Headphones for Trombone Players
I have to confess: I‘ve owned a LOT of different headphones over the years… more than I’d like to admit. Some were for specific work tasks (in-ear monitors for live performances, closed-back headphones for recording work, etc.) and others have just been for enjoying high-quality music on the go. Anyways, I’ve had a few questions about headphones recently, so I figured I would briefly describe how the different types pertain to trombone players and suggest a couple along the way!
Playing with Headphones On
Let’s get this out there first… Note that, with the exception of open-back headphones, playing trombone with headphones on will feel different than when you play the open horn. Effectively performing in settings that need headphones requires equal parts choosing the ideal set of headphones and learning how it feels to play with those headphones on!
A Quick Note About Recommendations
My recommendations are those that I have first-hand experience with and have enjoyed using. This doesn’t mean they will be the best for every person. Don’t hesitate to do a little more research (Amazon reviews, knowledgable salespeople, friends, etc.)… You may be able to find better prices as well!
On to the various types…
These are, physically, the largest of all types and widely considered to be the best for higher-quality audio and comfort. Sometimes called “around-ear”, they have large cups that fit over/around your ears. One big downside for trombonists is that the ear cups could interfere with your trombone’s neckpipe/valve wrap. If you have this issue, consider looking for some with shallow ear cups, open up the angle of your horn a bit while using headphones, or you could leave one ear open – many folks like to record like this, but be careful doing it in loud environments.
There are two main sub-types:
These are the standard for recording sessions because they offer superior isolation. They are good when: 1) you don’t want sound leaking out of the headphones (e.g. while recording or listening in quiet environments), or 2) you don’t want surrounding sounds to bother you (e.g. listening to quiet parts of a symphony on a bus, etc.). They tend to slightly emphasize lower frequencies.
Closed-back headphones are often a good first headphone upgrade because of their versatility.
Recommendations: Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
These headphones have acoustically transparent backs – i.e. sound gets in & out of them! This tends to give them a more natural sound (“flatter”, rather than emphasizing bass) and makes it feel more like you’re listening to something in the room you’re in. These are great for high-quality listening in quiet environments. Note that the sound coming out of the cups is very likely enough to bother other people in the room.
Frankly, these are my favorite type of headphone nowadays, but they wouldn’t have worked as my only pair. They’re definitely my favorite for general listening, and I love using them while teaching online trombone lessons. They also are the most comfortable while playing trombone at home… there’s no need to crank the volume up when I’m playing with drones or play along tracks over speakers, and they are definitely the best at retaining the natural sound/feel of the horn (it sort of sounds like you’re playing in just a slightly duller room, which is a huge improvement over other headphones).
Recommendations: Sennheiser HD599
These are an interesting middle-ground… They are smaller than over ear headphones and rest literally on your ear. Because of this, they do not create as much isolation and create a little more of an “open” feel. They are sometimes popular consumer headphones because they are more portable than big cans, but provide better sound quality than most earphones.
I’ll be honest and say I never had a big use for these. I used to like the Bose OE2, but they’re discontinued… most newer on-ear headphones are wireless/noise-cancelling which, while handy for on-the-go listening, don’t tend to be what I reach for while playing trombone.
Those things you may have gotten with your cell phone… They’re certainly functional headphones for your most basic uses but, in my experience, they don’t provide enough isolation or high enough sound quality to outweigh any of the other headphone types. The EarPods that come with the iPhone aren’t too bad, but I needed these Earhoox for my goofy ears.
Not to be confused with true “in-ear monitors,” these are really earbuds with tips that fit further in your ear. Some people like them for convenient listening because they’re as portable as earbuds while providing a little more isolation and bass… Frankly, playing trombone with these in feels terrible.
In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)
If you look closely, these are what you see the stars performing with live on TV, etc. They can be quite discrete and range from fairly cheap, universal-fit models to custom-molded pairs that cost several thousand dollars!
Frankly, if you don’t know you need these, you probably don’t need these. They are specifically designed to reproduce reference-quality audio for folks in live performance scenarios that also need significant isolation. Great for things like extremely loud bands on stage, when you’re using a click-track or talkback microphones in live performance, etc.
Universal vs. Custom-fit
In-Ear Monitors for brass players can be a little tricky. First, they come in a variety of forms.
