Like most of my other “buying guides”, there are a few ways to answer this depending on what you are looking for. I have three regular pairs of headphones and they are all for different uses. Oh, and none of them are earbuds*, just no, no earbuds.
Casual / Consumer
These are for when I am hanging out on the couch watching some TV or playing a game, or if I am on public transport and I’m listening to a podcast, etc. For these, I use the Bose QC25. They have active noise-cancelling and are over-ear cans, they fold up and pack into my bag nicely. I picked these up for an overseas trip so I could sleep on the plane and they have become my main casual headphones. Would I use them for critical listening or in professional situations? Nope. They sound great and they could likely do a good job at it, but they aren’t designed for that type of thing. However, I do like to use them for testing my mixes.
You want to look for something that is designed for general use. If you are planning on being an audio professional, go for something decent. Bose and Sony are good options and these are brands that I trust for consumer listening. Most people already know brands that they like for this sort of thing and there is not usually anything wrong with keeping to the brand you know.
Working / Location / Production
These should be a good, robust pair of cans that can withstand being tossed around a studio or surviving the elements in a demanding shoot. So build quality and durability are important. These are headphones that you can stuff into a production bag or give to the drummer your are tracking in the studio.
Closed back are generally desirable as we don’t want to create to much spill from what is coming out of the headphones and allows you to hear clearly what is coming out of the headphones. However, if you are a musician playing with others or you are on set or on location, you need to be listening out for things outside of what is coming through the headphones. I use the Sennheiser HD215 cans. These are closed back, the components are easily replaceable and you can rotate one of the cans so that you are listening through one and not the other. I know it says for “DJ” use, but being able to rotate one of the cans really helps in being able to clearly monitor from one side and listening to the environment from the other.
They aren’t the most top of the line headphones that Sennheiser produce, but again, I’ve grown up with this brand and I know the sound. I know what they sound like and how they translate. As well, I’m not using them for critical listening, more for practical hearing.
Professional / Critical Listening
Here is where you need to have quality and uniform response. These are the headphones you will do some mixing on. These are also the headphones I recommend you get first. Closed-back and open-back can both work here depending on your preference. When looking for what you want to buy, make sure that you try them out first. Bring some music that you know really well and try them out. Any pro-audio retailer should have test cans that you can do this with.
My choice is the standard Beyer-Dynamic DT 770 Pro. The 990s are the open-back version which also sound great. Realistically I could go with either. When I went to get my pair of 770s, they were slightly cheaper than the 990s and that was honestly the reason why I went with the 770s as both are great. These are headphones that will last you a good while.
So when it comes to buying headphones, think about what you need and what headphones would be best for that.
General Other Notes
- I like headphones that have a cable that only runs out of one side, not out of both cans. This just makes cable wrangling as you are using the headphones easier. Often, these types will also be the ones where you can replace the cable if it stops working.
- Comfort is key. You will be wearing these for a long time.
- *In-ear monitors are fine, I don’t use them as I don’t do live sound and I don’t like the way they feel in my ears (I have weird ears).
- Consumer Buyer Guides: Wirecutter