The story of the underdog who wins against insurmountable odds has been embodied for generations in the classic tale of David vs Goliath. In the audio world, this story also has two characters; Headphones that represent David, and Studio Monitors that represent Goliath.
The standard notion is that headphones are incapable of accurately reproducing frequencies in a manner that allows one to create a balanced mix. It is true that monitors output higher Sound Pressure Level (SPL), have better low-end extension, and can allow you to mix for longer without ear fatigue. However, for these advantages to bear fruit, the monitors must be located in a treated room. Also monitors aren’t exactly what you’d call portable. There are plenty of advantages for headphones that include portability, lower cost, and reliability. At the end of the day, I am here to make the case for headphones, particularly the Ollo S4X, and why they have become an indispensable tool for creating my music.
Headphones are available in two standard designs, closed-back and open-back. Closed-back designs, as the name suggests, means that the headphones isolate you from external noise. The advantage of this design is the ability to hear music “directly” without interference from the room or space that you are in. However, such designs come with inherent drawbacks such as increased, and often unbalanced bass response, quicker ear fatigue, and ear pain due to the tight seal created around the outer edges of your ears. Open-back headphones on the other hand provide a more natural listening environment as the back of the headphones are perforated, and allow sound to freely flow in and out of the headphones themselves. This helps create a more authentic soundstage which in some ways replicate the feeling of sitting in front of a pair of monitors. This design also helps create a flatter response across the frequency spectrum which increases the accuracy of mix decisions. With the headphones having a relaxed fit around your ears, there is less fatigue. The main drawback is that the background noise is unfiltered and therefore unsuitable for use in loud environments.
"I mixed the song entirely on the S4X, and never once turned to my monitors."
Why the Ollo S4X works - An Anecdote
Being an artist, I must admit that the only reason I used headphones in the past was to record myself. When I wasn’t writing lyrics or recording myself on Pro Tools, the thought of using headphones never came to mind. I had been told countless times that it was impossible to mix accurately using headphones so I stuck to the old fashioned method of mixing my songs; a pair of reference monitors and a treated room. The main drawback of using this traditional method is simple, there are times when I could use my speakers, and when I couldn’t due to the time of day. This started to severely affect my musical output since I spent the days recording and the nights mixing. I had less time to mix which meant it took multiple days to finish a song. Fed up with the possibility of noise complaints due to my speaker-use, I decided to try mixing on headphones, but it was almost impossible. I couldn’t trust what I was hearing, and when I played back my “headphone mix” the next day, it was as if I had never mixed the song in the first place. Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to Ollo Audio by several of my friends who are well respected in the industry. I decided to give these headphones a shot, and I was immediately floored. After breaking them in, the soundstage was 3 dimensional, and the mids and the highs were natural, accurate and not harsh. Even with such a positive first impression, I was still far from convinced that these headphones could help me create an accurate mix. In order to keep my anticipation at an all time high, I chose to mixdown one of my favorite songs that I had recently written and recorded. I mixed the song entirely on the S4X, and never once turned to my monitors. This all-in method allowed me to learn the nuances of the headphones, and their ability to reproduce different frequencies correctly. By the end, I was extremely proud of my mix, but was fearful of how much time I potentially could have wasted if they did not translate. So, with the moment of truth at hand, I played back my mix on my monitors and was astounded. The vocals were upfront, the instrumental was present, and the lows were powerful and heavy. My mix sounded as if I had mixed them on my monitors. Once I referenced them on my speakers, I had to make only a few minor tweaks. I attributed the accuracy of my mix to the open soundstage that the Ollo’s provided as well as the transparency of the drivers, and how honest they were when reflecting any changes I made during the mixing process. I mixed for hours on end without ear fatigue and never felt the weight or pressure of the headphones on my head.
Should headphones replace monitors?
The short answer is no.
Headphones in my opinion are simply another way to evaluate your mixes. If you had an infinite supply of funds at your disposal, I’d recommend a custom monitoring system complete with full acoustic treatment, as well as floating floors and ceilings for good measure. Further I’d recommend top tier converters, outboard gear, live rooms, and several pairs of headphones that are powered by world-class amplifiers. Since 99.9% of us don’t have that kind of money, we can settle for a set of affordable monitors in a modestly treated room as well as a pair of reference-grade headphones.
However, for those who are constantly on the go or travelling from studio to studio, it is important to have a reference point which remains constant no matter where you are mixing. For me, that point was, and still is the S4X. For those who are starting out with a project studio build, I’d say invest in a proper interface and headphones first, before going in search of a pair of monitors. Remember, you can have a million dollars worth of gear but if your room isn’t acoustically sound, it's worthless. A pair of excellent headphones are the better alternative to a pair of decent monitors in an untreated room. Also, there won’t be any noise complaints or issues with volume when mixing on headphones either. I mixed my entire song on the Ollo S4X to prove a point; that it is indeed possible to accurately mix a song from start to finish on a pair of reference-grade headphones.
Author: Kuma | OLLO Audio endorser