This is one problem that has perplexed and continues to perplex many audio professionals: Should you mix with headphones or speakers, and does it make a difference?
Ramkumar Ramaswamy of the EDN Network summarizes what Richard L. King, Brett Leonard, and Grzegorz Sikora recently did in a paper titled “Loudspeakers and headphones: The effects of playback systems on listening test subjects” in the Proceedings of the Meetings on Acoustics, June 2013, published by the Acoustical Society of America:
…should one mix with headphones or on loudspeakers, considering the fact that the latter often makes for a more expensive and elaborate proposition, since headphones allow for easier elimination of extraneous noise? Or is there a difference at all that is worth considering?
The test setup used by the authors was curiously simple. Subjects were asked to complete a basic – almost childish – mixing task: each subject is instructed to set the level of a stereo stem (group or submix) containing a lead instrument or vocal, as presented along with a stereo stem containing the instrumental accompaniment to the excerpt. The stems were extracted from the full mix – not the raw tracks. That’s it – just one level to be adjusted for an already equalized and mixed recording, and the result to be compared to the actual level in the original recording. This was to be done with headphones and with loudspeakers. Couldn’t be simpler. Do expert recording engineers get it consistent?
The authors found that the engineers exhibited substantial difference in the final levels between headphones and loudspeakers. The diagram below, reproduced from their paper, gives you the complete picture. The difference between headphone and loudspeaker levels for classical music, for example, is more than 3.6dB. What is also noticeable is the large standard deviations, typically 3-4dB. More shocking perhaps is the large range of the levels chosen: For classical music, one engineer selected the final level to be -12.6dB and another set it at +6dB on headphones, with the corresponding figures for loudspeakers being -11.4dB and +8.4dB!
The authors sought to find statistical evidence that there is a substantial difference in mixing with headphones versus loudspeakers….The issue of range clearly steps out of the central question of the paper – the use of headphones versus loudspeakers – and addresses a much deeper question: if there are such wild differences in levels chosen by experienced engineers in a controlled environment where only one level needs to be set, how subjective does the mixing process really get in practice?
Read the full article here.