10 best headphones for mixing and mastering: 5 for studio & 5 for live audio

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Without the right mixing and mastering, even the most flawlessly recorded tracks can sound bland and awful. Being the final stages of music production, mixing and mastering can be challenging. However, getting these two critical aspects right can be less complex if you have the right set of equipment, including the right headphones. 

Why use headphones for mixing and mastering? 

Speaker monitors have been the industry standard for monitoring sound during music production. Also, they are the go-to choice for top music producers. So, why choose headphones over the supposedly holy grail of professional audio referencing? 

Ask any experienced music producer or audio engineer and he/she will tell you that using speaker monitors for mixing and mastering is the best choice. In this video, an audio engineer shares how speaker monitors put you at the advantage of benefiting from a broader soundstage.

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However, headphones come with their unique set of advantages that can benefit you in many ways. Here are some of the pros of using headphones for mixing and monitoring: 

1. Mitigate room acoustics problems

One of the common issues in the music production realm is problems related to the acoustics of the room. Room acoustics problems are more common in home studios as they aren’t professionally designed and set up as the way professional studios are. 

Technical issues such as standing waves can alter or distort the monitoring or reference sound needed to get the mixing and mastering part right. 

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To mitigate room acoustics, it’s important to acoustically treat and set up the room in a professional way. One big downside to this step is it is quite an expensive affair. 

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With headphones, you can mitigate issues associated with room acoustics without spending a lot. 

2. Mixing and mastering on the go

If you are a mobile music producer or audio engineer, using headphones will make your on-the-go music production rig more compact and portable. Studio-grade headphones are compact enough to not take too much space in your music production luggage.

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3. Hear every detail 

If you are mixing and mastering music that includes many tracks with complex and intricate arrangements, fine-tuning every subtle nuance becomes easier with a pair of good headphones. Using headphones also helps you hear all the details in the mix in outdoor environments. 

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4. Cheaper alternative to using speaker monitors

If you are a beginner in music production and have a limited budget, spending money on a pair of high-quality studio monitors may not be financially feasible for you. The affordable alternative is to go for a pair of good-sounding headphones. You can access high-quality monitoring with headphones at half the price of professional-level speaker monitors. 

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Best headphones for mixing and mastering: studio and live requirements

The work requirements of modern-day audio engineers/music producers aren’t tied to just the four walls of the studio. As such, studio headphones for mixing and mastering are not a one-size-fits-all solution that can work in any given scenario. 

Mixing and mastering in the studio are completely different from mixing live feeds during live shows. The differences are significant to the extent that we have categorized mixing and mastering headphones for studio and live show requirements. 

Headphones for mixing and mastering in studio/home studio

Studios present the most ideal mixing and mastering environment. The surroundings are calm and composed, there’s no shortage of professionals tools and equipment, and you may be working with a team of experienced audio engineers. 

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Considering the enclosed setup of music studios, over-ear headphones with an open-back design are the right choice. As compared to closed-back headphones, open-back headphones are more natural sounding. This is because the open enclosures allow sound waves to travel rearwards and not just forward (towards the ears). 

Another important advantage of using open-back headphones for mixing and mastering in the studio is they have a better linear frequency response as compared to their closed-back counterparts. With true linear frequency response, notes and frequency ranges aren’t exaggerated nor undermined. 

Here’s an example of linear frequency response:

Image credit: Audio Dynamics YouTube

Here’s how linear frequency response compares against non-linear frequency response:

Image credit: Audio Dynamics YouTube

Image credit: Audio Dynamics YouTube

Here are 5 over-ear open-back headphones that are well-suited for mixing and mastering in the studio:

1. Audiotechnica ATH R70x – check it out here

Audiotechnica ATH R70x comes as one of the best headphones for mixing and mastering as it is specifically designed for these two requirements. This model combines a range of features that make it an unmistakable choice, including an open-back design, acoustic performance of the sound drivers, and linear frequency response. 

Another important factor that makes this headphone a great choice for mixing and mastering is its full-range audio performance that covers a broad frequency spectrum. Although this model has large-sized ear cups, it is fairly lightweight and comfortable. The ergonomic and adjustable head pad of the headphone further improves the comfort level. 

Pros:

  • Natural sounding and full-range audio performance
  • Open-back design broadens the soundstage
  • Sound drivers are specifically tuned for mixing and mastering

Cons:

  • Not the most compact and lightweight design
  • Non-foldable design

2. Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro – check it out here

Beyerdynamic headphones have been the studio standard for quite a while as they come close to speaker monitors in delivering full-range sound. Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro is one of the best headphones from the brand for mixing and mastering requirements. It uses high-end Tesla neodymium sound drivers that let you hear even the most subtle nuances of the tracks you are mixing. 

