The Best Headphones for Film Editors
- How to pick the best headphones for film editing
- What matters most to a film editor using headphones
- Headphone reviews, suggestions and my personal choice
UPDATED August 2016
As a film editor I spend many hours working in client offices, on-set and other random places with a need for some high quality, reliable and comfortable headphones. In this post I’ve put together a guide to help you choose the best set of headphones for film editing.
We’ll start with a quick run down of the specific needs of a film editor, a few technical details you need to understand and then a selection of headphone options and recommendations from myself and other editors I polled in researching this post. The suggested headphone model’s are grouped by brand and do not appear in any particular order. If you want to dive right in, jump to:
If you want to know what I went for in the end – well it was a toss up between the Sennheiser HD380 Pros and the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pros. I chose the Beyerdynamic DT770’s and have been exceptionally happy with them, in fact I still use them to this day!
How to choose the right headphones
For comfort, you will definitely want circumaural headphones – which basically means the pads sit around the earlobe, rather than pressing down on them. This should help prevent your ears from hurting after many hours of use and reduce how hot they may feel too.
For quality, and suitability of our particular use, you want Monitoring headphones, or Reference Monitors – which is self explanatory really… they are designed for monitoring, so won’t colour the sound too much. This means they will provide a more accurate representation of your mix.
Some headphones that are more designed for music – such as the popular Beats headphones, artificially increase adjust the sound to increase the bass and other things. If you’re using these kinds of headphones then you’ll think there is more bass in your mix than there really is.
You’ll also want to avoid noise cancelling headphones too as they will be adjusting the sound to filter out background sounds. In the future I might update this post to include ear-bud headphones, as I know a lot of editors like using them for their portability, but they won’t deliver as balanced a sound as reference headphones.
One last thing you might want to look for specifically is the ability to replace the headphone cable, as this tends to be one of the most likely things to break or get damaged over many years of active service. I’ve included links to replacement cables where applicable.
Understanding the technical details of headphones
There are a few key terms that you need to understand to make sure your buying the right kind of headphones for film editing. One of my most technically minded post-production friends (thanks Gareth!) sent me this helpful explanation of the difference between open and closed back headphones and ohms.
Understanding Open & Closed Back Headphones
With closed back headphones you need a trade off. Fully closed will isolate more sound (for the listener and away from any bystanders) because of less ambient interference. But as sound is about air pressure, with a speaker moving the air in front of it to create sound, by default the air behind it will move as well. If that air can’t move as freely (being fully closed creates build ups of pressure), it will affect the movement of the speaker and therefore affect the fidelity of the reproduction. Whether it’s notable by the listener is another question.
I’ve never personally tried closed and open back headphones side by-side. A lot of top-end headphones tend to be semi-open to balance the issue of isolation v fidelity. I think the 770Pros have a small slit in the casing so the sound can breathe, despite being considered closed backs.
I suppose another crude summary – for personal use in public, on the tube, etc – fully closed; for use in a well insulated sound/editing suite – open/semi open.
If you remember physics lessons back at school, electrical resistance (measured in ohms) is related to wire width. The thicker the wire the less resistance (as there is ‘more space’ in the wire for the current to flow through – think of it like water in a pipe, the narrow, the harder to get through).
Therefore speakers / headphones made with thicker wire need less power to drive and can therefore go louder, but that thicker wire (which is coiled around and around at the back of the speaker cone) is therefore heavier and means the speaker cone moves less freely, thus affecting it’s reproduction of the sound.
Conversely speakers / headphones made with thinner wire will move easier, but will need more power. Crudely speaking, lower impedance (less than 100 ohms), needs less power to drive, therefore can get louder; higher impedance (250 ohms), better sound but more power needed. Real world examples would be, less than 100 ohms – iPods, laptops, field recording; 250 ohms – hi-fi installations, studio monitoring.
And the end of the day in an ideal environment, 250 ohm headphones will sound better and more natural. If power is an issue and you don’t have a headphone amp, you could consider something like one of these:
FiiO Portable Headphone DAC Amplifier
Plus it will most likely offer better quality than the built in headphone out of most laptops and due to it using USB. Check out this short review of several Fiio Headphone Amps.
2015 UPDATE: Sennheiser very kindly sent me several sets of headphones to test for the 2015 update to this post.
The latest headphones from Sennheiser that are suitable for film editors include their DJ Mix series with the HD6/7/8 Mix headphones. The HD6 Mixes are the only ones in the series that don’t have any kind of bass boost in them and so I wouldn’t recommend the HD7 or HD8 Mix headphones for accurate post production work as a result.
Sennheiser HD6 Mix: These headphones are seriously impressive. Nicely packaged in a ‘presentation case’ style box they feel like a premium set of headphones before you’ve even put them on.
When you do put them on they feel extremely comfortable and cut out a huge amount of background noise which helps you to feel totally ‘in’ your mix, free from distractions. They also have a greater frequency range than the HD380 Pros with a top end of 30,000Hz rather then 27000. The HD 6 Mix’s also have a higher ohm count at 150 ohms compared to the HD380 Pro’s 54 ohms. (See above for what this means!)
The HD6 Mix headphones come with 2 detachable cables – one coiled and the other straight, as well as an additional set of velour ear pads, should you wish to swap them out for the ones they arrive with. They are also packaged in a really nice carry-case, but because they don’t fold flat like the HD380 Pros, it is a little bit on the bulky side for day-to-day transport.
One of the other nice things about the HD6 Mix headphones is that you can detach the 3.5mm jack cable and connect it via either earpiece. This is handy for times when you want to plug into a port on the left side of your head (e.g. a Macbook Pro) so that you don’t have to have the cable crossing over your body/desk.
