Why shouldn't you mix through headphones?

Mix and monitor with headphones

For some people it is impractical to use speakers to mix their music and audio tracks. It may be that their neighbors are easily disturbed or that their acoustic environment does not scratch. Despite the fact that it's usually not recommended, a lot of people do decent mixdowns with just headphones on.

If you're trying to mix through headphones, it's usually a good idea to buy good quality headphones. Cheap headphones have way too many tradeoffs for serious mixing work, so I'd suggest you spend at least £ 100.00 ($ 160.00) ..

This price point gets you into the ballroom for a high quality headphone. At this price point, I recommend professional audio production brands over trendy or "flashy" headphones. The sound is likely to be more neutral and suitable for mixing tasks.


Headphone types

Headphones come in different shapes and sizes. Avoid "bud-like" ear headphones and opt for larger circumaural headphones (headphones that hold the ear). These are the headphones that give the best results when mixing music tracks.

Before you buy your new headphone, here are some pros and cons of working with the two main types of headphone cup.

Open back

Open headphones mean the air can flow freely between the headphone cup and ear, and there is generally more natural sound quality to my ears. This may be due to the fact that the shell around the ear does not create a resonant cavity.

The disadvantage is that such headphones do not attenuate ambient noise and closed headphones. Especially in the summer months and in warm countries, headphones with an open back let the ears breathe and are more comfortable in this regard.


Open back headphones

Closed back

Closed headphones are ideal if you work in a somewhat noisy environment as they can help reduce interference from external noise. You can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable for long listening as they tend to form a seal around the ear and can cause a slightly claustrophobic feeling. You will likely find that you need to take more breaks.


Closed headphones

Both types have their place in audio production and you must assess your primary needs in order to make the best choice.


Which impedance do I choose?

The headphone impedance is generally between 16 and 600 ohms. The higher the impedance, the lower the volume is usually at any volume level, depending on the sensitivity of the headphones.

As the impedance increases, more voltage is required to drive the headphones (although less current is drawn from the amplifier with higher impedance headphones). I tended to prefer the mean impedance rating, especially when you are unfamiliar with a particular headphone amplifier's capability.

Medium impedance headphones up to around 250 ohms are a good compromise. This ensures that a standard sound card headphone jack is able to bring them to acceptable volume without distortion.


Headphone impedance

Personally, I use dedicated headphone amplifiers as the sound quality can be much better than that of a small amplifier that runs on low voltages (e.g. USB sound card H / P output). A good headphone amplifier can really show the details of a recording with great accuracy.

I recommend buying a good quality headphone amplifier if you mainly use headphones as the difference in sound quality can be quite significant. This is mainly due to the circuitry, power supply, and the ability of the components to produce undistorted and clean sound. With some headphone amplifiers, you can swap out the small DIP 8 opamp chips, which allows you to adjust the sound to some extent.


A headphone amplifier circuit

Considerations for mixing through headphones

One of the biggest differences when working with headphones is the stereo image. When listening to speakers, the left ear receives both the left and right speakers and the right ear. This is very different from wearing headphones, as neither ear receives sound from the opposite cup.

This means that assessing the stereo image (looking at your mix on stereo speakers) can be a little more difficult. Some people like to introduce a software or hardware circuit called a crossfeed that allows you to simulate and approximate a speaker setup and how it interacts with our ears.

I also recommend using reference material (stereo mixes that sound best on speakers) and getting used to how your headphones sound so that you can make better decisions about positioning instruments in the stereo image. It is important that your mixtures get through into speaker systems and this is where the challenge lies.

With headphones you can hear more detail than with typical project studio speakers. This can be both an asset and a curse. When leveling your mix, don't focus too much on extraneous noise, as the intensity of the details can be a bit distracting. Instead, imagine that you are going to make sure that you are doing a "Quality Control" pass which is solely designed to remove foreign objects, noises, hiss, pops and clicks before settling on tone, balance and dynamics focus and stereo image.

Adding effects to the mix can be difficult to gauge. This is partly due to the details that are normally covered by monitors and how they interact with room acoustics and floor noise. With the headphones closed, the intimacy of the sound can make reverbs difficult to judge. Referencing and checking the speakers is the way to go until you are sure of the tonal character of your headphones.

It also makes sense not to blind a test on a decent stereo speaker system. Reliance on headphones doesn't have to be too extreme, and it's a good idea to check out a speaker system from time to time just to check on its progress. Even a stereo pair of multimedia speakers with a single driver offers good perspective.

If you're not on budget, the Avantone Mix Cubes are a good, small, and affordable choice. There are others, but these speakers produce a good stereo image (when configured in an equilateral triangle configuration) and don't trigger the room nodes as they produce very little deep bass.


Hear safety concerns

When using your headphones, always turn the volume down to the lowest position, then gradually increase the volume. Definitely do this when using your headphones. This habit ensures that no loud sources radiate your ears with a high level of noise that is known to be instantly harmful.

If you ever hear ringing in your ears after using headphones, you are hearing too loud. This is a very clear warning and you should turn down the listening volume to avoid hearing damage. You only get one pair of ears so respect them so you can listen for years and enjoy the pleasure.

It is tempting to listen at high volume because it sounds and feels good, and headphones produce a clear and very distortion-free sound. However, it is very important that you do not exceed the hours of safety volume. If in doubt, refuse.

As a very rough guideline, you can use a sound pressure meter from ear to ear and measure the volume in sound pressure. Use local guidelines on noise nuisance and set this back 10dB. You have a responsibility to your own hearing, so research and error on the caution side are irreplaceable.

Finally, take regular breaks, regularly rest your ears, and reevaluate the volume.


Summary

Headphones can be economical, comfortable, very detailed and accurate. Despite these beneficial properties, you must be aware of the limitations of balancing audio tracks. Good mixes can definitely result from using good quality headphones, especially if you become familiar with your specific headphones and know how they sound in relation to speakers.