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One of the important considerations any teacher has to make when setting up a Music Tech lab is what sort of headphones to buy for student use. It’s a daunting prospect to have to go through all the many options that are available, and if you have to buy 20 or 30 pairs at a time, it’s a decision you don’t want to get wrong. Here’s a few ideas of things to consider as you go headphone shopping.
1) Price: Nobody has the sort of money to drop $500 per pair just to get an entire class set of the latest Quincy Jones or Dr. Dre model. Expensive headphones, while they may be incredible for mixing, just aren’t in most people’s school budgets, and they’re likely to be stolen anyway. I tend to set an upper mark of $30 per pair for headphones, and I leave room in my budget each year to buy replacement pairs. I always have one or two spare pairs in my desk in case I need to replace headphones – I hate to have to ask a kid to wait a few days while I can order new ones from the store.
2) Comfort: Students should be comfortable while they work. They should be able to lose themselves in the music, so I always go for a comfy circumaural design (circumaural means the ear is completely enclosed by the headphone). When I am testing headphones I always try them out myself for a couple of hours. If during that time I completely forget I’m wearing headphones, then they’re going to be a success in the classroom.
3) Drivers: These are the speakers inside each earpiece. A size of 30mm or 40mm drivers is usually best for Music Tech lab work.
4) Frequency range: The standard range of human hearing is 20Hz-20,000Hz (20kHz). You should always buy headphones that cover these two ends of the frequency spectrum. If the range is short on either end, the resulting mix will sound like it was mixed by someone with hearing loss. If the range is larger than 20Hz-20,000Hz, the range of perceptible sound will not be any larger than this as the human ear rarely is able to hear outside this range. However, the ear is able to pick up the additional pressure wave above and below the audible frequency – therefore if the headphones are advertised as having “extra bass” and the lower end is below 20Hz, the bass is not actually louder – you just feel more low frequency waves in your body as the music plays (it’s like how if a car beside you at the lights has the bass booming through the stereo, you feel it before you hear it).
5) Indestructibility: Headphones get a lot of wear and tear during the course of a school year. Make good note of the material that the headphones are made of. Good headphones for class use should be made of very flexible material, so they can adjust easily to the shape of any student’s head. Make sure that the fabric around the ear pieces is strong as well. If you buy a set of headphones, and find yourself replacing a lot in a few weeks, make sure you try something different next time. Don’t keep replacing junk with junk.
6) Cord length and plug: Don’t buy headphones that have a ridiculously long cable. While this may be useful for walking around a pro studio, it’s only a problem in a lab, as all sorts of things can get caught on headphone cables and this can bring computers and keyboards crashing to the floor. With a short cable length, students have to remove their headphones to move anywhere in the room, and this is a good thing – you want them to get used to this. Headphones will come with one of two sizes of plugs – 1/8″ or 1/4″. Make sure you check the output of your computer or audio interface and choose headphones which have the correct corresponding plug. Many headphones also come with a free adapter to switch from 1/8″ to 1/4″. These little adapters can get lost easily (or be pocketed) but you can glue them over the original plug (use a very small amount of super glue as far away from the tip as you can) so long as you don’t need to switch between 1/8″and 1/4″ outputs.
Some important things to remember NOT to do –
Don’t buy headphones if you cannot see the specifications of driver size, frequency range, etc. on the box or on the website. If the company is choosing not to release that information, then they probably have a reason, and it’s rarely a good reason.
Don’t buy headphones that look convenient because they fold up nice and neat – they’ll fold up nice and neat right into students’ backpacks and you’ll never see them again.
Don’t buy noise-cancelling headphones for lab work. The method employed to perform noise-cancellation is certainly acceptable for enjoying your movie on a noisy airplane, but not for mixing music.
Don’t wrap the headphone cable tightly round the headphones just to keep them tidy. This will damage the cable. Hang the headphones on hooks at each station, or over the monitor. Establish a procedure for hanging up headphones early in the school year.
Don’t let the kids use their own earbuds for mixing. It may be convenient to have them bring their own, but you have no control over how good or bad the earbuds are, and mixes will suffer as a result. No professional studio musician ever mixed a track using earbuds.
Don’t try to use your voice to call attention to a full class of students using headphones. Many times students will be completely lost in their work, and they may not hear you calling for attention. It’s best to establish a visual cue for when you want their attention, such as lowering the lights for a moment.
In my own school we use two different types of headphones. In the Piano Lab we use JVC HARX300 headphones. They are very comfortable, sound lovely with our digital pianos, and they usually cost $20 each. In the Music Tech Lab we use Superlux HD 681 headphones. I bought these after a salesman at a local music store twisted up a pair, threw them across the room, and then jumped on them from his desk to show me they are truly indestructible. I have used them for several years now and have never replaced a single pair. They have the extra low end that my Music Tech students like, they are comfortable, and the kids just think they look awesome because they’re big, and they’re red and black. They usually cost $30.
If you have any recommendations for other sub-$30 headphones which are a success in a classroom, please feel free to leave comments (please include a link as well).
(Many thanks to vectorportal.com for the graphic of the girl wearing some pretty neat-looking headphones.)
Richard McCready is a composer, musician, and the Director of Music Technology at River Hill High School in Columbia, Maryland. He was born in Northern Ireland and studied tuba performance, piano, and composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, England. Since emigrating to the US in 1992, he has held teaching positions at The Park School of Baltimore, Towson University, and Mayfield Woods Middle School, Elkridge, MD; he has also played professionally with the Monumental Brass Quintet, the Lexington Brass Quintet, and the Denhard/McCready Duo. He has earned two Masters degrees from Towson University, one in tuba performance and one in vocal performance. He plays many musical instruments, but the focus of his teaching is Music Technology in which he is widely regarded as one of the outstanding innovators in the US. His book, Making Music with GarageBand and Mixcraft, was published in 2010. Richard was awarded the TI:ME 2013 Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year Award and also the Howard County 2013 Music Educator of the Year.