Parent article: Home Recording Studio Setup
Updated by Millie
Recently updated on December 23rd, 2020
Updated several links to headphones and made minor improvements to article formatting.
Best Studio Headphones: Top Pick
For what you pay, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50X headphones are the best-sounding and most professional set you can buy. From a sound, functionality, and comfortability perspective, we have no complaints, especially since it falls under a $150 price tag in most markets.
For every musician, studio headphones are a big deal.
If you're into recording, mixing, or even just instrument practice, the experience is vastly improved with a good pair of ears.
It's like a warm blanket of sound that can't be replicated with a "regular" set of headphones or earbuds. In this article I'm going to cover all of the most important buying considerations so you can get your hands on the absolute best studio headphones for your particular situation.
Without getting too technical, we'll cover all the basics and tell you what you need to know to make an informed purchase. Let's start with our favorite studio headphones and go from there.
Best Studio Headphones Overall: Four Top Picks
Sennheiser HD 598 Studio Headphones
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Headphone Set
AKG k240 Studio Headphone Set
Status Audio CB-1 Headphones
1. Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
One of the most underrated features of studio headphones is having a detachable cable. With sets that don't, you'll often see cables break or tear, which means the entire headset has to be replaced or repaired. A detachable cable, in that instance, will save you a good bit of money. The ATH-M50x has a particularly sturdy system and protector, allowing you to attach or detach quickly and helping to prevent the cable itself from wearing down.
These headphones come packaged with the following three cables:
- One coiled
- Short straight cable (about four feet long)
- Long straight cable (about 10 feet long)
You could buy a longer cable, though 10 feet feels like plenty of room to work with. Something like this HOSA CMM-115 would bump you up to 15 feet.
Too much bass for a flattened frequency?
With instrument monitoring, the M50s tend to capture a lot of the low end of the tone, particularly with electric guitars. However, that same "boost" wasn't as noticeable when mixing and recording. The sound coming out of our DAWs (Ableton and GarageBand) sounded crisp and true to form.
It didn't sound like there was any added bass boost, other than what you would expect to hear from the tracks. Bass tracks don't sound overwhelming or exacerbated, while more treble-favoring tones also sounded accurate.
The 38 ohms give you plenty of headroom to work with, making them a popular economy-range DJ headphone set, which should typically fall between 25 and 70 OHMs.
It can handle a wide range of gear without producing any kind of unwanted distortion. Even though they're a closed back set, we like them in both a recording and mixing context, regardless of surrounding noise levels.
Are they noise-cancelling?
The M50s are an over-ear design with heavily padded ear cups and a closed back. However, those features aren't necessarily equal to what the industry considers "noise cancelling." In other words, they don't tend to completely block outside noise or "isolate" you.
It should be noted that this also isn't the point of studio headphones. Noise-cancelling is meant more for the casual listener.
With such a wide frequency range, you'll notice every nuance of the music you're hearing, with enough padding to keep outside noise from being the least bit distracting.
Can they double as casual listening headphones?
Any set in this list, provided they have an eighth inch input jack (or an adapter), can double as your "garden-variety" set of headphones.
Particularly in regards to comfort, the M50x does really well conforming to your head and being less intrusive, even for longer wears. While we wouldn't recommend them in situations where you have to move a lot (they slide here and there), they sound fantastic on an iPhone or hooked up to a laptop for easy listening.
That's true for most studio headphones and certainly for the headphones in this list. While they're more than you need for just casual listening, they can easily take a step down and fulfill that task in addition to studio-related duties.
IDEAL FOR: Studio, performing, and recording
2. Beyerdynamic DT-990
The 990 Pro is an open-back headphone set with an over-ear cup design that still feels somewhat concealed with the thick cushioning on the ears and headband. Tracks are clear and open, with a natural-sounding reproduction, making them an ideal pair for mixing in more quiet environments.
Lower frequencies and bass tones sound exceptionally good on this set, even with the open back design and a V-shaped signature response, which still sounds natural and similar to "open air" listening.
