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Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby mjfe2 » Sat Mar 23, 2013 7:05 pm

I get why closed-back cans are suited to overdubbing or DJ-ing, open-back to mixing and so on, but I was wondering why in the open-back world people still recommend different headphones for different musical styles? E.g. in the SOS headphone roundup from last year, the AKG K702 was said to be better for acoustic material because it was brighter than the equivalent models by Sennheiser. When it comes to high-end monitors it seems neutrality is the ideal so why doesn't this apply to open-back headphones too? Surely a genuinely good pair of cans for mixing would suit all music styles...
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Exalted Wombat » Sat Mar 23, 2013 8:13 pm

Sometimes reviewers feel compelled to say SOMETHING, even when there isn't much to say...
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Kevin Nolan » Sat Mar 23, 2013 8:31 pm

I'm no expert on this but a couple of things come to mind:

- Although AKG and Sennheiser and the like do a very good job on their top end headphones, its harder to make headphones that deliver an extremely high quality monitoring experience. So headphones are (currently) always going to be a bit of a compromise over using high quality monitors. And remember, no speaker monitor is truly neutral either - it's a combination of the monitor and its acoustic environment that can deliver an excellent monitoring experience. So headphones are always going to be a compromise and hence some may be better suited to one application over another.

- Even when made very well, different brands are going to sound different by default. So the recommendations coming from a forum like this are surely from 'usage in the field' experience (and therefore very valuable experience) and perhaps in the example you cite it may be that users, or the industry in general, has come to a consensus over time that the AKGs work better for acoustic material than do the Sennheiser?
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby The Elf » Sat Mar 23, 2013 11:59 pm

Kevin Nolan wrote:its harder to make headphones that deliver an extremely high quality monitoring experience. So headphones are (currently) always going to be a bit of a compromise over using high quality monitors.
I can't imagine it being specifically harder making high quality headphones than making speakers. Neither do I subscribe to the assertion that headphones are a compromise.

Kevin Nolan wrote:Even when made very well, different brands are going to sound different by default.
Just like speakers.

I suspect Mr Wombat is close to the truth.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Exalted Wombat » Sun Mar 24, 2013 4:45 pm

The Elf wrote:Neither do I subscribe to the assertion that headphones are a compromise.


Headphones are perfect when you want to know how your mix will sound on headphones. They're very useful for picking out detail. They won't show you how it will sound on speakers, in a room. And monitor speakers in a treated studio won't tell you what your dance track will sound like on a bass-heavy club system.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sun Mar 24, 2013 5:09 pm

mjfe2 wrote:I was wondering why in the open-back world people still recommend different headphones for different musical styles? ...

It's nonsense, in my view. An accurate montor speaker or headphone is just that -- accurate -- and should therefore perform reliably and accurately regardless of he music genre. If a speaker or headphone appears to be better suited to a specific musical genre it's not much use as a 'reference' as far as I'm concerned.

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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sun Mar 24, 2013 5:24 pm

Exalted Wombat wrote:Sometimes reviewers feel compelled to say SOMETHING, even when there isn't much to say...

In the review roundup that the OP is referring to, all four reviewers commented similarly on the 'brightness' off the AKG702s. However, it's interesting to note that the two comments relating to the 702s 'suiting acoustic sources' were in comparison to listening to heavily processed commercial music -- music which is, to my ears, frequently excessively bright. To my mind (and ears), therefore the headphones are doing the right thing in highlighting this aspect of a mix!

A reference headphone isn't about making heavily processed commercial music sound nice: it's about revealing how aggressively processed it really is! In general, if something sounds accurate and natural with acoustic sources, it's usually doing something right!

I use 702s for most of my headphone listening, across pretty much every genre and am very comfortable with what they tell me.

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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby mjfe2 » Sun Mar 24, 2013 5:40 pm

Thanks Hugh. One of the reasons I ask is because I'm thinking of getting a K701/2 to complement/replace my Sennheiser HD600. Recently I've started to find the 600 quite woolly in the bass, especially when using the built-in output on my Mac (which seems to lack the crisp detail of my Babyface), and am thinking something less 'thick' sounding might help.

Anyone have any thoughts on the 702 vs 600?
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Folderol » Sun Mar 24, 2013 5:45 pm

I would add that if you keep chopping and changing you'll never be able to make the subconscious corrections you acquire from long exposure to the defects all monitors/phones have.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby The Elf » Sun Mar 24, 2013 9:48 pm

Exalted Wombat wrote:
The Elf wrote:Neither do I subscribe to the assertion that headphones are a compromise.


