Accurate listening is essential for music production since then we can precisely hear what we do. Such a listening experience is possible on studio headphones and studio monitors.
Are studio headphones or studio monitors better for music production? From an accurate listening perspective, studio monitors are a better choice for music production than headphones, but only in an acoustically threatened room. Monitors can be the better choice since the speaker’s sound of one monitor can naturally reach both ears, not the case for headphones. Also, the speakers of monitors can be bigger in size than the speakers of headphones, giving them the potential to sound better than the smaller ones.
First, this post gives some pre-knowledge by which we can understand studio headphones and studio monitors better. The sections after the pre-knowledge section are about topics that explain the advantages and disadvantages when comparing studio headphones and studio monitors. At last, this post gives some closing words.
We should probably have two main goals when choosing between studio headphones or studio monitors better for music production. The first goal is getting a flat sound. The second goal is getting a sound that translates well to as many listening environments (such as room acoustics) as possible.
The explanation of a flat sound can be hard to understand. Therefore, there follow three explanations of a flat sound:
- A page on Sonarworks explains that when a sound played through a monitor system sounds exactly like the source, it then sounds flat. However, I almost know for sure that it is not only the case for a monitor system but for every system that can play audio.
- The audio sounds as natural as possible, with all the frequencies remaining the same, is how a Headphone Zone page explains a flat sound.
- Someone on a Quora page mentioned that a flat sound is identical to an accurate sound.
As mentioned by the Loudspeaker Wikipedia page, a loudspeaker is an electroacoustic transducer, which is a device that transforms an electrical audio signal to a corresponding sound. The page also mentions that the “loudspeaker” term may relate to individual transducers (also known as “drivers”) or to speaker systems consisting of an enclosure with one or more drivers. Further, the Electrodynamic speaker driver Wikipedia page explains that a speaker driver includes a diaphragm and is typically in a cone’s shape.
Headphones are a pair of small loudspeaker drivers that we can wear on or around the head over our ears, as mentioned by the Headphones Wikipedia page.
As the Studio monitor Wikipedia page mentioned, studio monitors are loudspeakers designed for audio production applications where accurate audio reproduction is important. The term monitor means that the speaker should produce relatively flat (linear) phase and frequency responses.
We Probably Want the Studio Headphones and the Studio Monitors Both
If we have the choice, we might want both the studio headphones and the studio monitors since they have their advantages over each other, which this post will explain.
The headphones and the monitors have different speakers, so the headphones sound (a bit) different than the monitors. Further, when we produce music, we probably want our music to sound good on headphones and monitors. The only way (as far as I know) to be sure that our music sounds good on headphones and monitors is to listen to our music through both options.
Some people on a Quora page mentioned that we want both the headphones and monitors. On the same page, one person explains that we can take care of the overall sound with the monitor and use the headphones to approach particular/specific issues.
By equalizing the kick and bass in the wrong way can result in that the track has no foundation. Therefore, even pro’s with high-end mix rooms check their low-ends on headphones periodically, as explained by a LANDR page.
Sound Calibration Tools
There are sound calibration tools by which we can improve our perceived sound’s flatness from monitors and headphones. Probably the most well-known of these tools are the software ones.
DAW’s and Plugins
A DAW is software or a device that we can use for producing, recording, and editing audio files, according to the Digital audio workstation Wikipedia page. As far as I know, most people produce music in a digital audio workstation (DAW), such as Ableton Live.
In every DAW I know, we can add features to it by installing a plugin. According to the Plug-in (computing) Wikipedia page, a plugin is a software component that adds a feature to a computer application.
Room Acoustics Problems
Room acoustics explains how sound functions in an enclosed space, as mentioned on the Room acoustics Wikipedia page.
The acoustics of the room we are in doesn’t influence what we hear through our studio headphones. Therefore, we don’t have to acoustically treat the room to improve the flatness of the sound we perceive through our headphones.
As mentioned by a LANDR page, a Quora page, and a Sonarworks page, studio monitors can sound flat (transparent). However, these pages also mentioned that the acoustic problems of its room do not sound flat.
The LANDR page also explains that room acoustics have more impact on the flatness of the perceived sound than studio monitors do. Therefore, using monitors in a room without acoustic treatment is probably not that smart to do.
Someone on the Quora page did mention that acoustically treating a room might cost around $3000, which is probably a lot or too much. The same person also mentioned that some people who acoustically treat a room themselves might create acoustic problems instead of solving them. Such a bad acoustic treatment can result in even more costs since they might want to change some acoustic treatment parts and hire someone who knows how to acoustic treat a room.
An Acoustic Fields page and an Audiophile Review page explain that room size could also impact the sound’s flatness when listening to studio monitors. These pages also mentioned that the ratio of a room, height, width, and length could impact the sound’s flatness. Therefore, it might be impossible to get a good flat sound with acoustic threatening in some (not all) rooms.
The room size also determines how good speakers tend to sound, according to an Audiogurus page. The same page explains that the bigger the room, the bigger the speaker for a better sound, and the smaller the room, the smaller the speaker for a better sound.
An Arqen page mentions that the position of the person listening in a room and the positioning of the speakers influence the perceived flatness of the sound.
Costs of the Studio Headphones and Studio Monitors
When I look for studio headphones in stores such as Guitar Center, most of these headphones are under $500, and the most expensive ones are at the moment at $1799.
