There’s never been a better time to set up a home recording studio. Many of us are spending more time than ever at home, so why not transform your home into the space you’ve always wished it could be?
One key component to any music production and recording setup is a pair (or two, or three) of high-quality studio headphones. They’re necessary during live recording to hear the click and any tracks laid down thus far, and they’re essential as a part of the mixing process.
But the headphone market is crowded and can be somewhat confusing. Some models use “studio” as marketing lingo, so you can’t even trust that everything with that word is a valid option. There are headphones of all types and at an astonishingly wide range of prices. It’s a lot to work through.
Whether you’re new to having an at-home studio or you’re a seasoned pro looking to find what’s new for 2021, we’ve got your back. Below you’ll find our top recommendations across a range of price tiers. We’ll give you our verdict on the best headphones for music production as well as the best headphones for recording live in studio.
But first, it’s helpful to define our terms. What are studio headphones, anyway, and how do they differ from other types?
What Are Studio Headphones?
For many consumers, the idea of recording their own music in a studio is a dream, and nothing more. For that reason, the word “Studio” keeps showing up in headphone branding in places where it shouldn’t. Beats Solo Studio headphones are fine (we guess) for personal listening, but they aren’t studio headphones by any stretch of the imagination.
So what are studio headphones?
Studio headphones are headphones designed for use in recording studio environments, not necessarily for pleasure listening. There are some specific design choices common on the consumer market that don’t make sense for studio headphones.
The reverse is also true: some of the things that make studio headphones great wouldn’t necessarily improve the consumer audio listening experience.
Confused yet? Keep reading to learn more about the differences between studio headphones and other types. (If you’re a seasoned pro, feel free to skip the next section.)
Studio Headphones Vs. Other Types
If you’re just getting started with an at-home studio, chances are you already have some decent gear lying around. After all, if you’re getting into home recording, you probably already enjoy listening to music at a high level.
One common question is whether you can just use whatever decently high-end headphones you already have at home for studio use.
Here’s our answer: Sure, maybe you can. But you shouldn’t.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we made a similar point in our review of studio monitors. The principle here is the same. Consumer-oriented headphones tend to have all sorts of gimmicks for making listening better. Classic tricks include cranking up the bass to high heaven (we hear you, Beats and Skullcandy) or boosting highs for more present vocals.
But that’s the last thing you want in a pair of studio headphones. You want to hear every last detail, exactly as it is in your tracks.
Here’s an example. If you’re using bass-heavy phones, you’ll think your bass levels are right when they’re actually way too low. Other phones might fool you into thinking your vocals are present when they’re actually buried in the mix.
So when you’re looking for studio headphones, you want to find a pair that gives you an even, reference-quality response. These will often be described as studio headphones, monitor headphones, or reference headphones.
Now, there’s a little good news here. Some extremely high-end headphones don’t do the gimmick thing. Audiophiles want to hear a true reproduction of their audio, so that’s what they expect. This means there are some high-end headphones that straddle the line between audiophile listening and studio applications.
A Note About Open-Back Vs. Closed-Back Headphones
Not every headphone is created with the same basic structure. There are in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear options, of course (though pretty much all the options for serious studio use are over-ear). These elements are fairly self-explanatory and aren’t important for the purposes of this review.
One distinguishing characteristic that does matter quite a bit is whether a pair of phones are open back or closed back. Both serve a purpose in audio production, but you don’t want to get them mixed up.
Closed-back headphones are what most consumers are more familiar with. The ear cups are completely sealed, so as long as you have a good seal on your ear, sound doesn’t leak out. (We could get deeply technical and point out that a closed-back on-ear headphone will still have minimal leakage, but again, that’s beside the point.)
If you’re recording, you want — yea, need — closed-back headphones. You want quality playback in your ear, but you don’t want any of that playback leaking into the microphone.
There are some drawbacks to closed-back headphones. A sealed environment isn’t ideal for the best quality listening. And wearing headphones of this type for a long time can get tiring due to the sound and air pressure buildup.
Open-back headphones let air through the ear cup, alleviating that pressure and allowing for the best possible listening experience. Many of the absolute best listening headphones on the market are open-back headphones. However, there are a ton of drawbacks here, most notably the fact that everyone around you can hear what you’re listening to.
