I’m also blessed with sizable ears that turn bright red when it’s hot or cold outside. And because they continue to grow as I age, there will come a time that I’ll be all ears. When that happens, I shall probably take up sailing.
My big head never really bothered me until I had to select a pair of headphones for my voice-over work. When I’m recording I prefer not to wear them (it takes me out of the moment), but when I’m doing detailed editing, I use them for hours in a row.
FACTS and OPINIONS
Searching for the perfect cans was quite an education. Just as with microphones, not everybody has the facts, but most people have an opinion:
“You must buy the Beyerdynamic DT770. They’re great.”
“Get the Sony MDR7506. Everybody in the business is using them.”
“The Sennheiser HD-280 PRO is the industry standard.”
I’m always interested in what others have to say, but I also know that what works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for me. Part of that has to do with our individual anatomy.
All ears hear differently, and you and I may have different tastes of what sounds good. If you love listening to classical music, you probably want headphones designed for audiophiles. I needed cans that would allow me to accurately pick up breaths, mouth noises and other unwanted sounds. I wasn’t going to use them to listen to the Berliner Philharmoniker or to mix the latest Rap album. I wasn’t even going to listen in stereo!
COMING TO TERMS
When comparing headphones, you’ll find that many brands display a total lack of modesty. They describe their products as “world-class,” “revolutionary” and “exceptionally accurate.” While much of this lingo is just marketing hype, there are a few terms that come back again and again. Let’s take a quick look at them.
Open versus Closed
Open Headphones are designed to allow some outside noise to come in. Closed or sealed headphones isolate your ears from ambient noise. Open headphones tend to be lighter; they put less pressure on the ears, so they’re usually more comfortable. They also produce a more “open” sound, a bit more like your studio monitors.
Closed headphones produce a more “inside the head” sound, and they’re often used in music production where critical listening is vital and outside noise should stay out of the mix.
If I were to were to use my headphones to listen to music on the train, the bus or in bed, I’d go for closed ones, so as not to bother other people. In my studio, that’s not an issue. Because I work in a very quiet environment, isolation from ambient noise is not so important either. Comfort, on the other hand, is.
My favorite pair of cans share a feature with my mind: they’re semi-open.
Sound is measured in terms of frequency. Frequency response refers to the range of bass, mids and treble (highs). Let’s say the range of a pair of headphones is 15 to 25,000 Hz. What does that tell you? Well, the first number represents the bass end of the spectrum and the second number the treble end. One of the headphones I was looking at, had a range of 15 to 25 kHz. Is that any good?
The audible frequency range for human beings is about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Below 20 Hz, the bass frequencies are more felt than heard, but loudspeakers are much better at delivering that punch. Frequencies over 20 kHz aren’t always audible.
Because of the limitations of the human ear, a wider frequency range doesn’t necessarily lead to better sound quality. So, don’t be fooled by the numbers.
With some headphones and loudspeakers, certain frequencies are exaggerated and others are attenuated (reduced). Because headphones don’t give you the physical oomph that sound waves from a room speaker have, some makers of headphones overcompensate and build in a hyped bass response.
When listening to your voice track on these types of cans, it sounds like you’ve recorded too closely to the microphone (proximity effect). The flatter the audio response, the more accurately it reproduces the sound from the input source. Those headphones are best suitable for voice-overs.
The impedance of a headphone (measured in Ohms) refers to the headphones’ ability to resist electricity. Here’s what you should know: The lower the impedance of the headphone, the easier it is to get higher volume. Higher impedance doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality.
The higher the impedance, the more power your headphones will require. If you’d plug a high impedance headphone (e.g. 600 Ohms) into an iPhone or MP3 player, you’d definitely notice a loss in quality because the drivers can’t handle it. That’s why those models usually need an amplifier to drive the speakers inside the headphones.
Some manufacturers make different impedances for the same model (the Beyerdynamic DT880 comes in three ratings: 32 Ohms, 250 Ohms, and 600 Ohms), so be sure to look at the specs before you place your order.
Another factor influencing the loudness of the headphones is the sensitivity. Impedance determines how much power the headphones will draw, while sensitivity indicates how much of the electrical signal delivered to the headphones is converted into sound. This is measured in decibels of Sound Pressure Level per milliwatt, or dB SPL/mW.
Headphones of a higher sensitivity (and with high impedance) will sound louder than those of lower sensitivity. Be aware that the human ear may experience hearing loss if sound is sustained above 85 dB. So, if your cans are more sensitive than that, be extra careful.
Comfort and Fit
Even the best studio headphones would be pretty useless if they don’t fit right. When it comes to fit, manufacturers use fancy words to describe the two main types of studio cans:
Supra-aural headphones like the Koss porta pro, rest against the outer ear. The ear pieces can be flat pads against the ear, but can also be shallow bowl-shaped, or deeper ear cups that are too small to completely surround the ear.
