Headphones versus loudspeakers: which is better for monitoring? At some point most beginners ponder this question—though to be fair, so do most experienced engineers.
Glenn Schick, mastering engineer for J Cole, Justin Bieber, and many others, recently made the switch to exclusively mastering on headphones, while plenty of other engineers have gone the opposite route, opting for more accurate monitors as they progress from home studios to dedicated workspaces.
As for the core question of which is better–headphones or loudspeakers–the most honest answer is “It depends.” Monitors exhibit qualities that make them better in some regards and worse in others, and the same is true for headphones. I’m here to help you identify the strengths and limitations of each, so read on to determine which may be best for you.
Speakers produce sound waves by pushing air molecules throughout the physical space of your room, and therefore communicate not just the sound of music, but also physical feeling of music. Hearing a kick drum solely with your ears versus experiencing the impact of the kick in your chest are vastly different sensations. Feeling the physical power of the low-end and midrange waves can help you gauge how your mix will translate to clubs, cars, and even home hi-fi systems.
Many people find it easier to achieve proper musical balances on loudspeakers than on headphones. For instance, if you set the level of background vocals using headphones, you might notice the balance doesn’t translate well in your car, or even on your studio monitors. This is due, in part, to the natural interaction between speakers and the physical listening space. As we mentioned earlier, speakers push sound waves around the room, rather than the way headphones direct sound right into your individual ears. Sound waves from speakers interact with objects in the room and undergo tiny shifts in timing and phase, providing our brain with directional and level information that feels natural and organic.
Headphones, on the other hand, isolate the ears so that each ear only hears one speaker and, therefore, only one side of the stereo image. Put another way, when listening to stereo speakers, your left ear hears a bit of the right speaker, but with different reflections, timing and phase from what your right ear hears from the right speaker. Headphnes, on the other hand, do not provide any right channel information to the left ear, or vice-versa. This acoustic effect of each ear hearing a bit of the opposite speaker’s information is referred to as “crossfeed.”
Since we can’t clearly answer which is better, what’s one to do? Use both! A combination of headphones and speakers could be your friend. Throughout your career, you’ll find a process that works for you—a gameplay loop, if you will. You may build your mix on speakers, check for forensic issues on cans, and continue switching between the two while mixing. Perhaps you’ll work differently, setting up the balances in cans for clarity’s sake and then finishing the mix on your monitors.
It may take some trial and error, but if you devise a routine that utilizes the strengths of both, you’re less prone to the weaknesses of either. And remember that Sonarworks correction software can improve both your headphones and loudspeakers––whichever platform you choose.audiomix engineermusicproducerstudio