Best Open Back Headphones for Mixing (2019)

Best Open Back Headphones for MixingIf you’ve come to this post, it means that you a little more about audio production than just the elementary requirements, and are looking for something specifically designed to do a certain task… namely mixing, or even mastering. The good news is that, though the list is virtually endless, with plenty fanboys on either side, this post is specifically designed to take the guesswork out of deciding for yourself.

So we’ve come up with ten of the best best open-back headphones for mixing on the market, each of which provides excellent performance and great value.

We’ll also offer some suggestions on how to choose the right set of headphones for mixing and mastering, and why open-back models are the better choice.


Table of Contents

The Best of The Best Mixing Headphones is…

There are so many excellent open-back headphones on the market today that mix engineers can’t go wrong whichever they choose. But three models stand out in particular: the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro, the Sennheiser HD 800 S, and the Audio-Technica ATH-R70x (best budget option). Each boasts of outstanding quality, neutral sound reproduction, and the proud legacy of an established brand name. Let’s take a closer look at what each model has to offer.

Beyerdynamic  DT 1990 Pro

The DT 1990 Pro from Beyerdynamic has everything you would expect from a German-made piece of studio equipment. Excellent build and state-of-the-art technology come together in a truly exceptional pair of open-back headphones that you would be proud to have in your studio.

The technological innovations are highlighted by the transducer, which is Beyerdynamic’s own design. Called the “Tesla Driver”, this transducer allows for more efficient sound reproduction even at loud levels. These drivers work in conjunction with another Beyerdynamic innovation: the titanium-coated fabric wrapped around the ear cups. Together, these two features provide well-balanced sound with just a hint of natural ambiance.

If you prefer a more “mix-friendly” and “analytical” sound, you could also switch to the other set of earpads included with the package. Although a seemingly simple ‘hack’, this actually changes the sound significantly, so it’s almost as if you are getting two headphones for the price of one.

It does take a bit of maneuvering to get the ear pads to lock into the proper position. Once you get the technique down however, you should be able to swap out the pads in a few minutes.

Not that you have to keep swapping them, of course. Most people will probably decide on one usage or another–listening or mixing–and will likely stick to one set of earpads. Mix engineers, in particular, will probably want to stick to the ‘mixing’ pair to get accustomed to the frequency response of the DT 1990 Pro.

In terms of actual sound quality, the DT 1990 definitely impresses regardless of which ear pads you are using. The response is amazingly clear and detailed, with a nicely balanced soundstage and un-hyped top-end presence. You could easily use this to mix jazz, classical, and pop productions, but it also has enough power to provide satisfying volume and distortion-free clarity for rock and hip-hop. One reviewer summed it up nicely by describing the DT 1990 as professional-grade cans that you could also use for casual listening.

The other components of the DT 1990 are equally well-made. The plush leather headband keeps the weight balanced evenly across your head, which is no mean feat considering how much the DT 1990 weighs. At 370 grams, these headphones have a nice heft to it that never gets uncomfortable due to the headband design.

Sennheiser is a name that should be familiar to pro audio aficionados and studio mavens. Known for its excellent microphones and headphones, the company aptly illustrates its expertise in the latter category with the HD 800 S.

Video Review

Sennheiser HD 800 S

The original HD 800 was an impressive set of cans that took the audio production world by storm when it was released in 2009. Considered by many to be one of the most transparent headphones on the market, it helped establish Sennheiser’s dominance in the audio industry.

As expected, the HD 800 S represents a significant departure from the original model. Although the HD 800 was widely praised for its clinical transparency, some users felt that it was just too clean and unforgiving. In response to this user feedback, Sennheiser modified the original design to be just slightly warmer and softer. Don’t worry: the pristine and accurate reproduction still remains, but with a somewhat smoother and gentler profile.

In many ways, the Sennheiser HD 800 is a more user-friendly HD 800 that takes human listening preferences into account. The newer version is still amazingly detailed, with a multidimensional soundstage that could almost be described as the aural equivalent of 3D, effectively useful for mixing with the stereo image in mind. If you are used to studio headphones that assault your ears with an overwhelming wash of sound, the depth and clarity of the HD 800 S will come as a pleasant surprise.

How does all this translate into actual use? Used for mixing, we were amazed at how the different instruments in pop and jazz recordings stood out in sharp relief. It was easy to pick out the various layers in even the densest mixes, and we could also make out the position of each instrument in the soundstage.

The HD 800 S becomes even more impressive with more complex arrangements. This is one set of cans that handles multilayered compositions with ease, and you never get a sense of being overwhelmed by the sound.

