Headphones for Mixing Music

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Hey All,

I'm a composer, and need a pair of headphones for writing and mixing. I have a pair of Genelec 1031A I'll also be referencing, but the bulk of my time will be on headphones and would like them to be as neutral as possible with good imaging. Budget is roughly $500-$600.

Any recommendations? I've spent countless hours reading articles, threads, watching youtube reviews, and keep coming out with different answers. The four I see mentioned alot are:

Sennheiser HD 6 series (600, 650, 6xx, 660s, feels like everyone has a different favorite)

Beyerdynamic DT 1990 PRO (although some say high end is too harsh?)

HiFiMan Sundara (sounds like QC issues though, and it seems they aren't a reputable brand)

Audeze LCD-1 (just don't see this get praised as much as the others)

Any advice you can give is appreciated. I feel like I'm making no progress narrowing it down.

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rastus
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Mar 29, 2020
I would throw the much maligned HD700 in the mix. Caveat-with a decent amp and R-2R DAC. Used they run in the high three-hundreds to $400. blog: https://www.soundonsound.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=38060 Example, offer $375 and likely yours, charity to boot: https://www.ebay.com/itm/Sennheiser-HD-700-Headphone-Black-Barely-Used-Free-Shipping-Amazing-Sound/293522532482?epid=132920686&hash=item44574e6882:g:h0IAAOSwxcFeeS4D
(Edited)
Hey @leokhaleesi, I’m not going to tell you outright “you should buy this,” and why not should become clear as you read this. The best, most universal advice is you should use the headphones you are most familiar with. I don’t personally know any mixing engineers/producers, but I am friends with a an alumni of Nashville. He was a performing musician (for himself) and songwriter for others. He’s told me many times that the mixing engineers would listen on super high-end, perfectly positioned, well dampened monitor speakers in a treated room to listen for flaws, but before the final mix was set the engineers told him to take the recordings and listen in the car and on his favorite headphones. The thought process was the neutral monitors revealed flaws (which are hard to correct once recorded, apart from pitch change and timing) and relative volumes, but you need to use familiarity to understand if the mix is going to gel for you and how your audience is most likely to hear your studio records. Food for thought. That said, I personally think you would need something comfortable for long hours, has a balance among frequencies and sounds natural to you, and that it’s driven properly so the headphone sounds as intended. You’ve got to think about your customer/audience... so while I can’t say whether or not you should use it as an enjoyment headphone, I would recommend AGAINST the DT1990. It’s too colored, and might give you a false impression of what you’re delivering to the average person vs your intent. The frequency chart has a big midrange dip, with elevated bass and upper midrange/lower treble (think upper range of vocals and violins sounding louder and harsher, maybe cymbals, and you might over compensate). A v-shaped FR sound, where the vocals are lowered, is a mastering trick often used to add excitement and power since most people set their volume based on vocals, and everything else around that range gets louder and “bigger,” but since that’s already built-in to the DT1990 your final mixes may sound flat to others. A DT880 is more flat, but it still highlights the lower treble a bit. Decent imaging of instrument placement, but soundstage size is only average... some want more, some like just this much. The DT770 Pro is actually pretty common in studios because of its isolation, but it’s usually on the artist’s head, listening to the other tracks while they perform theirs. You can find many reviews complimenting the headband padding and soft Earpads... velour on the DT770 as well, which is a bit unusual among closed sets. They’re also fairly light, which is nice for longer listening. AKG’s K712 Pro/K7XX (same headphone, different color and accessories) is known for having a big soundstage. It’s also light, not particularly reactive to upstream gear (though more clear DACs always help, and a more powerful amp will tighten up the sound and allow the bass to develop, most of the frequency response stays the same), and the self adjusting headband conforms to your head shape pretty well. The 712 Pro has a small bass increase (3 dB in the midbass) over the K702. The K702 actually has a similar frequency response as an HD 800... though there are