If you’re a producer or dream of becoming one, you will need to have good audio gear. The choice between studio monitors and high-quality headphones will greatly influence the quality of your music. But which is better for mixing?
Studio monitors are generally better for mixing as compared to headphones. They sound flat and usually have better stereo imaging because of crossfeed. However, headphones are good for hearing finer details and fixing sound artifacts. They are also cheaper, portable, and make less noise.
Because studio monitors and headphones are completely different, it’s best to get both. However, amateur musicians are often forced to pick one or the other. This article will go over the pros and cons of both options to help you decide which is better for you.
- 1 Overview of Studio Monitors
- 1.1 Pros of Studio Monitors
- 1.2 Cons of Studio Monitors
- 2 Overview of Headphones
- 2.1 Pros of Headphones
- 2.2 Cons of Headphones
- 3 Should I Get Studio Monitors or Headphones for Mixing First?
- 4 Are Studio Monitors Better Than Headphones for Mixing?
- 5 Final Thoughts
- 6 Sources
Overview of Studio Monitors
Studio monitors are basically a pair of high-quality speakers designed to have balanced, accurate sound. They can provide an accurate, realistic sound profile. However, getting them to sound great can be tricky and costly.
Pros of Studio Monitors
You might’ve noticed that professionals always have a pair of high-quality monitors on each side. Wondering why? Let’s look at a few reasons why producers love their studio monitors so much.
Studio Monitors Have an Open, More Natural Sound
Sound waves coming out of studio monitors must travel through the air before reaching your ears. Even if the sound is coming out of only one monitor, we can hear it with both ears. This effect is called crossfeed.
Our brains are used to perceiving and processing sound this way, which means studio monitors can effortlessly achieve a natural sound due to the way they work.
Crossfeed is important when panning different instruments and vocals. Panning a guitar on studio monitors is much easier to do, and it’ll sound better than when you do it on headphones.
Studio Monitors Have Superior Stereo Imaging
Stereo imaging is the sound effect you get when standing in a real sound stage at a concert hall or opera house. Basically, it’s what gives your sound a realistic 3D effect.
Studio monitors have a more realistic, wider stereo image when compared to headphones. This makes it much easier to mix and master your music.
Studio Monitors Have a Flat Frequency Response Curve
One of the main reasons why professionals favor monitors over headphones is their flat sound.
Studio monitors are physically much larger, making it easier to get an accurate sound out of them. They use a large speaker cone to reproduce sound.
A flat frequency response curve essentially means that there’s no coloration in the sound. This is desirable because you get a pure 1:1 sound.
It allows you to create a mix that always sounds good, no matter what kind of speaker or headphones you’re using to listen to it.
Cons of Studio Monitors
Studio monitors are better than headphones for mixing, and there’s no doubt about that. However, they do come with a few undeniable problems that might steer you into buying headphones instead.
Studio Monitors Require Professional Acoustic Treatment
The biggest downside by far with studio monitors is that you can’t use them wherever you want.
Aside from the fact that they aren’t backpack-friendly like headphones are, you need an acoustically treated studio to use studio monitors.
While you technically can get away with using monitors in an untreated room, you won’t get the sound you paid for.
This is because sound bounces off of reflective surfaces like windows and walls. Additionally, corners absorb all your bass. This can throw the balance of your mix completely out of whack.
Without bass traps, you’ll add way too much bass. When you play the song back in your car, you won’t hear anything from all the rumble and vibrations.
Studio Monitors Must Get Loud for a Flat Sound
Different sound frequencies start to sound flat when you get to 85 dB and above. Most professionals crank up the volume to this level or higher when mixing.
For reference, sound at about 85 dB is the equivalent of being in heavy traffic or mowing your lawn. Incidentally, this is also when sounds are so loud that they can cause permanent hearing damage. Maybe that’s why we hear a flat frequency curve at this loudness level.
Aside from hearing damage, you’ll get constant noise complaints from your family and neighbors. So, while it’s possible to mix at volumes below 85 dB, it’s a far cry from perfect.
So you need to ask yourself an important question – what’s the point of buying expensive studio monitors if you can’t use them the way you’re supposed to?
Studio Monitors Are Expensive
Speaking of expensive, studio monitors aren’t even in the same price bracket as headphones.
Professional studio monitors by brands like Yamaha, Kali, and Neumann start at around $200-300 per monitor. A really good pair can cost you well over $1,000.
Getting studio monitors at the dawn of your music career isn’t feasible for the vast majority of people.
Overview of Headphones
All of us have used headphones at some point or another. But getting a pair of studio headphones for mixing is a different story. To clear up any confusion, I’ll only be talking about mid to high-end headphones designed with a flat frequency response curve and made for professional use.
Pros of Headphones
Studio headphones come with a few unique advantages that no pair of studio monitors can match.
So, let’s take a look at what you can expect from a decent pair of cans.
Headphones Are Portable
Studio monitors sound great and all, but traveling with them is all but impossible. Even if you did manage to cramp them into your car or tour bus, they’d sound bad in a hotel room that isn’t acoustically treated.
Compare that to headphones, which you can easily throw into a backpack. You can also wear headphones around your neck and use them to listen to music on the bus or airplane.
If you’re a producer who happens to be a DJ, you’ll certainly appreciate the fact that you can use the headphones with your laptop to continue mixing and mastering tracks.
Of course, you may still have to adjust the finer details once you get back into the studio. But you can finish 80-90% of the track using nothing but your headphones and a laptop.
Headphones Are Cheaper
Studio monitors will set you back at least around $500-600 if you’re lucky or buy used ones.
Of course, you can find banger headphones that cost as much as studio monitors do. However, buying something that expensive is not really necessary.
