Mixing on Headphones vs Monitors – Which One Should You Opt For?

When it comes to mixing your music, there are two familiar options: headphones and monitors. Of course, both have their place and ideally, it’s best to have access to both at all times. But what should you use and when? What are the key differences and what should you look out for?

Headphones interact with your ears very differently to monitors. Monitors act far more naturally as a sound source given that they virtually replicate audio that occurs in the ‘real world’. The sound emitted from a speaker has a chance to interact with the environment – the air and materials in the room – before it enters your ear.

Headphones, on the other hand, bring audio incredibly close to your actual eardrum, which is not wholly ‘natural’ as the audio has a very small medium to travel through – a space of just a few millimeters.

Also, when audio enters our ears from monitor speakers, it does so unevenly into each ear – your brain will analyze the differences between each audio stream entering both the left and right ears.

For example, audio coming from the left monitor speaker will enter your right ear later than your left, and vice versa. This means that your mix will change with the positioning of your speakers, your position in the room and the design / materials used in your room amongst other things!

This is both an advantage and a disadvantage!

Headphones, on the other hand, create a ‘false’ soundspace where each left/right audio stream hits the eardrum at more-or-less the same time. This means the sound appears within your head and doesn’t interact with anything physically aside from the skull itself.

It’s a very different listening environment, we might be very used to listening to tracks on headphones but mixing on headphones is a different beast!

Before we begin to compare, compare some of your favorite tracks on monitors and headphones.

You will notice major differences.

These differences won’t make or break the song, they’re natural and inevitable. It’s incredibly important to bear this in mind as you will end up pulling your hair out if you try to create a mix which sounds identical on both headphones and monitors!

So What Are the Pros/Cons?


Once upon a time, it was seen as silly to consider mixing on anything other than monitor speakers but now, many top engineers admit to mixing top records on headphones at least partly, but sometimes entirely!

Headphones are cheap, they’re flexible and useful and they allow you to mix without adversely affecting those around you, whether it’s your neighbors, your girlfriend, parents or mates!

Headphones also give you an impression of what your mix sounds like on headphones (surprisingly enough!) This is really important as a lot of people will listen to your music on headphones, any mix has to sound compatible with headphone listening.

The Characteristics of Headphone Audio

The ‘false’ environment of headphone listening creates all manner of nuances which affect the way we perceive sound. Sounds emitting from headphones barely travel before they reach our eardrum, this can quickly make high-frequency sound very sharp and harsh if their gain is set too high.

Bass frequencies, conversely, don’t have time to ‘breathe’ between the headphone speaker and your eardrum, meaning you don’t really ‘feel’ sub-bass in the same way you might when standing in front of a sound system.

Reverbs typically feel wider and sounds may appear more sparse, with some areas of the stereo spectrum sounding almost completely vacant in some cases. Really wide sounds may ‘disappear’ off the edge of the stereo field, which can be a good or bad thing!

Troubleshooting Headphone Mixes

Half of the battle of mixing is awareness. If you know what to watch out for when mixing between both monitors and headphones then you can get the best out of both setups without compromising your mix.

Mix Sounds too Wide

  • If your mix sounds very wide on headphones then consider what sounds you’d like to appear wide and separate them from those which don’t need to compete for the spot. Drums and basslines need to appear more in your head, hi-hats can appear wide but generally, focus and impact is gained by panning your percussion sounds to the middle. If your mix sounds very wide then narrow percussion and bass to carve space for synths and sound effects. Effects and one-shots, in particular, will sound more dramatic with some extreme panning.

Mix Sounds Muddy

  • If your headphone mix sounds muddy then you may have too many middle-low frequencies in the mix which will tend to ‘smother’ details. Cut middle-low frequency areas and also watch out for thick mono delays which can smother your drums.

Mix sounds too Central/Narrow

  • Headphone mixing might reveal your mix to be incredibly narrow. This has its advantages but generally, you want to use the space available across the stereo spectrum to spread your audio effectively. It’s best to keep bass and drums in the middle of your mix but lead synths can be panned into wider spaces.