Headphones are perfect when you want to know how your mix will sound on headphones. They're very useful for picking out detail. They won't show you how it will sound on speakers, in a room. And monitor speakers in a treated studio won't tell you what your dance track will sound like on a bass-heavy club system.

Agreed, but then is the reverse equally true? From what I see around me I believe that a great deal of music is now consumed on headphones more than at any other time in history.

So is it arguable that speakers are equally a 'compromise' for these reasons?
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Exalted Wombat » Mon Mar 25, 2013 12:48 am

The Elf wrote:
Exalted Wombat wrote:
The Elf wrote:Neither do I subscribe to the assertion that headphones are a compromise.

Headphones are perfect when you want to know how your mix will sound on headphones. They're very useful for picking out detail. They won't show you how it will sound on speakers, in a room. And monitor speakers in a treated studio won't tell you what your dance track will sound like on a bass-heavy club system.
Agreed, but then is the reverse equally true? From what I see around me I believe that a great deal of music is now consumed on headphones more than at any other time in history.

So is it arguable that speakers are equally a 'compromise' for these reasons?

No reverse needed :-) I refer you to my first statement: Headphones are perfect when you want to know how your mix will sound on headphones.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Skerrick » Mon Mar 25, 2013 6:37 am

Exalted Wombat wrote:
The Elf wrote:Neither do I subscribe to the assertion that headphones are a compromise.

Headphones are perfect when you want to know how your mix will sound on headphones. They're very useful for picking out detail. They won't show you how it will sound on speakers, in a room. And monitor speakers in a treated studio won't tell you what your dance track will sound like on a bass-heavy club system.

closest thing you can get to this is the focusrite VRM box. (stands for virtual room management)
replicates the signals and sounds from top of the line and bottom end speaker brands and simulates those sounds in a variety of different rooms. best way to track and reference the mix imho.

Focusrite VRM Box: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-u_7DWP8Ng
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby The Elf » Mon Mar 25, 2013 7:40 am

Exalted Wombat wrote:Headphones are perfect when you want to know how your mix will sound on headphones.
I just think it's a myth that they don't translate - there's no 'compromise'. I make mixes on headphones that sound perfect on speakers and mixes on speakers that sound perfect on headphones.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Mon Mar 25, 2013 9:20 am

mjfe2 wrote:Anyone have any thoughts on the 702 vs 600?

The perfect headphone doesn't exist, and it's about learning the attributes of your particular headphone and how that relates to the typical presentation on speakers or earbuds or whatever your intended destination is.

Lots of people love the HD600/HD650, and they are excellent headphones, with a set of attributes that gives them a character of their own.

Equally, lots of people love the K702 and they sound slightly different and have a different set of attributes.

Personally, I prefer the AKG presentation -- it's not perfect, but it tells me what I want to hear in a way that I can understand what they're saying. Others will say the same of the Senny's... and of other brands too (the top-of-the-line Shures are getting good reports, for example)

I think headphone choice is a personal thing once you get over a certain quality threshold.

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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Mon Mar 25, 2013 9:25 am

The Elf wrote:I just think it's a myth that they don't translate

Headphones don't do anything other than present sound, but the ears hear what they present very differently to hearing the same sounds from speakers. It's the listener that does the translating and this is definitely an acquired skill that can take years to fully master... and not everyone masters it ...some don't even acquire it at all!

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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby fay spook » Mon Mar 25, 2013 11:11 am

Skerrick wrote:
closest thing you can get to this is the focusrite VRM box.

Having used one with 650s and having some NS10s in the same room at the same time......not bad but it really only gives you the feel.

How about a look at the new generation of planar headphones? Audeze or Hifiman? All children of the mighty Warfedale/Leak Orthodynamics. Or electrostatics with the relaunch of the Jecklin Floats?

Step away from your dynamic headphones
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby HKPotential » Mon Mar 25, 2013 12:46 pm

The Elf wrote:
Exalted Wombat wrote:Headphones are perfect when you want to know how your mix will sound on headphones.
I just think it's a myth that they don't translate - there's no 'compromise'. I make mixes on headphones that sound perfect on speakers and mixes on speakers that sound perfect on headphones.

Agreed. These days the quality of monitor headphones have unbelievable dynamic range and width. I always end up doing a final mix on headphones. Sure it is great to feel the kick and bass on your monitors, but from my experience I have encountered two things:

1. No matter how awesome my monitor speakers are, if I am playing out my track on a bigger venue system and I go back home to my speakers, those speakers are going to sound weak. Therefore

2. Mixing music is not about the feel, it is about your ears. I don't really need to feel the bass to mix the bass, I need to understand the bass in relativity to the rest of the mix and in relativity to the dynamic scope of my monitor headphones.

