One of the most asked questions in the recording scene is whether or not headphones can be used in mixing and mastering. Traditionally, mixing and mastering is done on studio monitors. The reason for this is because studio monitors are more accurate than headphones.
However, headphones have a place in the production chain. And if you are just starting out, can greatly help you in your mixing and mastering workflow. In this article, we will be tackling the best headphones for mixing and mastering audio. We will be going over the industry-standard headphones used by professionals and budget options for those who are just getting started.
We also have a dedicated section that goes deeper as to why studio monitors are superior to headphones as well as some answers for commonly asked questions.
- Best Headphones for Mixing
- Why Mixing and Mastering is Not Recommended with Headphones
- When Can You Use Headphones for Mixing
- Why Open-Back Headphones are Better than Closed-Back for Mixing and Mastering
- Do I Need a Headphone Amplifier?
Best Headphones for Mixing
If you want the headphones that are used and trusted by professionals, then these are the ones that you should check out.
Sennheiser HD600 Series
Kicking off this list is the latest headphone from Sennheiser’s highly popular HD600 series, the new Sennheiser HD660s. It is the successor to the HD650 and the third revision of the HD600.
The primary reason why these headphones have been so popular in the past two decades is because of their neutral sound signature and near-indestructible build quality. The neutral sound greatly helps in the accuracy of mixes, while the reliable build quality helps them survive any situation inside or outside the studio.
The highlight of the HD660s is its new drivers that reduce the original impedance from 300-ohms to 150-ohms. This means that more devices can theoretically power the HD660s, but we’ll talk more about that later.
In terms of the build quality, the HD660s stays true to the iconic HD600 series design. There are large grills that expose the drivers and help with ventilation. Aside from some aesthetic changes, there are no major differences between the HD660s and other HD600 models in terms of the build quality.
But in terms of the sound quality, the HD660s makes some changes that help improve the HD650 and HD600’s already great sound signature. The sound is still fairly neutral, with an emphasis on the mids. Vocals and other instruments in the midrange are more highlighted, just like the rest of the HD600 headphones.
But with the help of the new drivers, the HD660s manages to solve some of the issues found on the older HD600 headphones. The HD660s manages to fix the infamous “Sennheiser veil” and can now reproduce better highs.
The signature takes the best parts of the HD650 and the HD600. It manages to combine the HD600’s analytical approach to sound reproduction with the HD650’s better technicalities and fun factor. And with that, Sennheiser has managed to update the HD600 series to compete with modern offerings such as the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro.
One thing to take note of is that despite the lower impedance, the HD660s still require a decent amount of power to achieve their full potential. We recommend pairing it with a fairly powerful headphone amplifier to get the best results.
If you want the best performing headphone in the HD600 lineup, then the Sennheiser HD660s is worth it. But if you find the HD660s to be too expensive, then keep on scrolling because there are more affordable options in the HD600 series.
You can learn more from Sennheiser’s Official Website.
Due to how unique the four Sennheiser HD600 headphones are, some people still prefer the older generation offerings. The HD650 was the first major revision to the original Sennheiser HD600. It was released in 2003 and made some changes to the looks and the sound of the HD600.
The HD650 served as the standard for high-end headphones before the release of the HD800. Just like the HD650, the HD600 was mostly similar to the HD600 in terms of its looks. It was mostly the sound that was different.
In terms of the sound quality of the HD6XX, it features the mid-centric sound that has been the famous party trick of the HD600 series. But compared to the other Sennheiser HD600 headphones, the HD650 was noticeably darker sounding.
This kind of signature was preferred by those who were sensitive to highs. It also enabled the HD650 to sound more lively and less analytical without sacrificing accuracy.
But at its current price, the HD 650 is a bit expensive especially with how close it is to the HD660s. However, through Massdrop/Drop and Sennheiser’s collaboration, you can get the HD650 at a significantly more affordable price in the form of the HD6XX.
Drop has managed to bring the HD6XX at an entry-level price point without cutting any corners. Everything from the build quality to the sound quality has been kept intact. And at this price point, no professional headphone can even begin to touch the technicalities of the HD6XX.
The downside is that the HD6XX also carries the notable downsides of the HD6XX, such as the intimate soundstage and veil in the highs. But if you take a look at the competition, there aren’t many headphones that can even begin to challenge the HD6XX.
