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Looking to get started with music production?
We discuss what to look for when choosing a pair of studio headphones.
We compare a range of the best studio headphones under $200.
How To Choose A Good Pair Of Studio Headphones
So you’re looking to invest some of your hard-earned cash into a new pair of headphones, but you want to make the right choice?
There are a few factors to consider when buying a pair of studio-grade headphones, namely:
You want the flattest frequency response – that means no “tri-port acoustic technology” or “hyper bass boost”, often found in the majority of consumer music and gaming headphones.
A flat frequency response will help you get cleaner mixes and a more accurate representation of your music, this will also help when looking to have songs mastered or when performing your own ghetto-mastering.
You also want to bear in mind that you will most likely be wearing these headphones for hours at a time, so you want to make sure you pick one with the right shaped ear cups and the right material on the ear cups. Leather can be sweaty, poly-leather can crack and wear poorly over time.
The material can also degrade from sweat if not taken care of, over-ear cups tend to offer a lot more comfort than on-ear cups during long periods.
Open-Back Or Closed-Back?
Another issue to be aware of is whether your headphones are of a closed-back or open-back design.
Open-back headphones allow quite a lot of sound bleeding both inside and outside, and would not be recommended for example when recording a vocalist. There would be a lot of bleed from the headphones into the mic, and if working with headphones on a mix, you might find that you are being distracted or interrupted by a loud environment.
If you have the intention of using the headphones as a multi-purpose tool, then you might want to consider closed-back ear cups to avoid headphone bleed into microphones as mentioned above.
If you are producing music purely within the box or have a stable and quiet environment to work in then the open-back ear cups might be advantageous to you.
Impedance (measured in ohms) is basically the amount of power it takes the listening device you are using to move the magnets/drivers in the ear cups of your headphones.
Usually, the higher the impedance, the more powerful the headphone driver (magnet) and therefore a more powerful amplifier/interface is necessary to make the most of the drivers.
If you had a pair of headphones at 200 ohms, you might find that their ‘max volume’ seems to peak a lot lower than where you would have expected when listening through a smartphone or MP3 player’s 3.5mm headphone jack.
However, plug this same pair of 200-ohm headphones into a USB audio interface or sound card and you will be able to push the volume a lot higher and experience a much stronger level of clarity and fidelity than otherwise possible with that same pair of headphones on a lesser device.
Some companies such as Beyerdynamic will make the same pair of headphones across multiple different impedance ranges because they know that some users will not have an amp or interface and will not be able to get the full range of the headphones on their normal listening device.
The company is, therefore, allowing consumers working straight off a 3.5mm jack to still experience a high-quality level of sound, although the sound quality of high impedance headphones with a decent audio interface or amp, really can’t be beaten.
For your reference, the impedance of a standard smartphone 3.5mm headphone jack is about 5 – 8Ω (ohms).
For a very long time, Sennheiser has been a big-hitter in the world of personal audio and headphone devices, as well as microphones.
The HD280 Pros are a sturdy everyday listener and deliver a good mix of quality and comfort for an affordable price, being a more rugged hard-shell plastic design, they can take a beating without worrying too much about their condition. As a result, they are perfect for location recording and outdoor use.
These headphones have soft earpads that sit around the ear (circumaural).
They have a closed-back design for sound isolation and protection when using in noisy environments, which can be handy when producing on location or listening when out and about.
The ear cups are rotating/foldable ear cups for easy storage and transportation, and the headphones themselves come with a screw-type ¼” jack adapter.
The cable on this device is coiled at 1.3m and at max-stretch is about 3m long, however, the cable is not necessarily easily removable/interchangeable. With some care and knowledge, the cable can be replaced with a certain degree of care, considering you buy the cable online yourself and that you know what you are doing.
The ear cups on this device are a softer poly-leather material, although soft and squishy, these headphones aren’t the most breathable. Due to the closed-back design and lack of airflow they have the potential to get quite warm. Not to the point of severe irritation, but you do notice it.
On the plus side though; these headphones block out a good portion of ambient and outside noise and make it easy to focus on a mixdown when using in a quieter environment.
