TechBottom's Ultimate Guide to Studio Recording Headphones
Before you decide on a pair of studio recording headphones, you should understand why certain types of headphones are better suited when recording musicians. Whether you will be using your recording headphones in a professional recording studio or just in a home audio project, the same principles apply.
Choose closed-backed headphones for recording and tracking
The best studio headphones for studio recording are closed-backed. By design, closed-back headphones provide maximum sound isolation. So why is this beneficial for recording? When your talent is recording, you want to make sure that the track playing in their ears does not escape the headphones and bleed into the microphone. Any unintentional leaks that escape could bleed into the live mic and ruin the take. Closed back designs don't allow the backing track to leak out of the headphones, so the only sound the mic picks up is the sound you want to record. The opposite design, open-backed, are great monitoring headphones for mixing and mastering. Why? Because they allow the mix to 'breathe' in the listeners ears. But they aren't great for recording because they provide little to no isolation. Check out our review on the best open-back headphones to learn more about the best headphones for mixing and mastering.
TechBottom's Best Studio Headphones for Recording
Let's start with one of the most popular recording headphones of the times - the HD280PRO. These closed-back headphones are a fantastic pair for studio recording. Sure they aren't very pretty, and they may not come with all the excess features you may be looking for (no detachable cable, carrying case not included), but there is a reason why they are an industry standard for studio recording headphones. They sound great, they are comfortable, they are affordable, and they provide solid isolation to limit leakage to a minimum.
The headphones are built solidly. The frame is made up of a thick but lightweight plastic, and they are flexible and can fold in a variety of ways. They are more versatile than many other studio headphones, but we wouldn't personally recommend them for travel, gaming, or watching movies. There are other headphones available that focus their design on those uses. Not saying they can't! But these headphones are first and foremost studio recording headphones - and they are excellent at what they do.
When we take a look at the frequency response of the HD280PRO (provided by rtings.com), we see nice accuracy across the board. The graph of an optimal pair would match the dotted line of the target response. The bass delivery is a tad sensitive to how they seal around the ears, and the mids are a bit aggressive too, especially within 200-700Hz range. However, you should note that the most important aspects of studio recording headphones are isolation and comfort, two things that the HD280PRO excels at. The fact that they sound great too is a bonus!
Overall, the HD280PRO is a favorite of many producers. And there is a reason that many include them in the best studio recording headphones on the market today. The cans are very lightweight, the ear pads are soft and comfortable allowing long tracking sessions, and the headphones are collapsible. Sennheiser is also a great brand that provides replaceable parts and great customer service too. For a price of about $99, you're getting great bang for your buck.
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KRK KNS 8400
Next up is one that's not quite as common around studios - but just as effective for recording and tracking. The KNS 8400 by KRK are built a bit more solidly than the KNS 6400 counterpart. The ear pads are made with high quality memory foam, and the head pad is covered in a premium black leather. The 8400 is also equipped with volume control, which means talent can adjust how much of the backing demo they would like to hear while tracking. Finally, the response of the 8400 is very wide averaging around 5Hz - 23kHz, while the KNS 6400 sits around 10Hz - 22kHz. Overall, you pay a bit extra for a few features, but to us these features are worth it. If you don't need them, the KNS 6400 is a great choice as well.
KRK's KNS 8400 sports a detachable and replaceable locking cable, along with rotating ear cups for storage and replaceable ear and head cushions. Overall, it is built extremely well. The cups provide excellent isolation that prevents in-ear sounds from leaking out and rejects outside noise for the listener. The lightweight, comfortable design allows long recording sessions. In terms of build, the KRK KNS 8400 really has everything you would want in a quality pair of studio recording headphones.
Now let's take a look at the frequency range. The 8400s are a tad aggressive in the bass and low mids compared to other reference headphones. This does not mean that they going to give you an inflated, boomy bass sound (which you do not want, since you are looking to hear a transparent sound when recording). The mids and trebles are absolutely fantastic, and provide a crystal clear playback while recording.
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The best thing about the Sony MDR-7506 is the bang you get for your buck. Getting top grade sound quality can be hard to find, especially at $79. But these cans sure provide an awesome experience for a low price tag. One thing to note about these headphones is the long coiled cable. If you move from studio to studio, the cable may prove to be a hassle. The ear cups are comfortable - not the best we have reviewed, but not the worst either. There are replaceable cups with better padding available on Amazon (because some find the clamp a bit too tight). We didn't find the replacements to be necessary, but they are out there if needed.
The MDR-7506 recording headphones are built with a solid, lightweight plastic. They also come with a soft carrying case, but we wouldn't think the case would protect from much wear and tear. They also have a very convenient design feature that allows them fold down into a smaller size when storing.
Now for the sound quality, the Sony MDR-7506 have a very nice, consistent sound response, especially for closed-back headphones. The bass is solid and punchy and the midrange is extremely clear. The only concern is their treble, which can be a bit too bright for some tastes - but the issue is quite minor. More importantly, the leakage allowed from the Sony MDR-7506 is very minimal. Your recorded tracks will not contain any spill. Overall, they create an excellent sound experience that your talent will be sure to appreciate.
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If you are looking for a pair of the best studio recording headphones, we highly recommend the Audio Technica ATH-M20x. When you are looking at a price tag under $50, recording headphones will naturally be hit or miss. However the ATH-M20x do what you will need them to do, provide noise isolation with a nice consistent sound.
The M20X is light and a bit stiff, and the ear foam is not quite the same as the higher quality M50x. However we believe they provide more than adequate comfort, and they do not pinch or clamp too hard. They don't fold down or compact at all, and the size adjustments do not click - they just slide. However, these pretty much round out our concerns. If you can live with these caveats, the quality for the price is hard to beat.
The Audio Technica ATH-M20x headphones have about the best sound experience you can ask for at this price tag. Sure the bass isn't totally consistent and the treble is a bit weak in some areas. But other than that, they actually sound great for a pair of closed-back headphones. As you can see from the response graph, the mid frequencies are extremely accurate across the board. Overall, they sound decent. But for the price, we'll take this sound experience every day.
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Rounding out our review of the best studio recording headphones is the bigger brother of the M20x, Audio-Technica's ATH-M50x. This upgraded pair comes with a few more accessories, including a soft carrying pouch, a ¼ to 3.5mm adapter, and different audio cables - both straight and coiled. They also come in a an assortment of color options for those who prefer a bit more style.
The build is an upgrade to the M20x, including an improved plush padding and more rotation allowed in the cups. They are still plastic, so you should still be careful with them, but the quality of the plastic seems sturdy enough to handle transportation and light wear and tear.
The best part of the Audio Technica M50x may be their sound. They are a solid pair of closed-back headphones with a nice consistent bass, a near perfect midrange, and a decent treble to compliment the full sound. There aren't really many caveats in the sound experience despite a few minor inconsistencies in the high ranges. If you can afford to upgrade from the M20x, you'll not only get better build quality, but you'll also experience a more consistent sound array for any genre of music.
Sound frequency graphs provided by rtings.com.