The bullshit of headphone wars
Newer producers ask this question constantly across different producer forums and groups and discords: “What are the best headphones for the budgeted amount I’m willing to spend?”
And the responses to such questions are usually chock full of contradictory advice and opinion, plus more than a few vehement assertions that are simply wrong. The real answer has three simple parts:
Response curve graphs are somewhat bullshit because there is a wide variance in the frequency response even among units from the same manufacturer, and even between the Left and Right cans of any given set of headphones. (Look carefully at the chart above, and notice how much variation you see between the Left and Right cans for both of the selected headphone models. Every response curve for headphones has huge variances like this.)
All that matters is that you understand how good reference mixes sound on your chosen headphones.
At the end of the day, the real question is how long you can wear a given set of headphones before your ears and/or head become uncomfortable.
I’m going to kill some sacred cows and tell you that essentially, “it doesn’t matter, so pick the headphones that are the most comfortable”. However, there are still some widely respected and popular headphones for music production use, so I will list those near the end of this article. Any of them will work just fine for your music production needs—as long as you find them comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
First, let’s debunk the argument that because some response chart found on the internet shows some big swings or trends in some part of the spectrum, a given model is “highly unbalanced/colored and therefore unsuitable for production and mixing”. A variation of this argument asserts that because some frequency range is hyped up above (or below) “flat”, your resulting mixes will not translate well and will be too harsh or too dull or too muddy or too thin, etc.
There are several major things wrong with this argument, but let’s start with the biggest sacred cow. And this applies to monitors too—not just headphones. The real story is that the flattest, most expensive studio monitors (or headphones) are no longer flat when you hear them in your room and in your ears. Because the room modes/reflections and your listening position and your monitor placement relative to the listening position all affect what actually arrives at your ears. Even the most thorough treatment does not perfectly flatten the room modes—it only reduces the coloration of your room. Then there are micro-timing issues in certain frequency ranges that are affected by the relative distance of each monitor from your listening position, and a different in mere milimeters can affect the micro-timing.
The other part of this sacred cow that everyone conveniently forgets is that no two humans have the same hearing response as each other. And any one human has a significant difference in hearing response between their left and right ears. And adults—even young adults in their mid and late 20s—already have significant degradation in their hearing response above 12 to 14 Khz AND down in the critical 700 Hz through 8 Khz range, compared to younger teens and children. And your hearing response degrades fairly rapidly as you age and as you continue your exposure to loud environmental sounds and music at festivals and clubs (which is always way too fucking loud and which always damages your hearing a little. Even if you are scrupulous about wearing earplugs.) Just living in a typical urban city environment day in and day out is slowly wrecking your hearing in addition to the ravages of simple aging.
So all this leads to the main problem I have with people pointing at frequency response graphs as “proof” that one set of headphones or monitors are better or worse than any other. It’s only one-third of the total story! The other two thirds are your own room and your own ears.
Instead, the only thing that truly matters is that you understand how your best reference mixes sound in your headphones (and in your monitors in your room at your listening position). The common thread here is reference mixes, and if you’re not constantly checking your work against your best reference mixes of similar music, you’re doing it wrong. And if you’re doing it wrong, you can have the best treated room and the most expensive monitors and headphones, and your mixes will still have issues translating well to other systems.
To put it another way, if your track sounds essentially like your reference track (in all the important ways) in whatever headphones/monitors/room/listening position you are using, then you’re in the right ballpark. It doesn’t matter if your room is treated or not. I can point to so many examples of how room treatment and listening position don’t really matter. For starters, Junkie XL works in a totally untreated room on purpose. (Although before anyone reading this attempts to roast me, it is absolutely true that you can get away with less or no treatment mainly in large rooms (such as a living room sized space). It is true that if you work in a small 8x8 or 10x10 bedroom, you will benefit from some room treatment.)
