Headphones versus loudspeakers: which is better for monitoring? At some point most beginners ponder this question—though to be fair, so do most experienced engineers.Glenn Schick, mastering engineer for J Cole, Justin Bieber, and many others, recently made the switch to exclusively mastering on headphones, while plenty of other engineers have gone the opposite route, opting for more accurate monitors as they progress from home studios to dedicated workspaces.
As for the core question of which is better–headphones or loudspeakers–the most honest answer is “It depends.” Monitors exhibit qualities that make them better in some regards and worse in others, and the same is true for headphones. I’m here to help you identify the strengths and limitations of each, so read on to determine which may be best for you.
Speakers produce sound waves by pushing air molecules throughout the physical space of your room, and therefore communicate not just the sound of music, but also physical feeling of music. Hearing a kick drum solely with your ears versus experiencing the impact of the kick in your chest are vastly different sensations. Feeling the physical power of the low-end and midrange waves can help you gauge how your mix will translate to clubs, cars, and even home hi-fi systems.
Many people find it easier to achieve proper musical balances on loudspeakers than on headphones. For instance, if you set the level of background vocals using headphones, you might notice the balance doesn’t translate well in your car, or even on your studio monitors. This is due, in part, to the natural interaction between speakers and the physical listening space. As we mentioned earlier, speakers push sound waves around the room, rather than the way headphones direct sound right into your individual ears. Sound waves from speakers interact with objects in the room and undergo tiny shifts in timing and phase, providing our brain with directional and level information that feels natural and organic. Headphones, on the other hand, isolate the ears so that each ear only hears one speaker and, therefore, only one side of the stereo image. Put another way, when listening to stereo speakers, your left ear hears a bit of the right speaker, but with different reflections, timing and phase from what your right ear hears from the right speaker. Headphones, on the other hand, do not provide any right channel information to the left ear, or vice-versa. This acoustic effect of each ear hearing a bit of the opposite speaker’s information is referred to as “crossfeed.”
On a personal note, I find that mixing toms and hi-hat against overheads is easier in cans, but that’s about where it ends. Here’s why: Balancing drum mics is more like a hunting expedition for the best spatial (timing and phase) relationships, rather than a purely emotional or creative endeavor. In headphones, the isolation (lack of crossfeed) between the left and right channels seems to help me judge the phase and timing relationships between the overheads and the close-miked instruments. When it comes back to emotional and creative mixing decisions, crossfeed (from speakers) becomes my friend again.
Now let’s move on to the downsides of speakers. The most obvious drawback is simply a practical issue: loudspeakers are loud—you need to drive them somewhere around 80dB SPL for an accurate representation of balanced frequencies (Remember the Fletcher-Munson curves?). If you live in a thin-walled city apartment, you may not be able to run your speakers comfortably loud without annoying the neighbors. The frequency response of your speakers is also affected by the acoustics of your room. The shape of the room, the construction materials, the placement of your speakers/furniture, and the degree of room treatments—these all have an effect on how your speakers sound. Headphones, on the other hand, are immune to the room’s effects.
Speaker quality and accuracy may also, unfortunately, relate to their cost. While professional headphones with a frequency response from 20Hz to 20kHz can cost under a few hundred dollars, most speakers under $1000/pair won’t put out much sound below 50Hz, let alone 20 Hz. Many inexpensive speakers purport to reproduce this range, but independent analysis reveals they do not—and furthermore what they do give you below 60 or 70Hz may not be accurate enough for mixing or mastering. For both headphones and speakers, software like Sonarworks Reference 4 can help flatten most frequency response problems, but it can’t account for a small speaker’s inability to produce low frequencies, and it can’t fix an inexpensive monitor’s distortion or phase issues.
The Strengths of Phones
For this discussion of headphones, we are considering professional headphones and not earbuds or typical consumer headphones. Cost may not be the sole indicator of professional versus consumer quality, as many consumer headphones are simply overpriced fashion accessories. Pro headphones should provide excellent sonic qualities and typically will not include features like Bluetooth or noise-cancelling circuitry. Pro headphones may include features like replaceable earpads and cables and various connector options.
