Yesterday we discussed the pros and cons of mixing on headphones. If you haven’t chimed in on the discussion, head over there. Lots of interesting comments.

I’m not here to say that mixing on headphones is better than mixing on monitors. However, it has been my experience that you can get a good mix on headphones, even though there are a lot of people who claim you can’t.

The moral of the story isn’t that you can always get a good mix on headphones. No matter what your mixing/monitoring environment is, it’s your job to learn how to get good mixes out of the equipment you have.

That said, any pro engineer will tell you that while they CAN get a good sound with cheap equipment, using high-end gear oftentimes makes it much easier.

With that in mind, I’d like to tell you about my favorite set of headphones, the Sennheiser HD650’s.* (As you can see in the picture, they’re Owen’s favorite headphones, too.) 🙂

The Design

In my Intro to Headphones video, I explained the 3 different types of headphones: closed, semi-open, and open.

Closed headphones are designed to keep the sound from leaking out of the headphones. Think Sennheiser HD280pro’s* or Sony MDR-7506’s.* These are great for tracking. The musician can record without any bleed from the headphones getting picked up by the microphones.

Open headphones don’t prevent the sound from escaping the headphones. Rather than enclosing the drivers, the back of these headphones are open to the air. These tend to be more accurate and are better for mixing than closed headphones, but they’re not good for tracking, since everything bleeds out of the headphones.

Semi-open headphones are a blend of the two.

The Sennheiser HD-650’s are open headphones. If you look at the outside of the cup, it has a bunch of little holes, rather than being solid plastic.

I’m not smart enough to know the physics behind open headphones, but in general open headphones have clearer highs and deeper lows. With closed headphones, the sound is bouncing around inside an enclosed area, which leads to a less-than-flat frequency response. Open headphones allow the sound to “breathe,” so to speak.

Think about it this way. Recording an acoustic guitar in a tiny closet might seem like a good idea, but with the sound bouncing around that tiny room, you’ll likely end up with a boomy, uneven sound.

Place the guitarist in a larger room, and suddenly the sound tends to “even out.”

It’s the same with headphones.

The problem with a lot of closed-back headphones is that they simply can’t effectively reproduce bass frequencies very well. Anything below 100 Hz is still there, but it’s not as loud as the mids and highs. If you’re using closed headphones for mixing, it’s tempting to crank up the bass in your mix, so that you can hear it.

While this is understandable, and may even sound good, you’ll find that as soon as you play your mixes on monitors or in your car, you’ll find that there’s WAY too much bass. You boosted the bass to make it sound good in the headphones, but it turns out your headphones were lacking in bottom-end…and you over-compensated.

I’ve been there. Boy, have I been there.

The HD650’s are a different story. The first time I listened to them, I was literally shocked by how much bass they had. To be completely honest, I thought they had too much bass at first. But after spending a lot of time with them, I realized that they were simply reproducing the bass frequencies that were actually there in the recordings I was listening to.

All my life I had listened to music on headphones that rolled off the low bass frequencies. With the HD650’s, I could, for the first time, hear the entire frequency spectrum through a set of headphones.

It took me a while to really articulate what I was hearing. Essentially these headphones extended both the low and high frequency response of what I was accustomed to hearing through headphones. I could hear the highs more clearly, with more detail, and obviously I could hear the low end, too. It sounded like someone removed a high-pass and low-pass filter from the signal, extended the frequency response both ways.

With regards to the bass, the sound I get from these headphones reminds me of what it’s like to listen to a mix on big studio monitors. The bass is present, not hidden. It comes through clearly, even at lower volumes (which helps tremendously with ear fatigue).

These headphones let me hear everything, whether I like it or not. 🙂

Comfort

These are probably the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn. They fit completely around my ears. Some headphones tend to rest on the ear, which leads to soreness over time. Since these hardly touch my ears, I can wear them for hours with very little fatigue.

Value

As I write this, the HD650’s sell for $450-500 USD.

You may see that price and think that’s a ridiculous amount of money to spend on headphones. I get it. But think about it this way.

What would you spend on a decent, entry-level pair of studio monitors? $300-500, right? Then if you wanted to upgrade to something more professional, you’d spend anything from $1,000 to well over $2,000 for a pair of high-end studio monitors.

While I’m not saying the HD650’s are as good as a high-end pair of Genelecs or Adams, they are very good.

