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Playback Devices: Monitors & Headphones

Studio monitor setupQuality playback devices are essential for audio engineers. Without the capability to hear precise tones, frequencies, and sounds in the studio, the engineer runs many risks. Without quality playback, the engineer may risk overcompensating the track or unbalancing the mix. Checking audio playback on multiple devices is a good practice for any audio engineer. What sounds good in a studio setup may not translate well to a movie theatre.

Mixing with Monitors

Studio monitors vie with headphones for the spot of “which is better”. Both playback systems have benefits and disadvantages, and an aspiring audio engineer should utilize both. Monitors allow engineers to listen to their tracks in a real-world environment. The sound from dedicated loudspeakers is able to interact more naturally than from headphones. Headphones inject the sound directly into the ear, which can require correction and audio re-balancing.

For audiophiles, the process by which the left ear picks up some of the audio input from the right speaker and vice versa (known as the cross-feed effect) from monitors is a big win. This not only provides depth perception, but also helps make everything sound more natural to the human ear. Sound waves bounce around the room, allowing the sound waves to balance out and reflect the acoustics of the room. This effect is why speakers sound more natural than headphones; music is pumped into the room, not the ears.

Benefits of studio monitors include some of the following:

  • Natural-sounding playback smooths and adds ambiance
  • Cross-feed effect blends sounds for the listener
  • No discomfort

However, studio monitors are larger, more expensive, and less portable than a pair of quality headphones.

Playback with Headphones

The best type of headphones for professional or enthusiast use are over-ear headphones. These come in either open-back or closed-back configurations. Open-back headphones allow air to pass in and out of the ear cup. The pressure inside the ear cup is even and prevents echoes or sound build-up from occurring. For closed-back headphones, the ear is completely contained. Sound bounces inside the ear cup, creating echoes and distortions that can affect professional audio engineering. While better for noise insulation, closed-back headphones usually play second fiddle to their over-ear cousins for enthusiast work.

Benefits of over-ear and open-back headphones include:

  • Comfort for extended listening
  • Incredible sound range potential
  • Large product availability
  • Cheaper than monitors

Of course, open-back headphones can lead to ambient sound. For studio use, this isn’t much of a concern; for use outside the studio or home, it’s worth considering.

Headphones also present difficulties for sound design regarding sub-bass frequencies. Most consumer headphones do not have the hardware necessary to produce the sub-bass sound that a dedicated sub-woofer can. This means that sound engineers can overcompensate for the lack of perceived bass and mix their track out of proportion.

Different Sounds, Different Sizes

So, what’s better? In the end, monitors and headphones provide different functionalities and benefits. For professionals and audio enthusiasts, a quality set of studio monitors is going to be an excellent option if the playback location allows for it. Apartment owners might find themselves in hot water with their building manager with a set of loudspeakers. Headphones take the win if size and cost-effectiveness are critical factors.

Versatility and range are key, and a quality set of headphones and studio monitors is ensures that a track is properly mixed across all types of playback devices. Sound design on a monitor or exclusively on headphones can lead to a bias that compromises your sound. Using both options ensures that the track is not overcompensated in any direction.

Did learning about headphones and monitors interest you? The Institute of Production and Recording (IPR) offers a program in sound design for visual media that teaches students about proper playback device usage.

The Sound Design for Visual Media program is an occupational degree program that immerses the student in the world and industry of sound design for visual media. Students learn key skills and concepts necessary to meet the demands of audio/visual media projects. These skills and concepts include advanced sound design, synchronization, sound effects creation, field and location audio recording, boom operation, ADR recording and editing, Foley recording and editing, the creation and recording of music for visual media programs, and mixing these elements together. At a higher level, students learn how to make the correct aesthetic decisions for the project they are working on, gain important organizational skills that include logging and archiving of media materials, and achieve the skills necessary to advertise and market the final product.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production and engineering program and starting a rewarding career in the video game industry.