Round-up: 15 pairs of headphones for musicians
8th Sep 2010 | 10:42
From £6.99 to £390
Whether you’re a DJ, someone who likes to make music away from their studio or just appreciate listening to good quality audio, a decent pair of headphones is a must. However, your requirements from a set of cans will be dictated by what you’re going to use them for. Comfort is obviously a pre-requisite, but you won’t want a ‘hi-fi’ sounding pair if you want to create decent mixes, for example.
What you need, then, is a round-up of headphones from some of the best-renowned manufacturers in the market, with reviews that tell you their strengths and weaknesses and discuss their suitability for different musical disciplines.
Read on for just such a round-up - we’ve listed the cans in ascending price order so you can quickly find a pair that suits your needs and budget.
NEXT: Numark HF125
Aimed squarely at the DJ market, the HF125s may be the very definition of cheap and cheerful. Boxed with nothing but the headphones themselves, they’re a rather small affair, with a tight grip on your ears that, oddly, doesn’t really provide any isolation - we could even hear our hard drive spinning away as we loaded up some music while wearing them.
Unfortunately, things don’t get much better when the music starts playing. The response of the HF125s isn’t exactly what you’d call flat. The bass is very prominent - so much so, in fact, that anything around 7 or 8kHz sounds rolled off. That’s fine for DJing if you just need to cue in to a four-four beat, but for pretty much all other uses, it can be highly irritating.
Still, in the context of the price point, you can’t really expect perfect audio fidelity. What you do get from the HF125s is a fairly solid set of cans that will deliver adequate results in the booth for next to nothing.
Although quite flimsy - and with a plastic ball joint that seemingly begs to be broken - the PHXs appear to deliver plenty of bargain for your buck. There are three different types of cables, a storage pouch and replacement earpieces included in the box, which is almost unheard of at this price.
The PHXs deliver serious isolation and, as they are aimed at DJs, have a notched sound that peaks around the mid section. They don’t sound particularly bad as such, but they are quite uneven across the frequency scale.
At this price, bearing in mind the bundled extras, we’d recommend them if you’re looking for an all-rounder that could be used for general listening and DJing on a budget. For any other tasks such as field recording or mobile mixing, however, you might want to look elsewhere.
Pioneer is better known for its prowess in the DJ booth, but its SE range aims its sights squarely at the mobile music market. The MJ51s (we’re sure the presence in this moniker of Michael Jackson’s initials and his age at the time of his death is purely a coincidence) certainly look good, with brushed-aluminium earpieces that shine like brass, but the cable looks very thin and fragile, especially at the earpiece end.
Sound-wise, the MJ51s are quite notched in the mids, with a restrained high end and somewhat hyped bass. It’s a mismatched sound, especially when listening to genres where mid-range frequencies are important, such as rock and pop.
The MJ51s perform best on dance music, but it’s a very closed sound that only really appeals at lower levels. As soon as you pump anything loud into these headphones, it’s compressed into a flat wall of mid-range frequencies. They’re fine for DJing, but not much else.
Audio Technica ATH-M35
The cheapest of the three offerings from Audio Technica on test here, the M35s feel very sturdy for their price, with steel reinforcements at the joints. Though the earpieces feel like they’re pressing right up against your ears, there is actually a good stereo field and it’s easy to pick out certain sounds from left to right.
In terms of response we have no complaints either, with the midrange being particularly present and clear. In fact, the sound is flat and generally appealing all the way across the spectrum - there’s no hype occurring anywhere. We would be quite happy to use the M35s in just about any situation, be it travelling, songwriting or even checking a mix.
The earpieces themselves are a bit thin, so we’d be concerned about them wearing down overtime, but as it stands, the M35s may be the best all-rounder at this price point. Plus, they leak very little sound, which is a welcome bonus.
Once you’ve clasped these big-bass cans over your ears, you’ll feel every bit of the £59 you paid for them. They’re certainly very comfortable and provide quite a bit of isolation due to the reassuringly tight grip they take on your head. One small gripe is that the cable comes out of both ears rather than one, which can be annoying when getting them on and off.
