Buyer's guide: headphones for music making

30th Oct 2012 | 12:25

Buyer's guide: headphones for music making

Buying a set of headphones for music making can be a tricky business: how do you know what to look for and which models are worthy of consideration?

In this buyer’s guide we’ll answer the most frequently asked headphones-related questions and assess the relative merits of six pairs of cans.

First, one of the most common queries…

Can’t I just use my ‘normal’ headphones?

The cheap ’phones we use with mobiles or mp3 players aren’t up to serious recording. Better are larger sets that cover the ears fully (circumaural), comfortably and with good sound isolation both in and out. Consumer/mp3 player focused headphones (even the expensive ones) tend to follow a kind of make-the-masses-happy frequency response that might be fine for your iPod on the bus, but it’s not really what you want for recording: you want accurate and highly revealing.

How important is frequency response?

Very… to a point. It’s worth knowing that good human hearing spans approximately 20Hz to 20kHz. You feel frequencies below 20Hz, it should be said, but most commercial recordings gradually roll off everything over 20kHz.

Can you mix tracks using headphones?

You can, but the consensus of opinion from professionals is that headphones should play a secondary role to quality monitor speakers. That said, many recordists edit and mix on the road (or indeed the plane, train or bus), making headphones a must.

Power handling and sensitivity?

Power is usually quoted as ‘max’ (could be handled for a short space of time) and ‘nominal’ (regular, prolonged use). Your iPod outputs around 30mW per channel at 32 ohms. A quality headphone amp can be over 1.5 watts (1500mW) at 600 ohms. Sensitivity describes the sound pressure level for a given voltage; in short, higher sensitivity means higher perceived loudness, just like with loudspeakers.

What about impedances?

The higher the impedance rating, the more power is required to drive them. Between 30 and 80 ohms will work fine off your mp3 player, laptop or what have you (they work on lower operating voltages), and they play ‘louder’ with lower power. Get up to 250 ohms and over, and you’ll need a headphone amplifier or audio interface for optimum performance. Higher impedance, high-quality headphones used with quality amplification will sound more ‘natural’ and revealing than low-impedance types running straight off your laptop.

Open or closed-back?

Open-back (and semi-open back) headphones let air circulate through perforations in the back of the earcups and will let some sound bleed out. They can offer a more natural reproduction of music than closed-back headphones and would be a preferred choice for mixing, though you can of course mix using closed-backs. For recording, it’s more about the practicalities: a good set of closed-back headphones - crucially - won’t let sound spill out into your mics, and will also offer better sound isolation from outside noise.

Why are ‘good’ headphones so expensive?

For all the reasons above! Getting an accurate, high-quality, revealing sound requires a lot of high-quality components and exacting build standards. Add to that durable materials with replaceable parts for prolonged, professional use and the price starts creeping up.

NEXT: Six pairs of headphones on test

Buyer's guide: headphones for music making
Audio-Technica ATH-M50, £149
Microphone brand impresses in white

Labelled as ‘Monitor Headphones’, Audio-Technica’s intention is clear for the ATH-M50s, which feature swivel-mounted ear cups to minimise the profile.

The oval-shaped pads cover your ears completely for a very useful degree of isolation both in and out, while the partially coiled lead gives you plenty of freedom of movement. The lead terminates in a stereo mini-jack with a screw-on standard jack so you can use the ’phones with pro equipment and electronic items with smaller socketry.


We like: Foldability; good isolation; sound
We dislike:
The white finish

The ATH-M50s are loud and vibrant with a well-balanced sound. We’d be worried about getting our white set grubby, but they are available in black.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50 specs

  • Type: Closed-back headphones
  • Freq response: 15-28,000Hz
  • Sensitivity: 99dB
  • Impedance: 38 ohms
  • Quoted input power: 1600mW
  • Connections: Stereo mini jack with screw-on 6.4mm stereo jack
  • Cabling: 1.2-3m coiled (captive)


Buyer's guide: headphones for music making
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro, £167
Industry standards with added velvet

If you’ve been in a pro studio, you’ll have probably used Beyerdynamic’s DT 100 headphones - an industry standard in tracking for what seems like forever. The DT 770 Pro is a newer design, and offers large, velvet-covered, circular pads that totally cover the ears.

Adjustable and comfortable on the head, these provide a classy listening experience with extended bass response. We’d like a removable cable like on the DT 100, but we like that the ear pads are replaceable.


We like: Velvet earpads; comfortable; excellent sound
We dislike:
Excessive bass

Comfortable to wear and with an open and balanced sound, the DT 770 headphones are great all-rounders - a fine choice for leisure listening as well as for studio work.

Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro specs

  • Type: Closed-back headphones
  • Freq response: 5-35,000Hz
  • Sensitivity: 96dB
  • Impedance: 80 ohms
  • Quoted input power: 100mW
  • Connections: Stereo mini jack with screw-on 6.4mm stereo jack
  • Cabling: 3m straight (captive)

Polar Audio

Buyer's guide: headphones for music making
AKG K 271 MK II, £168
This AK(G) is top gun in our shoot-out

These K 271 MK IIs are packed with clever ideas. Thanks to the switch in the headband, the audio mutes when they’re taken off, so you don’t have to worry about feedback if a singer slips them off and hangs them next to the mic. Simple, easy.

There’s no messing with adjusting the huge circular earpads, either - they’re permanently fixed to a metal frame. Slip them on and the plastic band automatically moves upwards to the most suitable position: genius. You also get two detachable leads.


We like: Light; comfortable; detachable leads; sound
We dislike:

With a superbly clear balance of frequencies, lightweight and extra practicality for pro use, these are our choice for extended studio work.

AKG K 271 MK II specs

  • Type: Closed-back headphones
  • Freq response: 16-28,000Hz
  • Sensitivity: 96dB
  • Impedance: 55 ohms
  • Quoted input power: 200mW
  • Connections: Stereo mini jack with screw-on 6.4mm stereo jack
  • Cabling: 3m straight and 5m coiled (both detachable)

Sound Technology

Buyer's guide: headphones for music making
Sony MDR-7510, £136
Famous brand makes a fair pair of cans

Sony might be better known for its TVs and consumer goods, but the company has a long history of professional studio products, such as the MDR-7510 and MDR-7520 headphones.

A simple, ergonomic design, the MDR-7510s sit snugly on the head, their elongated oval ear pads angled ever so slightly for a perfect fit. The Sonys have a clear sound, with less emphasis on the midrange and a brighter tonality that rivals more expensive sets.


We like: Loud; uncluttered design; easy to wear
We dislike:

While the design, including the cradles for the earpieces, appears to use a lot of plastic, it seems robust enough, and we’d take these any time as a good reasonably priced workaday tracking tool.

Sony MDR-7510 specs

  • Type: Closed-back headphones
  • Freq response: 5-40,000Hz
  • Sensitivity: 106dB
  • Impedance: 24 ohms
  • Quoted input power: 2000mW
  • Connections: Stereo mini jack with screw-on 6.4mm stereo jack
  • Cabling: 1-3m coiled (captive)

SCV London

Buyer's guide: headphones for music making
Shure SRH840, £189
Mic legend moves closer to your ears

More guitar amps have been captured with Shure’s SM57 than with any other mic, so why not listen to the results with the company’s cans?

The SRH840s have two extra joints in their construction that allow them to fold into a fairly compact size for transportation, but are heavier than the others and take a little more in the way of headband adjustment to position the ear pads. Some of the other ’phones on test are easier to wear for long periods.


We like: Folding design; sound
We dislike:
Less comfortable than the others on test

While all of the headphones looked at here can be purchased for considerably less than the SRPs that we quote, on paper these are the most expensive, and offer a classy sonic performance to match.

Shure SRH840 specs

  • Type: Closed-back headphones
  • Freq response: 5-25,000Hz
  • Sensitivity: 102dB
  • Impedance: 44 ohms
  • Quoted input power: 1000mW
  • Connections: Stereo mini jack with screw-on 6.4mm stereo jack
  • Cabling: 3m coiled (detachable)

Shure Distribution UK

Buyer's guide: headphones for music making
Fostex T40RP MKII, £132
From multitrackers to music monitors

Fostex has been making multitrackers for over 30 years, so should have some insight into what cans work best on the end of them.

The most basic of this bunch, the T40RP MkIIs offer a rugged design, with a rubbercoated headband and easy adjustment mechanism. These ’phones make no concessions to mini jacks, sporting a straight lead that terminates in a 6.4mm plug. Compared with the best of the others on test, there’s some top-end sparkle lacking.


We like: Built to take abuse; easy adjustment
We dislike:
No mini jack

Not the best sounding, but the T40RP MkII won’t let you down on a tracking session - they’re the pair that would best survive being thrown across the room by a petulant diva!

Fostex T40RP MkII specs

  • Type: Closed-back headphones
  • Freq response: 15-30,000Hz
  • Sensitivity: 96dB
  • Impedance: 50 ohms
  • Quoted input power: 2000mW
  • Connections: 6.4mm jack
  • Cabling: 3m straight (detachable)


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