That said though, some headphones have this awful dynamic range compression that need to be avoided which is why awesome quality headphones are recommended. But the same goes with speakers.

And yes of course to bring it back into a reasonable conversation we will utilise the best of both worlds. But if I am traveling around the world with just my laptop and headphones, I assure you a high quality mix is still possible. This has been proven so many times on so many levels that it is crazy to deny it. Times have changed. Move with the flow
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby SafeandSound Mastering » Mon Mar 25, 2013 3:17 pm

The breadth of record production history has chosen the loudspeaker over the headphone and still does.

Whilst some of consumption occurs on ear buds which generally sound awful and are often used in environments where serious listening cannot possibly occur, mixing on headphones is a compromise situation to me. It can be done and I have a few clients who do decent mixes on cans. You can choose really, no rules as such but there are well reasoned trends. You can work around any reference with sufficient experience. However you still have the limitations and elements of guesswork are involved. Most wish to advance and remove limitations and approach an ideal if possible. Some want to talk themselves into and evangelize a specific approach, we have all been there.

Even a set of £300.00 near fields is a compromise to say... a great room and Meyer HD-1's for example. 'Headphones are as good as great monitors' is just another face of the demise of quality IMO. Most see headphones as the compromise they are. I do not think they are particularly good for your ears either for long hours mixing and that cannot be discounted, it's an important point.

Some items of kit can really impede mix skill progress, namely monitoring chain and acoustics.

I do not think headphones are 'natural' enough. This close to the ear thing is a step away from reality of a car, in a store, in a rave, festival, even laptop / multimedia speakers. Arguably the small radio/boom box has been replaced by the multimedia speaker. You know we had cassette Walkmans back in the late 80's early 90's and they sounded a hell of a lot better than most MP3 players these days.

All in all not much has actually changed except 'in ear' quality has been reduced by the headphones, electronics and lossy codecs. I do not think using good headphones will automatically mean great sounding mixes using ear buds.

I bought a pair of typical ear buds a while back, they were in the bin in 10mins, complete waste of time and money.

If headphones were great all the top mixers with massive combined knowledge of professional mix engineering would be mixing tracks on them. Are they? no they are not.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby HKPotential » Mon Mar 25, 2013 3:31 pm

SafeandSound Mastering wrote:The breadth of recording history has chosen the loudspeaker over the headphone and still does.

Whilst some of consumption occurs on ear buds which generally sound awful and are often used in environment where serious listening cannot possible occur mixing on headphones is a compromise situation to me. It can be done and I have a few clients who do 1/2 decent mixes on cans.

I do not think headphones are 'natural' enough. This close to the ear thing is a step away from reality of a car, in a store, in a rave, festival, even laptop/ multimedia speakers. Arguably the small radio has been replaced by the multimedia speaker. You know we had cassette Walkmans back in the late 80's early 90's and they sounded a hell of a lot better than most MP3 players these days.

All in all not much has actually changed except 'in ear' quality has been reduced by the headphones, electronics and lossy codecs. I do not think using good headphones will automatically mean great sounding mixes using ear buds.

I bought a pair of typical ear buds a while back, they were in the bin in 10mins, complete waste of time and money.

If headphones were great all the top mixers with massive combined knowledge of professional mix engineering would be mixing tracks on them. Are they? no they are not.


There is no need to worry about the 'breadth of recording history'. What you are stating are mainly opinions and aren't so very factual. The point is, it is highly possible to get a really good mix using headphones and this is dependent on the mixers ability to translate the sound through the device, not the device itself.

You believing headphones aren't 'natural' enough is again an opinion. Remember, there is a difference between dynamics and loudness. Just because you cant feel the bass on headphones does not mean you can't mix them well. Mathematically, it is a relative thing that needs to be balanced out and sculpted within the balance of the dbFS that we now all use. If your bass mixes well on your headphones, it will most possibly sound very good on your speakers because you got the balance right. Of course it is always great to check it on all systems to get it picture perfect, but the fact is that it is HIGHLY possible to get a HIGH QUALITY MIX.

Alot has changed since the back in the late 80's early 90's. Speaker systems and headphone systems have went through the roof with quality. If not much has changed, then not much would be manufactured. In ear quality may be a small change, but it makes a HUUUGE difference. We are talking about sound, we are talking about subtleties of frequencies and audio. These subtleties make a huuuge difference.

