Studio Headphones

Leading Models Compared

Published in SOS January 2010
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Reviews : Accessory

Whether recording or mixing, which set of headphones will work for you? We compare a selection of the best models.

Every week, someone on the SOS forums starts a thread asking "which headphones are the best for recording and mixing?” but the answer isn't simple. There are two broad design categories, open‑back and closed‑back, and each has advantages and disadvantages. When tracking, for example, closed‑back phones are the only viable option, because of the need to prevent monitoring spill reaching the mics, and external noise affecting the perceived monitor signal.

Years ago, closed-back phones tended to sound coloured ('boxy') and pretty dreadful, but were fine for cue feeds and checking that a recording was being made. Mixing was performed with open‑back cans, which still tend to sound far more open and natural, especially at the high end. The technology of closed‑back phones has moved on, though, and many are now quite usable for mixing if necessary, although our preference is still for open‑backed designs where feasible. Before we consider each model in detail, then, think about what you need from your cans, and what compromises you'll find acceptable.

The Tests

We invited manufacturers to send models they thought suitable for mixing, mastering or location recording and received a selection of closed‑back and open‑back designs. We also added models we already owned to that list. Specifications are all well and good, but the acid test of any monitoring system is how easy it is to use, and how good the results, so what follows are our impressions of each model, taking the manufacturers in alphabetical order.

AKG

  • AKG K702K702: Semi-open, 62Ω, £391$449.

These large, bulky phones don't fold, and as they're open‑backed there's very poor isolation of external sounds. They're very comfortable when I'm sitting upright, but feel loose and tend to slip when I bend forward or look down. The bass is slightly lean‑sounding, but deep and well defined, and there's a lovely, open, airy top end, and plenty of mid-range detail. Dynamics are portrayed very naturally. They're accurate enough for reliable mixing, but the lack of physical stability puts me off. Hugh Robjohns

These have a more transparent and open sound than AKG's closed‑back designs, but perhaps at the expense of true deep bass. They're very comfortable and OK for mixing once you get used to them: the subjective sound is quite similar to that of my studio speakers, but perhaps a hint more 'toppy'. Paul White

The earpads are much more comfortable than those of AKG's K240, but these phones still feel bulky. Isolation and spill is naturally compromised, but you get a very open sound, albeit tilted spectrally towards the upper registers (such that I preferred listening at lower levels). The sound is extremely fast and revealing, translating both EQ and fader‑level decisions with commendable solidity. The bass is impressive, despite its understatement, and as extended as that of the HD650s, but somehow more precise and tuneful. I liked the K702s a great deal, and while their overall tonality felt a bit toppy for heavily processed commercial styles, this may be beneficial with more natural‑sounding acoustic music, where it will focus attention on subtle high‑frequency details. The K702s are a powerful and discriminating mix tool, and for my money outgun any active monitor of a similar price for mixing purposes. Mike Senior

These light‑weight phones are remarkably comfortable, but a little loose on my head. The sound quality is very open: brighter than HD650s and a little lighter on the bass, but with a similar feel. They exhibit a sparkle at the top end that flatters acoustic performances, and would be great if you prefer a brighter monitoring tone. I didn't detect quite the same detail in busier mixes as with the Sennheiser HD650s, but I'd happily mix with them. Jules Harding

  • K240: Semi‑open, 55Ω, £138$199.

AKG's circular earpads caught the edges of my ears, making them feel cramped after only 15 minutes. Isolation didn't seem as good as with the Audio‑Technica ATH M50 or the Sony MDR7509 (presumably due to the semi‑open‑back design), but spill levels were low, and I'd be happy using these for overdubbing, as long as no loud click‑tracks were involved. The tone is evenly balanced, though slightly brittle and with a hint of boxiness at around 1kHz, but not enough to cause serious problems. There's almost as much internal mix detail as with the MDR7509s, yet balances seem more representative and stable, and there's an impressive sense of speed to higher‑frequency transients without things becoming fatiguing. Bass representation is a strong point, with good, clean extension, gentle low‑end roll‑off, and no serious low mid-range flattery to confuse mix decisions. EQ judgements may not be as transportable as with some more expensive cans, but the K240 MkIIs punch above their weight for fundamental mix‑balance judgements. Mike Senior

I found these phones pretty friendly for mixing, with a smooth, open sound, and not too much hype in any particular area. Paul White

Audio-Technica

  • ATH M35: Closed‑back, 65Ω, £57.74$139.

