1 – Quick and Dirty DIY Studio Headphones

A.K.A. The Thing Which May Have Started An Audio Arms Race Within The Band.

A couple of years ago, I inherited a pair of vintage quadraphonic cans that I’ve been using for studio monitoring, recording, etc. In addition to having that oh-so-sexy monochromatic brown aesthetic that permeated the electronics of the seventies and early eighties, and being roughly the size of halved coconuts, they boast decent sound, adequate bass response (for my purposes), dual inputs and thumb wheels for controlling the volume of each ear, but they’re damned painful to wear for more than a few minutes, due to the fact that the ear cups don’t age well at all. By the end of a long studio session wearing them, the sides of my head feel like I’ve been manhandled by an ear-fetishist-orangutan on an amphetamine binge. With superglue, an x-acto knife and some foam, I’d previously re-stuffed the ear pads, but the result was still somewhat lackluster. After some sniffing around on the internet, I found out that the manufacturer refurbishes any of their products, no matter the age, to their original condition, but while they were to be doing so, I was still out one set of studio cans.

Now I’ve amassed a fair assortment of headphones throughout the years, but none really provided the requisite noise reduction for use while drumming, and all the commercial headphones I found for this purpose were either widely panned by reviewers as ineffective or overly expensive, so I decided to try making a DIY set of studio headphones at a minimum cost and effort.

I had this whole thing planned out where this had no alt text.  Then I typed the product name, and the caption. I'm going to excuse the  following as an homage to The Office: "THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID!"

Image from the manufacturer's website: "Low Cost Folding Muff." Make all the jokes you want; I'm not touching that.

For the ‘enclosure,’ I went to a local hardware store and picked up some folding noise reduction earmuffs. They sport a 23dB noise reduction rating, have plenty of room inside the ear cups to fit headphone speakers, and best of all: they cost about $10, so the looming spectre of possibly having to Dremel the ever-loving shit out of them didn’t really intimidate me.

While rummaging through one of my caches of somewhat broken or disused items, I found an old pair of cheap Sony headphones (I’m not certain of the part number, since I’ve discarded the unused parts, but they’re similar to these.) that were missing the bar that goes over the top of your head, but were otherwise functional, so I popped them open, desoldered the speakers, and, sure enough, they fit snugly into the foam lining the inside of earmuffs.

From there, it was a simple matter of removing the foam, drilling a small hole in each cup and fitting the original Sony grommets into them to protect the wire from any rough edges. Then, I just fed the wire through and, after placing a small knot in the wire to prevent any pulling of the wire from causing them to dislodge from the speaker terminals, soldered the wires onto the speakers and slipped everything back inside. In order to discourage the speakers from any ill-advised attempts to escape from their home when the headphones aren’t in use, and also to make it look a bit less like I’d just crammed speakers in there, I took four small pieces of scavenged screen material (like you’d find on a screen door), cut them to be larger than the earmuff opening, stapled them into pairs (with their patterns offset, so they’re harder to see through), and placed each pair inside the ear cup.

The finished product:

The screens are really optional, but I think it looks much better with than without.

With screens removed for comparison.

...and folded up for easy storage.

The verdict:

At an out-of-pocket cost of about $10, and with a bare minimum of work done to finish them, the price couldn’t be any better. The sound produced by the previously underwhelming speakers is much more impressive in their new enclosed mounting, and the overall effect is one of being completely isolated with the sound. I’d originally planned to leave these in the studio, but they’ve turned out to be ideal for watching TV or listening to music while my wife is sleeping, so they always follow me home. As for studio uses, the passive noise reduction is such that if I leave them completely seated around my ears, my drums are so quiet and muffled that it’s distracting. I’ve taken to slightly offsetting one side from my ear so the seal isn’t complete, in order to counter this, and the result is a perfect amount of noise reduction and hearing protection while still being able to hear what I’m doing live.

Outside opinion:

Before I decided to do this, our singer decided to spring for some expensive active noise canceling studio cans. After I made these, and let him use them to listen to some assorted tracks, he begrudgingly declared the sound quality to be similar enough to be… frustrating.

Modification/future plans:

  • The original cord was a bit too short to reach across a drumset, past two guitar setups, and into a soundboard, so I bought a headphone extension cord, cut off the appropriate ends of both wires, then soldered and heat-shrink-tubed them together. Now it reaches the soundboard perfectly, and when I go home, it even spans the gap between the couch and the home theater without causing a tripping hazard or dangling in such a way as to become a cat-tooth magnet.
  • The speakers, being cheap to begin with and old on top of that, perform admirably at normal volumes, but the sound deteriorates a bit when they’re being used for guitar monitoring at higher levels, so I’ve been shopping around for some replacement speakers to upgrade from the existing models. I’ve narrowed the list down to a few replacements, and may end up doing that fairly soon, after I replace some drum hardware. If I do, I’ll post updates here. Of course, the drive to do this has been egged on by the fact that Paul is upgrading his headphones, so the end result of this audio arms race may be that I try something stupid like attempting to use 6×9″ car speakers, or something equally asinine. Remember, we’re part of the generation that grew up watching Home Improvement… so never underestimate the things we’ll do for the sake of testosterone-induced oneupmanship.
  • I fell in love with the ability to control the volume in each ear that the Koss cans provided, so I may integrate this feature later. If I do, it will probably be implemented in a similar fashion: small log pots mounted in the individual ear cups to control the individual channels. However, I’m probably going to end up making a small (CMOY or similar) headphone amp to properly drive the upgraded speakers, so I suppose I could just implement it there. The damned cord’s so long now, though, that if I do this, I’ll either have to set-it-and-forget-it at the far end, or go with an inline solution by splicing it into the wire a couple of feet down from the cans… and possibly add a belt clip to keep it from banging around, although that’s dangerously bordering on fanny pack territory.

Bottom line: I’m very pleased with the results, and the effort required for the entire ‘project’ was extremely minimal. I’d highly recommend that anyone looking to upgrade headphones consider giving this a shot.


2 Responses to “1 – Quick and Dirty DIY Studio Headphones”

  1. One thing I’ve learned is to never put price over Quality. In my line of work a quality sound makes a huge different

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more; Quality-with-a-capital-Q is never to be underrated. That being said, when it’s a situation where I’m just needing something to allow me to hear a scratch track when I’m recording live drum parts, and they’re probably going to be subjected to a measure of rough handling in transit, it’s nice to have these. The ones you linked to, for example, cost much closer to $100, which is not bad at all for a good set of cans, but it’s frankly a bit of overkill for this application, and I’d hate to see them damaged in a road case or lost somewhere.

    This was also sort of a proof-of-concept, just to see if there was some major drawback of the idea that I’d been missing. I’ve already replaced the enclosures and I’ve still got my eye on some much higher quality replacement drivers for these, at a cost that’s still a hell of a bargain.

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