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Music Studio Technology
Listening to Music - Headphones
Headphones and ear buds are speakers applied directly to the ear. Headphones, like microphones, appear everywhere in diverse acoustic applications. Headphones are useful in all recording studio applications, in noisy environments and whenever private listening is desirable. We are concerned when people listen to good quality recordings with inferior sound reproduction equipment.
Headphone and ear bud sales outpace other consumer electronics. The widespread proliferation of mobile phones, MP3 players, laptops, tablets, and other portable electronic devices created a growing demand for headphones. Cheap phones or ear buds are often included in the purchase price of portable players. These are best replaced by more expensive, better quality phones, some with noise-cancelling "capability. Bose pioneered noise-cancelling headphones, mixing an inverse wave of ambient sounds into the audio broadcast to reduce the perception of external noise.
Since no two people have identical hearing, the ultimate headphones would be custom- fitted to a specific user’s hearing ability. Progress in hearing aid technology now involves attempts to custom fit the audio delivered to each ear. Hearing assessment programs should soon be available as user friendly software that can create a prescription for the ultimate phones. Audio processing circuitry common in recording studios can be incorporated in micro chips that adjust headphone audio for individual users—compression and parametric equalization are useful processors.
The best music production requires high quality amplifiers and speakers placed correctly in a suitable room. Near field monitors are common and useful for mixing and mastering. All speakers color the sound to some extent so that a studio engineer will usually test the mix with a variety of speakers and headphones. Car stereo systems often provide great sound quality and should be included in the assessment of studio mixes.
For portable use, we recommend high quality headphones for listening to music. The small speakers in smart phones, tablets and laptops are very disappointing. Ear buds are usually inferior to good portable headphones, but more expensive buds may work for you. Shure will sell you superior buds for a mere $1,000. Sony offers buds with enhanced bass (Extra Bass Earbud Headset MDR-XB50AP/B $50).
In the recording studio headphones are often used during recording sessions and for mixing and mastering. The choices and prices vary with your needs. The experience of headphone listening is very different from that of listening to monitor speakers. All sound reproduction devices color the sound and no two will give the same listening experience. Open-backed headphones have the outward-facing side of the driver exposed to the outside. The drivers are able to move more freely than they are in closed-back designs, resulting in greater efficiency, lower distortion and a better transient response. The disadvantage is sound leakage. Closed-back headphones are more common and essential for portable use. Some design have features that reduce outside noise.
Headphones come with a range of price tags. A local supplier, for example, lists pro headphones from $200 to $6,000 (CAD). My favorite low cost phones are Sony, bass-enhanced headphones that reproduce bass instruments and deliver mid and high frequencies as I expect to hear. This phone has comfortable padding that covers the ears and block some external noise. My Sony model MDR-XB500 has been replaced with a 2015 version.