I found these foldable phones quite flimsy and uncomfortable. They're slightly more sensitive (+1.5dB) than the AKG K702s (which I've used as the loudness reference for the other models). Isolation is below average for a closed‑backed design. This is the least expensive and competent model here, and personally I'd rather pay a little more for something that works better for tracking or mixing applications. Hugh Robjohns

These phones are reasonably light and fairly comfortable. The sound is slightly thin and congested, but tight, with a solid if somewhat underplayed bass. There's the inevitable hint of mid‑range congestion that comes with low‑cost enclosed phones. They'd be good affordable tracking headphones, and perhaps OK for late‑night mixing if you got used to them. Paul White

These offer a secure fit, although the earcups are fairly small and a bit uncomfortable after prolonged use. The sound is smooth and flattering, with capacious low end, but low‑frequency transients seem slow off the mark and slightly smeared in time, influencing my ability to judge balance between bass and kick. A similarly sedate high-end made upper percussion parts and sibilance recede into the balance, and stereo imaging felt a bit veiled. I wouldn't recommend these phones for mixing, but I liked their warm sound for overdubbing (isolation and spill were above par) as long as I didn't drive them to ear‑bleeding levels. Mike Senior

BEST LOW-BUDGET TRACKING

The ATH M40s are comfortable and reasonably lightweight, and the earpieces can be rotated. They offer moderate isolation and the same sensitivity as K702s. At moderate levels, the dynamics start to sound slightly squashed, but there's a nice, open top‑end and a slightly lean but extended bass. I wouldn't recommend these for mixing, but they're fine for tracking and auditioning. Hugh Robjohns

Although enclosed, these have a small external bass port, allowing some leakage. They're smoother sounding than the M35s, with a good tonal balance, and are light and comfortable. Slightly unrefined at the high end, and with a slightly congested sound, they're still good for the price and I'd be happy to use them for tracking. Paul White

I found the DJ‑friendly swivelling earcups fiddly, the fit didn't feel particularly secure, and the on‑ear design was hard on my lugs... and I wasn't fond of the sound either! Despite a good impression of low‑end extension, the rest of the spectrum felt pretty muffled, with a mid‑range honk. Given the overall tone, laid-back delivery of transients, decent isolation, and low spill‑levels, these are much better suited to overdubbing, where they put in a respectable performance for the price. Mike Senior

  • Audio-Technica ATH M50ATH M50: Closed‑back, 38Ω, £128.99$199.

These very comfortable and stable phones fold for convenient storage. More sensitive than either of the other A-T designs, the ATH M50s also offer fairly good isolation. The sound spectrum is well balanced, with good bass definition and an airy, open top end and accurate dynamics, even at high listening levels. These are OK for mixing, with good resolution, and good for tracking. Mixes seem to transfer well to monitors. Hugh Robjohns

Similar to the M35s, but with more solidity to the sound and a better‑rounded mid‑range, the ATH M50 are a bit hyped at the high end, and I'd feel more confident using them for tracking than mixing. Paul White

The firm head pressure and circumaural earpads give good isolation, but leakage is surprisingly high. Space for the ears is a bit restricted, and the headband feels quite hard, making them slightly less comfortable for long sessions. I expect pleasingly full tones from Audio-Technica headphones, and wasn't disappointed, but found them a little fatiguing in the upper mid-range at higher levels. You get a tremendous sense of bass extension, but this appears to have been brought about in part by emphasising (or generating?) upper harmonics for sub‑bass sounds. This made it tricky to judge balance for bass instruments objectively or evaluate low‑end and low mid-range EQ adjustments — and I'm unsure how well experience could compensate. The mid-range and high frequencies seemed clearer, but I found it not quite as easy to differentiate individual sounds in complex or noisy mixes as with the AKG K240 MkIIs. Overall, these headphones are good enough to function as a useful secondary mix tool alongside your main monitors, and they can deliver a spectacular full‑range cue mix for overdubbing. Mike Senior

The swivel‑mount, folding design is convenient, and I find the ATH M50s comfortable, even for longish periods. The earpads and cables aren't easily replaceable. The good isolation makes them suitable for laptop editing/arranging/composition on the move. The bass is at first impressive, but on closer inspection is a little misleading. I'm happy using them to sanity‑check mixes, and getting a rough mix‑balance, but wouldn't use them as my only mix tool. The best of the Audio-Technica models, they're also rather good value. Matt Houghton

Beyerdynamic

  • DT150: Closed‑back, 250Ω, £169.12$299.

