Studio Monitors vs Headphones [Tutorial]

Studio Monitors vs Headphones Tutorial

This marks the first is a series of tutorials I hope to write. Back in the day nearly 12 years ago now, I learned so much from the elders on this very forum. Now I’m a little older and more experienced I feel like it’s my time to pass on a little knowledge.

I’m going to try and keep this factual but obviously like with any subject, at a point, you can only share an opinion.

This ended up being just under 4 pages long in Microsoft Word so if you can’t read all of this then you suck! Really though you need to read all of it. I had to say so much, that ,important points where left until last.

I am only human so if I have said something stupid or you have something good to add to this I will gladly edit it! I have 12 years of experience so hopefully that will keep me from saying anything too stupid! :stuck_out_tongue:

Anyway so let’s get to the point… You want to learn about Studio Monitors and Headphones.

I feel like the first thing to say is that… Most experienced producers will say to buy Studio Monitors first. By first I mean before any other bit of hardware, Keyboards, Interfaces, synths.

You might ask “Well I have seen some top producers using headphones on Youtube and Twitch. So what’s the deal!?”

You might have even seen some people on this very forum say they only produce on headphones.

I need to say something right here right now. If you do buy headphones make sure they are comfortable!!! I have brought expensive pairs of headphones before but I could only ware them for 15 minutes because they crushed my ears! Try them in a music shop first!!!

The real truth here is you need both!!!

Some things are done better on Monitors and other things are done better on Headphones. I have even seen top Dubstep producers with several sets of Headphones and Monitors. As they mix and change sounds they will switch between them. If you watch them they know when to switch because they know what things will sound different. This only really comes with experience. Also if you book a little time in a studio, to say, mix down a track you have been working on in a soundproof room. You will most likely find two sets of monitors in there. A bigger pair and a smaller pair.

So why is this?

Well different Speakers and Headphones have different resonant frequencies and are better at producing different frequencies. So what sounds good in your car might sound like garbage on a laptop.

The point here is that as a producer I want my music to sound good on all mediums of playback. This is a war you will fight when you mix down a track. You will make one change to make a song sound good on speakers… and then you switch to headphones and make a different change.
Can you ever win this war…?

Well if you know what you are doing too a point you can.

So now you understand a little…

What should you buy first? Monitors or Headphones?

This is a difficult question. I’m going to go into more detail soon about what can be done in monitors and what can be done in headphones. But in my opinion get Monitors first! There are things you just can’t do in headphone that you can do in monitors. Other Things you can do loads better in headphone but you can still kind of do them on Monitors. So you should get Monitors first. This though is an opinion!

This is all to say you have the money for Monitors. I have heard really bad things about cheap Monitors. So if it’s unrealistic you are going to get hold of £350 for a decent pair of entry level Monitors. Drop £60 - £150 on a nice pair of studio headphones. Some people produce exclusively on headphones and I have seen pairs that have crazy good frequency responses.

Before I get into other things there is a very important point I need to make. Know your equipment!!! Technically if you know the way professional music sounds on even cheap crap you will still have a half decent mix. I hate to use Skrillex in this tutorial but… He made Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites on… ONE blown crappy speaker!

Something just as important is to know what you do best on monitors and what you do best on headphones. We can argue all do about the benefits of both… Do what works for you!

Not even with two speakers! He wasn’t even working in stereo! He got a half decent mix because he knows his “speaker”. He knew how music should sound on it. So whatever you use… know how music should sound on it!!! Even myself… I have made some decent mixes on crappy £20 set of speakers because I knew how music should sound on them.

Once you have tasted the glory of good studio monitors and headphones there is no going back. It will forever change you! At home I listen to music and watch movies exclusively on my studio equipment. I do this because mainly I need to know how things sound on my equipment and because well it sounds dam good!!! I often go to an old friend’s house for drinks. He has an expensive surround sound and sub I think he spent around £1k on. All I can think about when I get there is how crap it sounds compared to my studio setup. Saying that though… as a producer what I want speakers to do is probably very different to what a general listener would want.

So let’s get more in depth!

The first thing I feel you should know is…

What am I looking for in “studio” monitors or headphones?