The bass response was also pretty impressive, with a nice, satisfying depth and weight that makes it a surprisingly good choice for mixing hip-hop and EDM. Even so, we feel that the HD 800 S truly shows off its capabilities when mixing pop, jazz, classical, and acoustic music.

Audio-Technica ATH-R70x

Our third pick for the best open-back headphones for mixing is the Audio-Technica ATH-R70x. Audio-Technica is another familiar name in the pro audio industry, with a range of high-quality products priced within reach of most project studio budgets.

The ATH-R70x is a good example, with professional features that you would normally expect from a much higher-priced unit. It boasts of 45 mm drivers that deliver low and high frequencies well beyond the range of most “prosumer” headphones. This translates to an extended frequency range that makes the ATH-R70x well-suited for mixing everything from pop and rock to hip-hop and EDM and even acoustic and classical music.

The ATH-R70x’s capability in the loudness department is apparent in the use of pure alloy magnetic circuitry, which enables these cans to crank out loud volumes without worries. Harmonic distortion remains at a very tolerable 1% or less throughout most of the volume range. It’s only when you crank the mains to 90dB when you hear a hint of grit, which peaks at about 4% at 20Hz.

The aluminum honeycomb-mesh housing provides a more natural sound than you would expect from open-back headphones. Of course, the open-back design makes these cans less suited for reproducing deep, deep sub-bass. But this is more due to the physics of the open-back design rather than any shortcomings of the ATH-R70x.

You could expect a roll-off to -6dB at frequencies of 40Hz, so you won’t exactly get ghetto-thumping bass out of this pair. Even so, the low-end reproduction is sufficient for most mixdown purposes, even for hip-hop, trap, and EDM, wherein hearing the bass is essential.

The ATH-R70x employs the familiar “wings” design headband, which keeps them securely fixed atop your head. You will definitely feel that you have headphones on while wearing these, but the experience isn’t the least bit uncomfortable. Although the build is fairly robust, these headphones are pretty lightweight. Combined with the velour ear pads, we did not experience any discomfort even when wearing these for hours of tracking and mixdown.

Overall, the ATH-R70x provides excellent value, and even outperforms many other open-back headphones in a slightly higher price range. As long as you don’t expect to get loads of sub-bass out of them, these cans will serve you well.

Video Demo


The Top 10 Best Open Back Headphones for Mixing

Of course, for those who want to see as many options as possible and come to their own conclusions (which we certainly encourage), here are 10 of the best possible options, in our opinion, that you choose from.

This includes some even more budget friendly options, so make sure to take the time to check them out.

Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro

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The DT 1990 Pro from Beyerdynamic is a premium set of open-back headphones that offers cutting-edge design technology. Proudly made in Germany, it boasts of the superb build quality and innovation that studio professionals have come to expect from German-made gear. If you are looking for a set of headphones that you could rely on for years to come, the DT 1990 Pro is the one.

Legacy aside, what makes the DT 1990 Pro such an excellent choice for mixing and mastering is the absolutely pristine sound quality emanating from the ear cups. Central to this experience is the transducer technology known as the “Tesla Driver”, which enables the DT 1990 Pro to crank out massive sound without the least bit of distortion. These transducers handle high levels that would make most other headphones buckle, and are a large part of what makes the DT 1990 such a reliable studio standby.

The sound is further improved by the titanium-coated acoustic fabric, which provides a totally balanced sound with just a hint of natural ambiance. You actually get two sets of earpads with the DT 1990 Pro: the standard set which gives you balanced sound reproduction and another set that is better suited for mixing.

With an impedance of 250 ohms, the DT 1990 Pro isn’t all about sheer power. Some users find that pairing it with a headphone amplifier brings out its more subtle qualities. No matter how you use it however, the DT 1990 Pro is a solid choice for mixing applications.

Sennheiser HD 800 S

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Sennheiser’s HD 800 S builds on the formidable legacy of the HD 800, which was widely considered one of the finest open-back headphones in its class. While the original earned plenty of acclaim for its transparency, the HD 800 S provides a slightly warmer and softer sound that some would find more pleasing to the ear.

Of course, mixing headphones aren’t supposed to flatter the sound in any way. In order to get an accurate mix that translates well to different systems and playback devices, mixing headphones should be as neutral as possible.

With the HD 800 S, the transparency and neutrality that mix engineers require are still present, but in a more aesthetically pleasing flavor. This approach lends itself to long hours of mixing, with none of the fatigue that often results from clinically clean and transparent cans.