And in reality many top producers and engineers are literally in hotel rooms right now as we speak probably mixing with headphones. Even one of my teachers back in audio engineering school recommended high quality in ears for all of us to mix with.

We should not buy into this mentality of 'back in the day' and if I don't have a 'softube CL 1B compressor' I am never going to be able to make fantastic music. Because all of that has been long outproven
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby SafeandSound Mastering » Mon Mar 25, 2013 3:37 pm


You believing headphones aren't 'natural' enough is again an opinion


Last time I checked, most sound sources I hear daily are not caused by a transducer 2cms from (or in) my ear canal.

I think I will stick with the body of works created on loudspeakers and what actually works for me in practice and thats speakers. Not being able to feel the bass is the least of peoples worries when it comes to bass and monitoring.


Even one of my teachers back in audio engineering school recommended high quality in ears for all of us to mix with.


It is definitely true then.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby HKPotential » Mon Mar 25, 2013 3:43 pm

SafeandSound Mastering wrote:

You believing headphones aren't 'natural' enough is again an opinion


Last time I checked, most sound sources I hear daily are not caused by a transducer 2cms from (or in) my ear canal.


Dude, the sound source will always be variable. That is why you need to 'sculpt' the sound.

But of course by all means, there are no rules, no limitations. Whatever makes it work for you.

It is definitely true then.


Sure is. Because it has since been working wonders
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Mon Mar 25, 2013 4:51 pm

HKPotential wrote:What you are stating are mainly opinions and aren't so very factual.


The value of opinions depends on the experience and knowledge of those giving them... and there is a substantial body of both from SafeandSound Mastering. Certainly enough to bear serious consideration rather than off-hand dismissal from someone still at an early stage in their career.

The point is, it is highly possible to get a really good mix using headphones and this is dependent on the mixers ability to translate the sound ...


Yes it is -- but that ability to translate accurately is an acquired skill that can take a long time to fully master, and not everyone has the ability to make that translation because of the very different way in which the hearing systems works when subject to headphones rather than speakers. And even then, it would be a foolishly brave mix engineer who relied entirely and exclusively on headphones to assess the balance

Speaker systems and headphone systems have went through the roof with quality.


I don't think so. High quality speakers and headphones have become massively more affordable now, compared to twenty years ago, and thus higher standards have become available in the home studio market, but many of the genuinely high-end monitors (and headphones) in professional use back then are still in use -- and are still state of the art -- today. For example, I was mixing on ATC SCM100 monitors in the late 1980s when they were considered to be state of the art pro monitors... and they are still widely used as reference monitors today. The quality hasn't changed, and there isn't much that is usefully better on the market today, but the affordability has improved.

Headphones are an important destination for a lot of music -- but this has been the case since the days of the first cassette walkman machines in the 1980s. Nothing new there. And there is certainly a place for checking mixes on headphones as part of the overall mix process. However, the way a mix is heard on speakers -- the way it images and the way the bass end works -- is inherently very different to the way it sounds on headphones, and some level of acceptable compromise has to be found to satisfy both potential audiences.

Mixing on headphones enables work to be continued in situations where speakers would be inappropriate -- when travelling, for example, or late at night in student accommodation -- and also avoids the problems associated with poor room acoustics. High quality headphones can also be acquired much more cost-effectively than speakers of a similar acoustic standard. So it's hardly surprising that lecturers sugegst it, or that impoverished students prefer it...

Against that, though, there are significantly greater risks of hearing damage and ear problems of various forms, significant potential difficulties in translation and stereo imaging, and the hilariously difficult issue of sharing the listening experience with a client.

Horse for courses, really... but I would caution against relying entirely on headphones as the only point of reference -- just as I would caution against only ever listening on speakers. They do different things, provide different information, and should be used in concert as part of the professional engineer's tool kit.

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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby HKPotential » Tue Mar 26, 2013 5:59 am

Hugh Robjohns wrote:
HKPotential wrote:What you are stating are mainly opinions and aren't so very factual.


The value of opinions depends on the experience and knowledge of those giving them... and there is a substantial body of both from SafeandSound Mastering. Certainly enough to bear serious consideration rather than off-hand dismissal from someone still at an early stage in their career.


True I guess. But sometimes I feel as though experience and knowledge is overthrown by a sense of nostalgia and a lack of desire to try new forms of technology and underappreciate new mentalities that arise from new musicians and producers.

