Why it’s considered bad to mix on headphones


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Photo of a pair of headphones resting on a small mixing console

If you search online for information about mixing using headphones, you will find many opinions saying that it is not a good idea. When just about every studio, amateur or professional, contains a pair, why is it considered bad to mix on headphones?

Mixing on headphones is in general considered bad, as they do not give as accurate a representation of the sound as studio monitor speakers. Headphones exaggerate the stereo field, overly emphasize certain frequency bands, and tire your ears more quickly than studio monitor speakers.

Although mixing on headphones is often considered to be less than ideal, it can be done effectively if you adopt a certain way of working. This article discusses the drawbacks of mixing on headphones, and what you can do to reduce the effect of their limitations to produce quality mixes using them.

If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.

You may find these recommended related articles interesting…

Why is it bad to mix on headphones?

It is generally considered that the absolute best way to mix your music is to use a good quality pair of studio monitor speakers in an acoustically treated room. This will give you the most accurate representation of your song, which is exactly what you want when mixing.

However, not all of us have a setup like that in our home studios, and using headphones for mixing instead would on the face of it seem like a viable option. Here are the reasons why headphones are not necessarily ideal for mixing…

Headphones have an inaccurate frequency response

Even with a good pair of studio reference headphones, they will have a particular frequency profile meaning that they will tend to artificially emphasize certain frequency bands. This can lead to using EQ to cut at those frequencies, when you don’t really need to. When you then listen to your mix on something else, it can sound like your mix is a bit empty.

Studio monitor speakers are likely to be more accurate than headphones, leading you to make better mixing and EQ decisions. Modern studio reference headphones are actually very good and this isn’t as much of a problem as it used to be, but you can’t work around physics!

For example, with headphones the “speakers” i.e. the ear cups are very close to your ears, only a few millimeters away in fact. This leads to the “proximity effect”, where bass frequencies are enhanced due to how close to the sound source you are.

Headphones exaggerate the stereo field

With headphones, as the sound sources (ear cups) are so close to your ears, the sound the left ear hears comes entirely from the left “speaker”, and the sound the right ear hears comes entirely from the “right speaker”.

This is a very artificial situation, as when listening to speakers some sound from the right speaker goes into your left ear, and some sound from the left speaker goes into your right ear. This phenomenon is often referred to as “crossfeed“.

As this does not happen with headphones, you get an unrealistic representation of the stereo space.

With speakers, they can emulate the experience of listening to a band playing in a room, where some sound from all the instruments will hit both your ears, even if a musician is standing directly to your left or right.

Timing differences between when sound from each speaker hits the ears lets your brain perceive this position in space. That just doesn’t happen in the same way with headphones, and that realism is lost.

All this can lead to you mixing too narrow using headphones. Your mix can then sound quite closed and claustrophobic when listened to on speakers.

Headphones tire your ears quicker than speakers

Listening to music intensely on headphones tires your ears quickly. Probably due to how close the sound sources are to your ears, headphones are more fatiguing than speakers.

This is why it is incredibly important to take regular breaks when using headphones, and mix in short bursts. Think of your ears like a muscle. When you are working out you don’t just bust out hundreds of reps. You do a set, then rest, allowing your muscles to recover. This is the approach you should take when using headphones for mixing.

If you are new to mixing, you may be wondering what you need to do to make your mixes sound good. That’s why I wrote this article on what makes a good mix. It takes you through the basics of what you should be aiming for, and I highly recommend reading it if you are a mixing novice.

Benefits of mixing on headphones

Given what I’ve written above about the issues with mixing on headphones, it may surprise you to know that I do all of my mixing using headphones!

When we know the drawbacks of using headphones for mixing, we can take steps to mitigate their effects or work around them. And headphones do offer some advantages over studio monitor speakers.

Here are some of the reasons why I and others choose to mix on headphones, despite their drawbacks…

The room has no influence on the sound

The best setup for mixing is generally considered to be…

  • A quality pair of studio monitor speakers
  • At the correct height (high frequency driver should be at the same height as your ears)
  • Placed correctly (speakers and your listening position should form the corners of an equilateral triangle)
  • In an acoustically treated room

It is that last point that gives headphones an advantage. It cannot be overstated how important the room acoustics are to what you hear when using speakers. Put the same set of studio monitors in two different rooms, and they will sound completely different.

