Mixing: Headphones VS Studio Monitors


If you are looking to build your own home music studio so you can finally produce your music, there are certain equipment you will need. The obvious ones being a decent music production PC and a DAW like Logic Pro or Cubase. 

But you also need something that will give you the professional sound quality you want. A solid pair of studio monitors? Or a pair of affordable studio headphones? 

This post will answer the age-old question that has been heavily and aggressively discussed in forums around the web: 

Should you use studio monitors or headphones for mixing music? If your room isn’t acoustically treated you might be better off using headphones. If your room is treated, however, you should go with studio monitors. Both are acceptable ways to get great-sounding mixes, but studio monitors are much more revealing than headphones and will provide the most honest, accurate results in your mix. 

Let’s explore more of the differences between studio monitors and studio headphones as well as what will be the best solution for your music studio in this post.

Studio Monitors VS Headphones

I use both studio headphones and studio monitors when I create music. I consider both to be important tools because the studio headphones have strengths that my studio monitors do not, and vice versa.

Let`s have a look at some important aspects of mixing and how studio monitors and headphones handle them respectively:

Stereo Image

Even though I almost always write and compose my tracks using headphones, I find it much, much easier to produce a good stereo image when using my trusty Yamaha studio monitors.

If you are using headphones, it is much harder to determine how wide the stereo image actually is, so I always take off my headphones and switch to the studio monitors when I am working on the stereo image.

Typically, you will underestimate the panning level if you are using headphones.

Headphones seem much more sensitive to panning adjustments, reverb, and other stuff.

Since headphones may be deceptively widening your stereo image, you will probably be in for a surprise or two if you listen to your mix on the studio monitors instead.

So, the studio monitors are definitely the better choice here.

Volume adjustments

It is much harder to adjust different volumes if you are only using headphones. 

For example, the volume of background synths may probably need to be adjusted up a little if you switch from headphones to studio monitors. 

Or, the most common I believe, the bass drum must be taken down a few notches. It is almost always too loud when I test my track on the studio monitors after been working with the headphones on. 

Again, the studio monitors are the better choice.

The finer details

So far it seems like using headphones is not just possible. But it is. In my experience, when you are using headphones you might hear subtle details in your mix that can be much harder to pick up when using studio monitors. 

As of now, studio monitors definitely seem to be the best choice.

Which is something I agree with. 

Unless…

Remember This When Considering Studio Monitors

Even though a good pair of studio monitors will be the best choice for your mix, there are some things you should be aware of.

Having an acoustically treated room is very important if you want the most out of your studio monitors.

Why?

You see, in order for your studio monitors to produce as honest and correct results as possible, the room should not be ‘coloring’ the sound. 

Rooms that are not acoustically treated have an uneven frequency response. 

This basically means that the room won’t help either you or your studio monitors make the right mixing choices. 

Without the right room treatment, it is almost impossible to determine if the mix sounds the same when played back anywhere else.

Quick tip: ways to acoustically treat your room

  • Add carpets, pictures, and furniture to cover floors and walls in your room. These will absorb and diffuse sound.

You can read this article for more information on how to acoustically tune a room.

What is an acceptable price range for good Monitors?

Most of us do not have a studio space the size of Abbey Road. That is why you will be perfectly fine getting 5-inch speakers. 

There are a lot of really wonderful companies providing quality studio monitors at a great price.

For example KRK, Yamaha, M-Audio and lots more.

You don’t need to buy a $3000 studio monitor to do the job. Providing you have a room that absorbs and diffuses sound, a budget studio monitor will do wonders.

I’ll say that you get fantastic quality starting at around $250 a pair.

I own a pair of Yamaha HS5 which I bought back in 2014. They are really well-balanced, not coloring the sound and give what I think is a pretty honest result.

More reasons of why I dig the Yamaha HS5:

  • They are extremely easy to set up
  • They are really capable at both low and high volumes
  • Perfect size for most (and professional) home studios
  • Excellent build quality
  • They have been with me for 6 years without having any problems, ever.

You should definitely get your hands on these really affordable budget studio monitors if you are looking for some. 

Actually, I won’t recommend anything else because these are all worth it, and I am not planning to get rid of my own pair anytime soon!

What Are The Best Studio Headphones?

Let’s face it. Not everyone is renting a place to put all their music equipment. Many of us have to create our music from home. I did that myself for a long time.

And if you have a certain other in the house, whether it be a family member, wife or husband, sometimes we are forced to create music without disturbing them.

That’s where a really solid, great-quality pair of headphones comes in handy.

I’ve owned several great, and not so great studio headphones over the years. 

I was very pleased with the sound quality of Shure SRH940 until the headband broke. 

I have also tried out a pair of wooden headphones once, by Grape, which also broke.

And I have even used a Sony wh-1000xm2 (see the picture above) when writing and composing music. But the Beyerdynamic has been my go-to reference headphones for many years.

These are my top 3 picks for the very best studio headphones you can get:

  • Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro
    They are so good that they easily could be used in professional sound studios. Actually, they are being used in professional sound studios. And for the price, they are a must-have and a real bargain.

You can find these headphones on Amazon if you click here. If you look around you will definitely find this at a really reasonable price.

  • Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open 
    If you want to have the upgraded version of the DT 990, check out these. They have no coloration of the sound and are an excellent choice if you are looking to use headphones as your main mixing tool. They are shockingly revealing, so if you have a bad mix, you will hear it! 

Last time I checked, The Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open was at a great discounted price. Click here to check it out on Amazon to see if you are in for a good deal.

  • Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
    These are beloved by many. Besides its good, bulky looks (like real studio headphones should look) the sound quality it produces is really, really good. Known as the ‘Beats-killers’, you can get better sound quality than the popular Beats headphones for around half the price.

You can read more about it here (link to Amazon).

Audio-Technica ATH M50x Headphones

All these headphones are guaranteed to make you satisfied, but I will say that I am really impressed with the build- and sound quality of the Audio-Technica.

Although the Audio-Technica is really impressive, I personally think the Beyerdynamics is a little more comfortable to have on your ears for longer periods of time. 

But of course, that is just my personal opinion.

Summary

If you have the possibility to improve your room acoustics, I would definitely do that and get a pair of studio monitors like the Yamaha HS5.

Studio monitors will, under the right circumstances, be much more truthful than headphones to how the music will sound on other devices. 

That said, quality studio headphones are definitely something you must consider regardless because the right pair provides an excellent reference and might pick up details in your music that your studio monitors won’t.   

But bear in mind: headphones are much more sensitive when mixing, and you will experience your mix to sound a bit different when you listen to the studio monitors instead. 

Typically, volume, reverb, and delays will be much more pronounced in your headphones.

And remember: You could own the best and most expensive studio monitors in the world, but at the end of the day, the results are all about he or she who does the mixing. 

So, always focus on improving your mixing skills as well!

Suggested Further Reading:

Thomas Leypoldt

Hey there! My name is Thomas and I have been a film composer for over 10 years, delivering music to feature films, documentaries, video games, and commercials. I share everything I have learned on this website, to hopefully be of help to your own development as a musician.

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