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Best Overall: Beyerdynamic DT 770 at Amazon
"Whether it’s the soft, smooth velvet cups or the extensive frequency response range, there are a lot of reasons to like Beyerdynamic DT 770s."
Best Open Back: Sennheiser HD 650 at Amazon
"They offer some of the clearest, most substantial monitoring out there; a great option if you're looking for open back phones."
Best Value: Status Audio CB-1 at Amazon
"For our best value pick, we tracked down the most affordable headphones that can actually go toe-to-toe with more expensive models."
Best Design: Focal Listen Professional at Amazon
"The Listen Professional's features add up to a modern set of studio monitors that will look (and sound) right at home in a pro studio."
Best Live Room/Budget: Audio-Technica ATH-M20x at Amazon
"When you need a few extra sets for monitoring, the ATH-M20x’s offer unbelievable value for a budget-friendly price."
Best for Producers: Audio-Technica ATH-Pro5X at guitarcenter.com
"The ATH-Pro 5x is the budget-conscious option for DJs and producers and these headphones cover an impressively wide frequency range."
Best Splurge: AKG KH72 Master Reference at guitarcenter.com
"If you're in need of absolute top-of-the-line headphones, the frequency response for these cans is an astounding 5 to 54,000Hz."
Whether it’s the soft, smooth velvet cups, the extensive frequency response range or the tried-and-true track record, there are a lot of reasons to like Beyerdynamic DT 770s. First off, they’re handmade in Germany with velour ear cups to ensure that they’re extra comfortable for long listening sessions, which is important because producers and studio engineers spend plenty of time with headphones on.
They’re a closed-back, diffused field construction, which means they’ll isolate your ear as well as possible without literally altering any of the sound response like noise-canceling headphones do. And speaking of sound response, they’ll play back frequencies from 5 all the way through 35kHz, which is plenty of distance for any sonic or supersonic aspects of a mix.
The nominal sound pressure level is a nice, healthy 96dB, and they’ll work at either 80 ohms or 250 ohms, depending on whether you have them in a standard studio setting or if you’re using a headphone amp.
The construction is very sturdy and the manufacturer has thrown in a very extensive warranty. It all adds up to a set of studio cans that are worth their price tag and then some.
Obviously, Sennheiser had to make a spot on this list, as one of the best studio headphone makers, whether you’re talking closed or open back. Sennheiser’s Pro line offers some of the clearest, most substantial monitoring out there, and the HD 650s are great options if you’re looking for open back phones.
First, what is the difference between open and closed back? Well, closed headphones offer a degree of isolation and some more pointed focus, but they tend to isolate so much that it muffles and reflects back the bass response, inherently muddying up some of the lows. Open cans will give you a somewhat more natural response, but they won’t provide any of the isolation of closed ‘phones (for you or people in the same room).
So if you do elect to go with open-back headphones, what can the 650s bring to the table? The high-quality titanium silver finish looks and feels premium, so you know construction was an important consideration. The lightweight aluminum voice coils provide beautiful, extended frequency response, which spans 10 to 41,000Hz. They’ll operate at up to 300 ohms to ensure premium sound with great headroom, but it does mean you’ll need an adequate headphone amp to really get full use out of these. But what’s really impressive is they only weigh half a pound, so all the performance won’t come at the expense of a sore neck.
The difference between a budget category and this “value” category is sort of subtle – budget headphones will check every box, but won’t usually excel in any specific category other than price. For our best value pick, we tracked down the most affordable headphones that can actually go toe-to-toe with the more expensive models on the list.
Status Audio – a brand that made its debut a few years back offering consumer headphones without all the name brand price inflations – has just recently stepped into the professional studio ring, and the CB-1s are perfect examples of name brand quality without name brand price. First off, they cover our requisite frequency range and beyond, offering a response curve from 15Hz all the way to 30kHz. The 50mm drivers give you a surprising level of bass response and push out about 97dB nominally. Those specs are about as meat-and-potatoes as you can get for studio cans, but when you factor in the super light construction, the soft leather-esque ear cups and the sturdy adjustable band, the comfort of these will make them a go-to for mix engineers. Status has even thrown in two separate detachable cables, one straight and one coiled, just for added options in the studio.
Unlike a lot of tech sectors, studio headphones tend to build cult industry followings, meaning these companies will stick with their winning models for years and years. Therefore, looking for the newest pair of headphones might not always yield top results. But at NAMM 2018, a new player pushed out some cans that really got us excited. While Focal has both consumer options and an insanely priced ultra-premium studio set, their sweet-spot Listen Professional ‘phones offer some pretty great modern features.
Their frequency response tends toward the bassier end, spanning from 5Hz up to only 22kHz (which still covers our baseline, but isn’t as substantial as a few others on the list). The 32 ohms, 122 dB handling is pretty substantial and actually responds really well to a mix, possibly bolstered by Focal’s proprietary cone technology (one of the innovative features they’re touting on these ‘phones).
But, as the category choice here indicates, their design really shows how cutting edge these headphones really are, with a beautiful, red velvet set of cups, a cool headband with additional red accents, as well as a high-quality rigid carrying case. It all amounts to a modern set of studio monitors that will look (and sound) right at home in a pro studio.
Most tech rundowns have a budget category, and while these Audio-Technica headphones definitely offer great performance at a budget price, we thought it was important here to distinguish that in a studio setting, the best use for budget headphones is when you want to buy a few of them to leave in your live room. You shouldn’t skimp on your main set of mixing ‘phones (and the other choices on this list will cover you there), but when you need a few sets for musicians to monitor themselves during recording, the ATH-M20x’s offer unbelievable value for a budget-friendly price.
The 40mm drivers are a bit small for mixing headphones, so the bass response won’t be as powerful, but they do cover the full hearing spectrum running from 15Hz to 20Khz. AT has attempted to tune them for an extended bass response though, so that should make up for the smaller drivers. The 15-degree-rotating ear cups are lined with a nice, soft material (though they do appear to be the cheapest construction of the headphones on this list), which is all good because they’re light and thus won’t get in the way during a tracking session.
At the end of the day, they hit basically everything you need in a pair of tracking phones, perhaps skimping on just a bit of the detail and precision of higher-end monitors.
The ATH-Pro 5x is the budget-conscious option for DJs and producers and these headphones have 40mm drivers, covering an impressively wide frequency range by offering a response from 5 to 35,000Hz, which is plenty substantial for even the heaviest bass drop. And speaking of those bass drops, AT has offered an interesting solution to the high volume distortion often plaguing EDM DJs mixing in headphones: They’re offering a maximum input power of 1,500 mW for extra wide range volume response (again… great for EDM). They come with the standard accouterments such as a detachable, eighth-inch cable and a screw-on quarter-inch adapter, and they even released a pair in white. So if you do take those out of the studio and onto the stage, there’s a color to fit your aesthetic.
If you do own an ultra-lucrative studio-based business and are in need of absolute top-of-the-line headphones, then take a look at these AKG KH72s. Let’s start with our number one spec to consider: The frequency response for these cans is an astounding 5 to 54,000Hz, completely dwarfing all of the other response ranges on this list. The jury is out on whether those crazy incremental Hertz above the hearing spectrum actually provide value, but it is nice to know that AKG put them there for you. With 36 ohms, you’ll probably want to run these through a headphone amp, but you’ll be rewarded with a really substantial 112 dB nominal handling. The 53mm drivers are also massively big and will make sure to physically support those premium sound quality specs. The construction is no slouch either, offering 3D-shaped, slow-retention ear cups for a personalized fit alongside AKG’s classic self-adjusting headband.
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