This classic closed‑back design mimics the company's 'industry‑standard' DT100. While this means easy field servicing, excellent spill stoppage and good isolation, I've always found DT100s a bit heavy and struggled to find a fit that feels secure. The DT150's combination of thick, warm tonality and softened transients is tailored for overdubbing purposes, where it significantly reduces fatigue at high listening volumes. They don't really cut it for mixing, where the lack of detail and overblown, pillow‑like bass militate against useful balance or EQ decisions, and I can't recommend the DT150s in that role, given the competition. Mike Senior

  • DT250: Closed‑back, 80Ω, £183.61$259.

The DT250s are comfortable, stable and very robust, and offer moderate isolation from external sound. Slightly less sensitive than the reference AKG K702, they're also mildly coloured and veiled through the mid-range, with limited bass extension and squashed dynamics. They're great for tracking in areas of heavy use, but not recommended for mixing because of mid-range coluration and dynamic compression. Hugh Robjohns

These are versatile phones that offer a decent tonal balance, albeit with a slightly scooped mid-range, and I liked the non‑fatiguing high end: a solid studio workhorse for tracking or routine mix checking. Paul White

I found the DT250s comfortable and secure. Quite bright, though not unworkably so, they give a fairly good representation of mix details and balance. Sam Inglis

I'd far rather use a pair of DT250s than the classic DT100s in most cases. Lighter and with a more secure fit, they provide a clearer, though still warm, tone, with better‑controlled bass — but they retain the good rejection of outside noise and control over leakage. Higher listening levels make things sibilant and fatiguing compared with the DT150s, and you lose most of the field-servicing possibilities. These are much more useful for mixing, though, because despite an initially misleading low mid-range prominence, the bass is quite well extended and clean, so you can make useful balance judgements. You lose some ground to the AKG K240 MkII in terms of laying bare mix details and dissecting layered sounds, but the DT250s represent a better all‑round choice if you need headphones both for overdubbing and mixing. Mike Senior

MID-PRICE ALL-ROUNDER

Supplied with a large, padded case, these are very comfortable and stable to wear for long periods, and offer moderate isolation of external sounds. They're the same sensitivity as the DT250s and offer a very well-balanced sound spectrum, with extended bass. The top end's not as open as some models, but isn't bad. These would be fine for tracking and good for mixing, but you'll need to become familiar with them before you stop making the high end too strong. Hugh Robjohns

The comfortable DT770s offer a solid, punchy sound, with a good balance of detail and smoothness. I use these myself for tracking and for 'second opinion' mixing. Paul White

This closed‑back design has a secure, comfortable circumaural fit, with good isolation and spill stoppage. The tone feels quite balanced, but with an upper mid-range hardness, emphasised at higher volumes, which I found slightly fatiguing — so be careful to maintain a fairly consistent monitoring level if you're going to use these as a mixing reference. The low end goes down a long way, and although not quite as tuneful as some of the open‑backed models, nevertheless presents a pretty trustworthy balance. The low bass balance varied considerably depending on the exact coupling of the earpads with the side of the head, so be aware of this when you're working. I preferred the low end of these phones over the similarly priced MDR7509s, but the latter outgun the Beyerdynamics when it comes to picking apart the upper regions of the mix — so it's tricky to say which will give you the best mix. If I had to choose, I'd go for the DT770, because it gives you a better balance, albeit at the expense of slightly less reliable overall audio‑quality judgements. Mike Senior

Fostex

  • T50RP: Closed‑back, 50Ω, £125.35$199.

Fostex T50RPThese have old‑fashioned styling and felt flimsy. They're the second-least sensitive of all the headphones in this group (‑3dB), and offer moderate isolation. I found their performance to be disappointing: they sounded most like vintage closed headphones — boxy, coloured, flat and lifeless. Horrid in every way! Hugh Robjohns

Offering a generally smooth, well‑balanced sound, and without an overly‑hyped top end, they're a little light in the deep bass, but the balance for late-night mixing isn't bad. I quite liked them, given the price, and would use them for overdubbing. They're not dissimilar to the ATH M40s. Paul White

Perfect for that Cybermen look, the head band tends to slide up the copper supports, and needed adjusting every time I put them on. They're quieter than many models, sound a bit muffled, and are not especially revealing. The ear-pad material generated a lot of rustling from small head movements, too. Not ideal for mixing. Sam Inglis

