Headphones are one of the most important audio equipment purchases you can make for one very practical reason: you will be wearing them on your head. And if you’re buying headphones for recording or DJ’ing, you’ll be doing so for many hours at a time.
Certain types of headphones are best for specific applications. Here are important factors to consider when buying headphones for pro audio work, starting with the price. Be prepared to pay $100 to $200 for phones that meet all the basic requirements of pro usage.
It’s important to understand that DJs need different headphones than recording engineers and studio musicians. Superior headphones for DJs are lightweight — a necessity due to the long hours they’ll be worn — but durable, since they’ll also be in motion frequently, slid to the side for conversations or to hear the PA, taken off when on the mike, etc. Easy swivel and folding characteristics are important. So is solid wiring. The wiring on low quality headphones is what typically breaks first — especially if you’re Stanton DJ Pro 300 user Fatboy Slim, who’s made spinning his headphones over his head by their cable a trademark. DJ phones should also have enhanced bass reproduction, since a good DJ lives by the groove. Efficient heavy-duty drivers are also a requirement.
Recording headphones are a different animal. They need accurate response across the board, at least if you’re tracking live musicians. Also, noise resistance is a plus — especially in small studios, where the artists and engineers may be sharing the same space as songs go down on real or virtual tape. Detachable cables are a plus, too, since the cables of studio headphones are often tripped over or pulled to the brink during recording. Soft ear cushions and a comfortable weight are also important, although those qualities are sometimes hard to find in noise reducing headphones.
Good headphones come in five varieties: circumaural, supra-aural, open air, semi-open and closed. Open-air and semi-open air headphones are not practical in serious audio applications, because they let too much environmental sound in. Closed phones are the best for isolating sounds, and tend to have the best natural bass response, but they are also heavy and can cause both listening and physical fatigue. Circumaural phones may be closed or open backed, but the important thing is that they are padded and form a seal around the ear. That seal also diminishes the leakage that can sneak onto tracks being recorded — a/k/a bleeding. Supra-aural phones rest on the ear. They’re comfortable and OK for studio mixing, but leak too much to be ideal for recording.
If you’re done any recording or DJ work, you know headphones take a lot of physical abuse. They’re dropped, accidentally unplugged, kicked, sat on and more. If you buy folding headphones, be sure they have strong hinges. Also, make sure the cables that plug into the output feed are strong; ditto the wire that connects both ears. If you’re shelling out big dough, be sure that all of the working parts are replaceable, so headphones can be repaired rather than replaced when inevitable accidents happen.
Length is also an issue with cables. If you’re recording a full band, you want to be sure the musicians don’t feel like leashed animals. However, after 10 feet in length some cables introduce low levels of noise and reduce volume. Look for shielded cables — like those that connect your guitar and amp — which counteract noise.
Finally, let’s revisit the topic of comfort. This can be a matter of taste, but there are some universal basics. Larger ear cups are best on circumaural headphones, because they pinch the ear less. Conversely, for headphones that rest on the ear, the less material the better. The headband that supports the headphone set can also be a problem. Some pinch or feel tight on the head after long periods of wear.
It’s best to try out headphones before you buy them, or to at least make sure they are returnable for a refund or credit. Only after a half-hour or so of wearing does a headphone reveal how comfortable it will be in the long run.