More expensive than the other Sennheiser headphones listed here, you won’t be disappointed by the sound quality and comfort of these incredible headphones.
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: These are their cheaper pro monitoring headphones, and considering that, and the brand, this seems like a really good value price.
Sennheiser HD 380 Pro: For not much more, these are their top end ones – better audio range, build quality and a replaceable cable – Take these over the cheaper ones.
2015 Update: The HD380 Pro Headphones were one of the pairs Sennheiser sent me for testing. After several extensive 8 hour editing days, I can say that they offer excellent sound quality with great clarity in both the high and low end, and, if you get them set up and positioned correctly on your head (I found I had to have the band a bit further back than normal for maximum comfort) they will carry you through the day without a hitch.
One of my favourite things about them is that they a) come with a travel case and b) fold flat into the travel case which really helps when you’re fitting them into your editing bag with the rest of your gear. These were originally in the final running for my selection for good reason, a great buy for any editor who travels frequently.
One of the slight niggles with the HD380 Pro’s is the heavier coiled cable, which you can see in the image above. Some users like to replace it with a lighter weight cable like this one.
Sennheiser HD-25: Light and comfy. Popular with DJ’s and Video/Film Sound guys due to the ability to swing one ear away. These are not circumaural and so will sit on top of your ears. If you’re in a noisy environment this might help block out even more background sound, but for comfort reasons you’re best going for a different set.
2015 Update – Sennheiser also sent me the HD26 Pro headphones. These are not circumaural headphones, which means that they sit on your ears, rather than around them. This might well be a benefit in broadcast production, for which their closed design is intended – and helps to keep out surrounding noise, but after several hours of use whilst editing I found them to be quite hot and uncomfortable. Although they are light weight and provide excellent sound quality I would highly recommend choosing a pair of circumaural headphones instead to provide constant comfort during long editing sessions.
AKG K240: Another great make, my editor friend Alex has 2 sets of AKG headphones. These have a slightly smaller range of frequencies than the top end Sennheiser’s, but are slightly cheaper. Alex mentined that these are the most comfortable things he has ever worn. Again, there is a detachable/replaceable cable. Buy from Amazon.com/Amazon.co.uk
AKG K702: My editor friend Alex has these, except he has the non-pro model, which basically just means the cable isn’t removable, and they are a much prettier colour! Even though they are way more money, Alex suggested them because he loves them and thinks they are worth it. They need to be listened to for some time to break in the sound, but they are great and super comfortable!
Sony MDR-7506: These are the slightly better, much more comfortable version of the (cheaper) ones you see in loads of edit suits – from universities to post-houses, but basically they are otherwise the same. I think they are considered to be good for editors. This, of course implies that they aren’t great for sound mixing, but are close enough for general reference/mix. The difference between these and the ones you normally see in suites, is that these have proper big ears for comfort instead of those little round ones, and a better cable.
Sony MDR-7510: These are Sony’s much better equivalent in terms of getting a more accurate sound. Actually they seem to have the widest range of audio frequencies of the lot, so in the sound sense they are the ‘best’.
The DT770 Pro headphones come in three levels of impedance at 32 ohm, 80 ohm and 250 0hm. If you’re not planning on using a headphone amp, as mentioned above, go for the 80 ohm pair.
They are incredibly comfortable to wear especially for long edit sessions and do a great job of keeping my ears cooler than in other sets of headphones. They also deliver tremendous audio fidelity and have remained in great shape after being stuffed into my edit bag on untold occasions. You can also get replacement velour ear pads, which are part of the magic behind their extreme comfort!
The only catch compared to some of the other headphones is that they don’t have the ability to replace the headphone cable, but if you look after them you should be just fine.
These are without doubt, my favourite headphones for film editing.
Film Editors Headphones, My Choice
UPDATE – I went for the BeyerDynamic DT770 Pro’s in the end and they have been both extremely comfortable for long editing sessions and provided fantastic depth and clarity even in the midst of a busy office environment. I would highly recommend them!
2015 Update – Having now personally worn the Sennheiser HD380 Pro’s many times, I would happily recommend them as superb headphones, but I would say that I’ve personally found the BeyerDynamic DT770 Pro’s to be the most comfortable for really long editing sessions. But when I’m working at home, I’m falling in love with the Sennhesier HD6 Mix headphones…
An affordable alternative…
If you just need a pair of cheap and simple headphones to get you started then I’d recommend these Sony MDR-V150’s, which I found once in a Soho edit suite. Nice sound, pretty comfortable and reasonably priced at under £20/$30.
Professional Post Prodution Headphones In Use
Every now and then you can catch a glimpse of headphones being used in a professional post production context and it’s always interesting to see which headphones have been selected. In this still from Michael Bay’s behind the scenes of Transformers 4 you can see Peter Cullen (the voice of Optimus Prime) wearing the Audio Technica ATH-M40 Headphones.
In this screen grab from a behind the scenes featurette on the sound design for Pixar’s Brave, sound designer E.J. Holowicki is wearing some of the BeyerDynamic DT770 Pros.
Testing your Headphones – Things to Listen To
One of the things to do when you get your new headphones is to listen to a few of your favourite tracks, films, trailers etc to get a feel for how things used to sound, and how they sound now with your serious new headphones. One of the things you may find is how badly encoded some of the music you’ve been listening to is and that with decent headphones, the source quality really matters.
Personally I love to listen to film scores, and this recording by the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios from Alexandre Desplat’s score to Birth, is a great way to check out both the high and low end capabilities of your headphones. That or a properly mixed film trailer.