Rroawg was a cutting-edge cave man. He always had his ear to the ground, not only to hear if the wooly mammoth’s were stampeding, but also to find out what was ground-breaking, new, inventive. Oh, sure, he’d had the rock wheel, but that was so… last year. Now we wanted a better stone roller; one that wasn’t so loud. Or heavy.
“Hmm,” he thought, “maybe it doesn’t have to be stone at all. Maybe… styrene-butadiene copolymer rubber??”
And this, my friends, are how inventions are made. They thrill us, they aid us; they give us G.A.S., and eventually they lead us here, where we ask Teaj, “So… just what are the best headphones under 100??”
Have no fears, my comrades-in-ears – we’re all cheapskates to some extent, so let me introduce this current guide to saving a little cash (in some instances, a lot of cash) on studio headphones.
The music scene is constantly evolving (some would say ‘DE-volving’, but let’s not get side-tracked!) and as it does we need to be aware and choose the tools that make us the most effective in the current audio environment. You wouldn’t let your clients see you using five inch floppy disks for your computer now, would you?
Um, if you would I have a Mac II that I think you’d really be interested in…
Anyway, in this article we’re going to concentrate on what the current headphones are that really deliver in a studio scenario. That covers either mixing or tracking audio. Studio headphones are unique, and have specific traits that enable us to finish a solid mix or track instruments with a minimum of “bleed”, or sound from the headphones escaping into the mics.
Would you wear your baggy, frayed ten-year-old college sweats out on a date? Probably not the best idea (IF you want to impress your date, that is!). In the same way, there are many headphones that are far from appropriate in a studio environment when it’s time for serious studio work. So gather up those oh-so-non-professional ear danishes and toss ’em on your sweats in the corner. Time to trade up!
The basic parameters you need to follow for investing in quality audio studio headphones are the following:
Let’s unpack each of those, just to make sure we’re understanding everything clearly, shall we?
First, for the mixing scenario we want headphones that go from 20Hz to 20k Hz because that is the best-case-scenario spectrum of human hearing. Most of us don’t actually hear all that because as we age we lose some definition in some areas, especially above 16 kHz. This also happens when we allow ourselves to be subjected to environmental noise (lawn mowers, leaf blowers, loud & long concerts, etc.) that causes loss of upper register sensitivity as well.
But, still, we want to mix so everyone can hear the song well, including those youngsters with excellent high frequency hearing. For that reason, we want the full human hearing spectrum available in our cans.
If you’re tracking you don’t necessarily need this response, tho’ for bass players and drummers I still give them extended full-range cans so the low bass response is not curtailed.
Flat frequency response is again something desirable when mixing. Headphones with this are not going to cut or boost certain frequencies, or bands of frequencies. If they do, what we hear becomes ‘colored’; it’s an artificially “enhanced” version of our mix, instead of our real mix. We want to hear exactly what we recorded, with only the effects that we put on. Buying flat frequency response headphones will give us that outcome more or less. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any piece of gear with an absolutely, straight flat response, but, like you see beneath, several options on this list come close.
Opposite that, if you’re tracking you don’t need flat frequency response, but I still like it when I’m playing. Call me spoiled. lol
Closed-back headphones have a membrane that secludes our ears so we are only hearing what is fed into them through the cord; they eliminate, or at least attentuate (turn down), noises that occur in the environment you’re sitting in. Is your dog barking in another room because he heard the 13 kHz frequency you just played through your monitors, like mine is right now? With closed-back headphones you probably won’t hear it.
Because of this though, they also tend to produce ear sweat, since there’s no air circulation happening. And bass frequencies tend to get trapped in the cup and exaggerated, so for this reason they’re not typically used for mixing, but I’ve still known people that have done it.
Closed-back headphones are also the go-to choice for tracking music, since they help minimize bleed into the mics.
Open-back headphones, on the other hand, lets in a bit of the world around you. So your basic question must be “Is there a lot of noise I need to isolate myself from where I do my audio work?” If the answer is “yes’, then go for the closed-back option. If not, don’t worry about it. Most engineers I know, including myself, use open-backs for mixing. Studios tend to be quiet, and open-backs tend to be more comfortable and less ‘sweaty’.
