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Expert Mastering Engineers Sound Off on Using Headphones for Audio Mastering

by Ian Stewart, iZotope Contributor January 16, 2020
Headphones when mastering?
Should you use headphones when mastering? Experts let us know.

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From monitoring during recording to being able to work without disturbing others, headphones have many roles in the world of audio. When it comes to audio mastering though, things change a bit. If you’ve ever wondered if you can effectively master on headphones, whether you should be using them for specific parts of the mastering process, or if there are certain makes or models that are better suited than others, then this one’s for you. Five mastering engineers at the pinnacle of the craft generously agreed to chat with me and lend me their views on how and when (or when not) to use headphones for mastering.

In this piece you’ll learn:

  • Whether or not five industry experts regularly reach for their headphones when mastering
  • Which tasks they feel headphones are particularly well-suited to
  • Which makes and models they prefer

Let’s dive in and see what they have to say!

Adam Ayan, Gateway Mastering (one-time GRAMMY and five-time Latin GRAMMY-winner)

In what capacity do you or your colleagues use headphones in your mastering work?

Adam Ayan: On the creative side of things, I use headphones mainly for de-ticking and de-noising type work, specifically when I feel I can work on those things more effectively and efficiently on headphones. Otherwise, all of my creative/sonic/EQ/compression decisions are always made over loudspeakers. For the final quality control step in our process (creating final master file sets for manufacturing and digital distribution), our production engineers do that QC work exclusively with headphones. We find that is the best way to handle final QC, as they will hear certain things (dropouts, ticks, other audio nasties) better over headphones than they would on loudspeakers.

Are there any mastering tasks for which you feel headphones are better suited than even excellent monitors in a great acoustic space?

AA: In my opinion, headphones are better solely for the quality control part of what we do in mastering. Having the headphone drivers in close proximity to your ears, coupled with removing the room from the equation makes for better QC and for hearing some artifacts better than listening with monitors. The same can often be said for doing de-clicking and de-noising work in some instances, for the same reasons mentioned above.

Do you think headphones can ever be a replacement for high quality, traditional monitoring?

AA: I personally have not had a headphone experience that makes me feel they could ever replace traditional monitoring for me. All of my creative work is done with loudspeakers moving air in the room, and I cannot imagine replacing that way of monitoring any time soon.

How do you respond to people who argue that because so much music is listened to through earbuds and headphones today, mastering engineers should do the same?

AA: First, I would say that in my experience I have always found that making a record sound great over good loudspeakers still always translates to the earbuds, but the opposite is not true. If I were to listen over earbuds while mastering I would be missing so much of the frequency spectrum, so how could I make proper sonic decisions/moves? I know my room and listening environment exceptionally well, and I know just how the audio will translate to consumer playback. I’ve always taken the approach of making a record sound as best as it can, knowing that it will translate to the lowest common denominator just fine.

Do you have a preferred make and model of headphone? Is there any particular amp you like to drive them?

AA: Lately we have been using Oppo PM-3s at Gateway Mastering, and we’re loving them. They are the first headphones that I have found sound close to a loudspeaker, especially in the low-end. Also, they are the first closed-back headphone I have ever heard to sound so good. Sadly, Oppo has discontinued making them, as well as their entire consumer audio line of products.

I also have a pair of Grado 125’s that I have owned for well over 20 years and just absolutely love. I use them mainly for listening enjoyment (not for mastering work) and find them to be very true and musical sounding (also very nice in the low end).

For amplifiers, Grace Design makes the best in my opinion. We have a variety of Grace Design headphone amps throughput our facility—at least one in every studio/edit room. They sound so good!

Dave Collins, Dave Collins Mastering (nine-time GRAMMY-winner)

In what capacity do you or your colleagues use headphones in your mastering work?

Dave Collins: I never use them for anything other than finding a click or tick, and even then very rarely in the new Northward Acoustics-designed room.

Are there any mastering tasks for which you feel headphones are better suited than even excellent monitors in a great acoustic space?

DC: Again, headphones can be useful for finding clicks, but in a well-designed acoustic space with an integrated approach to monitoring, their necessity diminishes rapidly.

Do you have a preferred make and model of headphone? Is there any particular amp you like to drive them?

DC: I have a pair of Sennheisser HD-580s which sound just fine to me for the purpose they serve.

Bob Katz, Digital Domain (three-time GRAMMY-winner)

In what capacity do you or your colleagues use headphones in your mastering work?

Bob Katz: I don't ever use headphones except for enjoyment. I don't need them for reference because my room and speakers are extremely precisely adjusted. 

However, in our mix room we have a pair of Audeze LCD-4s which are extremely precise and accurate in the bass range. And since bass is the final frontier, and the mix room is not nearly as good as the mastering room, we use the LCD-4s as a secondary reference.

