Whether you are doing studio recording, as a professional or an avid amateur, or even just want to try your hand at it, a pair of accurate and neutral monitoring headphones is one of your most important tools.
The best studio monitoring headphones are also very popular among audiophiles and music lovers in general, who often appreciate how these clear and precise ‘phones can bring them closer to the music.
Today we are going to talk about some of the very best headphones for music production, recording, and monitoring. We will talk about what makes good music production headphones different, why good studio headphones can be so important and so nice to have, and then list our top picks at all price levels, with a brief word about each of them.
But if you are eager to lay down your next smash track, and don’t have time for all of that, here are our top picks:
- Best Headphones for Music Production Overall – Closed Back – Neumann NDH 20 Closed Back Professional Studio Headphones
- Best Headphones for Music Production Overall – Open Back – beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open Studio Headphones
- Best In-Ear Monitors for Music Production Overall – Shure SE846-CL Professional Sound Isolating Earphones
- Best Value Headphones for Music Production – Sennheiser HD 300 Pro Professional Monitoring Headphones
- Best Super-Cheap Headphones for Music Production – Tascam TH-02 Closed Back Studio Headphones, Black
What Are Music Production Headphones?
If there is one word we would use to describe the best studio headphones, it would have to be neutrality.
Good professional audio headphones at any price level must first and foremost be neutral and reproduce the music – as it is being performed or as it has been recorded – with as much fidelity and as little distortion or coloration as possible. Studio engineers, recording artists and musicians, and really anybody involved in music production, needs to hear the music accurately, so they can know exactly what needs to change and how to do it.
Most of the time people focus on frequency response in this regard, and definitely, this is crucial – we may love mainstream headphones like Dre’s Beats for listening, with their strong, strong bass (and not much else), or popular headphones like Sony, Bose, JBL, Jabra or Skullcandy, with emphasized bass and treble – the well-known “V-shaped” sound signature – but these sonically colored kinds of ‘phones are actually pretty useless to a producer, sound engineer or musical artist.
Some of these headphones – which, admittedly, can be fantastic for listening, and have a really fun sound – also engineer in colorations and even “good” distortions in other ways, like in phase accuracy and the representation of space, making the ‘phones hyper-realistic in imaging and soundstage, but not accurately so.
And again, these colorations, distortions, and modifications to the sound, and many others, are anathema to music production, where you need to hear everything as accurately as possible.
But there are a whole bunch of high-quality headphones – both over-ear and in-ear monitors – which avoid these alterations to musical reproduction, at least to the highest level possible, and are exactly what music production people – producers, engineers, mastering and editing artists, musicians and more – want and need to make the best recordings and live music productions possible.
It should also be mentioned that the best headphones for recording, editing, and live performance should also be very tough and durable. They are, sometimes, subject to a bit of abuse, not to mention the occasional hyper-rambunctious performance, and should be extremely comfortable to wear for a single take or for long hours of studio work.
And, to be sure, the best monitor headphones offer not just flat frequency response, but fully extended frequency response as well – from the deepest bass and sub-bass to the highest highs. Similarly, they should image beautifully, reproduce musical energy with all of the intensity of the original performance or recording, and perform in pretty much every way at the very highest level.
Why Are the Best Music Production Headphones So Important to Have?
If you are a recording artist – and by artist, I include producers, engineers, and editors as well as musicians – you absolutely need to know exactly how a performance or recording sounds, without any colorations or distortion, and good monitoring headphones do this in a way that you will never get with normal consumer products.
Things like frequency response, phase accuracy, imaging and soundstage, clarity and detail, dynamic range and musical energy, distortion, and noise need to be heard accurately, and judged neutrally, so you have a clear and precise reference point and know exactly what may need to be changed or improved.
And if you are a musician, the best studio headphones will let you hear subtleties and qualities in your music that an average set of “phones might mask or make too difficult to hear, and you can fine-tune your performance most effectively.