The cheapest are “universal” fit, which means they have a variety of foam/silicone/rubber tips that will fit all ears. Obviously, this is convenient and, for guitarists, pianists, etc. is often good enough. However, for brass players, we can experience a pretty obnoxious sensation called the “occlusion effect.” Basically, the space between the ear-tip and eardrum causes low frequencies to be dramatically increased, causing a boomy sound in our head that makes it extremely difficult to play with any sort of nuance/awareness of tone, dynamics, articulation, etc. If, financially, you must stick to universal fit, I recommend trying to find ear-tips that fill as much of the ear canal as possible, such as a triple-flange.
What you really want are custom-fit IEMs. By molding the case of the monitor to your ear canal, they minimize the occlusion effect and optimize the sound/feel while playing. Unfortunately, custom-fit IEMs are a significant investment. If you go this route, I highly recommend you get the molds made by an audiologist who has works with musicians before, or on-site with the manufacturer to be sure it’s done correctly.
Each driver (~speaker) in each IEM handles a different frequency range, so it’s a notable improvement to get a pair with dual or triple-drivers. Some brands use even more but, having talked to a few manufacturers, I don’t feel going beyond 3 is a worthwhile upgrade.
These are some newer features that are specifically aimed to remedy many brass players’ complaints with IEMs. Ambient Ports are holes in the monitor that vent the ear canal and allow some ambient sound in. Only get this feature if it can be plugged! Ambient Mics are the next-generation – they require a separate device to power/mix things, but they actually have a microphone built into each IEM to perfectly balance your ambient sound at your ears with what you have in your mix. Pretty cool, but expensive!
This is a bit of a tangent but, when playing with in-ear monitors, the quality of what is going INTO your monitor mix is extremely important. Think twice before assuming in-ear monitors are the best and using them with an inexperienced audio engineer… At best, you can suffer through a bad mix and, at worst, suffer serious hearing damage! I highly suggest anybody using in-ear monitors have at least a rudimentary knowledge of live sound… it will greatly increase your experience using them when you can actually talk with the audio engineer about what you’re hearing/would like to change.
These are neat, but not really intended for music making. These headphones use your cheekbones (not your ears) to conduct sound. I have a pair of the AfterShokz Titanium for running/biking and love the convenience of listening while still being aware of my surroundings but, for anything involving playing trombone, the volume would need to be way too loud and sound quality would not be nearly as good as a set of comparably priced Open-Back Headphones.
Here are a few other features to be aware of that can apply to any of the above types of headphones:
If you’re going to spend a lot of money on headphones, detachable cables are a wonderful feature. Some models offer different lengths (short for mobile use vs. long for studio use), types (e.g. coiled vs. straight), and, most importantly, the ability to replace the cable if it gets destroyed. I had a nice set of in-ear monitors become useless when the cable was worn out, and the repair would’ve been almost as much as buying a brand-new set!
Wireless headphones are fantastic for casual use. However, they often introduce a lag that just does not work in many professional settings. I love the Bose QC35 & AirPods Pro, but they have limited use for me with a trombone in my hands.
“Active Noise-Cancelling” is very different from passive noise reduction/isolation (like earplugs, etc.). These headphones minimize background noise by listening to the surrounding sounds and then creating the exact sound waves 180 degrees out of phase, which seems to cancel out what you would hear. This is fantastic in a situation like a noisy bus/airplane, but not usually ideal for playing trombone because you can’t really hear yourself. Like the wireless headphones above, I love these for listening to music on the go, but I very rarely use them with a trombone in my hands… The one exception is when I need to “get out of my head” and just play – handy on those rough practice days.
If you’re about to drop a lot of money on headphones, you may want to read up on impedance before you make up your mind. Headphones not geared towards the typical consumer are often intended to be used with amplifiers. Some options, like the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro come in different models with varying impedance (e.g. 32, 80, 250 OHM). You don’t need an amplifier to be happy, but it’s worth knowing that it’s a necessity for high-impedance headphones. If you’re using a specific device/audio interface, you can often find the impedance rating in the tech specs.
One pair to rule them all?
Frankly, you might need more than one pair of headphones for your various uses. If not, I envy you!
My favorite accessories
- Headphone hangers/stands: Anybody who has used headphones often knows that bigger headphones can be a little more cumbersome… taking them on and off between takes, trying to find where to lay them on a cluttered desk, stepping all over the cord, etc… I use a stand-mount hanger when recording, and love my desk-mount hanger while teaching online, polishing up recordings, and just generally working at my computer.
As always, don’t hesitate to contact me or comment below!