Similar to other open-back studio headphones from the brand, this model delivers benchmark-setting audio performance with its carefully designed open-back ear cup enclosures. The open-back enclosures also maintain the fidelity of the sound drivers. 

Pros:

  • Top-tier audio performance 
  • Linear frequency response adds versatility
  • Premium look and feel

Cons:

  • Not the most compact and lightweight design
  • Non-foldable design

3. Shure SRH 1840 – check it out here

Shure SRH 1840 is one of the best headphones for mixing and mastering in terms of acoustic audio performance. The top-tier neodymium sound drivers on this headphone benefit from acoustically designed ear chambers that open up more headroom with an open-back design. 

Shure SRH 1840 covers a broad frequency spectrum with utmost clarity that is needed for meticulous mixing and mastering. Apart from the high-end audio performance, the comfort factor of this headphone is on point. Plush ear padding combined with a lightweight form factor elevate the comfort quotient of this model.

Pros:

  • Full-range audio performance with a high clarity
  • Acoustically performing sound drivers ensure natural sound
  • Premium materials used

Cons:

  • Non-foldable design
  • Audio cable attaches to both ear cups

4. Shure SRH 1440 – check it out here

Professional audio performance for mixing and mastering isnt just reserved for premium-priced headphones. Mid-range priced models such as the Shure SRH 1440 helps you access the right audio performance needed for critical listening without breaking the bank. This open-back studio headphone uses sound drivers that are specifically fine-tuned for mixing and mastering. 

The acoustically designed open-back ear chambers of this model works wonders in creating a broader soundstage and opening up more headroom for better understanding of different types of dynamic levels. The full-range frequency spectrum coverage of this model makes it versatile enough for mixing and mastering different types of music genre. 

Pros:

  • Acoustic sound driver performance for natural sounding audio
  • Acoustic ear chambers ensure better dynamic range and breathability
  • Fully adjustable headband

Cons:

  • Headband may seem a bit bulky to some 
  • Not the most lightweight design

5. Pioneer SE Master 1 – check it out here

When it comes to delivering full range and dynamic audio performance, the larger the sound driver sizes, the better. Pioneer SE Master 1 uses large-sized 50 mm neodymium sound drivers to deliver full-range audio performance while maintaining a wide headroom. 

Also, this headphone doesn’t color any sound with its natural sounding audio performance and linear frequency response. The adjustable headband and ear cups make this model highly comfortable to use even for long hours. 

Pros:

  • High headroom and full-range audio performance
  • Compatible with Pioneer U-05 headphone amplifier
  • Oxygen-free audio cable used

Cons:

  • Not the most lightweight design
  • Headband adjustability may be tricky for some

Headphones for mixing and mastering in live shows

Live shows aren’t the best environment for meticulous mixing. There’s no ambient noise isolation, audio levels are dynamic, and the overall mix can be unpredictable. However, live audio engineers can mitigate several of these issues by using closed-back headphones to isolate themselves from the speakers’ sound and instead focus on the live audio mix. 

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Open-back headphones aren’t suited for mixing during live shows as they do no isolate external noise as the way closed-back headphones do. In order to achieve the best noise isolation from closed-back headphones, it’s best to go for models that have an over-ear fit. 

Also, considering the fact that sound waves do not escape from the enclosure of closed-back headphones, the overall audio performance get punchier which compensates for the loud stage sound levels and crowd noise. 

Here are 5 over-ear closed-back headphones that work well for mixing live sound:

1. Audiotechnica ATH M60x – check it out here

Audiotechnica ATH M60x is specifically designed for studio, but it does not fail in meeting live audio mixing requirements. This closed-back model uses the same sound drivers that the brand uses in its top-tier studio headphones. The broadcast-grade sound drivers have a high fidelity performance and therefore work great in delivering dynamic audio performance for live audio.

Audiotechnica ATH M60x also ensures a high level of noise isolation with its plush over-ear memory foam ear pads that cover the whole ears. The brand has also focused on making the overall form factor of the headphone lightweight and sturdy. 