Finding a nice fit was a challenge: at best they still dragged and pressed on my ears rather uncomfortably, the overhead strap seemed insufficiently padded, and their weight never really felt securely anchored. The tone was warm, going on muffled and boxy, and detail wasn't thick on the ground. Bass extension seemed good, though, and not deliberately hyped. More of a problem was that the balance of the mid-range frequency spectrum seemed lumpy, adding an unwelcome element of guesswork to both EQ and balance decisions. In short, this isn't a pair of headphones I'd recommend for mixing purposes. On the other hand, they're much better targeted at overdubbing applications, where their no‑nonsense robustness and low spill levels are attractive attributes. In this context, the muted tonality makes a lot more sense too, because it doesn't fatigue the ear nearly as much when turned up loud, and at higher volumes your ears will give you more perceived high end anyway. Mike Senior

Sennheiser

GOOD FOR TRACKING

These headphones look small and inadequate, but are probably the best in the group! They're well built, very robust and rugged, and sit on the ear instead of around it — but they manage to provide extremely good isolation. Very comfortable to wear for short periods, they do tend to squash the pinnae after a while. The split headband helps to make them very stable, and the earpieces rotate. There's no obvious marking of left and right channels on earcups. These phones are amongst the most sensitive in the group, and the sound spectrum was very well balanced, with accurate deep bass, a clear, open mid‑range and top-end, accurate dynamics and clean, high SPLs. There's also a good sense of stereo imaging. A right‑angled jack plug helps to minimise the strain on the cable, and is an excellent idea. They're certainly not the most comfortable, but are the best choice if tracking in noisy environments or on the move. They work well for mixing, with good transferability to speakers, but aren't comfortable to wear on long mix sessions. Hugh Robjohns

These small, fully enclosed phones sit uncomfortably on top of the ear, but additional ear pads are provided to mitigate this. They sound pretty good, with a punchy bass, open mids and only a slightly forward high‑end. These are good workhorses, other than the comfort issue: probably best suited to tracking. Paul White

The small supra‑aural earcups exert a fair bit of pressure on the ears, and are a touch uncomfortable after a while. The trade‑off is that these cans are super‑solid on your head and give excellent isolation of external sounds and very low spill levels: they'd be ideal for critical overdubbing tasks. Tonally, the response is pretty clear‑sounding, with quite a lot of high‑end detail, but the bass is a bit overblown for mixing: different areas of the low‑end spectrum are difficult to resolve when trying to decide on EQ settings. Although fader levels felt slightly easier to judge further up the frequency range, and transients were nippier than on other cans aimed at overdubbing, I was unable to make reliable tonality judgements. So while these headphones easily topped my list for overdubbing, at this price I'd choose the DT250 or MDR7509 instead if I wanted an all‑round model for both mixing and overdubbing. Mike Senior

BEST BUDGET CLOSED-BACK

The HD280 Pros offer the same high sensitivity as the HD251 II (+4dB), and good isolation, helped by a firm fit around the ears. They're comfortable and give good dynamics, but the balance seems a little light at the bottom end. It would take some familiarity before you're able to produce reliable mixes, but would be OK after that. The HD280 is probably my best budget recommendation for tracking or mixing if you have to go the closed‑back route. Hugh Robjohns

These larger enclosed phones have a fairly smooth mid-range and high end, but there's also a lack of low‑end weight. Paul White

The HD280s have a very tight fit, giving good isolation, and are reasonably comfortable. The mid‑range is quite prominent, which is good for some aspects of mixing, but a bit tiring for long periods. I wouldn't choose them for listening pleasure, but they seem revealing and reasonably accurate. They were good for picking up problems with a kick/bass relationship that I hadn't spotted on other phones. Sam Inglis

The combination of light weight and a well‑judged head‑pressure gave a really secure and comfortable fit for the circumaural earcups, which deliver decent isolation and fairly low spill levels. They offer lower subjective bass levels than the other Sennheiser models and the competing AKG K240 MkII, and a slightly forward upper mid-range gave a 'shouty' feel, which I found fatiguing. Still, there's quite a bit of detail, and the sound is fast enough to resolve the intricate internal layers of busy mixes. As with the otherwise dissimilar MDR7509s, this detail made it easy to undermix lead vocals in particular, but you'd learn to compensate for this after a while. The bass reproduction seemed very good in the context of the overall tone; a bit better extended than the DT250s, and less tonally misleading than the MDR7509s, which meant that relative level and EQ judgements were pretty reliable. Overall, while the HD280 is a worthy mix tool, I preferred the tonality of the DT250 and K240 MkII and would personally go for those first. Mike Senior

  • HD600: Open‑back, 300Ω, £343.32$519.95.