You are looking for a flat frequency response. Normal speakers are designed to boost the highs and basses in places to “make the music sound better". It’s really just an illusion though. Beats by Dre headphones are a good example. They boost the bass to a ridiculous level! They are complete crap and for the money you pay for them you could good a really nice pair of studio headphones!

You are looking for a flat response because as a producer you want to hear how the music actually sounds. Obviously if you are working on speakers that boost the high end then in your final mix the high end will be to quiet.

It’s time for an image. Below is a waterfall from the monitors I have. KRK Rokit 5s.

You can see in the image where they do well and where they fall short. They are a little old now but they will still set you back £250 for a pair right now on google (written 2017). So for the price you could easily find headphones with a much better waterfall frequency response. But like I said before there are things you just can’t do as well on headphones. That’s why at the time I spent £400 on a pair of KRK’s.

So when you are looking to buy headphones or monitors you can google them, find a waterfall like I just did… and then compare them. If you are new, learning and reading/watching tutorials you will hear this all the time “Mix with your ears and not your eyes!”. I often close my eyes when EQing because what I can see confuses what I can hear. It’s the same with waterfalls. You should look at it and make a note of it… then just forget about it. At the end of the day you know your equipment and you know how things should sound!

So for speakers and headphones we are looking for the most flat frequency response. You want to hear how the music really sounds. Not how the speakers make it sound!

But wait you said that pros will have multiple pairs of headphones and speakers???

Yes!!! I’m going to get into what speakers can do and what headphones can do. You need to know this though. You will never get the perfect pair. So you might want a small pair of speakers and a bigger pair to see how your music plays on all mediums. Then you might want a pair of headphones for the high end and a pair for the low end. If you look at the waterfalls you will normally find any pair of headphones/monitors is only good at representing particular sets of frequency bands.

So you might be thinking… “I’m just getting into this… I can’t buy all of that right now”. Well! It’s something you build over time. If you can get monitors then awesome!! Do it! If not get the best pair of headphones you can. Trust me it’s addictive collecting audio equipment! Use what you can get as a start and build from there.

OK so what can be done on Monitors and what can be done on Headphones?

I’m going to try and cover the most basic things here but it really depends on the speakers and headphones you have. Well to a point…There are however a few things we can say for sure!

One thing to note is that if you are in a really bad room then using monitors might be a really bad idea. So you can remove the room from the equation by just using headphones. But like everything you will still want monitors to check your mix every so often even if the room is bad!

Thinking about this… for me to explain everything you will have to know so much more. I want this tutorial to be self-contained but I feel like that’s not possible. I will do my best here.

Let’s start with Monitors. If you have speakers I want you now to rest your fingers lightly on them. Suddenly you can feel all of the bass frequencies. The sub-bass and the mid-bass. If you were to turn things up to club volume this is the closes representation you will get to that. You can feel how the drum are hitting. You can feel the bass. You can’t get that feeling in headphones! You can get punch and bass in headphones but not the same as this!

Now if you have your speakers placed right they are evenly spaced. If you move a difference distance from the speakers your stereo sounds will start to cancel out differently… Because they take a different time to get to you and they are bouncing off the walls differently. You can’t hear this in headphones obviously… because they always stay the same difference from your ears. Also in the left ear you can’t hear any content from the right side and vice versa.

So on monitors you can move around your room and hear how the stereo sounds change. You can’t do that on headphones.

When I make music I often start walking around the room to hear how all my sounds change as I do it. You might find some nasty frequency in your mix by doing this and be able to pull it out with an EQ.

Can you imagen… You make a track that is heavy as hell, and then, when it’s played on a club system all the bass cancels out and it sounds shit. This is because you made it on headphones and you couldn’t hear that some of it was cancelling out on speakers. This is why most sub-base is made in mono. So you never have that problem. There are ways to get around this problem with stereo sounds, like switching to mono on headphones. But this is outside the scope of this tutorial.

To diverge a little here… For some reason produce seem to like to work at night. Maybe some phycology guy can talk more about that and I would be interested to read it. Can I mix sub-basses and add a touch of chorus on headphones. Well YES! But I would much rather use Monitors and the light speaker finger touch technique at 3am in the morning.

