Best Music Production Headphones
Headphones are an invaluable tool that every producer/sound engineer should have in their arsenal. They are versatile and can be used in different stages of music production, such as tracking, mixing, and mastering. However, to get the best results, you have to ideally use a different kind of headphone for each phase.
For tracking/recording individual instruments, we highly recommend using closed-back headphones such as the Audio Technica M50X. This is especially critical with recording vocals, where you do not want audio to leak from the headphones into the microphone. And for mixing and mastering, we highly recommend open-back headphones such as the Sennheiser HD660s since they will sound more accurate and behave closed to studio monitors.
And if your budget is limited, there are also options that can be used both in mixing/mastering and tracking such as the Audio Technica M40X. But if you are looking for a specific kind of sound signature, there are plenty of other options here on our list. Keep on scrolling to learn more about these headphones as well as to know about the different phases of music production.
Tracking refers to the stage where you record the different elements and instruments in your mix. This could refer to recording vocals, guitars, drums, etc. You can usually use any type of headphones that you have for this stage.
However, we highly recommend using closed-back headphones since they do not leak sound. Open-back headphones are fine for instruments that are not directly recorded with a microphone such as electric guitars. However, for vocals, you will either have to use IEMs or closed-back headphones. Here are some of our recommended models:
Audio Technica M50X
The Audio Technica ATH M50X is arguably one of the most well-known professional headphones. Despite being the youngest studio headphone in this list (first debuted in 2007), it is arguably the most popular and most recognizable studio monitoring headphone. It has been the go-to choice of not only professionals but casual users as well.
Its popularity stems from its excellent build and sound quality. The high-quality all-plastic build with metal hinges has made it a rugged pair capable of taking abuse inside the studio. You can throw these around, and it won’t even show any signs of wear.
Additionally, these headphones fold into a smaller form factor. This allows them to be carried around to different places. The removable cable is also a plus since it is one of the first things that break with headphones.
In terms of the sound signature, the M50X’s V-shaped sound signature has also made it a popular choice. It is leaning on the warmer side, making it great for both professional and casual listening. It is, however, not entirely accurate, which we will be talking about later.
Despite its popularity, the sound signature of the ATH M50X has received some criticisms. The sound signature is not entirely flat. The other headphones on this list are not entirely flat, but the M50X has a noticeably large bass hump and recession in the mids.
The detail retrieval may also not be up to par with more modern models. However, this should not deter you too much. It has already been recommended by countless respected musicians/producers such as Adam “Nolly” Getgood (Periphery, Getgood Drums, producer).
However, you should note that Audio Technica’s headphones are known to have issues with the pleather material used on the earpads and headband. My personal pair has displayed flaking after about two years of heavy use. We have also seen reports from other users.
Audio Technica and other third-party brands offer replacement earpads with alternate materials such as velour, so the earpads shouldn’t be a big deal. However, the headband is not easily replaceable.
Headband protectors can be purchased to fix this issue, but it would have been nice to see official support from Audio Technica. Other brands like Beyerdynamic implement an easily replaceable headband (as seen on the DT 770 Pro), so you may opt for those models if this is a big concern for you. Audio Technica does provide in house repairs for worn down headbands/ear pads and other cosmetic issues, but this will depend on the supplier in your area.
Overall, if you are looking for a well-rounded pair with an industry-standard sound and build quality, then the M50X is strongly recommended.
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro
Another industry standard recommendation is the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro.
It is the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro‘s older brother and is marketed as the closed-back version of the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro. It has now achieved legendary status and has been in production since 1985.
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. This allows the DT 770 Pro to be a versatile pair that can be used in checking your mixes.
Another highlight of the DT 770 Pro is the signature Beyerdynamic build quality. The DT 770 Pro is predominantly made of high-quality plastic on most of the body with metal reinforcements on the headband and hinges. It is built to take any kind of abuse in any kind of situation.
However, take note that the cable is non-removable, and the headphones are non-foldable. The cable is sturdy, but it would have been nice to have the option to swap it out for third-party cables or replace it in case it gets broken.
Unlike other headphones for tracking, the DT 770 Pro comes in different impedances. You can read our dedicated headphone impedance article for those who are not familiar with the term impedance. But this basically refers to the power requirement of the headphones.
The DT 770 Pro comes in 32-ohm, 80-ohm, 250-ohm, and 600-ohm versions. The 32 and 80-ohm versions are perfect for tracking, especially if you are using a digital/analog mixer or audio interface that does not have a lot of power in the headphone output. But you can also opt for the higher-impedance versions if you have a headphone amplifier and plan on using the DT 770 Pro on your mixing desk as a secondary reference or plan on using it for mixing.
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 at the sub 300 USD price point.
Sony MDR CD900ST
The next model on this list is possibly the oldest model that is still considered an industry standard. This is nonother than the Sony MDR V6’ relative, the Sony MDR CD900ST.
The MDR CD900ST was first manufactured in 1987, one year after the V6. It shares a lot of similarities with the V6 but has some major differences. The headphones now have a non-folding design, the ear pads are different, and the cable is straight instead of coiled. However, the real difference is found in the sound quality.
The MDR CD900ST is considered to be the more detailed and more revealing pair. Like the V6, they also have a bright signature with more emphasis on the mids and highs. However, the quality of the mids and highs are a considerable upgrade compared to the MDR V6.
Due to the better mids and highs, these headphones are considered the more analytical and revealing pair. They will also naturally reveal any flaws, which is always good as you can already determine any imperfections before the mixing process.
Like the V6, the bass on the CD900ST is not overemphasized. It does its job in completing the sound, but it does not try to compete with the mids. They respond well to EQ if you ever need to emphasize the lower frequencies more than the mid and high frequencies.