If you want to have Sennheiser’s tried and tested design, then the HD650/HD6XX is a great addition to your professional workflow. Just remember to pair this with a headphone amplifier since it has an impedance of 300-ohms. You can learn all about headphone impedance and power requirements in our dedicated article.
You can also find the best headphone amplifiers for the HD6XX in our dedicated article.
You can learn more from Sennheiser’s Official Website.
Despite the various redesigns of the HD600, some still prefer the sound of the original Sennheiser HD600. This headphone was the first official model in the HD600 series and is one of Sennheiser’s oldest headphones that are still being produced today. It was first released in 1997 and has been the reference headphone for over 20 years.
The HD600 is the successor to the Sennheiser HD580, released in 1994 (not to be confused with Drop’s current HD58X). The HD580 is widely considered as the original HD6XX headphone since it laid the design elements and sound signature of the HD6XX.
The main differentiating factor between the HD600 and the rest of the HD6XX headphones is its neutrality. There is less energy and detail in the bass and treble frequencies than the more modern entries, but it manages to have a warm and smooth characteristic that makes these headphones easy to listen to.
And of course, the HD600 is the headphone that introduced the HD6XX series’ stellar mid-range reproduction. The HD600’s mids are forward, like the rest of the HD6XX headphones, but are smoother. It has less details than the modern entries but has distinct buttery smooth characteristics that make for an easy listening experience.
One of the criticisms of the HD600 is it does not have a complete sound. As mentioned earlier, the bass and highs are nothing special. This is understandable given its age and has since been fixed by both the HD650 and HD660s.
The current iteration of the Sennheiser HD600 sports a new grey color scheme and has a frame design similar to the newer Sennheiser HD660s. Everything else from the drivers to the cable seems to be the same. The HD600 is an incredibly durable headphone that stands the test of time, so there isn’t much that needs to be updated in the build quality.
Overall, if you want the most neutral headphones in the HD600 lineup, the Sennheiser HD600 is your best bet. You can learn more from Sennheiser’s Official Website.
Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro
Beyerdynamic is one of the most iconic names in professional audio. They are one of the oldest headphone manufacturers and are the first to nail the dynamic driver headphone formula. Their best offering outside of their flagship series is the DT 1990 Pro.
The highlights of this model are its build quality and sound quality. Beyerdynamic is already known for its build quality. However, they take things up a notch with their higher-end models.
The DT 1990 Pro is mostly made of metal, which instantly gives you confidence in the product. There are no noticeable weak points, so you can treat it as rough as you want. And to add to its premium build, nearly every part of the headphone is replaceable.
Aside from its premium build quality, the DT 1990 Pro also comes with several earpads, cable options, and even a carrying case. This gives you more options and allows the headphones to adapt to any situation.
As for its sound quality, the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro is one of the most accurate sounding headphones in its price range. Like more expensive headphones such as the Beyerdynamic T1 and Sennheiser HD800s, the DT 1990 Pro is a bright-sounding headphone.
The highs are incredibly detailed since they are not tamed. You will be able to hear the nuances and imperfections of your mixes. It can lead to listening fatigue in longer listening sessions, but that is the price that you have to pay for the amount of detail that you get with these headphones.
One thing that you have to take note of is the DT 1990 Pro’s impedance. Its 250-ohm impedance means that you will surely need a more powerful source.
Overall, if you are looking for a reference pair that can squeeze out all the tiny little details, a sturdy pair, and an overall great value, then the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro is one of the best headphones you can get.
If you are after the most premium headphones used in studios, then these are the ones for you.
Sennheiser HD800s – High-End
The Sennheiser HD800s is currently Sennheiser’s flagship headphones. It has been well regarded by professionals around the world, such as Misha Mansoor of Periphery. And despite its fair share of criticisms from music enthusiasts, it is one of the best headphones for professional use.
The Sennheiser HD800s is the successor to the original HD800 and HD600 series. It sports a new look and has tuning enhancements that aim to correct the issues found in the original model.
Despite being the successor to the Sennheiser HD6XX lineup (the HD700 was widely considered by fans to be a failure and has been discontinued), the Sennheiser HD800s takes a different approach in its sound signature. This pair is more neutral and technically superior to the HD600 series.
The highlights of its sound performance are its analytical signature, wide soundstage, and highly detailed treble response. Its wide soundstage can rival the experience you get with speakers and studio monitors. It may sound artificial at times due to the limitation of headphones, but it greatly helps with emulating the feel of speakers.
