution.
Best Selling Studio Headphones
Which are the most popular headphones on the market? Below are the current top 6 bestselling recording studio headphones:
The above is a short list of the most popular studio headphones on Amazon right now. If you follow the links you can check out the specs, now that you know a bit more about which sort of headphones you might need. Also useful to see the user review and hopefully find the best headphones within your budget for your own recording situation.
Over To You …
Have we covered everything you need to know about what to look out for when choosing headphones for your home recording studio? If you have any questions or comments, please post them below. Or if you have any good or bad experiences with headphones that you want to share, we would love to hear from you.