V-Shaped Sound Signature
The DT 990 Pro, like many open back headphones, has what is called a V-shaped sound signature, meaning it slightly emphasizes highs and lows while recessing the mids. This is similar to the "rock" preset on a music player, and explains why bass sounds so good on this set.
The concern is that studio headphones should be mostly neutral in terms of how they handle different frequencies. However, a closer look shows us that the open-back design, coupled with the "EQ" of the headphone frequency strikes a happy-medium, helping to keep things more genuine and true to the EQ of the original track.
It's a nuanced deviation from a completely flat frequency response, so there's not enough to disqualify the 990s from studio use.
Characteristics of a V-Shaped Sound Signature
- Treble sounds bright and clear
- Lows sound full-bodied
If you look at the graph below you can see that - despite a spike in bass and treble - the dBr at any given point doesn't deviate much past 10 or -10, which would still be considered a fairly neutral frequency response for a set of headphones.
As far as sound quality goes, we've got zero complaints about this set, especially for mixing and mastering or instrument monitoring. It truly does not seem possible to get a bad sound out of them.
Cable Isn't Detachable
One of the only complaints we have about the 990 is how Beyerdynamic has setup the 3.0m cable coming out of the left ear cup.
First, it's not detachable, which means any defects with connectivity in that particular area will mean you'll have to fall back on the warranty for repairs or replace the set entirely.
Additionally, the reinforcement around where the cable meets the ear cup is minimal. We'd like to see more support there.
It's not a deal breaker, certainly not enough to deter us from recommending the 990s. Yet it is somewhat disappointing, especially considering the price and how solid the rest of the set performs.
Outside of the 990s, the DT770 closed-back headphone set is another recommendation made by some of the musicians and studio professionals we consulted (see the "additional consultation" section at the end of the article).
Gear Paired and Tested With the DT990s
- Mac Mini
- Fender Thinline Telecaster Electric Guitar
- Warwick 5-String Rockbass Bass Guitar
- PreSonus Audiobox USB audio interface
- Amp models via Garageband and Amplitube 4
- Playback via iTunes, iPhone 6s and Audacity
- Source quality: Standard CD 44.1kHz/16bit, and native HD 88.2-96kHz/24bit
IDEAL FOR: Instrument monitoring, mixing and bassists (surprisingly good with a low-end EQ)
3. Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro (recommended to us by Paul Colman)
Paul Colman, an Austrailian-born guitarist who played for the Newsboys and Peter Furler, responded to an inquiry Bobby sent him about which studio headphones he used, recommending the DT 880 Pro set.
The design is considered semi open-back, similar to the DT 990s but with a little more covering and isolation. Here's a closer look at the back of the ear cup:
Like the 990s, the 880 Pro supports 250 OHMs of impedance, giving you plenty of headroom (more than you would need in most situations). The frequency response extends beyond what the human ear can detect in both directions (5 - 35,000 Hz).
The cabling concerns are still there, and we've noticed a handful of people (for both the 880 and 990) who mentioned having to get the unit repaired for this very reason (comes with a two year manufacturer warranty, like the 990s). For every reviewer that mentioned this, there were 10 or more who were completely happy with their purchase.
While we haven't gotten our hands on the 880s, we're taking Paul Colman's word for it and hoping the cable holds steady.
IDEAL FOR: Mixing, recording, and instrument monitoring
4. Status Audio CB-1 Studio Headphones
The founder of Status Audio reached out to us directly and was nice enough to send us a set of the CB-1s to try out for a few weeks. We tested the unit in a variety of scenarios, including instrument monitoring, recording and some basic mixing.
We were able to test the CB-1 set in a lot of different situations, finding it to be most at home via direct instrument monitoring (amplifier headphone jacks) and DAW recording, which you would expect considering the closed-back design.
Sound Quality and Features
The CB-1 is completely closed, though still maintains a natural sound that does a great job of staying neutral from a frequency standpoint. Looking at them you would suspect a heavy dose of bass in the EQ, but it doesn't embellish the low ends at all. In terms of staying flat for recording and monitoring, this is one of the absolute best sets we tested.
