What are the best studio headphones you can buy right now?
We challenged ourselves to answer this question by comparing the top studio-focused offerings from leading headphones manufacturers. The result is this definitive buying guide to studio headphones.
I've always been a fan of minimalist studio setups. While having a closet filled with compressors and monitors and amps is great for professionals, most bedroom producers can and should start off with the bare minimum equipment.
Which is why I always tell readers who email me to skip buying studio monitors and MIDI keyboards and control surfaces if they are on limited budgets.
But there is one piece of equipment I consider a “must-have” for every studio:
It doesn't matter whether you're a Grammy-winning producer or just starting out with a trial version of FL Studio, you need a pair of studio headphones to make music. Normal consumer headphones add their own “color” to the sound, making it impossible to know what an instrument or clip truly sounds like. Studio headphones “de-color” the sound, helping you hear sound more accurately.
Buying the best studio headphones isn't easy. Depending on your budget and needs, you have a plethora of options to choose from. In this guide, I'll share my picks for the best studio headphones based on budget. I'll also share a short buying guide to help you understand key terms better.
Use the navigation below to jump to the right section, or refer to the table of contents:
About your reviewer
Ryan Harrell is the founder of MIDINation and an experienced producer/DJ. His first experience with electronic music production dates back to Cubase 3.0 in the summer of 1997, and he's been a fan ever since. He prefers Ableton as his primary DAW these days, though he is still partial to Cubase and Pro Tools. He lives in San Diego and freelances as a producer and part-time DJ.
I. The Best Studio Headphone
If you’re in a hurry and would rather just see the results, here are my picks for the best studio headphones for each category:
The Audio Technica ATH M20X performs admirably against headphones costing 2x, 3x, and even 5x its throwaway price. It takes off from its uber-popular elder sibling, the M50x, and has the same design and dynamics. If you’re an absolute beginner and need the cheapest possible pair of headphones to make music, the M20x should be your top pick.
The Sennheiser D280 Pro are among the bestselling studio headphones of all time (and my first pair). Robust performance, comfortable design, a great price and the Sennheiser brand name make these one of the best picks under $100.
The ATH-M50x has long been the go-to standard for professional musicians and serious hobbyists alike. Dig deep and you’ll find that Skrillex, Kygo and a host of top producers use the M50x in their studios. For just $150, you get proven performance and professional-grade accuracy.
In the next section, I'll look at each of my top picks for the above categories in more detail.
Best Budget Studio Headphones
When I first started making music fifteen years ago, my biggest challenge was buying a pair of headphones.
You see, while I had managed to score a pirated copy of Cubase (sorry Steinberg, but 14 year olds don’t have $500 lying around), I did not have access to studio headphones. For 15-year old me, $150 for a pair of Sennheisers was an enormous amount of money.
If you’re a musician today, you don’t have to go through the same problem.
For one, studio headphones have become vastly more affordable today. A pair of high-performance Audio Technicas will set you back by as little as the cost of a dinner for two.
If you’re on a very tight budget, you can even buy a cheap pair of Akais for just the price of a lunch.
As someone who believes in making music approachable to everyone, I think this is a wonderful development. Some audiophiles might scoff at $20 studio headphones, but if that opens up music production to someone, more power to them.
Before I go off on a rant about the elitist nature of music producers, here are my picks for the best budget headphones.
Audio Technica ATH M20X
It is honestly a little absurd that these headphones are priced so low. They look and feel similar to the superior (and superior priced) M50X but at a fraction of the price. For a beginner looking to experiment with music production, they are the perfect starting choice – well-rounded, accurate sound, good comfort, and an affordable price tag.
What I like
- Sound quality: Despite being the lowest entrant in Audio Technica’s pro line-up, the M20X performs remarkably well. It has a flat frequency response (though with a tendency to flare up higher frequencies). The sound isn’t as powerful as its higher priced cousins, but you’ll likely be using an audio interface anyway which should take care of loudness issues.
