June 15, 2013

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BeyerDynamic DT-880 Pro Mixing Headphones
I've owned the BeyerDynamic DT-880 Pro mixing cans now for a year and a half. In that time, I've spent a significant amount of time with these things stuck on my ears, and they have always been extremely reliable. More importantly, I feel they deliver a very tight and flat frequency response. The partially open-backed design, combined with high quality design and parts, allows the end user to hear a detailed mid-range, crisp highs, and natural lows. I will break this down in more detail in a minute, but first let me go on a slight tangent as to why I feel mixing headphones are necessary to begin with.

Why Amateurs and Pros Need Good Cans
If you don't have an excellent near-field setup, with monitors placed in the right spots with adequate acoustic treatment in the subject location (see this article on the importance of bass traps, and this one on the importance of sound diffusers), you will always experience comb-filtering. Comb-filtering is the product of multiple reflections causing phase cancellation due to independent reflected waveforms arriving at different times. The peaks and valleys of the sine wave do not coincide perfectly, and this will end up enhancing certain frequencies (boost in apparent level) while reducing or eliminating others (reduction in level). Therefore, many sophisticated amateur mix engineers will use a reliable pair of mixing headphones to periodically reference their mix (or in some cases, they do most of the mix this way). By eliminating reflections, the mix engineer can hear the direct sound without room coloration or comb-filtering. Thus, even though most industry professionals still consider a good near-field monitoring setup to be superior to headphones, it is a very practical solution for the home studio.

Furthermore, there are pro engineers like Mike Senior who will attest to using their mixing headphones on quite a regular basis. Since he often travels to the location of his clients, the rooms and monitoring setups that he uses often change. This could potentially bias the mix since he hears the sound a little different from place to place, so he utilizes his headphones as a point of reference. Since he knows what his headphones sound like, and he knows what his normal mixing environment normally sounds like, he can quickly evaluate what any new room and monitoring setup are doing to the sound and overcome the bias issue by compensating accordingly.

DT-880 Headphones - Sound Spectrum Breakdown
Detailed Mid-Range. The mid-range of the DT-880's are really the bread and butter of these cans. They give a very clear picture of what's happening in the sound spectrum from around 500 hz - 8 khz in my opinion. To be very specific, I can hear clearly delineated frequency bands in an equal manner; none of the mids are mushed together or blurry. It's like the difference between cutting with an extremely sharp knife versus a very dull one, but the sound is never harsh. And that's the biggest point -- while the mids are very cutting and sharp, they are also smooth without being mushy and do not fatigue the ear, even with hours and hours of listening.

By the way, the upper and lower mids are generally considered the most important part of any mix, since this is what translates to essentially every sound system and speaker in the world. Bass and highs are often lost in lo-fi or low-quality setups, such as ear-buds, computer speakers, mono shopping mall speakers, etc. However, the mids are not. This is why pro studios continue to rely on the Auratone 5C, or the more modern Avantone Mixcube, to double check the mids. It's also why they use the Yamaha NS-10's, and even cheap iPod ear-buds and car speakers to reference their mixes. Mixes must sound good out in the real world, not just the studio, and the mids are the part of the mix we know everyone will hear.

Crisp Highs. The highs are not overly-emphasized like they are on most consumer headphones. Therefore, the average person (me included) will typically put on the DT-880's and feel they're missing something at first. Where did the highs go? How come they aren't in my face? Well, frankly it's because the folks at Beyerdynamic have done an excellent job of ensuring a flat frequency response. The last thing you want to do is mix too much or too little high frequency into a mix -- too much highs and the mix will sound harsh and trashy, whereas without enough highs the mix will sound as though you're listening through a wall in the next room.