OK so let’s talk about headphones. The first thing to say is that panning can be done perfectly on headphones. You might pan a sound on speakers but until you switch to headphones you can’t truly know where it is in the stereo field! Obviously as soon as you move around the room the panning will change on speakers!

Next is the way things hit. You might have perfectly hitting drums on monitors… but when you switch to headphones you will find they just don’t cut it. This is the point you will be at war. You make a change to make them hit harder on headphones and then you switch to monitors and it now sounds like crap. You will just go back and forth. Once you have experience you will learn to make sounds that punch on both headphones and monitors… but that’s again outside that scope of this tutorial.

Another thing to note is some things just seem to sound completely different on headphones. It drives me insane! It happens very often with the top end click on a kick drum. It sounds awesome and clear on my monitors and then I switch to headphones and it sounds like muddy crap.

I learned to choose my kicks on headphones. To make sure the top end is clear. The after I have worked on it with my monitors, once I switch back to headphones most of the time it will still sound good. This is something I learned by making mistakes.

So this is the end… you now have a good beginner understanding of speakers and headphones.

To summarise. You need both. Buy what you have the money for a build from there. If you have headphones save up for monitors next. The most important thing to remember is “Know your equipment”. Someone on crap headphones will make better mixes if you don’t know your equipment no matter what you spend.

Just encase you are interested… What equipment do I have???

I have a pair of KRK Rokit 5s and two pairs of £100+ Sennheiser headphones. There are way better brands than Sennheiser but I like them personally. I have been using Sennheiser’s since I was 17 years old and I know how music should sound on them. In the end I use my monitors and one pair of headphones… the pair I like the most! Between the two I can get a good understanding of how my music sounds on all mediums. Most importantly I know how music should sound on both. Could I have a better setup?? Well yes!!! But that would cost money. So I make do with what I have and one day I will upgrade!

You will never make music that sounds good on everything. It’s a war you will fight! Unless you have crazy levels of experience! This is more something you can work towards as a producer. There will always be some crazy shaped speakers that your music sounds rubbish on!

Like I said in the beginning is you have something good to add or I have said something stupid I will happily edit this post!

1 BigUp

How did you get that frequency response graph for your monitors? Maybe you could talk about the mic you used to capture it and any acoustic treatment you may have used in the room?

It’s just from google!

For most professional level headphones, monitors and microphones… waterfall graphs like that are easy to find. Some good music tech web-stores will even have them on the info page for the item you are looking at.

Here check this out…

Ah I thought you measured your room.

It might be cool to add a measured response of your room as well vs the stock response of a rokit 5. This could be a useful point in one of the cons of monitor, that what you’re hearing is a combination of the room + speaker compared to headphones where you just hear the speaker.

Nice work btw you obviously put a lot of time into this :slight_smile:

Various thoughts I had while reading through:

I find stereo field much much more apparent on monitors than on headphones myself. Headphones tend to smear the image a lot unless you go (too) extreme with the imaging in my experience.

Regulated monitoring volumes are also much easier to maintain on monitors. Very easy to fall into volume creep on headphones imo.

I highly recommend against KRK monitors, they are very far from being industry standard. They are painful to use (ear fatigue), very poor stereo image, and deceiving (boomy lows, muted midrange, and big peak at vocal freqs: basically a hi-fi curve instead of a flat monitoring response).

Walking around your room and making eq changes to the mix is the opposite of what you want to do. You should not be correcting your tune based on standing wave cancellation in your own room. What you are talking about is literally the opposite effect that your monitors and listening situation should provide you.

Pretty much recommend monitors (if possible) 100% of the time over headphones. Def understand living situations etc can exclude monitors from being a possibility. I personally used headphones solely for years before I was able to have a space where I could have monitors. I will never go back to headphones for mixing/production unless im truly forced to.

Overall tho, I agree with your thesis, ‘know your equipment’, but worth exploring what ‘knowing’ your equipment actually means :slight_smile:


I agree about stereo field. I use headphones for all of my decisions atm and stereo field is where they fall short. L vs R is ok but width is completely screwed. instead of hearing it get wider and narrower it just seems to go from your ears to your brain which is weirddddd.

I also agree about your position in the room. You’re much better getting things measured up properly, finding the sweet spot and then learning to mix to that, otherwise you’re always moving the target.

