Seattle, Washington, USA
I've been making electronic music on my PCs and Macs since 1997, always striving to further develop the crafts of synthesis, electro acoustic instrumentation, and composition. I don't perform. Doing laptop shows isn't for me. In addition to the work under my own name, I create fake MTV/Justin Timberlake style music under the name Tommy Shane. Visit my homepage at link to download my latest release, and a bunch of old ones, for free.
Soft: Logic Audio, Tassman, Reason, Sound Forge, Csound
Hard: G5 Mac, TC Reverb4000, MOTU 828, Apogee Roseta, Korg 168RC (early 90\\\'s mixing board)
Mic Stuff: Nueman KM184 pair, Soundelux Ifet7, Royer SF1 pair, Pacific Pro Audio Ribbon, SM58, Grace 201
Electronic Music review: Headphones reviews from mixer’s perspective
Written August 07 2009 , Tags: Audeze, Cans, Headphones, JH-13, LCD-2
*Updated on 1/19/11*
I get the impression that a lot of people on this site do a big chunk of their work on headphones. I certainly do. Some people think it’s impossible to do stereo placement or EQ with them. Unless you can’t stand having stuff on or in your ears or you literally get nauseated from their use, like one EMer I know, I disagree. But my main purpose for writing this is to share what I’ve learned over the years as I’ve been obsessively seeking out headphone equipment. Here are mini reviews of most of the headphones I’ve owned or listened to, listed in order of increasing quality.
Sennheiser HD600. These were the first real headphones I ever had. By that, I mean they were nicer than what one could get at Best Buy. And I did mix on them for several years. But doing so was ultimately frustrating. My mixes tracked better than they did using crappy headphones, but there were always little surprises when I’d play them on nice speakers. The last straw was when I tried using them to mix the first track, “Cooksonia”, on my album “Lycopods”. I was determined to get each little note in its own spot in the stereo field. But the HD600s couldn’t articulate placement with the precision required. Trying to EQ with them was even worse. Small tweaks just got absorbed, making them impossible to hear. To top that off, they’re too slow and sloppy sounding to resolve texture with sufficient detail. I get why some audiophiles love them, but mixing with them is like painting in dim light.
Sony SA5000. These are a huge step up from the HD600. They’re detailed, and have great stereo field imaging. With these I was finally able to get the bell sounds in “Cooksonia” sensibly EQed. They also make for a nice lesson in burn in. During the first 200 to 300 hours of use, these things are piercingly sibilant. After that, they smooth out into something very nice. You’ll never have to worry about making an overly bright mix with these though, as they are on the bright side of neutral. The biggest problem I had with these was the bass. Like the rest of the spectrum, it’s tight and accurate, but there’s not enough of it. Just listening to music with them, it sounds fine. But my mixes started to get WAY too bass heavy. At about 35 Hz, they really start to roll off. So it’s hard to do much of anything in the super sub bass region with these. Also, they come with a crappy stock cable. But if you like their sound, you can get them recabled with two XLR ends instead of the standard quarter inch male end. Supposedly, that improves their performance dramatically. For the money these are terrific headphones. And as an extra bonus, they’re probably the most comfortable I’ve ever worn.
Modded Denon D5000. The stock version of these headphones sounds bad to me. They’re as veiled as the HD600s. Their bass goes deeper than I can hear, but it’s completely out of control. I suppose people who want lots of bass at any cost to the rest of the spectrum would enjoy them. But there’s a guy on Head-Fi.org who figured out a way to mod them into something very nice. One can do the modifications in a single night. Now he has his own little business (Lawtin Audio) where he sells Denons with all sorts of modifications. In any case, after the mods, they become at least as detailed as the SA5000. They’re bass is neutrally balanced, but still goes all the way down. You can feel a 15 Hz test tone rattle your head. They do have a little bump around 7 Khz, which can get old after a while. But it keeps you aware of any sibilance. The only drawback these have is an ever present coloration they impose. I think it’s brought on by the wood resonance chambers behind the drivers. It’s a very pleasant coloration, but hardly helpful during long mixing or listening sessions. But these are great headphones that I can definitely recommend for mixing use.
AKG K1000. These have been discontinued for several years now. But they’re still relatively easy to find used. They’re arguably not even headphones, but more like two little single driver speakers that sit outside of your head, held in place by pads that rest on your temple. The detail, precision, and sense of depth these things convey take them into a league beyond any of the previously mentioned headphones. A nice effect of their design is that the perceived sound surrounds your head rather than sits inside of it. They have one serious flaw though. Bass rolls off hard below 50 Hz. So sub bass is invisible with them. It simply isn’t possible to mix bass on these. But the rest of the spectrum is clear enough to compensate. They do also run a bright, making mixes a bit dark, but not problematically so. You really need a speaker amp to power these, which can get expensive, especially considering they’ll already set you back a grand.
