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Studio Headphone Selection

It's not the sexiest piece of gear, but a reliable pair of headphones is essential.

Four top options in pro-grade studio headphones: (top, L to R) Ultrasone PRO 900, Sony 7509HD, AKG K 271 mk II, (bottom, L to R) Audio-Technica ATH-M50, and the high-quality Aphex HeadPod 454 (the latter reviewed with great results in the November 2007 issue of Pro Audio Review). It’s not the sexiest piece of gear, but a reliable pair of headphones is essential. In the studio, on location or on the road, good, accurate, and durable headphones are useful in a multitude of applications.

Just as audio professionals have diverse responsibilities and work environments, they enjoy a wide range of styles and prices. Listening is subjective, after all, and one engineer’s perfection is another’s ordinary. Fortunately, choices are many, and for a relatively small investment, recordists can — and definitely should — own a few pairs of quality phones.

“My first responsibility, and the first thing I want to do when I’m tracking, is I want the guys in the studio to have a great headphone balance,” says producer/engineer Ed Cherney, who brings six pairs of Audio-Technica ATH-M50s to tracking dates. “Especially, I want the drummer to be able to hear the kick drum, I want him to be able to hear the bass, and I want them to be able to turn the volume up without it getting fuzzy and without it breaking up. If I can keep them happy in the studio, it makes them better musicians, and it gets me invited back to another gig.”

“I had been using standard headphones that we’ve used in the studio for years, and then someone turned me on to the Sony 7509HD,” says Brian Mackewich, cofounder of New York-based post-production/media production studio Gizmo Enterprises. “First of all, they’re full-ear: You put them on and cut out all the noise, and can hear the audio great. But I really like the response. It’s not quite like listening to a speaker, but it’s the best headphone I’ve ever put on. And the best thing about them is, they don’t break! We were buying five, six pairs of headphones every six months, because they were just pieces of junk. It’s not like it’s a huge expense, but it’s a pain in the butt. These [7509HDs] are really built tough. I have yet to repair one, and I’ve had them for 18 months to two years.”

AKG’s K 702 For Gizmo personnel, the Sony 7509HDs see action in multiple applications. “Obviously, we check some mixes on them,” says Mackewich. “A lot of times for dialog editing you use them to make sure your edits are good, when you don’t feel like monitoring at monster volumes. For voice recording they’re fantastic, because you don’t get bleed as much as with semi-open-ear headphones.

“I use them a lot,” Mackewich continues, “mostly in the machine room, for a lot of digital delivery encoding — Flash files, video on demand files, things like that. As a matter of fact, I went on vacation and took an Mbox with me. My wife and I did some recording — I had my portable laptop studio with Pro Tools 8. When I put them back on at my home studio — my full rig — and heard the recordings, I was pleasantly surprised with what we got.”

Michael Klvana took to Ultrasone PRO 550 headphones, in part, for their sound isolation. Recording Crosby, Stills & Nash with a 48-track DAW situated on the side of the stage — just feet from Stills’ amplifiers — isolation was essential, he explains.

Sony’s MDR-7509HD “I’m recording 48 tracks at high resolution,” explains Klvana. “I take two channels out of there to make quick MP3s. It’s an on-the-fly kind of thing — I need really quick reference, and something that I can hear the details [with] and be able to get a quick sound. I’ve been using the Ultrasone PRO 550s onstage because I can get a little bit more level out of them — sometimes that extra volume makes or breaks what I’m doing onstage. When I need a little more detail, I go with the [Ultrasone PRO] 750, like when I’m doing an edit in my hotel room, or setting up.

“I do a lot of playback, also, for different groups — TV shows, live performances and things like that,” Klvana continues. “A lot of times, there are different configurations as far as their mixing capabilities, so I have to be ready to take 16 channels and slam them down to 2, or 4, or 6, depending on what they’re capable of. I have to walk in and have a mix ready. The thing I like about the Ultrasones is that sometimes I need to have them on for long periods of time, like two hours straight. My ears don’t fatigue as quickly as [with] headphones that have the drivers shooting straight into your ears, or in-ears where the drivers are right up against your eardrum. The driver shoots more toward the top of your ear and the back, not straight into the canal. It gives the sound a little chance to move around. It’s amazing: I’ve been wearing different brands and in-ears, but when I put on the Ultrasones, I can really hear a big definition difference. A lot of the musicians that I’m working with put them on in the studio and are like, ‘I want a pair of those.’ Whatever the studio cans are, they hear the difference right away.”

Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50 A lesser-known, high-end manufacturer, Grado Labs, is a favorite of some of the audio industry’s top practitioners. Tom Jung, president/engineer of DMP Records and technical consultant to this magazine, considers the headphones developed by Joe Grado to be the best he has ever heard. “When the Grados came along,” says Jung, “I just fell in love with them, as did Bob Ludwig, and have used them religiously over the past 15 years.

“Joe is a master at resonances,” Jung explains. “When I visited his lab when he was starting to build these things, he had a whole wall of chemicals, different viscosity materials. He bought drivers, and they had all kinds of mechanical resonances. He would dampen those resonances, and finally he came up with a formula. The ones Grado built for Bob and I were machined aluminum. He just really, really has an understanding of resonance. Drivers, speakers, headphone components, phono cartridges — he just built with resonances at almost a molecular level. What he ends up with, after endless tweaking, is very, very musical.”

Jung’s Grado Labs HP1 headphones are no longer made; presently, the manufacturer offers 10 headphones models, spanning the Professional, Statement, Reference, and Prestige series and ranging from the iGrado (designed for portable use) to the metal/wooden PS1000.

“I used them in the studio religiously,” says Jung, “and now that I’m not making records for DMP anymore, I’m doing more pro bono kind of stuff with bands in the area — concerts and recitals and things like that. I still use them there, but it’s an open headphone, so when you get into the room where the music is performed and that’s your monitoring, you would like a little more isolation. That’s where I got into the Audio-Technica [ATH-M]50s. They’re pretty respectable. For a closed headphone, I’m reasonably happy with them.”

Hal Winer, owner of BiCoastal Music in Ossining, New York, also likes the ATHM50, but stocks his studio with a variety of phones for clients with varying preferences. “For a mix reference, I like the AKG K 271 mk II,” says Winer. “They’re reasonably priced and very accurate. I don’t use headphones as a critical element in mixing — just a quick check to examine imaging and overall translation.

Ultrasone’s PRO 550 “For all-around use,” Winer adds, “especially tracking ensembles, I like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50s. They’re a bit hyped in a few places, but they handle uncompressed transients very well. The players like that because they get impact and volume without distortion, especially with kick drum and bass. I also own Sony MDRV6s and Ultrasone PRO 550s so that clients have some choice if they want it.”

Like Klvana, Marty Strayer does extensive work in performance contexts — handling front-of-house and monitor engineering — as well as in studio settings. “I like the AKG K 702s, because they sound awesome, are light, and unobtrusive,” he reports. “I use them to reference inputs and mixes. They are truly great-sounding headphones.”

On the road, Strayer also uses his K 702 headphones with a laptop-based remote recording rig, “and find them to be very handy on the tour bus, in hotels, etc. I love ’em. Also, I turned on some friends in the movie business, and they love ’em, too. They like the light weight [and] great sound, as they use them on location, and they like that they don’t feel isolated, as they are not ‘deadphones.'”

Mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen, of Lurssen Mastering in Hollywood, notes that “often, clients will bring a laptop and their phones to do a test listen before we continue in the morning, to make sure we get off on the right track and the songs are going to sound good in a way many consumers listen.”

Lurssen equips his studio with Sennheiser HD-590s. “A little bright,” he offers, “but serves the purpose for quality screening, especially for tics and glitches on a mix.”

Not the sexiest piece in your arsenal, but pretty darn important, as these professionals attest. “It’s just one thing I don’t have to think of,” Cherney observes. “I know that when I have [Audio-Technica ATH-M50s] out there, I don’t have to worry about ‘I can’t hear the kick drum,’ and the bass isn’t getting fuzzy or breaking up.

“The hardest part is being able to take them home,” he concludes. “If I come with six headphones, invariably I’m leaving with four.”