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Studio Monitors vs Headphones

12 October 2021by Iglesias0

Monitors vs Headphones

A question I am always asked is Headphones vs Speakers, which is better? Well the truth is, it is all subjective and really does depend on what you prefer, your writing/ mixing styles and your studio set up limitations. Some of the biggest producers in the industry are swearing by headphones and same will only use monitors, so I understand why this question pops up quite a lot.  In this article I will discuss some of the pros and cons of both studio headphones vs monitors.

To give a fair comparison between the two, let’s say that we are referring to high end professional headphones as opposed to ear phones made by apple. The cost may not be the sole indicator of professional vs consumer quality as a lot of consumer headphones are actually expensive but more so because they are fashionable. So I am going to say that we are using a set of £800+ headphones. For the studio monitors it doesn’t matter so much about the price point but again, let’s say we are talking about a set of monitors that are £2000+.

HEADPHONES: PROS

So let’s kick off with the Pros and Cons of using Headphones and get into it straight away with the first big pro – you can listen to them wherever you are and whenever you want. Often producers have the limitations from neighbours, families asleep and studio space and that is the main big pro for headphones. There are two types of headphones however –

  • Closed Back headphones are pretty much completely silent and virtually no sound will be leaked from them.
  • Open back headphones will leak a bit more sound but shouldn’t cause too much fuss to anyone a few meters away from you (of course if you make music while your girlfriend/ boyfriend is trying to sleep in the same room, these might not be the best option for you).

A big pro to using headphones is that they take the room out of the equation by having no impact from the direct amplitude. What I mean by this is that because the speaker is right next to your ear, the cups do not cause any reflections, so what you hear is the EQ curve and filters from the headphones themselves. Having no involvement/ issues created from the room when using headphones is a huge bonus if you are either producing or mixing whilst traveling and don’t have a studio set up or if you have no way of treating a room in your house/ studio.

Headphones provide huge benefits therefore to engineers and producers that are working in less than optimal spaces. If your studio space has acoustic issues, using headphones can mitigate those issues by removing the rooms acoustic influence. In a recent article I spoke about how the character of my room has a 4db dip at 80hz before upgrading my studio and monitoring system. I used to use headphones to listen for this area to see if my kick and bass were working together and how much punch my kick had. So even though I don’t use headphones that much anymore, it was a huge part of my referencing for quite some time.

Headphones also massively excel at certain monitoring jobs and is why a lot of studio set ups will still use headphones when referencing their mix. Most listeners will not be listening to your records in ideal set ups and more often than not will also be using headphones. Headphones can often highlight more detail including clicks and pops from chopping audio that may not appear obvious when using monitors (this depends on how good your monitors are of course).

The last pro I want to touch on is space. Of course it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that headphones take up a far lower footprint in your room. If you are in the position where you have limited space for a set of monitors then a good set of Studio grade headphones will be great for you.

So those are just a few of the main benefits when using headphones and now I want to talk about the Cons.

HEADPHONES: CONS

So I will keep this part fairly short as a lot of the cons are fairly self explanatory but are also fairly big cons to using headphones as the only source of monitoring when producing, mixing or mastering.

The first (and probably the biggest one) is you will always question yourself. What do I mean by this? Well you are using headphones! You will always wonder how will this sound on studio monitors or big club speaker systems when air is being pushed around a room. I have tried to make music on headphones only and when it came to checking the mix on speakers it was completely different. On headphones it was great and on a flat monitoring system it was all over the place which leads me onto the next point – EQ characteristics.

All headphones have their own EQ curves and filters. Unless you purchase a set of Sonarworks headphones that have been pre-calibrated, you will actually end up spending another £250+ on calibration software to fix the curves created by the manufacture. Why do manufactures add curves to their headphones?… to make them sound better. When we are producing, mixing or mastering we don’t want our music to just sound better, we want a true representation of what is actually going on. So without some kind of EQ calibration, it can make understanding the balance in your mix actually quite difficult.

On to the next point and this is about low end. The chances of finding a set of headphones that will produce low end better than a set of Studio monitors is incredibly slim. There is a reason why bass bins are so big and why headphones are far smaller – headphones cannot push out as much air and energy as a monitors in the low end.

Next point is about depth and stereo image. Headphones play audio to two sides of your head – your ears. Headphones play audio independently to each ear – why is that an issue then? You will always loose out on the natural crossfeed effects which has a direct impact on your perception of your mix decisions when it comes to left to right panning as well as front to back depth. A quick example of this is that if you are using speakers and want to make sure your vocal is down the middle, you can hear this straight away in the phantom centre. If you want to in headphones it will still be sitting between your ears. Also if you want to pan something from left to right smoothly, it can be hard to understand the transition.

