What Makes DJ Headphones Different?
Headphones are an increasingly popular accessory. It seems that everyone has a pair. Whether they’re earbuds or large cushioned cans, curly or straight cords, or even wireless, headphones are being used lots. Not all headphones are the same, though. Just ask a DJ. The right headphones are a critical choice. As a DJ, myself, for over 20 years, headphones are an essential part of your gear.
What makes DJ headphones different? DJ headphones are designed to withstand greater wear and tear, represent the music clear and loud, and offer comfort for the wearer. These headphones will regularly be put to a greater physical and technical test than the average consumer pair, with greater consequences if they fail. The DJ’s headphones serve as their monitor for the music the audience hasn’t heard yet. If the DJ is unable to cue and monitor their song selections, their performance will be compromised.
The style and brand of headphones a DJ chooses can be somewhat personal preference, although there are some features and functions which always seem to matter. Most DJ headphones are over the ear style, giving the best options for sound monitoring. Some newer models of high-quality in-ear monitors are also available. A reputation for durability can also sway a decision. There are also different styles of DJing, which can dictate your headphone choices, as well. Let’s explore some of these variables to give a clearer picture of a DJ’s headphone headspace.
Not All Headphones Are The Same.
When most DJs choose headphones, they rely on brand reputation and durability, audio clarity and volume, price point, and application. Known brands, as well as up and coming companies can find a market for their products if they position themselves properly. But, how do they sound and will they be dependable?
Looking good isn’t of much concern, of they don’t last. For instance, lots of DJs will mix with one headphone over one ear and the other side on their head or neck. This can cause a strain on the construction of the headphone band or the wiring connection to the actual cup or can. Additionally, the headphones are going to be regularly taken off, sometimes forcefully, dropped on the ground, kicked, picked up by the cord, and stuffed in a bag for the next gig.
Even the most careful DJ will have some mishaps if they’re gigging regularly. A lesser pair of headphones won’t make that next show, but they’re not telling you ahead of time.
In-Ear vs. Over the Ear
As mentioned above, a majority of DJs choose a pair of headphones that cover the ears. Being able to noise cancel with over the ear style allows DJs to preview, or even mix, in the headphones for a cleaner sound monitoring option. Keep in mind, DJs in the 60s and 70s only had access to the big earmuff headphones of the day. Accordingly, the popularity of this style has remained a staple of DJ culture. For the DJ, the headband keeps the headphone cup close by the ear for continued monitoring between the song playing, and the song they’re mixing in.
More recently, though, some DJs are opting for in-ear monitors. These earbud-style headphones are less intrusive for those that don’t want headphones hanging on their necks. There is also always a fairly clear signal present in the DJ’s ear. The sound quality is great and some can even be custom formed to fit your specific ears. Still, some don’t care for an earbud in their ear all night, and they can be fragile and less durable.
Corded vs. Wireless
With greater reliance on Bluetooth technology, some professional-quality headphones are breaking free from headphone cords. Wireless allows greater mobility, which can be of more benefit for performance-oriented DJs, or those DJs who like to dance in front of or behind the decks. DJs who need to interact with a crowd, possibly a wedding or event DJ, may see the wireless models as a great option for their overall crowd interaction. The wireless models are a marked improvement for many, but I’d probably always have a corded backup pair, just in case. Better safe than sorry.
Volume and Price Point
One of the toughest set of specs, volume, and sound quality, will only really get tested during a performance. Sometimes, a pair of headphones will look and feel great but, when in a loud club or on stage, the signal in the headphones may not be loud enough to properly monitor your music. Unfortunately, you probably won’t know this until you’re in that setting. Most headphones will list their audio specs, including decibel range and frequency response. These numbers are helpful for comparison shopping.
Speaking of shopping, you may notice there can be some real differences in price. In most cases, price will dictate quality, but there are exceptions. For most DJs, a pair in the $150-350 range will probably suit their needs. Watch out for headphones which seem too inexpensive. The build and audio quality can be less impressive. On the other hand, don’t look for the most expensive pair expecting to also get the greatest quality. Some headphones become more trendy than performance-oriented and may be priced too high for what you’re actually buying. Hit up a local store and listen to some different pairs. Your ears will usually tell you which ones work for you.
Headphones In A Digital World
Traditionally, DJs worked with records. Everything you needed to know about a song was learned in the listening. Headphones were a necessity. Even playing off of CDJs meant listening. Then came digital systems, which use files (wav, mp3) on a computer, instead of records or CDs. The files now show waveforms and allow for DJs to pre-mark where starts, stops, and transitions can occur. DJ culture is becoming as much visual media, as it has been audio. Some DJs rely on the sync button or watching the waveforms to decide how and where to mix.
Some DJs are even using more interactive gear to play and remix tracks live, during a performance. With this new technology, some DJs aren’t using headphones nearly as much. Just the same, having a pair as backup always seems like a good idea, even if you’re using them less than in the past. Artforms change with the times and a good DJ will incorporate the new tech, in order to remain relevant. Still, old habits don’t often disappear overnight and headphones will always have a place in a DJs bag.
Information Is Key
In addition to the different options and features mentioned above, DJs will need to consider some other details, when making a selection. Some DJs may prefer a less traditional headphone monitoring system. Some DJs use a single cup, handheld headphone monitor. I’ve even seen some use a rotary telephone receiver. Very unique, but probably not most people’s taste. To each, their own. Ultimately, you’ll have to determine what works best for you.
When considering the style and brand of headphones, it’s worth your while to do research. Read reviews and item specs. Ask questions at the store you’re buying from, or ask other DJs their preferences. There are so many forums and sites online dedicated to the DJ industry, regardless of the type of DJ work you specialize in. reach out to these communities, which represent your interests, and get some feedback from those people doing the work regularly.
Additionally, you might make useful connections and receive specific information not available on the packaging. Most DJs in online forums are eager to tell you what they’ve learned, as well as learn what you know. No matter what, keep in mind that a solid pair of headphones is a DJs friend and trusted piece of gear. Make the right choice to keep your career moving with the beat.
Should headphones have straight or curly cords?
Some DJs prefer a curly cord, which stretches when you move. This helps to give you more range of motion. Also, a short cord can sometimes be pulled to its breaking point. The strain can damage the headphones’ abilities, or even damage the headphone port on the mixer.
How important is A Microphone Option?
Some DJs will want a microphone attached to their headphones for a greater ability to talk to the crowd. For others, a separate mic on a stand or plugged directly into their mixer or soundboard will suffice.
Does Plug Size Matter?
Most headphones offer either 1/4 “, or the smaller mini-plug, such as what you’d find on cell phones. Fortunately, many mixers now offer inputs for both sizes. Always keep a back-up 1/4” adapter in your gear bag, though, just in case.