Do you often wonder if you should use headphones or monitors for mixing and mastering? And is one better than the other?
They are questions that plague the mind of even some of the experienced music producers because what works for one person may not work for the other. And with so many options with enticing advertisements available in the market for each, the answer becomes even vaguer.
In this article, we will hand you the facts you will need to decide for yourself. That includes the types of headphones and monitors, their advantages and disadvantages, how each might affect your workflow, sound, budget, etc. Let’s get started.
Monitors vs. Studio Headphones: Which Are Better For Mixing And Mastering?
Let’s start from the basics. We’ll clarify the types of headphones and monitor speakers available and how they affect you.
In general, studio headphones are either over-ear closed-back or open-back headphones. “Over-ear” means they won’t press down on your earlobes, giving you a comfortable experience. Now let’s see what closed-back and open-back mean:
- Closed-Back Headphones
Closed-back headphones do not let the sound leak out of the cans. These are often used for recording when you don’t want the ambient sound of your headphones leaking into your recordings. Similarly, some also consider these headphones better for hearing the details of your track. However, these headphones can accumulate low frequencies.
- Open-Back Headphones
Open headphones have open earmuffs designed to allow some of the sound to disperse into the environment. These headphones emulate the sound of monitors by cross-feeding the stereo channels in the air naturally. Hence, these headphones are preferred for mixing and mastering because they are accurate and avoid the buildup of frequencies. Not only that, they are far healthier for your ears than closed-back headphones.
Passive speakers used to be a favorite type of home studio monitoring. These speakers require an external amplifier. However, the most commonly used by sound engineers nowadays are active, which means the power amplifier is built inside the speaker.
In either case, you have to take your studio space into account. The room’s acoustic is fundamental when it comes to mixing or mastering through monitors. Since monitors produce soundwaves throughout the room, some go directly into your ears, while the rest bounce around the different surfaces in your room.
This phenomenon can change the way you perceive sound. Ideally, the room should have elements that prevent early reflections. So, before you start looking up studio monitors, evaluate and treat the acoustics of your space.
Next, let’s talk about music production. We have two main stages with their specific requirements: Mixing and Mastering. Both headphones and monitor speakers offer distinct features for the two stages. Let’s talk about them all next.
The idea of mixing a song or a musical piece is to have a balance. All the instruments must be heard, at different levels, of course, and produce a feeling of “stability” every time you listen to it. And a mixing engineer relies on their ears to achieve the desired results.
Mixing With Studio Headphones
First, you don’t have to worry about the space or early reflections with headphones. Hence, you won’t have to spend money on acoustic treatment panels or bass traps. Similarly, having zero acoustic interference means hearing more details.
Often, people who have spent a fortune on monitor speakers and acoustic treatments switch to headphones when they want to work on bass or tone adjustments. It’s because headphones make you feel “closer” to the sound, and you become able to focus on the little nuances that change the timbre of your audio.
However, headphones do come with limitations. Usually, they are incapable of producing extreme low frequencies below 40 Hz. So, you might end up thinking the bass isn’t enough and turn it up to compensate. Similarly, you might not like the sound if you choose closed-back headphones because it’s not mixing the two channels.
When you listen to music on a pair of monitors, each ear listens to the corresponding side. However, they also hear the opposite sides at a lower volume after a few milliseconds. Our brain unconsciously processes this phenomenon because it is a part of our nature. And open-back headphones emulate this phenomenon by cross-feeding the sound in the air. It prevents your ears from getting tired and even prevents hearing loss caused by overpowering sound pressure.
It’s not all bad news, though. You can significantly improve the frequency response of studio headphones by using corrective software such as SoundID Reference or Toneboosters Morphit. They work by using a pre-analyzed frequency curve of your specific headphone model and using an EQ curve to correct it.
Mixing With Studio Monitors
More often than not, monitor speakers have a considerably broader frequency response. Similarly, it does so while keeping your ears pressure-free. This fact alone makes monitors much easier to work with for longer times, especially when compared to closed-back headphones.
