We hear this question all the time: aren’t all headphones the same?
Our short answer is no.
For starters, the headphones you use to listen to your favorite tracks and the headphones used to mix in a studio serve completely different purposes.
Also, studio headphones differ from set to set based on their individual specifications and features. Some top-notch studio headphones can have a great midrange and high-end but lack in a good bass response.
There’s a big difference between passive listening and active listening!
So what makes a set of studio headphones different from consumer-level headphones?
- 1 Professional Studio Headphones vs Consumer-Level Headphones
- 2 Our Favorite Professional Studio Monitor Headphones
- 3 Wrapping it up
Professional Studio Headphones vs Consumer-Level Headphones
With consumer-level headphones, a lot of brands get away with excessive compression, boosted bass, and other ‘sweetening’ effects since they are not used for referencing or monitoring. Unlike consumer-level headphones, pro studio headphones require a perfect sonic reproduction of the recording.
They’re not supposed to sound good; they’re supposed to sound accurate.
This is so you can spot all the flaws and imperfections to make the proper adjustments to guarantee a good sounding track on all listening devices.
You’ll also find that most pro-level headphones are rather inexpensive and ugly when you put them next to a pair of commercial DJ headphones or Beats by Dre.
There are a few factors that create that not so fine line between the two types…
Durability and Replicability
You’ll find that professional studio headphones are more durable than consumer-level headphones. This comes down to the fact that in a commercial studio these cans will be used… A LOT… and thus are prone to a lot more wear and tear.
Professionals will opt for these types of headphones for their functions and their resiliency.
A lot of studio headphones in the market have replaceable parts, including earpads and cables. Some brands like Sennheiser give their headphone users longevity by designing their headphones to be fully replaceable, so you’ll only ever need to get the spare parts and not a brand new set of cans.
The primary differences between regular and professional studio quality headphones include the level of accuracy as well as the overall tonal balance they offer throughout the spectrum. Professional level headphones have a wider frequency response range, which is generally between 10 Hz to 30 kHz, in order to accommodate a wider spectrum.
Unlike professional cans, basic headphones may vary in terms of frequency response; you might even find them leaning towards one frequency more than another. So, for example, bass-heavy headphones boost their low-end with deeper bass response, which results in a warmer sound. However, most of the time we find that these boosted-type headphones compromise and even neglect the high and midrange frequencies all together. With other types you’ll find they sound brighter with emphasized high and midrange frequencies, which means a compromised low-end.
Studio headphones, on the other hand, try to maintain a tonal balance and flatness throughout all the frequencies. For audio professionals, hearing a flat, even sound is vital for producing good mixes.
Instead of bass boosters and accentuated treble, studio headphones provide an accurate representation of the sounds in a recording.
In the studio producers and audio engineers look for supreme comfort in the headphones they choose. This is because they spend hours of listening time with these cans over their heads when mixing and mastering. Consumer-level headphones, while also presented as being comfortable, need not be as comfortable since casual listeners won’t spend more than 4–5 hours listening per day.
Our Favorite Professional Studio Monitor Headphones
With so many models available on the market, how do you know which pair to choose? We have selected the top studio headphones in the industry that are widely used by professionals and come highly recommended. Check out our top picks below…
Best Semi-Open Back Headphones
First up is one of the best mid-range budget studio headphones available on the market, Beyerdynamic’s Semi-Open DT-880.
These cans are considered to be better for mixing than recording because of their semi-open design, which also means they don’t offer any kind of sound isolation.
Regarding of overall looks, the DT-880s have a rather sleek finish with an all-matte gray layer over the top of the headband and earcups. Instead of the industry standard faux leather on the earpads, Beyerdynamic opted for velour padding which adds some serious comfort points to these cans.
The DT-880s feature a 10 foot, coiled cable which terminates at a 3.5 mm jack.
With frequencies between 5Hz–35 kHz at an impedance of 250 Ohms, these headphones offer a wide range of frequencies, giving mixers a very spacious, transparent sound with extremely detailed resolution. The DT-880’s don’t feature any coloring or sweetness, so expect a very analytical and refined sound that pinpoints your audio’s flaws.