- Design: The build quality is fantastic – at least given the price. The ear cups are comfortable and breathable and don’t have any of the plasticky bits that plague headphones in this range. You can wear them comfortably for a few hours at a stretch when you’re making music.
- Noise isolation is decent thanks to the circumaural design. Isolation is an ‘okay’ feature to have, not a necessary one since you’ll be using these headphones mostly in a studio setting (or your spare bedroom).
- Price: Easily my favorite part about these headphones. They are fantastic value for money.
Who is it for?
The M20X are the perfect headphones for the “music-curious”. If the idea of making music intrigues you but you’re not sure if you want to invest money into serious equipment, get these headphones.
They’re cheap enough for most people yet perform well enough to make making – and listening – to music fun.
Although not as comfortable as a regular pair of consumer headphones, they also do well for purely listening, especially if you want decent noise isolation.
2nd Pick: Samson SR850
If, for some reason, you don't like the ATH-M20X, the Samson SR850 would be the perfect alternative for you. It is similarly priced (actually cheaper on Amazon) and offers similar performance.
Samson isn't as big a name in headphones as Audio Technica (it's better known for its microphones, including the legendary Samson C01) but it makes some very competent equipment. The SR850 is one of them.
What I like
- Sound quality: The SR850 has larger drivers than Audio Technica's M20X – 50mm vs. 40mm. The frequencey response is between 10Hz to 30kHz and it has 32 ohms impedence. The bass is thick and hefty but the best part is the smooth, clear mids (something most headphones tend to ignore).
- Semi-Open Back Design: These headphones are semi-open back. Hence, they have a large and airy soundstage. This makes the sound appear further away, which I count as a negative while producing. At the same time, the open back makes them more comfortable to use. For orchestral pieces, the ‘far away' sound also sounds more clear.
- Build quality: The build quality is good if not exceptional. The earcups are comfortable and have a soft inner lining (not plastic). The headphones have a slightly greenish hue which won't win any design awards but doesn't look garish either. They have a similar aesthetic to the legendary AKG K240.
Who is it for?
Anyone curious about making music but working with a very limited budget should try out the Samson SR850. These are some of the best headphones you can get in this price range and they perform well enough for newbies.
Spare a few bucks, grab a free copy of Ableton Live Lite and start making music!
3rd Pick: Behringer HPS3000
By all means, the HPS3000 isn't a particularly remarkable set of headphones. The sound quality is middling, the build quality is poor and the design is nothing to write home about.
But there's one thing that makes it worthy of a mention on this list: the price.
At under $20 (you read that right) these have to be one of the cheapest studio headphones from a respected manufacturer. You might find something cheaper, but you'll have to dig through the bargain bin at AliExpress for that.
The HPS3000 is ideal for someone working with a VERY limited budget.
What I like
- Sound quality: The sound quality is quite good for the price. The bass isn't as tight as higher priced counterparts but the mids and the highs are clear and smooth. It's good, not great but perfectly reasonable given the price.
- Build quality is surprisingly durable for the price. The ear cups have a plasticky feel but the headphones themselves are light enough to make for comfortable use. Unlike other cheap headphones, the Behringer HPS3000 doesn't skimp on the cable quality either. My only complaint is the strange, clunky dual tone design.
- Value for money: Did I mention that these headphones are under $20? Tremendous value for money!
Who is it for?
Strictly for the curious. If you are even remotely serious about making music, save up and buy a better pair of headphones.
But if you're not and just want to fiddle around in FL Studio, these would be a great choice. The price is low enough that you won't mind it even if you realize music production isn't for you. And they perform well enough as consumer headphones anyway.
Best Mid-Range Studio Headphones
The mid-range of the studio headphones category is a strange place to be in.
Mid-range offerings aren’t cheap enough that you can buy them on a whim (like the Behringer HPS3000). Nor are they good enough to compete against professional-level equipment barring a few exceptions.
Nevertheless, the mid-range has some pretty great deals on offer, especially near the tail-end of the budget barrier. This category also includes one of the best-selling studio headphones of all time.
With that in mind, let’s look at the best mid-range studio headphones on the market right now.