Guitar Center also sells studio monitors. Most of these monitors have a price above $500, and the most expensive ones have a price above multiple thousands of dollars.
Most of these prices are the price of a single monitor. Moreover, most people probably want two monitors (which the crossfeed section below explains), which means double costs.
There can also be extra costs above the headphones and monitors, which is a bit off-topic for this post. However, some examples of such costs are an audio interface and a headphone amplifier.
An audio interface (also known as a sound card) can be used in or outside a computer, as mentioned by the Sound card Wikipedia page. This page also mentioned that a computer could use an audio interface for incoming and outgoing audio signals. For music production, probably the best audio interfaces are external, such as the top 10 audio interfaces by Audio Mentor.
A headphone amplifier is an audio amplifier to drive headphones that can be internal in a device or external, according to the Headphone amplifier Wikipedia page.
The higher the impedance headphones have, the more resistance they have on a received electrical signal, which decreases the audio volume, as mentioned by a Digital Trends post. Therefore, a stronger headphone amplifier might be needed for headphones to listen at a good hearable volume.
First of all, for headphones, the loudspeaker size doesn’t matter, as explained by a Medium page.
Someone on a Quora page mentioned that larger speaker drivers are more efficient at producing low frequencies than smaller drivers. Some people also mentioned on the same page that bigger loudspeakers do sound better at the lower frequencies.
On the same Quora page, someone explained that the chosen speaker parts/materials influence how well a speaker can produce lower frequencies. However, I think that such parts/materials influence the lower frequencies and the other frequencies (so not only the lower). Therefore, not only does speaker size matter for sound quality/flatness.
Since we don’t have to wear studio monitors around our heads, the speaker drivers of studio monitors can be bigger than those of studio headphones. Therefore, studio monitors have the potential sound to better/flatter than studio headphones. It is only potential since there are factors such as room acoustics (explained above) that influence the sound we perceive when listening through studio monitors.
Crossfeed and the Sound of Room Acoustics
According to the Crossfeed Wikipedia page, the mixing of a stereo audio recording’s left and right channels is crossfeed. This page also mentions that the sound from one stereo speaker can reach both ears of a person and that the delay of the sound and sound level is different for both ears.
The Wikipedia page also explains that natural crossfeed does not occur in headphones. However, a crossfeed signal processor can recreate such a crossfeed by reducing channel separation (panning) and introducing sound delays for headphones, according to this page.
Studio monitors have a natural crossfeed, and headphones don’t. Therefore, the crossfeed solutions made with a crossfeed signal processor are only useful for headphones.
Some Crossfeed Solutions
A good goal is that produced music sounds good in every room, which might be obvious for some people.
Some crossfeed solutions do more than reducing channel separation and introducing sound delays. These solutions also emulate room acoustics’ sound, which helps music production since it makes it better hearable how the music sounds in a room.
Some crossfeed plugins reduce channel separation, introduce sound delays, and emulate the sound of room acoustics. Such plugins are:
- Nx – Virtual Mix Room over Headphones. A plugin of the company Waves.
- Abbey Road Studio 3. Also, a plugin of the company Waves, this plugin tries to recreate precisely the room acoustics of ‘Abbey Road Studio 3 control room.’ Further, this plugin has the option to switch between speakers in that room, by which the sound changes that the user hears since the plugin tries to recreate that speaker sound.
- CanOpener Studio. A plugin of the company Goodhertz.
A crossfeed signal by a signal processor probably never sounds as good as a natural crossfeed since everything we hear has to come from two small headphone speakers. For example, the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin has the possibility by which it tries to create the sound of pretty big speakers, which the user can then hear through headphones. Therefore, studio monitor speakers can (in a correct situation) have a better/flatter crossfeed sound than studio headphones.
Listener (Ear) Fatigue
According to the Listener fatigue Wikipedia page, listener fatigue, also known as ear fatigue, is a term for a phenomenon that happens after prolonged exposure to a hearing stimulus. The page also explains that listener fatigue symptoms can be discomfort, pain, tiredness, and sensitivity loss.
With headphones, we fatigue our ears faster than with monitors, as mentioned by a LANDR page. This page also mentions that the design of open-backed headphones should be much less fatiguing and much more transparent sounding than closed-backed headphones.
Ear fatiguing happens more while listening through headphones than on listening to monitors, as a LedgerNote page mentions. This page explains that the reason for this happening is that with closed-back headphones, the only place for sound waves to go is bouncing in your ear. This bouncing creates pressure on your cilia and eardrums.
The LedgerNote page also explains that with open-back headphones, we should hear sound waves once, and then those waves should leave the headphones. Therefore, open-back headphones should be less fatiguing than closed-back headphones.
Like myself, some people sometimes have sweat around their head while wearing headphones, as mentioned by a Reddit page. According to a few people on a Quora page, sweating can ruin headphones faster.
My head only sweats while wearing headphones in the hotter months of the year. In my experience also, sweat makes the headphones only dirty, and it does not ruin the sound quality of them.
As far as I know, studio monitors don’t introduce any sweat problems.
Hopefully, you know now more about the differences between studio monitors and studio headphones. Maybe by knowing these differences, you can now recommend better to yourself and other people studio monitors or studio headphones.
If you like this post, you may want to look at some posts in the production part of this website since this post is also part of it.
When you know someone who likes to know more about the choice of studio headphones or studio monitors for music production, feel free to share this post. Additionally, do you know a not mentioned difference between studio monitors and studio headphones?