With a 40mm driver, the XB500s deliver an extremely powerful bottom end - so powerful, in fact, that it kind of fights off all the other frequency bands. The mid is present but not very prominent, and the treble is much too shy. Using an EQ with a hefty treble boost brings these headphones to life, making them sound fantastic for the price, but that’s hardly ideal.
So, the XB500s definitely aren’t suitable for mixing, but if you love big-bass genres like hip-hop, dubstep and reggae and don’t mind EQing or a dealing with a rolled-off high end, you’ll like them a lot.
Allen & Heath Xone:XD40
Well known in the DJ world for their high-quality mixers and DJ equipment, you would expect Allen & Heath’s XD40s to be heavy on the bottom end for cueing up records in a blaring club, but we were pleasantly surprised to learn that’s not the case.
While the XD40s are a tad teeny on your ears, they don’t suffer for it, delivering an acceptable top end, crunchy mids and pleasantly rounded bass. Their closed back keeps the sound contained quite nicely, and they also fold up flat - perfect for travelling.
Being from Allen & Heath, these headphones definitely excel at club music and bass-heavy genres, though the mid is tight enough to extend to more acoustic genres too. Though the treble is perfectly tolerable, it does lack something in terms of balance.
The XD40s would be adequate for tracking and some early-stage mixing, but we think they’re most suited to exploring music apps and general listening.
Bose on-ear headphones
On first seeing the rather timid-looking Bose on-ears, you could be forgiven for thinking they weren’t up to much. Give them a listen, though, and you’ll take it all back as the sounds of your environment instantly fade into a comfortable and snug silence.
The Bose on-ears deliver a fantastic bass response for their size - in fact, it’s one of the best bass responses that we’ve heard in headphones of any size. It might be hyped, but the way that the sub-bass complements the cushioned earpieces provides serious comfort and makes these headphones a joy to listen to.
Listening is about all you can do, though - mixing is out of the question due to Bose’s hi-fi approach. Nonetheless, for long journeys or testing out music-making apps, these are some of the best cans around, delivering a warm, colourful and enjoyable response.
M-Audio Studiophile Q40
M-Audio’s only over-ear headphones are a closed-back affair with a removable cord and a storage bag included. While they claim a flat frequency response and excellent sonic isolation, in use the bass is quite boomy and the isolation minimal.
Boomy bass isn’t always a bad thing, of course, and when turned up loud the Q40s deliver a lot of power and supply a huge bottom end, especially considering their closed nature. This can be a bit much for more bass-heavy genres, though.
The mid and treble are flat but truthful in comparison. They’re not compressed away at lower volumes, so this is where the Q40s deliver the best response.
The headphones are comfortable to wear over long periods, with softly padded earpieces that cover your whole ears and enable you to pick out specific sounds easily. Collapsible for portability and with reinforced joints, they feel pretty sturdy, too.
Audio Technica ATH-M50
Audio Technica’s M50s certainly look and feel more expensive that their price tag would suggest. With a steel-reinforced headband, a coiled cable with a gold-plated connector, replaceable earpads and plenty of comfort over long use, they definitely make a good first impression.
So what of the sound? The best word to describe it is clear. There’s a huge amount of stereo field considering the M50s’ closed nature, and the high end sparkles, although probably a bit too much. We can’t help but feel there’s hyping occurring from about 10k upwards, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not enough to ruin a mix, and it definitely adds some excitement if you’re using these for general listening.
The lack of a replaceable cable is worrying at this price, but apart from that, the M50s are good value and have enough of everything to make them a great all-rounder.
Often referred to as the Yamaha NS10s of the headphone world, the Beyerdynamic DT100s are a professional audio staple in studios around the world due to their excellent isolation, comfortable earpieces and accurate representation.
They might not be too pleasant to listen to, but they deliver incredibly accurate sound reproduction, warts and all. Coming with a detachable, proprietary cable, every element of the DT100s is replaceable, right down to the earpads.