Many audio professionals prefer open-back headphones for mixing. But you’d never want to wear them to record vocals or acoustic tracks because of the substantial audio bleed. That bleed will be all over your recorded tracks, ruining your best takes.
The open design of this type of headphones lets plenty of sound leak out. But it also lets plenty of sound leak in. If you’re in any kind of environment other than a quiet (and isolated) listening space, open-back phones aren’t going to do the job.
So, to sum up: if you can only get one set of music production and recording headphones, go with closed-back headphones. If you can afford two nice pairs, get both— but don’t forget where to use each pair. For more on this interesting sub-topic, check out this guide from Sound Guys.
The Absolute Best Studio Headphones (Money Is No Object)
As with most things in life, the best of a particular category tends to be pretty expensive. This is certainly the case in the world of studio headphones for recording. The absolute best headphones for music production are very, very expensive.
We’re talking budget-busting four figures kind of expensive. And while these may be out of reach for you, no list of the best headphones for recording and music production would be complete without them.
If your budget is sizable (like, money is no object kind of sizable), here are some of the best headphones for music production that money can buy.
A note on organization: These reviews are ordered from most to least expensive throughout, not ordered by which we deem the best in a particular category.
Focal isn’t exactly a household name in the general consumer audio market. However, in the high-end audiophile market and the studio gear market, the brand isn’t just well known. It’s highly coveted.
The French company makes high-end gear for professionals and commercial applications where budgets are plush. Focal makes a number of high-end headphones, some of which prioritize luxury materials and craftsmanship. Others are designed with immaculate listening and studio work in mind.
And then there’s Focal Stellia, which does a bit of both.
Focal Stellia are closed-back over-ear headphones that strike an almost embarrassing balance of high-end reference-quality audio and luxurious, over-the-top craftsmanship. Focal has built a brand new electrodynamic speaker driver with a patent-pending pure beryllium dome, and they have housed it in a luxurious blend of high-end finishes, including full-grain leather over memory foam for the ear cups.
Frequency response goes from 5Hz to 40kHz, and the seal on the ear cups gives great natural soundproofing
Focal Stellia is the rare pair of headphones that works equally well as some of the best headphones for recording vocals and other recording needs, but also as a pair of phenomenal listening headphones you can use with just about any audio source. They don’t require an amplifier (though they will, of course, benefit from one).
Look, most of us couldn’t — or shouldn’t — drop nearly three grand on a pair of studio headphones for recording. But we’re just saying: if you’ve got the cash, these are crazy, crazy good.
Sennheiser HD 820
Sennheiser is a go-to brand for many studio pros, and their HD 820 headphones are the top of the line. There’s really no other way to say it: the audio quality here is impeccable and nearly unparalleled in a studio headphone.
These are over-ear, closed-back headphones that are explicitly marketed as reference-grade audiophile headphones. Powered by a pair of 56mm ring transducers and glass reflectors, these headphones produce a field of perfectly balanced sound.
To offset the pressure and reflection issues that can plague closed-back headphones, Sennheiser has implemented some frequency absorber systems. The result is a closed-back headphone that comes surprisingly close to the feel and sound of the open-back Sennheiser HD 800 series (see next section).
The only catch, of course, is price. If you want the absolute best headphones for recording vocals, these are them. But you will pay handsomely for the experience of listening on a pair of Sennheiser HD 820s. That, and you may need an amplifier or a DAC, depending on your existing setup. (You would need one for normal, private listening, but your studio gear may supply these elements already.)
Sennheiser HD 800 S
If you’re looking for the best mixing headphones money can buy, the Sennheiser HD 800 S should be at the top of your list. This is the model on which the HD 820 is based, but in open-back design, of course.
Hands down, these are our top pick for the best headphones for music production. If you’re mixing or producing and bleed doesn’t matter, you’ll be blown away by the quality of the Sennheiser HD 800 S.
These headphones have the same reference-grade audiophile quality (thanks to the same 56 mm ring radiator transducer), but with an open earcup that creates what Sennheiser calls a “spacious, lifelike soundstage.”
The frequency response here is insane, far eclipsing human hearing on the low and high ends. In total, this is an astounding pair of studio headphones that will defy even the most critical listener’s expectations.
For most of us, these are still pretty shockingly expensive compared to what we spent on our last pair of headphones. But hey, compared to the Focal Stellia, these are nearly half the price.
