Closed Back vs Open Back Headphones for Mixing – Which is Better?

closed back vs open back headphones imageWhat’s the difference between closed back vs open back headphones? Should you go with open or closed back headphones for mixing?

If you’ve spent any considerable time looking for headphones to buy for music production, you will realize that this is one of the most important specifications you need to consider.

Quick answer: For mixing, Open back headphones are your go-to choice. But for tracking and recording, closed back headphones are what you need.

In music production circles, your choice of headphones really depends on what you plan on doing with them in the studio…

And knowing this difference will go a long way in helping you to choose the perfect pair of headphones to produce, record, or even to listen to music for pleasure and relaxation.

So in this post, I’ll explain what exactly we mean when we talk about open or closed back headphones. Then, if you like knowledge and understanding (which I’m sure you do) I will tell you which one is “better,” for what reasons, and why you should go either way in your choice.

You may be surprised with what you will learn ūüėČ


Table of contents


Closed Back vs Open Back Headphones – Introduction

 Need a quick video overview instead? Watch this, then read the buying guide: Best headphones for music production

If you looked at my studio headphones buying guide, you’d see where I mention a few criteria that go into a good pair of headphones for getting the best out of your music. In reading it, you’d come across a few important terms:

  1. Circumaural
  2. On ear
  3. Transducer principle
  4. Dynamic
  5. Electrostatic
  6. Planar magnetic
  7. Frequency response, etc.

Now, that’s a lot of things to take into consideration when choosing a great pair of headphones.

But for the purposes of this post, I can tell you that perhaps the most important specification you should be paying attention to are whether the headphones are closed back, or open back. This will tell you a lot about what the pair of headphones you are looking for was intended, and will likely steer you in the right direction for making a decision. If you know this, more than anything else, you probably would not make an incorrect decision.

To best understand the difference between closed back headphones vs open back headphones, let’s consider what each of them are, first.

What are open back headphones?

Audio-Technica ATH-R70x
Open back headphones

Open back headphones are physically constructed to allow sound to emit out the back of the ear cups.

For this reason, the sound is not “tight,” but rather “airy,” as if you were in a room listening to a pair of speakers (wrapped around your head, of course).

A good pair of open back headphones, then, will also generally sound more “relaxing.” Sure, you will disturb anyone who is in the same room with you, because of the open back — but that’s the trade off for a great open sound.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of a pair of open back headphones:

Advantages of Open back headphones

  • Spacious and airy sound
  • Lack of isolation keeps you aware of your environment
  • May minimize “listening fatigue”
  • Provides a more relaxing listening experience

Disadvantages of Open back headphones

  • Lack of isolation means noisy environments will disturb your listening
  • You will potentially disturb others in the same room with you

Open back headphones in music production

When it comes to a home studio you’d, want to use a pair of open back headphones for these reasons:

  1. Mixing music
  2. Mastering music

This is because they give you a better sense of “space” and depth than a pair of closed back headphones will. Open back headphones tend to have the best stereo image and sound stage. This is natural, none of the ambient sounds of your environment is closed out of your listening experience. Having an idea of how the music will sound like in relation to the space it is playing is a very important part of producing music, an aspect we try to perfect when we are mixing or mastering our music.

Naturally, the best place to use an open back headphone for mixing or mastering is in the studio. Since your studio environment should be relatively quiet, you wouldn’t have to worry about too much external noise distracting your from your critical mixing decisions. Also, you wouldn’t necessarily be disturbing anyone once you’ve done all your recording already.

Find Open Back Headphones here: Best headphones for music production

Now that we’ve underscored the basics of open back headphones, let’s talk about closed back headphones.

What are closed back headphones?

Shure SRH1540
Closed back headphones

Closed back headphones are physically constructed to minimize sound from leaking out or into the ear cups. You can tell, without even looking at the specs sheet, whether or not the headphones you are considering are closed or open back. The ear cups would have a solid design if they are closed. Often times, with an open back headphone, you can see through the cups into the headphone driver, or see some of the other internal components. With the closed back headphones, everything is simply… well, “closed,” isolating your ears from the sounds of your environment.

A note on noise canceling headphones…

Closed back headphones can also be called noise canceling headphones, because they do, in effect, cancel out outside noises from reaching your ears. But there are two types of noise canceling headphones:

  1. Active noise canceling headphones
  2. Passive noise canceling headphones

Active noise canceling headphones are designed with an external microphone that monitors the acoustic ambience of the environment around the ear cups. The microphone creates a sonic signature that will cancel out the sound of the incoming noise. Hence, the term “noise canceling.” (You can read more about it at this Wikipedia article –¬†active noise canceling).