Considering you’ll need a really well-treated room to accommodate those high-end studio-monitors, you can get a high-end set of headphones (which require no acoustic treatment) for much less than you’d pay for a high-end set of monitors. (And don’t forget, acoustic treatment can get expensive, too.)

When you think about it this way, suddenly that price tag doesn’t seem like a big deal at all.

The Specs

Straight from Sennheiser’s website:

  • Cable length: 3m
  • Frequency response: 10 Hz – 39,500 Hz
  • Jack plug: 6.3/3.5mm stereo (It comes with a 1/4″ plug and a 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapter)
  • Nominal impedance: 300 Ω
  • Sound pressure level (SPL): 103 dB
  • Total harmonic distortion (THD): 0.05 %

One thing to note, the impedance on these headphones is considerably higher than normal headphones. This means you have to drive them a little harder to get the same volume out of them. If you’ve got a cheap interface, you may want to consider getting a standalone headphone amp (like the Presonus HP4*).

Also, this wasn’t listed above, but the headphones use a “Y cable” to connect to the headphones. The cable splits and connects to the left and right side separately. The connectors aren’t hardwired to the headphones. You can remove them by just pulling them out, so they can be easily replaced.

The Verdict

I bought these headphones myself…and I could not be happier. I’ve used them for both mixing and mastering projects, and I’m getting very consistent results. Am I going to throw away my studio monitors? Not at all. I use them all the time, but the Sennheiser HD650’s are my go-to piece of gear when I really need to hear something accurately.

The Sennheiser HD650 headphones* get a big thumbs up from Joe Gilder and Home Studio Corner.

What do you think? Do you have them? Do you want them? Leave a comment below.

*Amazon affiliate links

  • Kyle Ravv

    People who claim that you can’t get a good mix on studio monitoring headphones are kind of like elitists–they think only studio monitors can do the job (maybe their logic is that since they’re more expensive, mixing headphones are automatically bad). But I monitor using my Sennheiser HD 650 mixing headphones and honestly they work just as well as studio monitors. I personally recommend the Sennheiser HD 650, and plenty of review sites like Studiomonitoringheadphones.com have a lot of good things to say about it. If anyone here is looking for a great-performing headphone monitors less than $1000, the Sennheiser HD 650 is the way to go.

  • Kristian

    Great review! I was wondering..i currently have a setup that contains krk vxt 8 and beyerdynamic dt770 pro 80ohm. I experienced recently that my mixes translated somewhat too bassheavy and the mids especially got drowned out ..and the overall mix sounded a little bit stiff on a PA system. Now..with that in mind..i have been looking into quite a few headphones to find another “system” to check my mixes on and to work on..and the HD650 seems like a good candidate. Do they translate more correctly on an overall mix than the dt770? I know its a personal taste..but..thats basically what i am asking. I think these might be something i could benefit on buying.

    • I can’t compare them directly. I’ve not used the 770’s all that much. While I love the 650’s, I know people who mix on $100 headphones and get them to translate. The translation issue is more about you than it is about the equipment. As you improve, your mixes will start translating better.

  • Jjonas808

    What are everyone’s thoughts on the HD-600’s? A lot of people actually seem to prefer them more than the 650’s, and I think some comment that the bass is overly-hyped in the 650’s.

    What are some other great open cans in the $300-500 range for mixing??

    THANKS!

  • Crankcase08

    I’ve noticed when tracking vocals that closed headphones cause me to sing flat. In the closed headphones (I have Shure SRH440) a sloppy, lifeless performance sounds great, but when listened through speakers, disappointment reigns. I’ve noticed that when tracking with semi-open headphones (mine are the relatively cheap RH600 – in price and quality) that I am more able to sing not only in key, but also in a way that is better reflected by the loudspeakers. Consequently, performance is better with semi-open. The trouble is finding such semi-open headphones with minimal leakage, perhaps even with an attached rear-facing deflector. I really think the manufacturers have missed a niche here.

  • I love my 650’s I can’t believe how much mud I found with them that I couldn’t hear before. I still mix on my monitors but I use both bouncing back and forth. When I first got them I was a little timid to trust them but 3months in I’m trusting them. : )

  • Umesh Persad

    A question comes to mind … what are the advantages and disadvantages of tracking with in-ear headphones (like an Etymotic etc.)?