Next, go look carefully at YouTube videos of your favorite producers doing walkthroughs and showing you their production space. I don’t care who it is—even Virtual Riot. Most of them will have their desks and monitors crammed right up against a wall, which is one of the sacred cow no-nos about the ideal listening position in a room. And most of them are in relatively small rooms. And for a lot of them, you’ll see no treatment or very sparse treatment. I mean, just look at this meme featuring a famous masterclass video by Rusko! A cramped attic space, stuffed up against one angled wall, and where the hell are his monitors? Behind or to the side of his listening position!
Another thing that can make way more difference than your choice of monitors or headphones is whether you have a variety of good visual metering tools and know how to use them. Most importantly, that you know what a good reference mix should look like in each of your metering tools. Even in the best rooms, on the best monitors, there’s a lot happening down in the sub and bass and “mud” range that can fool your brain and your ears. You can do a much better job of mixing and balancing your low end (and cleaning up mud) if you know what the sub and kick and other low end elements should look like in a spectrum analyzer that is set up properly. Simply put, even in the best rooms, with the best gear, your ears can lie to you about the low end.
Other metering tools that are vital to making good mixes include:
Multiband correlation meters (do you even have one?). Video.
A spectrum analyzer configured to show you both the mid and side spectrums at the same time. Video (Important: If you’re an electronic dance music producer, set your Slope to 3.0 instead of to the 4.5 slope you see in this video, which is too “dark” for electronic music.)
A strong referencing plugin that can quickly A-B compare various bands of the spectrum between your mix and your reference mix. Video (starts at the part where I demo such a plugin called MetricAB).
A good “comparative spectral balance” meter, such as iZotope’s Tonal Balance Control plugin (found only in Neutron 2 and Ozone 8 Advanced). I show that meter as well in the above video that demos MetricAB.
Okay, so now that I’ve slain several sacred cows and put the lie to many well-intended but simply incorrect claims about the “best” headphones (or “best” monitors), I’ll briefly recap a list of well-respected headphones that are commonly mentioned by producers and engineers involved with electronic music production. ANY of these are a solid choice. The main question is whether they fit your head well and are comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro (250 ohm version). This one is favored by Seth Drake (the engineer for Bassnectar and who also produces as the artist Measley)
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (80 ohm). You’ll see lots of producers wearing these cans in their YouTube videos. They’re also favored onstage for DJing, mainly because the ear-cups can swivel out completely flat and are therefore easy to hold up to one ear. Both the DT-770s and the M50x have a pretty strong sub response (for headphones), so bass heads also like them for this quality too. Between the two, the DT-770 will give you slightly more isolation from the outside room noise—I used to wear them behind the drum set for rehearsal because of their excellent isolation (the M50x let a lot more room sound through). But the clamping pressure on the 770s are pretty high, so I personally found the M50x more comfortable for longer wearing sessions. Another advantage of the M50x over the 770s or the HD-650s is that at 80 ohms, they are great for powering from your laptop or smartphone jacks. By contrast, laptops and smartphones don’t have enough power to drive the 770s or 650s very well.
Sennheiser HD-650 (300 ohm). You’ll also see lots of producers wearing these cans in their YouTube videos. These are the subbiest/bassiest of the HD line, but their sub response is slightly less than the 770 or M50x. However, they are smooth and open and detailed in the mids, and they are incredibly comfortable to wear for long periods of time. These are my personal favorite for production, because they’re comfy and because they’re smooth and easy in the ranges that can be harsh and fatiguing in other cans like the 770s and M50x. And if you camp massdrop.com, you can occasionally find drops of the Massdrop HD 6XX, which is a special OEM version of the HD-650 at a much cheaper price!. The Massdrops are identical, real Sennheiser HD-650 cans, but with a different color finish and shorter, slightly cheaper cables. I have two pairs of the Massdrops and love them.
I hope you found this article illuminating and helpful. Please feel free to link to it the next time you see this question crop up (and it always does).