I did find that extended periods (+2-3 hours) of using these headphones can potentially cause mild ear fatigue and a bit of pressure around the edge of the ears. Although technically ‘circumaural’ you may find that these headphones press down on the edges of your ears, causing some mild discomfort over time. If comfort is a primary concern for you, it would be recommended to try a pair on before you buy.
8Hz to 21kHz
64Ω – suitable for use with any personal audio player/smartphone/headphone amp.
✔ Rugged and durable.
✔ Very affordably priced.
✔ Clear flat response.
✘ Slightly higher impedance means lower performance when listening from standard 3.5mm headphone jacks.
✘ Cable not technically ‘replaceable’.
AKG has a solid history as one of the oldest and longest-running personal audio brands, with a name that is recognized in studios all over the world as a symbol of audio quality, its hard to find fault with anything these guys do, they know their stuff.
The ample, wide ear cups and AKG’s signature style headband are the first visual stop-off on your tour around the K702’s.
I really noticed the attention to detail with the genuine leather headband and the metallic baffling on the outside of the ear cups, this pair of headphones has a nice feel to them and visually they ooze quality.
The drivers inside powering the K702’s are AKG’s patented “Varimotion two-layer diaphragms”. Paired with their ‘revolutionary flat-wire voice coils’ these headphones really deliver a brilliant clean and spacious sound while maintaining a flat frequency response that you want to see in a pair of quality monitoring headphones. Comes with a gold-plated ¼” jack adapter.
The ear cups are made of specially shaped 3D foam and fit beautifully.
The material used is a soft fabric-like material designed in combination with the foam used to create a comfortable listening experience that won’t fatigue the wearer, even after long periods of use (+2-3 hours).
However, these headphones are an open-backed design, so while they provide a lot more in terms of comfort and long term use, they would pose potential problems when using as a headphone send for a vocalist while tracking vocals, you might find these suited better to critical mixing and mastering use than production itself.
This, of course, does depend on how far ‘out-of-the-box’ you go when making music.
10Hz – 39800kHz
62Ω – suitable for use with any personal audio player/smartphone/headphone amp, although due to slightly higher impedance, may slightly lack clarity and amplitude capability when using a standard 3.5mm smartphone/mp3 player jack.
✔ Extremely high build and material quality
✔ Great sound
✔ Comfortable as hell
✔ Replaceable cable
✘ Price is on the higher end
✘ Design doesn’t fold flat – can be tricky to transport
✘ Open-back design may not be suitable for some studio situations.
This is Audio Technica’s latest iteration of their classic ATH-M50 design, often regarded as a studio must-have, these headphones can be found all over the world in bedroom and world-class studios alike. They are known for their super flat frequency response and brilliant translation all the way from headphone mix to stereo bounce.
Unlike most pro-level headphones, the ATH-M50x’s are available in a variety of different colors.
The ATH-M50x now also includes the ability to remove and replace the cable if necessary.
The headphones themselves come with three cables, a 1.2 – 3.0m coiled cable, a straight 3m cable and a straight 1.2m cable, giving the user a variety of ways to adapt the way they use their headphones to fit their situational needs.
The headband is also quite soft but over periods of long-wear, it may feel like it creates pressure across the top of the skull. Depending on the size of your head though (mine’s huge) you may not find any discomfort at all.
These headphones fold flat and have swivel cups for easy, quick one-ear monitoring and storage/transport.
These headphones are a closed-back circumaural (over-ear) design, providing more than adequate isolation when tracking or using in louder environments.
Audio Technica have used large 45mm neodymium magnets to drive their copper voice coils, maintaining the use of high-quality metals and design processes, the user receives a balanced audio signal which sounds loud and clear on any device thanks to the super low impedance, meaning these headphones are more than suitable for every day/on the go use.
The material on the headphones is a poly-leather combination and over longer periods of time (+1 year in my case) has the tendency to crack and flake off if not properly cared for, the ear cups are replaceable however for a very affordable price, and they also come in a variety of colors.
15Hz – 28kHz
38Ω – suitable for use with any personal audio player/smartphone/headphone amp
✔ Good sound for the price, strong build quality.
