Mixing on Headphones: Is it Bad?

“Never mix with headphones.” 

This advice seems to pop up from time to time in the production world, and I’m not a big fan of it. 

It prevents people from actually getting started with music production because they think it would be impossible to have a good song if they don’t have speakers to mix with.

Benefits of Headphones

What if you can’t afford good speakers? What if you live with people who don’t want to hear music 24/7 or are trying to sleep? 

This was something I had to deal with when I first started producing music. My parents would have killed me if I was blasting music at one in the morning. Headphones allowed me to produce music without disturbing anyone.

On top of that, headphones are portable. I can bring my laptop anywhere and make music without worrying about lugging my speakers everywhere.

Headphones can be just as useful as speakers for mixing songs, and it’s not as bad as some people make it out to be.

Why are people making it seem as though headphones are so bad for mixing?

To answer this question, we have to look at the main difference between speakers and headphones. 

Speakers play sounds that bounce off things in your environment (walls, carpets, furniture) before reaching your ears. 

Headphones, on the other hand, produce sounds that travel directly to your ears. No interference with anything.

The main reason speakers are used in the production world is so that you get a more realistic idea of how your mix will sound in an environment like the club or on stage.

Put it this way. 

The goal for many artists is to perform in front of an audience, right?

So what better way to test your mix than to use speakers, since they give you a sample of how it’ll sound when you perform live.

That being said, headphones allow you to hear sounds more clearly and are light and convenient to use.

A Sound Perception Study

In my research, I came across an interesting study that analyzed the differences between headphones and loudspeakers with regards to subjective spatialization. 

In other words, the study specifically looked at how the perception of spatial characteristics (like reverb) differed between speakers and headphones.

In the study, researchers gathered 11 sound engineering students who were inexperienced in listening tests (unfortunately a small sample size), and made them listen to a 15s audio piece (Schubert’s 14th string quartet for you music nerds out there) through headphones.

A couple days later, 10 of those 11 students came back to do the tests again with loudspeakers in a studio that had very few reverberations (My guess is the 11th student drank too much the night before….). 

Long story short, researchers came to the conclusion that the subjective reverberation time was higher and the depth perception was lower with loudspeakers than headphones due to the source positions. 

This makes sense as headphones are producing sounds that travel directly to your ears, allowing you to hear details much better than speakers. 

So to summarize……

We can see that both headphones and speakers have their place in the mixing world. 

Headphones are great for fine-tuning sounds and de-essing, and speakers are great for performance preparation. 

In an ideal world, you should have both speakers and headphones

A common method music producers and audio engineers use is starting their mix on the monitors, switching to headphones for a more precise edit, and then switching back to the monitors for any final touches.

 But if you’re just starting out or if you’re strapped for cash like I was, having just one or the other works as well. 

Important Note on Recording Vocals and Instruments

Now if you’re more concerned about recording vocals/instruments, you’re still in the right place! 

Headphones, specifically closed-back headphones, are great for recording with. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Let’s first take a look at…

The 4 types of headphones you should know about

There are four types of headphones that you may have seen at one point or another, so let me briefly talk about each one.

Types of Headphones

1. Earbuds

These are headphones that only sit just inside your ear canal. They do not provide an adequate seal between your ear and the headphone, but they can be useful nonetheless. 

Pros

– Pretty cheap. You’ll find most to be way under $50.

– Convenient

Cons

– Can easily fall out of your ear. 

– Doesn’t do a good job of isolating sounds when you’re in a noisy environment. 

– Easily broken if not taken care of properly.

2. Over-Ear Headphones (aka circumaural headphones)

These are full-sized headphones that have earpads that lay around the ear to create a seal between the headphone and your head.

Pros

– Very comfortable 

– Offers the best sound quality

Cons

– Can be bulky and inconvenient for portable use.

3. On-Ear Headphones (aka supra-aural headphones)

These headphones rest on your ears and also create a seal by using clamping pressure and the dense earpad material.

Pros

– Great for portable use 

Cons

– Strong clamps can cause your ears to become sore

4. In-Ear Headphones

These headphones sit directly in your ear canal, and an ear-tip creates an airtight seal between the headphone driver and the ear canal.

Pros

Very good at isolating sounds

Cons

The fit can negatively affect the sound.

Getting the right headphones for mixing

So now that we established that headphones, in fact, CAN be used for mixing, mastering, and recording, we need to figure out what qualities a headphone needs to have to be great for each of them.

For this guide, we only recommend over-ear headphones. 

They offer the best sound quality and are the most popular style of headphones used for mixing, mastering, and recording in the music industry.

One major factor to consider when buying headphones is whether the headphones are open back or closed back.

Why is this important?

Below I included a table to show you the pros and cons of open-back headphones vs closed-back headphones.

Open-back headphones vs Closed-back headphones


ProsCons
Open-back headphones– More realistic sounds- Better sound quality- Larger sound stage- Used often for mixing and mastering– Weaker bass- You can hear everything  going on around you
Closed-back headphones– Better sound isolation- More privacy- Used often for recording/general purposes– fatiguing- not realistic

By using a pair of open-back headphones, you “improve the soundstage.” What this means is that you create more space, better simulating a 3d environment. 

An airy more realistic sound is what we’re looking for when mixing so open-back headphones are perfect for getting the job done.

However, there are some downsides.

The downside to these headphones is that you will still hear what’s going on around you.

 If your neighbor’s dog is barking nonstop, these headphones will sadly not be able to help you in that department. 

