Electric guitars and amps are great, but they come with one major drawback: they’re incredibly loud. Turning up the volume is fine when you’re playing to a hall of your most devout fans, but when you want to practice you run the risk of seriously upsetting neighbors and family nearby.
Unless you have an amp attenuator for playing at low volumes through a tube amp, the solution is to use a pair of headphones (which we’ll also refer to in this article as ‘cans,’ ‘chunky funks’ or ‘tone muffs’). If your amp has a place to plug in a pair – not all do, so check first – then you can hook them up and jam away until the early hours of the morning if you wish.
However, not all cans are suitable for plugging into a guitar amp. An average pair won’t bring out the best in your guitar sound.
In this article, we’re going to walk you through all the things to consider when buying a pair specifically for playing guitar. We’ll look at what factors are most important when making your buying decision, and recommend our favorite models at different price points.
If you’re in a rush, here’s what we’ll cover.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best Headphones for Guitar Amps on the Market
- Audio-Technica ATH-M20x
- Sony MDR7506
- Audio-Technica ATH-M50xC
- Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO 80 Ohm
- Sennheiser HD 700
- Audeze LCD-3
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Ok, let’s get cracking. To make the best decision read the article top to bottom, but in case you want to jump around here’s a clickable list of everything we cover.
- What are Guitar Headphones?
- Buying Guide – Things to Consider When Purchasing a Pair
- Product Round-up and Mini Reviews – Best Headphones for Guitar Amps
- Best Budget Products
- Mid-Price Products
- High-End Products
- So, Which Should I Choose?
What are Guitar Headphones?
‘Guitar headphones’ are a particular breed of headphone that are explicitly designed for use with live instruments and recording in general. They are also widely used in studio production to mix and master music in a professional recording environment.
Can’t you use a regular pair? Well, you can. But you’ll be getting an inferior sound. There’s a vast difference between headphones for listening to your favorite band on Spotify, and ones specifically designed for playing and recording live instruments.
Here are the main differences:
Impedance is an electrical unit (called ‘Ohm’) that represents the relationship between resistance and reactance. Because guitar amps naturally have high impedance, your pair of cans need high impedance too. The type people use for everyday stuff – commuting, using at the gym, etc. – have a lower impedance (usually below 25-30 Ohms) and only work well with devices that have low amplification (e.g., smartphones, laptops, etc.).
So for instruments, you need the higher impedance type. Why? When playing at higher frequencies, high impedance headphones avoid overloading or ‘blowouts’ – which tend to be why they’re used in studios to mix and master music.
The higher impedance headphones reviewed below all have an impedance of 32 Ohms and upwards.
Lower Harmonic Distortion
Another advantage of a pair specially engineered for instruments is low harmonic distortion. Amps naturally add a little harmonic distortion which gives a slightly muffled sound to your signal. Pro audio headphones of the type are explicitly designed for this purpose and reduce the amount of distortion coming from the amp, giving you a more accurate, cleaner signal.
Dynamic Frequency Range
Every day, run of the mill earphones you use for listening to music also have a limited dynamic range. The ones we’ve picked below all have a wide-range frequency, which gives you a highly accurate reproduction. As already mentioned, higher impedance pairs reproduce music more accurately and are used for ‘critical decision making’ when a producer needs a clearer picture of what’s going on at a sonic level.
Comfort for Long Practice Sessions
Your average pair of low-frequency headphones are designed for the daily commute and bouts of short listening. These are made especially for guitar and music production; they’re geared towards long periods of use and therefore built for marathon sessions in mind. Better padding helps to alleviate any soreness or chafing; many products have replaceable ear pads that you can switch for new, softer ones.
‘Over-Ear Design’ for Sound Isolation in Loud Environments
Another big difference is the size of the actual cup. Look at any pair that’s for pro audio, and the cup is usually much bigger than a standard cup. This helps to isolate any outside noise by thoroughly covering the ears.
Buying Guide – Things to Consider When Purchasing a Pair
OK, you know why you need a pair that are explicitly designed for use with live instrumentation. What else do you need to weigh up?
Open or Closed Back?
First up, do you want open or closed back headphones? Open back ones allow some sound to spill out and escape from the rear of the cups. They’re typically used for studio mixing and mastering as they can enhance the sound. They’re also good if you want to avoid ‘ear fatigue’ – a condition you sometimes get when you use isolation (i.e., closed) headphones for extended periods.
The closed back type, as you probably guessed, eliminate any sound spillage. From an audiophiles point of view, purists say they’re not quite as good as open back ones – the argument goes you don’t get the same feeling of ‘expanse’ as you do with open back ones, but there are still some fantastic products out there. For the guitarist looking to plug in and practice with minimal outside noise (or annoying anyone else, open back ones ‘bleed sound’ so others can you hear you), the closed back is the best variety.
Headphones vary in the jack (i.e.high plug) size. Most studio pairs come with a 1/8″ cables (often referred to as 3.5mm) and have a quarter inch jack (that you find on guitar cables).
Some products are foldable, meaning they collapse into a neat package. You might not think this is all that important, but don’t overlook the importance of being able to stow them away. If your house is overrun with music gear (like, ahem, mine) the more compact, the better. Some premium pairs that are more suited to studio production have 90° swiveling earcups for easy, one-ear monitoring. Very useful if you need a quick listen to something.
Some manufacturers go to town on making their cans ridiculously comfy, using materials like memory foam that move and mold to the shape of your head and ears. If you’re big on comfort and have a feeling you’ll be spending a lot of time with them on (like several hours at a time) then choose a pair with luxury cups. Some products even have detachable cups so you can replace them as they start to wear out, harden, get dirty or get uncomfortable to wear.
Product Round-up and Mini Reviews – Best Headphones for Guitar Amps
OK, now we’re going to look at our favorite picks. We’ve categorized them into budget, mid and high-end price ranges, so you get an idea of what you get at each price point.
Best Budget Products
First up on our list is the ATH-M20x from Audio Technica. Featuring a similar look and feel to the higher end models, these closed-back headphones come with 40mm drivers with rare earth magnets, audio response for enhanced low-frequency performance for bass and circumaural design contours around the ears for sound isolation in loud environments. The cups also swivel 15 degrees for one ear DJ style swiveling.
They’re a good entry level pair for the beginner or person on a budget. They’re not going to win any awards, but for the price, they’re well built and will sound far superior to your average hi-fi headphones. The 10-foot cable (which is straight, preferable in my opinion) gives you plenty of room to maneuver with guitar in hand. The permanently attached cable is a bit of a disappointment, but to be expected at this price point.
- Chunky, solid build
- Long, single side exit cable (10 foot)
- Comes with snap on ¼” adapter
- Permanently attached cable (premium models have detachable cables)
- Bit plastic looking
- Not foldable
Second up, we have the MDR7506 from Sony. Like the ATH-MX20x pair above, these are a closed back set and come with 40mm drivers for powerful, detailed sound. The main difference is the large diaphragm that helps to cover the ear which is good if you’re ears are on the large size. Also, their ability to fold away is an elegant feature. With a slightly higher impedance to the Audio Technica pair (63 Ohms versus 47 Ohms), they’re slightly better suited to higher impedance gear like guitar amps, but the difference is negligible.
- Large diaphragm size
- No ear cup swivel
The second pair on our list from Audio Technica, these have legendary status among music producers and DJs and have been consistent best sellers for a few years. As opposed to the lower range M20x or the Sony 7506, they’re much better suited for live instrument use and music production in general. They come with 45 mm large-aperture drivers and as you’d expect have an extended frequency range, and deeper bass response than the budget picks above.
With a surprisingly low impedance (38 Ohms) – which is lower even than it’s younger sibling the ATH-M20x (47 Ohm) it’s still plenty and doesn’t detract from its superior midrange and extended bass. With the 90° swivel feature, ability to collapse for space-saving portability and detachable cable they’re the ultimate combination of high spec and value for money.
- Collapsible for portability/space saving
- Superior midrange and extended bass
- Detachable cable
- Bit plastic looking
- Bass response can be a bit overpowering
Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO 80 Ohm
The German-built DT770’s have a reputation for being hard-wearing and robust. The frequency range is excellent, giving a very accurate sonic representation of how your music sounds thanks to a range from 5hz to 35Khz. They come available in 32, 80 and 250 ohms. There is great debate about which impedance is best for guitars, with some saying the 80 Ohm is the way forward. We recommend the 80 Ohm or 250 Ohm pair (in case you need them for studio work) although if it’s just for playing guitar at home, the 80 Ohm will suffice.
Any downsides? It’s a shame that manufacturer Beyerdynamic have chosen not to make these collapsible, and the relatively short cable length (5 meters) is half the length of the Audio Technica above. If neither of these things is an issue, the DT 770 is a classic set of guitar amp headphones you can’t go wrong with.
- Solid German Build
- High Impedance
- Very Cool Design
- Not Collapsible
- Cable Length Relatively Short
Sennheiser HD 700
Let’s now look at our first premium pair on the list, the Sennheiser HD 700. At more than twice (even three times in some cases) the price of others on the list, the HD 700s are the Maserati of this category – built for high precision and performance.
For a start, the design is ultra modern which incorporates a vibration resistance chassis with high-end materials, with a stainless steel mesh. Along with 3d inlays to protect the ear and diffuse sound, microfiber earpads, and a super lightweight design, they almost float on your head and make for a comfortable prolonged listening experience. As they’re open-backed, the bass isn’t as responsive as it would be on a closed headphone set. And like a high-speed sports car, they’re not designed for practicality – so they’re rather large and don’t fold away. But hey, when you have a superior sound you can live with that (maybe?).
- Super sleek design
- Built for comfort and incredibly lightweight
<li”>Gold plated connector
- Impractical (no foldaway option)
- No detachable cable
As we’re talking high end, how about we go ‘super high end’. The Audeze LCD-3 are sheer class. These are a favorite among professional music engineers working on mainstream music.
As you can imagine, the quality is insanely good. They claim this set of headphones will ‘put you in a time machine that puts you in the room with your favorite artists and musicians.’ The construction is one its standout elements: made using a steel & leather suspension, the headband provides comfort for literally hours of music production, listening, or playing guitar with. The only downside to these, other than the astronomical price, is the sheer weight of them on your head. Whereas the super futuristic Sennheiser HD 700’s are light as a feather, you know when you’re wearing a pair of Audezes!
- Insanely good sound
- Detachable cables
- What professional music engineers use
- Astronomical price
- On the weighty side
So, Which Should I Choose?
By now it should be fairly obvious which option is best for you.
If you’re looking for a budget set, either the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x or the Sony MDR7506 will suffice – though if you’d rather them be foldaway and have larger sized ear cups, then I’d go with the Sony MDR7506 which are a solid pair at that price.
Mid price, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x are the best overall for the price and features you get with them, but the looks can put some people off (they are a bit cheap looking). If you’re in that camp, go with the Beyerdynamic D770s which look and sound amazing too.
Finally, the high-end options. If ultra modern is your thing, then the Sennheiser HD 700 will not only look great, they’ll blow your socks off sound-wise. If you want to push the boat out and get a design classic, then go the Audeze LCD-3 Over-Ear – they’re a fantastic set of headphones that will stand the test and time and grow old with you. Disgracefully 🙂
Drop me a line below with any questions or anything. Good luck!
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.