Even though there are headphones at all price ranges, it is often hard to recommend great models without ending up paying the eye-watering prices that are so common at the upper end of the market. We decided to go through all the offerings from the major pro audio brands and give you our personal recommendations for sensibly-priced, yet resolutely professional models that will be a great purchase (or gift!) to anyone looking for great sound with minimum hassle.
Although the most well-known model of the Audio Technica’s studio series is the ATH M50x at around £140, this model has often been described as being rather bright, with a treble that is detailed, yet unforgiving.
However, going down the series range you have the M30x, which at just over £50 is beautifully warm and pleasant, with little of that “in-your-face” top end. This model might not be as detailed as its big brother or extend as low in the bass frequencies, but it is just as comfortable and arguably a more balanced-sounding model, whilst remaining more than accurate enough for basic studio duties.
Arguably the best (and the best-looking!) general-use pair of headphones in this price range – for anything from sound engineers, singers and podcasters, to just overall listening both at home and on the road.
We always try to be as neutral as possible with regards to products from our parent company, but these are arguably one of the best deals in the pro audio world, with dozens of glowing reviews on their site and elsewhere.
If the M30x are a fantastic “jack-of-all-trades”, the Studiospares M1000 are resolutely geared towards studio use. They are a bit large to take out down the street, but several features make them one of the most useful models in recording studios of all sizes, at any price.
The sound is pleasant and accurate yet slightly midrange-forward, which makes them ideal for both checking mixes and for helping singers stay in pitch. The isolation is fantastic with no bleed even at loud volumes, and they are supremely comfortable. Everyone in our office has a pair, and safe to say they get a lot of use!
In addition, (this is particularly useful when recording vocalists, who often remove one of the cups to hear themselves better), the detachable cable uses two separate mini jack connectors, one at the base of each cup. This means that not only is it incredibly easy to replace, but that if a vocalist has removed one of the cups from his ear, all you need to do to cut off the bleed is to unplug that side. A fantastic studio tool.
The Beyerdynamic DT 100 are a staple of studios around the world since their release decades ago, but they were never renowned for their sound quality, being considered more of a “tool for a job”.
Sticking with this utilitarian approach, the company released its successor for the 21st-century in the shape of the DT 250 without much fanfare. The headphones look rather plain and unimpressive (which might be part of the reason why they are so underrated), but as soon as you plug them in they become truly stunning. The sound is both accurate and incredibly musical, and the tonality is one of the most balanced you can find at any price.
They are on the small and light side for a pair of studio headphones, yet they are built like a tank. They are very comfortable, the cable is replaceable, and the isolation, whilst not as good as the M1000s, is more than acceptable.
There are two versions, of 250 Ω and the 80 Ω impedances. The 250 Ω might have a very slight advantage in terms of upper treble detail, but it is also harder to drive from normal headphone outputs, and slightly brighter than is comfortable for some. The 80 Ω version is the more sonically balanced of the two and therefore the one we recommend.
Although Sennheiser are renowned for their high-end headphones (like the terrifyingly-expensive but immaculate-sounding HD 800), it is sometimes hard to recommend any of their cheaper models because there are often better-sounding, or more useful, models in their price range.
However, the HD 25 really stand alone in their price bracket by offering one of the most portable headphones available that can be considered great for pretty much any use. They’re not the most comfortable, but the headband splits for a very stable fit even when running around. The isolation is good, the cable is replaceable, and they look great, so much so that there have been several fashion-oriented versions over the years.
The sound is also fantastic, with powerful, accurate bass, and good treble extension. They can be a bit scooped in the mids and brash in the upper-midrange, but they are definitely good enough to use in a recording studio for both tracking and checking mixes. These are actually often found in location broadcast shoots alongside the Beyerdynamics, with no clear winner in terms of features and value for money. A very easy model to recommend.
Earbuds are the most common type of headphone in the market, but sound quality is usually terrible, with of course price and size as the main priority, and no real sound blocking to speak of.
In-ear monitors, (or IEMs for short), might look similar at first glance, but are a completely different beast – prioritising isolation and sound quality as well as size and comfort.
High-end IEMs are custom-moulded to your ears and can be incredibly expensive, but feel like sound is magically being pumped straight into your brain! This is what major live acts use when performing live, but can be seen anywhere that ultra-portability needs to be paired up with great sound.
It’s remarkably difficult to create a general-fit set of IEMs that both sounds great and has a comfortable fit, but Shure have a winner with their SE215. These are possibly the most comfortable and most isolating pair of headphones of this type (bar, well, the more expensive Shure offerings). Getting the right fit is a bit tricky at first, (it comes with 8 different pairs of tips of different types and sizes,) but once you’ve chosen the correct size and inserted them correctly (we recommend the black olive-shaped ones as displayed in the above picture), they really do block everything out, letting you submerge yourself into the music.
Although they are not as balanced and detailed as their flagship SE846, the SE215 sound warm and pleasant, have good bass, and are very easy to drive loudly even with portable players. They don’t have a lot of high frequency extension, (therefore people addicted to treble detail might want to look elsewhere), but they will sound a lot better in loud environments than technically better-sounding, yet less-isolating models. They will also allow you to lower the volume and still hear everything, preserving your ears. A fantastic all-rounder for personal, portable listening.