Of course, due to its age, it will naturally have flaws. The design is mostly outdated in terms of features considering many headphones are foldable and feature detachable cables. But having those “outdated” design elements are part of the vintage appeal that these headphones give.
In fact, these have not stopped artists and producers from using this pair. These headphones can be seen in various professional productions such as the Japanese YouTube Channel, The First Take.
Overall, if you are a fan of Sony’s vintage design and want an even better sounding version of the Sony MDR V6, then the Sony CD900ST is a good fit.
Mixing and Mastering
After recording your tracks, the next stage is mixing and mastering. We highly recommend using studio monitors such as Yamaha HS5, JBL LSR305P MKII, KRK Rokit 5, etc. However, for those looking for an alternate reference or for those that do not have an optimized room for a studio monitor, open-back headphones are a great alternative.
While closed-back headphones can be used, open-back headphones will have a more accurate tone, especially when it comes to the bass frequencies. Here are some of our recommended models:
Our top recommended model for mixing and mastering is the latest version of Sennheiser’s popular HD600 Series, the Sennheiser HD660s. It is aimed to improve on the older versions and make it a more competitive headphone in today’s market.
The primary reason for the HD6XX series’ popularity in the past two decades is their neutral sound signature and near-indestructible build quality. The neutral sound greatly helps with mixing and mastering since the frequencies will be more leveled with no exaggerated frequencies.
But like the rest of the HD6XX headphones, the mid frequencies are highlighted. However, they do not throw off the accuracy of the mix. It can even be more beneficial in mixing vocals and other instruments in the mid frequencies.
The build quality is also known to be extremely reliable. There are still old HD600 and HD650 units still being used today. And if any part breaks, you can easily replace them since Sennheiser sells almost any part of the headphone.
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, and a dedicated amplifier should not be required. But we will talk more about that later.
In terms of the design, 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. 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 requires a decent amount of power to achieve its full potential. We recommend pairing it with a fairly powerful headphone amplifier or audio interface 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 are a producer on a budget, you can also check out the Sennheiser HD600, Sennheiser x Drop HD58X, or the Sennheiser x Drop HD 6XX.
You can find out more about these headphones in our Best Sennheiser Headphones article.
You can learn more from Sennheiser’s Official Website.
Sennheiser HD 560s
The Sennheiser HD560s is Sennheiser’s latest sub 200 USD offering and the latest model in the HD 5XX series. This was a surprising release since the HD 5XX has long been overshadowed by the massively popular HD 6XX series. Nevertheless, Sennheiser is yet again setting the standard in the sub 200 USD price range.
The HD 560s’ design resembles the rest of the HD 5XX lineup. It mostly has the same build quality but with a few changes to modernize the look. The headphones are now rocking an all-black color scheme similar to the latest version of the HD 600 and the HD 660s.
The headband and the grills also resemble the ones found on the HD 650 and HD 660s. The single-sided connector is, however, retained.
But the biggest change here is the new drivers, which offer better sound quality than the rest of the HD 5XX headphones. This new tuning is even regarded as an improved version of the Sennheiser HD6XX series. It solves several key issues of the HD 600 series, such as the intimate soundstage, while adding more quantity and detail to the highs.
The HD6XX series will, of course, still have the upper hand. However, it is impressive to see a headphone at this price point punch way above its price point.
Additionally, the HD 560s retains the natural tuning and clarity of the HD 5XX and HD 6XX series. These are being branded as reference sounding headphones, so it is nice to see the HD 560s deliver in that regard.
Compared to the HD 5XX series, specifically the HD 598, the HD 560s seem to be an easy upgrade overall. The only downside that it has is that its added brightness might cause fatigue for some. This has been an issue on Sennheiser’s higher-end HD800s.
But overall, if you like the aesthetics and sound quality of the HD 598, then the HD 560s is an easy recommendation. It might just even challenge the popular Sennheiser x Drop HD 58X Jubilee in terms of value.
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 for professional work 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 and revealing pairs on this list. 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 and 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 you have to pay for the amount of detail 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.
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro
If you like what you see with the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro and T1 but find the prices too high, 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 many 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 DT 990 Pro’s bass response 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.
Sennheiser HD800s – High-End
The most expensive headphone on this list is Sennheiser’s flagship headphones, the Sennheiser HD800s. 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 reference headphones in the market.
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 original model’s issues.
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.
Headphones for Mixing and Tracking
Audio Technica M40X
Given the price of the headphones on this list, not all producers can have the luxury of owning both open-back and closed-back headphones. However, there are flat sounding headphones that can work well for both mixing/mastering and tracking. One of those headphones is the Audio Technica ATH M40X.
It is one of Audio Technica’s most popular headphones along with the Audio Technica ATH M50X. It is marketed to be a tier lower than the M50X. However, it is widely considered to be the superior model thanks to its sound signature.
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. While this makes it a great and versatile headphone that can also be used for DJing, it makes it less ideal for mixing and mastering.
The other issue with the M50X is its slightly recessed vocals. The M40X corrects this by making the mids more neutral making mixing instruments in the mid frequencies easier.
Unlike the DT 990 Pro or the HD58X, the M40X does not need a headphone amplifier. It will work with almost any device, sound card, or audio interface. So if you are just getting started with purchasing your recording equipment, then you won’t have to worry about buying additional gear.
However, the M40X is not a perfect headphone. Like the M50X, the sound stage is not wide. This makes mixing reverb significantly harder. There are workarounds but the overall mixing process will become slower.
But overall, if you do not have the budget or the personal space for open-back headphones or studio monitors and you need something that will work for all phases of music production, then the Audio Technica M40X is a great option.
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