And we have seen alot of 'older' and 'experienced' engineers doubt new forms and new methods. There also comes a point in ones career where you have to finally say 'for once my good sir, I believe you are wrong'. And therefore SOME of there opinions end up becoming out-dated and void

Whether I have reached this point or not is a discovery of my own though :P

But of course, I would never JUST mix with headphones. I always to a full system check. In the car, on the tv speaker systems, my monitor systems, my friends house, the studio. But I have never felt a 'mixing' compromise as of yet when I do multiple monitoring. Because whenever I reconnect my session to a larger set of speakers I'm always like, 'WOW, I can't believe I did that with JUST headphones :O'
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Tue Mar 26, 2013 9:12 am

HKPotential wrote:But sometimes I feel as though experience and knowledge is overthrown by a sense of nostalgia and a lack of desire to try new forms of technology and underappreciate new mentalities that arise from new musicians and producers.

There have always been luddites, and humans are naturally resistant to change. However, the inexperienced do also have a very strong tendency to embrace new ideas without thought or the benefit of experience -- often making elementary mistakes that the wiser and more experienced recognise at a very early stage. It can be rather frustrating for the experienced to watch new entrants to the industry with no knowledge or respect of history repeating previous mistakes! In my experience, most genuine professionals have a strong desire to embrace new forms of technology, and are interested in new approaches. I would urge you not to be so quick to dismiss them, and especially not to think you have all the answers already...

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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby trevorscott33 » Tue Mar 26, 2013 11:16 am

Folderol wrote:I would add that if you keep chopping and changing you'll never be able to make the subconscious corrections you acquire from long exposure to the defects all monitors/phones have.
I'm gonna add my 10 cents for what it's worth

A few years ago (10?) when i was getting my first home studio together i asked a friend (who was and still is a working studio engineer) his advice on monitoring.
His advice was all speakers and headphones will 'colour' the sound to a certain extent and what ever you choose you need to learn what they do to the sound and from there you can make mixes that will work on all systems. To do this you need to play your mix on many different systems (your car, hifi, ghettoblaster etc. and your friends cars, hifis, (studio!) etc.).
I don't know how right or wrong he was (my stuff never went further than friends!, but he has had alot of success then and now (one of his new bands were in the charts most of last year).
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby crx091081gb » Tue Mar 26, 2013 2:29 pm

I have an ageing pair of DT100s that are the most unflattering things to mix on I've ever heard. If I can make something sound passable on them then I'm normally on the right track. They completely fail to represent the low end though to be fair I don't expect them to.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby SafeandSound Mastering » Thu Mar 28, 2013 10:39 am

Just thought I would add something practical to this. I have a track where I am just going back to the client as there is a highly tuned percussion instrument (probably a bongo) that is out of phase between L/R channels. I am not convinced headphones are good for hearing overly wide - L/R channel out of phase elements. On speakers despite being fairly buried in the mix it was instant 'Whats that?'

In cans I would probably let it pass, on speakers the sound is coming from slightly behind my head.

In mono it vanishes completely from the mix.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Thu Mar 28, 2013 11:22 am

Very good point! Phase issues are notoriously hard to detect on headphones.

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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby The Elf » Thu Mar 28, 2013 2:37 pm

Just because you have to do diagnostic work in both speakers and headphones doesn't make headphones a bad way to build a mix.

Some of us who mix predominantly on headphones would have sorted these basic issues out by checking in speakers *and* phones before beginning the mix process.
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Re: Why are different headphones recommended for different types of music?

Postby SafeandSound Mastering » Thu Mar 28, 2013 3:04 pm

One mans diagnostics is another mans mixing. Everyone makes mistakes, relying solely on headphones means you are more likely to make such errors. This came from a mixing studio, we are not robots, in time pressured environments mistakes happen. I absolutely agree this is a fundamental issue, engineering basics. No one knows it all and no one never c*cks up. On solely headphones it would be missed, end of story.

If you are checking things on monitors then it suggests you cannot solely rely on headphones. I can solely rely on speakers for tonal/balance issues (and phase), I cannot say the same of headphones personally.

For people starting out I would say it is easier to miss certain things on headphones compared with speakers. Conversely the same is true of certain sonic aspects, clicks, glitches etc. Arguably you can reference mixed/mastered material on speakers to get ball park bass response even in less than perfect acoustics. With headphones certain pitfalls are not as easily countered.

Ultimately you make your own choices. The road less traveled (and if that works, wonderful) or that 10s of thousands of professional engineers have used in years gone by.

I think we can repeat our points of view ad infinitum so these are my final thoughts on this matter. Rather than a right or wrong, black or white situation hopefully this is all informative and allows people to make their own choices in a well reasoned manner.

By the looks of things it's a win for both speaker and headphone manufacturers.
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