Shopping for studio headphones, but not quite sure what you’re looking for?
Or how to tell the difference between one and the next?
Well you’ve come to the right place.
Because in this ultimate guide, we’re going to take a look at several of the top models on the market to see exactly how they compare.
So here’s what we’re about to cover:
Table of Contents:
- Closed Back vs Open Back Headphones: The Differences?
- The Industry Standard in Closed-Back Studio Headphones
- A Headphone With Maximimum Sound Isolation for Drummers
- My Favorite Closed-Back Studio Headphones on the List
- A Closed-Back Model With Premium Sound Quality
- A High-End Closed Back Model With Open Back Features
- Reference Quality Open Back Sound, at a Great Price
- The Modern Update to an Iconic Open Back Legend
- Two Insanely Cheap Semi-Open Studio Headphones
- The Two Industry Standards in Open Back Studio Headphones
- The Grand Daddy of All Open Back Studio Headphones
Closed Back vs Open Back Headphones: The Differences?
Studio headphones come in 2 different styles:
- Closed-Back Headphones – which maximize sound isolation, at the expense of sound quality
- Open-Back Headphones – which do the opposite: maximixing sound quality at the expense of isolation
This is true simply because with headphones in general, as isolation goes up, sound quality generally goes down. So you have to prioritize.
When recording vocals or live instruments into a microphone, isolation is the priority, since you can’t have the sound from the headphones bleeding into the mic. In which case, a set of closed back headphones would be ideal.
On the other hand, if you’re mixing, or recording an instrument that doesn’t require a microphone, such as a keyboard or electronic drum kit…
Isolation no longer matters, but a pair of open back headphones could significantly improve the sound.
So in this post we’ll cover both varieties: Closed-back first, open-back second.
Here we go. First up…
The Industry Standard in Closed-Back Studio Headphones
No matter who you are, chances are high that you’ve seen the Sennheiser HD280 Pro before, countless times.
Because they are far and away the industry standard in music, podcasting, voiceovers.
It’s true…they aren’t particularly glamorous, and there are no special features to brag about.
Quite honestly, they don’t even have the absolute greatest sound.
But serve their purpose well, they’re extremely durable, and they’ve been a staple in recording studios for many decades now.
And despite their cheap price point, studios that can afford whatever they want will still use them over most expensive alternatives.
Check it out:
The closest alternative to the HD280 is the legendary:
Some users give them a slight edge OVERALL…myself being one of them.
Having used them both, I find the MDR-7506 marginally better in both comfort and sound quality. After sifting through the reviews, I found others who agreed as well.
So but ultimately it’s up to you. Both are great choices.
Now….for 90% of folks reading this, I recommend stopping here and choosing one of the first two options on the list.
But if you still want more, let’s continue.
A Headphone With Maximimum Sound Isolation for Drummers
The Extreme Isolation EX-29 is a unique pair of headphones designed with ONE SPECIFIC GOAL in mind: Maximum Sound Isolation.
Designed BY a drummer, and intended FOR drummers…
These headphones rival the isolation of many industrial use hearing protectors.
Which makes sense for drummers, they their headphones have to compete with their extremely loud instruments.
According to product descriptions, the EX-29 measures the average attenuation over a WIDE frequency range, compared to most headphones which measure just ONE frequency.
And this is the reason why their 29dB of noise attenuation actually translates to much more than that in real life.
So if maximum sound isolation is your top priority, I highly recommend checking them out.
My Favorite Closed-Back Studio Headphones on the List
Moving up a bit in price, we have the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro…which has some significant upgrades in overall quality.
In terms of comfort, sound, and style, I’d say these headphones easily blow the previous 3 out of the water.
In terms of sound isolation, and durability…they’re about the same.
They’re not nearly as impressive as the closed-back headphones we’re about to cover next, but overall I’d say the DT770 offers the perfect compromise between luxury features, and affordable price.
That is why they are my #1 favorite headphones on this list.
For a different version of the same headphones, I’d also recommend:I
These are intended specifically for drummers, and offer 35dB of noise attenuation, which is the highest figure of any headphones I found.
A Closed-Back Model With Premium Sound Quality
With closed-back headphones, sound quality always comes second to isolation.
Traditionally this means that the sound quality is mediocre at best. But not always.
Because when the price is right, you can actually have a decent level of both.
And with the Focal Listen Professionals, that’s exactly what you get:
- Everything you’d expect from a pair of closed back headphones…
- With sound quality rivaling many open back models
One clever feature of these headphones is the memory foam padding, which comfortably molds your head, sealing up any open gaps.
