Highly Recommended Headphones for Drummers, Vocalists, and Engineers

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Finding solid headphones for general-purpose listening isn’t too difficult, but homing in on purpose-built cans that are optimal for drummers, vocalists, and audio engineers is a challenge on its own level. With the staggering number of headphones on the market, it can be difficult to filter your options and remain confident that you’re getting closer to a good choice. Wireless, wired, in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, open-back, closed-back, etc… there are so many types and models to sort through. So, maybe instead of scrolling through hundreds or even thousands of headphones on who knows how many sites, just read a little more here to get the scoop on some stellar headphones for your next studio session or live gig. Brands such as Audio-Technica, Mackie, Sony, Shure, and Sennheiser may already be known to you, while names like Audeze, Direct Sound, Westone, and Vic Firth may be foreign. In any case, these models are worth checking out.

Headphones for Drummers

Whether recording in a studio or performing live on stage, drummers need to hear vocals and other instruments clearly over the intense volume of their pounding drums. Engineers create monitor/headphone/cue mixes precisely for that purpose, but the mixes won’t be effective if the headphones can’t block out a significant amount of the SPL from the drumkit. Nobody wants the headphone mix to be so loud that it distorts and/or incurs hearing damage! To maximize isolation from ambient sounds, your best bet is to use closed-back, over-ear headphones or IEMs (in-ear monitors). Open-back, on-ear, and earbud types aren’t designed to excel in the isolation department.

Though traditional headphones are less convenient to carry than IEMs, they are faster to put on and take off, and can be used by different people without much fear (I do not recommend that you put anything inside your ears that has been inside someone else’s ears). The USA-made Direct Sound EX29 (available in black or white) headphones offer up to 29 dB of noise isolation and 40mm drivers, and the Vic Firth SIH2 headphones provide up to 25 dB of isolation and 50mm drivers. Both sets have comfortable padding and wideband frequency responses, though the comfort level and tonal quality really depend on the wearer’s preference.

VIC FIRTH SIH2 Stereo Isolation Headphones for Drummers
VIC FIRTH SIH2 Stereo Isolation Headphones for Drummers

If you’re a touring drummer, you’ll probably want to get IEMs. They are compact, easily transportable, and give you a more natural, inconspicuous look on stage and in pictures/video. Dependable, well known, and cost effective, the Shure SE215 are dynamic single-driver (per side) in-ear headphones with up to 37 dB of noise isolation. Touting up to 40 dB of isolation, the Mackie MP-240 are hybrid dual-driver IEMs wherein each earpiece has a balanced armature driver in addition to a more traditional dynamic driver. Built for maximum audibility in loud stage environments, the Sennheiser IE 500 PRO (available in clear or smoky black) IEMs utilize a specially designed 7mm dynamic driver per side to deliver loud, distortion-free signal. With a presence boost from 1 to 2.5 kHz, and up to 26 dB of ambient noise reduction, they aim to ensure top-notch clarity for the listener. All three models have detachable cables, multiple eartips, and carry cases.

Mackie MP-240 Hybrid Dual Driver In-Ear Headphones
Mackie MP-240 Hybrid Dual Driver In-Ear Headphones

Headphones for Vocalists

For vocalists in the studio, comfort is key. If you’re accustomed to performing with IEMs in a live setting, you might feel right at home in a recording session wearing the same ones you use on stage. In that case, I still recommend the in-ear monitors I suggested for drummers. However, if you haven’t practiced extensively with IEMs, the first time you try them shouldn’t be in a recording session. It’s possible that certain jaw movements involved with singing can disrupt the seal of IEMs, resulting in distractions that pull you out of your zone.

So, for studio vocalists, my default choice is closed-back, over-ear headphones. Although the sort of extreme noise isolation required for drummers isn’t needed for vocal artists, open-back designs should be avoided because they let a lot of sound in and out. This means that the vocalist’s microphone would end up “hearing” the bleed escaping from open-back headphones, resulting in the mic capturing a faint (or perhaps not so faint) version of the cue mix along with the vocal.

To avoid that nightmare, consider closed-back cans such as the Sony MDR-7506 or the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (available in black, blue, or white). The studio classic MDR-7506 headphones offer a 10 Hz to 20 kHz frequency response and high sensitivity, while the ATH-M50x have a 15 Hz to 28 kHz frequency response and are a bit less sensitive, but handle more power.

Sony MDR-7506 Headphones
Sony MDR-7506 Headphones

Both models feature rotating ear cups, and that actually is an important factor. Since many singers find it challenging to hear their pitch accurately while wearing headphones, it’s not uncommon for them to slide an ear cup off one ear. As you can imagine, it is much easier to do that if the ear cup rotates. With one ear “open,” the singer’s voice (and the vocal resonance they’re accustomed to) can go directly in their ear, letting them hear their voice the way they’re used to hearing it.

For vocalists on stage, it’s IEMs all the way. Sure, a singer wearing big, bulky headphones is likely to get a reaction from the crowd, just not the one that any vocalist, manager, or sincere fan would want. Surprisingly, the Shure, Mackie, and Sennheiser in-ear headphones that I suggested for drummers are also great for singers.

Headphones for Engineers

If you mix at FOH (front of house) or track in a studio, your typical use of headphones will be occasional—listening to channels in solo, checking a cue mix, etc. Still, you deserve something with isolation and honest tone, and that you can quickly pop on or off. The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, and the Shure SRH940. Go with the HD 280 Pro for the familiar feel of leatherette earpads; opt for the SRH940 if you prefer velour earpads. Both models boast frequency responses that extend well beyond the range of human hearing.

Shure SRH940 Professional Reference Headphones
Shure SRH940 Professional Reference Headphones

For monitor engineers, IEMs are ideal. They’re tour-friendly and provide a monitoring experience that’s closer to what the artists hear (considering that they’re probably wearing in-ears, too). In addition to the IEMs mentioned earlier, the Westone UM Pro30 are a fantastic choice with their triple balanced-armature drivers and high-SPL output.

Westone UM Pro 30 Triple-Driver Universal In-Ear Monitors
Westone UM Pro 30 Triple-Driver Universal In-Ear Monitors

Knowing that studio-based mixing and mastering engineers normally work in acoustically treated and controlled environments, they don’t require headphones that isolate against ambient sound, making open-back headphones a viable choice. Since open-back headphones usually give a tone and soundstage that translates well to the experience of listening to monitors in a room, they’re advantageous for critical decision making during the final stages of audio production. Outfitted with dual-layer diaphragms in dynamic drivers, the Sennheiser HD 600 headphones are trusted by engineers around the world for their transparent sound, and the planar magnetic Audeze LCD-X are quickly becoming commonplace in mastering houses due to their low distortion and immediate transient response.

Sennheiser HD 600 Headphones
Sennheiser HD 600 Headphones

Conclusion

Of course, these are just some of the many headphones available. Come to the B&H SuperStore or visit our website to see more, and let us know what headphones you love in the Comments section!

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