The typical closed back headphones, which we can call passive noise canceling headphones, do a pretty good job at isolating the sounds around you, but they are not perfect. They passively cancel out ambient sounds when you have music playing through them, therefore “masking” any external sounds that may reach your ear (see this Wikipedia article on the principles of auditory masking).

Now let’s go over the pros and cons of closed back headphones.

Advantages of closed back headphones

  • Isolates sounds to minimize outside noise
  • Minimize sound leakage
  • You can listen to audio without disturbing anyone else
  • Very detailed “upfront” audio reproduction

Disadvantages of closed back headphones

  • Small potential for sound bleeding in (passive noise canceling)
  • Potential for “listening fatigue” (lower quality products)

That said, close back headphones are the most popular types of headphones. That’s because most people listening to headphones don’t want to disturb other people. Close back headphones provide the ability to block out your sound environment, immersing you into the audio you are listening to.

Closed back headphones in music production

Now, closed back headphones have a very, very important role to play when it comes to producing music as well. So far, we’ve spoken of the post production aspect of music production… that is, mixing music, and mastering music. We haven’t spoken about the actual creation of the sounds we want to produce. And this is where a pair of closed back headphones will shine at their best.

Closed back headphones are great for:

  1. recording
  2. monitoring
  3. sequencing & sound designing

Recording

If you are the singer-songwriter, or musician recording into a microphone, you don’t want to the audio track (or pilot) you’re following to bleed out of your headphones and be picked up by your high quality vocal or instrument microphone. Believe it or not, a great quality condenser microphone will be so sensitive that it will listen in, not only on your voice, but also your headphones as well.

Read the microphones buyer’s guides:

Monitoring

The reason for recording is the same as for live performances. If you’re playing with a group of musicians, you can use closed back headphones to monitor your own performances in the group. This isolates you from the rest of the band so you can properly hear what your performances sound like, balanced in the audio mixer with the other musicians’ performances. This is especially good for performances on instruments that require external amplification for sound production.

See this video as an illustration

Sequencing & sound designing

Another great advantage of closed back headphones is that you that you can use them anywhere you want to make music. Maybe you don’t want to disturb your dorm room mate. Or you’re working on some synths in the library, or composing an orchestra sketch on a flight. Get a pair of closed back headphones and carry them around with your music production laptop.

They isolate sounds from coming in, while not totally preventing you from not being aware of your environment. So closed back headphones are often the most popular type of music production headphones simply because they help you to focus on making your music. Whether that be sequencing tracks, or sound designing a synth pad.

Being closed around your ears also gives you a very accurate and detailed representation of the sounds you’re working with and want to choose. Ultimately, you will want those sounds to translate well through studio monitors, but since you might not be in the most quiet environment at times, closed back headphones will be the next best thing at helping you to isolate, choose, and design your best sounds.

Find Closed Back Headphones here: Best headphones for music production

Are noise canceling headphones good for music production?

Noise canceling headphones are not recommended for producing and recording music. When you are in the pre-production stage of creating music, you want to hear raw sounds to sculpt and hone into the final result. You then want to blend your sounds together in your initial arrangement before you move on to mixing mode.

You wouldn’t like a scenario where you’re trying to “fix” something in the mix because a noise canceling headphone had been secretly canceling out important frequencies in unison to some noise the headphone’s microphone perceived in the environment.

Before we move on from closed back headphones, there is another thing to consider…

Over Ear vs On Ear Headphones

Over Ear Headphones

Fostex TH900 MKII Closed back headphones
Closed back On Ear headphones

The ear cups of closed back over ear headphones are designed to cover your entire ear. These headphones can be quite large, and even heavy at times. It’s interesting to note that, the higher the quality, usually the heavier the headphones. That’s just to keep in mind. Certainly, many kinds of over ear closed back headphones were not meant for frequent pulling off and adjustments, but to be rested over your ears for considerable lengths of time without disturbances.

The benefits of a pair closed back over ear headphones is that they are more comfortable. If you have large ears, they will be able to fit around them, and really close around your head to give you the most immersive experience you can have from a pair of passive noise canceling headphones. For that reason they are also the most comfortable.