Are the Best Studio Headphones Good for Normal Listening As Well?
Turns out, though, that it’s not just musicians and audio engineers that want and love good, accurate studio production headphones – audiophiles also really appreciate how a pair of really neutral and accurate headphones allows them to hear recordings just as the engineers and musicians intended and originally laid them down.
The accuracy and excellence of good studio headphones, their low coloration and low distortion, their great imaging and unchecked musical dynamics, and their flat and extended frequency response, are all things audiophiles value and seek out.
In fact, more and more these days even the average music lover – audiophile or not – seems to be seeking out good music production headphones for their accuracy, their overall musical excellence, their tough, durable construction, and their comfort.
And if you want more bass, or want to change the sound in any way, no problem – you can equalize the heck out of good studio headphones and they can take it! And, unlike so many consumer-oriented cans out there, you can always easily return to a neutral baseline and listen without the hype.
Who Makes the Best Headphones for Music Production?
In our list of best headphones for recording, performance, and all kinds of music production, you may not see some of the most popular names, but you will see the oldest, most respected, and well-established audio equipment manufacturers in the world – AKG, Tascam, Sennheiser, Shure, Beyerdynamic, Etymotic.
Ok, yeah, some of those are pretty popular, and we’re even including a Sony product, but in each case, we are only selecting the specific headphone models that are designed and optimized for music production, and have all of the qualities we’ve discussed.
We will list our favorite studio headphones here – both over-ear headphones and in-ear monitors – in order of price, from least to most expensive, so if you know how much you want to spend it should be easy to find your next pair of phones.
And yeah, as you go up the list you will get nicer and nicer ‘phones, with higher accuracy, more neutrality, and better sound quality, but any one of these would be a fantastic choice for any musician, record producer, studio engineer, or editor – or for anybody who just wants to get as close to the original recordings, and to the music, as possible.
The Best Headphones for Music Production in 2024
Best Over-Ear Headphones
A Tried and True Industry Favorite
To begin our survey of the best studio and sound engineering headphones, we have perhaps the most widely used professional music production headphones of them all, and most often seen in studios – the Sony MDR7506.
These inexpensive Sonys are incredibly detailed, with lots and lots of detail on the high end – in fact, if they have a flaw, it’s that they are a bit too bright, the top frequencies inching a bit too far north of flat to be truly neutral.
Still, their brightness is one of the reasons engineers and editors love them and the kind of coloration that can actually help more than it hinders since you can hear everything with such crystal clarity, including musical information as well as editing and data errors.
But the 7506s are even better known for the depth, speed, definition, accuracy, and slam of their bass, and for really letting engineers know what is happening down there. This too – although the bass is not all hyped up, like on so many mainstream headphones – explains their popularity outside of the studios and concert halls as normal music listening ‘phones.
A very tough and durable pair of headphones that can hold up to heavy and extended use, even a little abuse, the Sony MDR7506 reveals more about recordings and performances than anything else below 100 dollars, and are still, after many years and many iterations, totally unbeatable.
Best Headphones for Music Production – Under 50 Dollars
Yeah, actually way below fifty dollars! But really, this Tascam TH-02 is as good as it gets, at least until you reach a price some three times as high.
Frequency measurements show the 02s to be a bit peaky in high frequencies, and a tiny bit recessed in the high midrange, but this is compared to headphones which are often hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars in price.
For studio cans for around twenty dollars, the TH-02 are, in fact, astonishingly neutral, and are a very low distortion pair of headphones, with superior retrieval of detail and great presentation of musical tone, energy, and imaging.
These Tascam’s are also comfortable enough and sturdy enough to work well in lots of different professional environments and applications, but for the amateur audio engineer, or any musician or content creator on a tight budget, these are an amazing find, and the only headphones under fifty dollars we would consider using in music production.
Best Headphones for Music Production – Under 100 Dollars
As good as the Tascam TH-02 (just above) are, and for a very low price, it should be clearly stated that either of these clear, clean AKG headphones will offer a significant improvement in performance and usability.
