Mixing with Headphones: The Complete Beginner's Guide

Mixing with Headphones: The Complete Beginner's Guide Mixing with Headphones: The Complete Beginner's Guide

Curious about whether or not you can actually produce and mix with headphones?

Well, let me start by telling you, it's absolutely more than possible to churn out radio-ready mixes right from the cozy confines of your headphones. All it takes is mastering a few simple techniques, and you're well on your way to producing and mixing quality tracks without the need to spend thousands on a fancy studio setup.

From understanding the quirks of headphones to learning how to compensate for their limitations, this guide will cover all you need to know about mixing with cans!

Pros of Mixing on Headphones

When you start mixing with headphones, it doesn't take long to discover the heap of advantages they offer. Here are five solid pros to get you pumped about mixing on headphones:


One of the most liberating aspects of mixing with headphones is the sheer mobility it offers.

You don't have to be tethered to your studio space with your hefty set of monitors to make music. With a reliable pair of headphones, your mixing studio is as vast as your backpack allows. I travel pretty often, so being able to work when I catch inspiration on a long-haul flight or in a hotel room is great.

Headphones basically make sure your studio is wherever you are, perfect for those who fit the modern, on-the-go lifestyle.


Every room you mix in will have its own sonic signature, which can drastically affect how you perceive your mixes.

However, when you're working with headphones, you're essentially taking the room out of the equation. This means you're getting a consistent reference no matter where you are — be it your bedroom, a library, or your local coffee shop. Familiarity with how your headphones translate sound can significantly boost your confidence in making mix decisions, as you're always hearing the mix through a medium you trust.

Detail Clarity

Headphones have a unique way of bringing the minutiae of your mix into the spotlight. You can hear every breath, finger slide, and subtle effect with total transparency.

The beauty of this level of detail is that it's invaluable when cleaning up tracks, balancing levels, and applying EQ and compression. You basically have a magnifying glass for your ears, allowing you to scrutinize and perfect elements of your mix that might otherwise go unnoticed on speakers.

Just note that you should remember to periodically check your mix on other systems in this regard, as this hyper-detailed perspective can sometimes lead to over-tweaking (I've been there way too many times).


Building a proper studio setup with high-quality monitors and acoustic treatment can quickly become a financial burden, especially if you're a beginner or on a tight budget. This is where headphones come into play.

A good pair of professional studio headphones can offer a flat, accurate response for critical listening and mixing, all without the need for soundproofing or worrying about room acoustics. This makes headphones an incredibly accessible entry point for aspiring mix engineers looking to hone their craft without a hefty upfront investment.

Late-Night Sessions

Inspiration doesn't clock out at 5 p.m., and if you're like me, sometimes your most creative moments happen when the rest of the world is asleep. Mixing with headphones not only allows you to work through the night without a noise complaint but also creates a personal, intimate space for you to connect with your music.

This can be particularly beneficial for exploring emotional depth and nuance in your mixes, as the close listening environment helps you to feel more connected to the material. Just be mindful of ear fatigue and take regular breaks.

Cons of Mixing on Headphones

While mixing with headphones offers a wealth of benefits, it's not without its challenges. Transitioning from the bright side, let's navigate the pitfalls you might encounter to keep your mixes balanced and true.

Stereo Imaging and Spatial Representation

When you mix on headphones, the stereo field can feel wider and more distinct than it actually is.

This is because the left and right channels are isolated to each ear, without any natural crossfeed that occurs with speakers. This separation can lead to mixes that sound great on headphones but fall flat or feel disjointed on speakers.

To mitigate this, you might consider using a crossfeed plugin like Goodhertz CanOpener that simulates the speaker experience by allowing some bleed between left and right channels, or periodically check your mix on speakers to ensure your stereo imaging translates well across different listening environments.

Ear Fatigue

Extended headphone use at high volumes can lead to ear fatigue, which can make it difficult to make accurate mix decisions.

The fatigue is more prominent, thanks to the direct delivery of sound into your ears, with no room for it to breathe.

This is why I always recommend taking regular breaks during long mixing sessions to give your ears a rest, and keep the volume at a moderate level. Additionally, mixing at lower volumes can help preserve your hearing for longer sessions.

Low-End Deception

Many pairs of headphones, especially those not specifically designed for mixing, can sometimes struggle to accurately reproduce bass frequencies.