Circumaural headphones like the Sony MDRXB700, have ear pads that completely surround the ear, and ear cups that completely enclose the ear.
Professional audio reviewers recommend wearing headphones for at least fifteen minutes when you test them for comfort. I’m not sure I agree. If they’re not comfortable, I can tell within seconds. Keeping them on for an extra ten minutes is not going to change that.
This is what you should ask yourself: Do the earpads exert too much pressure on the ears? Can the headband be easily adjusted? Remember that headphones that enclose or cover your ears can get uncomfortably hot. To find out, you do have to wear them for a while.
There’s one other thing I pay attention to: the cord. I happen to hate coiled cords. They tend to be heavier and there’s always something that gets caught in them. I also prefer the cord to be detachable from the headset, in case I need to replace it. Every studio engineer I know has messed up some cords by rolling over them with their chair. Cheaper headphones usually don’t come with a detachable cable.
You probably remember that I’m a big fan of the CAD Audio E100S microphone. Voice-over colleagues are finally catching on to this amazing, affordable mic. This American company has a lot more to offer, though. CAD recently came out with the “Sessions” MH510 studio headphones, and asked me to give them a try. Would these be just as good as the E100S?
Before I share my impressions with you, you should know that I’ll judge them based on my needs as a (bigheaded) voice-over artist only. Secondly, I’ll compare them to the reasonably priced cans I have used for the past three years: the AKG K240 Studio headphones that are quite popular in my field.
First off: this CAD offers more than cans. The MH510 headphones are a fashion statement. It comes in few colors: red/white, black/orange, black/chrome and pure black. Each pair of headphones comes with two detachable cables (coiled and straight) and two sets of earpads (leatherette & velveteen), as well as an 1/4″ adapter and a carrying bag.
Compared to the light-framed, self-adjustable AKG K240, the MH501 is rather bulky. There’s a lot of rubberized plastic and the leather headband is thick and cushy. The AKG weighs 8 ¼ ounces (235 g) and the CAD comes in at 11 ¼ oz. (320 g). During longer sessions, the weight of the CAD began to bother me.
With the MH510, CAD wanted to make isolating headphones that “virtually eliminated bleed into the playback environment.” In order to do that, the earpads firmly push against the ears. CAD has reached its objective because these headphones isolate really well. However, the price you pay is comfort. My ears did not enjoy the sustained pressure. The K240 Studio headphones, on the other hand, fitted like a glove. The semi-open design offers less isolation, but there’s also much less pressure to keep the earpads in place.
HEAD to HEAD
And what about the sound? Would CAD’s Sessions headphones be suitable for the simple, subtle sound of voice-over?
The AKG has an impedance of 55 Ohms and a sensitivity of 91 dB. The CAD has an impedance of 26 Ohms and a sensitivity of 103 dB. Remembering what I wrote above, this should tell you that the CAD cans are definitely louder. You don’t need to turn the volume up that much, in order to get a solid sound. CAD calls the sound pressure level “rivaling a concert experience.”
If you’d like to relive your experience at a Tiësto dance party, perhaps that’s exactly what you’re looking for in a pair of headphones. As a voice talent, I want detail. Not volume. Besides, volume can be dangerous! It can lead to hearing loss.
In terms of frequency response, the MH510 can be characterized by what CAD calls “extended lows”. One Amazon-reviewer described the bass as “intense”. I wouldn’t go that far, but the low is definitely overemphasized. For certain types of music this might be just what the doctor ordered, but not for voice-over. To me, the extended lows just made my voice recordings sound muddy.
In contrast, the K240 Studio headphones are open, airy, natural and neutral. The spoken word has a realistic, uncolored clarity to it. The best way to illustrate this is by sharing an audio sample with you.
I placed my microphone in between the earpads of both headphones, and I played one of my voice-over tracks. Of course a condenser microphone can never replace the human ear, but this will give you some idea of the difference in sound coming from both headphones. You’ll notice that I alternate between the AKG and the CAD. The K240 Studio headphones are the first ones you’ll hear.
What I’ve done in this review is unfair and unscientific. Yes, both the CAD MH510 and the AKG K240 are sold as studio headphones, but comparing one to the other is a bit like comparing heavy-duty hiking boots to running shoes. Both are footwear but made for a different purpose. It might have been better to compare the K240 to CAD’s MH310 cans, which look remarkably similar.
I don’t think CAD had voice-over applications in mind when they designed the MH510. That’s where the AKG shines.
The CAD is more geared toward tracking, mixing and mastering of pop music in a recording studio. If you don’t want to have a scratch-track/click bleed through, the closed CAD is the better choice.
Secondly, reading reviews can tell you a lot about the personal preferences of the author, preferences which you don’t necessarily have to share.
And then there’s the size of my head. We must take that into account.
It’s only fitting…
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS CAD Audio kindly sent me a pair of MH510’s for evaluation purposes.
PPS Interested in headphone reviews? Here are a few websites I researched as I was writing this article: