Why are headphones important for recording podcasts?
As the podcast industry expands, more reporters, storytellers, and entertainers have begun assembling their own podcast studios at home for a convenient, yet still quality recording space. If you’d like to do the same, you’ll need a computer, microphones, cables, mic stands, a digital audio workstation like Descript, and possibly an audio interface. You’ll also need a set of headphones to monitor the audio files you are recording and editing.
Los Angeles-based producer, composer, and podcast veteran Dave McKeever has spent the last 25 years working in audio recording. He shares his insight on why headphones are so important for today’s podcast creators.
- They isolate sound. When you record audio, you want to record only what you mean to — and none of what you don’t. “Basically you don’t want sound from speakers to bleed into the microphone,” Dave says. “That’ll cause an echo effect and various forms of noise.” Getting a good headset for podcast production will handle this problem.
- You can easily record audio from video chats. “A lot of current podcasts are being recorded over Zoom,” Dave says, “and headphones prevent the audio from your computer leaking over into your microphone.” Any form of unwanted noise is going to give you lots of headaches when you start editing, so take noise isolation seriously and use headphones.
- They highlight the details in your recorded tracks. The audio quality provided by a good pair of headphones enables you to hear all sorts of nuanced details in your sound recordings. “Any time you’re doing dialogue editing, precision is important,” Dave says. “You need to be able to hear the close details — the ums, the ahs, the throat clears — that you wouldn’t hear on laptop speakers.”
- They let you hear what your listeners hear. “You can assume that many of your listeners will be using headphones,” Dave says. “You always want to think about an end user’s experience as you work on the product. By editing with headphones, you’re creating a good experience for people who will be listening to your work using headphones.”
- They provide a better bang for your buck than loudspeakers. “When it comes to top-notch sound reproduction and frequency response, it can be a lot cheaper to get amazing headphones than to get an amazing loudspeaker system,” Dave says. If you want to get a stereo system with a lot of power and a full audio frequency range, you could easily spend thousands (or tens of thousands). But with headphones, you can get a similar sonic experience for less than $200. Even when you ramp up to ultra high-fidelity planar magnetic headphones, the vast majority of models cost less than $1000. It’s a budget-friendly way to get really immersive audio.
What to look for in headphones for podcasting
There are enough headphone options out there to confuse a dedicated audiophile, let alone someone buying their first pair for podcasting. Here are a few rules of thumb for picking a set of headphones.
- Over-the-ear headphones are typically better than on-ear headphones. On-ear headphones have ear pads that sit right on your ears, while over-the-ear headphones have a wider frame that encompasses your entire ear. “Over-the-ear models are better at blocking out ambient noise,” Dave says. “They also tend to be more comfortable for wearing over long periods of time.”
- Pay attention to frequency response. The human ear can hear frequencies ranging from 20 hertz on the low end to 20 kilohertz on the high end. In audio equipment, frequency response refers to a device’s ability to capture these extreme frequencies. This element is more important for music than for speech, so if your podcasting career only involves recording and editing dialogue, you don’t need to obsess about frequency response. “But you may only want one pair of headphones for editing both dialogue and audio, in which case you may as well get a set that works great for all purposes,” Dave says.
- You’ll want closed-back headphones for recording, but open-back headphones can work for editing. There are two main types of headphones: closed-back headphones that completely seal off your ear for maximum sound isolation, and open-back headphones that intentionally let in some ambient sounds (and let some of your headphone sound bleed out to your surroundings). “When you’re recording, closed-back headphones are the way to go,” Dave says, “because they prevent audio from bleeding out of your headphones and into the mic.” But don’t write off open-back headphones. Most audiophiles consider them the gold standard for sound reproduction. The open-back design is better for creating the illusion that musicians or speakers are in the room with you. If you want to use open-back headphones, reserve them for the editing and mixing stage.
- Avoid noise-canceling headphones. These models can be great for blocking out unwanted sounds in noisy environments, but part of their sound-canceling design involves introducing new sound waves that counteract ambient sounds from the outside world. These added frequencies can alter the accuracy of your mix. Use noise-canceling headphones for listening to podcasts and music in your spare time, but use a simpler model for recording and editing.
- Don't underestimate the value of comfort. “When you’re doing a lot of editing, fatigue is a real thing that happens, and there are wild disparities in comfort among different headphone models,” Dave says. “If possible, wear the headphones for a sustained period of time before buying".
Difference between wired and wireless headphones
Among many other options for choosing a pair of headphones, you must also decide if you want wired headphones or wireless headphones. Here’s what Dave says are the key differences between the two options.
- Wireless headphones typically transmit sound using Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a wireless radio standard that lets one device transmit an audio signal to a nearby device, among other things. “Bluetooth sound has drastically improved in recent years, but it still involves a good deal of compression,” Dave says. That means it will cut off certain audio frequencies to create smaller digital packets of information — and that means lower quality sound.