The highly analytic signature and active treble response mean that the HD800s will be accurate for sound production. You can easily detect any imperfections or sibilance on your mixes.
As for the build quality, the HD800s is made of high-quality plastic. While this may seem questionable given its price tag, Sennheiser has been known for creating products that last. And also, the plastic construction helps with the comfort of the HD800s given its massive size.
Before you consider picking up the HD800s, you have to consider the source that you will be using. The HD800s is picky with its source and may not sound great on lower-quality sources. To get the best results, make sure to try out different headphone amplifiers, DACs, DAC/Amps, or interfaces with the HD800s.
Overall, if you want Sennheiser’s best headphones, then the HD800s will be for you. It may have some flaws for casual music listening, and it may have a hefty price tag, but it is undoubtedly one of the best open-back dynamic headphones in the market.
Beyerdynamic T1 2nd Generation
The Beyerdynamic T1 2nd Generation is currently Beyerdynamic’s flagship headphones. It is widely considered to be a direct competitor to the Sennheiser HD800s due to how similar they are. Both headphones are analytic-sounding pairs that are highly suitable for music production.
The T1 2nd Generation is the 2nd revision of the T1 model. Apart from a few minor differences in the sound, the general sound signature, and build quality are the same. It also houses the Tesla drivers that were first implemented in the 1st Generation. The significant difference between the two is that the cable is now detachable on the 2nd Generation, which gives you the ability to use balanced cables or swap to better or shorter single-ended cables.
Unlike the Sennheiser HD800s, the Beyerdynamic T1 is mostly built of metal. This has been a tradition for Beyerdynamic headphones, but the T1 feels substantially better since it is the flagship product. You can expect it to keep up with any scenario.
The sound signature of the Beyerdynamic T1 2nd Generation is the most neutral in their product lineup. It is also the most detailed, with the DT 1990 Pro being a close second. The detail retrieval across the whole frequency spectrum is highly detailed, making it an excellent pair for mixing and mastering.
Just like the HD800s and DT 1990 Pro, the treble response will be quite hot. It will be able to detect the flaws in your mix, but it can result in listening fatigue. And its highly analytic sound can sound too cold and lifeless for some users.
Also, due to its 600-ohm impedance, it will need a powerful source. Make sure to pair it with a capable headphone amplifier, such as the Beyerdynamic A20. You can read more in our Best Amplifiers for Beyerdynamic T1 Article.
Overall, if you want the best headphone that Beyerdynamic has to offer, then the Beyerdynamic T1 is your best option. And also, be on the lookout because Beyerdynamic will soon be releasing the third generation of the T1, which will be bringing lots of improvements.
Most of the headphones on this list are extremely expensive. They might not appeal to beginners and might even hinder those who want to try mixing and mastering in their home studios.
Here are some budget alternatives to help you get started.
Drop HD58X – Budget Pick
One of the most popular headphones from Drop is the Drop X Sennheiser HD58X Jubilee. This headphone is a revival of the classic HD580, the headphone that started the HD600 series. It is updated to meet modern standards and is a lot closer to the rest of the Sennheiser HD600 series headphones.
Just like the Drop HD6XX, it has a lot of qualities that make it punch way above its price point. These are mainly the build quality and sound quality.
The HD58X is practically indistinguishable from the rest of the HD600 lineup when it comes to the quality of the build. It has the same premium build quality that has been trusted by professionals around the world. It is still made of plastic, but again, it is indistinguishable from the other headphones in the HD600 lineup.
The biggest differentiating factors include a different color scheme and grill design. The different grill design is due to the modified driver that is used with the HD58X. Just like the HD660s, it has an impedance of 150-ohms, which theoretically allows it to be used with most sources. However, the drivers of the HD660s and HD58X are not the same.
Compared with the HD6XX (HD650), the sound signature is noticeably different. There is a slight mid-bass bump that makes it sound more energetic and fun. It slightly impacts the accuracy of the headphones, but most of the fidelity in the mids and highs are kept intact.
Of course, given its significantly lower price, the HD58X does not sound as good as the HD660s. However, they share a lot of elements in their sound, meaning you will be getting an authentic HD600 experience with the HD58X.
Given its sound signature, you are getting an amazing value with the HD58X. It has an even lower price than the Drop HD6XX. And at its price point, there are no open-back headphones that can compete with it.
