Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones (plus our top picks!)

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Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones

Are you looking for a new pair of headphones? If you’re a mixing or mastering engineer, a nice pair of headphones can be an invaluable tool. If you’re having trouble deciding between open back vs closed back headphones, we can help you make the right choice!

What Are Open Back Headphones?

Open back headphones are headphones which have ear cups that are not fully enclosed. That means sound will “leak” from the sides of the headphones, and ambient noise will still be audible to the listener. That creates a more open soundstage, creating a listening atmosphere that is somewhat closer to listening on speakers. Of course, you’re still using headphones, which means you don’t get that full speaker experience. However, it’s a great middle ground for someone who prefers speakers to headphones.

Pros of Open Back Headphones

Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones

That natural feel is a huge pro of open back headphones. I personally enjoy using open back headphones for mixing, because they offer a sound that is more similar to a stereo. I find that my mixes sound better on more sound systems when I use open back headphones.

Open back headphones really shine when listening to music that’s performed on location. For example, a recording of a chamber orchestra, recorded in nice stereo sound, will really sparkle through a nice pair of open back headphones.

Open back headphones also have less isolation and buildup, preventing ear fatigue.

While it may sound like sunshine and rainbows, open backs do have their drawbacks.

Cons of Open Back Headphones

So far, it sounds like open back headphones are the obvious choice! However, here are some cons of open backs.

• No isolation: open back headphones let it lots of ambient noise. That means you won’t be using them at your favorite coffee shop.

• No noise containment: If noise can get in, it can certainly get out. Even if you’re in a quiet room, open back headphones will disturb those around you. Sure, they might sound great in the study room of your university library, but others won’t be able to focus if you’re playing music through open back headphones.

• They’re the worst option for recording: If you’re looking to outfit a recording studio with top notch headphones, closed back headphones are the only choice. Your mics will pick up the click track or any monitoring that your performers will hear.

What are closed back headphones?

Chances are, unless you sought out open back cans, all of your over-the-ear headphones are closed back. Your typical big box store headphones, like Beats or AirPods Max, are going to be closed back by default. Many headphone brands offer open back options, but big box shops like Walmart or Target usually don’t carry them.

Pros of Closed Back Headphones

Closed back vs open back headhpones

Closed back headphones are great for lots of uses. They’re basically the only option for use in public spaces, due to their isolating ear cups. However, even if I’m at home, sometimes I’ll choose my closed back headphones due to the close nature of the sound. That “in your ears” vibe really helps me lock in and focus on the music when my ADHD is kicking in, which helps me knock out long lists of edits without getting distracted.

Closed back headphones are also great for dialing in bass frequencies in a mix. They are less forgiving when it comes to bass buildup, so it’s not a bad idea to reference your mix on some closed back headphones. That will show you a more accurate picture of what your song will sound like for others listening on standard, closed back headphones.

Cons of Closed Back Headphones

Besides sound preference, I find the biggest con of closed back headphones to be ear fatigue. On average, I’d say that I’m more likely to get tired of listening quicker when using closed back headphones. That is for two reasons: firstly, the bass buildup and overall harshness of some frequencies tends to be tiring when the sound only has one direction to go (toward your ear drum). Secondarily, the lack of ventilation means your ears will get warmer much quicker. During long listening periods, it’s not rare for my ears to end up sweaty.

My Sennheiser HD 560 s hanging out on the couch with some instruments.

My open back headphones

I currently have these open back headphones:

HIFIMAN HE400SE – My personal choice for mixing/mastering on a budget.
Sennheiser HD 560 S – Great casual listening headphones that offer a little more isolation than your typical open back headphones.
GRADO SR80x – Good for critical listening, but a bit harsh in the highs/mids for my taste. Not as comfortable to wear.
beyerdynamic DT 990 250 ohm – Extremely comfortable, great for long editing sessions. Don’t get the 250 ohm version unless you have a headphone amp, because they take more power to drive.

If you want my in-depth thoughts about which open back headphones are the best for mxing, check out this article!

My closed back headphones

I actually have way more but these are the ones worth mentioning…perks of running a studio for a decade.

Meze 99 Classics – This is probably my favorite “listening” headphone, especially if I’m working in a coffee shop or listening around the house.
beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro X – If you have recording clients, buy this headphone. The plush pads and padded headband make it a great comfort option for long vocal sessions. Your singer clients will thank you. Grab the 80ohm version unless you have a headphone amp.
Sennheiser HD 25 – A good, in your face, headphone with a straight ahead sound. These are good no-frills headphones.

Which is right for you? Open back or closed back headphones?

When it comes down to it, your choice will come down to your most common use case and your preferences. If you prioritize sound quality over everything, and you’re looking for a great pair of headphones to sit down and enjoy music with at home, open back headphones will be your best choice. If you’re looking for a pair of studio headphones that will be strictly for mixing or mastering (not tracking), open back headphones are a great choice!

If you’re going to be grabbing headphones to throw in your backpack, or you might want to do some listening on the go, closed back is the way to go. They’re the only style you can use for tracking sessions, since they will help prevent your microphone from picking up what’s playing in the headphones.

If you are limiting yourself to one pair of headphones for life, closed back is probably your best bet due to the versatility. After all, there’s a reason closed back headphones are basically the default option.

If you liked this article, check out the rest of our articles here!

Check out these open back headphones:

beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO

beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO

  • Less open than the others, feels like a hybrid between open and closed back
  • Extremely plush ear pads means you can work for hours without discomfort
  • Very aesthetically pleasing look
  • Available in 80 or 250 ohm version (go with 80 unless you only plan to use them with a headphone amp/interface)
Check Price
HIFIMAN HE400SE Planar Magnetic Headphones

HIFIMAN HE400SE Planar Magnetic Headphones

  • Extremely low-distortion and great bass response due to planar magnetic construction
  • Light-weight and very comfortable for long mixing sessions
  • Feels like a steal at the current price!
Check Price
Audio-Technica ATH-AD500X

Audio-Technica ATH-AD500X

  • A great first pair of open back mixing headphones
  • Makes a great upgrade from popular headphones like the ATH-20
  • Affordable enough to stock your whole studio or throw in a backpack
Check Price

Check out these closed back headphones:

Meze 99 Classics

Meze 99 Classics

  • Real wood ear cups
  • Extremely low impedance means they'll sound great from any source
  • Super comfy for long wearing sessions
Check Price
beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro

beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro

  • The most comfortable headphones I own
  • Plush ear pads feel luxurious
  • Sound quality is great, highlights the high end frequencies
Check Price
Sennheiser HD 25

Sennheiser HD 25

  • Capable Of Handling Very High Sound Pressure Levels
  • Available in standard, lite, and pro version
  • Very light and portable
Check Price

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About the Author: Adam Sliger

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I'm the founder of makethatlouder.com, and a producer, musician, and songwriter based out of Orlando, FL. I have 10 years experience producing and owning a commercial recording studio. I write and produce music for artists, TV, and for my solo project, Night Winds. When I'm not writing and recording, I'm into food, coffee, and riding rollercoasters!

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