Remember, these are open-back headphones that you shouldn’t use while recording. But if you can afford dedicated pair of high-end headphones for your mixing pleasure, the Sennheiser HD 800 S should be at the top of your list.
Our other luxury pick for open-back headphones is the Focal Clear. While still luxurious, the Focal Clear takes on a more utilitarian look (and drops almost $2k from the price of the Focal Stellia reviewed earlier, for what it’s worth). These, too, are headphones for music production, not recording, and they are a strong contender for best studio headphones for mixing.
So, what does your sizable investment get you? A quality pair of over-ear open-back headphones with impressive sensitivity (104dB SPL/1mW at 1kHz) and frequency response (5Hz to 28kHz). Focal’s signature M-shaped dome is back, but this time it’s crafted out of less exotic aluminum and magnesium. It’s still a full-range speaker driver that packs an impressive yet even punch.
Focal developed some custom coil tech in the speakers in these phones, resulting in a higher magnetic field than is typical. The result for you? Clearer, more accurate audio.
These are flexible high-end headphones that ship with three sets of cables depending on how you want to connect them.
To be clear, these are luxury studio headphones that also serve a high-end audiophile clientele. On a pure sound-for-money scale, these may not beat some of our midrange picks. But if you want both luxury and audio fidelity in an open-back design, Focal Clear is a great choice.
Best Headphones for Music Production at Midrange Prices (Closer to Home)
Most of us aren’t made of money, and that’s OK. If you need to keep your budget a little bit closer to home but you still want a transformative listening experience, this is the section for you. Below are four of our top picks in what we’re calling the midrange price tier.
These picks range from the mid-$200s up to around $600. If you need to spend even less, don’t worry. We have a section on the best budget studio headphones lower down.
Beyerdynamic DT1770 Pro Headphones
Now that we’re getting down into territory where mortals can afford, you’d be right to expect the headphones to start looking a bit more utilitarian.
That said, the Beyerdynamic DT1770 pro studio headphones actually look pretty nice. There’s visible stitching into the leatherette headband that gives a little polish to an otherwise very black pair of phones.
But you didn’t come here for the fashion. Beyerdynamic is well known as a high-quality maker, and the DE 1770s have earned their spot on this list. These are closed-back headphones perfect for recording and sufficient for mixing and music production as well.
Powering the Beyerdynamic DT1770 is a pair of 45mm dynamic Tesla neodymium drivers. The phones are built on the legacy of the DT770, which has been around for decades.
These may be closed-back headphones, but Beyerdynamic has gone to great lengths to suppress vibrations via a three-layer compound membrane. Every detail has been considered: even the fabric used has been tested to be distortion-free.
With an impedance of 250 ohms, you’ll need to make sure your audio source is sufficiently amplified— similar to the high-end sets in this review. This won’t typically be a problem in the control room, though.
These headphones have a fantastically detailed soundstage, making them perfect for mixing and recording, both. You’ll hear every detail — the good and the bad — clear as day.
Audio-Technica ATH-R70x Professional Open-Back Reference Headphones
There are headphones that prioritize luxury, and then there are headphones that put comfort front and center. These are most certainly the latter. With breathable fabric earpads and a soft, cushioned headband, you can wear these open-back reference headphones for hours without fatigue. The ultra lightweight construction doesn’t hurt, either.
The Audio-Technica ATH-R70x makes our list of best headphones for music production due to its high-quality construction, ease of wear, and fantastic sound quality. Audio-Technica used high-efficiency magnets and a magnetic circuit design to create a sound that’s low on distortion and high on accurate response. The honeycomb mesh on the back of the earphones is acoustically transparent and lightweight, allowing for maximum air exchange.
Audio-Technica’s somewhat iconic dual-band design is here too, adding additional comfort by reducing pressure on the top of the head.
These, too, are high-impedance phones requiring a pro setup or headphone amp, and the open-back design means they aren’t good for vocal recording. But if you need to mix for hours on end, the comfort and clarity are sure winners on the Audio-Technica ATH-R70x.
Focal Listen Professional Studio Headphones
In recent years, Focal has started to broaden its approach by introducing products that it would consider entry level. Now, it’s still a luxury brand, so its version of entry-level professional studio headphones still costs around $300.