If you’re worried about how all this translates to the mix environment, you can put your fears to rest. Sennheiser hasn’t abandoned the depth and detail that characterized the HD 800, so you still get the accurate soundstage and imaging that you need to crank out killer mixes. Bass parts still come through with weight and punch, but the treble is a lot easier on the ears.

Admittedly, the HD 800 S is a bit expensive. But you simply can’t put a premium on quality, and these cans definitely have that in spades. Whether you are mixing pop, jazz, classical, hip-hop, or EDM, you can’t go wrong with the Sennheiser HD 800 S.

Audio-Technica ATH-R70x

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The Audio-Technica ATH-R70x is a set of reference headphones intended for the professional audio market. Its main features are a pair of 45 mm drivers that effectively extend the frequency range at the high and low end of the spectrum and pure alloy magnetic circuitry that minimizes distortion. Between these two features, the ATH-R70x provides a crisp, clear, and detailed sound that mix engineers need for balanced mixes.

The ATH-R70x is an open-back design, with earcups that have aluminum honeycomb-mesh housings for a more natural sound. If you have done all of your mixing on closed-back headphones, the more ear-friendly and open sounding reproduction of the ATH-R70x will be a breath of fresh air.

Although robust, the ATH-R70x is amazingly lightweight and comfortable on the head and ears. You could easily wear these in all-night mixing sessions without feeling cramped or constrained in any way. The trademark Audio-Technica “wings” also do a good job of keeping these headphones securely positioned. Even if you get carried away after a particularly excellent take, you won’t have to worry about shaking these off!

Like most open-back headphones, the ATH-R70x doesn’t exactly pump out loads of bass. There is a distinct roll-off at 40Hz, so you might struggle to get those booming 808 kicks tuned just right. If you do a lot of work in the trap and hip-hop arenas, you might find a more bass-heavy pair of headphones better suited to your needs. For all other applications, however, the ATH-R70x should prove to be a worthy studio companion.

AKG K702

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From AKG comes the K702, which is supposedly a “completely neutral” set of open-back headphones developed for mixing and mastering professionals. Like the best reference headphones, the K702 is almost totally transparent, with none of the frequency bands emphasized perceivably. This makes it easier to nail balanced and even mixes that translate well no matter where the music is played.

When you strap on the K702 for the first time, you might find the neutral sound reproduction a bit unsettling. If you are used to consumer headphones, the distinct absence of bass thump and piercing highs might seem less than exciting. But that kind of transparency is exactly what you need in mixing headphones, which is why the K702 is such a great choice.

Of course, there are instances wherein the K702 might not be the most suitable set of cans. If you do a lot of hip-hop and EDM mixdowns, you really do need a pair of headphones that let you hear the bass with sufficient volume and clarity. You might, therefore, want to augment the K702 with a more bass-heavy set of cans or reference your mixes on monitor speakers.

In any case, the K702 is practically tailor-made for mixing most any other type of music. Instruments stand out clearly across the soundstage, and transients come through in vivid detail. If you are looking for a totally balanced sound with no bass or treble hype, the K702 deserves a spot on your shortlist.

Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro

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Beyerdynamic’s DT-990 Pro is yet another set of open-back headphones that promise clean, clear, and transparent sound. And considering Beyerdynamic’s reputation for pro-quality products are competitive prices, we were inclined to take their word for it.

After logging in some time with the DT 990 Pro, we’re pleased to say that these headphones do deliver on all counts. At this price range, we are hard-pressed to recommend any other model that delivers such a stellar listening experience while still retaining the transparency and neutrality that mix engineers need. Audio is pleasant and flattering without being overly hyped up, and both the bass and treble ends of the spectrum hold up nicely.

We especially liked how we were able to mix for hours on end without experiencing fatigue of any sort. With many other headphones, we could barely last an hour without flinging the cans off our head. But with the DT 990 Pro, it seemed that we could keep cranking out mixes all day.

A lot of it had to do with the material and construction as well. The headband has a spring steel design covered with soft padding, which is as plush and as comfortable as we could hope for in a set of headphones. The earpads are soft and secure, and we experienced no irritation even after hours of use.

We did wish that the mids were a bit more present, particularly when mixing down dense arrangements. Overall however, the DT 990 Pro provides excellent performance at a great price.

Sennheiser HD 600

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The HD 600 is Sennheiser’s audiophile-grade offering, targeted squarely to the hi-fi and professional crowd. An open-backed design with an advanced diaphragm, these are designed to eliminate standing waves that plague studios of all sizes. With this design, Sennheiser promises a clean and clear listening experience with no bothersome artifacts and acoustic anomalies.