Benefits of Over Ear Headphones

  • More comfortable
  • More immersive listening experience

Disadvantages of Over Ear Headphones

  • Can be heavy
  • Cumbersome to handle due to size

On Ear HeadphonesSony MDR-7520 on ear headphones

Close back on ear headphones are designed to rest “on” your ears instead of around them. Usually these headphones are smaller, and therefore more compact and easy to carry. For that reason, they are often the go-to choice for DJs as well. That’s because they do a great job at blocking out the music and noise in the club or party, while being easy to pull off and adjust.

Benefits of On Ear Headphones

  • More compact, easy to carry
  • Great for DJing

Drawbacks of On Ear Headphones

  • Can be uncomfortable pressing against ears for a long time
  • May not be as “accurate” for music production

But wait, there’s more!

There’s another kind of headphone that serves as a compromise between that open back and closed back headphones: Semi-open back headphones.

What are Semi-Open Back headphones?

Beyerdynamic DT-880-PRO studio headphone
A semi open back over ear headphone

Semi-open back headphones have the large spacious sound of a pair of open back headphones, with some amount of isolation to keep too much of the sound from leaking out.

Open back headphones have a good reputation among audiophiles for how great they sound. There is a spaciousness about them that you just can’t get from a pair of closed back headphones. However, as I stated above out the disadvantages of open back headphones, whatever you are listening to, even at low volumes, you can be sure the person in the room with you is going to hear it.

Semi open back headphones allow for the same kind of open sound, but reduces the amount of audio leakage to a reasonable level.

Does this mean that they are good for recording? No. Still too much sound will leak out and you’re sure that your microphone is going to pick up on your semi-open backs playing your backing track.

Where semi-opens backs become useful is a matter of personal preference. Maybe you want open back headphones for mixing, but don’t want your headphones to be so loud externally. Or maybe you just like the way they sound. Many mixing and mastering engineers choose semi-open back headphones over open back headphones particularly for this reason.

Final Thoughts – or, TL;DR

You should now know the difference between closed back headphones vs open back headphones. You may have also gotten an answer for which one is better for music production.

But if you need a short answer: neither are better. It simply depends on what you want to do.

As a refresher, if what you want to do is mix or master, then get open back headphones.

But if you want to record and track music, get closed back headphones. It’s just as simple as that.

If you have to choose one, what should it be?

Let’s say you’re on a budget, and you’re only planning on getting just one pair of headphones for both recording and mixing.¬†The best option for you would be to get a pair of closed back headphones. They are not entirely ideal for mixing, but it is still possible to achieve, and better than nothing. Whereas with open back headphones, it’s just not possible for you to record music while you’re using them at a microphone. And you can forget about making beats out in public.

Read the buying guide: Best headphones for music production

I hope that this information was useful to you. If you have an questions or comments about this post, please leave a note down below. Otherwise, make sure to share this with your friends or anyone you think will find this information helpful and useful.

2 Comments on “Closed Back vs Open Back Headphones for Mixing – Which is Better?”

  1. I cant thank you enough for making this article, no this website. So helpful especially for someone like me who is just getting into audio engineering and music production. Your website and knowledge is a true blessing for me and I just wanted to thank you once more.

    Also I had a question for the overall entire setup of a home studio. How should I go about the order of what to purchase? I know the laptop/computer is first and I’m guessing headphones would be second but what would be next or the correct order to building a home studio? Monitor? Audio Interface? Or a MIDI?

  2. Hello there,

    Well like you correctly pointed out, you’d need a laptop or computer first, with a DAW and some music production software. Headphones is more necessary than studio monitors if you’re on a budget. So if you’re on a budget, get the headphones first, since you can always outsource the mixing and mastering stage later on.

    An audio interface is essential for recording and monitoring. If you’re using a microphone, you will need a way to plug it into your laptop, right? That’s one of the main reasons for an audio interface. The other reason is that the audio interface bi-passes your computer’s native sound card, which would be a consumer grade sound card and therefore not sufficient for music production and engineering.

    That covers the base requirement.

    A MIDI controller is useful if you plan on writing your music using VST virtual instrument plugins. If you plan on only recording guitars, vocals, drummers, etc., you don’t need a MIDI controller… yet. Since you’d be recording the instruments into your audio interface (make sure you get an audio interface that has lots of inputs if that’s the case).

    Otherwise, if you plan composing your tracks yourself via VST plugins, then you’d need a MIDI controller for that.

    Hope that helps ūüôā

    Cheers!

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