So how do you choose which headphones to buy? Well, there are two kinds of headphones you’ll want to have in the control room: your main pair that are accurate and honest with your tracks, and check phones to make sure your mixes translate to what’s out there today.
Even more than speakers, headphones are an intensely personal experience. No two sets of ears are alike and no two people will hear headphones the same way. A lot of your choice will be, and should be, based on comfort and personal taste.
You should pay attention to clarity, detail, and spatial accuracy. A nicely blended euphonious listening experience isn’t what you’re after, if it comes at the expense of precision. You’re working here! by hearing it on your trusted headphones. A good studio headphone will give you a believable soundfield from a good mix, even though technically all the audio is “far left” and “far right” rather than blended in the air as with speakers.
Headphones don’t have long detailed spec sheets like other audio gear; for example, their frequency responses will never have tolerances listed, because no two ear canals will give the same results. Two specs that are useful are the sensitivity and the impedance.
Sensitivity is listed in dB/mV (or dB/mW, although technically that’s an efficiency, not a sensitivity). In very general terms it’s a measure of how loud the headphone gets when you feed it a certain amount of signal, and a higher sensitivity is usually better.
Impedance is given in ohms; there is no direct correlation between impedance and sound quality, but a lower impedance means the headphone will get louder when fed with a weak headphone amp like the one in a smartphone or cheap audio interface.
Some famous headphones have impedances as high as 600 ohms, and require a robust amp to drive them; impedance under 200 ohms is much more common these days, and often can be as low as 25 ohms or less.
Open or closed back? Closed, if you’ll use them in an environment with open mics nearby or where bleed from headphones will disturb others. Otherwise, go for what sounds clearest to you.
What about check phones? Apple earbuds are a no-brainer. Millions of pairs are out there, and you need to know what your tunes sound like on them. If you’re doing electronic dance music you’ll need a pair of fashionable boomy DJ phones to check your low end, but do yourself a favor and don’t use them for mixing.