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The Market Positioning And Actual Application Differences Of "Monitoring Headphones"

Cuckoo Studio

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This is a sharing of my understanding and application of "monitoring headphones"(or"studio headphones") in actual music work.

One thing that everyone will notice is that regardless of the actual frequency response of headphones, manufacturers always promote their headphones as "monitoring" headphones.(or "studio headphones",or tag mixing headphones to non-inroom response headphones,etc.) This has greatly contributed to the confusion among ordinary listeners regarding the concept of monitoring, especially for those who are not familiar with headphone specifications, leading to many misconceptions.
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In reality, the term "monitoring" itself is quite vague in terms of its target user group. It defines a broad professional user base without specifying which specific group of professionals it is intended for.
Based on my personal work experience, "monitoring" can be divided into two main functions: "mixing monitoring" and "recording monitoring" .
If we want to be more precise, I would add a third category, which is "Secondary monitoring", and a fourth category, which is "stage monitoring" or "stage in-ear monitoring." I believe there are many other application scenarios, such as live broadcasting and assistive listening, but for the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on the areas I am familiar with.


Mixing Monitoring



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The requirements for "mixing monitoring" headphones align with the demands of serious scientific HiFi users:
  1. The overall sound signature should strive to closely adhere to the in room response, or the harman2013 without bassboost, which represents a neutral and balanced sound.(I will simplify this feature as "flat" later on.)
  2. There should be no resonances or peaks in the frequency response, as they can lead to misjudgment of the harmonic content during monitoring, resulting in incorrect sound processing decisions.
  3. Minimal harmonic distortion is desired to ensure the cleanest sound reproduction when monitoring individual instruments. This allows for accurate judgment when applying saturation or other distortion effects during mixing.
  4. Consistency in interaural level differences (ILD) is important to avoid inaccurate spatial information caused by weak center imaging.

Recording Monitoring
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"recording monitoring" for singers/musicians is indeed an interesting field. Often, I would describe it as a "beautiful mistake" in my mind, and I will explain why later.
The main requirements for these headphones are as follows:
  1. Good isolation and sound leakage prevention: They must have a closed-back design to prevent external sounds from interfering and to minimize sound leakage from the headphones into the microphone.
  2. Sound with certain frequency response preferences: They should emphasize specific details that singers/musicians want to hear more prominently during their performances.
  3. There may be additional requirements, such as the availability of single-sided versions of the headphones.
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The first point is easily understandable, as it aligns with the needs of many listeners who seek good isolation. But the additional requirement is to prevent sound leakage during recording.
The second point is perhaps the most intriguing. However, it becomes easier to understand once I provide a brief explanation. Singers and musicians, when using neutral headphones, would hear their unprocessed dry vocals or instruments. If the headphones have a frequency response preference, typically a boost in the high-frequency range, the singers/musicians will hear a more "processed" sound.

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(Some processing of the vocal mix section of a track.)


Recording engineers can achieve similar results by sending effects to the singers/musicians. However, when having headphones with "built-in" frequency response preferences is more convenient. Additionally, in digital audio, even with ASIO, there can be some latency, making headphones with built-in frequency response more desirable in direct monitoring situations.
Apart from that, these headphones allow singers/musicians to better hear the details of their sibilance and breath control. This may explain why the MDR-7506 has been serving in recording studios for over 30 years, as its frequency response boost in the 3-4kHz and 7-10kHz range perfectly covers the clarity of sibilance and the main components of breath sounds.

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Of course, there are some singers who have the opposite preference. They feel that their own voice is already stimulating enough and they want to better hear their chest voice or fundamental frequencies. In other scenarios, such as DJ wanting to hear the kick drum and bass parts more clearly to align with different tracks, they may choose headphones with a boost in the low-frequency range.(with cool appearance too.)

extra:DJ Monitoring

V-moda M200 Headphone closed back review.jpg


V-moda M200 Headphone Frequency Response Measurements.png

(Ok,V-moda's frequency response is way too far but it's a typical example. The HD25 is also quite popular in the DJ industry. Its frequency response is relatively objective, although I believe that they are not very familiar with this aspect. Its popularity is mainly due to the convenience of wearing and removing it. )

There are also users who prefer using flat monitoring headphones for their monitoring needs, but in my observation over the years, I have noticed a trend where they generally prefer headphones with frequency response preferences.

So, in this kind of demand, monitoring headphones can have a wide range of sound characteristics. Before becoming a mixing engineer, I happened to have experience in various aspects of music work, such as being a singer, DJ, composer, and a producer who control the song recording process. This allowed me to see different headphones being used in various scenarios, and I have personally used different headphones at different times. Even now, while I have objective headphones like the HD600(In fact, it's not perfect. I actually prefer the HD400PRO.) and speakers like KH310, I still sometimes rely on bright and exciting headphones like the DT770 Pro.

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Here is a video simulating the monitoring experience with a very bright recording headphone, so that you can have a more intuitive understanding of the difference between the dry vocal and the sound inside the headphones. (To avoid copyright issues, I won't use my clients' dry vocal tracks. I have recorded a sample of my own dry vocal for demonstration purposes.)