The sound of the room is arguably much more important than the actual quality of your speakers. Without acoustic treatment, your room will have such an effect on the sound that it will effectively lie to you about what your mix sounds like, and lead you to make poor mixing and EQ choices.

For example, rooms often have a build-up of bass frequencies in corners. Without bass traps the bass can be over-represented, leading you to cut the low-end and making your mix sound thin when listened to on other systems.

So studio monitor speakers are great in a pro studio, where the room has been specially designed and acoustically treated for optimal listening accuracy. The problem is most of us don’t have anything like that setup in our home studios.

Our home studios are often multi-purpose rooms used for other things besides music production. And it often isn’t ergonomically possible or cost-effective to install acoustic treatment.

Here is where a good set of studio reference headphones have the advantage; they completely eliminate the influence of the room on the sound. Your headphones will sound exactly the same whatever room you use them in.

I would argue that studio monitor speakers without acoustic treatment are actually a worse option for mixing for most people than headphones in their home studios.

For mixing, I highly recommend the AKG K-702 Reference Headphones (affiliate link), which you can get at Amazon for a very reasonable price. These are the headphones that I have been mixing on for years, with great results.

Photo of a pair of AKG K702 reference headphones
AKG K702 headphones

Headphones give you consistency wherever you use them

I hinted at this in the last section; headphones give you a consistent sound, wherever you are. Whatever position you are in the room, whatever room you are in, your headphones will give you an identical sound.

You don’t have to worry about minor variations in mixing position changing what you hear. You also get used to the sound of your headphones quickly, as they always sound the same. This lets you get good at judging your mixes quite quickly, as you get to know the headphones’ characteristics, and how certain things sound on them.

Portability

You can take your headphones, audio interface and laptop pretty much anywhere in the world, and you will still be able to mix your latest song. The same certainly cannot be realistically said of your studio monitor speakers!

Supposing you are on a business trip, and want to work on mixing your latest masterpiece in your hotel room at night. With headphones…no problem! I’m sure you can probably think of a few examples yourself where you could sneak in a few hours cheeky mixing with a similar setup.

Cost

A good quality pair of studio reference headphones suitable for mixing can generally be bought for cheaper than an equivalent quality pair of studio monitor speakers. Factor in acoustic treatment for your room if you really want to get the best out of your speakers, and the cost will be much higher.

A decent pair of mixing headphones can be had for a couple of hundred dollars. The same amount of money will probably buy you just one studio monitor speaker of equivalent quality. Add in several hundred more dollars for acoustic treatment, and the cost benefits of headphones are readily apparent.

If you are going to shell out a few hundred dollars on a pair of mixing headphones, you are probably wondering if they can be used for general music listening and related activities. If that’s the case, then you should check out my article on using your studio headphones for listening to music.

Low volume

An obvious benefit, but one definitely worth stating, is that headphones are quiet for the other people around you. Much quieter than studio monitor speakers.

This means that you can mix late at night without waking the wife/kids/dog if you want to. If you are in the creative “zone” this can let you make the most of it, rather than having to stop and pick it up again another day when the creative juices might not be flowing quite as freely.

Detail

Studio reference headphones can reveal detail that speakers can sometimes miss. The close proximity to the ears and wide stereo field although less realistic than speakers, helps you pick out every minute detail that speakers can sometimes miss.

This can help you find problems such as an annoying background sound, that you can edit out before it becomes a problem when it later clashes with something in your mix.

As a side note, I have also written a beginners guide to mixing in general. I highly recommended you check it out if you are new to mixing. It clears up some of the confusion novice mixers often have, and helps you avoid some common mixing pitfalls.

Choice of headphones for mixing is very important

A quality set of studio reference open-back headphones will give you a good, accurate sound. Not as accurate as a good set of studio monitor speakers in an acoustically treated room, but not that far off and perfectly usable for mixing if you are prepared to work around their limitations.

The choice of headphones has a big impact on how suitable they are for mixing.

You always want to choose open-back headphones for mixing, as they give you a more realistic sonic representation. They don’t emphasize the bass as much as closed-back headphones, they reduce the influence of the proximity effect and the stereo field isn’t quite as artificially wide.

Decent studio reference headphones…

  • Are designed to be accurate
  • Do not color the sound
  • Do not have any “enhancement” such as bass boost or genre EQ profiles (rock, pop, classical, etc)

With these properties, the headphones will present your music “warts-and-all”. If your mix has an issue, we want to hear that issue clearly so we can take steps to rectify it.