One of the great things Beyerdynamic did with these headphones was making all the parts replaceable (they also come with extra ear pads), so any wear and tear is easily fixed.
For added versatility with audio gear (like audio interfaces), Beyerdynamic also provides a 6.35mm stereo jack adapter.
Note: If you’re not a big fan of the semi-open design, it’s worth checking out the other versions in the DT series, including the closed-back DT-770 and the open-back DT-990.
- Flat and accurate sound
- Supreme comfort with velour padding
- Wide frequency range
- Lack of the ‘high-end sparkle’
- No isolation – sound leakage and sensitive to ambient noise
Bottom Line: The DT-880 offers critical listeners an open, well-balanced sound. These cans are designed and built with durability and comfort in mind, promising excellent quality in an affordable price range.
Best Sound Quality
It’s not the first time Audio-Technica has made its way onto one of our lists, after all, their entire M series is the definition of great value for your money. The ATH-M50x is no different.
Aesthetically, these are a good-looking, functional pair of headphones that come in a variety of colors, including black, all-white, blue, red, or gunmetal.
The M50xs feature comfy vinyl padding all around the earcups and headband. The build and design of these cans are both solid and lightweight, promising hours of listening and a proper studio lifespan.
Sound-wise, they have excellent definition and detailing. With a frequency range between 15Hz and 28 kHz at an impedance of 38 Ohms, these cans provide plenty of transparency as well as a signal that is flat. While the sound space is a little tight, it’s understandable considering any closed-back headphones have the same issue.
These headphones come with three detachable cables: a 10 ft. long coiled cable, a 10 ft. straight cable, and a shorter 4 ft. straight cable, all of which have a 3.5mm jack attached at the end. They also include a protective carrying pouch as well as a 6.3 mm adapter for added versatility.
- Superb, balanced sonic performance
- Great design and robust build
- Lightweight and comfortable
- Slightly bulky
- Tight soundstage
Bottom Line: Audio Technica's whole M series is proof that you can get the whole package of great sound and ultimate comfort for a great price. The M50x is no different, offering supreme value for your money!
Moving into the higher price range, Shure introduces a pair of headphones that not only do the job spectacularly but also provide some of the best clarity we’ve seen in the market.
Right out of the box, these headphones look good but slightly bland. The headband is padded and bound in synthetic leather, which helps accommodate for long listening sessions.
Shure went the extra mile in comfort by adding memory-foam padding in the earcups, with a soft perforated cloth. These headphones feature two 6-foot long twin cables terminating at a 3.5 mm jack.
While some may prefer to emphasize specific frequencies like more bass or more brightness in the highs, we found that the neutrality of the SRH1540s provides the perfect sound for us by making fewer compromises in the frequencies. These headphones feature a pretty wide frequency range falling between 5Hz – 25 kHz. The bass can get deep and powerful, and the midrange is natural and open, while the treble beams and rings with a pitch-perfect tonal balance.
These headphones come with replacement ear pads, a screw-on 6.5 mm adapter, and a hard protective case. For a cheaper alternative to these headphones with a similar level of clarity, we’d advise checking out the more affordable Shure SRH 840s.
- Tight bass with great extension
- Clear treble and a natural midrange
- Superb comfort
- A little large and bulky
- A little pricier than others
Bottom Line: The SRH1540s are a little bit pricey…but for all the right reasons. These headphones deliver a spectacular sonic performance that is both deep and wide. Additionally, the level of comfort in these cans is almost unmatched with competitors in the market.
AKG did a fantastic job with the K240s by providing a pair of affordable headphones that deliver studio quality. In fact, these are considered one of the best semi-open studio headphones out in the market.
Since these headphones are semi-open, you’ll find the sound will leak out a little; however, this is by design to prevent build-up. Regarding comfort, the adjustable headband assures these headphones will fit on any head shape and size. While the padding is not as thick as we would hope, these earpads still guarantee hours of long listening sessions without discomfort.
