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There are many ways to listen to your favorite music. But what if you want the best sound quality from your headphones? Often, people will use reference headphones.
Reference headphones are headphones that can reproduce audio with little alteration. Meaning the sound you hear with these headphones is as accurate to the audio source as it can be. Typically, people working in recording studios will use these devices for sound designing and mixing purposes.
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The term reference headphones refer to a pair of headphones that does not change the quality of the audio coming into it. So, the sound that comes out of the earpiece is pretty much the same as the original sound.
First let’s get an understanding as to how normal, commercial headphones produce sound. When you connect the headphone plug into the audio jack of any device (smartphone or laptop), you are creating an electrical circuit. The audio initially comes in the form of electricity and travels through to the earpieces.
This is where the major component of headphones or earbuds live, which is the driver. The driver converts the electrical signal into audible sound and sends it into our ears. This is the basic concept of how headphones work.
But modern headphones can offer a lot more than just the original sound. In fact, most headphones these days are capable of producing a bass sound very well, which is a low-frequency noise. And to do this, the headphones must be able to boost the low-frequency part of the audio.
Headphones will make such adjustments to the incoming sound and more. This is all done to make the hearing experience as enjoyable as possible. With more expensive headphones, you can get even more options for tinkering.
Well, on a fundamental level, they work the same way as any regular headphones. The main distinction comes in the fact that there is no alteration or change made to the audio signal. What is on the record is exactly how you will hear it.
Of course, there is going to be some difference between the original audio and the reproduced sound. Headphones cannot generate one hundred percent accurate music. But for practical purposes, they can get you almost as accurate sound as possible. And how well a reference headphone can recreate the original sound will determine how good it actually is.
You will often hear sound designers or studio managers mention reference headphones when talking about studio gears. And this is because you will see these headphones more in a studio environment than for regular use.
When you are recording music from a band or a solo artist, you need to hear the exact sound from the other room. After the initial hearing process, you then make alterations to the track such as adding reverb, auto-tune, and other such touch-ups.
But hearing the original sound accurately is vital. Otherwise, the sound designers will miss out on key areas where they need to make adjustments. So, the neutral sound production of reference headphones offers sound designers and mixers an edge that regular headphones cannot match.
Reference headphones allow you to hear all the minute details in the recording. It lets you figure out slight mistakes and audio leaks that ruin an otherwise great track. For sound mixers and designers, this part is crucial.
Since these headphones are so common in studios, they are also called “studio headphones”. You can also address them as professional headphones as the people working in studios are professional sound designers and artists.
Reference headphones used in studios need to be able to keep out audio leaks. Audio leaks from a background instrument or the singer’s own voice can disrupt the recording process.
Now you still need actual speakers in the studio as well. Because there may be some parts of the recording that you can overlook when hearing through a headphone. This is why sound designers will play the track on speakers to get a clearer picture of the final product.
Normally, a reference-grade means a piece of equipment or product that is of very high quality and most people will find it acceptable. It is the reference point that you compare other similar products with.
However, in the realm of sound, the term is often a loose one. Because what classifies as a reference-grade sound can differ vastly from person to person. There really is no standard in sound production. Because people’s taste in music and the genre of the music itself can be so diverse.
Mostly reference-grade sound will be used with audio gears such as headphones and speakers. A reference headphone or speaker is a device that can faithfully replicate the original sound.
Since professional sound designers frequently use reference headphones, they have a reputation for being top-quality audio equipment. And it is true that studio headphones need to be excellent over a long period. However, the specific demands while playing video games is different compared to recording in the studios.
Typically, reference or studio headphones do not make for a great gaming experience. Video games come packing with lots of sound effects that get a boost through a good pair of gaming headphones. So, you really feel the force of that gunshot or can enjoy the dramatic moments in the game.
Studio headphones are not designed to add those extra effects. They are meant to sound as neutral as possible. Meaning if you use studio headphones you are not going to get the full audio experience that was intended with the game.
For many consoles, like the PlayStation 4, the complete audio experience is limited to their headsets. You cannot recreate that same level of atmosphere with studio headphones.
Plus, not all studio headphones come with a built-in microphone. Some do but not all of them. Modern games, especially the ones with a multiplayer platform, pretty much necessitates a good microphone. So, using studio headphones for this purpose may not be a convenient choice.
Of course, this all depends on the personal preference of the player. So, if you like the neutral tone of a studio headset, you can select one for all your games. The audio will still play through them and you will be able to hear it.
But most people like to use dedicated gaming headphones as they can stress the game’s audio and create a more immersive journey. They want to feel all the small ripples and explosions as well as the full range of an OST.
As we have mentioned previously, studio headphones are reference headphones that are commonly found in studios. So, there really is not too big of a difference in terms of quality. But dedicated studio headphones have to be extremely durable and offer a great range. And not every reference headphone on the market can perform that well.
Since studio headphones are just another way of saying reference headphones, it means that the sound quality you get is also similar. You use studio headphones to get neutral, accurate sound that is not altered in any way.
So, these headphones also are not the best choice for gaming-related content. Most gamers want to hear impactful music. They are not playing games to dissect the audio to a very fine degree. As such, gaming headphones offer a vastly superior experience when used for their intended purpose.
Reference headphones offer unique advantages that commercial or gaming headphones cannot. And if you use them for their intended purpose, they can produce great value and performance.