Given the choice, I would prefer to listen on speakers rather than headphones. And while a mix should be checked on headphones, I don’t think mixing primarily on them is a good idea. My biases against them aside, there are times when headphones are useful, even essential. I bought a pair recently and thought my findings were worth sharing.
The Standard Bearer
The Sony MDR-7506 headphones are popular for audio production in Southern California. They are considered relatively flat and trustworthy for the price. I have found them to be a bit bright and a little weird on the low end. Then again, headphones generally sound harsh on top and strange on the bottom — the Sony’s seem better than most. One of the biggest problems I’ve had with them is poor isolation; outside noises are not very well blocked. In noisy environments I have to turn the headphones up louder to hear the signal, which fatigues me quicker and makes them seem more harsh.
In 2010 I watched a gear review by Ronan Chris Murphy where he had nice things to say about the Shure SRH 840 headphones (review starts at 1:51). Certainly the brand is known for durability and Ronan specifically mentioned how well they block noise, so I put them on my list. I couldn’t find an audio dealer that would let me demo headphones. I understand hygiene is a factor, but I wasn’t asking to wear them for hours and sweat in them, just listen for a few minutes. No one would let my try them. So while I wouldn’t buy a pair of speakers without listening to them first, that’s exactly what I did with the 840s. I just had to hope Ronan didn’t steer me wrong.
I was considering buying a second set of earpads to extend the life of the headphones, so I was pleasantly surprised that Shure included a replacement set in the box. Another bonus: the cable separates from the headphones. I’m not sure the 840 cable will last any longer than the 7506 integral cable, but at least this one will be simpler to replace if/when it does fail.
Head To Head Phones
It turns out I do prefer the 840s, primarily because they provide superior isolation. The trade off — to block outside noise closed headphones like the 840s also trap some sound inside. It’s like listening inside a sea shell, only less dramatic. All closed back headphones seem to have noticeable interior reflection and the 840s are no exception. These do a decent job of minimizing it, but by comparison the 7506s do not exhibit this problem. Interestingly the top end seemed similar. I trust the Sony headphones more after this experience. The bass seems to extend a bit lower with the Shure headphones, but not dramatically.
The list price for Sony 7506 headphones is about $70 lower than Shure. To be fair, these two models probably shouldn’t be considered same class. For example Sony offers the 7510 for a list of $150 and the 7520 for $500, both of which look like they would block out noise better than the 7506. It seems more likely that the Shure SRH 440 and Sony MDR-7506 would be an equitable face off. (My friend Jon Tidey, @theaudiogeek, noted about the SRH 440: “The plastic clicks and creaks and has been a problem for vocal tracking more than once.”)
Fair comparison or not, what I like about the 7506 is a realistic frequency response at a good price. The 840 sounds as good (or slightly better) with greater isolation, which has been useful to me. However I’m not convinced that the 840 seems $70 better. I really wish I’d had the opportunity to try the 7510 and similarly priced headphones by Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic.
If you’re in the market for a new set of headphones I hope this review will help. If you can assist others with your experience using headphones, please leave a comment. For more see my Pinterest board, a collection of quality Headphones, including price. See also Headphone Mecca, a site that recommends models by 3 categories in 6 different price ranges.
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