Written by Guitar Chalk Editorial
Parent article: Best Studio Headphones
I guess you could use a pair of Apple earbuds to run through a mix on Pro Tools. I've used cheap headphones to do basic mixing before. And while it's dramatic to say it "ruins" the experience, I didn't exactly feel professional using the same headphones that are usually attached to my iPhone. Headphones for music production should be bigger and better.
They should sound and feel a lot better than what you're used to listening to music on. But how do you avoid breaking the bank for a pair of headphones? Can you get cheap headphones for music production that aren't junk?
You can and, as you'll see, the scope is surprisingly wide open.
Best Cheap Headphones for Music Production: Top Picks
AKG k240 Studio Headphones for Music Production
Sennheiser HD 280 Production Headphones
Skullcandy Crusher Headphones
The Price of "Cheap" Headphones
Headphones are the type of thing you can spend as little or as much on as you want. Typically, I like to avoid recommending anything above $200, even for heavy-duty mixing and DAW work. Headphones in the $100 - $150 range will sound fantastic, especially if you stick with the over-ear models. For basic mixing and home studio music production, you don't need much more.
Even some of the $50 pairs will sound pretty good. What I'll avoid is the truly cheap headphones that take a major quality dive.
A happy medium is where we'll get the most value.
Features we Do and Don't Need
There are a few features I try to avoid when picking out cheap music production headphones. They include (of course are not limited to) the following:
- Wireless technology
- High level noise-cancellation
When it comes to music production, I've found that none of these features are all that necessary. While noise-cancellation is nice, it tends to make headphones much more expensive (take the Bose QuietComfort 35, for example), meaning you've got to pay for a feature that you probably don't need.
At the same time, there are a few features I like to target.
- Padded headband
- Detachable 3.5mm cable
- Extended frequency response
In my experience, the more padding you have on a set of headphones, the better off you'll be. I've used both the padded and non-padded versions, and the additional comfort you get from the former is impossible to over-value, especially for those who need to wear them for lengthy periods of time. As far as the detachable cable, it's almost certain that, at some point, a 3.5mm cable (1/8" jack) is going to fail.
If the headphones have the cable "seared" into them, that means the entire headset is junk. But even many of the cheap headphones for music production will tend to have this cable detachable, with an 1/8" input on the headset, just like an MP3 player.
This means that if the cable fails, you can just swap it out for a fresh one (usually costs just a few dollars) and avoid having to buy a whole new set of headphones.
Let's look a few headphones pairs that meet our established criteria.
1. AKG k240 Studio Headphones
It's remarkable that you can get the AKG k240 set for under $100.
Way under, in fact.
55 ohms of impedance and a detachable cable are our two favorite features on this affordable, professional-grade headphone set from AKG.
The price hovers around $60 retail in most markets.
I've seen used options going as low as $35, which fluctuates depending on third-party sellers.
The headband design is a flexible self-adjusting system that fits comfortably and saves you from having to manually adjust for your own head size. All you need to do is put them on and the band stretches or contracts on its own.
This is an underrated feature and can really improve comfort levels, particularly for those who spend a lot of time in the studio.
Headband features doesn't seem like a big deal, but being able to put your headphones on and get to work, without having to mess with any kind of adjustment bands or straps, is actually really nice.
The frequency range is between the 15 and 25 kHz, which is fairly standard and won't leave anything out of your mix, especially if you're working with a typical range of instruments (bass, guitar, vocals, etc.).
With such a low price point, we can't say that the k240s are the best available, since they have their weak spots. For example, we've used pricier pairs that have a more snug fit and handle midrange EQ levels better. However, the value is extremely good if your budget dictates that you stay in the sub-$100 range.
If you're just looking for a pair that'll let you hear a solid bass response and all the nuances of your music, this will do the job while going light on your wallet.
IDEAL FOR: Studio monitoring, mid-level amplification, performances, all instruments, practice and recording
2. Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Headphones
This is another excellent set of headphones from Sennheiser, who tend to rule the roost when it comes to studio headphones.
The HD 280 isn't strictly a "noise-cancelling" set, but they do give you 32db of attenuation, which means they significantly reduce outside noise and give you a more isolating sound. There's plenty of padding in the set, helping to up the comfort level.
A detachable cord is included, which I believe is a coiled design, though it can easily be replaced by any 3.5mm cable.
On the set, earpads and headphone padding can actually be replaced as well, should they wear out or need upgrading.
If you don't mind buying a used pair, this set can often dip into the $70 range if you check the used and refurbished options.
Buying the set new, at retail value, still runs you less than $99 is most cases.
Also note that they come with a 1/4" adapter.
IDEAL FOR: Sound isolation and mixing
3. Skullcandy Crush Music Production Headphones
Since it tends to hover around $70 retail, the Skullcandy Crusher headphones are the cheapest option we've got on this list.
While they're multi-purpose, and typically used for casual listening, the Crusher sets just sound fantastic and are more than up to the task of mixing and producing music on a DAW.
A smooth frequency response and low-distortion are immediately evident.
I've even used them to monitor instruments (they're great headphones for guitar and bass) without having any excess noise or gain issues.
There's also a bass slider, which is helpful for when you're adjusting EQ levels on a piece of music.
Intended Use and Market
Some might bulk at the idea of "settling" for a set of Skullcandy headphones, since their intended use, and market, is for the casual listener who is walking around with a playlist on their iPhone.
But some perspective is in order.
Headphones are just headphones.
As long as they sound good and give you a clear representation of what you're mixing, any set of headphones (cheap or otherwise) can be used for music production.
Thus, while the Crushers aren't a professional mixing headset, they're a solid and affordable option that will still work in that capacity.
If you're on the lower end of our established budget, don't worry about their intended use. They'll do the job.
Want to go over cheaper?
Used and refurbished options are plentiful.
IDEAL FOR: Bass and casual listening
Cheaper Options and Honorable Mentions
As I've already alluded to, headphones are hard to screw up.
Yes, quality matters, but aside from what I've already listed, there are a lot more headphones, some cheaper, that I can recommend for music production and home studio use.
It also depends some on brand loyalty.
Personally, I like to stick with Sennheiser and Skullcandy. They're just what I've always used and they work for me.
At the same time, that doesn't mean they're the absolute best.
There are other options.
Here are a few more I would recommend trying out.
What about going wireless?
These days there's almost always a wired and wireless version of a headphone set.
I tend to stay away from wireless options, simply because they require batteries or charging of some kind and, in my experience, simply don't work on a consistent basis.
Wireless headphones have often had me fidgeting with Bluetooth settings or trying to get some kind of mysterious connection to work, taking up valuable time that should be spent elsewhere.
While it's not necessary that you always avoid wireless technology, I'd recommend that, if you do get a wireless set, they have the ability to connect via a 3.5mm cable as well.
That way if the wireless is a pain, you can opt for the more reliable connection method.
Thoughts, Questions and/or Additions
Have questions about these headphones?
Maybe you have a set you'd like to recommend?
Drop us a line in the comments and we'll have a look.