Mixing music: 4 myths about the superiority of monitors over headphones

Posted by on Aug 31, 2020, Under: Daily Tips

superiority of monitors over headphones

There is an opinion on the web that mixing music with headphones is not the best thing to do. Allegedly, the “ears” inaccurately broadcast the sound, the hearing gets tired much faster, and the overall picture of the mix has nothing to do with its real sound. The prevalence of such statements leads to the fact that a beginning musician has the impression that mixing music with headphones is a sin punishable by fire.

In fact, headphones are a great and useful tool in any studio, and their advantages more than outweigh the disadvantages associated with using them. From this text, you will learn about a number of popular myths that accompany studio headphones, as well as understand what is true and what is not.

There is a popular belief on the internet that you can’t rely on studio headphones to create a quality mix. Dozens of lessons and articles in unison repeat about the distortion of the sound signal transmission by headphones and, as a result, the impossibility of setting the correct balance of the mix. It comes to the point that novice musicians have the feeling that headphones are needed only when recording music and are completely useless when mixing.

It sounds logical, but the authors of such statements are cunning, trying to present themselves as professionals and boast of their own apparatus. Despite the advantages of a prepared room and top-end studio acoustics, in reality high-quality “ears” are no worse for mixing music than near-field monitors .


Opponents of mixing music in headphones usually cite two main disadvantages of this option:

  1. Headphone mix sounds less believable;
  2. With headphone mixing, your ears get tired much faster.

Both arguments are true, there is no point in arguing with them. However, they cannot be the reason for not using headphones when mixing music. Knowing this, you can safely talk about the pluses of “ears”.

Cross-feed monitors provide more realistic sound

Mixing music with headphones and mixing using monitors are two completely different things. The feature of near-field monitors is that the incoming audio signal is not isolated from the environment. Signals from the left and right speakers mix together on their way to our head (crossfeed effect). Due to this combination, the stereo picture becomes narrower, but at the same time it becomes more natural – we hear how the left and right channels affect each other and what problems they bring. However, signals also bounce off all surfaces in the room, returning to our ears in a more realistic way – we hear how the environment affects the mix and know what needs to be corrected in the project to balance the sound.

Headphones isolate us from our environment. There is no crossfeed between the left and right channels:

The information of the left channel always remains on the left, and the information for the right one – on the right. This separation makes the mix in headphones perfectly sterile and unnatural, which causes discontent among opponents of mixing music in headphones. The lack of crossfeed and channel isolation lead to an incorrect assessment of the overall picture of the mix – we make erroneous decisions when building a balance in terms of volume and panning. For this reason, it is quite easy to kill stereo when mixing music with headphones, but headphones are not the source of mixing problems. The wrong decisions when working with monitors will damage the stereo field in the same way, so the risk is the same.

If the crossfade and thoughts of realistic sound reproduction haunt you when working with headphones, download an audio system emulator. Plugins such as Audified MixChecker , Oscillot Perspective and ToneBoosters Isone simulate the sound of car speakers, laptop speakers, stereo systems and studio monitors, which is useful when the track is mixed with headphones. Simulation accuracy is impossible here, but you don’t need to wait for it: such plugins give a general idea of ​​the problems of the mix and its sound on different speakers. At the end of the day, emulators will calm your nerves and confirm that using headphones hasn’t ruined the track.

Headphones cause hearing fatigue faster

When listening to music with headphones, your ears get tired much faster than listening through stereos or monitors. However, it is wrong to assume that hearing is blurred only with headphones: the hearing aid gets tired regardless of the sound source used. No matter how cool the monitors are in the studio, listening very close to them and mixing at too high a volume can cause fatigue at the same rate as headphones.

The fact that cannot be disputed: hearing gets tired anyway. Even the steepest signal chain and ideal room will not save you from natural ear fatigue caused by prolonged listening to music.

Rowing all the headphones with the same brush is also not worth it. Ears get tired of consumer closed headphones quickly, but no one uses them for mixing music – such models are designed for everyday, but not divisional use. Professional studio headphones are designed with the needs of musicians and sound engineers in mind – the design of such models, the materials and components used are selected so that hearing fatigue as slowly as possible, even during long sessions.

Good headphones are not cheaper than high-quality monitors

Studio monitors start at $ 150 apiece (occasionally for a pair). Quality monitors for a home studio will cost an average of $ 500 to $ 1000 per pair, depending on model requirements and wallet sizes. Professional models from Focal and Adam Audio hit $ 4,000 apiece and move on to infinity. Few people can afford it, so this stuff is usually found only in serious recording studios.

At the same time, the cost of top-level professional studio headphones rarely goes beyond $ 1500-1700. The price tag is also not small, but still incomparably lower than the cost of the coolest and honest-sounding monitors. A pair of good ears for all occasions in musical life will cost less – $ 250-500, while for $ 500 we will talk about a professional high-end model. It will not be possible to buy monitors comparable in sound level for the same money: at best, one monitor will cost this amount, but not a couple.

Usually, articles on choosing equipment for a recording studio talk about the need for near-field monitors for mixing music and headphones for recording and monitoring. The statement is sound, but the simultaneous purchase of monitors and headphones is very expensive. Novice musicians can limit themselves to one thing: for example, headphones. The same AKG K271 Studio and Beyerdynamic DT-770 are perfect for everything: with them you can listen to music, monitor tracks, record yourself, and mix songs. The capabilities of the models will be enough for the first couple of years of mastering the basics of working with sound, after which it will be possible to supplement them with a pair of high-quality near-field monitors.

Even in an unprepared room, the monitor mix sounds better than the headphone mix.

Most of the apartments and rooms are not suitable for organizing a recording studio due to poor acoustic design. Room sound problems can be smoothed out with sound-absorbing panels , but not everyone is ready to paste over the walls of the room with foam rubber pads. In addition, such a maneuver will not completely solve the problem: for a correct, even and transparent sound, the design of the room must be done from scratch.

For this reason, all the talk about the lack of crossfeed and the unnatural sound of the headphones does not make sense. In an unprepared room, even the coolest and most expensive monitors broadcast the mix incorrectly. The room introduces dirt and distortion to the track, especially in the low-end area – it becomes a real challenge to befriend the kick and bass and balance them with other participants in the mix. As a result, monitors acquire the same drawbacks that are attributed to headphones: lack of natural sounding, inability to assess the real state of the mix, quick hearing fatigue and incorrect decisions when setting up a mix.

Recording studios never rely 100% on monitors. In any professional studio there is always one or two pairs of headphones to test the sound of a mix.

In an unprepared room, the isolationism of the headphones becomes a plus – ear pads and cups cut off the negative impact of the room on the mix. Yes, the picture will still turn out to be somewhat emasculated, but even in this situation there will be more truth in it than in the signal from the monitors, superimposed on the imperfection of the room.

Headphones are an essential tool in the arsenal of any musician and sound engineer, so there is no reason not to mix music with them. The reality is that headphones should not be the only tool for mixing tracks – the sound image in them should always be compared to studio monitors. However, as long as you do not build the perfect chain of staff for monitoring and mixing music, a pair of ears can be an indispensable aid in bringing tracks to mind.