Let’s highlight an important advantage of headphones straightaway: you can listen to them day or night, at a reasonable volume, without bothering the neighbors. Closed-back phones are virtually silent to people around you, while open-backed headphones won’t disturb anyone more than a few feet away from you.
Is there anything that makes headphones better suited than speakers for the musical tasks at hand? The answer depends on the application. Mastering engineers often put on their headphones to QC (quality control check) their final masters because phones will reveal details and forensic errors in the master—clicks, pops, and other incongruities–that may not be obvious on speakers. The clarity that comes from headphones helps put a spotlight or microscope on tiny elements of the mix. Frequent users of forensic tools like iZotope RX may find that headphones are well suited for finding and repairing clicks, pops and other artifacts.
Headphones also provide benefits to engineers working in less-than-optimal rooms. If your room has acoustic issues (see our blog posts on acoustic problems and treatments), using headphones can mitigate those problems by removing the room’s influence on audio perception. Consider also that open back headphones might not help much in a noisy environment like a coffee shop, while closed back headphones may provide enough isolation that you can spend an afternoon working at the beach.
This brings us to mobile considerations: I often travel from studio to studio, and I have to work in unfamiliar surroundings and often on unfamiliar speakers. If I bring my own set of cans, I have confidence in a familiar and relatively consistent monitoring system, which is definitely a plus.
Liabilities of Phones
Notice I wrote “relatively consistent” above; there’s a lot of room for error in that qualifying adverb. If I take my headphones from a pro studio that uses a high-power headphone amp like the Little Labs Monotor to a home studio with an inexpensive interface, I’ll likely notice that my headphones sound different on each system.
A couple of issues are at play here. Since headphones can be extremely revealing, they often highlight differences in frequency response, noise floor and overall accuracy of the monitoring chain. Also, each model of headphones has a different power and impedance specifications and each headphone may react to a specific headphone amp or interface in a profoundly different way. Most headphones will work fine with any decent audio interface, while some only perform their best when powered by a dedicated headphone amplifier. My Audio-Technica ATH-M50xs phones, for example, are not influenced much by most headphone amplifiers, while my Sennheiser HD 650s do sound different when powered by different interfaces or headphone amps. If you travel like I do, you may want to invest in not only a reliable pair of phones, but also a trustworthy headphone amp, like the affordable Schiit Magni.
Also, since headphones play directly into each ear, you lose the beneficial crossfeed effects mentioned earlier. This can affect your perception and mix decisions for left-to-right panning (width), as well as front-to-back depth. As a result, reverbs, delays, and even equalization that sound proper on your headphones may sound less cohesive on loudspeakers.
Indeed, a headphones-only mix could lead to improper decisions during the mixing process. When I create a mix using my Audio-Technica ATH-m50xs, I find my low-end levels often have to be tweaked later. Similarly, if I attempt a mix using only my HD 650s, I may wind up boosting the high frequencies more than necessary. These are my personal observations and experiences, which leads me to the final point regarding headphones:
Choosing headphones is inherently personal, perhaps even more so than choosing monitors. When planar magnetic headphones (like the Audeze LCD-X), became the rage, I bought a pair and found myself disappointed with the experience. I went back and forth with the manufacturer a few times, sending them in for diagnostics, talking about headphone amps and such. Finally they shrugged and said, “it’s probably the shape of your head—your ear geometry.” Ultimately we must consider the physical limitations of headphones. Phones just don’t push air like speakers do, so you will not feel that guttural, vibrational punch that speakers provide—a punch that aids in musical translation.
Since we can’t clearly answer which is better, what’s one to do? Use both! A combination of headphones and speakers could be your friend. Throughout your career, you’ll find a process that works for you—a gameplay loop, if you will. You may build your mix on speakers, check for forensic issues on cans, and continue switching between the two while mixing. Perhaps you’ll work differently, setting up the balances in cans for clarity’s sake and then finishing the mix on your monitors.
It may take some trial and error, but if you devise a routine that utilizes the strengths of both, you’re less prone to the weaknesses of either. And remember that Sonarworks correction software can improve both your headphones and loudspeakers––whichever platform you choose.