similarities, the experience is still a bit different IMO ;) I can’t comment on the Audeze LCD 1, because I haven’t heard it. Haven’t even seen it’s frequency response graph, though I know it’s in your price range. The reason for the scarcity of reviews is because it’s a new model. HiFiman’s proposition offers headphones at almost any price point... I kind of see them as the Chinese Sennheiser. The HE-400 was deeply V-Shaped with strong bass and treble, the HE-400i was more balanced but still not neutral to my ears (and the HE-4XX has a different balance too, but I only had one at a time so I couldn’t compare), and then the Sundara is the latest form of this line. I haven’t heard the Sundara. Two things I can say if you consider this route: it’s easy to get an HE-400i loud enough, but the balance and clarity is greatly improved with a dedicated amp. The sound will change fairly substantially depending on how you drive it. Second, it’s one of THE most open-backed headphones I’ve ever heard. This doesn’t matter if you’re not on a microphone, but it’s kind of fun to move your hand near the back of the cup... I can hear my hand affecting the sound from about a foot away, it’s fascinating! Mr Speakers ÆON (and maybe Ether if you can find one you can afford) should also be on your shortlist to research further. Company recently renamed itself as Dan Clark Audio, but since that’s recent you’ll find most reviews under the old name. Dan’s stated mission is to make neutral headphones that are very revealing of upstream gear, and though he has a taste for modern and electronic music at his show booths, my ears agree he has achieved a quite balanced sound that is also quite revealing. They’re also light because of the headbands, which also self-adjust to the head very nicely. Personally, I wish Drop (nudge nudge) would carry the open Ether and the closed ÆON... You’ve probably never heard detail like a Koss’ ESP/95X Electrostat... but then again, neither will most of your audience. The mass and weight of the driver is lighter than air, extremely responsive and agile in recreating intense passages and minute details, so this headphone is incredibly revealing. It does extend pretty well too all frequencies, but it has a limit to how much air it can displace in the bass range, so it doesn’t end up sounding very powerful. Definitely an interesting headphone and potentially valuable for evaluating, but ultimately not the best for mixing just because it doesn’t represent what the majority of listeners will experience. Might be an alternate headphone to your main mixing headphone. There’s merit in having popular headphones like the Audio Technica M50x (technically a studio headphone, though I imagine it’s for performers in the same way as the DT770), Beats Solo, or even EarPods. I’ll even put the Sony MDR-V6 or MDR-7506 and Sennheiser HD-25 in this category, though those are more popular among recording artists and DJ’s than the lay population (and IMO not all that comfortable). You’ll hear what a large population of your audience will hear, and you can tune it specifically for that playback. The only thing is that they aren’t very detailed, and don’t provide much insight into the music. Wish I knew more about your Genelec, which I assume is your speakers/monitors. You may have listened to them enough that your brain has adjusted to considering its frequency response as neutral, and maybe I could think of a headphone that is tuned similar. What is neutral anyway? We can put a 0 dB line on a frequency response chart, but acoustics simply don’t work like that. Reviewers use different compensation and smoothing, every listener’s ears is shaped differently causing different emphasis and muting along the FR spectrum, and finally the brain really does a lot of processing and can get used to a new definition of neutral over time. This is why you’ll get many different recommendations and hear different definitions of neutral... it ends up being largely subjective, but again what you are most familiar with ends up being your neutral reference. I’m going to be very frank and disclose some things up front before I talk about Sennheiser. I had some connections and contract work with Sennheiser (nothing to do with design), and made friends with Axel Grell and some others there... most of them are gone now. I also had 9 years of hanging around Head-Fi and reviewing headphones before that (and making connections at CanJam events with other manufacturers and reviewers with their own preferences), but I’ll let you decide my bias while I try not to be biased 😅. With that said, the numbers on the HD 650/6XX (same headphone, different colors/accessories) are very strong... way outselling others