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Best Studio Headphones for Sound Quality (2020)

Author: Robin Vincent

Last updated: Oct 9, 2020

Reads: 20,248

Robin Vincent is the founder of Molten Music Technology Ltd. His Molten YouTube channel has passed 3.3 million views and gathered 28,000 subscribers. He writes reviews and features for Sound On Sound magazine, the world's premier audio recording technology magazine and is a regular columnist focusing on PreSonus Studio One. He is the synthesizer correspondent for news website

If you're making music then you're going to need at least one pair of headphones.

You might need them when recording instruments or using microphones or for monitoring when laying down vocals. They can also become an important part of the mixing process, giving you a different perspective.

The question of whether you should get closed or open-back headphones will always come up. Generally speaking, “closed-back” headphones are designed for monitoring and isolating the sound for recording. So the phones will completely cover your ears and hopefully prevent any sound leaking out and into the microphones. “Open-back” headphones are used more for mixing where leaking isn’t important so they are less isolating but give a more natural sound.

There are a lot of great studio headphones for reasonable prices and in this round-up, we’ll include a range of budgets. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find something that matches your pocket and your professionalism.

The best studio headphones available are:

  • Audio Technica ATH-M50X
  • Adam Studio Pro SP-5
  • Sony MDR-7506
  • Status Audio CB-1
  • Focal Listen Professional
  • Sennheiser HD 800
  • Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro
  • AKG K240 Studio Headphones

Audio Technica ATH-M50x

Audio Technica ATHM-50X

We’ll kick off with the fabulous Audio Technica ATHM-50X because if you were going to get one pair of headphones and you get bamboozled by “Best of” lists then get these — job done!

The ATH-M50x have everything you’d expect from a pair of professional monitoring headphones. They look the business, all padded ear cups and headband. They are also available in white but no one in their right mind would get them in anything other than black. They have solid low-end definition, a reassuring amount of clarity across the frequency range and are regarded as being pretty extraordinary, considering the price.

They have excellent isolation, making them perfect for recording and monitoring. The earcups can easily rotate so you can push one ear off for single-ear monitoring and still have a comfortable fit on the other. The cables are detachable, which for many people is a critical feature in an environment where cable tangling or stretching can be a problem.

Despite the great isolation they are also great all-rounders, being favored by DJs, and are often used for mixing and personal listening.

Street Price: $149

Adam Studio Pro SP-5

Adam Studio Pro SP-5

Adam Audio is famous for its studio monitor speakers. The SP-5 is their first foray into the headphone market but these are shaping up to be every bit as desirable as their speaker environments.

The SP-5s are closed-back and designed to offer a balanced and dynamic response for mixing and monitoring. The 40mm gold plated diaphragm gives a wide response with excellent transient response and very low distortion. Their Ultrasone’s S-LOGIC Plus technology gives a natural, three-dimensional sound using a decentralized driver position that engages the outer ear before blasting your auditory canal. It gives it the ability to define direction and distances and positional information increasingly common in mixing for music in games and other media.

The S-LOGIC technology also allows it to take some of the energy out of the sound without reducing loudness to reduce the fatigue on your ears — so you could wear these all day. There’s even special shielding to reduce magnetic radiation. A lot has gone into these headphones to make them comfortable and easy to use in environments where you may need to be wearing them all day, which can be very common in residentially based mixing situations.

Maybe Adam is onto something.

Street Price: $499

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Sony MDR-7506

Sony MDR 7506

Can’t seem to get away from these headphones; they are everywhere. They seem to be knocking around every studio hanging out on every mixing desk. But they are not treated like a great piece of audio gear, they are thrown around and sat on like they’re disposable. Perhaps it’s a combination of the plastic, fold-away build and that bargain-basement price of $79 a pair.

In any case, the Sony MDR-7506 has become ubiquitous in audio situations. The 40mm drivers pump out an impressively flat and wide frequency response and they fit comfortably without overwhelming your head.

They are “closed-back” but the flimsiness of the ear padding means that you’re not going to get awesome isolation, but it will do. They have a curled cable that’s not removable which is great for working at a mixing desk as the cable keeps itself out of the way. Perhaps a bit cumbersome for activities outside the studio.

The Sony MDR-7506’s are not special or exceptional, they are cheap, cheerful, and happen to have a great frequency response for studio work.

Street Price: $79

Status Audio CB-1

Status Audio CB-1

Giving the Sonys a run for their money are newcomers Status Audio and their CB-1 closed-back studio headphones. It’s like they looked at the MDR-7506 and thought that they could do everything better and come in at the same price. And they nailed it.

The CB-1s have larger 50mm drivers pumping out a wider response with a clearer high-end. The ear cups are overstuffed and thick, giving a much more comfortable feel and superior isolation. The headband feels nicer on the head, especially after long sessions.

The cable is detachable, and it comes with a straight one and a curly one in the box, making them more versatile and cool for your commute. They are foldable and although they are made of plastic, they do have a decent weight to them. The design and feel make them look far less disposable.

It’s the popularity that keeps the Sony MDR-7506 on this list but if I had to choose a pair of closed-back headphones for under $100 it would be these every time.

Street Price: $79

Focal Listen Professional

Focal Listen Professional

Focal suggests that we should be listening to our music and not our headphones, which is a clever way of saying these headphones are nicely transparent and aim for precision and neutrality.

