Friday, January 31, 2014

Recommended headphones for audio pros

Beyerdynamic Tesla DT 1350
It's hard to imagine I haven't written about headphones before now, but apparently it is one of my many interests that hasn't made it to the blog. It's time to rectify that omission. First I'll discuss the applications for which different headphone designs are suited, and will then make recommendations, drawn not only from my own listening experience, but industry knowledge in the main. My results accord with those of other experts, so if you are already knowledgeable on this subject don't expect many surprises. Headphone choice may be a personal matter, but it's still far easier than discussing studio monitors, microphones, or a host of other topics.

My focus here is on headphones for audio professionals [1];, and without getting too bound up in what that might mean, let me simply say that the goal is affordable quality without much compromise. We want to hear the actual sound, rather than some filtered, sugar-coated, bass-emphasised version of the audio truth. So you won't find any Beats or other rubbish [2] in my list. Neither will you find those mega-expensive audiophile models that require special amplification, cable modifications, etc. This is mostly snake oil [3]. There is simply no reason to pay sky-high amounts to get excellent sound. And the minute differences in frequency response and rendering that differentiate a €500 pair of headphones from a €2000 pair are generally swamped by other listening factors.

We all pick our price bracket, but nothing I recommend here costs over €300. If you have more money, buy more than one set, so you can tailor your cans to the job at hand.

And if these prices still seem too high, remember that a good set of headphones might well last your lifetime, needing only a change of ear-pads along the way. They are not going to go out of fashion or be replaced with a model sporting a newer operating system. Headphones are a solid investment in quality listening.

Headphone applications
Grado SR225
Back when I was being trained in the ancient and revered art of audio engineering, headphones were considered a necessary evil. Studio headphones were useful for musicians on the floor, especially during overdubbing, since the player could be fed a special headphone mix that would aid their performance, in the context of the developing mix. Fidelity was not the objective in this application; instead it was important to isolate the musician from other sounds. Studio headphones were those that could take the abuse of being hurtled to the floor, pulled out of sockets, and sat on by burly drummers. It also helped if they were comfortable for long periods, both physically and in terms of the sound they presented to the (often half deaf) listener.

The second application was in the control room, where headphones were used for close listening, in order to find flaws, whether this be static from a faulty instrument cable, distortion in the line, or unfortunate bleed from sources you didn't want to record. For this sort of surgical listening, very precise headphones that were revealing of flaws were just the ticket.

Back in the eighties we would never think of mixing on headphones, and this remained the doctrine for many years. My view today is almost diametrically opposite, for several reasons. First, it is no doubt true that full-range speakers in a nice control room provide the full-body sound and stereo sound-stage that many enjoy. It's a listening experience closest to attending an (amplified) concert. However, mixing in the studio with a degree of fidelity requires a) speakers that can reach down below 20 Hz, b) extreme accuracy, especially in the crossovers, c) time-aligned drivers, and d) a room without overt acoustical flaws. Back when studios were purpose-built and cost a fortune, these goals were attainable. But today most recordings are made in project studios, AKA the living room. Almost no-one is spending 30K on speakers and another 30K on room treatment and sound-proofing. Mixing in such a compromised environment is difficult, if not outright impossible. And the results show it!

Another problem is that tastes in music have changed to favour a much broader stereo spectrum. IDM has sharp shards of sound and frequencies down to the theoretical minimum. When rock and pop were the mainstream content, and people did a lot of music listening in their cars, mid-range fidelity was often enough to get by with.

A pair of decent headphones gains you several advantages. Bass reproduction is a lot easier to attain than through speakers. The mix is free of effects from the room modes. You are isolated from outside noises.

The longer you listen the more you know the sound on a given system. You learn to mix so that the result of your efforts will sound good on the systems the typical listener has. If you carry around the same cans, you can get exactly the same listening environment no matter where you go [4]. That's a handy benefit if you happen to work in different locations.

Finally, there have been dramatic changes in how music is consumed. Almost everybody listens on headphones, so doesn't it make sense to mix on them? In fact, I am stunned and amazed that binaural mixes are not more popular, indeed the norm. (But that is a different article.)

So, yes, headphones have a strong place in music-making today. Not that you should forego speakers entirely!

Besides the studio and the control room, there are two other listening applications I will consider.

The first is location recording, whether for television, film, or pure field recording. This category leads us to consider headphones that are also appropriate to "surgical listening", since on location the primary task is to avoid problems in the sound, not so much to worry about the overall aesthetics. Location cans can double as control room cans quite handily.

Finally, there is listening for pleasure. In practice this encompasses everything from crappy Mac ear-buds, more liable to burn out your stereocilia than bring listening pleasure, to hip Beats type branded nonsense, to sport phones that stayed glued to the ears even while jogging... and all the way to audiophile devices costing thousands. This category is outside the scope of this article, but I'll mention a couple of models for comparison purposes.