And yeah, the AKG K240 (open-backed) and AKG K92 (closed-backed) professional studio headphones are each about three times the price, but either one of them is still just above fifty dollars, and they represent, if anything, an even greater value than the wonderful little Tascams.
Soundstage opens up and allows an engineer or stage producer to really hear what effect positioning, relative levels, pans, and phase adjustments have on the mix. Detail also opens up to a higher level, allowing an editor to hear the smallest glitches and tics, and a musician to understand how even the most subtle expressive gestures and adjustments in pitch, tone, and dynamic level affect the performance.
The AKG K240 is open back and has even more soundstage and a more open sound in general, and the K92 is closed-back and may have a bit more extended bass, and better bass control. They are both bright and lively – slightly peaked in the treble, but just to the extent that detail shines through.
Amazing headphones for studio use or live performances, these are both also very popular as regular use headphones for discriminating music lovers, and – if your source material is high quality – sound absolutely lovely.
Best Headphones for Music Production – Under 200 Dollars
We make quite a jump from the Sony MDR7506 to the next level, but everything has improved so dramatically that the increase in price seems almost too small.
The Sennheiser HD300 Pro is the first product on our list of best headphones for music production that we can consider at the top-level – yeah, we go way up from here, but the 300s do, at least, begin to approach the ideal.
For one thing, the resolution of detail on these still affordable 300s is truly world-class – far, far better than most mainstream headphones at even significantly higher prices. The reproduction of musical and sonic details, phase cues and a sense of time and space, amplitude and dynamics, and all other aspects of the sound, allow an engineer to adjust and improve equipment placement, mixing, and mastering on a whole new level.
Extended sub-bass, smooth and fast bass, and mids, sparkling highs without a touch of glare, speed and ease, and incredibly low distortion – if your music collection is high enough quality, the Sennheiser HD300 are quite possibly the best headphones for under 200 dollars for general listening.
And their neutrality, material quality and durability, comfort and sound isolation, and absolutely astonishing high resolution and retrieval of all musical cues and sounds, make them without question one of the best professional headphones at any level, and at this price an absolute steal.
And, speaking of steals, it would be remiss of me not to mention the 300’s little brother, the Sennheiser HD280 Pro, which for about a third less offers a very similar sound, a very similar level of performance, and the same material quality and long term reliability.
Best Over-Ear Headphones for Sound Isolation
For people who want absolute sonic isolation when mastering or mixing, or when performing, but still demand the highest levels of detail and accuracy, and real sonic neutrality overall, the Vic Firth V2 headphones may well be the answer, and at a surprisingly affordable price.
The V2 is also quite popular with people who want to listen to music in noisy environments, or who cannot make any noise themselves, even when really cranking the music.
Considering these are the namesake of one of the most legendary drummers of the twentieth century, and a man as known for kit playing as for classical percussion, it makes sense that the V2 has sure amazingly clean, fast, and punchy bass, with stunning definition and a speed.
What is a bit of a surprise, though, is how flat and neutral they are overall. Even the bass, for all of its energy and excitement, is actually very flat, and the frequency response remains flat and neutral all the way up to the V2’s nicely extended highs.
Excellent resolution of detail and dynamic energy and very low distortion help complete the picture, and these are among the best sub-100 dollar professional headphones you can get, and especially well suited for live performance – particularly if you’re a drummer!
Best Headphones for Music Production Overall – Closed Back
I’ve probably used the word “neutral” in this article more than any other adjective, followed closely by the word “accurate,” and I’m not sure if any other choice on this list of best headphones for recording and music production is as accurate or neutral as the Neumann NDH 20.
The 20s have such flat frequency response that if you’re used to something like Beats or JBL – no offense! – you will probably check once or twice to see if the Neumanns are even plugged in. And not just flat, but very extended in bass and treble, and with a kind of ease at any frequency that lets you just relax, concentrate and really listen.