- Wired headphones can have built-in cables or detachable cables. “Detachable cables are kind of nice because if you accidentally step on your headphone cable, it’ll just pop out,” Dave says. “You don’t worry about possibly breaking your whole headset. Plus if your cable goes bad, you can replace it without replacing the entire set of headphones.” Nearly all high-end headphones use detachable cables, but some very solid studio headphones still used attached cables.
- Wired headphones can come with straight cables or coiled cables. A straight cable is thin, lightweight, and easy to wrap up. It also breaks a bit too easily, so you have to be careful with cables like these. A coiled cable tends to be much heavier and much more resistant to wear and tear. That’s because coiled cables keep too much stress from landing on one single segment of the wire. Many of Dave’s favorite headphone models use coiled cables.
The 8 best headphones for podcasters
If at all possible, test out a number of different headphone models and see which ones feel the most comfortable and provide good sound reproduction. Then, make your big choice. “Pick one and stick with it, because you learn what your baseline sound will be,” Dave says. If you keep changing headphones, you can mistake audio differences in the headphones for differences in your mix.
Here are eight headphone models Dave recommends.
- Sony MDR-7506. These closed-back headphones with an attached wired connection are extremely popular. “They’re an industry standard for a reason,” Dave says. “I’m on probably my 10th or 15th pair of them in the past 25 years. I just know exactly what I’m getting when I use them for mixing. They’re like a hundred bucks, and they sound better than headphones costing many hundreds.”
- Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO. “Beyerdynamic has a lot of fans in the podcasting industry, and the 770’s are really fairly priced,” Dave says. Like the Sony MDR-7506, the Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO has a built-in wired connection, but it turns into a coiled cable, which makes it less likely to snap. And like the Sonys, these are closed-back headphones. But the Beyerdynamics have higher sound impedance, which means it takes a strong audio signal to bring out their full frequency range. You’ll probably need a headphone amp to boost the audio signal coming to them.
- Superlux HD 681. If you’re on a really tight budget, you can sometimes find these Superlux headphones for less than $50. As such, a lot of first-time podcasters like the HD 681s because they don’t require a massive start-up investment. These are semi-open-back headphones, which means a little bit of sound may bleed out into your surroundings. “Don’t use open-back headphones for recording — you don’t want that audio bleed,” Dave says, “But for mixing? By all means.”
- Audio Technica ATH-M30x. “Audio Technica is another very reliable brand that does just about everything right,” Dave says. This set of wired cans is sold at a similar price point to the Superlux HD 681. This unit has a fully closed back, which makes it a better choice for recording. Audio Technica’s reputation for quality means you can buy these with confidence.
- Sennheiser HD 650. On the other end of the budget spectrum is the Sennheiser HD 650. These are planar magnetic headphones — that is, they create sound using a magnetic field — and they have an open-back design. They retail for $500 but frequently go on sale. The sound is fantastic (“Sennheiser is a legendary brand within the audio industry,” Dave says), but the open-back design means these should only be used for editing and mixing, not initial recording. But you’ll probably do more than just that. “If you end up getting the Sennheisers, you’ll end up listening to just about everything on them,” Dave says. Like the Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO, the Sennheiser HD 650 will sound much better if driven by a headphone amp.
- Sony WH-1000XM4. The Sony WH-1000XM4 is a wireless Bluetooth headphone with industry-leading noise-canceling technology. While noise cancellation is going to add new frequencies to your audio palette, it’s also a great tool for blocking out ambient sounds as you listen to playback. (But, crucially, this doesn’t mean you’ve removed ambient sounds from the recording.) The WH-1000XM4 works either wirelessly via Bluetooth or wired. You can also turn off the noise canceling function to get a more neutral sound. What’s more, they’re closed-back headphones, so you can use them near a live microphone and not have any headphone sounds bleed into your recording. On the downside, they’re a bit pricey (usually in the range of $300) and can be a bit hot and uncomfortable if used for a several-hour session. Note that the detachable cable is a bit short; if you’ll be using them in wired mode, you may want to buy a longer cable.
- Apple AirPod Pros. “I don’t know if I’d recommend these for mixing,” Dave says, “but the noise canceling is good.” If you’re a podcaster on the go, recording most of your audio directly to your iPhone, the AirPod Pros may be right for you. If you’re recording in a studio, opt for a more substantive set of headphones with a wired connection.
- Panasonic RP-HJE125-K. The simplest and cheapest option on this list is a basic set of earbuds: the Panasonic RP-HJE125-K. “Earbuds are great for noise isolation, and they can provide a pretty strong sound without requiring much amplification,” Dave says. Another plus: a lot of your podcast audience will be listening on similar budget earbuds, so they’re a good way to reproduce that experience. This Panasonic model is ultra-cheap (expect to pay $10-15 for a pair), and while they aren’t the sturdiest option out there, replacing them won’t put too much of a dent in your wallet. To be safe, you may want to buy two at a time so you always have a backup pair.