So great for mixing and mastering in the studio, but not so great for things like gaming.

Open-back headphones also tend to be a bit pricey, so keep that in mind when you decide to make your purchase.

They are definitely worth the purchase and will last you quite a long time, so I’d say it’d be worth investing in a nicer pair.

I can’t mention open-back headphones without of course talking about closed-back headphones.

Are they really so bad?

Well, I consider them great for people who want a jack-of-all-trades style headset. 

These headphones allow for a more isolated sound and tend to be cheaper than open-back headphones, but the sound is less realistic, and it can be fatiguing to your ears.

Closed-back headphones are generally better for recording tracks than mixing and mastering due to being able to isolate sounds better.

This is great because you don’t want recording artists to have sound leakage distract them.

If you’re serious about music and will do a lot of mixing and mastering, I 100% recommend open-back headphones. If not, then closed-back headphones will probably be more useful to you.

When I first started producing, I used a pair of closed-back headphones because they were within my budget, and I wasn’t as serious about music production. 

To this day I still use closed-back headphones from time to time, so don’t be too worried if you can’t afford a good pair of open-back headphones.

That’s why I include both open and closed-back headphones in this guide. Either one can be useful depending on your current situation. 

Now for a big plot twist…

What?? You don’t need expensive headphones?

What if I told you it doesn’t really matter what headphones you have? 

What if I said you could do a great job mixing and mastering without an expensive pair of headphones?

Call me crazy but that’s exactly what I’m saying.

Let me explain…

Two words. Reference tracks. 

I’ve seen artists make great music with just a cheap pair of earbuds, and I always wondered how that was possible. 

Reference tracks are what make that possible. 

A reference track is basically a song that has already been mixed and mastered and is generally in the same genre as the song you’re working on.

So how does it work?

What you do is use a spectrum analyzer and match the frequencies of the reference track with your song. 

So for certain genres maybe the drums and the bass need more presence, and in other genres they need less.

I WAS ABSOLUTELY MIND BLOWN WHEN I FOUND THIS OUT.

But it does sorta make sense, and is a neat little trick.  

Wait a second. Didn’t I just say that open back headphones were great for mixing and mastering?

Why am I all of a sudden saying it doesn’t matter what kind of headphones you have? 

I absolutely did say this, and it’s because open back headphones make it so much easier to mix and master.

Why struggle with a $5 pair of earbuds when you can get headphones that allow you to hear frequencies much clearer?

You want to enjoy working on music, and having a good pair of headphones will allow you to enjoy it much more.

Quick Tip: If you don’t have speakers, you can use a car to play your songs from. That’ll give you an idea of how your song will sound on speakers, without you actually having to buy an expensive pair.

Best Studio Headphones Reviewed

Ok now comes the fun part. 

We’re going to review the best studio headphones for mixing and mastering (aka open-back headphones), and for general purposes/recording(closed-back headphones). I included cheaper and pricier options so that you can gauge what your budget will be, and you can see what each price range can offer. All of these headphones are ones that have impressed music artists, and they’ll impress you too.

Beyerdynamics DT 880

Stats:

Stereo 6.35mm jack adapter, drawstring bag, operating instructions, warranty booklet

Pros: 

  • Very comfortable
  • Amazing sound quality
  • Lightweight
  • Built so that every part can be replaced if needed. This is amazing for when things start falling apart!!

Cons:

  • Semi-open, so you will hear some noises from your environment

Breakdown:

You should get this if: You’re serious about music production and have a decent budget. At under $250, the DT 880 is a phenomenal investment. Once you use these you’ll never go back to those dinky earbuds again.

FAQs

My headphones stopped playing sound from one side? 

This is something that can happen to you, and is extremely annoying to deal with. I would first check your computer’s audio settings and make sure sounds aren’t panned to one side. My computer had a bug from time to time that would do that, and it drove me up a wall.

For Mac users:

1. Click on System Preferences and press the Sound option

2. Press the Output tab, and look at the section that says balance. The slider should be located directly in the middle. If not, adjust it so that it is.

3. Hooray! You fixed your headphones!

For Windows users:

Although I’m not as familiar with Windows, the instructions should be relatively similar.

1. Navigate to the control panel and click Sounds. If you can’t find it, try searching for it in the search bar.

2. Click on the speakers icon if that’s what you’re trying adjust, and click on the levels tab.

3. There should be a button there that says “balance”. Click that and adjust the settings.

If that didn’t work for you then it might be because the cable is broken on your headphones. 

Some headphones have cables that can easily be removed, so you can head on to amazon and buy a replacement cable for pretty cheap.

If you instead want to get your hands dirty, soldering might also do the trick, although I would only suggest this method if you are experienced with soldering and have the necessary tools.

To prevent this from happening in the future, here are some things you can do:

  • Don’t cram headphones into your backpack or your pocket. Always use a protective case.
  • Never wrap the cable around anything (aka your phone). That will slowly but surely ruin the cable.

Are higher Ohm headphones always better for mixing/mastering?

If you ever looked at headphones, you might have seen headphones that said “32 ohm” or “600 ohm”. Ohm is a measure of impedance.

Not necessarily. The higher the ohm rating, the more amplification is required in order to drive the headphones adequately. 

So if you wanted to listen to music on your phone, a lower ohm rating would be better.

I included a snapshot below where you can see the difference between the Beyerdynamic DT 880 32 ohm and the DT 880 600 ohm.

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