The Best Studio Headphones for 2021

The old adage that you shouldn’t mix a record on headphones is still honored by many a sound engineer and musician, who believe only speakers will give you an accurate sense of the recording. But as more music gets consumed primarily on earphones and headphones, more is being mixed with headphones playing a significant role, and in some scenarios, a primary role.

In live studio recording and overdubbing, tracking headphones have always played a significant factor, and now there are crossover options suitable for live performances, too—specifically, custom-molded in-ears for concerts as well as studio monitoring and mixing. To help you navigate the choices, let’s tackle each sub-category to better understand what they offer.

Studio Tracking

Headphones made to be worn by musicians while recording in a studio, often referred to as tracking headphones, are usually built to be thrown around and priced to be purchased in larger quantities. Unlike many headphones intended for consumers, you’re less likely to find obviously boosted bass response in a tracking model. The earcups are almost always going to be a generously padded circumaural (over-the-ear) design, and obviously, it needs to be a closed model that doesn’t project any audio outward like most open models do.

These criteria make most tracking headphones feel substantially less sexy than, say, reference models designed for mixing and mastering, but the restrictions exist to serve the recording of live music with multiple musicians in the room. The sound signature will typically be a flat response, with bass produced clearly but modestly. The focus is on clarity and detail, so expect crisp high-mids and highs.

Studio headphones

Mixing and Mastering

This category’s primary concern is accuracy, with sound signatures designed for critical listening scenarios, portraying the entire frequency range clearly. It’s possible you’ll encounter some boosted bass or sculpted highs in a mixing or mastering-focused design, but it’ll likely be subtle.

Where these models differ most from typical tracking designs is their build—some of them will have semi-open designs that project sound slightly outward. There’s also often a huge price difference—you can buy a couple of tracking models for the price of one solid reference model, for instance. Among the various styles we’re discussing, these are the ones that are most like audiophile-level home stereo system headphones, with a focus on accuracy and detail, often with an open design that lends a mix a more realistic sense of space. You’re less likely to find a pair in this category that is ideal for using outdoors or with a mobile device—but that is true for many of the options in studio/recording realm.

Custom-Molded In-Ear Models

Another option many serious musicians and recording professionals will want to consider is a custom-molded earphone pair. They are built from impressions of your ear made by an audiologist and are typically quite expensive.

Many of the offerings available are meant for performing live onstage, but there are also plenty of designs that are focused on mixing and mastering. And nearly all of these designs will also be appropriate for in-studio tracking, as they obviously aren’t going to leak sound at all.

See How We Test Headphones

Vocalists or musicians who typically record with one headphone cup off the ear to get a better sense of pitch or in-room acoustics will likely want to avoid these options as in-studio tracking monitors—sure, you can just remove one ear, but since these models perfectly seal off your canals, it can feel a tad disorienting to have one ear sealed and one open. If you typically record with both earcups covering your ears, however, custom-molded in-ears are an interesting alternative—some can even be tuned to your bass and treble preferences, and the truly pricey options offer superb audio, often with multiple drivers dedicated to various parts of the frequency range rather than a single full-range driver.

In-ear studio headphones

Detachable Cables

While some manufacturers recognize that you might occasionally want to use your pro-audio headphones in non-professional, everyday scenarios, like on your commute, this is not the norm. Thus, even though plenty of models are outfitted with removable cables, a smaller percentage ship with cables that offer an inline remote control.

However, the included cables with studio headphones are typically high in quality, and sometimes you even get multiple pairs. Coiled or semi-coiled options that can stretch across the room are common, but even straight cables will still likely have plenty of length.

Of course, removable cables create the potential problem of the cord yanking out at the wrong time. Thus, many studio and DJ designs feature a locking mechanism on the earcup to prevent this. If this feature is a must-have for you, double check before purchasing, as it’s not an across-the-board standard.

There are a few headphone pairs in the studio realm that don’t feature detachable cables. This is most common with tracking headphones, especially less expensive options.

Prices All Over the Board

As mentioned earlier, studio and pro-audio headphones have an insanely wide range of pricing. At the lower end, you may luck out and find deals on tracking headphones for between $50 to $75, though anything under $100 is fairly common. At the top end, custom-molded in-ears can exceed $2,000, though there are affordable, decent options in the $600 range. Mixing and mastering headphones also have a wide range—there are budget-friendly models in the $100 to $200 realm, though we’d caution going below this number. And you can certainly spend more—there are plenty of $300 to $500 options that sound amazing and are nicely built.

If you don’t necessarily need a pair for the studio, check out our list of The Best Headphones overall and our favorite wireless headphones. If it’s a budget pair you’re after, take a look at The Best Headphones Under $50.

Once you’ve found the perfect pair, make sure to keep them in good shape with these easy tips. And make sure to avoid the many ways you can use your headphones wrong.