Finding solid headphones for general-purpose listening isn’t too difficult, but homing in on purpose-built cans that are optimal for drummers, vocalists, and audio engineers is a challenge on its own level. With the staggering number of headphones on the market, it can be difficult to filter your options and remain confident that you’re getting closer to a good choice. Wireless, wired, in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, open-back, closed-back, etc.… there are so many types and models to sort through. So, maybe instead of scrolling through hundreds of headphones on the B&H website, just read a little more here to get the scoop on some stellar headphones for your next studio session or live gig.
Headphones for Drummers
Whether recording in a studio or performing live on stage, drummers need to hear vocals and other instruments clearly over the intense volume of their pounding drums. Engineers create monitor/headphone/cue mixes precisely for that purpose, but the mixes won’t be effective if the headphones can’t block out a significant amount of the SPL from the drumkit. Nobody wants the headphone mix to be so loud that it distorts and/or incurs hearing damage! To maximize isolation from ambient sounds, your best bet is to use closed-back, over-ear headphones or IEMs (in-ear monitors). Open-back, on-ear, and earbud types aren’t designed to excel in the isolation department.
Although traditional headphones are less convenient to carry than IEMs, they are faster to put on and take off, and can be used by different people without much fear (I do not recommend that you put anything inside your ears that has been inside someone else’s ears). The USA-made Direct Sound EX29 Plus V3 headphones offer up to 36.7 dB of noise isolation and 40mm drivers, and the Vic Firth SIH2 headphones provide up to 25 dB of isolation and 50mm drivers. Both sets have comfortable padding and wideband frequency responses, although the comfort level and tonal quality really depend on the wearer’s preference.
If you’re a touring drummer, you’ll probably want to get IEMs. They are compact, easily transportable, and give you a more natural, inconspicuous look on stage and in pictures/video. Dependable, well known, and cost effective, the Shure SE215 are dynamic single-driver (per side) in-ear headphones with up to 37 dB of noise isolation. Touting up to 40 dB of isolation, the Mackie MP-220 are dual dynamic driver IEMs that offer a balance of vocal clarity with lots of low-end for good on-stage versatility. Built for maximum audibility in loud stage environments, the Shure SE535 IEMs utilize triple high-definition MicroDrivers that put a separate tweeter and dual woofers in each earpiece for rich, detailed audio and bass across the full frequency spectrum. All three models have detachable cables, multiple ear tips, and carry cases.
Headphones for Vocalists
For vocalists in the studio, comfort is key. If you’re accustomed to performing with IEMs in a live setting, you might feel right at home in a recording session wearing the same ones you use on stage. In that case, I still recommend the in-ear monitors I suggested for drummers. However, if you haven’t practiced extensively with IEMs, the first time you try them shouldn’t be in a recording session. It’s possible that certain jaw movements involved with singing can disrupt the seal of IEMs, resulting in distractions that pull you out of your zone.
So, for studio vocalists, my default choice is closed-back, over-ear headphones. Although the sort of extreme noise isolation required for drummers isn’t needed for vocal artists, open-back designs should be avoided because they let a lot of sound in and out. This means that the vocalist’s microphone would end up “hearing” the bleed escaping from open-back headphones, resulting in the mic capturing a faint (or perhaps not so faint) version of the cue mix along with the vocal.
To avoid that nightmare, consider closed-back cans such as the Sony MDR-7506 or the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (available in black or white). The studio classic MDR-7506 headphones offer a 10 Hz to 20 kHz frequency response and high sensitivity, while the ATH-M50x have a 15 Hz to 28 kHz frequency response and are a bit less sensitive, but handle more power.
Both models feature rotating ear cups, and that actually is an important factor. Since many singers find it challenging to hear their pitch accurately while wearing headphones, it’s not uncommon for them to slide an ear cup off one ear. As you can imagine, it is much easier to do that if the ear cup rotates. With one ear “open,” the singer’s voice (and the vocal resonance they’re accustomed to) can go directly in their ear, letting them hear their voice the way they’re used to hearing it.
