The age old question: headphones vs speakers for mixing. Each come with their benefits and drawbacks, so let’s talk the differences and which is ideal for getting the best results in your mixing.
Headphones Vs Speakers
Let’s talk about the pros and cons associated with mixing with speakers vs headphones before giving a final verdict.
Mixing With Speakers
Speakers or monitors, regardless of what you call them, these are designed to output your mix into the room.
Let’s get something straight from the start: you can’t effectively use any pair of speakers for mixing and expect good results.
Unless it’s specifically meant for mixing, most speakers are too small and weak to practically represent all of the frequencies of your mix with the low end in particular, if they even have a dedicated bass speaker.
Studio monitors on the other hand are designed to accurately and faithfully reproduce near the entirety of the practical frequency spectrum which we can hear. That’s 20Hz to 20k.
Most studio monitors, even the dirt cheap budget ones, are capable of a response of up to 20k.
It’s the low end which is still typically lacking. Unless you get a dedicated subwoofer or are willing to get a much more expensive set of monitors, most monitors bottom out around 50Hz, give or take.
That said, speakers give you a more realistic sense of your mix in a 3D space, better representing the depth from delays and reverbs and letting you experience the reflections in your room. You also get a better idea of your mix’s width and how things are panned, not to mention what might be dropping out as you physically move around between your monitors in the physical stereo space.
All that said, a big part of the advantage of mixing with speakers/monitors comes from having a good place for mixing, meaning a quiet and well treated and sized room.
Of course not all of us have that, so let’s talk about mixing with headphones after we give out the pros and cons of speakers/monitors.
- Gives the most accurate depiction of the stereo width and depth of your mix.
- The most effective way to identify phase issues in your mix.
- Quality speakers/monitors are more expensive.
- Difficulty representing the low end, even with quality speakers, without a dedicated subwoofer.
- Requires a quiet and properly set up environment for the best results, not to mention it can disturb others while you work.
Mixing With Headphones
Let me begin by establishing that, like with speakers, you can’t expect to get good results with just any old pair of headphones.
Mixing headphones are a specific subset of headphones which are dedicated to mixing.
They feature the aforementioned greater frequency response, meaning the range of frequencies they can reproduce/output.
On balance, mixing headphones are a cheaper solution than speakers/monitors for reproducing the entire practical frequency spectrum of your mix.
This is mainly because the speakers in a pair of headphones don’t need to amplify to anywhere near the same level which monitors do because they’re outputting directly into your ear, not to mention you get a good seal with the closed back of mixing headphones.
My ATH-M50s headphones which I’ve had for over a decade have a 15 – 28,000 Hz response range, so more than enough to cover both ends of the spectrum, and are priced below $200. Most entry level studio monitors start around there (sometimes just for one) and bottom out around 70Hz for comparison.
The beauty of headphones is that you don’t need a good environment to mix, the headphones CREATE a good environment.
The main downside is that, simply put, with everything else being equal, you NEED to experience your mix in a three dimensional space which you can only get with monitors to get the most realistic representation of it in terms of that depth.
You also can’t get the best idea of width and panning in headphones, not to mention how your mix changes as you move around the stereo image like you would with speakers. You move, the mix sounds the same.
Because it’s such a limitation, there’s even plugins like Nx Ocean Way Nashville from Waves which you can use to simulate what your mix sounds like IN a nice sounding studio using headphones. It even comes complete with webcam compatibility so when your head moves left or right, it replicates the effect in the headphones.
Of course and on the other hand, a huge number of your listeners will be experiencing your mix through headphones, so it’s an excellent tool for referencing just that.
One more thing to mention, because the source to receiver distance is non-existent in headphones between the speakers and your ears, everything hits at the same time.
This makes identifying phase issues much more difficult in headphones which another reason you can’t get a complete interpretation of your mix and its problems solely using headphones.
- More cost effective for a better frequency response.
- Better representation of your mix’s low end in most situations.
- Don’t need a perfect mixing environment for good results.
- Let you mix without disturbing those around you.
- Doesn’t give you the most realistic two and three dimensional representation of your mix for width and depth.
- Phase issues aren’t as apparent and need to be checked in speakers.
Headphones vs Speakers for Mixing – The Verdict
The Winner: Speakers (in the Right Circumstances) With Headphones for Referencing Low End
The real winner in the headphones vs speakers debate for mixing is 90% speakers while utilizing headphones the remaining 10% of the time to check the low end.
This gives you all of the benefits of the speakers which are generally preferable along with the added bonus of checking that low end more accurately with your headphones.
It also lets you reference your mix across two decidedly different playback settings as occasionally you’ll only hear an issue in your mix in one or the other (such as the bass with the headphones or a width or depth issue with speakers).
Regardless of whether you use speakers, headphones, or both, know that you can get decent results on most setups without having to break the bank so long as you know your equipment.
This means knowing how good mixes sound through your specific setup, then chasing and attempting to replicate that sound in your own mix through the same setup.