New Studio Headphones 2009 Roundup

Feb 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Eddie Ciletti



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Minneapolis-based mastering engineer Greg Reierson uses the Creek OBH-11 — a stand-alone headphone amplifier — with his vintage pair of Sony MDR-V6s. He also checks mixes on stock iPod earbuds, which he feels are very close to being an in-ear “standard,” considering the number of people who listen that way. On that subject, Etymotic Research ( does not make “headphones,” but does make all sorts of hearing-related paraphernalia, from high-fidelity earplugs and hearing aids to improved ear buds for the iPod. Few audiologists relate to the needs of recording engineers, but the Etymotic site is an exception worth browsing for insights into how hearing works (including technical papers).

Under the Muffs

Bottom line: Headphones are tools. We'd all like our favorites to be robust — to tolerate physical and electrical abuse — and be comfortable. Headphones have become very specialized: DJ 'phones can handle 3.5 watts, while headphones for drummers can provide up to 35 dB of isolation. It's a plus if they can fold up — transformer style — into a compact footprint. In the greenest sense, making fewer, better-sounding headphones that last longer and can be repaired makes the most sense.

If you're looking to purchase new headphones, the chart above, featuring open and closed models, will help you get started. At best, it provides common specs at a glance, such as power handling and impedance. It also shows how inconsistently specs are reported (efficiency, for example), or worse, not reported at all. For the most part, “street/net” prices are quoted. And if you already have a great-sounding pair of fragile headphones (or vice versa), let us know by e-mailing We'll publish the results online.

Mix contributing editor Eddie Ciletti writes the monthly “Tech's Files” column.

Know Your Headphone Specs

Definitions of Commonly Used Terms

Open Design: Features an open grille on the back of the ear cup, exposing the driver to the outside and allowing free propagation of sound waves. Offers less isolation and less distortion.

Closed Design: Features a sealed backing, which attenuates sound waves propagating away from the ear. Provides better isolation, but is sometimes said to distort at certain frequencies due to resonances.

Circumaural: Cushion/ear pad goes around (outside) the ear.

Supra-Aural: Cushion/ear pad sits on top of the ear.

IEC 318: An artificial ear specification for a device that loads the sound source (headphone) with a mechanical impedance that approximates the typical human ear. A calibrated microphone is used within the device for measurement purposes.

IEC 60268-7: Standardizes the designation and description of headphones; lists characteristics to be specified, with the relevant methods of measurement.

Efficiency: The sound pressure for a given amount of voltage (dB/V) or power (dB/mW).

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