Mix isn’t Bassy Enough

  • Headphones can’t easily produce very low bass so it will naturally appear subdued. If your mix doesn’t sound bassy then don’t take this as a cue to crank your subs!

Pros of Mixing on Headphones

  • Can mix quietly at any time without disturbing others
  • Headphones allow you to home in on very specific areas which is ideal for fixing subtle pitch or time issues
  • Great for fine tuning extra-wide stereo effects and 3D or surround-sound audio
  • A mix which sounds awesome on headphones will generally sound awesome on monitors, if you bear in mind the following troubleshooting tips

Cons of Mixing on Headphones

  • Mixing loudly on headphones will cause ear fatigue very quickly
  • Easy to obsess yourself with spatial details which will sound different on monitor speakers
  • Your headphones may be biased to increase and fatten bass, or accentuate highs, etc. Make sure you use a good pair with a flat frequency response.

Monitor Speakers

The humble monitor speaker is an extremely important component of any studio setup and whilst headphones have their place, you can’t skip monitor mixing if you want to produce great accurate mixes which sound good on different systems and playback devices.

Monitor speakers are inexpensive – you don’t need a top pair, nor do you need to turn them up to a high volume. Crucially, monitor speakers will give you an insight into how your mix sounds on many ‘typical’ speaker systems. That includes sound systems, hi-fis, car speakers, etc, etc…all of these playback devices are incredibly important!

The first and most obvious difficulty when mixing on monitors is their placement and your studio/room. Your mix will change greatly depending on where you place your monitors. Poorly placed monitors in a poorly treated room will make it extremely hard to mix! This is a consideration you can do without when mixing on headphones.

The Characteristics of Monitor Audio

Audio from monitors will change dramatically depending on speaker placement. If you place your monitors on a wooden table in the middle of a large empty room then you might find your bass disappears entirely. On the other hand, by placing your monitors in the corner of a small you may find bass is greatly accentuated!

In short, work as hard as you can to place your monitors carefully. Invest in soundproofing and room treatment material and be aware of your room tone.

Monitor Mix Troubleshooting

Mixing with monitors come with a unique set of challenges compared to headphones. Neither is perfect!

Mix Sounds Too Wide

  • If your mix sounds very wide or clearly divided between the left and right monitors then you may need to inspect your mono sounds. Drums and basslines should stay central, turn them up relative to stereo sounds if they appear drowned out.

Mix Lacks Bass

  • Small monitor speakers will have trouble producing sub bass. It can be very hard to detect the lowest frequencies but it doesn’t mean they’re not there – use a spectrum analyzer to cross-check their respective gains.

Mix is Too Harsh

  • Percussive sounds may appear very harsh on monitors which possess good tweeters but poor bass response. If your room tends to suck up bass then this will leave harsh frequencies vastly accentuated.

Mix Has No Definition

  • Sounds that appear crystal clear on headphones may get lost in the mix when played back on headphones. You might work for ages on a specific vocal line or sound effect just to find it disappears! This is natural, it’s really difficult and sometimes impossible to make minor details stand out on monitor speakers.

Pros of Mixing on Monitors

  • Produce audio in a physical space in a way that is ‘natural’
  • Gives you an idea of how your music will playback on many speaker systems
  • Typically easy to gain a balanced perception of frequency and stereo space

Cons of Mixing on Monitors

  • Can be difficult to set up monitors for optimum performance
  • Can disturb others around you
  • More expensive


Both headphones and monitors have their mechanical and psychological quirks. If you mix exclusively on one or the other then you might become obsessed with making your track sound identical on both – this is impossible!

It’s very important to be aware of your own gear and setup. Any mixing advice merely acts as a guideline to apply to your unique setup. By being aware of the nuances that apply to your gear you can effectively transition between monitors and headphones when needed whilst avoiding getting bogged down in the details of each. The aim, as always, is a mix which sounds great on any playback system – not perfect, not identical, just great!

You may also like: