What Exactly Are DJ Headphones – Explained for Beginners


What Exactly Are DJ Headphones - Explained for Beginners
Headphones made specifically for DJing are essential for tight mixing; no one wants a set of trainwrecks, no matter how well your mix was programmed.

If you’re a novice in this field and you’ve only recently started to think about getting a pair of DJ headphones, natural questions that pop up are:

  • What are DJ headphones?
  • What makes them different from regular ones?
  • What makes them different from studio headphones?
  • Why do they rotate (swivel)?
  • Are they good for gaming?

So without further ado, let’s get into it! Here’s what DJ headphones are and how they differentiate from others.

What are DJ headphones?

DJ headphones are headphones explicitly made for DJing. These kinds of headphones have punchy bass, accurate sound, reliable build quality, noise cancelation, swiveling earcups, straight and detachable cord, and are incredibly durable. Also, they must be comfortable as club gigs usually last for hours. 

The sound must be pretty close to neutral with more emphasis on the bass and mid-range due to loud ambient noise drowning out the highs. You want a pair of headphones that have a punchy enough bass and detail in the high end. In my experience, DJ headphones have solid bass but aren’t meant to compete with the subwoofers in the club; rather they emphasize midbass and highs, which is what DJs listen to while mixing.

Build quality must be very high as a DJ typically uses the headphone multiple times in many locations. It’s an important quality: you don’t want to be mid-set and have your headphones snap in two.

That is why it is also desirable to make sure that they are comfy even during extended use. Anyone that has used poorly designed headphones for more than half an hour will recognize the grim feeling of the headband grinding into your skull.

One earcup should fold out/away so you can monitor your setup as well as the actual speaker sound in the room.

Most of the time, the headphones are used swiveled out, on one side. When you put on the headphones, it’s for almost diagnostic reasons, like checking the sound input to the mixer or the gain of the next song being played.

Pro-DJ headphones have only one earcup, for the DJ to hear and compare the sounds he is about to mix and the one being listened to by the crowd.

It would be best if you avoided coiled cords because they always get tangled in gear.

They should also have a detachable cord because sometimes it will break and replaceable parts such as earpads. After all, they are going to wear away.

Most headphones come with flexible headbands to prevent this, while others are a bit more rigid.

Work out what you want and, if possible, ask some buddies or head down to the local DJ/music shop and ask to try out a couple of different models.

It is also worth pointing out that most headphones need to be “burnt in,” so if you have just got a new pair, don’t expect to hear the best from them until they have had a bit of continuous use.

The DJ headphones I own are the Sennheiser HD-25, they are somewhat of a golden standard for DJ headphones.

They are rugged, sound awesome, and sit nicely on one or both ears. They also shut out outside noise so you can cue songs even in a loud environment. Due to their excellent isolation, I don’t have to run them completely loud to hear the cue well during a gig. I’ve played out on other “regular” headphones, and the difference is absurd, I could never go back.

I don’t know if these are the best bang for buck DJ-headphones anymore, but I wouldn’t purchase another pair.

Difference between DJ headphones and regular

In short, the difference between DJ headphones and regular headphones is in swivel and over-the-ear design that allows the DJ to mix two tracks easily. Sound output is a lot better with DJ headphones, as they have higher sensitivity drivers. That translates into them being louder at a certain volume than the regular ones.

While DJ headphones are mostly over-the-ear (as they need a higher level of noise isolation), regular headphones can be either in-ear, on-ear, or over-the-ear headphones.

DJs require better audio clarity and quality. They also have to blend the upcoming tune with the currently playing track at the perfect moment to mix the tracks in a manner that makes them sound like a single piece. And they have to think about compression and EQ’ing specific parts of a set.

Therefore DJ headphones have larger drivers that provide better sound quality while standard headphones can be low-end or audiophile quality. Regular headphones are designed for listening, and they usually color the sound more than DJ headphones.

Some DJ headphones can play different tracks in different ear cups to help DJs cue up music. They play the current song in one ear and the next song in the other. Audio headphones cannot play different tracks in different ear cups.

DJ headphones are usually flexible and have closed earcups that come with the ability to swivel. Closed-ear cups help to isolate the loud central PA so you can better hear what you’re monitoring.

And the ability to swivel is because most of the time, DJs use one earcup only. Standard headphones may or may not have ear cups that swivel but are usually flexible.