Types of headphones
Two main distinctions can be made between different headphones, based on their construction. The first is between circumaural, supra-aural, and in-ear phones.

Circumaural headphones are large enough that the cup can totally surround the ear. Since there is no pressure on the pinna (the big fleshy outer ear) they are generally more comfortable.

Supra-aural headphones sit right on the ear. They can provide more isolation, but at the cost of pressure on the ear, which can cause discomfort. However, these phones can be lighter in weight and smaller in size than circumaural headphones, so they are usually more portable.

In-ear monitors (IEM or canal phones) sit right in the ear canal. I would not recommend these, based on the potential for hearing damage, and the rather "small" sound they produce. One useful application is for stage (live) sound. In that case I very much recommend you get a mould made at an audiologist, and buy a custom fit that will ensure good coupling between your own very individual ear canal and the IEM. This certainly helps the sound fidelity.

The second distinction is between open and closed headphones.

Open headphones have grills that allow sound to exit unimpeded. This permits a more "natural" and detailed sound, since the waves are not blocked and reflected back into the ear. But the obvious corollary is that people near you will be able to hear your tunes.

Closed headphones have a solid back to the cups, which reduces leakage and generally enhances the bass. These tend to have a more "muffled" sound.

There are also "semi-open" and other hybrid configurations. Headphone designs are nothing if not plentiful and rather confusing!

And what about noise reduction headphones? Forget them for any serious application, since they almost never sound as good as cheaper headphones, and might well introduce spurious noises of their own. I am sure there are exceptions to this, but have never had the need to find out. Closed 'phones shut out noise good enough for me.

You may be wondering about ratings and charts, frequency response curves and all that technical stuff. I think it is quite reasonable to forget the measurements and pay more attention to how the headphones actually sound. The one spec sheet number I would highlight is the impedance, given in ohms. The lower this value, the less power the transducer needs to produce the same output. In other words, the fewer ohm, the more efficient the headphone. This translates not only into volume but also cleaner sound. Cans with high impedance might well need specialist headphone amps to perform to par. They are a poor choice when using portable audio devices or any gear running off batteries. And also a bad idea if you are travelling with your headphones to unknown studios with unknown sources.

Recommended headphones: on location
Sennheiser HD25-1 II
Given that I am only writing about professional audio applications, I can now make some rather conservative recommendations to suit various budgets. By conservative I mean that, while some readers may have other personal favourites, few are likely to disagree that these are top contenders. (Famous last words!)

I will start by recommending two models for location recording and surgical listening, applications where you need to block outside sound and listen closely and critically. This could well include DJ gigs. Additionally, so long as you prefer sound that is untamed, accurate, and revealing of flaws, these models are perfect for pleasure listening on the go [5]. I am perfectly happy with these headphones on the bus or plane... especially when the coach driver is playing Garth Brooks.

The standard for many years was the Beyerdynamic DT 48 family, first designed in 1937 and still on the market (after several updates). The industry currently votes with its invoices for the Sennheiser HD25-1 II, a supra-aural closed design that is light and compact, but which really clamps the head. I find mine rather too painful to wear for any length of time, but it might be OK if you do not wear glasses. The 70 ohm impedance permits good volume from portable sources. I like the convenience of the right-angled plug and detachable cable. But, oh, the pain!

I prefer the sound of the Beyerdynamic Tesla DT 1350, also supra-aural and closed. This lacks the handy right-angle connector, and does not having replaceable cabling. But both ear-pads fold flat for travel, or when hanging around your neck, which is a boon. I find it that bit more comfortable than the Sennheiser, though it still wouldn't win any awards on this score. Where it does bring home the gold is in the sound quality, which is a tad clearer and tighter than the HD25. Though unless you compared both side by side you might not know the difference.

Recommended headphones: in the studio
AKG K271 MK II
When recording you need robust, comfortable (hence circumaural) cans that don't leak sound (hence closed). Ultimate sound quality may not be the main goal, but you certainly don't want any distortions. Austrian AKG has long been a studio favourite, and they have models to suit even moderate budgets. I recommend the AKG K271 MK II, which are easy to drive (55 ohm) and adjust to fit every head. They come with two types of cabling and two types of ear-pads, at least my Austrian-made version did [6]. They also have a great feature that seems to be unique to this model: when removed from the head, the sound turns off automatically. No leakage!

If you want to save 20 quid the AKG K240 MK II are similar, though I noticed a reduction in sonic accuracy stepping down to this model. Plus they don't have the neat turny-offy switch. I recommend you skip buying the next round at the pub and instead purchase the better set.

