Open back headphones are my favorite type of headphones for mixing. Thanks to the open ear cups, they allow sound to pass in and out of the headphones. This has two distinct advantages over traditional closed back headphones. 1: The open sides allow for a less isolated, more “natural” sounding headphone, and 2: bass frequencies are allowed to escape, leading to less bass buildup.
Due to the open nature of these headphones, they are typically relegated to studio/desktop use only. They’re not suitable for travel or wearing in public, unless you want everyone in your Uber pool to listen to your music!
With that being said, if you’re looking for a new pair of open back headphones for mixing, we’ve got you covered! Over the years, I’ve hunted for the best open back headphones for mixing, and I’ve compiled them into a list for any budget!
So without further delay, let’s get to the headphones!
- 1 Top 3 Open Back Headphones for Mixing
- 2 The Under $100 pick: Sennheiser HD 559
- 3 What to look for in open back mixing headphones
Top 3 Open Back Headphones for Mixing
Top Pick: Sennheiser HD 650
The Sennheiser HD 650 is a classic headphone model for a reason! They offer a well balanced, open sound with a high level of detail across all frequencies. Unlike some open back headphones in this price range, the mids and highs on these headphones aren’t overly bright, allowing you to get a great picture of how your vocals will translate when mixing for different speaker systems. While some headphones are overly bassy, the extremely open feel stops bass buildup at the source, making sure you don’t under-mix the low end. I find these easy to mix with for long hours without getting ear fatigue, meaning you can work longer hours and get more done in a day!
The build quality of the HD 650 is fantastic, and the headband padding is comfortable. The ear cups are quite large, which takes some getting used to, but they’re otherwise comfy for long sessions. Thanks to the popularity of the HD 650, you can purchase replacement ear pads easily, and there are multiple types of ear pads to pick from. If you’re someone who prefers velvet ear pads, you can easily swap out the included pads for a pair of aftermarket ones.
Budget Pick: HiFiMan HE400SE
The HiFiMan HE400SE are a fantastic option for someone looking to get their first pair of open back headphones, or their first pair of magnetic planar headphones. Magnetic planar headphones differ from traditional headphones, because they use magnetic drivers, instead of the classic dynamic ones.
These magnetic planar headphones offer excellent bass response, due to the conductive diaphragm design. These cans don’t require a headphone amp or interface to power them, which is why my friend David has practically stolen mine to mix while he’s on tour.
For the price, I’m consistently surprised at just how great these headphones sound. They’re also fairly comfortable, with very thick ear cups and a very padded headband. If you’re looking for a first pair of open back headphones, or you don’t have any planar headphones, I highly suggest grabbing a pair of these! They’re an awesome tool to have in your audio tool box.
Also consider: beyerdynamic DT990 Pro
These beyerdynamic headphones are super comfortable, so they’re great for long mixing sessions. The velvet ear pads and soft headband mean you can wear these for hours at a time without feeling the need to take them off!
I would describe the treble as being slightly overstated with these headphones, similar to the Yamaha NS10m studio monitors. For some, that’s a good thing, because it forces you to be very analytical with your vocals and guitars, dialing in those mids and highs. For others, it may be a bit grating. If you plan on using your headphones for both mixing and casual listening, that might get old quick.
They are more closed off than the Sennheiser HD 650, making the sound feel more like a cross between open and closed back headphones. I find them to block out a bit more outside noise, so they don’t feel totally wide open. That can be a plus if you’re used to closed back headphones or don’t have a perfectly quiet room situation.
It’s also important to make sure your headphone amp can power the 250 ohm version. If you’re using an interface or headphone amp, you should be fine, but a cell phone or laptop headphone jack won’t push this version to their full potential. You may want to opt for the 80 ohm version if that’s your main use case. While these aren’t the best sounding headphones I have, the comfort factor has me reaching for them often for long editing tasks or strenuous recording sessions.
The Under $100 pick: Sennheiser HD 559
If you’re looking for a cheaper pair of open back headphones from a reputable brand, the Sennheiser HD 559 are my suggestion.