Pros:

  • Proprietary 45 mm sound drivers with larger aperture used
  • Extended frequency range coverage
  • Three detachable audio cables included

Cons:

  • Non-foldable design
  • No sweat or water resistivity for outdoor use

2. AKG K553 MKII – check it out here

AKG K553 MKII covers a lot of ground for music production requirements, including live audio mixing. This headphone uses low-impedance 50 mm sound drivers that create a wide soundstage despite the closed-back design. The sound drivers also cover a broad frequency range spectrum to deliver fuller-sounding audio performance. 

AKG K553 MKII offers extra comfort as it uses extra large ear padding. The ear padding also works great in blocking out a significant level of external noise. Travelling live audio engineers cannot go wrong with this model as it has a flat fold design which ensures portability. 

Pros:

  • Large-sized 50 mm sound drivers used
  • Extra large ear pads used
  • Foldable design

Cons:

  • Not the most lightweight form factor

3. Shure SRH940 – check it out here

Shure SRH940 has been the go-to choice for many live audio engineers. It packs studio-grade audio performance which you can access at any live show venue. The accurate frequency response of the sound drivers combined with the excellent noise isolation makes this headphone suitable for live audio mixing in any type of environment. 

Despite a large-sized form factor, this headphone easily folds and becomes compact enough to fit in any live audio engineer’s luggage. Also, the lightweight design of this headphone makes it suitable for long hours of usage. 

Pros:

  • Large-sized 50 mm sound drivers used
  • Excellent noise isolation
  • Detachable audio cable design

Cons:

  • Limited headband adjustability

4. Monoprice Monolith M565C – check it out here

One of the biggest issues with mixing live audio is audio distortion which can randomly or sequentially occur during live shows. However, you can steer clear of this issue with distortion-free headphones, including the Monoprice Monolith M565C. This headphone uses planar sound drivers that keep audio distortion at bay and deliver a high level of clarity.

Monoprice Monolith M565C is also great at blocking out external noise with its closed back design and plush ear pads that form a seal over the ears. Despite a considerably bulky form factor, this headphone is comfortable enough for long hours of use. 

Pros:

  • High fidelity and distortion-free planar sound drivers used
  • Excellent ambient noise attenuation
  • High-quality materials used

Cons:

  • Non-foldable design
  • Audio cable connects to both ear cups

5. Sennheiser HD 300 PROtect – check it out here

When mixing live audio, especially loud live audio, it’s important to prioritize hearing protection apart from focusing on clarity, frequency response, and headroom. Sennheiser HD 300 PROtect covers all of these important factors to help you make no compromises when you’re working at live show venues. 

This headphone is intuitively designed to prevent clipping and offer protection from unexpected volume level surges. This translates to having a higher level of safety against squealing feedbacks, and unexpected amplification on the live audio. This model is equally good at delivering full range audio performance along with a great dynamic response. 

Pros:

  • Broad frequency range coverage
  • Protection against clipping
  • Linear frequency response for linear sound reproduction

Cons:

  • Non-detachable audio cable

Can you mix with earphones?

In-ear earphones are the last thing you’d want to choose for mixing. But they can work for getting the job done. In fact, they can work pretty well in some situations, including mixing live performances hosted in small-sized venues. 

The in-ear tips offer a good seal to block out external noise which, in turn, can help you focus more on your mixing parameters. DJs can also benefit from in-ears as they can mix their tracks on the fly without having to go through the hassle of wearing a pair of bulky headphones. 

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Some professional audio engineers do use in-ear monitors for mixing certain types of live show audio. Custom fit in-ear monitors with multiple sound drivers are reliable and well-performing enough to suffice for live mixing requirements. In fact, many artists also use in-ear monitors to hear the mix on the stage without having to crank up the volume levels of wedge monitors. 

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Conclusion 

Mixing and mastering with headphones sure is a great way to get intricately involved with the tracks and dive deep into refining them. However, it’s equally important to make the overall result well-balanced for different types of listening scenarios. 

To do this, listen to the tracks that you have mixed and mastered using headphones on speaker monitors. Switch back and forth between headphones and speaker monitors to balance out the highlights on the subtle nuances. 

In many cases, subtle parts are overrepresented in headphones and underrepresented in speaker monitors. Therefore, it’s important to make sure that you fine-tune the tracks for different types of audio listening devices. 

Another important step to take is to prioritize mix referencing. Referencing the mix is as simple as comparing your recent mix with the previous mixes you have made for other projects. 

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You can also listen to commercial and popular songs’ mixes to broaden your perspective before you finalize your current mix. Taking this step can help you make an informed decision and create the best mix for the project requirement. 

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