As a result, you might end up with mixes that either lack punch or are too bass-heavy when played on other systems. One decent solution is to reference your mixes on a set of studio monitors or a trusted subwoofer setup to verify the low-end balance.

I'd also recommend using high-quality, open-back headphones, as they can provide a more accurate bass response.

Isolation from the Environment

When you mix with headphones, you create a bubble that cuts you off from the natural acoustics and reverberation of a room.

In the end, this can lead to mixes that lack a sense of space or 'liveness.' I recommend referencing your mixes in different environments and on various sound systems to get a sense of how they breathe in open spaces.

You can also employ reverb and spatial plugins judiciously to help recreate the depth and dimension missing from your typical headphone mix.

Over-Reliance on Headphone Sound

Getting too comfortable with how your mix sounds on your go-to headphones can create a blind spot for how it might sound elsewhere. This can be particularly problematic when aiming for a mix that translates across a wide range of playback systems.

The key here is to develop a habit of referencing your mixes on as many different systems as possible – from car speakers to consumer headphones and everything in between. I'd also consider sharing your mixes with friends or fellow producers for feedback, as fresh ears can often catch things you might have missed.

Top Tips Producing and Mixing on Headphones

Producing and mixing on headphones can be both a necessity and a choice for you as a producer, especially if you're working in home studios or on the go. While headphones offer a unique listening experience and portability, mixing solely on them comes with its own unique challenges.

Here are a few essential tips to ensure your mixes translate well across various listening environments if you decide to go the headphone mixing route.

Choose the Right Headphones

Your first step is choosing the right pair of headphones to make sure your music production and mixing processes are as accurate as possible. The type of headphones you select can greatly influence your perception of the mix, and affect decisions like EQ and stereo imaging.

The two main types are closed-back vs. open-back headphones .

Closed-back headphones are meant to isolate you from the environment around you, preventing sound from entering or escaping the ear cups. This design is ideal for recording, as it minimizes bleed into microphones. However, they can sometimes result in a more "boxed in" sound stage, potentially skewing your mix's perceived spatial effects.

Open-back headphones , on the other hand, allow air and sound to pass freely through the ear cups, creating a more natural and open sound stage. In my experience, this design is better for mixing and mastering, as it provides a more accurate representation of how sound interacts in a real environment.

The downside is that they offer little to no isolation, which can be problematic when you're working in noisy environments.

It's also important to go with studio-quality headphones over consumer-grade headphones.

Studio-quality headphones are engineered with the goal of providing as flat a frequency response as possible, meaning they strive not to color the sound in any way. This neutrality makes it easier to make informed decisions based on accurate sound reproduction.

Consumer-grade headphones often have boosted bass or treble frequencies to make music sound more exciting, which isn't ideal for critical listening.

In terms of studio-quality headphones, there are three options I highly recommend checking out:

There are three highly recommended options that cater to a variety of needs and budgets:

  • Sennheiser HD 650 (Open-Back) : These are some of my absolute favorite headphones, as they have a transparent sound and wide soundstage. They're pretty much my go-to for mixing and critical listening.
  • Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (Closed-Back) : If you're looking for a pair of closed-back cans, these are some of the most balanced and versatile around.
  • Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro (Open-Back) : I just recently got a pair of these, so I'm not 100% used to them yet, though what I can say is they're incredible detailed and spacious sounding. I've noticed that I can mix with them for hours without feeling fatigued.

You might also consider getting a good headphone amp to increase the output, depending on the model you get!

Know the Frequency Response of Your Headphones

Next on the list is knowing the frequency response of your headphones, meaning range of frequencies, from the lowest bass to the highest treble, that headphones can reproduce and how uniformly they do so across that spectrum.

Ideally, your studio headphones have a flat or neutral frequency response, meaning they don't color the sound by boosting or cutting certain frequencies. Of course, every model has its unique, and some will have more or less midrange, highs, or lows than others, but by familiarizing yourself with these quirks, you can compensate for them during the mixing process.

For instance, if your headphones boost the bass, you might avoid adding too much low end to your mix, knowing it might sound bass-heavy on other playback systems.

Keep an Eye On Your Levels

Keeping an eye on your levels and mixing at the right volume are also crucial things to watch out for.

