The difference between mixing on headphones vs. speakers is a frequent point of discussion among bedroom producers.
In this post, we discuss the age-old debate by breaking down the unique pros and cons that headphones and speakers offer. We’ll also examine some data and conclude with some strategies for making it work either way.
Mixing on headphones
Look, almost every article I’ve ever read about mixing on headphones says don’t do it – but we all have. Whether you use them to work on tracks while traveling or it’s your primary method for sound reproduction, mixing on headphones is a time-honored tradition (famously used by Skrillex to produce Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites).
The pros of headphones
Compared to using speakers in an untreated room, working on headphones can actually deliver a more accurate mixing environment. Let’s talk about some of the benefits to mixing on headphones.
- Better bass response: Especially if you don’t have a subwoofer, headphones will likely deliver a better bass response than your standard pair of home studio monitors. Most small studio speakers simply aren’t big enough to reproduce sub-bass frequencies in an open space, while headphones have the advantage in bass reproduction capability thanks to their close proximity to your ears.
- Less variability from room reflections: This is perhaps the biggest acoustical advantage of using headphones. When working on a pair of studio monitors, the sounds coming from your speakers can, and do, bounce off of every wall and object. This influences how you hear the sound, and therefore, your mixing decisions. This is why professional studios spend so much money on acoustic treatment – minimizing reflections is an art in and of itself. When you use headphones, you don’t need to worry about this because the sound is going directly from your headphones to your ears without interference from your physical space.
- Potentially better value: You can buy a great pair of headphones for a fraction of the price of high-quality studio speakers. For a really good set of Beyerdynamic studio headphones, I recently paid $170 – just about the same price as one KRK Rokit 5 studio monitor.
- More mobile: Obviously, it’s infeasible to bring your speakers along with you outside your home space. If you want to be able to work on your music outside your studio, you’ll benefit from getting to know how your specific pair of headphones sound.
- Less of a disturbance for your neighbors: If you’ve got neighbors or roommates who might be irritated by loud music, headphones are an obvious choice (your headphones’ ability to block them out might be an added bonus as well).
The cons of headphones
While there are benefits, there are also issues that might arise from relying too much on headphones.
- A higher potential for ear fatigue / hearing loss: When using headphones, you might be more likely to crank up the volume (after all, music sounds better when it’s loud), which can lead to quicker ear fatigue or even long-term damage. Remember that sound decays over distance, according to an inverse-square relationship. This means that the closer your ears are to a sound source, the more acoustic energy they take in. Since your ears are right next to the drivers when wearing headphones, the potential for damage is very high when listening at super-loud levels. It’s easier said than done, but make sure to take breaks from your headphones and listen at reasonable volume levels.
- A different soundstage: It should also be noted that headphones will create a different soundstage for your music. Since the sound is coming from the sides of your head instead of from in front of you, the stereo field is very different when using headphones compared to speakers. Soundstages and spatial audio are important considerations that deserve attention, but for this post let’s just say that the stereo field will be different on headphones compared to your speaker setup. It’ll even be different for different headphone models, so it’s worth being aware of how the specific headphones you’re working on impact your soundstage.
Mixing on speakers
Often times, mixing on speakers is considered ‘the standard.’ Let’s explore legitimatize reasons why the choice to mix on speakers is not only popular, but important.
The pros of speakers
- Potentially closer to your destination: When you mix music, it’s worth thinking about how your intended audience will be listening. If you’re making music to be played at clubs, your track will be reproduced on speakers, so mixing on them in the first place might help you get a better understanding of the effect your mix will have on live audiences.
- Less physically restrictive: Although speakers can still cause ear fatigue, being physically connected to the workstation via headphones can take a toll. Apart from the annoying cable, sweaty earcups can be unpleasant, especially in warmer climates. Anecdotally, I also find that when wearing headphones, I get up from my chair to take a break or get a much-needed stretch in far less frequently.
- More fun to use: Let’s face it – often, it’s just more fun to make music on speakers. Cranking up your speakers and moving all that air around is such a wonderful feeling; it’s why a lot of us are enchanted with making music in the first place.
The cons of speakers
- The impact of an untreated room: While it’s not inherently a con, the big double-edged sword of using studio monitors is that your room will have a much larger effect on your mixes (as opposed to headphones, where your room doesn’t really matter). If you do happen to have access to a room that’s already treated, or if you’re able to implement some DIY acoustic treatment, you can minimize the effect of room reflections and take full advantage of your speakers’ capabilities. It’s not too hard; even something as simple as hanging up a blanket on the wall can make your home studio setup sound more professional (although it might not look more professional).
Exploring some data
Finally, let’s take a look at some measured data. I used Sonarworks’ Reference Measure software to get an accurate reading of the frequency response curve of my speakers at my home studio setup. I’m using a pair of KRK Rokits and a Focusrite Clarett 2Pre audio interface. There’s some treatment, but it’s relatively minimal: curtains, soft surfaces – nothing out of the ordinary.
The frequency response curve of the KRK Rokits in my home studio
Let’s compare this to the average frequency response curve of a solid pair of studio headphones. Here’s what my Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 250 ohm headphones’ response curve looks like. Note that this graph is an average of similar models, not an actual reading of my individual cans.
The average frequency response of a pair of studio headphones
It seems that the speaker setup might be a tad flatter in some areas, but exhibits more pronounced spikes, especially around 120 Hz. Meanwhile, the headphones have a significant boost in the high end, but they’re also much better at reproducing sub-bass frequencies – this is to be expected, as I’m not using a subwoofer in my home studio.
Working with what you have
Here’s the bottom line: any setup, including professional studios, will involve trade-offs. When choosing headphones and speakers for your home studio, you’ve got to think about your budget, space constraints, neighbors, and a host of other factors. For these reasons, headphones are probably the simpler choice for many bedroom producer setups.
However, if you know the pros and cons of your equipment intimately, you can definitely produce excellent mixes either way. Ideally, you should learn the intricacies of whatever equipment you’re using, and then check your mix on a variety of listening setups. This will help you avoid the pitfalls of each distinct monitoring option. No matter what you’re working with, understanding the limitations of your space and your gear will help you take your work to the next level.
We hope you found this article useful. If you have any questions on the pros and cons of mixing on headphones vs. speakers, let us know in the comments below.
May 5, 2020