If you want to have an amazing performer for not a lot of money, then the Drop HD58X is one of the best purchases you can make for mixing and mastering.
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro
If you like what you see with the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro and T1 but find the prices too high, then you will be pleased to know that Beyerdynamic also has more affordable models. The most popular open-back headphone that is a mainstay in professional studios is the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro.
It is the older version of the DT 1990 Pro and was first released in 1985. Despite not having a sound signature as neutral and accurate as the DT 1990 Pro, it is still a reliable tool for mixing and mastering.
Unlike its higher-end counterpart, the DT 990 Pro comes in various impedances. It comes in 32 ohms, 80 ohms, 250 ohms, and 600 ohms. This makes the DT 990 Pro highly versatile, especially since a lot of newcomers do not own a dedicated headphone amplifier.
Another change that you will notice with the DT 990 Pro is its build quality. It is still solid, but it is now mostly made of plastic instead of metal. The cables are also non-removable, which can be problematic for those who transfer their headphones to different places.
Compared to the higher-end DT 1990 Pro, the DT 990 Pro is leaning more towards a V-Shaped sound where the lows and highs are more pronounced. The bass response of the DT 990 Pro is stronger but not as accurate or controlled as the DT 1990 Pro’s neutral bass response.
The DT 990 Pro does not have the same peaky treble response that the DT 1990 Pro has. And while you may not be getting the most accurate high-end, you will at least have a smoother and more tolerable treble response.
Overall, the DT 990 Pro is a solid package. It has everything that you need to get started with mixing and mastering. And while it isn’t as good as the more expensive offerings, you can still be sure that it won’t let you down in your workflow.
Audio Technica M40X
We don’t usually recommend closed-back headphones for mixing and mastering. However, we will still discuss some of the options you have since not everyone has a dedicated space for open-back headphones.
The first option that we will be tackling is the Audio Technica ATH M40X.
It is the second most popular headphone next to the widely popular Audio Technica ATH M50X. It is considered to be a tier lower than the M50X. However, its sound signature makes it an ideal headphone for mixing and mastering.
See our comparison of the Audio Technica ATH M40x vs M50X here.
Compared to the ATH M50X, the M40X has a more neutral sound signature. The M50X is known to have a significant bass hump that tends to exaggerate the lows. On one side, this is good since it can be used for other purposes. It is even regarded as one of the best DJ Headphones.
However, the energetic low end greatly impacts the accuracy of your mixes. The M40X addresses this by having a more accurate presentation of all of the frequencies. It does it without sacrificing its technicalities.
Unlike the DT 990 Pro or the HD58X, the M40X does not need a headphone amplifier. It will work with any device that you have. So if you are just getting started with purchasing your recording equipment, then you won’t have to worry that these headphones will not sound good on your interface or laptop.
Another key difference is that the M40X has a foldable design and has removable cables. This makes the M40X versatile since you can use it for other purposes, such as tracking instruments.
Overall, if you do not have the budget or the personal space for open-back headphones, then the Audio Technica M40X is the next best option that you have. It won’t be the best for mixing and mastering since it is not the most accurate sounding on this list. But it will be good enough for helping you learn the fundamentals of mixing and mastering.
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro
The second closed-back option that we will recommend is the DT 770 Pro. It is the older brother of the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro and is marketed as the closed-back version of the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro. And just like the other Beyerdynamic headphones, the DT 770 Pro is a legendary pair that has been used in professional studios ever since it was first released back in 1985.
Just like the DT 990 Pro, the DT 770 Pro comes in different versions. There is the 32-ohm, 80-ohm, 250-ohm, and 600-ohm version. The 80-ohm is the most popular model since it can be used with or without a headphone amplifier.
You can still opt for the 32-ohm version if you are tight on budget. Just take note that the sound quality won’t be as good as the higher-impedance versions.
What separates the DT 770 Pro from the rest of the closed-back options is its superior imaging and soundstage. While it may not sound as wide or as open as the DT 990 Pro, the DT 770 Pro easily outperforms most closed-back headphones, including the Audio Technica M40X.
Its wide soundstage and good imaging will greatly help in mixing and mastering since you will get a more accurate sound. Of course, it still has limitations, and it won’t sound as accurate as higher-end options. But for closed-back options in this price range, this is as good as it gets.
One downside of the DT 770 Pro is its V-Shaped sound signature and energetic bass. Due to its closed-back design, bass can be trapped in the earcups, which results in an inaccurate presentation of the bass. The recession of the mids can also make mixing in that region harder.
