HomeBest Headphones: The Pros Weigh In

jessica.chen's picture

Headphones are one of the many key components of the a cappella production process. They’re used by singers while tracking parts of course, but also often during the other steps along the way to a finished product. Although headphones are a staple in any music studio, there don't seem to be many resources available online for someone who might be in the market for a pair. I decided to check in with a few of the experts to see what they turn to when working their magic.

Some of the questions I hoped to answer included: What is your favorite pair or some of your favorite pairs of headphones, and why? What kinds of things do you look for in a pair of headphones? What are some of the pros and cons you’ve discovered from using them? Ultimately, though, I left it pretty open-ended, as each person’s experiences and preferences are different, and I wanted responses to be on their own terms.

Hopefully this information is helpful for those looking to get into a cappella production, and can provide individuals who are new to the field with some potential choices and options to look into. I certainly found everyone’s responses to be well thought-out and interesting nonetheless. A very special thanks again to each and every one of the producers below who took the time to provide useful insight. They’re such a musically talented and helpful group, and we can learn a great deal from them!

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Ed Boyer

Sennheiser HD 650's - My “best” headphones, they're technically the flattest and extend the farthest on either end of the frequency spectrum.

AKG 240's - The ones I use the most, they're less honest, and relatively more "exciting" sounding than the 650's. But, for whatever reason, my mixes tend to translate better when I use them.  I also like them because:

1) most studios have a pair lying around somewhere. So, if I'm having a hard time trusting the studio's speakers, I can throw on the 240's and know what I'm hearing.

2)  They're "relatively" inexpensive (about $100) and they're sold at Guitar Center, so, if I'm on the road and my pair breaks, I can pick up a new pair pretty easily.

Bill Hare

AKG K240 - I’ve been using these since the mid 1980s.  Before that, I used the Sennheiser 414, which was the standard through most of the 1970s. These were the studio standards of the day, and after almost 30 years, the K240 remains so. Over the years, I've tried others, I have several pairs of Sony MD7506, as some people like them, but I personally much prefer the AKG.

A lot of the equipment I have is simply because there weren't a lot of alternatives back in the day - there was such a huge quality gap between professional equipment and consumer stuff that there was never an issue. The "Prosumer" class didn't exist, so you knew something that was "cheap" in cost would also be very shoddy in build and quality.  Not so much now, where there is much less difference between a $100 piece of gear and a $5,000 piece of gear besides nuance and refinement. Back then it was the difference between something that sounded like a telephone and a full concert system!

Nick Lyons (for the Vocal Company)

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro - They're "closed ear", which means they block out noise from the outside. I use them primarily for tracking because you can't hear what's playing back in them. Also, if I'm trying to monitor something and need isolation (for example, I'm trying to hear how loud the room is, but can't really hear if it I'm actually hearing the room while I'm trying to listen to hear what the room sounds like…) I've been using them for about 6 years.

They can tend to get a little overly tight on your head when wearing them for extended periods of time. Additionally, because they're so tight, it's kind of difficult to pull one ear off and not have them pop off your head.

AKG K240 - Pretty much every engineer (and a lot of soon-to-be engineers) have a pair of these. They're inexpensive, and offer an extremely flat response, especially given their price point. I use them to check my mixes for sonic quality, etc.

The connectors on these can tend to go back, especially in the wire. They use an 1/8" jack, as opposed to 1/4", which gears them a bit more toward the casual user, and toward more consumer level products. The ear pads can crack and make them a little uncomfortable to wear, but overall, they are great for wearing for extended periods of time.

HiFiMan HE-500 - Have only had these for a few months, but absolutely love them. They're $700 headphones, but they provide a borderline completely transparent translation of your mix, so there are the ultimate reference headphones. Where the K240's only go down to about 50Hz (and up to 20kHz), the HiFiMan's go down to 20Hz and up to 50kHz, so they support a much larger frequency range.

They're extremely comfortable on the ears, but weigh a ton. I actually started having neck pain after owning them for a week, from the added weight on my head. They do come with a nifty box to store them in, and you definitely feel as though they're worth the investment, but still fairly expensive with other lower-cost options out there.

Dave Sperandio

For recording: Sennheiser HD 280 - they seal very well preventing mic bleed, and are comfortable.

For mixing: AKG 240 for reproduceable, everyday sound; HiFiMan HE-500 for nuance and EQ

For mastering: HiFiMan HE-500 and Apple earbuds for ultra hi-fidelity and neutrally revealing sound / real-world sound

James Cannon

AKG 240s - I personally swear by them and have like 5 pair. Generally, I like my headphones to be comfortable and allow my ears to breathe some...the biggest reason I like the AKG 240s is sometimes, I'll be in headphones up to 12 hours (since I utilize them to dial in a great deal of frequency information) and headphones that don't breathe start to feel congested.

For instance, the Sennheiser HD280 is too bright for me and it like...squishes my head. I can't wear those for over an hour without getting a headache. By comparison, the AKG240s is loose-fitting, and comfortable to wear for long periods. Also, I find everything to be more balanced in them and nothing seems especially hyped, which is big for me.

Cons of my AKG240s is also that they're semi-open, so you can't blast them in a tracking scenario without them potentially bleeding into the mic some...though some bleed doesn't really matter to me...in fact I usually prefer it, but it can become a problem depending since they bleed sound into the room a bit.

Other studio standards include the Sony MDR 7506, the Sennheiser HD280pro, and the Hifiman HE500.

I also tend to check my mixes on:

Jays of Sweden earbuds - These are really made more for hip-hop, so it exposes problems that can exist in the low-end that i may not be 100% getting on other monitors (since you can feel all the bass there)

Bose sport earbuds - These are just really well-balanced...I tend to check the overall album experience on that pair to make sure things seem balanced and enjoyable…

Phillips Sport headphones (retail $15 from Target, CVS, etc) - They have a fairly rounded sound overall, but I can check how the low-end compares to people who are listening on more generic systems that don't have much information below 200hz. I don't often make many adjustments there, but if the sub-bass or the kick isn't reading well on those, I know that i need to add a bit of high-end information to fake that a bit.

As far as stuff I let the kids use when they come to track things...I prefer to go cheap, but bang for your buck. Sennheiser HD201 or HD205 are really great.

Alexander Koutzoukis (for Plaid Productions)

We both mix primarily on studio monitors, but will occasionally check things on headphones for reference, or be in a place where we need to work on headphones (while traveling, for example), or when we're recording people and are therefore in the same room as them, so we each have a pair of AKG K240 studio headphones (mine are technically the Mk II, but there isn't a huge difference between the variations except an extra cable and ear pads I think). They're semi-open, over-the-ear headphones, so they're full range and clear while not being stifling. I would also use these for casual listening on a regular basis, too, if I didn't have monitors to listen on. I also have a pair of Sennheiser HD 280 pro headphones that are also over-the-ear but closed. They're pretty isolating, so I use them in noisy environments (like planes or airports a lot), and I also give them to people who are recording because they don't let a lot of sound out that will get picked up by a microphone while they're singing.

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About the writer:
As a musician Jessica started at an early age, playing piano and flute throughout her childhood, but she discovered singing and a cappella during high school and was immediately hooked. In college she sang with and directed the Boston University Allegrettos, doing most of the arranging as well as producing an album, and sang with friends in her hometown during the summers in Henry Fonda & the Falsettos. As a post-grad she has continued to arrange for various collegiate and high school groups. Some of her other interests include Boston sports and all dogs, ever.