Phase accuracy is also top-notch, and the NDH 20 are very low distortion and excellent in resolving even tiny changes in detail and dynamics. And with the flat frequency response and low distortion, they cause little or no listener fatigue and are great for even the most extended recording sessions or performances.
No, the Neumann NDH 20 are not cheap, but they are incredibly well made, as versatile as it gets, and provide the perfect baseline reference for performing, engineering, and editing. Anyway, they are far from exorbitant, and actually represent one of the best values going in professional audio.
Best Headphones for Music Production Overall – Open-Back
Unless you’re working with a microphone, which can pick up radiated sounds from open-backed headphones, it is hard to imagine a better choice than these superb beyerdynamic DT 1990 professional monitors for studio work.
The open-back design allows for a complete and accurate picture of phase, imaging, and soundstage, and is invaluable in determining microphone placement, relative levels, and engineering adjustments to phase and position.
More than this, though, the 1990s are astonishingly detailed and have an amazing ability to portray energy and emotion in music. In fact, some find them bright on the top end, but it is a brightness that is so warm and low distortion that they cause no listening fatigue at all, and they are also light, comfortable, and easy to wear, even for hours and hours.
One of the clearest, open and accurate pairs of headphones available today, the DT 1990 is suitable for the highest level of work and is equally popular with the most discerning audiophiles.
Best In-Ear Monitors
Best In-Ear Monitors – Budget
I really wanted to include a super-budget in-ear for our studio headphones buyer’s guide, one firmly under a hundred dollars, but I just couldn’t find any.
Don’t get me wrong – I have listened to a lot of really nice, and often really cheap, in-ear monitors, and in the last few years that segment of the market has just exploded. But while some of them sound amazing, none of them are really neutral enough to make a good tool for assessing the sound of recordings or live feeds.
If I were really pressed, I would choose the Mee Audio M6 Pro, which for around fifty bucks has a very good resolution of detail, extended frequency response, low distortion, a good fit, and excellent isolation. But the spikes in the treble and bass do make it more suitable for general music listening and handicap it for professional use.
But, for an admittedly significant jump up in price, the Shure SE215 – one of the most popular, highly rated, and loved professional headphones of any type and at any level – is a much, much better choice.
With actual neutrality of frequency response, much higher levels of detail retrieval, phase accuracy and imaging, dynamic energy and gradations of amplitude, and much lower distortion, this is a superior earphone and one that can serve music producers and musicians at the very highest levels.
So we can’t go as low in price for in-ears as we do for normal headphones – not at least if we want really useful, neutral, and accurate monitors suitable for music production, but the Shure SE215 in-ear monitors are still affordable and are considered one of the very best values on the market today.
Best In-Ear Monitors – Mid-Priced
Just as the Sennheiser HD 300 headphones are truly next-level over-ear headphones compared to our less expensive recommendations, the same can be said about the Shure SE425 in-ear monitors, which are a marked improvement over the already excellent Shure SE215 reviewed above.
There is a natural quality to the sound of the 425s which sets them apart at this price level, and which gives a hint as to just how neutral and undistorted they actually are. Indeed, while people talk about their shimmering highs, the very high level of detail retrieval, the dynamic energy, the deep, clean, and fast bass, and the wonderful fit and isolation they offer, to me it is about the ease of sound.
I can listen to a pair of SE425 headphones for hours and hours and not only feel essentially no fatigue, but remain totally focused and connected to the music, which always comes through as alive and spontaneous, relaxed and musical, and in no way restrained or distorted.
So to me, the Shure SE425 is it – not only a favorite of mine for home recording and content production, and to clearly and accurately evaluate other audio gear, but a pair of in-ears I can use for the longest listening sessions, without being bothered by outside noise and not waking people in the room next door (yeah, it often is suddenly three in the morning).
A great example of how low distortion and high neutrality translate into the sheer beauty of sound – again, as we’ve said many times, especially if you have high-quality musical recordings – the Shure SE425 is a truly excellent in-ear monitor for professional music production, and at a surprisingly affordable price.
