written by
Austin Summers

Is it possible to finish a mix with headphones?

Tips 7 min read

I think many people have wondered if it’s possible to finish a mix with headphones and get the same sort of quality result as using high-end speakers.

I think, yes, and no, for various reasons.

There are a few important factors that need to be taken into account when comparing headphones to speakers, for example,

  • Unnaturally altered stereo image
  • The absence of crossfeed between your left and right ears
  • The lack of perceived bass we’re so used to feeling with speakers
  • Quality of headphone amplifier
  • Quicker time to “burn out your fresh ears,” aka(Listening Fatigue)
  • Difficulty hearing the bass unless you turn the headphones up

All of the above things can make the process a little bit more nuanced than most salesman would like to have you believe.

In today’s article, I’m going to explain some of the things I mentioned above and chat about some different and innovative ways/options you have at your disposal, how to maximize your approach, and when not to use such methods.

Unnaturally altered stereo image:

Because the headphones are on your ears, you either have a sound hitting your ear from the left, or right. The reason for the difficulty here is due to what is called a 'head-related transfer function', or HRTF. In particular, the attenuation of higher frequency sounds at one ear vs. the other ear and also the delay in arrival time between them. With headphones directing those higher frequencies right down your ear canal(likewise, both left and right signals are heard simultaneously at their respective ear), it causes a difference in comparison to when you’re listening on speakers.

A prime example of something not translating well onto headphones is is a famous song called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It sounds like sounds, including vocals, are either in one ear or the other. This is a good example of a mix not translating well outside a speaker system. The main idea is you’d want to have two systems available, a headphone system as well as a speaker system to test things on, never just one.

The absence of crossfeed between your left and right ears:

Cross-feed defines how sound, coming from the left and right speakers, converges and makes the stereo output narrower.

Without crossfeed, it’s easy to end up with a mix that sounds fairly unnatural, because you’re not mixing with a system that shows you how it’s going to sound on a system with two speakers that have sound waves intercepting one another.

The lack of perceived bass we’re so used to feeling with speakers:

When you’re listening with speakers, you tend to have a feeling of bass that hits you from the content you’d listening to. This is partially because of the room, and partially because the subwoofers of your speakers are simply, bigger.

Quality of headphone amplifier:

When mixing with headphones, you do have to also take into account the quality of the headphone amp. Comparing, say, a Rupert Neve Designs headphone amp to a MacBook headphone jack is quite a different kettle of fish. The MacBook headphone jack simply lacks the power to accommodate certain high-end mixing headphones correctly, and as a result, it becomes a lot harder to hear the details you’re after in a precise way. So you need a good quality headphone amp if you’re trying to really optimize the process.

Quicker time to “burn out your fresh ears” aka(Listening Fatigue)

Listening fatigue is deceptively easy to achieve because when you’re listening on headphones, your perceived loudness is actually not in line with how loud the sound is actually playing. It’s so easy to be listening to your headphones too loudly, and in turn, quickly diminishing your ability to make accurate decisions on the headphones, much quicker than you’d reach that place on speakers. So you have to ensure you’re taking much more frequent listening breaks and predominantly listening to much softer volumes than you’d expect.

The biggest problem is that your bass response is very low when your headphone volume is low, making it difficult to judge your bass accurately. The result is turning it up, and in turn, creating listening fatigue. It’s a horrible cycle to go through.

Effective methods:

There are some pros about mixing in headphones as well if you can’t afford a great-sounding room or good studio monitors.

The fact that headphones completely take out your room’s bad acoustics is a big deal when it comes to ensuring you have a good balance of things.

  1. Mixing in mono-on headphones can go a long way in reducing the problem of crosstalk and confusion. Of course, at some point, you need to take your mix out of mono and work on your stereo placement, but at the very least, you’re going to get a solid foundation with your balance, what’s clashing with each other, and ultimately better translation into the outside world.
  2. Never panning things completely left or right can go a long way in helping you not mess up your panning for when people listen on earphones, etc.
  3. Mix at extremely low volumes and occasionally turn it up for no longer than a minute or two to get a sense of how things sound.
  4. Car check your work every, single, time. If you need to take your laptop to the car, connect it to your system via Bluetooth/aux cable, do it. It’s going to give you a really good idea of how far off your headphone mix is from sounding good in the real world. Have three different reference tracks ready for your car test listening session.

You’re likely already pretty ear fatigued by that point, so make sure you don’t listen to the car system for too long. Instead, have a few pass-throughs, and have your notepad ready, and make some very specific notes on the 2nd and 3rd passthrough. This way, you’re maximizing the amount of time you’re going to stay accurate while checking in the car.

  1. Pan Knob by Boz Digital labs ensures you have a more natural-sounding panning system you can use when mixing on headphones. I use this often, and it’s seriously great for getting that little bit extra naturalness when having to mix on headphones or even speakers.
  2. Invest in a good set of headphones and a quality headphone amplifier. You can’t mix what you can’t hear. If you can’t afford a good set of headphones, Sonarworks headphone correction tends to sometimes help in getting your headphones to be a little bit flatter in their frequency response. It’s not going to magically make your headphones sound like a million dollars, and often, it’s not always going to be the best approach, but it sometimes works fairly decently. Use at your own discretion.

Additional Options:

  • Slate VSX

This is one of the most complete systems on the market that emulate you being in an actual room with speakers, including trying to solve the issue of crosstalk. It actually does it remarkably well, and I’ve got a pair myself which I often use.

This product supplies the hardware with it, so it becomes easier for them to ensure the emulations are as accurate as possible and gives them a great starting point to go off. It’s actually possible for me to hear some good bass frequencies on the VSX, so that’s a viable solution.

  • Subpac:

I’ve heard some good things about SubPac, and some people swear by it. It helps them feel the bass, although I wonder how effective it is on actually giving you a way to judge your sub frequencies accurately. I’d err on the side of thinking it’s a bit more effective than not having it, so it might be something to consider if you’re planning to mix solely on headphones. There’s also the car test which could provide a similar thing, but for cheaper(if you already have a car)

  • Other systems such as waves CLA nx plugin etc. + Acoustica Sienna

It seems like they did an excellent job with these emulations, but still, failing to provide the hardware as a bassline for them to build on puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to the accuracy they can deliver, which is why the Vsx tends to push out ahead. Again, I’m not saying they’re wrong, but most people I know who’ve tried the other systems tend to be a bit disappointed.

Hopefully, this helped you shed a bit of light on possible ways to move forward if this is the only option available to you and what you need to look out for when it comes to mixing with headphones!

Thanks for reading! Until next time.

headphones mixing