That way…the inside noises stay IN, and the outside noises stay OUT.
Check them out. I suspect you’ll be impressed.
A High-End Closed Back Model With Open Back Features
Taking the high-end closed back design to an entirely new level…
You might assume at first glance that the Shure SRH-1540 are open-back.
Because a design standpoint…they do resemble many high end open back models.
Somehow, you can tell just by looking at them how ridiculously comfortable they are.
In terms of sound though, they’re perhaps the closest you could ever come to reference quality sound in a pair of closed back headphones.
This is the overwhelming consensus from reviews, many of which were written by audiophile geeks. And when it comes to high-end sound, those guys REALLY know their stuff.
So if the best of the best is what you want, you won’t do better than these:
Now that we’ve covered all the best closed back studio headphones, let’s move on to the open back models.
Reference Quality Open Back Sound, at a Great Price
Traditionally, open back headphones are known to be the most expensive of ANY headphone type…period.
So finding an affordable pair can be tricky if you don’t have a big budget.
So if affordable is what you want, there’s no better option than the Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro.
For a mid-range model, they have everything you could ask for:
- an exceptionally wide frequency range (5Hz-35kHz)
- a strong bass presence
- a very comfortable fit
Having used them before, I can personally vouch for their comfort.
So if you’re looking for a great introduction into the world of open back studio headphones, get these:
The Modern Update to an Iconic Open Back Legend
Back in the day…the flagship headphones of the AKG line….the old AKG K1000 …
Was commonly known in audiophile circles as the best studio headphones in the World.
Today…the modern update to this classic, the AKG K701, inherits many of the same remarkable qualities…with some updated technology as well.
For instance, they now feature AKG’s flat-wire coil technology, which compared to the K1000…
- Provides a better low-end sound, and…
- Allows them to be driven by less-powerful amplifiers.
You might also be interested to know…legendary producer, Quincy Jones, the man with more Grammys than anyone alive…created special edition of these headphones: the AKG Q701.
According to him, they have the best sound of any pair of headphones he’s ever heard. And if it’s good enough for Quincy…it’s good enough for us.
Two Insanely Cheap Semi-Open Studio Headphones
While I did mention earlier that open back headphones are generally quite pricey…there are two possible exceptions worth mentioning:
- Samson SR850
- AKG K240 mkII
Both of these come in at under $100, and feature a semi-open design, which is essentially a hybrid of traditional open and closed back models.
The big benefit of this hybrid design is that it allows you to essentially condense both purchases down into just one, if you are absolutely strapped for cash.
It’s true…you won’t either of these headphones mentioned among gear-heads…yet they do offer many of the same features of other headphones costing several times as much.
And user reviews confirm, that they do in fact live up to their promises. Check them out:
The Two Industry Standards in Open Back Studio Headphones
If there are two pair of headphones in the World synonymous with high-end studio sound, its the:
- Sennheiser HD 650
- Shure SRH1840
A long time favorite in both audiophile, and pro audio circles…
These headphones have perhaps more great reviews than any models on this list.
And that’s ESPECIALLY impressive considering that they’re by no means cheap.
Having used both, my favorite common feature is the deep padding of the ear cups, which essentially allow the headphones to float around your ears…unlike most headphones which smash up against them.
As the standards among audiophiles for years, there’s really no better choice ultra high-end listening, or studio quality reference sound.
Here’s the links:
The Grand Daddy of All Open Back Studio Headphones
In Sennheiser‘s legendary line of open back HD headphones, they’ve had many updates over the years:
- First there was the classic HD600…
- Then, the improved HD650…
- Later came the mostly unsuccessful HD700…
- And finally, the critically acclaimed flagship HD800
At first launch, the HD800 was a huge succes. Its popularity grew so quick it actually surpassed that of the classic HD650.
Despite its ridiculous price tag, it still had a shocking number of stellar reviews from satisfied customers.
Apart from that, it had a few technical specs that set it WAY apart from its competitors, namely:
- Widest frequency available – with the ability to reproduce frequencies between 5Hz and 51 kHz
- Extremely low THD – Total Harmonic Distortion is essentially the measure of how much of the signal output is distorted. The HD800 had the lowest of ALL headphones.
- Very high impedance – which is not necessarily a good thing in itself, but it does force you to use a good headphone amp, to drive your headphones even more precisely.
Today, the most current version of the this series is the even more improved HD820.
And of those who reviewers who upgraded from the HD600 or HD650…the overwhelming consensus is…the HD820 blows them BOTH out of the water.
So if you want the absolute best…this is it: