Mixing music is an art, and to fully capture the truest form of your sounds, you need a proper pair of headphones to do so. Not just any pair of studio headphones will do, either. We’ve seen the headphone market become saturated with popular brands and their celebrity marketing, claiming to be ‘studio’, ‘professional’ or any other adjective you can think of that will get a person to buy a pair of their headphones. Those of us who are truly into music equipment know that when it comes to being an audiophile, the overall headphone type and design and various other features you need depends on what exactly you’re using the pair cans of for. Riding in the bus or using these at the gym isn’t really the main concern here, although you can technically use any pair of headphones for that. Today we review the best headphones specifically for mixing and mastering.
As perhaps you’ve already read it, we have some of these models listed in our best studio headphones article. However, that post is a bit broad covering all types of headphones, so in this case we will be specifically speaking about mixing and mastering for complete sound accuracy. You need a certain type of build for even frequency distribution as opposed to perhaps total isolation (like a lot of popular studio headphones do) when it comes to recording. Let’s see what exact kind you need below.
What is the best type of headphones for mixing and\or mastering?
To give you solid advice right off the bat, you absolutely must keep one important aspect into consideration: you need a pair of over-ear headphones. Never will we ever recommend mastering, mixing or even recording with in-ear or earbuds. Next, make sure your pair of over-ears have a build termed open-back headphones. The reason for this is because at times with headphones, and especially the more popular closed-back designs, sound build-up can accrue, and in most cases the lower frequencies of bass. For mixing and mastering, you want the least amount of build-up as possible in order to ensure you have that clear, concise and accurate mix; not a track you put together with a build-up of extra noise that your listeners won’t have when they first press play on your song. Using a closed-back design of headphones isn’t optimal for mixing because of this extra clunk that remains in the ear cups during your mixing sessions. Think of open-back headphones like having a bit of an exhaust pipe to allow extra build up to be released.
The most optimal build for recording on the other hand, are closed-back headphones. This is because the headphones completely isolate the sound of what the artist is hearing to avoid sound leakage from entering into the microphone and clouding up the track. It also helps keep the artist focused and allows them to hear every bit of the song as possible as to not distract them, ensuring optimal recording, whatever instrument or voice it may be.
Lastly, and just to keep this out in the open, there has always been a huge debate in the music equipment niche of whether you should mix and master with studio monitors or a pair of headphones. In our opinion, there is a time for both, however we have heard numerous individuals claim both sides of the story. To sum it up, they say that since headphones give you two sources of sound (with each ear), it’s hard to hear the entire mix as one. Studio monitors on the other hand blend it and keep the track together for a more complete picture. If you want some more information on this debate, we like this article on tips for mixing on mixing and mastering with headphones and monitors in general, or Soundonsound’s article called mixing on headphones.
Our choice for best mixing headphones:
The AKG K 701
To be honest, it’s hard to just pick one pair of headphones for mixing. Ask a audiophile’s and they’ll tell you it really doesn’t matter as long as the headphones are open or at least a semi-open design. However, we’ve done a bit of research and tested these out personally and think their overall quality, comfort, accuracy and specs trump all other models in the market. AKG music equipment holds a very high reputation in the audio world, and these headphones are famous with the mixing and mastering junkies. That alone gives us some confidence when thinking about buying these, as we like to keep a brand’s reputation and what the addicts say about their product, so we will check that off the list first. Let’s check out 701’s specs.
Main features of the AKG K 701
- Frequency response: 10 Hz – 39.8 kHz
- Maximum input power: 200 mW
- Impedance: 62 ohms
- Replaceable earpads (3D-Form)
- Leather headband (adjustable)
- Two-layer diaphragm
- Flat-wire voice coil tech
- 3.00m cable
- 3.5mm connector (gold-plated)
- Includes a 6.3mm adapter
A relatively simple features list, but the numbers here don’t lie with the K 701 headphones. We first and foremost love the frequency range, as that is very important when mixing: you want to be able to hear it all. We’ve learned that even though the human ear can’t detect anything lower than around 50Hz, it wouldn’t hurt to have any lower, right? The 701’s go down to 10, so we are in the clear in terms of being able to pick up the lower-end of our mixes.