Best In-Ear Monitors – Premium
Ok, if pressed I would have to say that the best professional in-ear monitors are actually the Shure SE846, with unbelievable deep bass, lower distinction, incredible resolution of detail, stunning expressiveness, and the ability to really portray the emotions and gestures of all kinds of music and, somehow, with all of that, nearly unmatched neutrality.
They are also (though often available at a discount) well over a thousand dollars, and you can come so close to the qualities and the sheer excitement of the 846 with the legendary and perennially popular Shure SE535 – and for about half the price.
In fact, the 535 are much more popular among musicians and record engineers and are the professional standard for live on-stage performance monitoring. They come very close to the 8 series in overall musicality and power and offer the same kind of comfort and long-term wearability, professional-level build quality and reliability, and extreme noise isolation.
And they are incredibly neutral. Whatever is on the master tape, whatever the mixing board puts together, however much detail, tonal beauty, dynamic energy, and expressiveness is there in your hi-res downloads, you will hear every tiny bit of it – or, you should be warned, its lack (low-res, low-sampling MP3 listeners need not apply!).
Best In-Ear Monitors for Sound Isolation
In addition to offering standard-setting neutrality in frequency response, the Etymotic Research ER4XR does two things incredibly well.
For one, it resolves and reproduces detail at an astonishing level, including not just musical notes and sonic detail, but also phase information and time/space cues, dynamics, and microdynamics – and it does this from the deepest regions of sub-bass to its nicely extended highs.
The second thing the Etymotic does – in fact, all Etymotics do – is make a positive seal with the ear canal, staying in place and completely keeping extraneous noise out.
It’s no wonder the EX4R is such an enormously popular monitor headphone for musicians, record producers, and engineers, and it is considered as well – for all its neutrality – a really beautiful sounding headphone, which is a mid-priced favorite among audiophiles.
This may seem a bit of a mystery – how can a neutral and highly accurate earbud be so pretty sounding? But actually, the answer is easy – audiophiles love beautiful sounding musical recordings, whether analog or digital, and a headphone like the Etymotic will reveal every bit of that beauty for what it really is.
It will also reveal all of warts, which explains their popularity among discerning music professionals.
And Back to Over-Ear Headphones!
Best of the Best – The Finest Music Production Headphones in the World
It may be hard to imagine needing or wanting anything more neutral, detailed, or accurate than the Neumann NDH 20 or beyerdynamic DT 1990 studio headphones, but in fact, the very highest level of studio engineers, the most demanding musicians, and the top-tier studios and music production facilities seem to invariably turn to one of these three ultra-high-resolution headphones.
The AKG K872 is arguably the most accurate headphones in the world today, an absurdly comfortable and overbuilt pair of closed-back headphones that have a kind of bright, clear, and clean sound that makes even the most subtle of expressive nuances, infinitely small levels of detail and dynamics, the lowest levels of noise or distortion and the tiniest of glitches not just audible, but easy to hear and assess.
And the two top Sennheiser models – the HD 800 (open-backed) and HD 820 (closed-back) are, well, also arguably the most accurate headphones in the world today… Compared to the buyers, the Sennheisers are prettier sounding, with a warmth and musicality which is unmatched in my experience. They are as resolving as the AKG, and as neutral, and may have better coherence across the whole frequency range.
But really, to compare these products is a little silly – do you want a Bugatti or a Bentley? But if pressed, the AKG makes micro-detail and micro-dynamics a tiny bit easier to hear and may be more extended in the bass (maybe), while the Sennheisers have ever so slightly flatter frequency response, better phase accuracy, and are probably less than fatiguing for long production sessions.
And the open-back Sennheiser especially has unparalleled imaging, although all three of these headphones are absolutely superb in this regard.
Either way, you go, these are the best of the best, and the choice of the very top musicians, engineers, editors, and record producers all over the world.