In a world where in-ear buds have increasingly become the headphone of choice for the average music listener, there still remains a need for over-the-ear cans. While definitely the more portable option, the damage that in-ear buds can cause is irreparable. Over the ear headphones are not only a safer option in many cases, they also tend to have a better frequency response than in-ears do for a variety of reasons. Not only does the larger area allow for a better frequency response, there is physically more room in the larger headphones to allow for more components to be used.
What does one look for in a good set of headphones? Is it more important to have a flat frequency response or do you want more highs or lows? Open back or closed back? These are just a few of the questions that have been argued amongst musicians, engineers and of course, the average listener. As with most things in the world of music, there is no one “right” answer. There are only guidelines and humble opinions on why a certain pair of headphones is a better choice over another pair.
Perhaps the most important question to answer in the first place is for what purpose the headphones will be used. For this particular special, we’ll compare five pairs of headphones and how they fit not only into the world of general music listening but also the realm of at-home mixing.
For the home studio or avid music listener, there is a fine line between hype and what is actually audible. Each and every pair of headphones discussed has their pros and cons. Don’t neglect the comfort level of each of these. If long listening or mixing sessions come up, the comfort factor can play an increasingly important role. Our suggestion, as with any purchase, is to do your homework and get on the blogs and read up on as many reviews and opinions as you can. Narrow down your selection to at most three, but ideally two items and try to go into a retail shop and actually listen and try them out. There are a million people out there with a million different opinions, but in the end, it’s your ears that will do the listening.
AKG K 271 MKII
Perhaps the most comfortable of all the headphones on this list, the AKG K 271 MKII also provide a very wide range in terms of frequency response. Extending beyond the audible frequency a person’s own ears are capable of plays an important role in what headphones the at-home engineer selects. One cannot EQ what one cannot hear. Thanks to the design of this model, the listener gets isolation from the outside world while still maintaining a smooth, relatively open sound for closed back headphones. Being able to collapse these headphones is another major plus and allows for easy portability. In the mobile engineer’s world, who might have a tracking session at one facility during the day with plans to mix the single at home that night, this portability goes a long way. The comfort becomes a factor for those long nights spent mixing a tune or for that 11 hour flight from Chicago to Moscow that you just can’t fall asleep on. The AKGs are a versatile option for the bedroom engineer and avid music listener.
As the only open back headphones on this comparison list, the Grado SR225i models do have a slight edge in the overall listening experience. For obvious reasons (they are open back headphones, after all) the Grados are the most open sounding headphones of all five demo’d. Most producers and engineers agree that the open back provides a sound that’s similar to what one would hear in a room listening to speakers. For the home mix studio or even general listening, this “open sound” should play a major role in selecting the SR225i cans as part of your setup. By having a similar vibe to what the musicians and their producer(s) had when making mixing decisions, the Grados will allow the listener to come closer to experiencing the song as the artist intended. In our humble opinion, these have perhaps the smoothest and most detailed frequency response of all the headphones being discussed. Perhaps what we love even more than the open sound is the feel of the foam material that lines the ears when wearing these retor-looking headphones.
One drawback to these headphones against the others, however, occurs in a headphone-monitoring situation. As with almost all open back headphones, they will bleed into the microphone, especially with a vocalist. A drummer will also have to crank this pair since some of the live drum sound will bleed its way into the headphones as well. Fantastic for general listening and equally as good of a choice for mixing, one should use the Grados with caution while monitoring.
From microphones to headphones, Audio-Technica is a company that makes durable, long lasting products. The ATH-M50s are no exception. For the proud new owner of an Mbox or any other home studio interface, the M50s provide a great transition into mixing and listening on headphones. The extended high frequency range seems to actually provide a nicer, low end. This may be due to sub-harmonics or it may be that the low end extends to 15 Hz. Not only is there a nice big low end, the high frequencies are very natural and open sounding. While not quite as detailed as the other headphones on this list, the ATH-M50s are a perfect blend of home listening and home tracking headphones. The padding is comfortable, allowing for long listening or mix sessions. Outside noise is almost completely blocked out, making it much easier to tell your fiancée, roommate or anyone else yelling at you to stop the insanity – you REALLY could not hear them from the home studio.
Sennheiser HD 380 Pro
The funky angle of the cups against the headband of the HD 380 Pro headphones took us by surprise the first time we saw and used these headphones. Once we got past this design quirk, we were itching to see what all the hype around E.A.R was. To our surprise, the promise of a decreased comb filter effect and distortion was no lie. It was hard to tell if it was the increased low-end response or the lack of comb filtering that provided what felt like a surprisingly detailed low and low mid frequency response. Being careful not to do damage to our ears, we took a very loud source and put the output up louder and louder and really had to crank these before we were able to get any distortion. Clarity of the signal and the ability to get loud without distorting were the two things that really stuck out for us while using the HD 380 PROs. The issue with loud volumes is that the detail tends to get lost as one increases volume. Louder may not always mean better, but it almost always is preferred.
With a frequency response ranging from 5Hz (yes 5) to 80kHz, the Sony MDR-7509HDs have the widest frequency range of the headphones being discussed. What does this really mean? It means that anything the human ear can hear is audible on these. As one would imagine, minute nuances are audible when wearing these headphones. Clarity, comfort and portability make these perhaps the most impressive headphones on this list for the money. As musicians wearing these while tracking, we find that we sometimes will tell the engineer that the tone of what is being recorded still needs tweaking. Nine times out of ten, we’re right. Be careful what you wish for and who you let wear these while tracking or you may find yourself moving microphones, tweaking tones or trying different amps for much longer than necessary. In the home studio where one not only listens back and does mixing, but also needs headphones while tracking drums, bass, guitar or any other loud source, the Sony MDR-7509HDs allow for accurate monitoring while still blocking unwanted noise.
Jeff Leibovich is a sales representative for Vintage King Audio, a leading dealer of high-end new and vintage recording equipment. Representing esoteric rarities and major products alike, Leibovich’s experience allows him to take a “hands on” approach when comparing gear for editorial purposes. More info can be found at vintageking.com.