I have to disagree about recommending speakers over headphones though. In the right space monitors win hands down everytime. (There’s a reason why the big name mix and mastering studios use monitors and not headphones) but… So many people don’t have the right space to make monitors worth it. They might stick up some cheap foam and say there room is “treated” but… the lows and mids can be so messy. Especially in a genre where bass is so crucial.

The last room I used monitors (a good pair) there was a 20db null around 50-60Hz. This wasn’t a “oh the bass is a little light”. This was “oh so the bass is gone now”. It took around £1500 worth of treatment to get that space workable with monitors. It was a pretty bad room but it was a massive lesson in how acoustics can mess with a great sounding speaker.

So yeah for me it’s:-

Bad sounding room = Headphones > Monitors
Good sounding room = Monitors > Headphones

1 BigUp

-20db @ 50hz whoa

very crazy room response!! def not the norm, I dont trust most entry level monitors at 50hz anyways, a bit too low for most budget solutions.

regardless, stereo separation even if skewed by a poor room is incredibly valuable to me. Mixing bass levels is a lot easier than stereo image for me. (still not great at either mind you haha, but I’ve had quite a lot of experience doing it for a lot of different mediums and have a decent ear for it)

I think a big mistake people make is buying monitors that are too large for their room as well, which adds to the crazy standing wave problems etc. Also, poor positioning of the monitors etc.

Have to agree, i have a pair of krks in my decks setup, basically because they were relatively cheap, but they sound noticeably inferior to mackie and genelec monitors i also own. They just don’t have the same definition and clarity, mid ranges seem to get smudged together, highs are quite tinny, lows boomy.

So yeah if u can afford it, it’s worth spending a bit more on your nearfields imo. You could get used to krks i guess but they won’t be a great reference.

Thanks for taking the time to give me your input. I might edit a few thing here.

I prefer monitors over headphones for most things too. At the end of the day I wanted to be fair to both. I could have put in much more of my own opinion. But then just like now you are sharing bad opinions about headphones. Some experienced producer who only uses headphones might leave a comment next contradicting what you just said.

So with the panning issues I’m just going to leave it. I will add though that as a producer you need to find what you prefer to do on headphones and what you prefer to do on monitors. I think that’s a much more important point.

At the end of the day my point still stands. You need both.

I don’t know it just seems like ever picture of a studio I have come across in the last few years has the bright yellow KRK cones in it. I can take that out though becuase it is just my opinion. I think that should be changed to a good explanation of how to chose monitors. Im kind of just covering my ass here saying this but I did say you can find better than KRKs lol. But no you are right here and I can change that.

As for the walking around the room thing. I don’t agree here at all. Do you think everyone will sit the perfect distance when they listen to your music? I learned to make club music and in a club people will be standing at all kinds of strange angels. If you bring up a good producer now and start walking around the room you will find that the sounds wont change much at all. This is becuase mostly he knew what he was doing and partly because he did exactly what I described. As a producer I want to make music that doesn’t completely change as soon as you move and there is a skill to doing that.

You must agree that you have to check what you are doing regularly on headphones though, right? Some sounds really do completely change as soon as you switch and you have to keep track of that. There is no good making a awesome mix on monitors that sounds like crap on headphones.

It wasn’t a great room. My first dedicated studio space which was nice but it was essentially a box :expressionless:

I wouldn’t say it was too crazy though. I’ve seen responses from other rooms and you see some mad things. Just check on Gearslutz or on google. Here is a link to what GIK did with a room with responses from before and after. Just look at that low end from 88 to 66db between 45 and 70!

Personally if I were to use monitors that way I would probably do the majority of mixing on cans and then just do a quick stereo check at the end to make sure the stereo field is healthy. Of course it’s not ideal but it’s what I’d prefer in that situation.

1 BigUp

I did say that stereo sounds are pointless to try and make on headphones. I mean you need to know how they sounds on headphones but I would do it mainly on monitors.

This needs to be added to the tutorial.

I wouldn’t say im saying anything ‘bad’ about headphones, its actually just more of a physical limitation than an opinion anyways. With speakers, both of your ears are hearing the mix between L/R and your brain creates the mid channel more naturally. With headphones you are only hearing L R fully separated with middle being played on both. This is a pretty unnatural way for your brain to stereo-locate sounds and generally makes things a bit muddy.

