What should a musician look for when buying a pair of headphones? Is there any “standard equipment” I should be aware of that practically everyone uses? Are headphones a general purpose tool, or do you use different sets for different situations?
You definitely want different sets for different situations.
For playing live, you first want something with very good isolation. Then, depending on how and why you use them, you want to think about things like how easy and fast is to put them on/off, how easy is to move around with them, and their frequency response.
You might not want them to be as accurate as possible, you might want a curve in certain wanted/unwanted frequency ranges (which can be done by eqing, but if it's a specific curve you'll constantly want, having it as the default tone of the headphones is very useful, more so if you don't have a sound engineer).
For recording (and pre and post production in general) in a professional studio you want them to be as accurate as possible. You want the best frequency response you can afford. Unless you are playing a live session or at the same time as other instruments, isolation is not important.
For home/practicing/home studio isolation might become a priority. Street, neighbors, kitchen, there can be a lot of distracting noise around you.
Different sets are helpful for different situations. But given that they are expensive and so are instruments, musicians might opt for a single pair that cover a lot of ground. Here are few guidelines:
- You probably want over-ear headphones rather than earbuds.
- Consumer brands like Bose and Beats are probably not want you want. They tend to be voiced to impress rather than for accuracy.
- Closed-back headphones will stop sound from getting out. So if you want to be quiet at night or use them in public, you definitely want closed. They can also help keep sound from getting in which is helpful during the tracking stage of recording so you hear more of what's actually being recorded rather than a mix of the ambient sound in the room.
- Open-back headphones will tend to sound a bit better and be a bit more accurate. But they will leak a lot of sound ... by design. These are more useful when mixing or for audiophile listening.
- There are also semi open designs that, as you can probably guess, fit right in the middle. A useful generalization is that with a more "open" design you'll get a better and more accurate sound but more bleed. And the more closed and tight on your ears a design gets, you'll get more attenuation but worse sound. That's not to say they sound bad; a good closed pair can still sound great.
- Consider durability and replacement parts. They'll get beat up and break and the pads will wear out. And once you find a pair you like and get used to the sound it's nice to stick with them for consistency.
- Consider comfort if you get a chance to try before you buy. If you're torn between two similarly priced sets go with the ones that are more comfortable on your head. You'll adjust to the sound but cans that don't fit well will still bother you years from now.
For quiet practicing, home recording, and general listening I'd probably aim for a set of comfortable, over-ear, closed-back headphones in the range of $100 or so. Those should be versatile enough to use for anything. Then if you find the need for better sound set you can always get an open-back pair later.
An industry standard for many years now is the Beyer set that you see on tv. frequently. Not sure if brand recommendation is allowed ! But - your or another person's particular needs will be factors in choice. Sound bleeding out. Isolation from external sound. Noise cancelling. Good bass/treble response.Comfort. On- ear/in-ear/over ear.Adjustable volume/balance.Max. vol. capability.All factors that make it a rather subjective choice, often obviously solved by Beyer...
If you're doing multitrack recording, it's obviously a good idea if the tracks you're monitoring (let alone the click track) doesn't leak into the microphone. So a closed-back type is best. For listening to music, an open design may sound nicer. And they need to be comfortable! Don't discount in-ear types, they can sound remarkably good. When comparision shopping, try this. Get used to a set of headphones, then press the cups just slightly closer to your ears. You may well experience a change in sound greater than by changing to a different set! It's sort of the same as the well known fact that room characteristics and speaker positioning matter just as much as WHICH speakers you buy! It may be that you don't need a set of headphones that cost twice as much, just some that fit you better. You know to avoid, Bose, 'Beats by Dre' etc. of course?