The two main audio reproduction systems we use while working in the studio are headphones and studio monitors. Without a doubt, these have numerous differences related to how the human auditory system perceives sound. The truth is that both have advantages and disadvantages. Any serious music producer should rely on both for certain things. In the following tutorial, we will go over what makes them different when evaluating a mix.

The main difference

When using the headphones, your ears are being fed with a direct audio stream, unaffected by acoustics of any sort. This results in the feeling that the sound emanates from within your head and not in front of you. Certain instruments in the track you listen to, especially those panned left and right, will seem to be wider and more spaced than normal. Also, effects like delays and reverbs might sound much deeper, more prominent, and wider. On the other hand, natural room reverb smooths out more aggressive sound waves and adds ambiance when listening on monitors. In headphones, the influence of these room acoustics is nonexistent. As a result, audio elements with little reverb, tend to sound brighter and more aggressive.

It’s important to add there is a significant difference between regular and studio-grade headphones. Regular headphones are usually designed to give you a colored image of the sound. Actually, in most cases, they have accentuated low-end. That is not the case with studio headphones. These are designed to give you the flattest audio response possible.

Details matter

The amount of detail you can hear on studio headphones you might probably miss on studio monitors. Often, being able to hear those details is beneficial. This is especially true for tricky vocal timings, sample chopping, and general audio restoration. Additionally, studio headphones will provide you with a much closer perspective to problematic audio artifacts when doing time-stretching.

Translating mixes from headphones to studio monitors

If you’re mixing on studio headphones, you should still strive to reference on studio monitors, as mentioned previously. Issues such as a narrow stereo image and insufficient reverb on vocal and synth lines can appear evident then. Headphone mixes frequently result in a sound picture that is relatively dry. Certainly, the goal is to create a final product that sounds good on multiple devices.

For instance, the percussion instruments’ tone, depth, and impact might be easily “misinterpreted” while listening to them through studio headphones. A good example might be the kick drum and tom sounds, which might need to be lowered down when you reference on monitors. Likewise, the volume of percussion elements like shakers and hi-hats will likely need to be pushed up, to be prominent in the overall mix.  

Crossfeed in studio monitors

Crossfeed in a stereo system is a phenomenon related to when the listener’s right ear picks up some of the sound emitted by the left speaker while the left ear takes up part of the sound emitted by the right speaker. We’re talking about direct sound waves, and waves that bounce off the walls and surfaces. This aids your brain in establishing a sense of sound origin – where sounds are coming from. With headphones, you don’t get this effect, so the music seems like it’s coming from within. This makes accurate mixing more challenging when it comes to panning, spatial effects, and general loudness.

In order to address this issue, some developers have come up with software that is somewhat capable of accurately mimicking real-life listening scenarios for those mixing only on studio headphones. In such software, controls for changing the distance between the “speakers” and the “listener”, as well as between the speakers themselves, are frequently included.