Open-Back vs Closed-Back Headphones (Pros, Cons & Which To Get)

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  • Find out about the differences between open-back and closed-back headphones for mixing music
  • What are the pros and cons of each?
  • Which should you get and why?

This question surrounding which style of headphones to use has been a heated discussion for years, even among the best in the industry

Closed-back headphones are the norm, and provide adequate sound for music listening and production. However open-back headphones have become increasingly popular for mixing and music production over the years.

In this article, we’re going to break down exactly what makes which headphones the best and why.

Are Open-Back Headphones Better Than Closed-Back Headphones For Mixing?

While open-back vs closed-back headphones for mixing is still a highly debated topic among engineers at the dinner table, more are supporting the use of open headphones for mixing.

While open headphones do tend to have more background noise, to many engineers they sound more natural than closed headphones, which have more sound isolation causing faster ear fatigue. Closed-back headphones also have a skewed low-end response due to the sound being ‘trapped’ by the design of the headphones.

If you’re doing serious mixing work on headphones, you should definitely consider grabbing a pair of open-back headphones.

What’s The Difference? (Open-Back Headphones Vs Closed Back Headphones)

Obvious statement alert: the main difference between open-back vs closed-back headphones is what is on the outside. The name is already a giveaway in both cases, so you are correct to assume that closed-back headphones are ‘sealed up’ on the back to prevent the sound getting out, but open-back headphones are not.

Even when starting out in this industry, it is basic knowledge that headphones are one of the essentials for mixing. Which pair you choose will either help or hurt your final mix.

When choosing between open and closed back headphones, it is good to know what that physical design difference means for both you and your mix.

Open-back headphones get you closer to the sound of your audience’s headphones or car speakers, though they are no substitute for the all-important ‘car-test’.

Because open headphones are exposed to the environment around them, this means you are as well.

Open headphones keep you engaged in your surroundings while still letting you have your main focus on the session in front of you, so you will still be able to listen for the doorbell ring when the pizza person shows up with your late-night session snack. 

When testing the frequency response though, there is a major difference in the low-end with closed headphones. This is due to the physical design of the headphones.

Closed headphones are also the more socially acceptable of the options. If you have not noticed, many of the headphones that are widely advertised like Beats, Sony MDRs, or TASCAM’s are all closed headphones.

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This is because closed-back headphones stop the sound from disturbing others, even if the volume in your headphones is very loud!

(Austrian Audio’s Hi-X50 headphones are one pair of closed-back headphones you can trust for mixing. Check out our full review here!)

Breaking Down The Differences

Background Noise/Bleed

One major difference between the two is that closed headphones greatly reduce any background noise, so you have more sound isolation for your headphone mixes.

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These headphones can be great for casual public listening and the majority of commercial and mainstream headphones are closed-back.

With everyone having their own musical preferences, we typically do not want to listen to other people’s music when we want to focus on our own. Basically, no one thinks a mashup of Katy Perry and Metallica would sound good while on a thirteen-hour flight in a chock-full plane.

Tonal Differences

Because closed headphones are so good at keeping all that sound in, that means there is nowhere for it to go. It would be like throwing a tennis ball on a trampoline then putting a lid on the trampoline.

Much like the tennis ball, the sound keeps bouncing between the closed-back plastic and your set of ears. With closed headphones, the frequency response is altered because of the echoing in them due to the confinement.

As a result, open-back headphones also provide better soundstage than their closed-back counterparts. Soundstage refers to the headphone’s ability to accurately project stereo depth and width.

If you’re mixing on headphones, try Immerse Virtual Studio and make sure your mixes sound great wherever they are played!

Pricing

Open headphones are marketed to the more professional recording studios and big-name audio businesses so it is good to have a pair of your own and be used to the sound if you plan on working in these environments.

Because open headphones are marketed for pro audio, they are generally more expensive than closed headphones. This is a price tag that not many people just starting out in music production can afford.

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Maintenance

With open headphones being exposed to the surrounding environment, it makes them more difficult to keep clean. While this is not thought of often, keeping dust and buildup out of the open back of the headphones is difficult, and having them professionally cleaned is another expense added on.

Are Headphones A Good Substitute For Studio Monitors?

No, closed headphones are not a good substitute for studio monitors. Because you are so isolated from everything around you, you take out the ability to know what your mix would sound like in its more open environment, the room itself.

Speaking as someone who used to work with just the bare necessities on a budget, I completely understand trying to get your operation up off the ground.

Sometimes you only have the budget to get either monitors or studio headphones. For this reason, open headphones are a good alternative to studio monitors, though they are by no means a proper replacement.

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So, Which Should You Get? Open-Back Or Closed-Back?

For me, open headphones are more comfortable for wearing for longer sessions and allow you to be immersed in your mix without disconnecting yourself from your surrounding environment.

Although open headphones are the more expensive of the two, if you allow yourself to spend the extra bit of money you will do your ears (and mixes) a favor.

Open headphones are easier on your ears and the mixes you make with them will translate well to studio monitors.

However, it is critical to take into account everything that you need in headphones, whether that deciding factor is the tonal balance, the sound stage, or simply personal comfort.

If you’d like to once again further your headphone expertise, be sure to check out our article on balanced vs unbalanced headphones as well as The Worlds Best Headphone Brands (Our 7 Picks).

FAQ’s

Do Closed-back Headphones Have More Bass?

Most closed headphones have more ‘impact’ in the low end compared to open headphones. This is due to the closed-back design ‘trapping’ the lower frequencies.

Because open headphones are designed not to seal your ears completely, most closed headphones have a more desirable bass range than open headphones. 

Why Do Open-back Headphones Have A Better Soundstage?

Because of the design of open headphones, the music and sound are free to move more naturally than with enclosed headphones.

With this openness, you are provided a wider soundstage, finer details in your headphone mixes, and a more natural representation of what your mix will sound like in a room through speakers.