Headphones vs Speaker
This blog post is the first of a two part series, in which I hope to answer

The common and often debated question of whether one should mix on headphones or Speakers
Which headphones or speakers should an engineer, starting out, invest in.
What are the characteristics or specs of the equipment that you should be looking at?

Let’s dive right in.

Most headphones that you encounter in the commercial audio space will have a very evident and exaggerated Frequency Response in a certain frequency range. This makes it extremely hard for one to correctly judge the tone and space taken up by instruments within a mix. Yes, speakers do suffer from this error as well, but it is often less exaggerated than what one would find on headphones

Firstly, we need to understand the difference between the two monitoring devices i.e Headphones Vs Speakers. The reason why both of these sound different is because of something called spatial localization, or simply put how our brain perceives sound in 3-Dimensional Space.

We all know that the way our brain locates a sound in 3D space is by using the time difference the sound takes to reach each ear.

Let’s take the following example
Binaural Audio
Here we can see that the sound source is on the right, and the sound will reach the right ear i.e right faster than it will reach the left ear.

This tiny difference is calculated by our brain and we perceive this sound to our right. This is the basic principle on which all our stereo speaker setups work. In all our listening environments we arrange our speakers in a way where the listening position is right in the middle of the two speakers and we have a stereo field or soundstage as so:
So, using speakers we perceive the sound coming from in front of us.
Now let’s try to breakdown what happens with headphones. Here the sound generated from both the channels i.e L and R reaches our brain at exactly the same time as they are over the ear and we perceive this sound as generated from inside our head. This is where the contention really begins. The problem with this is that since both the channels are completely isolated from each other this makes mixing on the headphone feel wider than it really is!

Let me try to explain what I said above with a simple example, let’s say that we are mixing a track that has elements as keys, Drums, Bass & Vox. If we were to pan these instruments in our stereo field on headphones we would be conservating in doing so, as it would feel too wide, but in truth, the field is not as wide on speakers.
This leads to errors not only in panning and placing sounds in the stereo field but also in deciding the levels for delays, reverbs and other effects. On headphones these effects will always sound overly exaggerated as opposed to speakers, what might sound like a vocal track drowned in reverb will actually be fine when heard on speakers.

Here I will try to explain a few things that you should look for whenever you’re using headphones:
No. 1

Beware of the Color:

Most headphones that you encounter in the commercial audio space will have a very evident and exaggerated Frequency Response in a certain frequency range. This makes it extremely hard for one to correctly judge the tone and space taken up by instruments within a mix.
Yes, speakers do suffer from this error as well, but it is often less exaggerated than what one would find on headphones
No. 2

Don't Trust the LOW end on Headphones:

The one thing that is extremely hard to do on headphones while mixing is to have a judgment about how much space the lower frequencies are occupying. We often tend to overcompensate the low end on headphones, which when heard on speakers will stick out like a sore thumb. Understand the FR of your headphones and be with lower frequencies, and often use cross-reference on Monitors to try to get a more realistic picture.

I’m sure you guys are wondering, “Just cut to the chase, tell us which is better. Speakers or headphones?”
The answer, as you must have already guessed is not a simple one.

Monitors and headphones go hand in hand

Now you’d think I’m against using headphones at all from the way this article is going, but that’s simply not true. You always want to spend part of your time mixing in headphones. Headphones give you a much closer “look” at any issues with the mix: pops, clicks, mouth noises, etc. as headphones provide a better definition for monitoring.

And then the obvious truth is that many people will be listening to your music on headphones so you better be sure your mixes translate well to that medium. I do this with my nice studio headphones as well as cheap iPod earbuds regularly.

So, you see that the ideal way to mix is to use speakers to do the chunk of your mixing, ie balancing, EQing and Compression and then moving over to headphones to see if there is anything that’s sticking out or causing distractions.

In the next blog post, I’ll go into detail about the mixing process using speakers!

Get in touch!

If you guys have another other questions you would like to shoot at me, just shoot me a mail at ronak@gray-spark.com.
Exclusive

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email