Can you really produce on headphones?
Whether you’re trying to produce on the road or just keeping the noise levels down in your home studio, the idea of studio-quality reference headphones is appealing. Sharooz was a self-confessed headphone sceptic. Could Sennheiser’s HD650s convert him?
One of the questions I get asked most often by young producers is which studio monitors I’d recommend. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked to suggest the best pair of monitors under £300 or the best for a small bedroom studio. Over the last few years, I’ve found that the standard monitor query is just as likely to be followed by a second question: Which headphones are best for production?
The bottom line is that until recently I’d never considered a pair of headphones, either as an alternative or to supplement a dedicated pair of loudspeakers. I understand that a lot of producers might not be able to make a lot of noise in their studio or might not be able to afford room treatment, but my advice has always been that a pair of decent monitors will outperform pretty much any headphones.
But, being on the road, working remotely, and noise restrictions have in recent years led to an explosion in the use of headphones, not just as a backup monitoring source, but as a primary reference in their own right. As I’ve found myself on the road more often, my need for a portable monitoring solution has also increased. Despite being sceptical about the idea that headphones could genuinely work for production and mixing, I figured it was time to give them a chance.
The headphone challenge
If the consensus on various production forums is anything to go by, the Sennheiser HD650s have emerged as the professional’s preferred choice of monitoring headphone. Tommy Trash and Skrillex have reportedly been using these cans as a primary monitoring source, and in Tommy Trash’s case producing his biggest hits using solely this very model.
“My initial reaction was that the 650s seemed to make everything sound pretty damn good. Too damn good. ”
As far as headphones go, the HD650s are fairly expensive, with an RRP of £399.99. That equates to a street price somewhere around £275, which may be a lot compared to most headphones but barely gets you into the price range of decent entry-level monitors.
My initial listen, straight through the headphone socket of my MacBook Pro, revealed a very hi-fi, pleasant soundstage for tracks I have known and trusted for years; too hi-fi for serious applications and, in truth, it was difficult to differentiate between the overdriven electro drivel and high-end platinum selling pop fodder. My initial reaction was that the 650s seemed to make everything sound pretty damn good. Too damn good. Great for listening but not so good for serious reference.
However, in the studio I connected to the Prism Orpheus via its own inbuilt headphone amp, and a different picture emerged. It became quickly apparent that the 650s demand a higher quality DAC and headphone amp than those built into the Mac. Through the Orpheus I felt confident enough to have a crack at a new tune using only the 650s. Choosing the right kick was easy. A bassline to match? No problems. Ping-pong delays, EQ tweaks, pads, sweeps, risers – I was making accurate decisions, easily able to reference against my other tracks and quickly get up to a point where I had a steady vibe going.
The A/B test
In the spirit of fairness, I A/Bd the 650s against a similarly priced pair of monitors, the £250 pair of KRK RP5s I bought my girlfriend for Christmas. There is little comparison. The accuracy you get from high-end headphones vs entry-level monitors is unparalleled. I tried and tried again to get up and running on the KRKs. All my kicks sounded the same, I could sweep the EQ from 20Hz to 200Hz and the only response I was getting was too much bass or too little bass. Frequencies muddled into reverbs muddled into mush muddled into a non-starter. I gave up and got back on the Sennheisers – quick, steady progress was being made again in no time.
After a while, I forgot I had them on. Open back in design, they were hugely comfortable to wear and relatively well built – I could imagine having these on for hours on end and not experiencing any pain or fatigue.
Most importantly, there’s no room correction, no nodes, no acoustic irregularities to correct. You get the sound of the drivers, and the drivers alone. The only significant flaw comes when attempting to pan sounds. The exaggerated stereo field of headphones means that stereo images don’t quite translate to speakers. It’s a weakness, but it’s small enough that I could learn to live with it.
David vs Goliath
Like many producers, I favour using more than one set of monitors to check mixes – in my case the Focal Twin 6s and my trusted Yamaha NS10Ms, which have served me without fault for more than a decade.
My main focus now was to use the Sennhesier headphones as a comparison source alongside the monitoring system I have tried and tested in the same position in the same room, day in, day out.
Anyone who knows me will know my love of the Focals – impressive but precise bottom end, sparkling tops, unrivalled separation and an almost three-dimensional stereo field. Where I’ve thought they lack definition is in bringing out the subtle distortion in the bottom-end which can occur when I heavily limit the mix bus in order to match the loudness of everything else out there. How did the 650s cope with the task?
“They're that rare beast - a smooth, enjoyable, listen but also a reliable, revealing, accurate reference”
I was amazed by the results. The kicks, which sounded muffled and distorted on the Focals, were quick and easy to fix. That rogue bit of compression or random EQ hike at 65Hz, the pad with remnants of cheap reverb lingering in the background I’d failed to spot, the vocal with the painful sibilance – there was an added dimension of detail, barely present on the Focals or NS10s, which jumped out and bit me on the ass with the Sennheisers on.
Level matching was a breeze too – unhindered by the mighty bass hype of 10″ drivers, turning down kicks and instead EQing them to punch through, made it possible to get things rounder, more defined and louder.
If you hadn’t already guessed, my scepticism about producing and mixing on headphones has been almost completely disproved.
There’s little to fault with the 650s, the open-back design being the only potential problem. It’s part of what makes the 650s sound so good, but the downside is that sound leaks in and out much more than you’d find with as closed-back design like the HD25s.
In the shared Attack office, with the noxious drones of Gotye coming at me from overheard laptop speakers, it was hard to know whether I was listening to my source material or yet another out-of-key/time bootleg ode to crap Scandinavian pop. Keen to try something other than electronic music, I blasted out a few tracks from the Alicia Keys album, and when the Gotye listener fell silent, he looked over at me like I’d just felt up his mother.
They’re also not pretty. The earpieces on the 650s are incredibly well built but the plasticky headband and cheap gloss paint don’t look attractive and I can see the finish chipping or cracking over time. But these aren’t Beats. They’re not meant to be a fashion statement. I’d wear them in a studio, a hotel room or possibly a plane. Not on the back seat of a bus or around my neck at a gig.
In summary, these are an incredibly useful tool. They’re that rare beast – a smooth, enjoyable, listen but also a reliable, revealing, accurate reference – much like the Focal Twin 6s, which cost almost ten times as much.
Can you really produce music on headphones? Can headphones really compete with dedicated studio monitors? I never thought I’d say it, but the answer’s undoubtedly yes.