The HD 600 has already garnered quite a favorable reputation among hi-fi enthusiasts the world over. But it has many qualities that make it a good choice for mixing and mastering professionals as well. Many open-back headphones promise transparent sound, but the HD 600 actually manages to achieve this with its open metal mesh grill system.

The use of neodymium ferrous magnets also enhances the sensitivity of the transducers and improves dynamic response. And with Sennheiser’s lightweight aluminum voice coils, you get a transient response that many other headphones in this price range would struggle to reproduce.

Other enhancements make the HD 600 ideally suited to the needs of the modern mix engineer and computer-based musician. The magnets are computer optimized to reduce harmonic and intermodulation distortion, resulting in extremely accurate audio reproduction. This is apparent in the natural and spacious sound when listening back to complex mixes.

Many headphones at this price point have harsh and unforgiving highs that lead to ear fatigue after only a short period. We have to say that we didn’t notice this at all after several hours of mixing on the HD 600. It also helps that the ear cups are nicely padded, with a soft material that becomes even more comfortable after they have been broken in.

Sennheiser HD 650

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The HD 650 is another Sennheiser offering aimed at the hi-fi and professional studio market. Offering more of the same build quality and features that made the HD 600 such a highly-regarded studio tool, the HD 650 adds some modifications that might make it a better choice for you depending on your intended application.

The HD 650 features aluminum voice coils that provide fast and accurate transient response throughout the frequency range. Like the HD 600, it also provides very low harmonic distortion and loads of detail, making it a good choice for mixing and mastering duties.

One thing we did notice is that the HD 650 is quite a bit brighter than the 600. While the latter offers a superbly neutral sound that is excellent for mixing vocal music, the 650 provides much more high-end detail that lends itself well to mixing delicate acoustic instruments.

Interestingly, the added helping of treble didn’t make the HD 650 harsher or less pleasant than the 600. The soundstage remained fairly well-balanced, but with the added bonus of enhanced clarity and top-end detail.

These probably aren’t the cans you are looking for if you regularly mix trap, hip-hop, or EDM tracks. The sound of the HD 650 is best described as “balanced” and “even” rather than chest-thumping. Although there is sufficient bass for most purposes, you might have some difficulty really tweaking your subs in the mix when using these cans. In all other aspects, however, the HD 650 is a solid performer that should find a welcome spot in almost any studio.

Shure SRH1840

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Shure’s SRH1840s is a fairly simple-looking set of open-back headphones that deliver surprisingly clear and balanced sound. While other cans bludgeon you with bass and others assault your eardrums with piercing highs, these sit comfortably in the middle range. They aren’t as clinically transparent as your typical higher-end studio headphones, but they actually provide quite an enjoyable listening experience.

Powering the SRH1840 is a matched pair of 40 mm neodymium drivers, which are designed to for extended reproduction of the high and low-frequency ranges. Many headphones promise extended frequencies, but it’s pretty remarkable how the SRH1840 manages to maintain clarity across the audio spectrum. As one reviewer puts it, the low end is solid and well defined, with perfect integration with the other frequencies.

Reproduction of the mid- and high-frequency ranges is equally impressive. The mids have a nice rich quality without becoming too brash, while the high end provides a nice shimmer and sparkle to audio material without slicing your eardrums. And as expected, transients come across with sufficient authority without being too ‘pokey’.

There is little to complain about concerning the SRH1840’s build quality. The padded steel headband and the aluminum alloy yoke give the unit a robust feel but manage to keep the weight comfortably light. We especially like the velour-covered ear pads made of slow-recovery foam, which allows for hours of comfortable use.

The use of a dual-exit cable makes the SRH1840 a bit prone to snagging. Other than that, however, we found plenty to like about these cans, especially for the price they are going for.

Audio-Technica ATHAD700X Audiophile Open Air Dynamic Headphones

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Those looking for headphones that have a clear, airy, and spacious sound should take a closer look at the ATH-AD700X. One of the many excellent mid-priced offerings from Audio-Technica, the ATHAD700X delivers pro-level performance that expands on the qualities that you would expect from open-back headphones.

Mix engineers usually prefer open-backed designs to their closed-back counterparts due to the airier, more spacious sound that they put out. Audio-Technica takes the open-back concept even further with a detailed and wide open reproduction that gives you a good idea of what is going on in your mix. While some may find the ATHAD700X a bit brash and top-heavy, there is no denying the authoritative and upfront sizzle that these cans produce.

When we tried out the ATHAD700X with dense mixes, we immediately noticed how clear and present all the instruments sounded. The vocals and lead instruments were especially forward and prominent, and we could easily pick out where they were situated in the sound field. Amazingly, most of the major elements stood out in sharp relief, with none of the cluttered and messy wash that was common with brighter headphones.

