TechBottom's Ultimate Guide to Mixing and Mastering Headphones
Before we get into our guide on the best headphones for mixing, you should know a few things about audio engineering with headphones.
Reference your mix with multiple sources
You should never use one sole source of audio to mix an entire track. Whether you are using a pair of headphones or a set of monitors, it is always important to reference your mix with multiple sources. This ensures your final mix will sound good no matter where it is being played or what is being played on.
Use studio monitors alongside mixing headphones
Most audio producers agree that in an ideal situation, the majority of mixing should be done with professional studio monitors. Monitors allow for better spatial recognition as tracks are panned in the left and right sides of the mix. However, this does not mean headphones are not useful for mixing. In fact, with the amount of people listening to music on headphones and in earbuds, headphone mixing has actually become an even more vital part of the mixing process. For our review on the best studio monitors for mixing, click here. With proper referencing, headphones built for mixing and mastering will allow you to get a great sounding mix.
Choose open-backed headphones for mixing and mastering
The best studio headphones for mixing and mastering are open-backed. Open-backed headphones allow airflow for the listener and expose the headphone drivers. This combination creates a very natural, authentic sound. Open-backed designs are perfect for mixing because they allow the mix to 'breathe' in the listeners ears. The design also provides some cross-feed between both ears, much like monitors do. The opposite design, closed-backed headphones, favor isolation and external noise cancellation while trading off audio quality. Closed-backed designs are best used for recording purposes so performers can focus on the track and audio won't bleed into the mic. To read up on our guide to the best headphones for recording, visit our review here.
TechBottom's Best Studio Headphones for Mixing
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro
The DT 990 Pro is a fantastic pair of headphones for mixing and mastering. They have an accurate sound response and a consistent bass range, especially for open-back designs. When mixing in the studio, getting an accurate sound from your headphones is extremely important. This ensures that any adjustments you feel should be made are intended.
Unlike the similar 'Edition' model, the DT990 'Pro' model is built specifically for critical listening. They sit a bit tighter on your head but remain extremely comfortable after hours of use. The headband is made of metal covered in padding and the cup covers are made of a hard, durable plastic. Overall, they are built solidly. On the off chance something were to go wrong, Beyerdynamic offers free servicing within two years of purchase.
If we take a look at the frequency range of the DT 990 Pro (provided by rtings.com), we can see a very accurate pair of headphones for mixing and mastering. The graph of an optimal pair would match the dotted line of the target response. From a sound perspective, the only flaws of the DT 990 Pro are a bit of excess aggression in the low mids and high treble areas. Although some producers do prefer that high frequencies cut through a bit more. This gives a clear and crisp sound and can help listeners identify imbalances in the mix.
The DT 990 Pro have little to no noise-cancelling properties, which is perfect for mixing and mastering. If you are looking for a versatile pair of headphones you can use in public, these are not it! However, if you want the best headphones for mixing under $200, the DT 990 Pro check off everything you could want in a great pair of studio cans.
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AKG K240 Studio
If you can only afford to have one pair of headphones in your studio, we recommend the AKG K240 Studio. The semi-open design allows for critical listening, and the $65+ price tag allows for a less stressful purchase. Because of the design, they do offer a bit of noise cancelling properties - but not very much. However if you had to record and mix with only one set of cans, the AKG K240 Studio would fit the bill.
The style of the K240's do look a bit strange, but the quality is surprisingly good for the price. The ear pads are made of a soft leather, the build is light and flexible, and the plastic feels pretty solid. We've read a few reviews that have mentioned complaints about the cord quality, but we personally haven't noticed any issues after over a year of personal use.
If you are looking for a big, bassy sound, the AKG K240 Studio are not the best choice. The K240s roll off much of the lower end, so the bass is present but very gentle. When mixing on K240s, it is important to not over adjust the bass. Always reference with other monitors to make sure the low bass frequencies settle into the mix well.
Other than that, the rest of the frequency response is very good for the price. There is a little excess aggression in the low mids and the 10kHz range, but nothing too drastic. This AKG headphone sounds uniquely bright, and producers on a budget are able to create a great sounding mix. The sound isn't for everyone, but there is a reason why so many people rave about these cans. As one of the best budget studio headphones for mixing, our recommendation is to buy from a place with a good return policy like Amazon so you can experience the sound first hand.