Sennheiser HD800. For 1400 bucks, this 2009 model from Sennheiser better be great. And they are. I found them every bit as resolving as the K1000s, but more neutral, and without the bass roll off. They give outstanding performance across the entire audible spectrum. In the two hours I spent with them, I could find no flaw. I’ve seen some people claim they have a treble spike. But I didn’t hear it. Until I got the JH-13s, these were the best headphones I’d ever heard.
Jerry Harvey Audio JH-13 Pro. These 2009 inner ear monitors might be the holy grail of headphones. Before them, even the best earbuds were limited by a nasty high frequency roll off. None of them could get much over 16 Khz, which really bugged me. They weren’t able to perform at the level of great full sized headphones. But Jerry Harvey got around this by engineering the 13s with six drivers in each ear piece, making them surprisingly flat from 10Hz to 20 Khz. To order them, you go to an audiologist and get molds made of your ears. You send the molds to JH Audio. You wait two to four weeks. They bill you $1100. And then you get them in the mail. It’s worth the trouble, as these things outperform the HD800s and K1000s in almost every meaningful way. They’re super efficient, so big and expensive amps aren’t necessary. Their small size makes them extremely portable. I take them with me to the studio, to work, and even to bed for a pre sleep listen. It seems kind of crazy to be mixing on earbuds, but their performance justifies it. I suppose the in-head soundstage can get old after a while, but that’s an issue of presentation, not performance.
Audeze LCD-2. I first listened to these new planar magnetic headphones expecting them to, at best, perform at a JH-13 level. Surprisingly, they’re a clear step up in every way but portability. I can peer deeper into a mix than with any other headphone I’ve heard. The clarity with which they separate complex passages is remarkable. And this is true across the frequency spectrum. I expect that one would have to fork out serious cash on a top end Stax system to do better than these. They’re efficient for full sized headphones too. At $950, they’re a full $450 cheaper than the less good HD800s. So they represent a new bar for value as well.
What are your thoughts on headphones people? Is there a model you love working with?
i couldnt say. All i know is my earbuds to protect my ears during gigs are not the most comfortable. They were also molded by a audiologist specially for my ear. so i dont think i would mix comfy with those
What model do you have? Also if they're not comfortable, you should send them back for fitting tweaks. Sometimes the audiologist molds just don't turn out as well as hoped.
I mix mostly on headphones, too. Since my roommate got some amazing amazing monitors I've been thinking about going the speaker route again sometime, too, but I feel like I can get inside the sound when I mix on headphones... Mixing on monitors is a totally different beast - I love the way the sound can diffuse into the room and change completely, but I tend to go back to my headphone mixes as the "real" mix, and check against monitor mixes to see how things will get colored up when sprayed back into the air.
Cool blog, thanks for the insight!
I just use Sony MDR7506's. It's interesting, because they make the sound stage completely flat, which makes the slightest pan left or right very noticable. They also seem to reveal clarity in the high frequencies(including noise) without really boosting them, so I sometimes get a sort of "preview" of the sound when it will get EQ'd. They are great for listening while I just play, and I've played for hours without any fatigue.
I'd never mix with them, though.
mixing on headphones really annoys me, but I have to 99% of the time
At the moment I just have some cheap sonys, which are actually pretty good except they have a high shelf dropoff from about 5K or so up - it's been surprisingly easy to adjust for.
The other pair of headphones I have are Technics 1200s (my old DJing cans from back when I was hardkwaaar) . . They sound nice, but the mixes end up so horrible they're unuseable.
Looking to pick up some AKGs when I can afford it.. Hopefully more open design rather than closed will be less taxing to listen to headphones all the time.
... I would never spend $1400 on headphones though!! JESUS!
I have Beyerdynamics DT 990 and some old sennheiser HD 477. I dont use them for mastering though, only monitors for mastering. Focal cms 50's, very pleased with em.
I should get those earbuds fixed indeed
I've started doing most mixing on headphones very recently. I'm realizing just how totally screwed my speaker monitoring situation is. my room is fucked. the low mids and bass are really terriible.. so until i can get it sorted, I'm mixing on my akg240s 's and i think they're really really flat.
utofbu once told me the trick is to listen really quietly on them, this is what i do now, and I think that it's possible to get pretty good results this way. you just have to listen very closely. it seems to me that nothing needs to be as upfront as you think on headphones.
and btw, i borrowed a buddy's hd600's and i also was really disappointed. the highs and lows sound really awkward and inaccurate. like they tried to give it a little smile, and in the process really fucked things up.
