Sound Advice: A Listening Ear

Raise your right hand and repeat after me: "I promise to always keep headphones in my camera bag and to use them on every shoot." You’d think everyone would know this by now, but there are diehards and new shooters who simply haven’t learned this lesson yet. Here’s the short version: a good pair of headphones can save your bacon on a high-pressure shoot and are invaluable in many other areas of production. They truly are an investment in the final quality of your video sound. Unless sound just isn’t important to you.

Seriously, videographers all over the globe shoot footage every day without the aid of headphones. At the very least, they’re risking low-quality audio with unnecessary noise or hum. In the worst case, they might discover they have no audio at all. That means a re-shoot, lost time, wasted money and an unhappy client. The good news is you can save yourself all this grief by simply investing in a good pair of headphones.

Fit and Finish

Headphones are not one-size-fits-all items. There are many different types and styles, in addition to various price categories. As to how they fit, there are three specific headphone categories. The circum-aural design completely covers your ears with a large, cushioned cups. These headphones are generally considered the best choice for high-isolation situations like live events, concerts and outdoor shoots. The full cover over the ears is also quite comfortable and allows for long listening sessions. The only drawback to this design is weight and size. They can also make your ears perspire quite a lot.

With an on-the-ear-fit, supra-aural headphones are one of the most common headphones you’ll see being used with portable music devices. Since they fit on the outside of your ears, but do not wrap around them, this type of headphone cannot isolate you as well from outside noises. In quiet environments, the sound quality from a good pair of supra-aurals is often amazing. In fact, some of the best sound available in headphones today is from supra-aural designs. On additional benefit is the variety of available headbands. Several manufacturers now offer a behind-the-head headband that simply hooks the headphones over your ears. This is an excellent option if you’re wearing a cap or just don’t want to muss your hair.

Finally, there is the in-ear type, often called ear-buds. Although there are many excellent in-ear headphones on the market, you won’t find the good ones at your local MegaMart or electronics retailer. The typical ear-bud you’ll see on the street is an inexpensive, lightweight design with questionable sound quality. Another downside is the length of cable: in-ear headphones often have just two or three of feet of wire between the earphone and the plug. This is ideal for portable music players, but not so good for your video camera.

Testing, 1-2-3

Regardless of the headphone design you choose, listen closely before you buy, since all headphones are not created equal. If you’re just grabbing a utility pair for confidence monitoring, this is less of an issue, but if you’re spending more money on headphones than you have for lunch this week, take some time to listen for the differences.

The first step is to find a couple of stores in the area that have multiple headphones on display, preferably with a CD player you can easily access. Take some of your favorite music and try several different pairs. It won’t take long to hear a radical difference in the various models and styles.

Your task is to balance the price against sound quality, fit, comfort and durability. Keep in mind that most of your video sound monitoring will be for voices. A natural, flat sound quality without much hype is ideal for this application, but may not sound as cool on your Peter Gabriel collection, where enhanced bass response might be more desirable.

Don’t forget the connector. Most, if not all, camcorders have only a 1/8-inch headphone jack for monitoring. This is a flimsy situation, but one you cannot change. If the headphones you want only come with a 1/4-inch plug, make sure the package includes an adapter (most do).

Unfortunately, the resulting composite plug could be five or six inches in length and this is dangerous to the health of your camcorder. The first time someone bangs up against the headphone plug, you’ll break something, maybe something that is expensive to repair.

As an alternative, stop by your favorite electronics retailer and buy a short headphone extension cable that you can use in addition to the 1/4-inch adapter.


In the Real World

With your shiny new headphones around your neck, it’s time to shoot some video. A good pair of headphones will help you with microphone positioning by allowing you to listen to your setup before you roll tape. Headphones can even help with microphone selection. After listening to the sound of your first microphone choice under actual shoot conditions, you may decide to go with Plan B instead. And here headphones are telling you about the subjective quality of the sound, which is something simple level meters cannot do. Of course, headphones are an excellent way to check for dead mike batteries, noisy connections and nasty hums and buzzes. All these help to improve the quality of your video sound.

And don’t forget, there are other practical uses for your new headphones. During narration recording, you or your vocal talent may want to use headphones to monitor as you record. This helps the talent by allowing them to hear the effects of microphone position on their voice. You can also spot noisy paper shuffling, background and other noises more easily with headphones.

Although you may have excellent speakers on your video editing system, headphones are like a microscope and can help you during audio editing. Listening with tiny speakers on your ears is an exaggerated perspective on your sound and can help identify breaths and other odd noises in your audio track, things you might easily miss on speakers. (Note: Headphones are not recommended for tweaking the final mix, however.) Headphones are also great for privacy and isolation if you’re editing in a noisy environment. If you’re the brave sort who edits video on a laptop, headphones are an essential part of your production environment.

Regardless of whether you need them for confidence monitoring, narration recording or just to kick back with some tunes after a long day of editing video, headphones are an important part of any videographers kit. Find a pair that best fits your specific situation and make friends with them. They will save you grief and pain on a regular basis.

Sidebar: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

For the longest time, I carried a pair of lightweight cheapie headphones in my camera bag. They came bundled with a portable MP3 player and I hated the way they sounded, but they were free and I had to have something to monitor video sound. Those horrible little ‘phones traveled thousands of miles in my camera case–even overseas–and as much as I hated them, they did their job. So, am I a headphone hypocrite? No, I finally upgraded to very nice folding model from a major manufacturer, but the moral of the story is, virtually any pair of headphones are better than no ‘phones at all.

Sidebar: A Hint From The Professionals

Ever wonder what kind of headphones the pros use? Probably not, unless you’re an audio geek, but it’s pretty easy to find out these days. Stop at the local video rental store and find a couple of famous-name movies that contain making-of documentaries. Watch closely and you’ll see the audio person and possibly the director wearing their headphones of choice. Manufacturers and models are all over the map, but Sony MDR-7506 headphones seem to be fairly common. This model is the darling of the professional sound industry for its durability, comfortable fit and excellent sound quality. Or, you can pretend to be Stephen Soderberg and use the headphones that came with your portable stereo.

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