There were other models from other brands that I might once have recommended, but they are now discontinued. So that's it!

Recommended headphones: for mixing
For the control room (AKA your bedroom) the choices are diverse, encompassing 'phones made for both home and studio purposes. You'll want something that is accurate and clear, so generally an open (or semi-open) set is recommended. Circumaural design is best so you are not fatigued over a long session. Efficiency might not be so important, since you will generally have a decent amp on hand. But it never hurts.

Though there are many choices, one pops to the top for me. The AKG K702 sounds great without flattering the sound, something you certainly do not want when monitoring. It has a fast response and very clean presentation that is best described as "airy", but without sacrificing too much bass. (Some say it does... I think they are simply used to makes that provide too much bass emphasis.) At only 62 ohm it's efficient. So it's a winner all around. (I don't currently own this set, so no photo.)

Now, here's the odd thing. You can buy the same headphone in white as the AKG K701. Besides colour the only difference is that the cord is not detachable. Or it can be yours in a Quincy Jones model AKG Q701, arriving in black, silver, or gross-out green. It has the same basic design and drivers, but different earpads. Naturally, debate rages over the internet as to which model is superior. My pragmatic view is that the cheapest model is superior. But since the prices vary widely depending on where you live, you'll want to shop around.

The Sennheiser HD 600 is worth mentioning, since it is also detailed and transparent and gets top reviews. Others praise it highly; personally I didn't like it so much for mixing, but it's been a long time since I heard a set. Oh, and the impedance is a significant 300 ohms. I won't recommend it here, since it is more expensive the contenders in this article.

And others to mention in passing
Most audiophile headphones either soft-soap the sound or cost far too much to justify their presence in my room. One exception is the Grado line, which are quite accurate for headphones in their particular market. They also have the best styling of any of the headphones I own -- very retro! I once had the chance to audition the entire Grado line and settled on the Grado SR 225. At the time I could have spent a bit more, but I actually preferred the sound to the Grado SR 325. The current model is the Grado SR 225i, where the "i" stands for "improved". I would hold off on recommending these for audio professionals, since they do emphasise the mids and highs, though in a particular pleasing way. Consider them if you want a nice pair of headphones for pleasure.

Sennheiser PX100
And sometimes you just need something dead cheap. The best of the thousands of rubbish headphones are the Sennheiser PX100-II. But do not be confused by all the other similar model numbers -- even a reputable firm like Sennheiser makes junk in this price range. I've bought several sets in order to wean young folk off crappy ear-buds. Pictured is the previous model, which only lacks the "-II". I like how they fold for easy storage. Though they may seem fragile, they outlast Koss and other brands [7].

Listening to music
Years of listening have made me quite familiar with the headphones I own. Nonetheless, I decided to do some informal comparisons, just to clarify in my mind the differences between models. After all, I don't make it a policy to switch rapidly between headphones day-to-day. In fact, growing to learn and enjoy one specific set is an important part of doing good audio work.

The following is by no means a "scientific" test. Nor will I spout off lots of rhetoric in the manner of an audio magazine. I simply chose three different tracks and switched between four sets of headphones, adjusting the volume as indicated to get approximately equal levels. (This gives you an idea of how the impedance effects efficiency.)

Though I could have set up something better, I used the headphone output of my Audio Kontrol 1, fed from Foobar, since this is how I typically listen. Here are the selections:

1. Rush "The Spirit of Radio" (320kbps MP3), driving rock with killer bass and drums.
2. Kate Bush "And Dream of Sheep" (320kbps MP3), for lush reverb, nuanced textures, and subtle voice inflections.
3. My own "West of the Solar Spectrum" (44.1KHz 16-bit WAV), a frequency torture test!

Beyerdynamic DT 1350 at -8dB
Listening to Rush there is some EQ peak happening in the mids but this does not produce a boxy sound. Great bass and treble extension, with nice "tight" control at all times. All the little articulations in Kate Bush's voice and the various reverb tails are apparent. The shipping forecast, though buried in the mix, is quite audible. My own composition starts with crazy high-amplitude low frequencies, at 40-50Hz (and even less) panned differently in each channel. These are rendered properly. At the four minute mark a 430 Hz tone enters in one channel clearly. There is a huge amount of information in the bass and low mids at this time, even some clicks in the highs (up to 20 KHz on a spectrogram). All are audible. This model has the best stereo separation of the four.

Sennheiser HD25-1 II at -9dB
When it comes to Rush, there is not quite the same sparkle on top. The opening toms are coloured a little and don't have quite the same separation. A certain something is missing in the treble as well, msot obvious in the break with the bell tonalities. The mids are "different" but it would be hard to say which is "better". The Kate Bush is rendered very nicely, with little to distinguish this set from the Beyerdynamic. It also copes well with "Solar Spectrum", though the high end clicks are less distinct.

