Studio Monitors vs. Studio Headphones | Which is better for Mixing?

Studio Monitors vs. Studio Headphones | Which is better for Mixing?

Studio Monitors vs. Studio Headphones for Mixing?

If you're reading this, it's likely that you already have a solid pair of studio monitors but are wondering if some headphones would work better instead, or vice versa.

Or perhaps you saw a clickbait video on YouTube that told you all of your mixing and mastering issues will go away immediately if you just start wearing this specific pair of studio headphones.

Both of these statements are, for lack of a better explanation, fake news. 

So before we dive deeper into Studio Monitors vs. Studio Headphones, let's get a few important things out of the way first.

1) Both studio monitors and headphones offer different advantages and disadvantages.

2) NO, your mixes don't suck because you don't have the "right" pair of headphones or monitors. 

What are Studio Monitors built for?

"But Mackie, I already have a nice pair of Bose speakers that I use with my TV! Won't those work?

Stop it. Just stop it.

Musicians, producers, and audio engineers alike approach the process of creating music much differently than the people consuming it. 

Most home audio systems are designed to give the listener the best experience possible for enjoying the music. To do so, they'll typically boost the low end or the highs to deliver a "fuller" sound and make things hit harder.

Studio monitors are not designed for fun. In fact, they are designed to make you question everything you know and begin to have existential thoughts about your purpose in life.

Pro Tools setup with Mackie CR Monitors

The main difference here is that studio monitors are built to provide the most accurate representation of the audio they can possibly deliver.

Because of this, musicians can hear their work represented as it truly sounds in order to make intelligent decisions during the mixing and mastering process.

It's also just fun to blast your project file as you're creating something new or annoy your neighbors as you loop through the same snare drum for the thousandth time.

So to recap:
  • Studio monitors have a flatter frequency response
  • This gives the listener a more accurate representation of their music
  • There is more "separation" in the sounds, allowing for critical listening and mixing

The different types of studio headphones

There are two common types of studio heaphones — closed back and open back.

Closed back studio heaphones

Closed back headphones are sealed around the back. Because of this, they offer a more "intimate" listening experience often with increased perception of bass and no distraction from sounds of the outside world

Open Back Studio Headphones

Open back headphones are - yep, you guessed it - the opposite of closed back headphones.

You're so smart.

Mackie MC Series Headphones

With an open design, air passes through the device and as a result audio will now travel out beyond your ears and into natural space. 

This design feature allows for better critical listening during the mixing stage of the creation process because it allows you to hear your music more naturally.

But listener beware, because open back headphones aren't enclosed, others will also hear what you're working on. So I'd advise against taking these to the public library to blast some Celine Dion.

So should I choose Studio Monitors or Headphones for Mixing?

This probably isn't the answer you're looking for, but the truth is that it depends.

If you have the budget, having both options is the ideal scenario as they both carry their own advantages over the other. 

Mackie studio headphones and CR monitor

Here's a quick look on the advantages of each:

Advantages of using Studio Monitors for Mixing

  • Flat frequency response
  • Eliminates "ear fatigue" or "ear blindness" from occurring too quickly as the source of the audio is further from you
  • Allows you to hear the sound in a more "natural" way that a listener would without headphones
  • You can better understand how your track will play back in a room
  • You can mix at very low levels (recommended) or extremeley high levels without discomfort
  • Offers better separation and clarity than most headphones

Advantages of using Studio Headphones for Mixing

  • Easier to hear tiny details when mixing at low volumes
  • Great for use when you need to be quiet (i.e. if it's late at night or you live in an apartment building)
  • Open back headphones offer a closer experience to monitors
  • Easier to pick up on phasing issues and placing individual tracks across the stereo spectrum in general
At the end of the day, the only thing that will take your mixes to the next level is you. There is no piece of equipment on earth that can out perform a trained ear and a seasoned mix engineer who is surgical with their EQ skills.

Guy mixing in Mackie Headphones

However, for the sake of objectivity here, studio monitors are a better option for mixing due to their flatter frequency responses and lack of ear fatigue, leading to longer mixing sessions. And while you can't exactly emulate a club or large venue in your own studio, hearing how your track (particularly the low end) interacts with a room is important for making crucial mixing decisions.

In my own personal preference, I use headphones for the actual production process to "feel closer" to the music as I'm creating it and then swap to some 8" monitors for the mixing process.

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