If you're mixing at volumes that are too loud, it can lead to ear fatigue and skew your perception of the mix. In the worst case, it can potentially causing long-term hearing damage.

On the flip side, mixing at too low volumes might cause you to miss out on important details, particularly in the low-end and high-end frequencies. This is why I recommend finding a comfortable Sound Pressure Level (SPL) to mix at when you're using headphones (typically around 75 to 85 dB SPL range).

This range is generally considered safe for extended listening sessions and is effective for critical listening, allowing you to accurately judge levels, EQ adjustments, and dynamic range without the risk of hearing fatigue or damage.

Use Crossfeed Plugins

Crossfeed plugins — they're made to mimic the natural way our ears perceive sound in a room, addressing one of the main challenges of mixing on headphones: the exaggerated stereo separation.

Unlike speakers, which allow sounds from the left and right channels to blend naturally before reaching the ears, headphones feed each ear exclusively, potentially skewing the stereo image and making it difficult to judge panning and balance accurately.

Crossfeed plugins are made to simulate the slight delay and frequency response changes that occur when sound from one channel reaches the opposite ear, creating a more speaker-like listening experience.

Some mix engineers say these are "snake oil," though in my experience, they're great for significantly improving the realism of headphone monitoring.

Goodhertz CanOpener Studio and ToneBoosters Morphit are two of my favorites.

Mix with References

I always mix with references, whether I'm using headphones or not. By comparing your work to well-produced tracks in similar genres, you can gauge how well your mix translates across different systems and identify areas that need adjustment.

A good reference can act as a benchmark for how your mix should sound, so you can make smarter decisions about EQ, compression, and stereo imaging. This can also be helpful when you've become so accustomed to listening to your mix in headphones that you lose perspective.

One tool that I find particularly helpful for this purpose is Mastering the Mix’s Reference 2 plugin.

It allows you to directly compare your mix to any reference track using intuitive visual and auditory feedback. It also highlights differences in frequency balance, stereo width, and perceived loudness, so can you to pinpoint exactly where your mix diverges from your chosen reference.

Take Regular Breaks

Taking regular breaks when mixing with headphones is something I can't recommend strongly enough.

It's the only way to prevent fatigue and save your hearing from damage down the road. This is even true if you think you're working at low listening levels.

Prolonged exposure to sound that close to your ears can shift your perspective. Your ability to discern frequencies can also be reduced, which means you'll most likely make mixing decisions that don't reflect the true balance of your track.

With a good ten-minute break, you can return to the mix with fresh ears and possibly catch details or imbalances you might have missed earlier.

Be Careful with Stereo Width

As I mentioned earlier, headphones have a tendency to exaggerate the stereo field, providing a distinct left and right separation with no natural crossfeed between ears, unlike studio monitors.

As a result, headphones can make your mix sound wider and more spacious on headphones than it actually is. When you eventually bring it into the car or onto another stereo system, it might then feel narrow or lack impact you thought it had.

To counteract this, it's important to periodically check your mix on different systems, which brings me to my next point.

Check Your Mix On Multiple Sources

Many top mixing engineers will check their mixes on multiple sources to make sure it translates well. Headphones, while great, can sometimes be misleading. When you have constant isolation, it can be difficult to gauge the type of balance, clarity, or impact you actually need to make your mix sound good on other playback systems like car stereos, club sound systems, or smartphones.

For this reason, I recommend testing your mix on different systems before you finalize it. Doing so may actually reveal issues that you didn't notice on your headphones alone. You don't have to have a fancy monitoring system to do this either. In fact, I know plenty of mixing engineers that test their mixes on cheaper, consumer-level speakers, such as Auratones.

Finding Harmony With Your Headphones

With a pair of good headphones, the sky is the limit. The beauty of headphone mixing is that you don't need to invest in expensive acoustic treatment or studio monitors right off the bat. Of course, make sure you have a pair of high-quality headphones that can provide a relatively neutral frequency response, as most headphones in the consumer market won't have the kind of sound quality you need to create headphone mixes that shine.

In the future, I'd also recommend investing in a well-treated room and some decent studio monitors, as relying solely on headphone playback throughout your career can get daunting. However, for now, with the right tips in hand, you should be well-prepared for successful mixing with headphones.

Bring your songs to life with professional quality mastering, in seconds!