The ATHAD700X isn’t what you would call bass-heavy. You probably wouldn’t want to mix trap or hip-hop with these, considering that they stop just a bit short of pumping out deep, satisfying low end. Nevertheless, the depth and sense of distance they provide makes them a good choice for mixing almost any other type of music.

Samson SR850

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Samson’s SR850 comes in at the budget end of the price range, but it packs performance and capabilities that rivals that of many higher-priced headphones. Samson is yet another one of those companies that consistently manage to deliver outstanding value, and the SR850 is no exception.

Right off the bat, these semi open-back headphones impressed us with its generously-sized 50 mm drivers. The sound is absolutely huge as you would expect from such large drivers, and the semi-open design helps temper the sound with some much-needed ambiance. This design is especially effective at diffusing some of the low end pumped out by the drivers, resulting in a more natural, room-like listening experience.

We were pleasantly surprised with the high-end frequency response as well. From our experience, headphones at this price point tend to have harsh and brittle highs in an effort to make the music seem more “present” and more hi-fi. This is not the case with the SR850, which keeps the top-end sizzle at more appropriate levels.

We were a bit let down by the mid-range reproduction. There is a distinct lack of clarity and detail with dense mixes, and it becomes more difficult to pick out the placement of certain instruments when the volume is cranked. We weren’t all that surprised about this aspect of the SR850 however, as it’s only natural that some corners would have to be cut with headphones at this price range.

That being said, the SR850 still managed to meet our criteria for a basic and inexpensive set of open-back mixing headphones. For the price, you could hardly do better than this pair.


How to Choose the Best Mixing Headphones

Purchasing headphones for mixing isn’t the same as purchasing headphones for casual listening. Among the most important factors to consider when buying headphones for mixing purposes are:

  • Transparency
  • Accuracy
  • Comfort
  • Connectivity

We will cover these right now…

Transparency

Most consumer headphones exaggerate the treble and bass response to make music sound more polished and more flattering. But referencing your music on these types of headphones will leave you with dull and imbalanced mixes that won’t sound right on many listening devices or playback systems.

Always go for the most transparent headphones you can afford in your price range. While they may not provide a very satisfying experience when listening to tunes on your media player, the neutral character will enable you to produce mixes that translate well on a variety of systems.

Accuracy

It is equally important to get headphones that give you an accurate idea of what is going on with the music. You need to hear as much of the information as possible with clarity, depth, and detail, so you could make logical mixing decisions. Headphones that sound muddy or indistinct or those that exaggerate certain frequencies will prevent you from making quality mixes.

Comfort

Mixing usually takes an incredible amount of time to get right. If you’re lucky, you might be able to nail a mix in a couple of hours–and that’s if you have plenty of experience under your belt, so that the basic mixing techniques and practices becomes second nature to you.

In most cases however, you will probably have to slave away at a mix for hours, even days. You should, therefore, choose headphones that you could wear comfortably for long periods without chafing or irritation.

Connectivity

Pay attention to the type of cables and connectors that your headphones will work with. Cables have to be sufficiently thick and durable to keep from getting damaged, and to avoid inevitable tangling.

Also consider whether your headphones come with 1/4” TS plugs or the more common 1/8” mini plugs. If you are going to be working with pro-level equipment regularly, it would be better to go with 1/4” plugs instead of having to rely on a finicky adapter plug.

You can learn more about these connectors in our cables and connectors guides:

Open-Back versus Closed-Back Headphones

Headphones basically come in two designs: open-back and closed-back. As the name implies, closed-back headphones have enclosed ear cups that prevent sound from seeping out and from entering in. These are ideally suited for sound isolation, such as when you can use them on singers and instruments that have to be miked by a high quality studio microphone. You can find some of our recommendations for closed-back headphones from our more general studio headphones guide.

But closed-back headphones don’t provide a totally accurate reproduction of the sound. They tend to exaggerate certain elements and frequencies of the audio material, providing a less-than-accurate representation of the recording. You, therefore, won’t be able to get a balanced and accurate mix by relying solely on closed-back headphones.

On the other hand, open-back designs have ear cups that let out some of the sound. This reduces the pressure build-up that results from playing audio back at loud volumes. They also tend to give you a more accurate audio reproduction, being more similar to speakers than closed-back headphones.

Experienced mix engineers always insist on mixing down projects with studio monitor speakers, using headphones only to check stereo image or particular details. But if you have no other alternative but to use headphones for mixing, it is always better to go with an open-backed pair.

If you want a run down of the differences between mixing on headphones or speakers, read our article on this topic.

References:

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