    • In-ears can be great for tracking, since they bleed even less than regular headphones. The reason most studio owners don’t use them is that it’s a hassle to keep extra foam pieces, etc. so no two musicians stick the same piece in their ear. Also, some musicians won’t be comfortabel with ear buds and prefer regular headphones.

      There’s also the added danger of hearing damage. Since the in-ears are so much closer to the eardrum, it becomes a little easier to accidentally turn things up too loud. The musician just needs to understand all these things and (ideally) bring their own in-ears.

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  • li sa

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  • The HP4 goes between your interface and your headphones/speakers. You run a pair of cables (L&R) from the output of your interface to the HP4, then another pair of cables from the HP4 to your monitors (speakers).

  • Pleasenot

    I’m sorry man>i love my hd 650’s but they are NOT AT ALL “flat” or “accurate”. if you read Sennheiser’s own info on them you will find that they were also not designed to be that way either.Mixing on them is kind of like mixing on a descent home stereo system.They do sound great though.

    • All I can say is that when I mix on them it translates to every speaker system I try. I call that accurate. 🙂

      • Pleasenot

        Well….
        Your probably mostly right in the realm of psychoacoustics. However in the realm of sound physics “accurate” has a meaning which is often ignored by many many,many people these days.”Accuracy” is not a “sounds good to you” idea.It has been used by trained engineers as a scientific term meaning that nothing in the tonal spectrum is being emphasized.The fact is things are emphasized and de-emphasized with the 650,especially in the mid-bass area.The high end is also rolled off quite a bit.

        I’m sorry to sound so critical but it bothers me to see so many people using this term “in-accurately” in so many places.I do in fact also love my hd 650’s.

        • No worries. We might just disagree. I can’t find any documentation from Sennheiser saying these aren’t flat, accurate headphones. They actually use words like that to describe them.

          Also, in the end, if the mixes are translating to every speaker system I try them on, then the headphones are doing EXACTLY what I need them to do. They are immensely more accurate than the HD280 headphones…or earbuds…or anything else I own.

          So…in my mind they are very accurate…and I guess the proof is in the mixes.

  • Things get even more interesting if you compare the 650’s to the 600’s. Both are used professionally all across the recording industry. Obviously the 650’s have more bass, and the 600’s definitely sound ‘flatter’ but actually the 650’s sound more representative of the original audio.

    I’ve done comparisons on mixing a solo grand piano in a gorgeous acoustic, and the 650’s sounded more reverberant than the 600’s. I trusted the 600’s more (as I’d only just got the 650’s at this point) but when I came to listen back to the mix in the studio on monitors, it was just a touch too ambient. The impression I got from the 650’s was in fact more representative.

  • I LOVE MY HD650s!! I agree that they sound very bassy….. initially.

    Pro: Great bang-4-buck ratio; made by Sennheiser; you can hear your significant other telling you to get to sleep from the top of the stairs

    Cons: they are not HD800s; you can hear your significant other telling you to get to sleep from the top of the stairs

  • Ankur

    These wouldn’t make for good headphones to use while tracking in a bedroom (studio) setup, would they? Given that they’re open backed, I’d imagine the sound (click tracks or backing tracks) would leak / bleed into mics fairly easily?

    • Yep, I covered that. “These tend to be more accurate and are better for mixing than closed headphones, but they’re not good for tracking, since everything bleeds out of the headphones.”

  • Julian

    Don’t have, definitely want! Awesome review man, I am saving for a pair as a gear-reward when I get to a mixing stage on my own stuff. Nothing wrong with digging in deep on a frequency with them and A/B’ing some things w/ the monitors. Thx for the great review and info!

  • Joel Bezaire

    I have the 595s (?) and I love em.

  • Peter G.

    Normally, I’ve seen you give a few cons in your reviews. Is there any negatives you can think of for these headphones?

    • The only con I can think of is the higher impedance. If you plug them into the headphone jack on your iPod or Macbook, it won’t get very loud.

      • They’re loud enough on my iPod, though

      • Great review Joe. I’m thinking about getting these. Are you using a headphone amp with your set up? Just wondering if I could give them a go without the amp through my ProFire interface. Thanks bro.

        • Hey man. I use ’em straight off of my interface just fine. I imagine they’ll be fine on the ProFire. I’ve talked to guys who bought really high-end headphone amps and talked about how amazing they were…but they still sound great on the stock headphone amps on my interfaces.