Being open‑backed, these have poor isolation, so they're not much use for overdubbing, but you get a far more natural and uncoloured sound presentation than is possible with closed‑back headphones. They're very comfortable and secure, although the split lead feeding both earpieces won't appeal to all. The ear pads and lead are easily replaceable, and there's a clever 3.5/6.25mm adapter. The sound is nicely balanced, with a realistically extended low end and natural, open‑sounding highs with plenty of overall detail and mid-range clarity. Close to being as good as it gets with open‑backed headphones and certainly very usable for mixing, given some practice. Hugh Robjohns

The HD600s sit comfortably over the ears, and the listening experience comes very close to what you'd expect from the best in hi-fi speakers, other than the fact that the soundstage still sits inside your head rather than in front of you. I was impressed with the extended yet natural low end, detailed mid-range and smooth highs and I would be happy to use these headphones for mixing — though I'd still like to hear my mixes on speakers as well. Paul White

ULTIMATE QUALITY — AT A PRICE

The new HD800s aren't quite as sensitive as the other high‑end Sennheisers, but they're the pinnacle of fastidious headphone design (the result of two years of R&D effort to come up with an innovative edge‑driven transducer design), and are truly stunning in every way: they really do raise the benchmark for studio headphones. The build quality and attention to detail is fabulous, as demonstrated by the high‑quality metal connectors that attach the removable cable to the earpieces — but so too is the sound quality. Offering astonishingly low distortion and almost the same maximum sound pressure level as the HD650s, the HD800s build subtly, but noticeably on the resolution and bandwidth of the HD650s. We really are into the realm of diminishing returns, though, and only the seriously fanatical will feel comfortable justifying the considerable additional cost. The HD800 is undoubtedly more accurate and better built than the HD650, but not three times better than something that is probably already 95 percent of the way to perfection anyway. Although the heaviest headphones here, they don't feel it, thanks largely to the huge ear cups: you don't wear these headphones so much as sit inside them! They're very comfortable for extended listening periods, and you will want to enjoy extended listening periods! I'm looking forward to this stunningly good transducer technology trickling back down into more affordable models in the months and years to come. Hugh Robjohns

Everything in the HD800s has been tweaked to perfection, from the extremely low-distortion transducers right down to the cable, but any sonic improvement over the HD650s is relatively small, as the latter already approach what's possible, and the HD800s cost considerably more. They sound gloriously smooth and natural and might sound even better with Sennheiser's recommended headphone amplifier, but in the interests of fairness, I used the same Aphex Headpod amp that I used to drive the other phones on test. Paul White

Shure

  • Shure SRH840.Shure SRH840: Closed‑back, 44Ω, £212.99$250.

The SRH840s are comfortable and provide pretty good isolation from external noise. They have quite a 'shouty' voicing, with a prominent high mid‑range and quite subdued bass. Transients come through nicely, though, and once you get used to them, it's perfectly possible to judge bass levels, although their brightness makes them a little fatiguing for long sessions. Sam Inglis

These are comfortable, although perhaps a little weighty. Isolation is good, and leakage minimal, yet they seem to reveal plenty of detail for a closed‑back design. I'd be happy doing some mixing with these, but wouldn't like to rely on them alone — and I'd have reservations about using them for long sessions, as I personally found the high end a tad fatiguing. They'd make decent tracking cans too, with the same caveat about the brightness. Matt Houghton

The folding, collapsible design of the SRH840s is similar to the MDR7509 HDs, while the single-sided cable connection includes a neat twist-lock connector. They give good isolation and are fairly sensitive, at +2dB relative to the AKG K702s. Although comfortable, they're one of the heaviest in the group. They offer a very similar sonic performance to the MDR7509s, although with a slightly richer bottom end. Dynamics and mid-range clarity are good. Hugh Robjohns

Ultrasone

  • Pro900: Closed‑back, 40Ω, £371.45$599.

