Can I Mix Audio Using Headphones?


There’s a saying in audio that goes something like, “You should never mix in cans.” There is some truth to this adage but, with the right gear and realistic expectations, you’ll find that there is quite a bit that can be done in headphones, allowing you to be productive even when you don’t have the luxury of working on loudspeakers.

In my experience mixing in headphones, I've found that my results improved dramatically once I grew to understand the limitations of the practice, and then learned to compensate for them. First and foremost, you’re going to have to accept the fact that judging the bass and sub-bass frequencies with 100% accuracy is difficult, if not impossible. Although the manufacturer’s ad copy may tell you different, 90 Hz and below is hard to mix in headphones, and what you might think sounds “right” to your ear in cans often doesn’t translate to larger speaker systems.

For instance, you may think you’re doing a “final mix” of a modern hip hop or EDM track with lots of sub-60 Hz bass or 808, because you’ve got it sounding great in your headphones. You might feel a sense of great pride when printing your mix, and excitedly decide to go “bump it in the car.” But, to your surprise and great disappointment, when you get the thing cranked up in mom’s ’04 PT Cruiser, you find that your mix sounds extremely “boomy” and, well… terrible. Now, this in no way means that you can’t mix in headphones at all. In fact, there are some mixing tasks that I prefer doing in headphones, which I’ll get to in a minute; and, those that are more difficult to pull off, like judging bass levels, can be "ballparked" in headphones, and then checked later in near-field monitors and adjusted if needed.

Another element that’s, let’s just say, “different” in headphones, is the way we perceive the stereo image. When you’re listening to stereo loudspeakers, you hear sound from the left and right speakers, in both your left and right ears. So, if you’re facing your studio monitors and you pan a hi-hat 100% to the left speaker, you’ll still hear some of that sound with your right ear, even though you’ll hear most of it with your left ear. In open-back headphones, you’d get a bit of this cross-feed effect, but not nearly as much as with loudspeakers. And, in fully isolated closed-back headphones, you won’t experience any cross-feed at all. In addition to panned elements, this phenomenon may also cause stereo effects like reverbs and delays to sound different in headphones than they do in speakers.

So, does that mean that the way we perceive the stereo image is “wrong” when heard through headphones, and “right” on loudspeakers? Of course not—it’s simply different. And, as a mixer, you want your mix to sound great no matter what kind of system is playing it. In fact, in the age of the smartphone, one might argue that ear buds are the most important format through which your mix will sound great. So, it’s important to check your mix on those, too. It’s fine to start a mix in studio headphones, if you keep in mind that you should check your mix on near-field studio monitors at some point so you can make any needed adjustments before finalizing.

Now that we've accepted the drawbacks, let’s go over some of the advantages of mixing in headphones. Obviously, having the ability to work anywhere without bothering anyone, be it on an airplane, or in your dorm or crowded apartment, is especially advantageous. While it’s more the case with closed-back headphones than the open-back variety, all headphones will, of course, give you a far more personal listening experience than loudspeakers.

Another advantage I’ve found, that might not be quite as obvious, is that the task of editing and mixing voice-overs can be better executed in headphones than in monitor speakers. Cleaning up dialog can be done with greater precision in headphones, with the vocals up-close and personal. I find that sibilance jumps right out at me in cans, which allows me to really dial-in the de-esser without squashing the high end. Also, mouth sounds like lip smacks and plosives are especially noticeable in headphones, making them easy targets to be EQ’d, or edited out completely.

So, what kind of headphones do you need for this kind of work? Whether you choose an open- or closed-back design, a circumaural, or around-the-ear headphone will deliver the best bass response, and this is without a doubt an attribute you’ll want to look for. Open-back headphones will give you a listening experience similar to loudspeakers, with the most natural stereo field, mainly because some cross-feed does occur, which is inherent to an open-back design. They also offer breathability, so your ears will stay cool during long mixing sessions. The AKG K 701 and Sennheiser HD 650, both tried-and-true open-back models, will offer you the most natural mixing experience, but are also the most expensive of my recommendations.

Sennheiser HD 650 - Reference Class Stereo Headphones

The downside to open-back headphones is that sound from the outside world can and will seep into your listening environment, making this kind of design a non-starter if you want to work in public places, like buses, planes, or even in a loud apartment. Additionally, sound bleed from open-back headphones can be a nuisance to people around you, which also makes them unsuitable for use as monitor headphones while recording, which is a bit limiting. Although they may not sound quite as natural, closed-back designs offer the best isolation and are usually necessary if you want to work in public. Some of my favorites are the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Monitor Headphones, the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro Circumaural Monitoring Headphones, and the Senal SMH-1000 Professional Field and Studio Monitor Headphones.

Senal SMH-1000 Professional Field and Studio Monitor Headphones

Finally, semi-open-back headphones offer a happy medium, allowing for a more open-sounding stereo field than closed-back headphones, with a bit more isolation than fully open designs. The AKG K 240 MK II is a great compromise, offering some breathability and openness, with more isolation—so as not to bother those around you too much.

AKG K 240 MK II Professional Semi-Open Stereo Headphones

Another necessary consideration is amplification. While some of these headphones, like the 38 ohm Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, are low enough impedance to be powered by a normal headphone jack, some are not, like the 300 ohm Sennheiser HD 650. These models, however, will sound far better with a dedicated DAC and headphone amp. For maximum portability, the AudioQuest DragonFly Red offers 2.1-volt output, with resolutions up to 24-Bit / 96 kHz, and is the size of USB dongle. I also recommend the AudioQuest DragonTail USB 2.0 Extender, which allows you to conserve space when you have other USB devices connected next to the DragonFly. If you need a higher-end solution, check out the Grace Design m920 High Resolution Monitoring System, which features cross-feed simulation, mimicking the acoustics of a loudspeaker listening environment, improving stereo imaging when using headphones.

Grace Design m920 High Resolution Monitoring System

Hopefully, this article has answered some questions for you about the advantages and limitations of mixing in headphones, and I encourage you to share your thoughts in the Comments section, below.