As a consequence, we don't like it as much for casual listening or for bass-heavy instrument monitoring, though it performed admirably in those scenarios as well.
We also like their marketing slogans:
It's just designed for recording and critical listening, which is exactly what you would want out of a solid pair of studio headphones. From that perspective, Status Audio has put all their chips in the right basket.
Cables and Adapters
Peripheral items are another strong suit of this purchase. The CB-1s came to us packaged with an eighth to quarter inch adapter that screws on, along with two extension cables (one straight and one coiled) that can be locked into the headphones and then easily detached.
Pricing and Value
When you consider the price (you can check it out here) the CB-1 is an incredible value, as it doesn't come close to the retail cost of many of its similar competitors. Unless you don't want the more moderately balanced EQ and flatter frequency, there simply isn't anything to dislike.
At this price, it's a great option for guitarists or anyone looking to do professional instrument monitoring and recording on a lower budget.
It's perhaps the best-value buy on this list.
IDEAL FOR: Guitar monitoring, professional recording and moderate noise isolation
5. Sony MDR7506 Studio Headphones
While the cable isn't detachable the MDR7506 supports both 1/8" and 1/4" applications via an included adapter and delivers 63 ohms of impedance, enough to handle an intense headphone amp. A more nuanced feature that you might appreciate is a 10 foot cable that comes with the set (the one you can't detach), saving most people from having to purchase an extension.
The profile is a little lower than the CB-1, with less cushioning on each ear cup, though still feels comfortable and easy to wear. Sony throws in a small carrying case, which the MDR7506s fold up to fit into for easy transport.
Pricing and sound quality
Despite making its living in the lower price ranges the MDR7506 and the Sony brand are a solid combination, giving you a reliable pair of studio headphones that sound fantastic and genuine in a recording environment, but can also double as a casual listening pair.
Whatever EQ you set for your device is what the MDR7506 is going to replicate, without taking matters into its own hands.
As far as pricing goes, mid two-figures is not unusual.
Despite the list price on Sony's website being $130, you're not likely to ever pay that much, especially if you stick to online retail.
Once again, the only thing we really missed was the detachable cable.
IDEAL FOR: Recording or music production on a budget, small or home studios
6. Sennheiser HD 598 Over-Ear
The HD 598s by Sennheiser aren't cheap, but they're some of the most well-received and highly-rated headphones on the market in the given price range. We also found them to be some of the most comfortable headphones we've ever tried. The velour ear pads feel like a soft pillow, fitting nicely along with the padded foam head band and completely conforming to the shape of your head.
Folks over at Wire Realm are big fans of the entire HD series. They're an open-back design that still manages to be really low profile, which we like in a set of headphones. It didn't feel like walking around with Mickey Mouse ears.
Here's a closer look at the ear cup profile:
50 OHMs of impedance gives you some headroom if you intend to use a headphone amplifier, while the frequency range is more than enough for the human ear to appreciate. We found that the honesty of the sound was similar to the CB-1, with a somewhat friendlier bass response and less emphasis on the high end.
For mixing and mastering in a quiet room, the 598s are a fantastic option because of the airy open-back design and the high comfort level.
We also like them for casual listening and instrument monitoring, given the natural, open-air resonance we got from the ears.
The cable is lockable and detachable (thank goodness) while the unit ships with a 3.5mm adapter, allowing you to plug into smaller devices (iPhones, iPads, etc.). Sennheiser includes a two-year warranty with the product, provided you purchase it from an approved list of authorized dealers, of which Amazon is included, per the following:
Value and Cost
The comfort provided by the cellulose fleece ear cushion helps keep natural distortion down to around 0.1% despite the open-back design. While retail is a bit high, refurbished or used options can dip into the low three figures range if you check at the right time. If you have the budget, these are some of the best studio headphones money can buy under 200 dollars.
For an open-back set, they're our favorite pick by a wide margin.