Sennheiser HD280 Pro
The H280 are often the first studio headphones most producers buy (yours truly included). They offer everything you'd want from a serious pair of studio headphones in this range – well-regarded, accurate sound, durable build quality, and a relatively affordable price tag – at least as far as musical gear goes. If you're serious about music production, this is a great first pair of headphones to buy.
The Sennheiser HD280 Pro was the first set of studio-grade headphones I ever bought. I must have used them for over 10,000 hours. I still have them in perfectly working condition, right in the center of my music room.
I didn’t choose the HD280 Pro for just sentimentality though; these are truly remarkable headphones at a great price. They’re also among the most popular studio headphones ever made. Ask any professional musician and you’ll find that 7 times out of 10, this was their first pair of studio headphones.
There’s a lot to love about the HD280 Pro, so let’s get started.
What I like
- Superb sound quality: The HD280 has pro-grade audio performance with a very flat response rate. The sound is slightly warm and feels more organic. It also has strong bass which is great for bass-heavy electronic music production. The wide frequency response rate ensures a high degree of accuracy – a critical feature for studio headphones.
- Noise isolation: The large ear cups isolate outside sounds quite well. The design also fits very snugly around the ears, tricking your brain into thinking that you are closer to the sound.
- Durable design: The HD280 was designed to take a beating. The cups are large and the band is thick and broad. The ear cups are made of tough synthetic material. I’ve had mine for close to 8 years. The downside of this durable design is that the headphones aren’t particularly comfortable for long-term wear or casual listening.
- Price: The HD280 isn’t cheap. It barely fits into the “mid-range”. Yet, it is easily the most affordable pair of professional-level studio headphones on the market. There are plenty of cheaper alternatives (as you saw above), but none of them offer the accuracy of the HD280 Pro. These are probably the only mid-range headphones that your musician idols have also owned at some point.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. A personal pet peeve is the lack of a detachable cable. The cable is the first thing that breaks in a pair of headphones. Being able to replace this would have been a big plus.
Who is it for?
Anyone who is serious about making music. I bought mine after I had spent a couple of years just dawdling about with electronic music. When I figured I was serious about this stuff, I saved and sprung for a Sennheiser HD280.
These should be your first choice. Period. Don’t even read the rest of this article – go ahead and buy it. You won’t get a more trustworthy and accurate pair of headphones at this price.
2nd Pick: Sony MDR-7506
I was conflicted about including the Sony MDR-7506 headphones in this list.
On one hand, it is one of the best-selling headphones ever, and certainly, one of Sony's finest pieces of sonic engineering. It has constantly topped the charts since it was first released in 1991.
On the other hand, the MDR-7506 is so similar to Sennheiser HD280 Pro in terms of performance and price that I felt I was repeating myself. You want options, not two similar headphones priced in the “mid-range”.
Ultimately, I relented: the MDR-7506 is just too good.
Plus the HD280 needs some competition.
What I like
- Sound quality: The MDR7506 is an upgrade to Sony's bestselling MDR-V6 headphones released in 1985. The V6 has a decidedly warmer tone. For MDR-7506, Sony wanted something that was more accurate and livelier. Consequently, the MDR7506 has a wide frequency response with flat bass. There is a slight emphasis on the treble range but it remains, for the most part, highly accurate.
- Design: The MDR7506 is arguably a better looking pair of headphones than the HD280 Pro, though not by much. The headband is thick and comfortable while the large ear cups have adequate cushioning for long-term use. Unlike the HD280, it can also fold easily, improving portability. The only downside – there is no detachable cable.
- Noise isolation: The closed ear design does a remarkably good job of blocking outside sound passively. Like the HD280, the sound also feels closer to the ears.
- Price: Technically speaking, the Sony MDR-7506 retails for the same price as the HD280 Pro. However, you can often find it cheaper at a few retailers. A classic set of studio headphones at this price is fantastic value for money.
Who is it for?
If, for some reason, the Sennheiser HD280 Pro is not for you, the Sony MDR-7506 should be your first choice. It boasts very similar performance at the same price point. It is also as well-loved as the HD280 among music producers.