It takes a little getting used to, but once you are used to what un-emphasized highs are supposed to sound like, you'll be able to aim for that sound in your mixes and then they'll translate well to all consumer systems. Someone once asked me why they couldn't simply mix on headphones that emphasized highs and aim for that sound, since in theory that calibration factor should cancel out the need for flat-response mixing cans. The problem with this logic is that the curves are different across different systems -- the highs aren't emphasized equally or even within the same frequency range for all brands or types of speakers. Some might boost 5 dB at a shelf starting around 8 kHz, whereas others might boost half that or twice that starting at 6 kHz or 11 kHz. You just don't know, so if you optimize your sound for a 5 dB boost starting at 8 kHz, the only time your mix will sound right is underneath those same circumstances later.

For example, say you did your mix based on this 5 dB shelving beginning at 8 kHz with a Q of 1.5. Imagine that curve in your head, or open up your DAW and look at it on your favorite parametric EQ plugin. Realize that this is your baseline; your context in this situation. Now imagine that you're listening to this mix on a different system that emphasizes highs with a 3 dB boost beginning at 6.5 kHz. Between 6.5 kHz and 8 kHz, your mix will be 3 dB too loud, while everything after 8 kHz will be 2 dB too soft. This makes for a really wonky sound that is going to be complete rubbish. To avoid this issue, you will mix with as flat of a frequency response as possible. That way, any post-mix sound enhancements done via hi-fi system designs or user-controlled EQ will be on the mark, only enhancing the areas meant to be enhanced and preserving the rest of the original mix.

Anyways, the DT-880's are great because I've found the representation of highs to be very flat and true. Since getting on board with these headphones and a decent near-field system, I haven't had any issues with highs being too high or low in my mixes.

Natural Lows. These headphones are rated down to the lowest frequencies the human ear is capable of processing. I'm talking below 20 Hz, all the way down to 5 Hz. Likewise, on the upper end they are well over 20 kHz... in fact they go all the way past 30 kHz. This is important, because even my near-field monitors roll off around 44 Hz, so from a technical standpoint I can actually hear lower frequencies better through these cans. Moreover, like with the highs, there is no artificial coloring or boosting like you'll typically get with most consumer headphones.

The lows are simply very natural sounding. They exist, they're there, you can hear them clearly, and it's well-balanced within the context of the mix. Sure, there is some roll off, but it's not horrible. For mixing purposes, I can almost always hear if I have weird sound floor problems occurring with super-low frequencies while mixing on these cans (since it moves the entire cone and slightly strangles the rest of the mix), so I've been able to eliminate some EQ issues and pops that I hadn't heard already in my near-fields.

Lows will never be as present, loud, or earth-shattering when using headphones, so if you're trying to get a feel for the beat at a good volume, you'll need to rely on a solid near-field system with a sub. But again, this isn't the first priority when mixing. Priority number one is achieving a proper balance all around, and this is where the DT-880's excel.

At $279.00, the BeyerDynamic DT-880 Pro's aren't cheap. But you get what you pay for: solid German engineering, recommendations from professional engineers to use these cans, and positive reviews all over the internet. Most important, you get a very functional and reliable tool that you will get to know and utilize for many years.

Moreover, from a different perspective, getting a solid pair of mixing headphones like the DT-880's is comparatively cheap when lined up next to a functional near-field system. Consider this: you will pay at least $1k for monitors, monitor stands, and sufficient acoustic treatment to make it worthwhile, and that's just for entry-level equipment. It can easily cost upwards of $3k if you're aiming for semi-professional grade stuff.

Every pro mix engineer knows monitoring is the first and most important part of the entire process. It's so important that it's been addressed firmly in the first chapter of all three audio engineering books I've read. Therefore, getting some good mix cans might very well be the best way to get started for someone on a budget (or in a bad monitoring environment) who is serious about doing things the right way. The DT-880 Pro's can easily tackle the job.


  1. Someone reads Mike Senior "Mixing secrets for the small studio" :) Very good post and headphones also. Cheers!

  2. Thx for the nice comment Marcin. Yeah, Mike Senior is legit! Really enjoy his writing style, too. Not only informative, but fun to read his work. Cheers!