I would strongly advice against using closed-back headphones for mixing. They are great for monitoring while recording, and you should have a pair in your studio for that purpose. But don’t be tempted to use them for mixing, as you are likely to be disappointed with the results.

And if you are considering using earbuds for mixing, just… no. Don’t even think about it!

Whatever you choose to do your mixing on, a good quality audio interface is essential to feed headphones or speakers the best quality audio signal. My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years; they give great sounding recordings, and are reliable and durable. You can buy the Focusrite Solo from Amazon (affiliate link) for a very reasonable price.

Tips for mixing on headphones

If you are planning to mix on headphones, here are a few tips to bear in mind which will help you obtain the best possible results…

Take regular breaks

Set a timer or an alarm for 15 minute long sessions, and be strict with enforcing it. Your ears tire very quickly when using headphones. Even a short break of 5 minutes or so can be enough. Make sure you “reset” your ears by doing something else in this time; talk to a family member, go for a walk outside, watch a bit of TV, etc.

Don’t mix too loud

Your ears will tire even quicker if you are mixing loud. You are also likely to get a false sense of security of the quality of your mix at high volume, as we generally perceive “louder” as “better”. As a general rule, if you can’t hear someone talking next to you with a raised voice, turn down the volume until you can just about hear them.

It is ok to mix at high volume, and indeed at very low volume, for very short periods of time. You should do this, as you do want to check your mix still sounds ok at these extremes. But keep these times short.

Do some of your mixing in mono

Mixing in mono from time to time is a useful trick to prevent you from relying on panning and stereo separation to get each track to be clear and distinct. A lot of music we hear is effectively in mono, as unless we are between a set of speakers we do not get the full stereo effect. Think of standing in your kitchen, listening to a bluetooth speaker, for example.

Using mono can help you use your other tools to achieve clarity and separation, such as EQ, compression and automation.

Back off from hard panning

We have already discussed the way that headphones artificially emphasize the stereo field, as there is no crossfeed i.e. some sound from the left speaker going into the right ear and vice versa.

One trick to get around this when mixing on headphones is to not pan anything hard left or hard right. Even if you want to position a track right over to the side, resist the temptation to pan it all the way left or right. Back off from all the way left or right, meaning that some of its sound will still be in the other ear cup. This effectively creates the crossfeed effect usually missing from headphones.

This can help your headphone mixes sound more natural, and reduce the unrealistic stereo widening usually associated with headphones.

Listen to your mix on different systems

This one is general good practice whatever you are mixing on; always listen to your mixes on several systems other than the one you are mixing on. Your studio reference headphones will sound accurate and high quality, but your listeners will not be listening on a similar system.

So try your mix out on the sorts of systems that people listen to music on in their everyday lives. Things like…

  • Car stereo
  • Bluetooth speaker in the kitchen
  • Living room Hi-Fi system
  • Phone speakers
  • Earbuds attached to your phone
  • TV soundbar
  • …etc…

Use reference tracks

Another general tip is to use reference tracks. This is when you find a commercial track that sounds sonically similar to how you want your track to sound.

You then bring that song into your DAW mixing session as a track, and match its volume to your song. You can then keep switching between your song and the reference track, comparing as you go and trying to make your song sound like the reference track does in your headphones.

Try headphone optimization software

There are applications available that try to overcome the limitations of headphones, with the use of sophisticated software algorithms. Full disclosure; I have never used any of these, but I know some people swear by them.

Here are a few examples of headphone optimization programs…

Can I mix and master with headphones?

It is possible to mix and master with headphones. When doing so, regular breaks should be taken as headphones tire your ears quickly. Headphones’ portability and consistency offer advantages over studio monitor speakers. Ideally, your song should be listened to on multiple systems before release.

When should you mix with headphones?

Headphones should be used for mixing when your listening room has not been acoustically treated. Open-back studio reference headphones provide reliable sonic consistency by completely eliminating the sound of the room. This gives you a consistent listening environment, wherever you choose to mix.


Here is some of my favorite home studio gear

Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.

Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.

Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.

Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.

General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.

To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!

How to learn a DAW quickly
How to learn a DAW quickly

Paul Douglas

Paul is the owner of Home Music Creator. He plays the piano and the guitar, and sings in a just-about-adequate manner. He has been writing and recording music in his home studio for over 20 years.

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