Keep in mind that I would never recommend using headphones as a primary reference, even the world's best phones. Maybe there is a translation utility that can get rid of the issues of stereo separation, transient response, and direct-to-ambient balance that are common to headphones, but I personally wouldn't trust a headphone compensation circuit to allow me to produce masters for consumption. 

Are there any mastering tasks for which you feel headphones are better suited than even excellent monitors in a great acoustic space?

BK: Never, no, nein, nyet!

Do you think headphones can ever be a replacement for high-quality, traditional monitoring?

BK: [Again] Never, no, nein, nyet!

How do you respond to people who argue that because so much music is listened to through earbuds and headphones today, mastering engineers should do the same?

BK: The issue of "lowest common denominator" comes up just as it does with speakers, and it's a specious argument just as it is with speakers: should we master on cheap earbuds or Audeze LCD-4s? With loudspeakers we can quantify the deviation from accuracy using well-established measurement utilities, but headphone target curves are not sufficiently standardized, and even then it's the wild, wild West out there. The deviation from the Harman target is not an efficient means of judging how close to flat our headphones are. 

Besides, Sennheiser, Focal, Audeze, Electrostats, and in-ear headphones sound vastly different from one another! How are you going to make something translate to all those in the same way we can do every day using superior calibrated loudspeaker/rooms? Are you going to play the "put one on, listen, put the other on" game to arrive at some ugly "common medium"? Give me a break.

Do you have a preferred make and model of headphone? Is there any particular amp you like to drive them?

BK: I own two of the world's best headphones of all time: The Audeze LCD-4 and the Stax Omega Mk 2. The first is driven by a $2500 Class A headphone amplifier, the Mjolnir Audio "Pure Bipolar", made in Iceland. The second is driven by a $4000 dedicated electrostatic headphone amplifier, the Mjolnir Audio KGSSHV, also made in Iceland. Yet, despite my care and concern for the world's best headphone reproduction, I strictly use these as enjoyment references, not for professional mastering. Though I could try and I'd have a greater chance of being right than the majority of people trying to master with headphones.

Bob Macciochi, Subvert Central Mastering

In what capacity do you or your colleagues use headphones in your mastering work?

Bob Macciochi: I practically don't use headphones at all any more, but I have a fondness for them, nonetheless.

Are there any mastering tasks for which you feel headphones are better suited than even excellent monitors in a great acoustic space?

BM: Definitely for anything noise or restoration-related. The inherent proximity to the “speaker” and the isolation (for closed-back headphones at least) naturally makes anything of that nature easier to hear. 

It can sometimes bring too much focus to those things, in my experience. People sometimes fixate on minuscule details that are only an issue on certain headphones and get distracted from the big picture. But it's not a bad thing to fix these problems if it doesn't affect anything else, either directly with the processing, or by being a distraction.

Do you think headphones can ever be a replacement for high-quality, traditional monitoring?

BM: I don't know about replacement, but they can be a capable alternative. When I really started focusing on mastering I wasn't able to have the room you need for a job like this and was painfully aware of that. I 100% dedicated myself to headphones to take the room out of the equation. I did all my work on the same pair of headphones and really committed to them until I got a room good enough to work in. 

I've heard some of that work since when I've had to revisit old projects and so on. And you know what? Some of it isn't bad at all. Most of the shortcomings lie in the low end as you might expect, but a lot of it also comes down to me being a comparative newcomer to mastering as a trade. So I'm not going to blame headphones for my dodgy work. And all these years later, I'm still in business—so that work can't have been that bad.

Having spent all that time with headphones, and subsequently having purpose-built a couple of acoustically-excellent rooms, I doubt I'll be going back to headphones. But if I did, I'd really commit to it. 

For me, they are fundamentally different ways of listening. To properly interpret what you hear on headphones and make the correct musical decisions means training your brain to work in that way. Their propensity to make you focus on details can make you miss the wood for the trees. I always found switching between headphones and speakers very tough because of that, which is why I went all-out with headphones.

It's also worth noting that since I “left” headphones, there have been a number of great strides made in terms of design, and also with regard to correction/linearization of the response. I used an analog crossfeed unit for a while and liked that, but there are even more options now, with a number of dedicated plug-ins. The average standard of headphone monitoring is improving all the time. 

How do you respond to people who argue that because so much music is listened to through earbuds and headphones today, mastering engineers should do the same?

BM: I think it's a silly argument, personally, and I imagine any other mastering engineer responding to this will respond the same way. Our job is to make music sound great everywhere, and regardless of what it is, focusing absolutely 100% on a single playback situation will almost certainly spoil it elsewhere.

To put it another way, changing the sound to pre-compensate for the shortcomings of a certain specific playback device is myopic, and also likely to ruin the sound on anything else. I have some cheap earbuds that are something like +8 dB at 50 Hz, it's crazy. If I cut 8 dB out of the low end on everything to make it sound good on those, I'd be out of business within a month. Balance, as ever, is the key.