Hey Nick, I have a question...
I have been performing a lot lately and find that I don't feel comfortable working with monitors. It's been suggested to me to get a set of in ear monitors, so am really interested in what you have reviewed above. Just a question... when you use these, will I have to buy some other bit of gear? How does that work?
i love these comparison blogs, but if the bloggers could remember to put prices on the units (at least msrp) that would go a long way for me towards actually picking up a pair.
nothing worse than reading a reveiw and then finding out the pair you want is 400$.
i know it is a blog about quality of headphones, but price does matter too.
just my .02
great blog though.
Great points people. While headphones eliminate the problem of room reflections, they often have their own internal reflections. Closed back headphones are particularly sensitive to this. Sennheiser got around this problem with their HD800 by using ridiculously inert material to house the drivers. I don't know how they did it, but the SA5000s also sound really unafflicted by reflections. IEMs have the advantage of beaming sound strait to your eardrums, but their sound is always comparatively small.
Before I dropped a shit ton of money on headphone equipment, I used a lot of gimmicks to get mixes sort of right. I know that if percussive sounds seemed right on my headphones, they'd by too loud and upfront on speakers. But because really high end phones are so immersive and impactful, sometimes I now find myself wanting to turn those types of sounds up after hearing them on speakers.
Fredo, as a performer, custom IEMs can be really useful. They passively block out about 26 db, sparing ears at loud shows. I think Jerry Harvey first invented them in the early nineties to save what was left of one of the Van Halen guy's hearing. They operate like any dynamic headphone though, ending in a standard mini male jack, so you can plug them strait into almost anything. To perform with them, you'd probably need some kind of remote device to keep you from being tethered. But I suppose a really long cable attached to the back of you pants would do the trick. Unfortunately, I can't be of more help as I never do serious performance. Or, were you asking about using DACs and headphone amps with them? They don't need too much power to drive, but great D to A conversion is a big plus.
I thought about posting prices for all of the models. But I figured people can Google them as well as I can. It looks like you can get the SA5000s for $340 now, which is a good price considering their performance. The Denon D5000's price always seems in flux. Right now they're expensive, no less than $430 on Amazon. Considering you have to mod them to get decent performance, that's not such a great price. $1400 seems like a lot of money for the HD800s. But before they came out this spring, the only other dynamic headphones that performed at their level were the K1000s plus a sub (which is ridiculous), or the discontinued Sony Qualia. They were $2300 new. Now you can't find them if you try. When they do sell, they're never less than $3000. Of course, there are also electrostatic headphones. They best of them, the Stax Omega 2, will run you $2000 but supposedly be dark and veiled until you get them a $5000 super amp. If I were going to spend that much money, I'd just save up a little longer and get a Lavry Gold DAC.
using the ultrasone proline 750's for the gain reduction thing they do after I started having problems with sensitivity in my inner ear. they have a nice stereo field.
not enough padding in the part that connects the two cans and sits on top of your head (too much weight for not enough padding) so they are somewhat uncomfortable to wear for long periods (which I probably shouldn't be doing anyway). I tried complaining to the manufacturer but they were no help. I've considered going down to the local bike shop on the corner and seeing if they have some handbar grip tape (or maybe a sporting goods store, the stuff you use on a tennis racket handle might work) so I can add padding to the headphones, but have not done this yet. you'd think expensive headphones would be comfortable to wear, but they overlooked this aspect. otherwise a very detailed sounding pair of headphones.
For DJing I use the sony-mdr-7506. old standards work fine. super comfortable.
at the end of the day I prefer to mix on monitors as it is less fatiguing and the results are more accurate, although I've gotten better and better at mixing in the headphones. usually only minor adjustments required.
i've been considering the SA5000s, but i tend to mix bass heavy as it is, which makes me a bit hesitant
i'm using el cheapo HD212 'Pro's at the moment, which are average at best
You'd think the auricle (/pinna) is there for other reasons than sheer aesthetics.. no headphone is going to match that. There's a lot of useful information for our brains to consider, in all that is considered to mess with the mix - reflections, modes, ambient levels, etc.
My main gripe with headphones is that they ruin my sense of dynamics. stereo is more pronounced, every little sound is in my face, and it's a result i can never trust before checking on real world speakers. I find it funny that someone would call HD-600 crap. It's a listener's headphone, there's no mention of it on Sennheiser's "professional headphones" page.
There are some industry standard models which were not even mentioned in the post above.. DT-100, HD-25, MDR-7506, ATH-M50, to name a few.
erm, I did mention my MDR-7506's. And like I said, I would never mix with them.
Signup to comment