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Mixing on Headphones vs Speakers

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, the mastering engineer whose credits include J Cole, Justin Bieber, Jason Isbell, Elton John, and many others, recently made the switch to mastering exclusively on headphones. Plenty of other engineers have gone the opposite route, opting for high-end monitors as they grow out of their home studios and move to dedicated studio spaces.

As to the core question of which is better, headphones or loudspeakers, the honest answer is, unfortunately, “It depends.” Both headphones and monitor speakers exhibit certain beneficial qualities and certain limitations. I’m here to help you identify the strengths and limitations of each option, so read on to determine which may be best for you.

Loudspeaker Strengths

Speakers produce sound waves by moving air molecules throughout the physical space of your room and therefore communicate not just the sound of music, but also the physical feelingof the music. Hearing a kick drum solely with your ears is one sensation, versus experiencing the impact of the kick in your chest and the vibration of your pant legs. Feeling the physical power and how the low-end “fills the room” can help you gauge how your mix will translate to clubs, cars, and home hi-fi systems.

Many people find it easier to achieve proper musical balances on loudspeakers rather than on headphones. For instance, when you set the level of background vocals in a mix using headphones, the balance might not translate well to your car, or even to your reference 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, which is different than the way headphones direct sound right into your ears. Sound waves from speakers are reflected and absorbed by objects in the room and undergo shifts in timing and phase, providing our brain with directional and level information that feels natural and organic. Each of our ears hears the speaker that is pointed towards, plus the sound of the room. 

Headphones, on the other hand, isolate the ears so that each ear only hears the output of 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. Headphones 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.”

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