If you have $100 to spare, I'd just flip a coin and choose either the MDR-7506 or the HD280. There is that little to choose between them.
3rd Pick: AKG K240
The AKG is one of the cheapest pro-quality headphones you can buy. Even at full price, it's a phenomenal deal.
The AKG brand name isn't as hot as Sennheiser or as mainstream as Sony, but these headphones perform…and they've been performing for over 40 years. The K240s were launched in the 1975 and have remained the same both in terms of design and engineering.
Unlike the other headphones on this list, these are semi-open. This gives them a roomier feel, though playing them in public won't win you any friends. The older design also de-emphasizes bass, though the headphones themselves are quite accurate.
I have a lot I want to share about the AKG K240, so let's look at it in more detail.
What I like
- Sound quality: The K240s were developed at a time when big, heavy bass wasn't a big thing in music. As such, these headphones don't focus much on the bass side of things. Instead, they emphasize highly detailed, clear mids and highs. Though the bass is still accurate, it feels tiny and low energy. You get a much better richness in the high-end of things. Great for vocals, guitars, lead synths, etc. Not so much for bass heavy music.
- Design: The K240s won't win any design awards. These are as plain as they come though I personally enjoy the retro design with the big gold ear cups. The ear cups are made of synthetic material and are quite comfortable. Portability is a concern since you can't fold them. The wire headband takes quite a bit of weight off, making for comfortable use over hours.
- Noise Isolation: Speaking of ear cups, these headphones are semi-open. So passive noise cancellation isn't a thing. In fact, the semi-open nature allows sound to actually come in! On the plus side, this gives you a lot of room. On the downside, your neighbors can hear everything you're hearing (and vice versa). Not ideal for public listening at all.
- Price: The price is the biggest reason why these headphones made it to my ‘best mid-range studio headphones list). Amazon usually has them on sale, which is a phenomenal price for a classic set of headphones.
Who is it for?
If you can get a pair of classic headphones from a respected manufacturer for cheap, you should spring for it.
Doesn't matter what your target goal is – making music, listening to music, adding it to your collection – this is a bit of music history. Having it in your music room won't hurt.
And besides all the above, these are still a very competent pair of headphones.
Best Studio Headphones for Professionals
The ‘Professional' range is where things get interesting.
This is ideally the range you should be looking at if you're serious about making music. The headphones in this category are the same as the ones used by your favorite producers. Tiesto might tote around his own branded gear now, but he – and so many others – started out (and still use) these classic headphones.
Headphones in this range are also a good buy, financially speaking. They aren't too expensive and they offer the best possible performance you'll need. Sure, you can spring for a $800 pair of Sennheisers, but you neither need them, nor can you actually take advantage of them.
So bottomline: if you're a serious musician, buy a professional pair of studio headphones.
Let's look at my top picks in this category:
Audio Technica ATH-M50x
The ATH-M50x is the best pound-for-pound pair of studio headphones in the world, hands down. They're phenomenally accurate and offer pristine fidelity. There are better sounding headphones on the market, including M50x's elder siblings like the M70x, but nothing comes close to the price-to-performance benefits of the M50x. For these reasons, I've ranked these as the best studio headphones you can buy right now.
The M50x is my favorite pair of headphones in the world. I can even argue that it's the favorite pair of headphones for producers all around the world.
Priced affordably, these are among the cheaper picks in this category.
But don't let the price fool you – these are as professional and accurate studio headphones as you can buy.
Hardwell uses these. As do Timbaland, Kygo, Rick Rubin and one of my favorite artists, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver).[img]
In fact, if you go through your favorite artists' Instagram studio pictures, you'll invariably spot one of these beauties.
So what makes them special?
Let's find out.
What I like
- Sound Quality: You buy studio headphones for their sound quality and accuracy. And in this aspect, the Audio Technica M50x have long been considered the benchmark. The big 45mm drivers deliver perfect bass, mids and highs without a hint of distortion. They perform well for pretty much every genre imaginable, reproducing a finely balanced mix that's neither too punchy, nor too shrill. There is a reason why its predecessor – the M50 – was called the “Cadillac of headphones” – these are just that good.
