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.
These exceptionally affordable headphones give you studio-quality sound and impressive sound isolation, but they're still comfortable enough that you can wear them for even the longest tracking or mixing sessions
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.
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.
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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.
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.