Monitoring – Headphones vs Loudspeakers

Posted on January 9th, 2009 by in Advice & Tips, Tech


I recently decided to invest in a pair of Sennheiser HD595′s. Since then I have found myself increasingly inclined to reach for my headphones when producing rather than switching my monitors on. This is mainly due to the somewhat poorer quality of sound reproduction that my monitors provide. I then began thinking about the possible effects headphone monitoring (as opposed to using loudspeakers) may have on my music. I think A good place to start here would be with the Bass. Low frequency sound waves take up very large areas. For example; a 40 Hz sound has a wavelength of just over 8.5 metres (assuming oxygen is the medium). So lets take this into account when using a pair of headphones that have drivers located, lets say; 1cm away from the opening of the ear. The lack of space will result in loss of depth and clarity which ultimately results in your perception of the sound being altered (not what you want). Bass needs room to resonate in order to achieve its full potential and for this reason you will find that certain headphones have noticeably muddy sounding bottom ends. I generally find that DJ style cans are notoriously bad for this.

At this point I would like to mention that if you are thinking of buying a pair of headphones for production purposes then you should look into the differences between ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ headphones and each of their pros and cons.

The next area I would like to look at is to do with panning. The human hearing system is in stereo, meaning we use two ears to pin point the stereo location of any sound which we hear. There are two collaborative ways in which our ears do this; level difference (ILD/ Interaural Level Different) and timing difference (ITD/ Interaural Timing Difference). Level difference being to do with whether a sound is louder in one ear than the other and timing difference being based upon sounds reaching one ear before the other. Whenever we hear a sound in the natural world, our brain will assign a direction and distance from itself to the sound source based upon these two measurements.

Now lets apply this to monitoring…

When listening to a pair of loudspeakers we can hear sounds from the left speaker in both the left and the right ear (though they will be relatively quieter in the right). Likewise, we can also hear sounds from the right speaker in the left ear (again, relatively quieter). This is what gives us that stereo location. Now lets think about what happens when listening on a pair of headphones. We only receive sounds from the right channel in the right ear and sounds from the left channel in the left ear. This causes an exaggerated representation of the stereo image and can therefore result in your final mix lacking overall width.
I would also like to make a quick point about room ambience and of the course the lack of it inside a pair of headphones. If you are lucky enough to have a beautifully shaped/ sized room with excellent acoustics and a pair of studio monitors to match then great, but if like me, you don’t have that luxury then headphones may provide you with a safe haven from the standing waves and nasty sounding echoes that your room might produce. You will ultimately be left with an ambient blank canvas ready for you to add your own digital reverbs.

There are a range of different pros and cons when it comes to using headphones to produce/ mix. And because of this I would suggest using both. You should try switching from one to the other and then back again whilst working. Close comparison is the key to great mixing. Also, remember that a really good pair of headphones will set you back a lot less than a really good pair of monitors. This for me was a very important element in my choice to buy my HD595′s. And my very last piece of advice for today is to always listen to speakers/ headphones before you buy them. This may sound completely obvious to most of you but you would be surprised at how many people go and buy monitors that have been simply recommended to them or even worse just on the fact that they look good.

Thanks for reading.

Liam Adams

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4 Responses to “Monitoring – Headphones vs Loudspeakers”

  1. ricardo serrano Says:

    in about 28 years of listen to monitors and headphones I became to this weird answer: let’s go with this to the car, and then to your room, and then with this lousy headphones hand when you get the same sensation in all, the sound is great


  2. Brendan Lynch Says:

    Nice article and certainly relevant in terms of the availablility of music technologies to almost everyone these days. I live in a studio flat and certainly don’t have the right acoustic setup for final stage mastering. Space is at a premium and the Tyros I use as a keyboard/MIDI programmer/monitor system clearly doesn’t deliver the best sonic quality for mastering. Irritating the neighbours is another concern. So I use an expensive pair of Grado RS-1′s and absolutely love the way they sound. Generally I think I have a good sound overall. The response of the Grado’s is amazing. Not the most comforatble pair of phones after extended periods of usage, but then that tells you it’s about time to give it rest for a while and let the ears recharge! Most of the time I’m happy with how it sounds through the Tyros monitors, but I certainly don’t rely on them as gospel. The Grado’s win hands down every time!

    Added to that, I also use the Har-Bal Mastering Equaliser as a visual means of seeing the EQ. it performs well and can have a significant impact on the master EQ end result.


  3. Tom Hillebrandt Says:

    That was a great article – very informative. It got me thinking though: I wonder if there is an opportunity for a company to produce a small piece of hardware to imitate the “bleed” effect between channels that we witness when using monitors?

  4. Mark Says:

    Nice article, i am always stunned by the amount of people who believe that headphones will allow them to get the perfect mix or, and this is the most annoying thing, the amount of people who don’t believe that treatment will make any difference.

    As they old saying goes, if you spend $1000 on monitors you MUST spend the same again (at least) on treatment or you will be loosing at least 30% of your monitors capabilities then you might have as well just bought Cans.



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