Ultrasone Pro 900.The Pro900s offer moderate isolation and are more sensitive than most (+3dB). The fit is firm and comfortable. You get very good dynamics, resolution and a strong bass end. There's a hi‑fi flavour, emphasising the bass and high end, which tends to be flattering rather than revealing. The Pro900 is expensive and impressive sounding, but not the most accurate to mix with. Hugh Robjohns

These sound initially impressive, but have a hyped high end and a somewhat scooped mid, which makes me suspect they're voiced for the consumer market, rather than for accuracy. I was expecting more, and couldn't justify the expense for studio tracking or mixing. Paul White

A fairly lightweight headset with good head pressure gave a secure fit, although spill levels weren't as low as from some closed‑back designs. Tonality was anything but neutral, with a bloated low end and lots of extreme high-frequency, and I found this almost impossible to adjust to (more like listening to a car stereo than to a monitoring system!). Despite the fatiguing tonal crispness, the high end came across as messy and lacking in resolution from a mixing perspective. Overall tonality differences between different mixes were obscured, and spoken voices sounded coloured, so I'd have little confidence in my EQ decisions. Communication of relative balance seemed compromised too, especially when focusing on bass, kick, vocal, and treble percussion levels. Despite the D900's price being on a par with top‑of‑the‑line open‑backed models, I reckon you'll get more mixing horsepower from the significantly less expensive Beyer DT250 or AKG K240 MkII. I preferred Sennheiser's more affordable HD251 II for overdubbing, given its smoother high end and better isolation/spill performance. Mike Senior

I found the 'smile curve' frequency response of the D900 Pros tiring and problematic for mixing, while the foam ear-pads had a tendency to fall off. Isolation is fairly good, though. Sam Inglis

Conclusions?

In general, it seems that you still get what you pay for with headphones, because quality improved noticeably with cost in most cases. The Sennheiser HD800s were by far the most expensive on test, and probably the best — although not all of us had the opportunity to audition them, as they were only just becoming available as we wrote this article. The two notable exceptions to the rule were the Beyerdynamic DT250, which demonstrated a relatively poor cost‑quality ratio (although they're very robust), and the Fostex T50RP, which most — though it has to be said not all — of us found disappointing.

It seems we weren't all able to agree on the best all‑round headphones, or, for that matter, the best ones for mixing or tracking, which just goes to show how personal preferences, or the musical styles in which you work will affect your choice. However, quality does seem to shine through, because the same suspects did crop up again and again. The now long‑established Sennheiser HD650, and the Beyerdynamic DT880s seemed to get the most plaudits as mixing phones, with the AKG K702s and other Sennheiser and Beyer models coming close behind — all of which are open‑backed or semi-open-backed models. For recording on location or working in noisy environments the Sennheiser HD251 II seemed popular, for their combination of excellent performance, build quality and exclusion of external sound. For closed‑back designs, the Sony MDR 7509HDs seem to come out on top, with qualified plaudits also for the Audio-Technica ATH M50s..

Further Reading

However good your headphones, mixing on them offers a very different experience from mixing on speakers, and Martin Walker explored these issues back in SOS January 2007 (/sos/jan07/articles/mixingheadphones.htm). We've since reviewed some relevant products, including the SPL Phonitor (December 2008), the VRM technology in Focusrite's Saffire Pro 24 DSP (November 2009), and high‑end headphone amps like the DACS Headmaster (same edition), in which we discuss some of these issues further. As with any monitoring system, you need to be familiar with the sound of your headphones to make accurate judgments, so it may also be worth reading Mike Senior's article (/sos/sep08/articles/referencecd.htm) about assembling useful reference material.

Contact Details

AKG: Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000.

sales@soundtech.co.uk

www.soundtech.co.uk

www.akg.com

Audio-Technica: Audio‑Technica +44 (0)113 277 1441.

sales@audio‑technica.co.uk

www.audio-technica.co.uk

Beyerdynamic: Polar Audio +44 (01444)258 258.

sales@polaraudio.co.uk

www.polaraudio.co.uk

www.beyerdynamic.com

Fostex: SCV London +44 (0)20 8418 1470.

sales@scvlondon.co.uk

www.scvlondon.co.uk

www.fostex.com

Sennheiser: Sennheiser UK +44(0)1494 551 551.

sales@senheiser.co.uk

www.sennheiser.co.uk

www.sennheiser.com

Shure: Shure UK 01992 703 058.

sales@shure.co.uk

www.shure.co.uk

www.shure.com

Sony: Source Distribution +44(0)20 8962 5080.

sales@sourcedistribution.co.uk

www.sourcedistribution.co.uk

www.sony.co.uk

Ultrasone: Audio Limited +44 (0)1494 511 711.

