There seems to be a growing number of threads concerning headphones for drumming, and some misleading information being given out, so I thought I’d make this thread where I will write all of the information needed to buy a nice pair of headphones to protect your hearing and to enjoy drumming even more. I know a fair bit about the topic of headphones – it’s one of my hobbies and I’ve almost spent as much time and money on it as I have drumming!
Why do I need hearing protection for drumming?
Protecting your hearing is one of the most important aspects of drumming and should be taken very seriously. With the average snare rim-shot measured at six inches approximately 135dB, you can see why every hit can cause permanent hearing damage. This is why you must take into account the level of attenuation of outside noise a headphone provides before knowing whether it is suitable for drumming.
In-ear or full size?
This is one of the most common questions regarding headphones for drumming. And the answer is usually in-ears. In-ears generally offer a higher level of noise attenuation than full size closed models, with some exceptions.
There are still closed full size models suitable for drumming and they may suit your needs better. E.g. you find in-ears to uncomfortable, or you will mainly be using them for music listening while not drumming (because full size models usually offer more value for money in terms of sound quality because money is not gone into the design of making the drivers, shells, wiring, etc. compact). However, I would only recommend full size models for drumming if in-ears are not suitable for your needs.
It is important to acknowledge that in-ear headphones require more attention to fit and to wearing them properly. To achieve a good fit which will give you the most attenuation and sound quality, you should try all of the provided tips and see which ones fit properly. Also, this sort of headphone has to be inserted quite deep into the ear canal which some people can find uncomfortable.
I will also mention that full size headphones that provide high levels of isolation can have quite a strong clamping force on your head which can become uncomfortable over long periods of time.
When buying headphones for drumming, another option you have instead of choosing from only in-ears that are designed with high attenuation is to find a suitable closed in-ear model and fit after-market tips such as Shure or Etymotic tri-flange tips. I did this and I currently use a pair of Earsonics SM2 with Shure tri-flange tips. Before doing this, though, be sure to check whether the tips are compatible with the headphones you’re using.
Another option is custom in-ear headphones – these cost more than universal in-ears and require ear impressions from an audiologist, but usually offer better comfort and sound quality than universal models.
I will also mention that active noise cancelling headphones are not suitable for drumming. This is because they only block out constant background noise and not sudden noises, which drums are.
It is important to take sound preference into account when buying headphones. I believe that a headphone or speakers should sound balanced/flat and neutral. This way, you are able to hear the music the way the artist intended to.
It is a common misunderstanding to think that something bassy is better. This is because very low end equipment (like stock buds that came with your MP3 player) usually lacks deep bass so people think that more bass = higher end sound. However, if you have tried lots of audio gear and you know what sort of sound you like, you should look for a headphone with that particular sound signature. For example, Shure in-ears tend to have a warm and more commercial sound than in-ears from Etymotic Research.
Headphone amplifier and source
Any device that you plug your headphones into that plays digital files (iPod, phone, computer sound card) will include an inbuilt headphone amplifier and DAC. The quality of these components is usually not great as not much money goes into them. Before buying a high-end pair of headphones, you should make sure that the audio components of whatever you are listening from are up to scratch. If you have a pair of $2k custom in-ear headphones and you play them from a cheap on-board soundcard, you won’t be hearing their potential. However, in-ear headphones generally have very low impedance which means that the inbuilt headphone amplifier in your portable player or laptop will drive them fine, but the DAC stage will be the limiting factor. You can improve sound quality by upgrading your computer’s sound card (I would recommend an Asus STX for headphone listening) but laptops will need an external solution such as a Fii0 E7, Matrix Cube or, what I own, a Cambridge Dacmagic+. You can go into buying separate headphone amplifiers and DACs if you want, but it isn’t necessary for drumming (unless you’re using headphones with a high impedance that require a dedicated headphone amplifier to perform at their potential).
Don’t worry about all of this too much, though, because your iPod or laptop will suffice with all of the in-ear headphones that I recommend. With some of the full size models, however, I would recommend upgrading your portable player or laptop, though it is not absolutely necessary.
Headphones for studio application
Headphones are commonly used to mix music when recording. To achieve the best results when recording, a balanced sounding headphone that presents your mix accurately and with lots of detail is required.
My recommendations (Using Australian retail prices. All prices are in AUD)
For drumming <$100
Shure SE102: A decent sounding in-ear headphone that offers good amounts of isolation.
Etymotic MC5: A good, balanced sounding in-ear headphone. This models offers 36-42dB of attenuation.
For drumming $100-200
Etymotic HF5: Definitely one of the best for drumming in this price range. Good sound quality with 35-42dB of attenuation.
Shure SE215: Very good attenuation with the regular Shure sound signature. According to Shure, this model shields over 90% of the ambient noise.
Shure SRH440/880: These models are both suitable for drumming, but do not offer the same amount of attenuation as the in-ears I have listed. The SRH440 offers a more balanced sound than the SRH880 which is darker and bassier. This makes the 440 more suitable for studio use.
Audio Technica ATH-M50: A closed model offering decent attenuation of ambient noise with quite a bassy sound.
For drumming $200-300
Shure SE315/425: These models are a step up in terms of sound quality from the Shure in-ear headphones that I have previously listed, with the 425 a step above the 315.
Sennheiser HD 25-II: This model features a supra-aural design which means that they sit on your ears and do not fully surround the ear. They offer very good attenuation of outside noise for a full size headphone and have a fairly balanced sound. This is a good all-rounder for drumming and recording.
For drumming >$300:
Etymotic ER-4P: With up to 41dB of isolation and very good sound quality, this model is a good high-end option.
Shure SE535: A step up from the SE425, featuring a triple driver configuration and high levels of attenuation of outside noise.
Beyerdynamic DT250: A headphone with decent isolation levels for drumming and very good sound quality. This headphone is a great choice for studio use because of its very neutral and balanced sound.
Active noise cancelling: Noise reduction using phase inversion. It is featured on some headphones.
Attenuation: The amount of noise blocked out (in this case, by a pair of headphones). A headphone with more attenuation offers better levels of protection for your ears.
Balanced/flat sound: Music reproduction with no frequency range boosted or reduced in volume.
Closed headphones: Headphones that have sealed ear cups. These headphones will isolate from outside noise somewhat.
DAC: DAC is an acronym for Digital to Analogue Convertor.
In the recording process, music it converted from analogue (instruments being played) to digital (binary code). To play the digital signal on headphones or speakers, it has to be converted back to analogue, and a DAC does this. Better quality DACs improve sound quality.
Headphone amplifier: The component that amplifies the signal for the headphones to play.
Isolation: See attenuation.
Warm sound: Music reproduction with an emphasis on mids and bass.
Merry Christmas and I hope this was helpful,