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Now let's get into the fun stuff - professional-grade technology, starting with the Shure SRH1840. Known for creating the most popular vocal microphones in the world, Shure has been a leading company in high quality audio production technology for decades. The SRH1840 the latest of Shure's dive into the studio headphone market, and they hit the mark.
These headphones are built exceptionally well. The open-backed design features detachable straight cables, and replacement velour ear pads. In our opinion the Shure SRH1840 are the most comfortable pair of headphones we have had the pleasure of wearing. They are lightweight but robust, all and all just wonderfully crafted on all fronts.
Now to the best part - the sound experience. The Shure SRH1840 offers sound quality on par with the best of the best. The sound is extremely balanced and natural. The bass is steady without being overbearing. The mids are absolutely perfect. The highs are crystal clear. It's all just superb. It's very rare to find headphones with a neutral sound that do not sound sterile or boring. But the sound of the SRH1840 is about as complete as you can ask for. The lone flaw that can be found in the frequency response graph is in the 2k-4kHz range, where the sound is just boosted slightly more than optimal.
They are not cheap, but we can honestly say that the SRH1840s might just be our favorite on this list. We wouldn't travel with them since they are a bit large, but they do come with a nice carrying case. If you're have a flexible budget and are looking for the best studio headphones for mixing and mastering, it would be a disservice to your ears if you didn't at least try these cans out.
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The ATH-R70x by Audio-Technica is another headphone set that is designed specifically for mixing and mastering in the studio. The open-backed design is lightweight and comfortable, and the sound experience is about as accurate as you can get. The sound rivals headphones that will demand a thousand dollar price tag, so if you are looking to get the best possible sound without completely breaking the bank, the R70x may be your choice.
Build quality does leaves some room for improvement, especially at the price point. But as long as you take proper care in the studio, it shouldn't pose a problem. The super lightweight quality would make you think that musicians should be able to travel with these, but the durability may not allow for it. The plastic feels a bit cheaper than other headphones, and we've read some people choose to replace the earpads as they are a bit snug. But we admit we are being a bit nit-picky here.
Before even looking at the frequency graph (these provided by sonarworks.com), a good ear can tell that these headphones are solid. This is backed up by the response measurements that show a near perfect range across the map. As we mentioned earlier, the R70x rival some of the best headphones in terms of creating an accurate sound for your mix. The only flaws we noticed were that the low-mids are a tad aggressive, and the 7-9kHz range is boosted a bit too much. While the boost is under 4dB and makes the highs sound extra crisp and clean, we would personally prioritize accuracy. This is a small complaint in an otherwise fantastic sound experience.
All in all, the ATH-R70x by Audio-Technica provides a near-flawless sound quality. If you are willing to take proper care of your set and keep travel to a minimum, these headphones will help you create a mix that will sound accurate and professional.
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Sennheiser HD 800 S
As we round up our review of the best headphones for mixing and mastering, it only seems fitting to save the HD 800 S for last. Commonly viewed as the industry standard for professional listening, the HD 800 S delivers essentially everything you could want in a set of headphones. The open-build design is constructed with metal and other high quality materials, and the ear cups are coated in a soft, leather-like padding that provides comfort over the longest mixing sessions. Many joke that wearing the Sennheiser HD 800 series feels like wearing nothing at all.
The only issue with the Sennheiser HD 800 S? The cost. Averaging around $1500, the HD 800 Series is a full on investment. Approaching used-car-pricing, we can honestly say that we don't actually own a pair, but instead have tried it out at various studios and at reviewed it at local music stores. As much as we would like to have one, our budget just doesn't allow for it... yet. Nevertheless, if you do choose a Sennheiser HD 800 S, you can be confident that you are getting the absolute top quality headphones for mixing trusted by the best producers around the world.
The Sennheiser HD 800 S have a warm, punchy, consistent bass sound - especially for open-ear headphones. Many believe that the HD800S have the strongest bass performance across all pairs of studio headphones. Alongside great low ends, the HD800S have excellent mids, and extremely clear, neutral highs. There honestly isn't much more to say about the sound of these. Sound quality of this magnitude is just one you have to experience first hand, and permanent users will pay the price tag for that.
Overall, the HD 800 S is one of, if not the best audio reproduction that is available today. They are not made to be versatile, they are not very portable, they don't provide noise cancellation, but they are fantastic for critical listening. If you have the opportunity to listen to a mix on a pair of these, we highly recommend you do so. Once you experience the sound quality of the HD 800s, you'll have a better understanding of why producers around the world accept the price tag.