Tiny Tech Tips: Finding The Perfect Headphones
I've been an audio engineer ever since I started recording my own songs on a Tascam 424 Portastudio. That was in 1990. Since then, I've mixed for theater, public radio and have produced the audio for over 400 Tiny Desk Concerts at NPR. Recording and mixing every genre of music at the Tiny Desk is a dream — from jazz to folk to hip-hop to whatever Superorganism is, I love capturing and mixing live music at Bob Boilen's desk. Because of my job, I'm constantly asked: "What's the best pair of headphones?" Like on Jeopardy!, my answer usually comes in the form of a question, or two: What are you using them for? And how much money can you spend?
I have an obsession with headphones and I like them all: in-ear, on-ear, closed-ear, open-ear, Bluetooth, noise-canceling. After I record a band and transfer all the audio files to Pro Tools, I have to make sure the audio mix translates everywhere. Because of this, I end up doing quality control with many different kinds of headphones, earbuds and speakers in order to simulate a wide array of listening scenarios.
Headphones might be the most important device I use — there's no way to know how a mix really sounds without a good pair. So, I've compiled this list of solid headphones at different price points, covering everything from casual listening to professional mixing and mastering.
If you're recording your music or acting as an engineer for someone else, closed-ear headphones are great. This style completely covers the ear and is ideal for blocking out the world around you. It's best to record with closed-ear headphones so you can hear exactly what you're capturing without any external distractions. They're also great for avoiding headphone bleed, meaning someone next to you won't hear what you're listening to. (Headphone bleed can also cause feedback, so it's best to use a closed pair when recording yourself.) My go-to pair is the beyerdynamic DT 770 ($150) studio headphones. For a more portable option, I use the custom-molded Ultimate Ears reference ($1,000) in-ear monitors. They do a great job of sound isolation, but they can feel invasive until you get used to them. They're also very expensive.
Another option is the Shure SE215s ($100) — these in-ear buds aren't custom-molded, but are a fraction of the cost.
For Everyday Use (and Mixing)
I adore the sound of open-ear headphones. They allow sound to leak out, and as a result, give a sense of space that allows the music to breathe, with its low end reproduced very naturally. The downside is that audio can be heard by someone sitting close by, especially at moderate-to-loud volumes. And of course, the inverse is true, too — you'll hear everything going on around you, making them less than ideal for a noisy commute or a flight. The best bang for my buck — and reasonably priced — is the open-ear Porta Pro ($50), from Koss. They look (very) retro, but sound great. Also, with a design straight out of the '60s, is Grado's SR325e ($300). (The company's website claims "The genuine top-grain leather padded head-strap is Brylcreem resistant.") I've used these to mix many Tiny Desk Concerts. I also have Grado's entry-level SR60e ($80), which sound awesome for the price.
Alternatively, the Sony MDR-7506s ($100) are closed-ear and are used by almost every NPR producer and reporter, as well as many recording studios. They're clear and bright, which makes them perfect for hearing bad edits and problematic audio during recording or tracking.
For Travel, Especially Flying
I'm one of those audiophiles who actually likes noise-canceling headphones for travel. They use a built-in microphone to sample the noise around you, then subtract the sound from the mix. The really good ones can cost $300 or more. They generally don't sound as natural as an open-ear designed headset, but they can erase the loud drone of an airplane for hours. Also, you don't need to crank up the volume to hear well with this technology, which has probably saved me from irreversible hearing loss. I've tried many pairs before settling on Bose's QC35 II ($300). Not only are they noise canceling, they're also wireless via Bluetooth. They might not sound the best of all the over-ear, Bluetooth, noise-canceling contenders, but I can wear them for hours without any physical discomfort. Many passive closed-ear and in-ear buds can also dim the sound around you by half, but there's nothing like noise canceling to create a sonic force field around you.
For a good substitute, I recommend the Sony WX-1000XM3s ($350), which block out the world and let you control their sound signature and level of noise cancellation through an app.
I'm not afraid to admit that I love apple's AirPods ($160). They are completely wireless over Bluetooth, but without noise cancellation or an over-the-ear design. They pair instantly with every Apple device and the battery life is great (especially with their carrying case, which recharges them). They're a bit muddy and don't sound nearly as good as open-ear cans, but every time I ride public transportation, everyone is wearing these things — so I use them to hear what my mix sounds like to most everyone else. If it sounds good on the ubiquitous white buds hanging out of all those ears, it'll sound great almost anywhere else. I also like that they let in a little of the noise around me so I can hear possible dangers, like a car horn or someone yelling.
For an alternative, you could do worse than BeatsX ($100). These have a wire to connect their two drivers, but are cheaper and also sport Apple's wireless chip for fast pairing to any Apple device.
For When You're Being Sporty
When running or exercising I go for cheap, wired, water-resistant buds. A good set of sport-oriented headphones should be able to take a lot of abuse, given that they will inevitably be worn in the rain and perspired on. The Koss FitClips ($20) work well for getting my sweaty jam on, are cheap and feature an inline microphone to use with your phone. If you want a tangle-free set, splurge on the wireless Bose SoundSports ($120) — they won't fall out of your ears with their excellent StayHear+ sport tips.
Otherwise, the Jaybird X4s ($130) are also water-resistant, wireless and will stay put while active.
One Last, Very Important Tiny Tech Tip
Turn down the volume! Listening at moderate levels and using earplugs at live shows or on airplanes will save your hearing. Just do it.