- Design: The M50x have large, padded earcups that are comfortable for hours and hours of use. The headphones also fold, though the large size generally makes them difficulty to carry around, even folded. They don't stand out as particularly pretty, but they aren't ugly either – you'll enjoy wearing them in public, at the coffee shop or in the workplace. Plus, they'pre designed to take abuse – I know people who used the M50 for for 10 years without an issue.
- Cables: This is the standout feature of the M50x and the reason for the big upgrade from the M50. The M50x has a detachable cable. It also ships with three cables in the box – a short 1.2m cable (for listening on the go), a straight 3.0m cable (for general listening), and a 3.0m coiled cable (for DJing). You can switch between cables as necessary. Honestly, the biggest reason to upgrade from the older M50 model.
- Noise isolation: The large earcups do an adequate job of passive noise isolation. Little noise filters in or out.
- Price: These are among the most affordable professional-quality headphones you can buy. There are arguably better headphones with even more accurate sound reproduction on the market, but nothing comes close to the Audio Technica M50x's price. My big reason for placing this pair at the top of the list.
Who is it for?
If you've been dabbling with Ableton/FL Studio/Logic for a while and think you're ready to become a more serious musician, these are the headphones for you.
I recommend the Sennheiser HD280 for anyone with a mid-range budget. But for those of you who can stretch their budget a *little* bit more, the Audio Technica M50x is the best use of your money.
For beginners making the leap to intermediate level, these are the best headphones on the market right now.
2nd Pick: Beyerdynamic DT-880 Pro
The Beyerdynamic DT-880 Pro and its younger sibling, the Beyerdynamic DT-770, are two studio legends with a huge following among producers.
Hardwell, Krewella, Armin Van Buuren all use the DT-770. Pop into Afrojack's studio and you'll likely see the DT-880 Pro sitting somewhere.
They're both equally competent and proven headphones with exceptional studio performance and accurate sound reproduction.
So why did I choose the Beyerdynamic DT-880 over its cheaper sibling?
Simple: the DT-880 Pro’s open back design creates a roomier soundscape. Personal preference, but I quite like this than the closer, tighter sound of closed back headphones.
Plus, in terms of accuracy, the DT-880 outperforms the DT-770. If it wasn't for the price, I would have even placed it above the M50x.
Let's look at some what the things that make the DT-880 Pro my second pick among professional studio headphones.
What I like
- Sound quality: The Beyerdynamic DT-880 are in my top 3 list of the ‘most accurate headphones' I've ever used. These are a favorite among recording engineers precisely because of their accuracy. The bass is thick and rich but the highs steal the show with crystal clarity. The open design also creates a more spherical soundscape. I find that this gives a better perception of what the music might sound like in a room (and not just in your headphones).
- Design: The DT-880 headphones have very large earcups that fit perfectly on my ears. They're covered in soft velour material that is very comfortable, though liable to get dirty. The headband is cushioned and sturdy. My only complaint is the lack of a detachable cable. These are also quite large; you will have difficulty fitting them into a small laptop bag.
- Noise isolation: These are semi-open back headphones. Thus, there is NO noise isolation at all. In fact, you're meant to hear what's happening in your surroundings to replicate the studio monitor feel. This is neither good nor bad; it's a matter of personal preference.
Who is it for?
The open soundscape of the DT-880 isn't for everyone. If you like your music sitting closer to your ears or if you want to listen to music in public, these aren't for you. Pick the M50x, the AKG K701, or 880s sibling, DT-770 (which has a closed back).
However, if you like a roomier, more open sound, you'll love the Beyerdynamic DT-880. The sound reproduction is as accurate as you can get. The large earcups are perfect for long-term use. And the open sound makes it feel like you're using studio monitors, not headphones.
Alternatively, try out the cheaper Beyerdynamic DT-770. These are closed back and have all the advantages of the DT-880, albeit at a cheaper price tag and a closer sound.
