Education, Sound

I’m an audio student, what do I need to buy?

This is another of my regularly asked questions by students of mine. Usually this is from students who have just commenced thier studies, thus are enthusiastic and excited to start a new phase of their learning, or even thier lives. They want to know how they can start off thier new journey in the best possible way. This is some of the most fun I can have as a teacher as you have a group of students who are keen, determined, switched on, if even a little bit shy.

So the question I get, usually by someone after thier very first class is “what audio gear should I buy?”. They often ask about computers, DAWs, mics, plugins, speakers and almost any other piece of gear. The right answer, or at least the answer I give?

HEADPHONES

A good pair of quality studio headphones that you like the sound of and make sure that you try before you buy. That’s my answer and I’d say more than three-quarters of students really don’t like that as an answer.  It took me a while to understand why. What I’ve discovered is that the students have come to learn from me because they want to be in the business of creativity. Which is fantastic and that is exactly what I’ll teach them.

They don’t like my answer of headphones because they want tools that will allow them to create. Headphones aren’t typically looked at as the tool that they will create with. What they are asking when they say “what piece of gear should I buy?” is what is the best tool I need to have to be able to create. And my answer to that question is still headphones.

It’s not because headphones are the most important tool, it’s because they work with the most important tool. Your ears. Having a playback system that you are familiar with will help you train your critical ear. This one of the most important tools you can have when you are working with sound. It will allow you to analyse and understand what you are listening to and how to make it better.  When you are first wanting to learn about sound you should be listening and thinking about sound more than you are doing (and you should be doing a lot). But it all starts with listening and you need a great tool that will help you do that. Headphones.

Now, if you want to talk headphones, then let’s do that here.

But, after you get headphones, go; computer, DAW, interface, speakers, mics, desk/surface, outboard. Which is a relatively logical order as you usually need the thing before to get the next thing. But at any point, you’ve still go your own personal monitoring system that you are tuning and improving. If you are a student at a school (like my students) then the institution should have all the other tools you need to produce with (I would hope). But get your own headphones, because trust me, there is nothing worse than “communal” headphones.

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Sound

What headphones should I buy?

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