Poor speaker positioning can make it just as muddy though.

This just isn’t true man.

Your room is basically the same as a speaker in many ways. You wouldn’t drastically change your EQ to only sound good on one type of speaker right? Why would you EQ the tune exactly for certain parts of your room? The tune isn’t going to be played out only in your room. You want it sounding good in a neutral way.

No tune is going to just sound ‘good’ in all listening positions in a club or in your room. Its not magic, its physics. You cant simply EQ this problem away.

Headphones have some benefit in this regard as they wont be affected by room environment like speakers will.

I personally do not check regularly on headphones but I do have a pair of ‘reference’ headphones that Im very used to to check once in a while. but I never make mix decisions based on the headphones myself.

Ideally, if you make an ‘awesome mix’ on monitors you know well, that mix will sound ‘good’ on anything that can reproduce it. It will always be different but the idea you programmed into the mix will come through if you’ve done it right. If your mixes sound good on monitors, but sound crap on headphones there is something going on. As you said, its all about knowing your equipment.

As an aside, I appreciate ya making this guide and I hope its clear that most of what im saying is purely my own experience and opinion.

1 BigUp

I feel like most of what we are talking about here is just us both being picky about terminology and small things. You seem to have a good level of knowledge so if we are at the point in the converstaion then I have made a good tutorial.

As for the moving around the room thing. I have said what I can say and I guess we will never agree on this.

Anyway I made some of the changes you suggested!

Please keep this coming people. I want to make a good tutorial here. Not win arguments!

eh, I’m not really nitpicking so much as I’m saying there are fundamental things wrong with what you are saying especially when it comes to the ideology of what accurate monitoring means, what its used for, and how to apply it.

Unless you wanna spend many many P’s treating your room, then headphones are the way to go imo.
its just not worth spending hundreds/thousands on monitors unless you somehow have a completely acoustically sound room already, or have a lot of money to spend on treatment (if thats even an option)

only thing i find difficult on headphones is mixing kicks, you never get a real idea of how a kick “thumps” on headphones compared to good speakers

as far as stereo field goes, i sometimes use this plugin:

but tbh ive never had any issues mixing w out plugins like that. just reference tunes you like


You know when I used to hang around this place I used to get into all kinds of arguments. This time around I’m just not going to do it. I really do want someone to win for the sake of people reading this but I’m not going to do it.

This was my first tutorial. I will do better with the next one. I will do all the research. I will do it essay stile and just quote things from people. Then I can share my opinion safely separate from the rest of the tutorial.

yeah kicks used to fuck me up lots on headphones personally, esp 808 stuff that turns into mud quick, or some ultra thumpy kick that cuts through the mix awkwardly, interesting plugin as well, keen to check it out

sorry man, not trying to ‘win’ here or cause an argument. Its not a personal thing at all.

appreciate ya taking the time to add to the production forum

Yeah I guess the thing that can “resonate” badly with people is when we feel stuff is being touted as “the way”. Because then if it clashes with “our way” then it becomes a battle.

I used to write up a few tutorials a few years ago on audio. The way I tried to avoid this confrontation is to make everything as objective as possible.

Quoting things from other people as you mentioned is a good way to do this. “Some people prefer headphones because of this” whereas “others may prefer speakers for these reasons”. This always go’s over nicely and it feels like you’re giving people the tools and ideas to make their own decision.

Try to back it up with data as well. Like it’s all well and good me saying “In an untreated room monitors will sound crap regardless of how neutral they are” but it’s very subjective. When I give you the frequency response of said room and you can see what is going on through a graph it’s then no longer subjective.

It’s weird cus i use shitty KRKs at home (mostly i got them because of the apparent lack of bass so i can write without pissing off neigbours/housemates/parents/girlfriend/who ever i’m living with at the time). and then mix elsewhere/headies. But generally have used Yamahas/Adams elsewhere and i get a much better mix using the shitty KRKs, as in to my ears stuff sounds how i want it in clubs/on headphones/in the car. just using headphones for mixing sub. - I’m building a proper studio atm and going to upgrade - 100% going to keep my shitty KRKs as an alternate though.