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A Beginner's Guide to Buying Headphones

One of the most essential items for a musician, engineer or producer who is recording in a home or studio is a good set of headphones.
A Beginner's Guide to Buying Headphones

The importance of choosing the right headphones

One of the most essential items for a musician, engineer or producer who is recording in a home or studio is a good set of headphones. Listeners can use them to determine whether the recording they are working on is pleasing to the ears, technically accurate and well mixed. But prospective buyers must consider a number of issues before choosing to invest in a pair of their own.

What to look for in a pair of headphones

First and foremost, for what purpose does the buyer want headphones for? Indeed, a set purchased for a professional project could be very different to a set for casual use, both in terms of the price tag and technical specifications.

In addition, would-be buyers may need to look at the rest of their recording equipment and how a pair would fit into their overall set-up. For instance, some people may want to use them in conjunction with studio monitors, while others may want them to highlight component elements of the recording such as the bass.

Different types and price points of headphones

Perhaps the best way of deciding which pair is best for a person's needs is by looking at the price, which in general reflects the quality and performance the product offers. For example, headphones which contain a large driver should produce a better bass sound than those which do not.

This is just one of numerous technically specific requirements that could again influence a buyer's decision. Many features such as frequency range and sensitivity may only be relevant or desirable to those who are sufficiently knowledgeable about engineering professional quality recordings.

People looking at the lower end of the market may not feel the need to pay extra for features of this kind. Indeed, many commercial headphones are designed to suit music fans rather than sound engineers, which means people who use these during the recording process will receive a sound closer to what the typical listener would hear upon its completion.

By contrast, flat frequency, unsweetened headphones could be better suited for critical listening, in particular during the process of monitoring and mixing.

Open or Closed back headphones

While there are many different types of headphones currently on sale, they generally fall under two separate categories - the Open Back and the Closed Back.

On the former, such as an AKG K99 Semi Open, the back of each earpiece is open, which means sound is not isolated and can escape. While this makes them less suitable for a studio environment - in which critical listening is strongly required - they do offer an open and clear sound that can be listened to for extended periods.

The Closed Back, however, can be tiring if it used continuously for a long time, as the back of its earpieces are closed and the sound is isolated. This can be very useful for people such as DJs, as they have a solid bass response and are conducive to monitoring in a loud environment such as a nightclub. Alternatively, the isolated sound of devices such as Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro Headphones could be good for studio engineers and musicians, as they do not want the sound to leak out.

What are circumaural headphones?

Buyers of headphones may also wish to look at whether they are circumaural, which means they completely encircle the ear and prevent sound going both in and out of the cans. Supra-aural headphones, however, rest on the ear rather than around it. While products such as the Sennheiser HD-205 may be considered a more comfortable alternative to, say, the AKG K240 MKII, they do not isolate the sound as well, and the seal they form is not as good.

What practical things need to be considered when buying headphones?

But practical as well as technical features need to be considered by prospective buyers. If headphones are going to be worn for long periods of time, are they comfortable to wear? Are they appropriately sized or do they weigh too much?

Furthermore, regular headphones users will want to make sure they invest in a highly durable device, particularly if they are travelling around a lot. Some manufacturers have made sure that a set of cans can withstand the rough and tumble of heavy duty activity, with the M-Audio IE10 Pro Reference for example coming with its own carry case. Buyers of top-end devices in particular may also be well advised to make sure that in the event of any damage, features such as the ear pads and cable can be replaced without the need to invest in a new pair.

Headphone cables can easily be damaged if they are too long or too short, so consumers should consider what is appropriate to their needs, particularly as longer leads are more likely to reduce the quality of the signal passing through to the listener's ears.

With all these various factors taken into account, DJs, musicians and studio engineers should be able to decide upon the headphones which suit them best.

Posted on 24 Jul 2009 16:24 to category : Tips and advice

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