AKG K271 MK II at 0dB
Rush is slightly but obviously muffled throughout, but still pleasing to the ear. These cans do not find the same highs. Kate Bush sounds great -- the AKGs favour a "sophisticated" mix such as this, where everything is in its place. In "Solar Spectrum" it smooths over everything, with much of the subtle character of different frequency interactions and distortions missing from the mix. It certainly is more "pleasant" to the ear, but significantly less accurate.

Grado SR 225 at -3dB
For Rush everything is dead precise. If I listen for it, I can hear the usual slight Grado mid emphasis but it sounds very pleasant. Kate Bush is also lovely. However on my own track the Grados sound like they are going to break apart. The driver or some part of the enclosure is actually set to rattling, and there are all sorts of buzzes and higher frequencies that are not present in the source. It actually sounds pretty cool! But I fear for the poor mechanics. Conclusion: not a good choice for IDM or experimental music with full frequency extension. Does the "i" model deal with this shortcoming?

Summary and prices
I priced my picks at German internet retailer Thomann and mega NYC retailer B&H, just so readers on both sides of the Atlantic would have a baseline for comparison. The differences in relative worth are significant.

On location
Sennheiser HD25-1 II [€198 Thomann / $169 B&H]
Beyerdynamic Tesla DT 1350 [€279 Thomann / $173 B&H]
The Beyerdynamic is a no-brainer in the USA, but European listeners might wonder if the €80 premium is justified. This question can only be answered by a look at your cash flow situation.

In the studio
AKG K271 MK II [€145 Thomann / $199 B&H]
It's nice when we in Europe have something that is cheaper than the States. Go AKG!

For mixing
AKG K702 [€269 Thomann / $349 B&H]
AKG K701 [€195 Thomann / $349 B&H]
AKG Q701 [€249 Thomann / $199 B&H]
Well, isn't this bizarre. The white K701 is quite a deal in Europe, but in the USA the colourful Q701 is the choice.

For pleasure
Sennheiser PX100-II [£30 Amazon UK / $199 B&H]
Grado SR 225i [£200 Amazon UK / $199 B&H]

What if you can only afford one set? Well, if isolation and bass is more important, choose from the "on location" category. If comfort and am impressive soundstage is your thing, choose from the mixing set. If you need the least expensive pair that it also quite flexible in application, get the AKG 271.

Whatever you decide, enjoy your sounds!

Footnotes

[1] For me a "professional" is someone dedicated to a pursuit, recognised within that domain, and who has a code of ethics governing their practice. No, it's nothing to do with how much money you make.

[2] This is not to say all Beats headphones will sound bad -- though most do. But it is to say that you can do better, and at lower prices. Just say no to high street fashion headphones. And no, the label "Studio" does not mean that audio engineers actually use them!

[3] Mostly. I am not saying that the top-end Grados don't sound better than the entry-level Grados (for example). I've heard them and they do sound better. But if you're in that market you're slumming by reading this article.

[4] Well, headphone amps make a difference.

[5] But you might not wish to listen to cheap MP3 files on these cans, because you will hear just how crappy they are!

[6] Production has shifted to China for certain models. I don't know the details.

[7] Though Koss has a lifetime warranty, I got tired of sending my Porta-Pros back to be fixed. Besides, the postage mounts up.

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3 comments:

robin said...

Oh yes, about the track I reference in the listening test. You can listen to and/or purchase my album here:
http://robinparmar.bandcamp.com/album/avoidance-strategies

Cheers!

robin said...

If you REALLY can't spend €145 you can get a taste of the same level of quality with the AKG K141 Mk II at €105 from Thomann... and maybe cheaper elsewhere. The fit and accessories are the same. The K271 is very much worth the €40 difference for what you gain in sound quality. But the K141 is better than earbuds. You make the call!

robin said...

Thanks to the prompting of Jurgen Simpson regarding Sony, and the generosity of CJ, I am now listening to a set of Sony MDR 7510 [€142 Thomann / $120 B&H]. These provide a fair degree of isolation and seems to track impulses efficiently. There is absolutely no problem with the bass on my composition. Fair balance overall on Rush, with a bit of mid boxiness that one expects from closed cans. The treble could be better. This results in a sound that is a bit too "full" for mixing, IMO. Sounds very nice for music listening however! I prefer the more recessed mids on the AKG 271, but that could be because I am used to them. The Sonys are good value if you can get them significantly cheaper than the AKG set, which you can in the USA. In Europe I'd prefer the AKGs for the same price. They have the switch-off magic. Plus they look nicer!

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