here on Drop, and it’s been selling very well throughout its nearly 20 year history. There are tons of reviews on it. It came out about a year after the HD 600, and the designer feels it was an all around improvement (the hemholtz resonator and other things helped to tune the sound a small amount without adding masking). A few years after its release, the Harmon Group research released the Harmon Target Response Curve for what listeners would perceive as neutral... and the HD 650 tracks extremely close to that. Even without talking about personal preference, those are some compelling statistics. HD 650 vs HD 660 S... while the HD 660 S’ design is the most advanced, and it’s driver has some airflow guides that the old models do not, the frequency response curves are close enough. Side by side, you may have your own preference; I have an HD 58X (preproduction), HD 650, and HD 660 S, and I use the HD 660 S the most, but I still use the HD 650 as a reference and when I want a lot of impedance dampening. All the models have snug clamping force which relaxes (perhaps conforms is the better word?) over time, the headband padding is marathon worthy (the padding gap at the peak of your crown prevents a hotspot there), the velour pads are soft (similar to Beyer’s), and the weight is light. Alphabetically, the AKG K701/K702, Beyerdynamic DT 880, and Sennheiser HD 650 all launched as their company’s flagship models at over 2x their price on Drop, so the current models are great deals. I personally owned all of them. With my ears (small ear canals among other things, emphasizes highs, careful with my hearing but not “perfect” 20Hz -20kHz hearing), the DT 880 sounded even yet thin through the bass and midrange with only part of the highs highlighted (many vocals and instruments don’t go that high except for flourishes... I could see how some see that as adding “sparkle,” but for my ears all the Beyers are glaring and given enough time make my ears ring). AKG K712 Pro soundstage is clearly larger and more “speakerlike” or “auditorium like” for my ears, it was easy to perceive all frequencies and did a good job with detail and agility, and I could wear them for an extended period with less hearing fatigue, but there is a bit of sparkling quality in the highs. Timbre was good, though timbre might perhaps be the HD 650’s biggest strength. Based on reviews and a few of my friend’s distaste, I thought it would be dark, wet, detail masked, and very colored, but on a good amp I actually think it evenly presents each frequency with good extension to the extremes, and has abundant detail, though particular details don’t jump out at the listener. The HD 650 and DT880 have about the same soundstage depth/distance, though the dryer (imo slightly tin can) sounding DT880 may present more imaging definition. The HD 650 might sound the most plain and “honest” in listening, though it might have more headroom before things sound fatiguing than what people with v-shaped headphones will hear, while the DT 880 might make you dull the highs of everything. The AKG 712 is less polite than the HD 650 and walks the knife’s edge between sparkle and glare more. The HD 660 S is interesting because while I don’t feel the HD 650 is masked, the HD 660 S does sound more clear and agile, with each detail more defined, essentially a halfway point between the venerable HD 650 and the newer flagship HD 800 S. In the end, though, your ears are unique, and you could choose any of the headphones mentioned in this post (and more) and eventually get used to them enough to understand how they relate to live studio performance. Eventually, it might make sense to have a few headphones representing different archetypes, so you’ll have an idea of what different listeners might hear. And, feel free to listen on your car stereo or phone’s speaker, because you know someone will listen that way sometimes! Sláinte! Evshrug
(Edited)
TL;DR Pros listen to their mixes on studio monitor speakers, headphones, and their car radios, so that they can have an idea how it sounds on the systems most familiar to them, and close to how the public will listen to them. The HD 6XX isn’t “studio flat,” it was designed with a slightly more “home HiFi speakers” warm sound plus a bit less treble so they won’t fatigue you while listening for hours and hours… but it’s close enough to neutral that it “feels natural,” and you can absolutely make mastering decisions with it once you get used to it and your brain acclimatized… and hundreds of thousands of HD 650 and HD 6xx have been sold (maybe millions, it was originally released in 2003), so it is likely to be familiar to a discerning HiFi audience.
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