IDEAL FOR: Long sessions, recording, mixing, performing, mid-sized rigs and comfort
7. AKG K240
From a pricing perspective, the AKG k240 studio headphones are the semi open-back version of the CB-1s. They're affordable, yet maintain plenty of high value markers. First, you get the coveted detachable cable along with 55 OHMs of impedance. Check.
Additionally, the self-adjusting headband design is really comfortable and saves you the trouble of having to manually adjust them every time you put them on. In our opinion, this is an underrated feature for studio headphone users. It doesn't seem like much, but just being able to put your headphones on and get to work, without having to pull those ratcheting adjustment bands, is actually really nice. 15 - 25 kHz is the frequency range, which is fairly standard and won't leave any of your tone behind.
On a budget, this is a solid alternative if you prefer the open-back design but don't want to spend the high dollar required to obtain the 598s.
IDEAL FOR: Studio recording, small to mid-sized guitar rigs, performing environments and mixing
Best for Mixing
Generally, I recommend closed-back headphones for mixing and recording.
Here are a few of my favorites:
- Status Audio CB-1 (budget option)
- Audio Technica ATH Series (mid-grade option)
- Sennheiser HD Series (high-end option)
As you can see, I've noted the monetary differences between each set. Typically I recommend one for each of the low, mid, and high ends.
Best for Instrument Monitoring
For instrument monitoring I typically recommend an open or semi-open back design. The AKG k240 is what I use personally.
Closed back headphones work fine for instrument monitoring as well, and you can definitely use one set for both tasks (practicing and mixing).
Let's look at some cheap headphones that are still high value.
Best Cheap Options
By "cheap" I'm trying to stay under the $50 price tag. Within that salary cap, these are some of the best options:
Going too cheap means you end up with studio headphones that break and won't last. I'd be especially concerned going into a really low price range without a detachable cable, since those are often where you'll see cheap headphones break.
Which brands are best?
Headphones are manufactured in mass all over the world, which means you've got a ton of brands to choose from.
What I want to do in this section is refer you to brand names that I trust because I have actually used them.
This does not mean that all other brands are terrible. It just means I can vouch for and verify these ones in particular, based on a first-hand experience.
Here are the brands I would keep an eye on and target as you shop:
- Status Audio
Between these five brands you have most of the popular headphone sets currently on the market. I would trust most headphone models under these names.
By the same token, there are some brands I would avoid.
Which brands should you avoid?
Brands that I would avoid aren't necessarily poor quality, but they can also just be overpriced or more trendy than substantive. My avoid list would include (but is not limited to) the following:
Beats are nice headphones, but I've found them to be really over-priced and more of a trend than anything else.
The other brands mentioned are just too cheap to be worth investing in for actual studio work.
Cheaper can be nice, but with cheap headphones you take a major quality hit.
If you want something lower cost, checkout my article on cheap headphones for music production, or the bullet list recommendations below in the "best cheap options" section.
Headphones are a difficult purchase to normalize because of such a wide disparity in pricing and a lack of concrete features to look for. Even things like frequency response and OHM load don't really matter that much in a studio headphone comparison battle. In that situation, it becomes difficult to determine value or to figure out why you're buying a certain pair. To help make your choice, we would advise you to also look at things like comfort and style, perhaps falling back on some of the more aesthetic factors when making your decision.
For example, we really like the looks of the Sennheiser and ATH-M50x headphones. They just appeal to us. If we can then understand the context of open and closed-back headphones, we can make an informed decision based on our own situation and context, then just buy something we like.
We hope this list is helpful to you in the same way.
References and Works Cited
- Article formatting and layout by Millie Roark
- Image reference via the Audio-Technica blog
- Image reference via Flickr Creative Commons
- Image reference via Headphonia
- Sound signature diagrams via Headphonesty
- Human hearing range via Georgia State University
- Wire Realm's headphone roundup
- Sound on Sound headphone roundup
Have questions about any of the studio headphones mentioned here? Perhaps you have a pair of headphones you think should have been included in our best-of list? If so, drop a line in the comments section below. Bobby moderates those more closely than email, plus any discussion that ensues will serve to benefit future readers.