Another thing is more robust hinges. Many headphones break very quickly at that joint because of the way DJs use them (my friend has broken three pairs in 3 years).

The Pioneer DJ HDJ-X7-S for example, are built with a vanadium pivot on the ear. You can’t break those things.  Note that most DJ headphones aren’t built with this in mind; it’s a newish innovation.

And lastly, DJ headphones lie on the higher end of the price spectrum of headphones as they are specially created for professional use, i.e., mixing, like gaming headphones for gaming, studio headphones for music production, etc. 

Regular headphones may or may not be costly as most people prefer using more affordable headphones for casual or day-to-day usage.

DJ headphones vs. studio headphones

The difference between DJ headphones and studio headphones is that music producers are finding and fixing audio issues. In contrast, in the DJ environment, one tries to keep up with the beat while keeping music lined up for continuous play. That means the sound isolation will be better but will lack sound clarity.

While DJ headphones don’t aim to be flat, studio headphones are designed to provide flat frequency response.

Fundamentally, a song will sound as it is, without any compensation that the speakers in headphones will typically make to improve the quality of a track.

That allows the producer or engineer to improve the quality of a track more accurately.

When DJing, you want a loud, clear bottom-end and excellent isolation, as this makes it easier to monitor and sync tracks. On the other side, in the studio, you want the best representation of the sound. Therefore a very flat (true) frequency response.

While DJs need to hear the music loud (at least to some degree) to isolate the sound and hear the bass, studio technicians need to hear the music clearly. That often means that compromises are made to make the headphone’s frequency response flatter or reduce distortion, even at the price of musical pleasure.

Studio headphones were initially meant as recording (tracking) headphones. A tracking headphone is expected to be very good at isolation so that the singer or musician can hear the song. 

Also, the sound from the headphone drivers shouldn’t conflict with the microphone he is recording “into.” 

That type of headphone has typically a somewhat flat sound, or something V-shaped, to highlight the rhythm to make work simpler.

DJ headphones are generally closed headphones with sound isolation and punchy bass – because nothing else matters to an actual club DJ.

Studio headphones will shift from bass and mids heavy to much more neutral.

My studio/at-home headphones are a pair of open Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro. They are like carrying a little cloud of sound; they sit softly and do their work without getting in the way. 

Let through outside noise, give a lovely flat sound response. I’ve caught myself many times walking away without realizing I had them on.

It is definitely not a headphone for DJing, as it would lack any kind of mid frequencies coloration, and typically will lack soundstage and other DJ headphones qualities.

A good studio headphone is sometimes not such a great audiophile headphone, even though it’s a handy tool for the technician. The current line of studio headphones by Fostex is an excellent example of this. 

Why do DJ headphones rotate (swivel)?

Headphones for DJing are designed to be flexible because we’re not just wearing them in one way from start to end of the set. 

They have to be moved about a lot, sometimes you wear both, sometimes one, sometimes none. If they were as stiff as consumer headphones, they would break easily.

DJ headphones rotate (swivel) because when you DJ in the club, you have to listen to more than just what’s in your headphones. Beatmatching the cue track with the current track and EQ’ing parts of the mix, while listening to what’s coming out of the monitors facing towards the DJ.

Often the easiest way to do all this is to wear one headphone over one ear and listen with the other.

There is a lot that a DJ has to accomplish inside the noisy environment of a club, and the swiveling headphones are a must-have.

Are DJ headphones good for gaming?

In the gaming industry, companies are trying to exploit a segment of the consumer base who doesn’t know much about audio (rather than the DJing industry, which is all about sound).

Gaming headphones are an easy category for manufacturers, as they can put both bad drivers and a lousy microphone into a nice colorful package and get excellent margins.

Sometimes, you’ll get multi-channel sound, USB connection, and lots of other goodies you would not usually need.

DJ headphones are great for gaming if you don’t require a microphone, which they lack. In fact, headphones for DJing usually have a much better sound quality and are much more flexible than gaming headphones. Also, the noise cancellation feature is more developed, as the durability and build.

Therefore, having them for gaming use doesn’t seem so problematic, but you’ll definitely pay more money if you don’t already own them.

Tray Fiddy

Tray has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous DJ.... but that hasn't stopped him from mixing and throwing parties around the town. Tray has over 10 years experience of DJing at home and events.

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