Picking the Right Headphones for Quality Audio

by Ibarionex Perello

The collapsible design of the Audio-Technica provides for convenient portability, while not skimping on durability or comfort. See more headphones in the gallery.

May 30, 2014

When I’m working on a movie I shot with my DSLR, I want the finished product to not just look good, but to also have quality sound. Achieving the visuals are often the easy part with today’s cameras, which are adept at delivering excellent sharpness, color fidelity and that shallow depth of field that was once the sole domain of motion picture cinematographers.

To get my audio to a similar premium level, however, I incorporate several high-quality microphones, an external digital recorder and lastly, but no less important, a good set of headphones.
Though headphones or ear buds are pretty ubiquitous in a world where we are constantly jacked into our smartphones, film work requires a higher grade of headgear to ensure that you are recording the best audio possible. And while it can be tempting to use the ear buds that came with our phones to monitor audio, they’re not the best choice. The bottom line: an investment in a good set of headphones is essential when producing quality video.

Multi-Purpose Headphones
The best choice in headphones is directly related to how you intend to use them. Under ideal circumstances, you would be using two different types for your multimedia productions. The first would be used for monitoring audio when it’s being recorded on location. The other would be used for monitoring the audio during editing and mixing. The former could be in an environment where there is a lot of ambient sound, while the editing space of the latter will likely be relatively quiet.

Closed- and Open-Back Headphones
These typically fit over your ears so little to no sound escapes into the outside world and vice versa. They are favored for work in a studio because when a singer is recording his/her vocals, no sound is allowed to bleed out from the headphone to be picked up by the microphone. Such headphones have not always been known for providing the best audio experience, but they do provide the right degree of information to detect the final details that can weaken audio.

Open-back headphones are designed with an open back, which allows air and sound to pass through, providing a richer and more satisfying sound. They don’t isolate the sound in the same way that closed-back headphones do, which can be an issue when you are recording or editing in a noisy environment. Though ideal for editing in a quiet environment, they won’t be ideal for recording audio on location—such as at a wedding where there is a considerable amount of ambient sound.

Ideally, you would have two separate headphones for recording and mixing, but if your budget limits you to just one, a closed-back headphone may provide the best alternative.

Sweetened vs. Flat Response
There has been an explosion of branded headphones during the past several years, which are touted for their great bass response and their ability to deliver an amazing audio experience when listening to music. And while they may be great for listening to everything from Chopin to Eminem, they may not be ideal for monitoring audio.

Many of these branded headphones are optimized specifically to enjoy music. Their audio has been “sweetened” to deliver a strong, well-defined bass and crisp, clean highs. They provide a full sound, which is pleasing to the ear and shows off the music at its best.

But what’s great for music is not necessarily best when you are monitoring audio while recording and/or editing and mixing the audio in post. For that, you want a headphone that delivers a flatter response. Though this may not provide as pleasing a sonic experience as a sweetened headphone, it’s the better choice for discerning the subtle qualities of sound. This is especially important when you are cleaning and mixing audio.

Seeking Comfort
Though it’s tempting to judge the comfort of a headphone based on a few minutes of wear, it’s important to gauge how they will feel over an extended period of use, which can be anywhere between 20 minutes to several hours. Your choice is one you are going to have to live and work with for many years. So, it’s a decision that should involve thoughtful consideration.

Circumaural headphones (or over-the-ear headphones), can have either a closed-back or open-back design. These models create a seal around your ears, which provide excellent sound isolation. With this type of headphone, it’s good to choose a model that is slightly larger than your ears so that they aren’t squeezed uncomfortably for long periods of time. Pay careful attention to the cushion around the earpiece and how it feels against your skin.

Supra-aural headphones rest on your ears rather than encompassing them but don’t isolate sound in the way that circumaural headphones do. The earpieces are connected via a headband, which can greatly influence your comfort level. Though they will offer some level of adjustment, the tension offered by some designs can be too tight to allow for use over an extended period of time. You want to avoid looseness that will result in the headphones slipping off your head—find headphones that provide just enough hold to maintain their position.

A good set of headphones can last you for years, but you can extend the life of these units if they have the ability to have key components replaced. When you invest in high-quality headphones, you should expect a well-shielded cable, which will reduce signal noise. Avoid purchasing extra-long or inexpensive cables, as they can introduce signal noise, which can result in a less- than-accurate listening experience.

While choosing the right headphones can sometimes seem overwhelming, the suggestions on page 114 are meant to fit a variety of needs and budgets. And although some of these choices may involve a solid investment in money, it’s important to remember that it’s a piece of gear that you will likely continue using long after you have replaced your camera twice or even three times.

See this story in the digital edition.

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