Steven Slate Audio VSX Review (Worth It?)

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Steven Slate Audio VSX Review (Worth It?)
VERDICT
These headphones are a must for anyone that is obsessed with taking their mixing to the next level. With these modeling headphones, we're finally able to consider mixing on headphones as a serious solution to inadequate monitoring environments.
PROS
Surprisingly accurate bass response for headphones
Problems in the upper midrange are easier to spot compared to entry-level monitors
Awesome customer support
CONS
Problems with the bands on some of the headphones from the first batch breaking
Not cheap, but a reasonable price given what's on offer
9
OUR SCORE
Find out More

I have been a user of Slate Audio as well as Slate Digital’s products for a very long time, and with this review, I want to help steer both budding and experienced engineers on the right path.

When I first picked up these headphones, I was simply just trying to improve my monitoring situation. Over the course of a few months, I’ve discovered so much more about mixing thanks in part to these headphones. While they may not be for everyone, they are certainly worth considering picking up for the price.

Introduction

There is always a ton of hype for most of Steven Slate’s products and the Slate Audio VSX Headphones are no different.

The Steven Slate Audio VSX Modeling Headphone System is advertised as a headphone plugin combo that can substitute a properly treated studio environment by modeling studio monitors like various near, mid, and far-field monitors, various headphones, and even the rooms some of these pieces of gear can be found in.

Since the last time I did a Slate VSX Review on my own personal site, a lot has changed – all of it for the better.

Along with the initial concerns of the materials used in some runs of the headphones (approximately 3% of the first run used the wrong material for the headbands), other issues have been addressed, new models are being added, and the team at Slate has been very quick on replacing the defective units.

I highly suggest these to anyone that is obsessed with taking their mixing to the next level. Even if they have a less than optimal listening environment – and let’s face it, almost everyone’s room is flawed.

Steven Slate Audio VSX

More than a top-shelf set of studio-quality closed-back cans, Steven Slate Audio VSX headphones also provide leading-edge modeling software that places you in a myriad of virtual mixing environments. It’s the ultimate mix reference. 

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How Does This Product Help Your Mixes?

As much as gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) affects all of us in music, it’s easy to not focus on the important things. In this case, those things are your room, and to a lesser extent your monitors.

It’s easier to justify buying new monitors, especially when every commercial studio has gargantuan speakers that take up a whole wall by themselves.

Across the board though, most of our rooms are imperfect and we don’t all have the same monitors. We can get used to our rooms for sure, but we cannot take our rooms with us everywhere we go.

Mixing on normal headphones can give us inaccurate stereo imaging information and wreak havoc on our low end. VSX aims to solve these problems by essentially using impulse responses to emulate what a room with certain speakers sounds like.

The headphones essentially try to trick your brain into thinking you’re in a room experiencing how that particular space sounds. The psychoacoustic tricks employed by the team at Slate Audio work surprisingly well here.

This is partly achieved by using little bass ports on the headphones that serve to kind of stimulate your hairs which gives you a sensation of experiencing low end. After using them for the past 6 months, I can say that I have reached to turn down my speakers at many points only to realize they aren’t on.

Most importantly though, your mixes will translate much better using these. I often find myself referencing these to get a tighter balance between my low-end elements – especially that low-end in vocals that so often fights with the kick and/or bass line.

Simply put, even if you have an amazing room, you may still want this product for the simple fact that it offers more than one listening environment for you to check your mixes in.

The car mix is virtually a thing of the past – as you can just use the car or SUV models in the plugin to do your “car test.”

A similar product in the price range of VSX is Sonarworks Reference 4 – however, I would argue that these two products are not the same at all. Sonarworks doesn’t emulate rooms, it only calibrates your monitors to have a flatter response.

(Click here for our full review of Sonarworks Reference 4.)

So, is it worth the hype? Absolutely.

This product could very well be considered a “must-have” product if you don’t have an amazing room with $100,000 worth of studio monitors, or if you just want to be able to get good mixes on headphones.

The idea of mixing on headphones with the same accuracy as studio monitors has long been fantasized about. Though this experience has always been missing something that you can only get with studio monitors.

Things like a true stereo field, less ear fatigue, and honest low end have always been sort of missing from the headphone mixing experience.

Using the Slate Audio VSX Modeling Headphones and Plugin

As with any new piece of gear, the first step is learning how to use it. This is best done by listening to some of your favorite records or just some tracks you’ve always thought had an amazing mix.

How you set the headphone system varies a little bit depending on which DAW you’re using as well as your workflow, but for the most part you want to start a new project with the plugin on your master. Make sure it is the last plugin in your chain.

Load up your favorite records (preferably .wav format if you have them) and go through each song listening and comparing profiles. You want to go with what sounds best to you. At the moment, Slate has two ear profiles and one more is being added later down the line.

Since most of us can only dream of being in some of these rooms, I will mainly be focusing on the boom box, SUV, electric car, the DT770 250 ohm model, and the club settings to determine whether or not they are accurate emulations.