For vocalists on stage, it’s IEMs all the way. Sure, a singer wearing big, bulky headphones is likely to get a reaction from the crowd, just not the one that any vocalist, manager, or sincere fan would want. Surprisingly, the Shure, Mackie, and Sennheiser in-ear headphones that I suggested for drummers are also great for singers.
Headphones for Engineers
If you mix at FOH (front of house) or track in a studio, your typical use of headphones will be occasional—listening to channels in solo, checking a cue mix, etc. Still, you deserve something with isolation and honest tone, and that you can quickly pop on or off. The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro is a perennial favorite and probably the headset you’re most likely to find in a professional recording studio. Incredible value, luxurious leatherette earpads, and a frequency response that extends well beyond the range of human hearing are just a few of the reasons the HD280s are so popular.
For monitor engineers, IEMs are ideal. They’re tour-friendly and provide a monitoring experience that’s closer to what the artists hear (considering that they’re probably wearing in-ears, too). In addition to the IEMs mentioned earlier, the Westone Audio Pro X30 are a fantastic choice with their triple balanced-armature drivers and high-SPL output.
Knowing that studio-based mixing and mastering engineers normally work in acoustically treated and controlled environments, they don’t require headphones that isolate against ambient sound, making open-back headphones a viable choice. Since open-back headphones usually give a tone and soundstage that translates well to the experience of listening to monitors in a room, they’re advantageous for critical decision making during the final stages of audio production. Outfitted with dual-layer diaphragms in dynamic drivers, the Sennheiser HD 600 headphones are trusted by engineers around the world for their transparent sound. Speaking of trust: the AKG K712 Pro headphones have been the go-to cans for sound engineers for going on 10 years. Great sound quality and very comfortable design make the K712 Pro headphones a great choice for long sessions of critical listening.
Headphones for DJs
While a good pair of headphones won’t necessarily make you a better DJ, they will definitely make the path to becoming a great DJ a whole lot easier to navigate. For professional DJs (and aspiring amateurs) there are plenty of great options available, but, my go-to recommendation is the HD 25 from Sennheiser.
The HD 25 headphones aren’t the best DJ headphones on the market, but I would argue they are the best headphones for most people. Featuring a lightweight build and closed-back earcups with thick cushions, these headphones are super comfortable to wear for long periods of time. On top of that, they deliver outstanding sound isolation, so you can reduce background noise and focus on what matters.
Multiple iterations of the HD 25 are available: the standard model, a “plus” variant (which features an updated headband with smoother joints and arguably a more comfortable fit), and a lightweight version aimed at outdoor usage.
All three models offer the same technical specs and sound quality, so you really can’t go wrong with whichever model you choose, especially if your primary concern is sound monitoring. However, one thing to keep in mind about the lightweight variant is that its svelte silhouette comes at a cost. To achieve skinny legend status, the lighter headphones abandon the rotating earcups featured in both the standard and plus models. The rotating cups make it easy to free your ear quickly so you can hear crowd noise. Keep that in mind when deciding which version is the best for you.
Headphones for Podcasters
Last, but not least, are my headphone recommendations for podcasters. The reason I waited until the end of the article to cover podcasting headphones is because most of my recommendations have already been discussed.
Regardless of experience or where you’re at on your professional podcast journey, you can’t go wrong with either the Sony MDR-7506 or the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones. Both pairs of closed-back cans offer pro-grade performance at a midrange price. More specifically, both models do an excellent job of blocking out ambient sound and reducing bleed.
Sennheiser’s HD 25 headphones are another great choice for podcasters—for many of the same reasons that make them so great for DJs.
Of course, these are just some of the many headphones available. Come to the B&H SuperStore or visit our website to see more, and let us know which headphones you love in the Comments section!