✔ Comes in different colors.
✔ 3x replaceable cables included with purchase.
✘ Material on cups/headband needs to be maintained or it can become flaky and damaged.
Beyerdynamic is a serious company that makes serious products, these headphones are considered the upper echelon of home studio choices and can find their feet in any recording/production situation, with a comfortable fit and a clean and tight bass response, these headphones are well worth having a good look at.
Super soft replaceable ear cups come as a standard on these headphones, their over-ear design, and lightweight feel will allow the user hours on end of easy wear and comfortable listening (+3 hours).
The crisp and clear top end is combined with a punchy and tight low-end, without compromising on the overall balance or control of your mix. Comes with a carry bag, ¼” jack adapter + instruction manual.
Out of the ‘DT’ range from Beyerdynamic (the range being comprised of the 770, 880 & 990 pro’s), the 770 pro’s are the closed-back model, making them the most suitable for use in smaller recording studio spaces or louder environments.
This adds to their fantastic sound isolation and effectively blocking out background noise to a notable extent.
Although not ‘noise-canceling’ – these ear cups will prevent bleed from the headphones into the mic, and vice versa.
The over-ear design is more than adequate and manages to encapsulate the entire ear quite comfortably, the softer fabric-like material helps let the earcups breathe and increases overall comfort significantly.
5Hz – 35kHz
32Ω, 80Ω, 250Ω – as it stands, these headphones can be ordered from the manufacturer in a number of different impedances depending on the desired situational use of the user.
For day-to-day use/out-and-about listening, the 32-ohm model would be highly recommended as you won’t lose much in terms of frequency and clarity when listening off (for example) an iPhone’s 3.5mm jack.
On the other hand, the 250 ohm model would be highly recommended for permanent indoor/studio use, if plugged into an audio interface or a decent headphone amplifier the user will notice a far superior quality of sound and higher amplitude, due to the ability of the interface/amp to essentially power the headphones appropriately.
When listening to 250-ohm headphones through a standard 3.5mm the listener will notice a distinct lack of volume and detail. A standard 3.5mm audio jack has an impedance of around 8 ohms, nowhere near the potential 80 or even 250 ohms that the higher impedance DT770 pro’s require.
*It is also worth noting that the price does not change depending on which impedance you pick, each model is the exact same price.
✔ Multiple impedances available
✔ Extremely comfortable
✔ Replaceable ear pads
✔ Various impedance options (choose wisely!)
KRK has long been synonymous with studio monitoring with their famous ROKIT and VXT monitors being a common staple in many studios around the world. These are their top-of-the-line headphones with a focus on clarity and an impressive low-end, these headphones might actually be my favorite out of all of them.
These headphones feature an extremely comfortable headband and earcups, unlike the lower tier KNS 6400’s.
The 8400’s have a premium leatherette material and utilize acoustic memory foam, meaning they form to the shape of your head/ears to give a more comfortable fit than would be normally possible.
In warm environments, the leatherette may become a little sweaty after extended use, but when using in air-conditioned studios they pose no problem at all.
KRK have used high quality 40mm neodymium drivers in these headphones which give a superior low-end response and translate mixes in extreme clarity. The first time I tried a pair of these headphones on in-store, I listened to some tracks I had been working on and instantly noticed holes in my mix that I previously had no idea were even there.
These headphones come with a removable cord that has a built-in volume control, a soft poly-leather carry case, and have the option for replaceable ear cups if necessary, helping to prolong the overall life of the headphones in the long run.
The earcups are a closed-back circumaural design, like many others on this list, this is good for producers working in small or enclosed spaces or doubling the headphones up as a headphone send when recording vocalists, again minimizing the bleed from headphones into the microphone when recording and vice versa. The earcups have swivels and fold flat for easy storage/transport.
5Hz – 23kHz
32Ω – suitable for use with any personal audio player/smartphone/headphone amp.
✔ Great quality and design for the price.
✔ Volume control built-in to the cable.
✔ Replaceable cables and ear pads
✔ Detailed and accurate sound.