In a perfect world we’d all have a collection of pro audio studio monitors plus a brace of super-accurate studio headphones with a top-notch headphone amp/mixer to share and customize the mix with other performers. And while we’re dreaming, why not racks and lockers full of primo vintage recording mics and preamps too?

Back to reality and the question: Can I get away with just using a pair of headphones to record and mix my next project? The answer is a highly qualified maybe—the main qualification being your ears and mixing skill. Listening critically then knowing what tweaks to make beats owning any amount of gear. That said, having an inexpensive yet decent pair of audio monitors will help you judge your mix better. For most of us, studio monitors are essential.

JBL LSR 305 Studio Monitor

Musicians on a tight budget count on the JBL LSR 305P MKII Studio Monitor for an accurate representation of their mix.

Headphones Can Lead Your Mixes Astray

That’s because they tend to make everything sound great. Even cheap ear buds sound okay. Their intensified stereo field and hyped-up frequency response may make your mixes sound crazy-good. But try playing those same mixes back on studio monitors, your car speakers, phone or tablet. Unless you have remarkable ears that know how to allow for the audio glitz that your headphones added, you’ll likely be bummed by your headphones-only mix. A mix that sounds great on the headphones often falls apart when listened to on speakers—be they accurate, hyped or tinny.

Without going into all the psychoacoustics at play, the good news is that the reverse isn’t usually true. That is, if you can get a mix to sound good on monitors, it will usually translate well when heard on headphones.

One strategy some mobile rig owners use these days takes advantage of this fact. They get their rough mixes shaped up in their home studios using monitors, and then add tweaks while on the road using headphones. This approach helps ensure you’re not tweaking a mix that will likely sound very different on speakers, forcing you to start all over. Adding sweetening should only happen when you’re confident you’ve got a solid basic mix foundation to work on.

AKG K240 Headphones

AKG K240 headphones get high marks from project studio owners for their excellent accuracy plus long-term comfort.

Why You Still Want Headphones While Mixing

We didn’t really mean to diss headphones. The fact is, as we suggest above, you’ll want to check your mix on all kinds of playback gear, including headphones and earbuds.

A pair of monitor-quality headphones are also helpful for getting up close and personal with your mix. Clicks, pops, hum and other audible noise is usually easier to clean up using headphones. They can also be useful in fine-tuning delay and reverb tails as well as attack and release settings on your compressor.

By listening on consumer-grade gear such as the Beats by Dre Solo3 Wireless Headphones, you’ll get a better sense of how your mix will sound to to your audience who listens on such gear. Recording and monitoring headphones are designed to accurately reveal the naked mix without audio sweetening, as opposed to consumer ear buds and headphones that are voiced for pleasing sound instead.

Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed-Back Headphones

Listening critically with popular models such as the Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Headphones will help you get a better feel for how your average listener will hear your mix.

How To Make Better Headphone Mixes

Here are a couple of tips to help integrate headphones into your recording and mixing process:

Compare Your Mixes On Different Headphones

During a mixing session our ears and brains adapt to the gear on hand. If you’re working with a pair of headphones that, say, have a spike in the upper mids, your brain will adapt to that response pattern as easily as it does to the “fake” soundstage that headphones produce. Keep another pair of headphones handy as a kind of reality check. Though the second pair may lack the flat frequency response of pro monitoring headphones, they will help disrupt the tendency of your ears to adapt. You can wake ‘em up, so to speak, even with some cheap earbuds after mixing with your go-to cans for hours on end.

Rest And Refresh Your Ears

Ears and brains get tired. Before you share your latest creation, let it brew overnight, then give it another critical listen the next day, preferably on speakers. Pay attention to overall levels. Are all the elements sitting comfortably in the mix together? Are the vocals intelligible? Are the drums in balance with each other and the bass? Make notes on the stuff that’s not right, then fix it in your DAW software using monitors or ‘phones, depending on the issue and your access to gear.

For a deeper dive, read our Headphone Buying Guide.

But Really, It's All About The Music

You may not have the budget to go top drawer with pro-level headphones and studio monitors. Don't let that stop you! In the end, what matters is the heart and soul you bring to your music projects, Refining mixes is a next step.

Need help choosing your headphones?

The Gear Advisers at Musician’s Friend can guide you to the right gear based on their years of collective home-studio experience. Give us a call for friendly, no-pressure help.