Secondary Monitoring

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In the third scenario I mentioned earlier, "Secondary monitoring", it is similar to this approach.
(https://www.soundonsound.com/reviews/spotlight-secondary-monitors)
Some mixing engineers believe that after completing their work on neutral and objective speakers/headphones, they can check their work on different devices such as the Yamaha NS10, or devices that emphasize either the high frequencies or the low frequencies,or on their car using its speakers.
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By doing so, they can notice some unnoticed details in their work and further optimize the mix. I also own devices like the NS10 and mixcube for this purpose, although in recent years I have been using them less frequently. However, I still respect other professionals who use these methods as long as they produce high-quality work. It's a matter of personal preference of workflow.

Stage Monitoring

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As for the fourth scenario, "stage monitoring", the focus is on custom in-ear monitoring. The main advantage is the stable and fully coupled fit in the ear canal. The objective frequency response characteristics of a product actually test the skills of the manufacturer. Different shapes of conduits and handmade production can bring many challenges. Therefore, in this type of product, you often see non-flat frequency responses. If used as in-ear monitors on stage, this usually isn't a big problem because the performer is not the one controlling the overall sound. As long as they can hear their own part clearly, it's usually sufficient. Similarly, for in-ear monitors, performers sometimes prefer those with high-frequency boost or other characteristics. There are also commercially available in-ear monitors with very flat sound, which are precise and excellent products, usually with a high price tag. I have a pair of custom in-ear monitors that actually have a large dip in the frequency response around 5kHz. I complain that they are not suitable for mixing, but they work fine for recording purposes. However, considering that mixing is my main job, I would be thrilled to have the opportunity to customize a pair of in-ear monitors with perfect frequency response and perfect fit.



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You may know that my evaluations and perspectives on headphones are generally more lenient due to the significant differences in HRTF (Head-Related Transfer Function) and the fact that the Harman curve is a smoothed result(and high frequency loss with age). The definition of an "good headphone" actually allows for some variation. However, if we consider a perfect match to the unbiased or appropriately preferred Harman curve as the standard for "good", then headphones with a frequency response that deviates significantly from it, such as the MDR-7506 and DT770Pro mentioned earlier, can be considered as having "design flaws." In reality, it is common for some closed-back headphones to achieve better isolation but lose a smoother frequency response due to internal reflections. However, this characteristic is often appropriately utilized in different scenarios, which is why I referred to them as "beautiful mistakes" earlier.

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In the field of headphone design, there are many interesting technical details that can be explored. However, as a headphone user, the boundary of "good" and "bad" headphones is actually quite blurry. The key point lies in the "matching" between the characteristics of a headphone and its intended application. (Excluding headphones with poor quality control and extremely abnormal sound.)

I really hope that manufacturers can provide more detailed information about the specific "monitoring" positioning of headphones, whether it is for "neutral monitoring" or "recording monitoring." However, this is an idealistic expectation as it may directly limit their market range and reduce sales and profits. Perhaps we cannot change the business model, but at least we can disregard those simple labels, analyze the data ourselves, and judge the usefulness of each pair of headphones to select the one that best suits our specific application scenarios.

In the future, I may have some reviews of closed-back monitoring headphones, and I will link this article to the reviews to provide better explanations.


I welcome all discussions, but please maintain a friendly tone. If you resort to offensive language, I will not hesitate to share a picture of a pelican from the zoo.

Anzol | Cuckoo Studio
 

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Cuckoo Studio

Cuckoo Studio

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It took a lot of time to translate, and some wording may have become less precise during this process. You can point them out, and I will make corrections and revisions.
 

MaxwellsEq

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Thank you. An interesting topic for discussion. I find "monitor" and "pro" when added to the name of a headphone to be more confusing than helpful, since I don't feel there's a real clarity about what makes a headphone "professional".

Two "pro" aspects worth including are durability and repairability. In the studio and touring world, headphones are workhorses that need to survive a lot of (unintended) abuse. Sometimes appearance and SQ are traded for consistency and longevity.
 

markanini

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I always assumed the distinction of professional or monitor headphones was utilitiatian. To be more rugged, less stylized, speced for high-Z outputs on mixing boards. I think hobbyists took it to mean a different acoustic profile and the manufacturers ended up running with the retcon.
 

mmmdc

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I always assumed the distinction of professional or monitor headphones was utilitiatian. To be more rugged, less stylized, speced for high-Z outputs on mixing boards. I think hobbyists took it to mean a different acoustic profile and the manufacturers ended up running with the retcon.
All this terminology that's supposed to convey some sort of professional application tells us very little about the frequency response though. The ATH M50X are marketed as neutral monitor headphones but are pretty bass boosted, and if you compare several headphones marketed the same you'll notice that their sound has basically nothing in common.
 

markanini

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All this terminology that's supposed to convey some sort of professional application tells us very little about the frequency response though. The ATH M50X are marketed as neutral monitor headphones but are pretty bass boosted, and if you compare several headphones marketed the same you'll notice that their sound has basically nothing in common.
That ties in with what I'm saying. The FR was secondary priority to build and suitability for desk outputs. Furthermore monitoring scenarios include tracking, where FR is not critical. Hence it's a retcon.
 
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