These settings are great for referencing real-world situations to hear how well your mix will translate on these different playback devices.

The electric car setting surprisingly sounds pretty much like every entry model car stereo system out of the factory. It’s very good for that car test we all try, although it’s still not quite a suitable replacement for the car test as stereos can vary wildly and really only you know how your car sounds when it’s right.

It’s a good ballpark but ultimately it’s helpful to think of gear like this and even analog emulations as “similar” but not the same. They are capable of doing the same job with the same results but the experience will be slightly different.

On a personal level, I don’t use the electric car setting too much. I prefer to check mixes with the SUV setting as I just prefer the low-end response in there. I often use these settings to check on the relationship between the low-end elements, how the vocals are sitting in the mix, and the drums.

I find the boom box and club settings to be less helpful, but still useful nonetheless. I’m fairly used to both environments but I mainly listen for the vocals and bass here.

The club setting is really good for telling you if your bass is too wide. If you’re familiar with how a live club sounds, this can help give you an idea of how your track will perform in a live situation. The DT770 250 ohm model is pretty much spot on with my own DT770s. A bit harsh, but that’s how they sound.

I personally don’t use my DT770s without Sonarworks on for that reason and admittedly I use them even less since I got VSX. The rooms I do a good chunk of my mixes “in” are NRG in the near-field, and Archon Studios with both the mid and far-fields.

While I have no idea how close these two rooms are to the originals, I can tell you that working in these rooms is such a pleasant experience to mix in that I would love to listen to everything through there – and some people even do!

There are a few articles floating around online that describe how to set up an aux channel in your DAW to listen to things outside of it there. I seem to prefer the sound of the Archon Studio a bit more than the NRG Studio, but that’s not to disparage the NRG near-fields as they are truly a fantastic tool.

The mid-fields and far-fields in NRG are also pretty good for less bass-centric music but I find them a little dull for when you want some oomph. Part of how these headphones work depends a lot on the actual size of your ear canals.

Because of that, a few months after the launch of the VSX modeling system, Slate Audio added an update that included “ear profiles.” The profiles are based on the size of your ear canal.

It starts kind of getting a little hazy here as the benchmark for ear canal size was whether or not Apple Air Pods will stay in your ears. While it’s not a great way to determine profiles in my opinion, it paints the idea easy enough as many people can attest to having issues with Air Pods staying in place.

To be totally honest, I don’t really pay attention to the profiles after spending a week trying things out. On paper, I should be a Profile 2 but in practice, I tend to prefer Profile 1. Part of me feels that I got so used to Profile 1 during those first few months that it’s just what I prefer.

Slate was forward-thinking enough to include a 3 band EQ of sorts to help tailor the profile to your liking. Slate himself suggested that I should try Profile 2 with the HMF band boosted all the way but I didn’t personally find that much better.

Build Quality and Updates

The build quality of these headphones is fairly typical – being lightweight and generally constructed of sturdy materials – though it would be disingenuous to not address the elephant in the room.

Some users have reported bands cracking and breaking close to the cups. According to Slate Audio, the company they had hired to manufacture them had accidentally used the wrong material for the bands in a small batch of these headphones.

To address this issue, Slate Audio has been swapping these problem units out with no questions asked if this issue should arise. Aside from that, not much else has been posted on the forums used by Slate users.

The next batch has a new material that is reportedly more durable than the previous material. I’m a little nervous that mine might break but I feel fairly confident that Slate would honor that warranty of sorts.

For the past couple of months, Slate has been teasing a new update to the VSX headphones that includes even more room emulations and some high-end headphone emulations like the OLLOs. Included in the next update is also another ear profile that is a hybrid of Profiles 1 & 2.

Steven Slate Audio VSX

More than a top-shelf set of studio-quality closed-back cans, Steven Slate Audio VSX headphones also provide leading-edge modeling software that places you in a myriad of virtual mixing environments. It’s the ultimate mix reference. 

View Price on Sweetwater Check Price On

Should You Buy The Slate VSX Headphones?

The common adage when I started music production is that we should really try to not be mixing on headphones. The physics involved when mixing on these small drivers in proximity to your ears tends to not work in our favor.

We can easily blow the low end out of proportion and our treatment of the stereo field can suffer as a result of inaccurate spatial representation. With these modeling headphones, we’re finally able to actually consider mixing on headphones as a serious solution to many of our problems.

Sure, you can learn to mix on headphones by referencing different sources – a lot. However, I have found that these headphones by Slate deliver on the promise of getting better mixes, faster.

The Slate VSX Headphones have become an essential referencing tool for myself and many others, particularly just because you’re able to change your rooms without actually getting up from your chair – all while being able to trust your listening environment a little more thanks to the engineering by Slate.

After all, you can’t fix what you can’t hear.

(For our roundup of the best studio monitors for mixing, check out 7 Best Studio Monitors Under $1000 For Music Production)