In terms of the build quality, the DT 770 Pro is made of plastic and metal. It feels more solid than the rest of its competition, which will make it last longer. However, take note that the DT 770 Pro’s cable is non-removable, and the headphones are non-foldable, which may limit its use outside the studio.
Overall, if you need a reliable pair that has been proven to work well in mixing and mastering, then the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro is one of the best closed-back headphones that you can buy in the sub 300 USD price point.
Why Mixing and Mastering is Not Recommended with Headphones
As mentioned earlier, the main issue with using headphones for mixing and mastering is their lack of transparency. Due to the limitations in the size of their drivers, headphones cannot be as accurate as full-sized studio monitors. Even the most neutral pair of headphones will not sound as good as studio monitors.
This can quickly become a problem if you do not have other reference equipment or if you are inexperienced and you do not know what you are looking for. The sound signature of headphones can color the sound. If your headphones are too bright, then your mix will be too bright. The same also applies if your headphones are warm or bassy.
Of course, it does not mean that it is impossible to mix and master with headphones. It can be done, but there will be some challenges and setbacks that can be harder to deal with for inexperienced people.
When Can You Use Headphones for Mixing
Despite some of the major issues that headphones have for mixing, they can still be a fantastic tool for some tasks and can serve as a good secondary source to check how well your mix translates.
Another advantage that headphones have over studio monitors is that they can be used anywhere. Their sound will not change regardless of what kind of acoustics you have in your room.
Studio monitors, on the other hand, heavily rely on how well they are placed and how well your room’s acoustics are. Several factors, such as the reverb in your room, will color the sound and affect the accuracy of your studio monitors.
And since headphones are not affected by the environment’s acoustics, you can use them anywhere. Some musicians are known to have mixed short demos using headphones inside their tour bus or hotel rooms. So if you find yourself in situations where you have to deal with audio, then headphones will surely save you.
Another scenario where headphones can be beneficial is in mixing live audio such as in online live streams. If you are doing this anywhere outside your studio, then it would normally be impossible to use studio monitors. Therefore headphones are the next best tool.
Besides the portability of headphones, they are also great tools inside the studio. If you are looking to correct tiny imperfections and minute details such as noise in a track, then headphones will help you do the job faster.
And lastly, headphones are way more affordable than studio monitors. Most of the headphones listed here will be more affordable than industry-standard studio monitors. So if you just want to learn and experience mixing and mastering your own tracks, then headphones are the more affordable and more viable option.
Why Open-Back Headphones are Better than Closed-Back for Mixing and Mastering
Most of this list mostly consists of open-back headphones. The reason for this is because they are generally regarded to be more accurate sounding and have a better sound fidelity compared to closed-back headphones.
Almost all closed-back headphones suffer from an issue brought upon by their design. The seal on the back of the drivers may cause unwanted sound reflections.
Aside from this, the sound and experience of using open-back headphones feel closer to using studio monitors compared to closed-back headphones. And since open-back headphones generally have better soundstage compared to closed-back headphones, they will better simulate the openness and separation of instruments.
Of course, there are scenarios and environments where open-back headphones are not viable. But when we are strictly talking about a professional studio or home studio environment, open-back headphones are the superior choice.
You can learn more about the differences between open-back and closed-back headphones in our dedicated article.
Do I Need a Headphone Amplifier?
Depending on which of these headphones you choose and what type of audio interface you are using, you might also need to invest in a separate headphone amplifier or an Amp/DAC.
But the gist is that if you have a low impedance headphone such as the DT 990 Pro 32-ohm Version or the Audio Technica M40X, then your audio interface or digital/analog mixer will likely be enough. However, if you are using high-impedance headphones (especially the higher-end options on this list), you will likely need to have a separate headphone amplifier.
But you should still check the headphone output of your audio interface. Some of the higher-end options are capable of powering 300-ohm headphones.
Stephen is a musician, cinematographer, and headphone enthusiast who is passionate about reviewing audio equipment. He has been playing guitar for at least a decade, which introduced him to professional recording equipment such as headphones and in-ear monitors. With the help of reviews and online content, he was able to learn the ins and outs of the hobby. His goal is to give back to the community by providing quality content to help others enjoy the beautiful (and expensive) world of audio.
Favorite Headphones: Sennheiser HD660s