Furthermore, monitor speakers give you a much more accurate real-life reference to how people listen to your music. While many people do listen on headphones, real speakers on TV, radio, cars, parties, and so on are immensely more prevalent. By mixing your music on monitors, you can be assured that you are taking the room acoustics and cross-feeding into account.
Finally, let’s talk about surround sound. While the subject may be taken as a niche, it’s worth noting that if you are considering working on game audio or film audio, surround audio mixing is currently only possible via monitor speakers. Yes, there are virtual surround emulation software for headphones, but they should be considered a secondary choice.
First, monitor speakers are more expensive, by themselves, and considering the mandatory acoustic treatment. Similarly, to hear as many details as you do with headphones, you’ll have to turn the volume up quite high. It can be harmful to your ears, not to mention an annoyance for the family next door.
So far, we’ve considered that you already have a treated room. However, you should know how big of a hassle treating a room can be if you don’t. Even if you are prepared to go down the DIY road, the cost, research, and physical requirements often make it costlier than mid-end headphones.
And finally, monitor speakers also require optimal placement. You will have to house the two speakers and your seat in a perfect equilateral triangle, with each piece, set somewhere between 1 – 2 meters apart from each other. Otherwise, you will not have the intended listening experience.
Mastering is the process of preparing a track for official release on various platforms like CD, DVD, radio broadcast, or digital markets. It involves making subtle changes to bring up the clarity, loudness, stereo width, etc., conforming to the various commercial standards.
However, since the process is much more subtle, a transparent monitoring environment is a must. Further, you are required to have fresh and unfatigued ears. Hence, mastering engineers often recommend monitor speakers over headphones. Then again, the use of headphones can bring some advantages too.
- Studio Headphones
The lack of room space, cross-feeding, and unbalanced frequency response make mastering on headphones an arguably inferior way to do so. However, you can make it work with some software for balancing the frequency response and emulating room space.
The main reason behind selecting headphones for mastering is for hearing the details. Even more than while mixing, you will need to hear every nuance in your audio to make a satisfying master. And for that, headphones often work better than monitor speakers without world-class room acoustics.
Then again, you might ask if hearing this level of detail is truly worth it. Think about it, you are sacrificing actual room acoustics, wide frequency response, etc., and, at best, replacing it with software for detailed listening. This fact is probably the biggest argument against using headphones for mastering.
- Studio Monitors
The use of monitors is widespread among mastering engineers. The reason behind it is the broader frequency response, accurate stereo imaging, and real-life room acoustics. There is no guesswork when working with monitors. Unlike with dodgy headphones, if the bass seems lacking on monitors, it probably is.
Similarly, when you work with speakers, you have the complete stereo image in front of you. The task of evaluating and deciding on the stereo width becomes much more accessible. You will also detect any phasing issues that might occur due to cross-feeding quicker.
However, all of these advantages come at a cost. Monitor speakers, especially for mastering, require carefully planned and evaluated acoustic treatments. For this purpose, you’ll likely have to hire an expert who knows what they’re doing. Furthermore, calibrating and positioning your speakers are essential as well.
Ideally, you should have both headphones and monitor speakers. Nothing beats the comfort of speakers for gain staging, stereo imaging, and laying down the structure. However, when you need to get closer to your sound while adjusting the tone or tweaking a compressor, headphones make focusing amazingly easy.
Furthermore, we should also keep in mind that people listen to music on both headphones and speakers. If you make music using both, you can rest assured that your mix will translate well.
But what if you can’t afford to have the luxury of owning both?
If we had to make a selection with a limited budget, which, let’s face it, is the case for most of us, we would go with headphones. The reason is simple. A person with a limited budget cannot afford proper room treatments or high-end speakers. And mixing in an untreated room is as good as mixing with laptop speakers.
In contrast, if you own even a budget pair of headphones like the Samson SR850, you can combine it with correction software and actually get excellent results. We do suggest you take frequent breaks, though. It’s easy to get carried away while making music, but consider your ears’ health as well.
K. M. Joshi is a multi-award-winning composer and sound designer, specializing in film, game, and TV audio. He enjoys making cinematic music, rock, blues, and electronica.