Choosing the right headphones for the job
As with so many types of musical equipment, the different variations of headphones can seem overwhelming. Certain types are designed specifically to achieve certain goals. A set of cheap in-ear ‘phones, for example, are nigh-on useless when it comes to accurate mixing. Conversely, a high quality set of open-back over-ear headphones would serve only to annoy passengers on the morning commute. Let’s take a look at what the main differences are in headphones.
Open back vs closed back
In the world of consumer audio, there are generally two types of headphones; open back and closed back. Thankfully the explanations here are simple. Inside every headphone is a small magnetic speaker driver, which is what emits the sounds you hear. These drivers send out sound in both directions (towards the ear and away from it.) With open-backed headphones, this means the sound picks up an element of air from the outside world, making the signal you hear appear far larger. Like a high-end stereo system beamed directly into your ear. Closed back, on the other hand, have an opening only where the ear meets the headphone.
Both have advantages and disadvantages. Sitting on your own, in a quiet room, with a comfy chair and a new album you’ve been dying to listen to? Open back would win every time. The superior tonality that comes from a decent set of open-backed headphones makes for a far more rewarding experience. However, there is one big drawback. The openings to the back of the speaker not only make for a better sound for you, they also ‘leak’ sound quite drastically. This means they are not great for using outside of your preferred listening area.
Thankfully, closed-back headphones are far more suited to a variety of uses. They’re also far more common than open-backed, and can offer a few neat tricks of their own. Features like noise-cancelling and soundproofing simply aren’t possible, or indeed desirable, in open-backed headphones.
In, on or over
As with open and closed back, there are variations evident in the way headphones appear and how you use them. We’re probably all familiar with the common types. In-ear headphones are usually much smaller, and feature a design which allows the user to plug the headphone directly into their ear canal. Some offer soft ‘plugs’ to enable them to remain in place, while certain models mould to the exact dimensions of your inner-ear. In-ear headphones are hugely portable, often cheaper to buy and work well for general use.
For more specialised use, on-ear or over-ear headphones can be the better option. These are usually larger, and therefore less portable, but can deliver superior results for mixing and monitoring. You’d use on-ear headphones in studios, for live performance, for tracking and for broadcast. You can also expect on and over-ear headphones to come equipped with far longer cabling. This makes them ideal for situations where you have a bit of room to play with.
Typical usage examples
At first it may seem obvious. We use headphones when we want to focus on our music, and that alone, right? Well, yes, but there are certain scenarios where use of headphones can actually trump hearing music ‘out loud’. Think about the DJ lining up his next track. It’d be no good if the audience were also privy to his efforts to match tempos or find his or her cue point. In the studio too, particularly if a performer is tracking individually, they’ll need to hear what’s already been committed to tape. In each of these situations, certain truisms become apparent.
DJs need a set of headphones which can significantly lower the volume levels they are experiencing while they go about their work. Headphones for this kind of activity need to be closed back, with certain frequencies perhaps boosted to allow them to hear over the track which is playing. For this type of application it’s also important to consider a few other factors. We’ve already discussed cable length, but the type of connection (3.5mm or 3/4″) and even angle of the connector should figure in your thoughts.
For recording and mixing, you’ll need to consider a few things. Notable among these is where headphones fit into the overall plan. Sure, it is possible to achieve decent results mixing only with headphones. However it is more preferable to use headphones alongside other monitoring sources to get a good overview of how things will sound on different systems. In the same way that it’s beneficial to listen back to a mix on both high and low quality systems, the same stands for headphones. What sounds great on a pair of high-end Sennheisers might sound awful on the cheap in-ears which come with a smartphone, for example. That might sound obvious but consider which type or grade of headphones your listeners are most likely to be using and mix accordingly.
To sum up, there is no right or wrong pair of headphones. Like with any equipment, it is about choosing the right pair for your needs. DJs, who require solid soundproofing, comfort and durability, should consider these AIAIAI TMA-2 headphones. AIAIAI is a brand synonymous with DJing, and these cans deliver outstanding performance night after night. Their cable-locking functionality will also ensure there are no mishaps when tripping over the cable mid-set. We’ve all been there.
For specialist studio applications, the KRK KNS 8400 headphones are worth your attention. KRK has built a reputation on delivering exceptional mixing performance and these superb headphones continue that tradition. They boast a wide frequency response to present you with the sound as it truly is. Their padded insulation will also stop any residual noise being picked up by microphones.
The Sennheiser HD 201 on-ear headphones do a great job of providing usable tonality with the assurance you get from buying one of the industry-leading brands. For situations requiring discreet in-ear monitoring, the Shure SE315 sound isolating headphones do a solid job of cancelling out external noise. Finally the Beyerdynamic DT100 studio headphones have been used in broadcast houses for decades, with their high build quality and performance ensuring they remain first choice for recording engineers everywhere.