Headphones should reproduce the sound accurately, right? They should be really comfortable worn for long times. They should envelope you in quality sound, getting you as close to the real thing as possible. Nothing else truly matters, does it?
Erm, well it turns out that for DJing, none of the above is really important. DJs have specific needs when it comes to headphones, and it pays to bear them in mind when you’re choosing your next pair…
Good DJ headphones should…
1. Let you use them on one ear only – One basic way of using your DJ headphones is to listen to the monitor speaker in one ear and the incoming track in the other, allowing you to beatmatch manually with accuracy. If you can’t comfortably get your headphones on one ear only, you’ll struggle with this. Look for earcups that swivel, twist or otherwise move out of the way
2. Are comfortable… but round your neck, not on your head – DJs don’t tend to wear their headphones all the time. They use them to cue in a track, then whip them off their ears, wearing them round their necks for much of the time. Thus if a pair of headphones scratches, chafes or otherwise annoys you when they’re round your neck, you won’t get on with them… however comfortable they feel on your head
3. Have a coiled cable – Unlike “leisure” headphones where a coiled cable would look strange, it’s pretty essential in good DJ headphones. The reason is that you spend most of your time stood right in front of your gear (so want the cable to behave itself and stay nicely coiled, rather than get under your feet), but sometimes you want to move away from the gear (to get your drink, to take a request, to dig through your bag at the back of the booth) and thus will be thankful for the extra reach that a long (coiled) cable gives you
4. Have coloured sound – As a DJ, you’re not interested in audiophile sound, or true reproduction across the audio spectrum, or any of that stuff. You need to be able to tell elements apart for easy beatmatching. Punchy bass, and clear mids and highs with really good definition. are much better than a smooth, sophisticated sound which – although it might be preferable after a couple of hours’ home listening – is not going to help you tell your kick drums and bassline apart from your snares in a noisy DJ booth
5. Be sensitive – Or to put it in a simpler way, “go loud”. A lot of modern DJ gear, especially digital controllers, suffers from low headphone output volume, mainly due to USB power. That means your headphones need sensitive drivers to deliver the most volume. Otherwise, you may find that even with the volume on your unit turned up to full, you just can’t get the things loud enough. It will never be apparent when practising at home, only when you play your first gig in a truly loud environment
6. Be durable – A DJ booth is a pretty extreme environment, and getting your gear to and from the gig also exposes it to much risk of damage. Sitting on your gear bag, other stuff being put on top of it, dropping it, people spilling drinks, your headphones getting accidentally yanked onto the floor and trodden on, sweat, heat, smoke, dust… it’s no surprise that DJs go through headphones at a rate of knots. Durable is good: Look for strong hinges, detachable / replaceable parts, metal rather than plastic build…
7. Be portable – Do they come with a decent carrying bag? How do they fold away? Do they fold up in one direction, or two (ie “flat”)? Headphones are an awkward shape, and they’re more useful to the space-sensitive DJ when you can fold them up properly and tuck them safely away. Especially if you’re flying and have a hand luggage size allowance, having headphones you can properly tuck into your bag without the risk of damage can make all the difference. (Of course, you could always just keep them round your neck at all times…)
The golden rule is to try before you buy, or read the reviews keeping in mind the points above. Especially when it comes to comfort, though, nothing beats actually trying them. And while you’ll pay a lot for headphones with all of these qualities, at least you can try and get some with as many as possible while staying within whatever your budget is.
What do you look for in a pair of DJ headphones? Do you agree with our list, or are there things you think we’re missing? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.