The DT100s’ bass response is weak to say the least, but that’s not what they’re made for. Where they excel is in the midrange and mid-highs: the vocal range. Their clarity at this scale goes beyond their price bracket, and they make it easy to dissect very specific elements of the mix.
If you want a second mix opinion with the added bonus of having the best recording headphones in the business, go ahead and pick up a pair.
Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro
Beyerdynamic is no stranger to the professional audio scene, so you’d be forgiven for expecting a lot from these cans. The DT990 Pros are open-backed, meaning they leak sound quite a bit, but they make up for it in their incredible stereo detail as well as their crisp and tight mid and high response. They are bright but not harsh, thick but not cloudy, warm but also sincere, and in terms of comfort they are a joy to wear for long periods.
The nature of open-backed headphones means that the sub response isn’t huge, so if you’re looking for high-end multimedia headphones and nothing more, or if you make very bass-heavy music, the DT990 Pros might not be for you. That’s not to say the bass response isn’t true, though.
Their leaking will definitely bother fellow passengers on a bus, train or plane, but for mixing duties indoors - in or away from the studio - or for outdoor iPadding in the park, they are very hard to fault
Audio Technica ATH-ANC7B
Having to put a triple-A battery into your headphones is a weird experience, but it pays off with the ATH-ANC7Bs. These noise-cancelling headphones offer real isolation once clasped onto your ears. They’re very comfortable too, and although the output is very hi-fi and clearly hyped all over the scale, it’s never harsh or detrimental to the overall sound.
The ANC7Bs are definitely more suitable for general listening than mixing or any kind of serious audio work, but they excel at mids and highs and have a very tight and rounded bass response.
We would recommend these if you’re serious about your sound - and you’d have to be at this rather high price point - but don’t need a particularly flat response. Turning the noise cancelling switch off makes them fall a bit flat, however, so make sure you carry a spare triple-A with you.
Sennheiser HD25 II
At first glance, the HD25 IIs certainly don’t look worth their fairly high price tag, offering tiny earpieces and a plastic headband. Once on, though, they clasp your head like a vice. It does take some time to get used to the tight environment, but after a while you actually grow to like the space they create with their isolation and grip.
Sound-wise, the price is justified by the quality. They are tight at all frequencies, providing a very transparent response. Their closed nature helps to keep the bass up-front without boominess or rumbling, the high end is crystal clear and the stereo imaging is very impressive considering their tiny size. We do have some concerns about build quality, though we were able to do some serious stretching and bending with them without feeling like they were too close to snapping.
These are perfect for DJs, keeping your ears focused on the music in the noisiest of environments.
The NC500Ds are the world’s first digital noise-cancelling headphones. On opening the rather minimal parcel they arrive in, you’re greeted with a classy black case filled with all the extras that make the noise cancelling happen. Turn them on and press the AI NC MODE button to analyse your space - it’s a surreal experience as the space around you gets sucked away to silence.
The sound of the NC500Ds is suitably hi-fi, which is exactly what you’d expect - these are made for travelling and are hyped in the right places for long listening sessions. There isn’t a huge amount of mid presence and they could be brighter, but once you’re in your own silent world, they are certainly very pleasant.
Having to charge them up can be annoying and the large number of accessories means they’ll take up a lot of space in your bag, but as a high-end all-rounder with the bonus of noise cancellation, the NC500Ds are a nice package.
Delivered in a rather elaborate box, the HD650s from Sennheiser are some of the most coveted cans in town, with Tocadisco, David Guetta and Eric Prydz all rumoured to use them religiously. Their open-backed nature provides pretty much zero isolation from the outside world, so they might not suit use on public transport, but that’s pretty much where our complaints end.
For accurate representation, the sound of the HD650s is almost perfect. There is absolutely no hype occurring, and whatever you play is flatly represented. The stereo detail is vast and it’s easy to follow even the faintest of sounds in the busiest of tracks. If we were to nitpick, and we must at this price, we’d say that their open nature means the sub-bass - below 40Hz - is a little weak.
The price screams professional, but so does the sound. If you work on the road a lot and you need to trust what you’re hearing, you must try the HD650s.
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