Do you have a preferred make and model of headphone? Is there any particular amp you like to drive them?

BM: I'm a bit out of it now as I've said, but I owe a lot to the Senneiser HD600 with the foam removal mod and a much better cable (at least the HD650 cable). Amp-wise I always liked what the Mytek 8x192 ADDA did with them. Wish I'd never sold that box, but that's another story.

Dave McNair, Dave McNair Mastering

In what capacity do you or your colleagues use headphones in your mastering work?

Dave McNair: I use them almost exclusively when I’m traveling. I’ve been going back and forth between North Carolina and Seattle for about the last four years, and it became clear that if I was going to do that and not take time away from work, I had to figure out a solution to be able to work on the road. For one thing though, I’ve been mastering for a very long time and my perceptive powers and ability to listen in a macro way are very advanced, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that a beginner try to jump into mastering in this way.

There was also some historical precedence for this. About 15 years ago, when I had transitioned predominantly to mastering but still did a little mixing very occasionally, I would use some Sennheissers when I had to mix at home where I had a Pro Tools rig, but not a great monitoring setup. This yielded really good results and, while it didn’t give me the confidence to master on headphones, I knew I could come up with great results mixing-wise. So that was definitely a piece of the puzzle.

Do you have a preferred make and model of headphone? Is there any particular amp you like to drive them?

DM: I have some Sennheisser HD-650s that sound good and are comfortable to wear, but realized after doing a little testing that I didn’t think they were high enough resolution to master on. So I started looking around for something that was more high-res and fit the general curve that I wanted to hear.

I ended up landing on the Audeze LCD-X and the (now discontinued) companion amp/DAC called the Deckard, which is a great unit, and has a USB connection. Then I started to work in my studio where I spent a couple weeks EQing on the headphones, and then checking to see what it sounded like on the speakers. When I was confident enough that I could switch gears as needed, I started taking the mobile setup on the road.

It was an unsettling process at first, but clients were happy. So then I would get home and hear these projects on the speakers and go, “Well OK, there’s nothing I really feel like changing”, so incrementally, my confidence grew.

The final piece of the puzzle was that Audeze makes their own headphone compensation plug-in called Reveal which allows you to select which of their models you have and dial in a correction percentage. I like to run this at about 80% which gets me a little closer to what I expect to hear from the speakers.

Does ‘Reveal’ support crossfeed to help simulate speakers, or is that something you’re at all concerned about?

DM: That, for me, has never been an issue. I don’t want any of the crossfeed stuff. I have a Grace m902 that I use for QC in the brick-and-mortar studio which has the crossfeed feature, and I never use it.

Part of it is that I don’t like to manipulate the stereo image much. If I get something that sounds really bunched up in the middle and it’s not intending to be a specifically mono presentation, I might add a little level to the side, but I don’t need crossfeed to tell me that.

As far as it sounding unnaturally wide or like the vocal is in the center of your head, that’s where my twenty-thousand hours of experience and the time I spent mixing on headphones come in. I put on headphones and I know it’s going to sound like headphones.

Are there any mastering tasks for which you feel headphones are better suited than even excellent monitors in a great acoustic space?

DM: If you’re QCing and listening for clicks and pops, they’re key. Even in a really high-resolution listening environment it’s hard to catch any little digital clicks or crossfades that weren’t done well, which you might want to scrub off. For that stuff, I use the HD-650s because they’re light and comfortable. The Audeze’s aren’t uncomfortable, but they’re heavy and have this big magnet structure in them.

How do you respond to people who argue that because so much music is listened to through earbuds and headphones today, mastering engineers should do the same?

DM: I don’t like to think in those terms, because that’s an exactly analogous argument to saying “Maybe you should use a speaker with limited response because nobody’s going to hear it on your big mains.” But most mastering guys will say, “Well I need to hear the widest, most dynamic, full-frequency, lowest-distortion representation to make my judgements, and whatever happens after that is beyond my control.” I would also say that there’s not a strong correlation between what I hear when mastering on headphones and what people hear when listening on earbuds, because they’re such different reproduction systems.

Addendum

One final note before we wrap things up: no conversation about mastering and headphones would be complete without mention of Glenn Schick. Glenn was busy working on some other projects with iZotope during the writing of this article, but you can listen to his unique take on the subject in this excellent episode of Ian Shepherd’s The Mastering Show podcast.

Conclusion

I hope this has helped you understand when and how headphones can be used in mastering. While there are certainly almost as many opinions about headphones as there are engineers, we can see a definite trend toward consensus that, in audio mastering, headphones tend to be best for QC and restoration work, and that using them in lieu of traditional monitoring speakers requires a lot of experience and careful, comparative training.

Many thanks to Adam Ayan, Dave Collins, Bob Katz, Bob Macciochi, and Dave McNair for their time and generous contributions. 

Learn more about audio mastering

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