Some have stated that bass isn’t very prominent in these, which obviously is not a con in our case — that’s exactly what we need. A lot of people will be listening to your tracks with heavy bass types of audio solutions already, as that is what the average consumer has, not to mention subwoofers out there to give extra pizzazz with the lower frequencies. So mixing with even frequencies through out is your best bet, and you can leave the rest of the spark to the listener (it depends on how they want to hear it, anyways. Your job is to give them a blank slate to work with). These are great for accuracy and even frequency distribution — we don’t want any of them more embellished than the others. The large impedance will also call for some extra external power, such as an audio interface or headphone amplifier.
Comfort and overall stability
These are comfortable enough to where you aren’t getting any of that pesky ear pain after long hours in the studio. We’ve had some terrible experiences with ear pain, especially when mixing tracks into the AM running off a bunch of cups of coffee. These won’t give you that, which is basically a make or break in terms of mixing and mastering headphones.
The ear pads of the AKG K 701 are soft and surround your entire ear, not to mention the headband is a nice leather make (and also adjustable) which gives it an all around positive wearing experience. The 701’s are also pretty light so you’re not getting a big and clunky piece of machinery on your head — you’ll sometimes forget they’re on.
Some possible cons with the AKG K 701
A con could be that they only come in white, as I typically have black headphones, but really I can’t complain due to their quality. You can take a look at the AKG Q 701 headphones which have basically the same specs but they come in different colors for some more choices and also have a detachable cable. The reason we didn’t pick these however is because they’ve been to be a little more bassy, but if you can suffice then perhaps the Quincy Jones model is best for you. They’re also a little cheaper so that my be a plus if you’re looking to save a few bucks.
We also don’t recommend traveling with these. If you’re going to be articulate and make sure they’re safe, be our guest — especially if you’re able to find a compatible case to fit them in and you mix or master in a studio that isn’t in your home. Also, the cables of this pair aren’t interchangeable, but honestly that is not a big deal to us. The 701’s may also not be optimal for listening to music in general, specifically because of their open-design allowing a lot of the sound out, so listening to music with them in public could be a bit of a turn-off. If you need a pair of headphones for overall use you may want to choose a different model, such as a semi-open or even traditional closed-back pair of headphones. Continue reading if that is the case.
The final word on best headphones for mixing and mastering
These have also been around since 2006 so we’ve got around 8-9 years of positive reviews and case studies of this model. Many people praise the longevity so it’s good to know that buying these will be a smart investment. They are one of the best headphones under $500 in general, let alone perfect for mixing and mastering to get that accurate sounding track. We have some other competitors that barely missed winning that have also been praised by the sound-imaging heads. If you want to spend a few more dollars you can get some relatively better specs, such as higher impedance or power in general, so continue reading on if that’s the case.
All in all, the winner of best headphones for mixing and mastering even after this article stands for a few years goes to the AKG K 701 open-design headphones.
Grab a pair of these and you’re set for a very, very long time. Let us know if you disagree in the comments — we’re always open to discuss.
Other options of headphones for mixing
Grab the Beyer DT 880 headphones if you can spend a few extra bucks, want more power and may use them for listening to music outside of the studio. These hold a very high reputation among the mixers of the music equipment world. Beyerdynamic is a reputable brand as well, and this pair is superb for mixing and mastering. They’re semi-open, so not a full design like recommended, but offer a very powerful model due to the 250 Ohm’s. Very comfortable with soft-padded pads and headband. They’re just a bit more expensive than the 701’s. The bass also been stated to be pretty full yet at the same time not bloated. You’ll also most likely need a headphone amp with these considering how high the Ohm’s go if you want to experience the full of them, otherwise you’ll still be able to get by.
Sennheiser HD 650
Pick up the Sennheiser HD 650 studio headphones if you want one of the highest quality models available. These are a bit higher in price in comparison to our choice of AKG 701 as well as the Beyers, but if you can afford it, this pair is beastly. Sennheiser is basically synonymous with the word headphones and the 650’s are talked about in most forums you go to. A very rich, full sound with these because the drivers are very high quality (acoustic silk). It has about the same frequency range as the 701’s; however the impedance goes up to around 300 Ohms. Lightweight aluminum voice coils are usually the standard for studio headphones in general, and with these being open-designed and holding a high reputation for an even frequency distribution, it’s the go-to for most professionals. If you can afford them, these things are monstrous. You’ll probably want a headphone amplifier to use them most optimally, so keep in mind you’ll need to spend money on that as well. No cons here really, besides some people nitpicking about the ear size being small, but beggars can’t be choosers and I wouldn’t worry about that too much.