3rd Pick: AKG K702
If the DT-880 isn't for you, here's another open-back stalwart for your consideration: the AKG Pro K702.
The AKG K702s are often called the “engineer's headphones” in the industry because of their TRULY neutral sound. Nothing is emphasized. Nothing is neglected. Every sound is as flat and true as it should be. Mixing engineers swear by their accuracy.
If you're the kind of producer who has to get his mix *just* right, these are the right headphones for you.
What I like
- Sound quality: The best thing that can be said about the K702 is that it is truly unremarkable. You won't hear a thumpy bass or a high treble note. Nor would you feel the mid-punch. The frequency response is extremely flat and accurate. These are great for mixing. Not so great if you just want to listen to music. They are also open-back, so you have the same roomier sound like the DT-880.
- Design: The K702's design has remained unchanged in decades. The earcups are large and comfortable. The headband is a strip of leather and two supporting wires. They feel decidedly lighter than the M50x, though not at the cost of durability. Overall, a classic design that I can't complain about. Plus, they get detachable cables.
- Noise isolation: These are open back headphones so noise isolation isn't an option.
Who is it for?
The K702 is one of the, if not the most neutral headphones you can buy right now. Recording engineers, producers who obsess over their mix – this is the right pair for you.
If you're a DJ, it's probably not your best pick. If you care about bass or the highs, these aren't for you either.
If, however, you want to get the mix just right, you'll love this timeless classic.
4th Pick: Sennheiser HD 380 Pro
The HD380 is the adult version of the bestselling HD280 Pro.
It is priced within the same range, but boasts larger earcups for more comfortable listening and better noise isolation. The design is also lighter, more compact and objectively better looking.
The sound reproduction is similarly accurate. Some might even argue that it is better than the HD280.
Overall, a worthy upgrade if you have a bit of extra cash lying around and want a Sennheiser for your studio.
What I like
- Sound quality: The sound is very similar to the HD280. It is clean, dry and accurate. There are no sharp highs or thumpy lows. You can hear the blemishes and the flourishes. I can't say anything bad about these; they are rock solid and exactly what you'd expect from professional grade studio headphones.
- Design: In terms of design, the HD380 have larger earcups for more comfortable extended listening. The silhouette is slimmer and they fold nicely for portability. They are marginally lighter than the HD280. To me, they are also much better looking, though this isn't really a big criteria. Also, they use a replaceable cable, so you can easily use these for years to come.
- Noise isolation: The HD380 outperforms the HD280 in terms of noise isolation. The closed design and large earcups reduce ambient noise remarkably better than most other headphones on this list. If noise isolation is a priority, these are a good option.
Who is it for?
Two reasons to buy the Sennheiser HD380s:
- You're on a tight budget and can't afford the M50x
- You want something lighter and more portable than the M50x, HD280 Pro or Beyerdynamic DT-880.
The price and proven sound quality of the HD380 make these a great buy for most musicians. If you were considering the HD280 and can spring a few bucks more, choose these instead.
II. How to Buy Studio Headphones
What’s the difference between studio headphones and consumer headphones? Does open and closed back really make much of a difference? How much should I spend on my first pair?
I’ll answer these questions and more in this buying guide.
Studio vs. Consumer Headphones
100% of you reading this have owned or used a pair of headphones at least once in your life (if you haven't, I want to meet you and shake your hand and ask you which rock you've been living under).
These could be cheap earphones like the Apple buds that came with your iPhone:
Or expensive Beats that you bought because all the celebrities were wearing them:
All these headphones/earphones are classified as consumer headphones.
Basically, unless it says “studio headphones” on the box, they are consumer headphones.
The main difference between studio and consumer headphones is frequency response.
Frequency response is the range of bass, treble and mid frequencies that the headphones are capable of reproducing. Think of it as an EQ built into the headphones.
Most consumer headphones emphasize the bass and treble frequencies since this makes music sound better to untrained ears. The big bass you hear in your Beats or the high treble notes in your Apple earbuds are a result of this built-in EQ.