info@audioltd.com

www.ultrasoneuk.com

www.ultrasone.com

AKG: AKG Acoustics US +1 818 920 3212.

akgusa@harman.com

www.akg.com/us

Audio-Technica: Audio‑Technica US

+1 330 686 2600.

sales@atus.com

www.audio-technica.com

Beyerdynamic: Beyerdynamic USA

+1 800 293 4463.

info@beyerdynamic.com

www.beyerdynamic_usa.com

Fostex: American Music & Sound

+1 800 994 4984.

info@americanmusicandsound.com

www.americanmusicandsound.com

www.fostex.com

Sennheiser: Sennheiser +1 860 434 9190.

info@senheiser.com

www.sennheiserusa.com

www.sennheiser.com

Shure: Shure +1 800 257 4873.

info@shure.com

www.shure.com

Sony: Sony Pro +1 866 766 9272.

email via web site.

pro.sony.com

Ultrasone: Ultrasone +1 951 678 9091.

infoteam@ultrasone.com

www.ultrasone.com

One of The Best: Beyerdynamic DT880 Pro

  • Semi‑open, 250Ω, £270.58$379.

The Beyerdynamic DT880 proved popular.Although only semi‑open, these exclude a reasonable amount of ambient sound. I wouldn't choose them for working in a noisy environment or location recording, but they'd be fine for studio mixing. Average sensitivity allows working levels to be achieved with plenty of range either way. EQ decisions made with these seem to translate well to speakers. The sound can tend towards hard when loud, but I suspect this is simply a reflection of the absence of any significant mid‑scooping. Bass is not hyped at all, making them seem almost bass‑light when A/B'ing against some others, but I find their smoothly extended LF to be a more accurate representation of what's really there. They're also exceptionally comfortable and stable on the head, when properly adjusted, which helps to make them easy to work with for extended periods. My all‑round favourite headphone for mixing. Dave Lockwood

This semi-open design apparently incorporates an innovative bass reflex loading. These phones give poor isolation, but are very comfortable to wear thanks to the circumaural velour earpieces. The least sensitive of the group, they require more drive than the others, placing greater demands on the quality and capability of the headphone amp. Performance is on a par with the Sennheiser HD600, but with a slightly fuller bottom end and more natural and accurate top end than Beyer's own DT770s. Excellent dynamics and resolution. These are Beyer's best-kept secret! Hugh Robjohns

You get firm head pressure and a nice solid fit, but you might not appreciate that after a heavy night! The circumaural earpads fitted my ears without cramping, but there may not be quite enough space for some. The open‑back design makes these less suitable for overdubbing. Tonally, you get the same kind of slightly mellow highs as on the HD650s, and while this avoids fatigue it's by no means lacking fine detail: you're made perfectly aware of early‑onset distortion or excessive sibilance, without them simultaneously chewing your ears off. The mid‑range frequency balance seems very true, with tonality differences between different mixes and spoken‑word recordings shining out, and balances feeling solid and dependable. The bass is cooler than from the HD650s, and while this might seem less 'nice' on first listen, I found it a fraction more extended, realistic and neutral, which meant that these phones presented a gentler learning curve. For me, the DT880s are the top of the tree: they're not quite as subjectively engaging as the Sennheiser HD650s on a musical level, but are the closest I've got to forgetting that I'm listening on headphones! If I didn't already own a pair of HD650s, the DT880s would be a no‑brainer purchase. Mike Senior

One Of The Best: Sennheiser HD650

  • Open‑back, 300Ω, £338.19$649.95.

Sennheiser's acclaimed HD650 — one of the leading contenders for mixing.This fully open model is beautifully open‑sounding, with a balanced spectrum and good dynamics. The bass end is subjectively bigger than the DT880s, and, to my ears at least, perhaps a little uneven, as I seem to mix slightly bass‑light on them. It's a wonderfully unfatiguing sound that I could work with for hours, and they're physically comfortable too. They're more sensitive than the DT880s. I hadn't used these before the group test, but could definitely get used to their exceptionally analytical mid-range. Dave Lockwood