For our purposes, that’s not exactly entry level, but these are a fantastic pair of professional studio headphones nonetheless. So we’ve included them here in our midrange selections.
Focal Listen Pro is a closed-back headphone with studio-grade quality sound. Frequency response is solid (5Hz to 22kHz), as is audio quality, thanks to a pair of 40mm mylar titanium drivers. If you need a solid all-around performer, a pair of headphones that can do everything you’d ever need in the studio, Focal Listen Professional is among the best headphones for music production that can fill all the roles (recording, mixing, production, etc.).
They’re comfortable headphones, too. The microfiber ear cups are cushioned with memory foam, and the headband is lined with comfy silicone.
At low volumes or high, these headphones perform well. They also have a unique look to them, with reddish-burgundy ear cups. They stand out in a sea of solid black alternatives.
Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro Over-Ear Studio Headphone
The Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro is an over-ear studio headphone that features a unique semi-open design. Due to this design, it wouldn’t be a good choice as studio headphones for recording, but the sound leakage will be less than in fully open-backed cans— and the background noise will be less prominent if you try to use them in a noisy environment.
Still, semi-open or fully open, these are best studio headphones for mixing, not for live recording.
There’s a lot of comfort built into a pair of DT 880s, with an adjustable and soft headband and very soft velour ear cups. The aesthetics here are a nice touch, too, with metallic silvers and grays in addition to the standard black headband.
Beyerdynamic calls the sound on these cans analytical, neutral and relaxed— perfect for unvarnished listening to rough mixes. Frequency response is better than some more expensive pairs, going from 5Hz to 35kHz.
Altogether, the DT 880 Pro is a quality set of low- to midrange studio headphones perfect for mixing sessions. It strikes the right balance of price and performance for many at-home artists.
Best Budget Studio Headphones for Recording (Most Affordable Recommendations)
Even if you can’t afford to spend much on your studio headphones for recording or mixing, you can still find some high performers for less than you might expect. Here are our top three budget studio headphone recommendations.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50X Professional Studio Monitor Headphones
Audio-Technica is back with a more budget-friendly offering, the ATH-M50X Professional Studio Monitor Headphones. Despite the budget price of around $150, Audio-Technica has packed in quite a bit here.
First, aesthetics. The company has produced a pair of headphones that could easily be gaming or street headphones, in the best possible sense. And with both wired and wireless models and five colors to choose from, you can bet there are plenty of people using these outside the studio.
These phones are also impressively responsive, with 45mm large aperture drivers, giving a deep and natural bass response. These are closed-back over-ear headphones, and they offer a great feature in this price tier: swiveling earcups for one-ear monitoring.
The ATH-M50x also has a much lower impedance, so you can use them with pro and consumer gear alike.
Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphones
The Sony MDR7506 is a legendary workhorse. It’s been around for decades, and little has changed. The most shocking thing about this set is the price. You might have a hard time believing the sound you’ll get out of a $100 pair of reference headphones.
Of course, take one look, and you won’t be particularly impressed. These look like they’re a couple decades old. In other words, they aren’t pretty by modern standards.
But at this price, you’re getting neodymium magnets and 40mm drivers, plus a 10Hz to 20kHz frequency response.
They may not be the sexiest phones on the list, but the Sony MDR7506 certainly has staying power. It’s earned its place on our list of best budget studio headphones.
Sennheiser HD 200 Pro Monitoring Headphones
For years, the Sennheiser HD 206 was a staple in university music labs and other group music environments. It was a workhorse that tended to sell for around $50, with a genuinely surprising level of quality despite the price.
Sadly, the company has discontinued the 206 (though you can still find them on Amazon, at least for now. The newer and flashier ultra-budget studio monitor headphone from Sennheiser is the Sennheiser HD 200.
(Yeah, we know, it’s weird that the new one has a lower number than the old one, but what can we say.)
For well under $100, it’s certainly the best value and still a contender for best budget studio headphones. These are closed-back over-ear headphones with supple ear cushions, and they’re adjustable and ergonomic. Frequency response is respectable, 20Hz up to 20kHz.
Are they the best headphones for music production? No. Are they the best headphones you could possibly get your hands on for this cheap? Honestly, they might be. If money is tight, these will do the job — perhaps even better than you’d expect.