Almost all headphones feel fine when you first put them on, but it’s how they feel, say, after 10 minutes, 30 minutes… AN HOUR, that really matters. I’ve spent days trying to get a mix right, and hours playing to get a tracking session done. Headphones play an integral part in my confidence of my final product. Because of that, comfort over the course of time is crucial.
Finally, a lot of engineers forget to check on the length of the headphones cord before buying, and wind up a little short of their monitoring port. This can be remedied by then buying a headphone extension cable, but… why not get it right the first time? Also, some don’t like coiled cabling (me) and prefer straight. Know your preference and choose accordingly.
Circum-aural headphones fit completely over your ears, surrounding them. Supra-aural, on the other hand, sit on your ears, which can be more fatiguing after a while if the pressure is great. This differs headphone to headphone.
With these criteria in mind, I now give you my top five current picks for dependable, appropriate mixing headphones that won’t break your bank.
They could, however, cause you to be eaten by a T-Rex in a Jurassic Park movie… ‘cuz you’d never hear him coming! But at least you’d save some cash! 😉
If you choose to go the closed-back route, these are ones I see often. They’re quite pillowy and comfortable, tho’, as I mentioned, the sweat factor can kick in depending on the time you spend in them and the, um, animation, shall we say, of the performance.
I know of plenty of studio that have these and use ’em often. They’re a good choice.
I’ve owned a pair of these since the 90s. They’re are circum-aural, meaning they cover the outer ear completely.
Their ten foot cable length always rocks. I’ve never had to buy an extender for these for any client. Love that.
One niggling little issue with them is that their 55 Ohms rating is higher than a lot of other headphones, so you’ll find that you’ll have to turn these UP quite a bit to match the level of other headphones on this list. It’s that minor inconvenience that causes me to not use them as much. If, however, these are the only ones you’ll be using for a given task, they have a good sound, are comfortable for long periods of time, and because they’re only semi-open, you ears won’t drown in sweat.
These are the least expensive on our list today, and only recently have been touted as a viable option for mixing and monitoring in the studio. They are VEEEEERY similiar to the AKG model, so much so that suspect legal action had to at least be considered, but still… their specs and reputation help them hold the line.
One consideration is that these are the heaviest cans on today’s list, ranking in at over a pound. Doesn’t mean they’re not still viable, but keep it in mind. Weak neck, anyone?
I have not yet seen these in professional studios but home studios around the globe are raving about them, so they must have merit. I plan on picking up a pair myself this week. Once I do, I’ll update this post with more specifics.
This company and these headphones are new to me, but I can’t ignore the awesome reviews theyr’e getting everywhere I looked, especially from people I respect in the business.
The company speaks specifically about working hard on the porting so as to provide excellent stereo imaging and impressive depth of sound. From what I can see, they’ve developed quite a few fans in the last couple years by doing exactly that! No lack of five stars for these puppies.
I saved the best for last. I’ve had three or four pairs of these through the decades and they are still my go-to mixing cans. I see these headphones in more studios than any other. Incredibly flat frequency response, comforable and light, they have helped me mix hundreds of songs. They are supra-aural, which means they sit on your ears rather than around them (although if you’re a KID that’s probably not the case!).
I only have one negative thing to say about these: after a few years the plastic-y covering on the foam starts to flake off. Common issue. It obviously doesn’t affect the sound at all, but they just don’t look at nice.
If you don’t like finding the little black flakes around, then just buy a new pair. They’re inexpensive, remember?! Otherwise, just keep using them, like I am. Right now. With a mandolin. 😉
So there ya go: five great options for mixing headphones under $100. Obviously, later you can move up to more expensive models, as I have, but, hey… ya gotta start somewhere, right? Pick up one of these now and at least you won’t be rollin’ on a rock wheel anymore. lol
Lemme know if you’ve used any of these yourself and what you think. Or if you have questions, throw ’em my way and we’ll find the answers together.
In the meantime, you’re here ‘cuz you need cans under $100. I’ve shown you the best. Go for it!
And, go… make… sounds!!