Phoning It In

HEADPHONES PLAY AN IMPORTANT role in a musician’s life, whether used for monitoring audio in recording sessions, or simply listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon for the 10,000th time.
By ED Friedland ,

Sony MDR-XB700Etymotic Research mc3 earbudsHEADPHONES PLAY AN IMPORTANT role in a musician’s life, whether used for monitoring audio in recording sessions, or simply listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon for the 10,000th time. But with so many different types available, at prices ranging from $30 to $3,000, picking the best pair for the task requires a little information. Think about how you intend to use them—if you’re tracking bass with headphones, you might want them EQ’d to accentuate the low end, but if you plan on using them as an alternative for mixing, you might prefer something with flatter response. If you need maximum isolation, you might consider a pair with noisecancelling abilities. Let’s take a quick look at different types of headphones.

“Over-the-ear” headphones are typically the largest (and heaviest) style of “cans.” They are ideal for recording sessions where you have to be in the same room as the drums or guitars, or any environment with high levels of background noise. A closed-back ear cup will reject more outside noise, and create a tighter soundscape, while open-backed designs can sound more natural, but let in more external noise. Open-backed phones also let more sound escape—a factor to consider if you’re tracking near a live mic. The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro pair is a good representative of closed-back phones with relatively flat response. If you want to bump up the low end, Sony’s MDR-XB700 set has extended low-end response and cushy ear pads for comfort. The Audio-Technica ATH-AD500s are full-size open-ear phones that boast detailed highs and mids with a balanced low end.

“On-the-ear” phones are common in the consumer electronics market, so decent sound quality can be had inexpensively. But consider your purpose for the headphones—consumer-level phones tend to be voiced with hyped high-frequency response and extended lows. For chilling out with your favorite tunes, that’s fine— just don’t mix your next album with them. They have less isolation than over-theear headphones, but can be more comfortable for longer wear, and better suited to tracking when you need to hear your surroundings. This type of headphone is also available in open or closed-back versions. The Grado SR60i is an economical and highly rated choice, known for their uncolored, balanced basic tone.

Grado Prestige SR60Sennheiser HD 280 “In-your-ear” monitors are not really headphones, though they do the same thing. Chances are you already own at least one pair of “earbuds”—now consider how much listening you do through them. Is good enough for a phone call also good enough for listening to your band’s new track? The “buds” allow a fair amount of external noise in, and may be tricky to keep in your ear if you’re playing live with them, but high audio quality can be achieved. Yuin’s PK1 and PK2s are a big step up from your average buds; the PK2s are for consumer electronics, while the more expensive PK1s were designed for use with a headphone amp.

The other type of in-your-ear monitor inserts into the ear canal like an earplug. They filter out a considerable amount of ambient noise, and fit more securely, making them a common choice for live work. The key with off the shelf models is finding a pair that fit your ears properly, a potentially expensive bit of trial and error. The extra cost and time to get custom-molded earphones makes sense if you’re using them in a professional context. The Monster Turbines have a ball-shaped plug that works for many people, and have extended low range response with good midrange presence for vocals. If you prefer a more conical shape, try Etymotic Research mc3 earbuds, which also spec a flatter, more accurate tone signature.

There are plenty of choices on the market, but understanding how you will use them will help you find the right pair (or several pairs!) of phones for you.