They are looking to work in every situation by being closed back and isolating and yet comfortable enough to feel like something more open. The sort of headphones that are going to give you the sound you need to work with over long periods but would also feel light enough to be comfortable on your journey to work.

The 40mm speaker driver has a Mylar/Titanium core, making it extremely light with very low distortion and capable of working up to 40kHz. But the bottom end has also seen a lot of engineering to ensure a superb response from 5Hz to 22kHz.

The Focal Listen Pros come with a couple of cables to cover both professional and phone connections and a really nice box to keep them in. They are super comfortable, versatile, and well-priced.

Street Price: $299

Sennheiser HD 800

Sennheiser HD 800

As I say, there are a lot of good headphones in the Sennheiser HD range. Consider the mid-range HD 660 or HD 700s. But if you want to head into the high-end then check out the HD 800 S.

These are “reference class” headphones. That means that they’ve been engineered to a level where they can be used as devices to test other audio equipment. The sound is completely transparent, giving a crisp high-end and a ridiculously defined low-end. The huge 56mm drivers are encased in steel and direct sound to your ears at a precise angle to offer a more natural soundstage. The sound is all there, without distortion, without masking — it’s crystal clear.

The plush earpads are handmade from microfibre and the low-fatigue aerospace headband makes them comfortable all day. There are two cable socket options for regular jacks or mini XLR. Being open, they are aimed directly at mixing and mastering, or someone who wants to rediscover their love of music.

The difference, when compared to headphones knocking around for a couple of hundred dollars, is astounding. I mean, we spend a lot of energy trying to big-up sub-$100 headphones but with the HD 800 S, they will be the best things you’ve ever put on your head.

Street Price: $1,699

Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro

Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro

Heading up in price is the Beyerdynamic, another company that could easily have more than one pair in this list. But you’ve got enough choices lower down so it’s time to look at something a bit special. The DT 1770 Pro Tesla studio reference headphones are designed for mixing, mastering, and monitoring.

They are beautifully understated and use the latest Tesla driver technology to pour all of that Beyerdynamic expertise into a benchmark set of headphones. A 3-layer membrane suppresses unwanted vibrations, the impressively efficient drivers and carefully selected acoustic fabric offer distortion-free audio even at high volumes. Made with high-tech materials throughout, they are so comfortable you’ll forget you’re wearing them.

The closed-back design can overwhelm the low frequencies but in the DT 1770 Pro, they are kept clean and punchy. The isolation copes brilliantly with the outstanding output level, meaning you never have to worry about the bleed. But Beyerdynamic has been clever here to include two sets of earpads. One leatherette set provides the best closed sound for monitoring whereas a second velour set provides a more open sound for mixing and mastering.

So, you’re not having to compromise whatever function you want to use them for. However, if you predominately need headphones for mixing then the DT 1990 Pro offers the same specifications but with an open back for the same price.

They come with a hard case and both a straight and curly cable that connects via mini XLR. The DT 1770 Pro are a professional solution to your listening, mixing and monitoring needs.

Closed-back with open earpads
Street Price: $599

AKG K240 Studio Headphones

AKG K240

The K240 headphones are a studio classic. You can always spot them by the distinctive gold band around the earcups. They are remarkably cheap, comfortable and being semi-open, are ideal for mixing and tracking. If your budget is tight then the K240s are going to fit the bill nicely.

The 30 mm “Varimotion” drivers produce a solid low end, accurate mids, and some really nice high frequencies. The headband adapts to your head and the earcups are comfortable enough to wear for extended periods. They have an airy feel to them that doesn’t over-emphasize the bass and reduces the fatigue that you can get with closed-back headphones.

The cable is detachable using a mini XLR connector, which is great for cable replacement but slightly annoying since it’s not likely to be the type of cable you’ll have knocking around.

For $69, you can’t get a better pair of headphones for critical listening and mixing.

Street Price: $69

Wrapping It Up

Like microphones, some headphones stick around as studio favorites. You can never go wrong with your AKG or Sennheisers; they will always come up with the goods regardless of the task or the environment you’re in.

But there are other choices and putting down a couple of hundred dollars will get you a different mixing experience to what you may be used to. Studios are not the same as they’ve always been. The way we make music, the way we listen, mix and master has changed. The type of content we’re mixing for and the end product can now be so many different things.

Maybe Adam Audio has something going on with being futuristic-looking and diverse in application, or perhaps Status has made all the right moves in the budget space if that’s where you’re looking. In any case, they will beat your earbuds or DJ cans any day of the week.

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Community Question

What are headphones for in studio?

In a recording studio setting, headphones are used for recording instruments or vocals so the performer can hear the full backing track while the Engineer captures sound-isolated recordings of their sound. Headphones are also used by Engineers/Producers to mix tracks.

Community Question

Are studio headphones worth it?

If you want a professional sound mix and/or you want to record vocals or instruments as separate tracks, studio headphones are absolutely worth it. You get higher quality recordings and mixes when you’re able to better hear sound. Fashion/gaming headphones will not cut it.

Community Question

Should I get open back or closed-back headphones?

When you want to monitor and isolate sound you’re recording, go with closed-back headphones. Their design stops unwanted, unrelated sound from getting in the way of recording by leaking in or out of the headphones. When you’re mixing sound, choose open-back headphones for a more natural sound.

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