With the same sensitivity as the HD600 and styled almost identically, the HD650 uses a slightly heavier and more robust cable, with the same cable connectors as the HD600 (either cable set could be used on either model, but the HD650 version seems to suffer less from handling noise). The HD650s are fitted with a fixed quarter‑inch plug, but supplied with a short 3.5mm adaptor cable. They're as comfortable and stable to wear as the HD600s, but with a fractionally more extended bottom end, lower distortion, closer matching tolerances and a usefully higher (6dB) peak SPL. The sonic difference between the two is subtle but noticeable, and for many the extra price would be justified by the technical gains, — although, relatively, you'd need to spend 10 times as much to find a pair of monitors that were as accurate or revealing as these headphones, which are as close to perfection as most people will want. It's no surprise, then, that they are my (and Martin Walker's) personal favourite open‑backed headphones. Hugh Robjohns

The head pressure initially feels firm, but you get a confidence‑inspiring fit that remains comfortable after long sessions. The frequency response seems very well balanced, and offers excellent bass extension, with only the very lowest sub‑bass feeling in any way underpowered. The overall tone is fairly mellow, so initially you may find yourself undermixing the bass and overmixing the treble. In practice, a little experience allows you to compensate, and thereafter EQ judgements translate very reliably. Bass lines come across evenly and cleanly, and the perception of bass balance is close to what I'd expect from good nearfields. These headphones are a first‑class mixing tool and I'd personally rather mix on them than on the vast majority of sub‑£500 active monitors! Given the open‑backed design, isolation is limited, and spill might cause problems when overdubbing. Mike Senior

The HD650s are outwardly similar to the HD600s and are again very comfortable. The transducers are hand selected to be matched within ±1dB. If you can swap over the phones quickly enough, the HD650s seem to produce an even smoother, more natural sound, with a wonderful depth to the low end. Paul White

The considerable leakage and lack of isolation is no surprise, given the open‑back design: these are not intended for overdubbing! The voicing is pleasant enough to make them good for personal listening pleasure — an open, airy and non‑hyped sound, that makes you surprised at the incredibly revealing levels of detail, particularly in the critical mid‑range. They allow me to check the more minute details of a mix, such as reverb tails — so much so that my only real criticism for mixing is that I occasionally lose sight of the sonic 'big picture' and waste time tweaking details most people won't notice! They're superbly comfortable over extended periods and there's not a great deal out there to touch them. Matt Houghton

The 650s offer an extremely detailed sound with clear separation and timing, dealing equally well with all kinds of material. I particularly liked the bass response, which was very smooth, extended and full, translating well onto larger systems. I'm currently living and mixing in a temporary space (with poor acoustics), where monitoring has been a problem — and in this situation, I'm more confident mixing with HD650s than on my monitors, and have found that my mixes are translating better than ever. My pick of the bunch — which I've bought since trying them out.

Jules Harding

One Of The Best: Sony MDR7509 HD

  • Closed‑back, 24Ω, £253$265.

Sony MDR7509HD: closed-back contender.These are my current preferred closed‑back headphones. Equally as sensitive as the Sennheiser models (at +4dB), they're also very comfortable and stable to wear for long periods. You get very good isolation and a well‑balanced spectrum that's nicely extended at both ends, with accurate dynamics and a good sense of stereo imaging. It's possible to mix quite satisfactorily on these headphones, although I tend to use open‑backed cans in preference when possible. Hugh Robjohns

I've used the MDR7509s [the previous model to the MDR7509 HD] for a long time, both for listening and for mixing. They're comfortable and not at all over‑bright, so you can listen for a long time without getting tired. Isolation is not great, and the low impedance means that they can be bass‑light with some headphone outputs, but I don't find them intrinsically lacking in low bass. However, it can be hard to pinpoint the right levels for lead and bass instruments. Sam Inglis

The large earcups are comfortable for long sessions, although your ears may get a bit sweaty in hot weather. The head pressure is comparatively light, and although the fit doesn't feel precarious, isolation isn't particularly good. Spill levels are pretty low, probably on account of the large circumaural earpads. The tone is a bit shy at the very low end, while the low mid‑range feels emphasised, misrepresenting some bass‑instrument balances, but the bass reproduction itself is clean enough that you can learn to compensate for this. The real strong point for me is the excellent audibility of internal mix details, although if you're not careful this can encourage you to mix both the most up-front sounds (like lead vocals) and the most background sounds (such as reverbs) a little low, and to compress less than you need. These headphones can get me 95 percent of the way to a finished mix now that I know them, but without other monitors to cross‑reference against, the remaining five percent can be elusive, the main difficulties being deciding on precise fader levels (especially for bass instruments and reverb/delay returns) and the overall tone of the mix. Mike Senior


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