Top 5 Headphones for Mixing and Mastering

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Mixing in headphones is a somewhat controversial topic in the pro audio world. Some producers and engineers mix primarily in headphones (often out of necessity) and others denounce the practice as entirely useless, preferring to work only on studio monitors. But I think that everyone can agree that a sound mix, whether it’s a song, podcast, video, or other, needs to sound good on headphones and on larger speakers. For me, and many other engineers, that balance is often found by alternating between monitor speakers and headphones while mixing, making adjustments as I see fit on each format, to find a happy medium that sounds good on both.

Accuracy Over Enhancement

Headphones that you intend to use for mixing require different prerequisites altogether than if you’re primarily going to be listening to music. For music listening, consumers generally look for headphones that reproduce the audio in a way that sounds best to them, according to their own personal tastes. Some people love their thunderous drums and bass and tend to choose headphones that sport an “enhanced” low-frequency response. Others’ faces light up when they hear the vocals with super-crisp definition, and they gravitate to headphones that have a very bright high-end response. When shopping for professional headphones to use for mixing, on the other hand, we’re looking for sonic accuracy, rather than “enhancement.”

When I say “accuracy,” I’m referring to a quality that audio manufacturers strive for in their professional headphones; those that aim to represent the source material “transparently,” adding as little sonic coloration to the sound as possible. This is an essential trait for any pro monitoring system to have, because the ability to hear any problem areas in the audio as they exist is critical to effective mixing and editing. You do not want these problem areas to be masked or embellished by headphones that have over- or underrepresented areas of the frequency spectrum in their response, because this obscures your ability to correct them truly. In other words, you can’t truly fix what you can’t truly hear.

One thing that I should mention before I run down our top five headphones for mixing is that while the quest for perfectly accurate sound reproduction is a noble one, the goal itself is probably unattainable. The truth is, every speaker does something to the sound, and no two systems will sound exactly the same. This inconvenient truth reveals itself every time you mix a track that you think is perfect on your studio setup, and then listen to it on a different system, such as your car stereo or earbuds, and it sounds awful. So, while you can’t find a perfectly accurate pair of headphones to mix on, you can find a pair that comes as close as possible, in your given price range.

For Whom Money Is No Object

The Focal Utopia Headphones are designed to accommodate the demanding needs of mixing and mastering engineers in professional, low-noise studio environments. The open-back circumaural design offers an extremely realistic, natural sound stage, but does not isolate your hearing from background ambience. So, to appreciate the Utopia’s high degree of sonic accuracy, you must be working in a professionally treated studio environment, free of background noise. The headphones feature 40mm pure beryllium drivers in an M-shaped dome design, free of crossovers or passive filters, offering full-range audio speakers that provide an extended frequency response of 5 Hz to 50 kHz.

Focal Utopia Open-Back Circumaural Headphones
Focal Utopia Open-Back Circumaural Headphones

Pros: Extremely accurate, top-notch open-back reference headphones to meet the demands of mixing and mastering professionals at the highest levels

Cons: The non-isolating nature of the open-back design requires the user to work in an extremely low-noise environment that can only be found in professional studio environments. And, of course, they’re pricey.

The Workhorse that Can Go Anywhere

No studio headphone list would be complete without mentioning the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Monitor Headphones. Offering a lot of bang for the buck, the ATH-M50x offer a great balance of faithful sound reproduction and sound isolation from the environment around you. They feature 45mm Neodymium drivers with a frequency response from 15Hz to 28kHz.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Monitor Headphones
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Monitor Headphones

Pros: Great value, balanced sound, and effective isolation make these a great choice for engineers and producers who need a pro-quality reference headphone for use in any work environment.

Cons: While they feature a folding design, they don’t fold down as small as some other folding models. If you plan on carrying your headphones around in a backpack all the time, this might be something to think about.

Step Your Game Up

If you’ve already got a nice pair of isolating headphones, and you’re looking to step up your reference headphone game for working in the studio, the Sennheiser HD 650 headphones should definitely be a consideration. They are designed to deliver the true, natural sound reproduction that you’d expect from top-notch, open-back reference class headphones, at a fraction of the price you’ll pay for other options that offer comparable performance. The lightweight aluminum voice coils deliver a very accurate transient response, and the full-range drivers output an extended frequency response of 10 Hz to 39.5 kHz.

Sennheiser HD 650 Reference Class Stereo Headphones
Sennheiser HD 650 Reference Class Stereo Headphones

Pros: Incredibly accurate response, with a notably comfortable design at a relatively affordable price

Cons: Like the Focal Utopia, they’re open-back, so working in an extremely low-noise space is essential.

Premium Closed-Back Option

While open-back headphones are known to have the most accurate sound stage for mixing and mastering, sometimes they just aren’t an option. So, if you need true professional accuracy, whether you’re working in the studio or at Starbucks, a closed-back design is necessary, and the Shure SRH1540 Headphones are some of the best that money can buy. Their 40mm neodymium drivers deliver a frequency response of 5 Hz to 25 kHz, and the ergonomic dual-frame, padded headband is adjustable for listening in comfort.

Shure SRH1540 Premium Closed-Back Headphones
Shure SRH1540 Premium Closed-Back Headphones

Pros: Premium performance in a closed-back option that’s at the head of its class

Cons: A tad on the expensive side

In a Pinch

We’ve all been there. You need a pair of decent headphones right now, and you’re broke. Or, close to broke, anyway. Have no fear, the Sennheiser HD 280 headphones are always here. Some of the most common home studio headphones around, the HD 280’s feature a closed-back collapsible design with swiveling earcups, offering solid performance at an affordable price.

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Circumaural Closed-Back Monitor Headphones
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Circumaural Closed-Back Monitor Headphones

Pros: Affordable, high-quality studio headphones, suitable for use in any environment due to an isolating design

Cons: Not the best option if you need reference quality monitoring for professional mixing and mastering scenarios

I hope this guide helps you on your search for the perfect pair of headphones for mixing and mastering. If you have any questions, I encourage you to leave them in the Comments section, below.

2 Comments

Some nice headphones mentioned above.  But at the same price as the Senn HD 280s, you could get the Tascam TH-07.  I got mine at B&H, and the reviews I read of these things are spot-on: they're accurate and detailed, and I can hear things I never heard before.  I wound up selling my previous go-to cans, the current version of which goes for twice the cost of what the TH-07s typically sell for.

Thanks for your comment! I'll have to try that Tascam model!

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