Choosing the Right Headphones for a Pro Audio Application

There are many choices today for professional quality audio headphones from a wide range of manufacturers. But choosing the right headphones for a specific job requires some basic knowledge on the part of the buyer. Here’s what headphone shoppers need to know.

Professional headphones come in a variety of designs, each having a benefit for specific kinds of users. They also come in a variety of ohm levels, which can dictate not only how the headphones are used, but their audio quality. Armed with some knowledge of these differences, users can make the right choice when purchasing new headphones.

Though there are many models of professional headphones available, let’s choose one brand — the new Fostex TR line — for illustrating the differences. Of the five TR models now for sale, all use the same basic technology and are the same price: $250 a pair. The model you choose is based on how you will use the phones.

Fostex TR Series Headphones

Fostex TR Series Headphones

First of all, Fostex makes TR series headphones in three design types. All use dynamic technology with the same 40mm driver and all weigh about 300 grams. Each of the designs sound good — both for low and high frequencies. The specs cite a frequency response of 5Hz to 35kHz, far beyond the capabilities of human hearing.

With everything else being equal, here are the differences. The TR-70 model is open back, while the TR-80 has a closed back design. The TR-90 has a semi-open design. Each is for a specific purpose. So what’s the difference?  Which should you buy?

Open back headphones are the least isolating and allow users to hear the environment around them. They offer an accurate, open sound while listening. However, when in an environment with a noisy background, open back designs can be distracting and make it hard to do concentrated listening. So where they are used is critical.

Closed back headphones, on the other hand, isolate the listener from the background environment. Lower frequencies are increased as well. This design is best when used on location or when distracting sounds are all around you. However, the design is not as accurate as open back models, but it allows the user to concentrate when other activity is going on in the background.

The third option is Fostex’s semi-closed headphones, which are halfway between open and closed back headphones. This one is the harder choice to make. Clearly, it is difficult to guess which type of phones might work best in each case, so it is good to try them in the environment.

An important rule of thumb to remember is if you are working on a noisy location, closed back headphones are clearly best and if you’re working in a quiet studio, open back is best. Other applications and locations have to be decided on a case by case basis.

Another choice that’s important in selecting pro headphones is the ohm level. Most consumer models are all low impedance. However, with the Fostex TR series, you have two choices: either 80 or 250 ohms. How do you choose?

It depends on the kind of device driving the headphones. If the headphones will be used for listening to small electronics, such as a smartphone or portable music player, the 80 ohm model should be chosen. Lower impedance — or lower ohm count — means the headphones can operate louder with such devices. Most small electronics now support low impedance headphones.

Neve RNHP Headphone Amplifier

Neve RNHP Headphone Amplifier

However, the 250 ohm model is the choice when you are using a professional quality headphone amplifier. When using higher impedance headphones, the audio is cleaner, more transparent, more spacious and has deeper bass. But to achieve this improved fidelity, the user must have access to a headphone amp that can drive the higher ohm requirements of the headphones.

For professionals working in a quiet studio with good headphone amplification, use the open back design and 250 ohms for the best quality. For location professionals, use closed back designs. If you have a good portable headphone amp, such as Fostex’s HP-V1 Vacuum Tube amp ($424.00), use it with the 250 ohm model. Otherwise, plug into any device with the 80 ohm headphones.

Fostex HP-V1 Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier

Fostex HP-V1 Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier

Of course, these are the basic differences, but there are many other factors. Comfort is important if you are wearing headphones all day. This can translate into design differences. Tightness of headphones on the head can also be a factor for those sensitive to head pressure. Once the user determines the type of headphones to buy, the rest is trying on various models to find the one with the most comfortable fit.

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