If you’re wanting a cheap pair of open back headphones, and don’t want to spend over $100, these are serviceable pair of cans! The 50 ohm power requirements of these cans mean you can easily use them with just a laptop or smartphone audio jack. They’re also a solid upgrade for gaming headsets. That makes them a great pick for general “around the house” headphones. If you’re looking for the open, wide sound stage of open backs, these will fit the bill.
The detachable cable is a nice feature, since the cable is usually the first thing to go on cheap headphones. Be aware that the included cable is a 1/4in jack, so you might want to replace it with a standard headphone cable, or you’ll need an adapter for it to fit in your phone/laptop.
With a limited budget comes certain trade-offs, so if you can spring for the HiFiMans, I’d suggest saving that extra few bucks. However, if your budget is firmly under $100, these open back headphones should serve you well!
What to look for in open back mixing headphones
What are the key aspects you should keep in mind when searching for a solid pair of open back headphones?
Sound quality is the #1 factor in an open back headphone for mixing. You want to find headphones that are transparent and don’t over emphasize the bass or treble in your music. Thankfully, most open back headphones are geared towards audiophiles and recording engineers, so it’s not too hard to find transparent open back headphones. Of all of the open back headphones I’ve tried, I found the Grado Labs headphones to have very hyped treble, which some audiophiles prefer, but I found it too distracting for mixing.
The second priority for mixing headphones is comfort. If your headphones aren’t comfortable, you’ll probably find it hard to sit down and mix for hours at a time. The headband tightness, ear pad material, and overall shape of the headphones will play a factor in how comfortable you find them. If you wear glasses while you work, the softer velvet pads of the beyerdynamic headphones will probably be your favorite! All of the headphones on this list are adjustable, so you should be able to make them comfotrable for your head.
Another aspect of comfort is ear fatigue. In general, open back headphones will lead to less ear fatigue due to the lack of isolation. However, overly bright headphones, other than being less than ideal for mixing, will also take a toll on your hearing throughout the day. As your session wears on, you’ll probably regret choosing over-hyped, bright sounding headphones. Learn more about ear fatigue with this in-depth article.
While there are tons of headphones to choose from at almost every price point, I personally find the $400 range to be where you start to hit the level of diminishing returns. When you’re mixing music, it’s certainly important to reference high quality speakers or headphones. However, it’s also important to keep in mind a few things.
Firstly, you’re mixing music for the general public, as well as audiophiles. A great mix can be achieved on an affordable pair of speakers, considering the average listener is going to be listening on AirPods, a cell phone, or their car stereo. Also, audiophiles with $2,000 headphones love having something to nit-pick, so they’ll be happy to hear a bit of sibilance you didn’t catch on a vocal you’re mixing (I kid, sorta). If you’ve got a nice pair of open back headphones, you’re already mixing on a better setup than 99% of people who are listening to music. Your studio monitors, headphones, and a trip or two to your car to do the classic “car test” is usually enough to nail the mix.
With that being said, I suggest you get the nicest pair of reasonable headphones that you can afford. Do you need a pair of $3,000 magnetic planar headphones? No. But should you be listening on something nice and of high quality, especially if you’re charing clients for mixes and need professional results? Absolutely.
Build quality and durability
In theory, open back mixing headphones are usually going to stay at your desk. They aren’t something you’re going to be throwing in the front seat of your car or wearing while working out. For that reason, I’m usually not super concerned with the durability of my open back headphones. As long as they are being treated with respect, most open back mixing headphones are going to survive many years of use, whether they’re made of plastic or metal.
The ideal headphone for mixing has a combination of great sound quality and transparency in a comfortable package!
So, which open back mixing headphones should I pick?
If you’re purely looking for great sounding headphones at an attainable price point, the Sennheiser HD 650 is our pick. If you’re looking for something that will punch above its weight, the HiFiMans are a great option. The beyerdynamics are great for mixing as well as editing, due to the extreme comfort. The HD 559 are a solid budget choice for general use.
If you’re curious about open back headphones, and want to learn more about them, check out this article where we discuss the pros and cons of open back headphones for mixing and for daily use. It’s important to make sure that open back headphones are the right choice for your workflow before investing in a nice pair!
No matter which headphones you pick, a nice pair of open back headphone are a great tool to have in your mixing arsenal, and the open soundstage will provide a nice contrast from the closed back headphones that you’re probably used to!