These headphones are equipped with 30 mm XXL drivers with an impedance of 55-Ohm covering a frequency range of 15Hz to 25 kHz. The semi-open design offers a broad and spacious soundstage that captures all the details in your audio with an accurate, flat frequency response that doesn’t sound dull.
The acoustic drivers on the K240s deliver crisp and clear highs with a good emphasis on the midrange. They also provide a proper and tight bass response, which isn’t too overpowering as is commonly found with other headphones.
These headphones come with two detachable cables: one coiled and one straight, along with a 6.5 mm jack adapter and extra earpads.
- Highly detailed sound overall
- Lively yet flat frequency response
- Great comfort
- Leakage from the grilles
- Padding not very thick
Bottom Line: Overall the K420s are comfortable and have excellent sonic performance with great definition and detailing. The semi-open design offers a wide soundstage with a flat frequency response.
Best Neutral Sound
Sennheiser is one of the industry’s most reputable brands for great headphones. With the HD 280, Sennheiser managed to prove that you don’t have to break the bank to get a pair of headphones that have a great neutral sound.
Aesthetically, they look like a professional pair of studio headphones with an all-black finish. The headband and earpads feature a plush cushion wrapped in synthetic leather. The comfortable padding combined with the light clamp pressure assures these headphones will sit on your head for extended listening periods without discomfort.
The HD 280s feature a fixed 9.8 feet coiled cable which extends to a ¼-inch jack; they also come with a 1/8-inch adapter for more connectivity options.
Overall these headphones deliver an exceptionally flat signal with excellent clarity. With a wide frequency range between 8Hz to 25 kHz, they add a rather lively sound to your audio; this is partially due to the bass. With a few tweaks in the EQ settings, the power and extension in the low-end frequencies provide a deep, rich bass response. The highs are crisp and natural, while the midrange is consistent and clean. With excellent noise isolation, they block out all ambient noises, allowing you to focus on your audio.
- Great noise isolation
- Super comfortable padding
- Sound is clean and neutral with impressive detail in the midrange
- Basic and boring design
- Cable is attached
Bottom line: These headphones look like they were literally made for your comfort with their impressive surround padding. The HD 280s are a great pair of cans that offer impressive and accurate sonic performance at a great price.
M-Audio has a selection of great performing headphones. The HDH50s are considered one of the best high-definition studio headphones on the market, particularly when it comes to their superior tonal balance.
The build quality of these headphones truly sets them apart from their competitors with a solid construction of gunmetal aluminum and steel. The closed-back design helps prevent any signal interferences and noise leakages from your cans.
These headphones come with a detachable 5.2 foot cable which extends to a 3.5 mm jack. The earcups and headband feature a plush cushioning wrapped in leather for long, comfortable listening sessions.
These headphones are equipped with a 50mm neodymium driver with a low impedance of 16 Ohms, providing full-range frequency response between 12 Hz and 24 kHz. With such an expansive range from deep bass frequencies to clear and crisp highs, they deliver an exceptionally accurate sound reproduction. These cans produce a precise stage-wide stereo image for instrument placement and mixing. The HDH50s come with a 6.3 mm adapter for added connectivity as well as a carry bag.
- Excellent bass extension
- Comfortable design
- Superb tonal balance
- No interchangeable cable
- No swivel or fold for adjustability
Bottom Line: M-Audio incorporates a blend of isolated audio with studio monitor engineering in the HDH50, delivering a wide-stereo image, flat response, and some serious comfort at a moderately affordable price.
Wrapping it up
Ultimately if you’re looking for a pair of headphones that can produce heavy bass, extremely bright high trebles, or any kind of sweetening, studio headphones (especially “professional grade”) are probably not going to be your ideal choice.
Studio headphones provide a clean, flat response with detail and clarity. If you’re looking for an accurate sonic reproduction of your recordings, our studio headphone picks will do just that for you.
Keep in mind that different professional studio headphones lend themselves better to specific priorities, including: overall sound quality, a wide soundstage, great clarity, and neutral sound.