Most professionals swear by surprisingly affordable headphones for mixing and mastering new tracks. In fact, you can usually get away with headphones priced under $200.
The best example is the Audio-Technica ATH M-40x Studio Headphones (Amazon.com), which are even more affordable and will set you back less than $100. They have a sturdy construction and sound surprisingly flat.
If the price of studio monitors is the main thing setting you back, don’t worry. You’ll still get incredible results from budget studio headphones.
- Cutting edge engineering and robust construction
- 40 millimeter drivers with rare earth magnets and copper clad aluminum wire voice coils
- Circumaural design contours around the ears for excellent sound isolation in loud environments
Last update on 2022-01-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
You Can Hear More Detail on Headphones
You’re finally done with mixing on studio monitors. You can finally kick back, grab your headphones, and listen to the track. However, instead of hearing an incredibly punchy bass paired with crystal-clear vocals, all you hear is a distorted mess.
That’s because headphones allow you to hear far more detail. Even the cheapest pair of studio headphones will beat studio monitors in this regard.
Headphones allow you to hear any imperfections that you didn’t notice at first. You can fix layering issues with different instruments, pops, distortion, clipping, cracks, and so on.
This reason alone is why you must always have a pair of headphones in your studio.
Headphones Always Sound Good
If you have a large house, it’s easy to turn a smaller room into a complete studio. However, this is very expensive and is not always a feasible option for non-professional producers.
Headphones are far more practical. They don’t need a professionally treated room with acoustic panels and bass traps. Even better, they’ll sound the same no matter where you are: in a studio, on a plane, in your living room, or another similar location.
Headphones Don’t Make Noise
If you live in a small apartment, noise becomes a huge problem with studio monitors. You must turn the volume up to hear everything, but you can’t because of neighbors.
This simply isn’t the case with headphones. Even if you crank your headphones up to 11, nobody except for you will hear it.
Keep in mind that open-back headphones do leak out a fair bit of sound, and if somebody’s in the room, they’ll hear your mixtape. However, even these are nowhere near close to the volume of studio monitors.
Cons of Headphones
You probably know, by now, that studio monitors are much better for mixing than headphones. However, we haven’t talked about why that is.
Let’s go over a few downsides of using headphones to do all your mixing and mastering.
Sound Separation Is a Problem on Headphones
Unlike studio monitors, headphones don’t have any crossfeed whatsoever. Your left ear only hears the left channel, and the right ear hears the right one.
This stereo effect is a characteristic of all headphones, making it challenging to adjust mix panning, reverb, depth, and other effects that depend on a wide stereo image. Additionally, if your headphones don’t have decent stereo imaging, you won’t be able to pinpoint where a sound is coming from.
One common mistake producers make when mixing on headphones is narrow stereo imaging. This essentially means that all instruments will sound like they’re dead-center, which leads to a dull, lifeless mix.
Headphones Color the Sound
All headphones filter sound slightly. This is sometimes done on purpose to get a punchier bass or crisper treble.
Unfortunately, this is fairly common on studio headphones as well. This is probably because it’s expensive and near-impossible to create headphone drivers with a flat frequency response curve.
It’s not a problem when you use the headphones for casual music listening, but it’s a huge setback for mixing in the studio.
Headphones Take Some Time Getting Used To
Since headphones influence how your mix sounds, getting to know your pair of cans is vital.
For example, let’s say your headphones don’t have enough bass. So, you have to keep adding it to get a beefier sound. And when you play the track on your speakers, you won’t be able to make out the vocals from all the bass.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use the headphones, and you’ll get better at fine-tuning your mix once you get used to how your headphones sound. However, it means that you’ll have to clock in many hours to familiarize yourself with them first.
Wearing Headphones for Extended Periods Is Uncomfortable
Even the most comfortable over-ear studio headphones become uncomfortable eventually.
It’s even worse in summer. The clamping effect caused by wearing headphones will make your ears sweat. In some cases, it can even become painful, especially if you wear a pair of glasses, and by the time you’re done mixing for the day, your ears will be severely fatigued.
If you’re one of those people that don’t mind wearing headphones all day and every day, great. For me, nothing can match the comfort of good old studio monitors.
Should I Get Studio Monitors or Headphones for Mixing First?
You should get headphones first since good studio monitors are expensive and hard to come by. A good pair of headphones will cost a fraction of the price of high-quality studio monitors. Additionally, you can hear more detail in your mix using headphones. Ultimately, you should own both for mixing.
Are Studio Monitors Better Than Headphones for Mixing?
Studio monitors are better than headphones for mixing. They have a wider stereo image, making it easier to adjust panning, depth, and other important parts of your mix. However, you should have a pair of high-quality headphones as well because they have more detail.
For more information, check out my other article:
Both studio monitors and headphones deserve their place in your studio.
Overall, studio monitors make mixing and achieving a well-balanced tone easier. Thanks to their flat frequency response, you can create a great balance between punchy mids, clear vocals, and crisp treble.
That said, headphones often allow you to hear far more detail in the mix because they sit so close to your ears. You can use headphones to fix any mistakes you may have overlooked and make some adjustments.
- Wikipedia: Studio monitor
- Wikipedia: Crossfeed
- LANDR: Stereo Imaging: How to Make Your Mix Sound Wide
- Eartech Music: Flat Frequency Response (and don’t forget about Phase)
- E-Home Recording Studio: CHAPTER 3: The Ultimate Guide to Acoustic Treatment for Home Studios
- Canadian Audiologist: How Loud Should You Mix?
- Health Link BC: Harmful Noise Levels
- Music Radar: Headphones vs studio monitors: which is better for mixing?
- Head-Fi: What does coloured sound mean?
- Gym Hugz: WHY IS MY GAMING HEADSET CAUSING SWEATY EARS?