If you’re producing music, however, you need accurate sound reproduction. If a bass note is too strong or a synth too high-pitched, you need to be able to hear that.
This is why most studio headphones have a flat frequency response. That is, they do not emphasize/de-emphasize the bass, treble or mids. You get a much more accurate idea of the sound and can set EQ accordingly.
For example, here’s a graph showing the frequency response for a bunch of headphones.
Note how the DT880 has a nearly flat frequency response while the Beats pushes the bass heavily and ignores the mids.
There are a bunch of other differences as well, mostly in terms of design:
|Consumer Headphones||Studio Headphones|
|Usually have high portability and lightweight design||Portability is largely ignored in favor of sturdiness and larger diaphragms for accurate sound reproduction|
|Designed for public wear, often as a fashion accessory. Hence, extra emphasis on aesthetics.||Aesthetics are mostly immaterial. Popular studio headphones have a plain aesthetic with hardly a dash of color.|
|Lightweight design impacts sturdiness. Can’t take extensive wear and tear.||Designed for use in studio settings. Hence, sturdiness is a top priority|
|Comfort is prioritized. Lighter design and comfortable ear pads are one aspect of this.||Although designed for extended use, comfort is often sacrificed for sound quality.|
|Can range from a few dollars to $100+||Most good studio headphones cost at least $100|
- Consumer headphones emphasize bass and treble to sound good to average listeners. They tend to be lighter, cheaper and better looking.
- Studio headphones have a flat frequency response. That is, they give equal emphasis to all frequencies – bass, treble and mids. They also tend to be more expensive, heavier and less portable.
Do You Really Need to Buy Studio Headphones?
This is another question I get asked by first-time buyers.
My answer is always the same:
If you want to make music, you absolutely need to buy studio headphones.
I’m a big proponent of frugality when it comes to music production. I never recommend buying gear unless you absolutely need it. Heck, I don’t even recommend buying a MIDI keyboard for most beginners.
Studio headphones, however, are a non-negotiable part of music production.
Without them, you’ll never get accurate sound reproduction. Your mix will suffer and you'll just end up making poor quality music.
So any aspiring musicians reading this: ditch your Beats and earphones. Get a pair of studio headphones instead.
With some pairs starting as low as $20, you really don’t have an excuse not to buy them.
Open Back vs. Closed Back Headphones
Broadly speaking, headphones (both studio and consumer-grade) come in two flavors: open back and closed back.
These names are pretty self-explanatory:
Open back headphones
These have a mesh or grill on the back of the headphones. This allows both air and sound to go in and out. The headphone “breathes” as a result.
This creates a “spacier” sound. You get the feeling that the music is around you, not just in your ears.
- Since the headphones are open, you can hear ambient sounds. You get better situational awareness as a result.
- The open back design is more comfortable over extended use.
- Since the sound leaks to the surroundings, open back headphones are terrible for privacy. Use them in public and you’ll get tons of stares.
Open back headphones are good if you are doing something in the open but in a private setting, say, lounging by the poolside by yourself on a Sunday morning.
For recording and music production purposes, open back headphones have the advantage of offering a roomier, distant sound. For some people, this might be more precise than a tighter, closer sound.
Closed back headphones
These are completely closed from the back. Neither sound nor air escapes the headphones.
This creates a more isolated sound. You feel that the sound is right in your head. This makes them ideal for recording and music production (though this is a matter of preference).
- Closed back headphones excel at noise isolation. You can’t hear the outside world, helping you focus on your music
- No sound leakage makes closed back headphones great for recording or working with microphones
- The lack of sound leakage is also great for privacy
- Closed back headphones can be uncomfortable to use over extended periods. They have a habit of getting too hot and sweaty, especially in warm climates
- Because the sound is isolated, there is a danger of the music being too loud. This can damage your ears over time
- There’s also the criticism that these headphones make you oblivious to your surroundings in public. Obviously, this doesn’t apply in a studio setting
If you like tighter, closer sound that sits right inside your ear, choose closed back headphones.
If you like roomier, distant sound that seems like it's coming from studio monitors and not headphones, pick closed back headphones.
Other Factors to Consider When Buying Studio Headphones
Besides open vs. closed back, there are a few more things you should consider when buying studio headphones:
- Noise isolation: Most studio headphones have decent noise isolation by virtue of their design (closed back, tight fit). You don’t have to actively look for noise isolation. Nor do you need it for most purposes. It’s good to have but not necessary.
- Amplifier: While most studio headphones will work well enough on their own, some high-end audiophile grade equipment will require amplifiers. Again, this shouldn’t be a concern for 99% of your reading this article.
- Intended use: If you’re buying primarily for recording and production, you can ignore aesthetics and portability. If you’re buying for recording as well as pleasure, portability should definitely be a concern.
- Brands: Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Audio Technica, Sony and AKG are the top brands among headphones. Avoid Philips, Beats by Dr. Dre, OneOdio, SkullCandy and any other brand that spends more on its marketing than its products. Even brands like Bose which make good consumer grade headphones don’t perform as well with studio-grade stuff.
With these basics out of the way, let’s look at my review methodology for this roundup.
There are few product categories as crowded with competition as headphones. Do a search on Amazon and you’ll see tens of thousands of options, and not a lot them are actually any good.
The studio headphones space isn’t nearly as crowded. With the popularity of electronic music, however, there are new entrants every week and growing competition between entrenched players.
As a result, picking the best studio headphones was a laborious and frustrating task.
The first step in the reviewing process was to make a list of instruments to review (or discard):
- I made a list of all studio headphones I have ever used or owned.
- I asked my musician friends about studio headphones they’ve used or owned and added them to my list.
- I added top-rated headphones online to this list.
From this list, I eliminated all poorly reviewed headphones. I ended up with a list of 24 headphones.
I segregated the list into three categories based on price – Budget, Mid-Range and Professional.
I included both open and closed-back studio headphones within each category.
Next, I scored all the included headphones on the following factors:
- Features: Technical specs and features that impact performance.
- Sound Quality: The single-most important criteria for choosing a pair of headphones. I weighed this heavily in my final score
- Price: Affordability is obviously a concern, though price didn’t have as much of an impact on scores in professional-level headphones
- Design: How the headphones look and feel. A minor but important criteria
- Comfort: Since you’ll be using the headphones for hours at a time, comfort had a big impact on scores
- Personal impressions: What I feel about the product based on my experience with it. This had a small impact on the final score
Different factors matter to buyers in different categories. If you’re looking at headphones under $50, features aren’t going to be as important to you as price.
If you’re looking at $200+ headphones, sound quality, design and features trump price.
I used this general formula to calculate the review scores for each pair of headphones. The formula was adjusted based on the category of the headphones:
Overall Score = Features (x 0.15) + Sound Quality (x 0.35) + Price (x 0.25) + Design (x 0.10) + Comfort (x 0.10) + Personal Impressions (x 0.05)
This should help you understand my listings better.
Over to You
If you’re a producer, a musician, a DJ or a recording engineer, your choice of headphones will have a big impact on how you work. This is essential equipment; you literally can’t make music without them.
Luckily for you, there is a huge range of affordable yet capable headphones on the market right now. You can get decently accurate starting studio headphones for under $50. Shell out a few bucks more and you can buy industry-favorites like the Sennheiser HD280.
For more recommendations and advice, don't hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Bass heads should read our guide to buying the best bass headphones
- If you're on a budget, read our list of the best headphones under $100
- Need something for casual listening? Here's our pick of the best earbuds under $20 and under $50
- Sennheiser headphones [Official website]
- Sony headphones [Official website]
- Audio Technica [Official website]
- AKG [Official website]
- beyerdynamic [Official website]
- Smiley face curve [Wikipedia]
- Guide to frequency response range [Turntable Labs]
- September 15, 2017: Article first published
- July 13, 2018: Article updated with additional products
- August 6, 2019: New sets of headphones added
- November 26, 2019: Excess information removed and article streamlined
- September 17, 2020: Minor changes to article structure