So quickly touching on headphones amps. As you may or not be aware, not all headphones can just be plugged into your phone or computer. All headphones will require different power and impedance specifications so this actually becomes a little bit of a hassle. You will now need to match your headphones with the right headphone amp which is funny because manufactures almost always put out their best specifications based on a high quality headphone amp. Often headphone amps can be just as much or even more expensive than your headphones to get the maximum capabilities from them.

So without jumping to conclusion just yet, let’s talk about the main pros and cons of using Monitors.

STUDIO MONITORS: PROS

Speakers produce sound waves by it’s cones moving forward and backwards pushing air in the physical space of your room and therefore communicate not just the sound of the audio, but far more importantly the physical feeling of audio. This is a huge pro to using monitors and one that I cannot ever give up. Music is of course about the audio but also about how it makes you feel and I don’t mean emotionally – I mean how does the bass hit you in the chest! Hearing a bassline is one thing, but feeling how it smacks you in the face is another story and is often what us producers enjoy the most. If you go to a club and there are no bass bins but the audio from the tops are impeccable, you won’t care at all – the reason for that is that you can’t feel it. So just the same when we are making music, being able to feel the audio is incredibly important.

Another huge pro is understanding balance. Now I can’t actually explain why this is the case without sounding Chinese, but deciding on the balance of the mix is far easier to do on monitors and this is because of the natural interaction between the speakers pushing air and the physical listening environment – you will then use headphones to check this and make minor tweaks if need be (again something I haven’t done myself in a very long time). Also just as important when understanding balance, is understanding stereo image and depth.

As I mentioned earlier, speakers move air around your room and towards your ears which is different to the way that headphones work as the gap between the cups and your ears are of only a few centimetres. Sound waves from monitors of course don’t just travel in a straight line to your ears but react with your room, get absorbed by furniture and objects in the room and undergo shifts in timing and phase. This can be seen as both a pro and con but what it does do is provide our brain with the understanding of direction and level and thus feels and sounds, far more organic. Unlike headphones where your left ear hears the left headphone and the right ear the right headphones – when using monitors both ears hear both speakers but with slight differences in terms of reflections, timing and phase. This is often referred to as crossfeed if you ever read more into this.

The last benefit I want to touch on is SPL. There is definitely a limit on how loud you can push headphones as they are right next to your ears, so if you want to hear more bass there isn’t much you can do. When it comes to monitors there are a lot of changes that can be made to increase your maximum SPL which include pairing a sub or opting for larger drivers. For me this is a big thing as often I like to sit at the back of my room on the sofa and get an understanding of how it would feel and sound in a club – unless you pair your headphones with a sub pack (which aren’t too bad ) this isn’t going to be the same when opting for headphones.

STUDIO MONITORS: CONS

So I might as well talk about the main con here and that is that Monitors can be loud. To get a balanced representation of your audio you will typically need to drive your monitors to around 85db SPL to hear all the frequencies. If you live in a built up area, at your parents house or just generally can’t play music loud – this is going to be a big issue for you.

The next big issue is room treatment. Unlike headphones where you can buy a set and away you go – when using monitors you must remember the speakers will only be as good as your room. Because monitors will use the room to bounce the air around. Untreated rooms are only going to make the speakers give you false information. If you have an echoey space, loads of reverb build up or even a lack of low end (because of no bass trapping) it becomes almost impossible to work with and translate to club systems, radio or streaming services. So remember that your Monitors are only ever going to be as good as the room they are placed in.

The next con (and actually this can be applied to headphones also) is that the monitors quality and accuracy is (and to some degree) often reflected by their cost. While incredible studio headphones can cost around £800+, you will actually need to spend over double this to really compete with the accuracy and quality. Most speakers around the same price point will not be able to reproduce tight low end and will often add colour to make them more enjoyable to listen to (cough, cough, KRK, cough…). So when you are next reading about your speakers specifications, check up on their reliability. My Focal Trio 11’s go down to 29hz and I have measured that. I often have people turnaround and say that their £1000 speakers do the same – well guess what, no chance.

So to round things off – I will never tell you which one is better as ultimately it is down to a few things:

  • Cost
  • Environment
  • Personal Preference

You will find a process that works for you. I know tonnes of producers that make music with monitors and swear by them and on the flip side know a lot that use headphones. If you can learn how your monitors or headphones translate to clubs, radio and streaming services then it really doesn’t matter what you decide to use. One thing I would like to end on is to touch on room correction and correction applications. If you are not using Sonarworks then I strongly recommend using it. Anyone who says that they have no issues in their room will:

A) not be reading this as they are working in a multi-million dollar studio

B) be working in a multi-mullion dollar studio and using room correction

or C) be lying

Room correction tools are incredibly powerful these days so give Sonarworks a shot. If you have the budget, then I strongly recommend Trinnov. A lot of the top studios will now be managed by a Trinnov unit as there is nothing else like it (and so transparent) on the market.

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