Open Back Headphones; Are they Really Better for Mixing?

Headphones should be in every professional and home studio because they are one of the most important components in properly mixing music. But which ones should you get, open back or closed back? They each have their uses, and depending on what you intend to do with them, you should get one or the other.

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Open Back Headphones; Are they Really Better for Mixing? 5

Are Open Back Headphones better for Mixing?

Air can pass through the ear cups of open-back headphones to the speaker element. This means that no pressure can build up and affect the sound, and no echoes can occur within your headphones. The open backs of the most expensive high-end headphones used for mixing help them sound more natural and clear.

To understand why open-back headphones are better for mixing, we must first understand what they are and how they work.

What are open back headphones?

Open back headphones, as the name implies, have an open back, which means that the driver will be in direct contact with the outside world and is normally only covered by a grille, allowing air to pass through the ear cups and speakers.

This reduces resonant cavity effects and allows for some cross-feed between the ears, giving these designs a more natural sound when mixing because you can hear the right channel in your right ear and the left channel in your left ear, as well as some of the left side with your right ear. This is much more realistic, because we hear things like this in real life.

They are ideal for long mixing sessions because air can flow freely through them, preventing sweaty ears. Hearing fatigue is also reduced because some of the air pressure is pushed outwards rather than straight into your ears.

The majority of them are over-ear or full-size circumaural headphones, which have cups large enough to cover the entire outer ear.

This is significant for two reasons: they provide the deepest and most natural bass end, but they also provide more comfort because they are not pressing on your outer ear.

The Sennheiser HD650 are my favorite open-back headphones, which you can find on my recommended gear page. If you want to learn more about the Sennheiser HD650, check out this article I wrote about why they are good for mixing. Even though they are better for mixing, they do have some disadvantages.

Because they have an open back and air can flow through them, sound can as well. This means that if you’re listening to music in a noisy environment, you’ll notice everything around you. They do not provide any form of isolation.

They not only do not provide any isolation from the outside world, but everyone around you will be able to hear whatever you’re listening to, which goes both ways, because they leak/bleed sound a lot, so forget about listening to music in the office on these.

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Because the speakers are in direct contact with the outside, there isn’t much you can do to keep moisture from reaching the electrical components, which could be harmful in the long run.

Another important reason why people don’t use these as much is that they typically require a lot of power to be driven properly, otherwise they won’t be able to reproduce sound to their fullest potential. In most cases, you will need to purchase a headphone amplifier.

The Difference Between Open-Back and Closed-Back Headphones | Black Ghost  Audio
Open Back Headphones; Are they Really Better for Mixing? 6

Pros of open back headphones

  • Less hearing fatigue
  • More natural sounding
  • Better soundstaging
  • Usually more comfortable
  • They sound a lot more open and airy

Cons of open back headphones

  • More expensive than closed back headphones
  • Sound bleeds everywhere
  • You will hear everything in your surroundings
  • Not as versatile as any other kind of headphone
  • They usually require an amp

Alternative Video: Open vs. Closed Headphones for Gaming

What are closed back headphones?

Another important reason why people don’t use these as much is that they typically require a lot of power to be driven properly, otherwise they won’t be able to reproduce sound to their fullest potential. In most cases, you will need to purchase a headphone amplifier.

The majority of people prefer these because they are far more versatile than open back headphones. You can use them at work, while traveling, and so on. They are also used during recording sessions when you need to send a mix to the musician while they are still in the studio.

They’re useful for recording sessions because they don’t bleed all over the place. All of these characteristics enable them to be used in almost any situation.

So, why should you use open-back headphones instead of closed-back headphones for mixing? I believe the answer to this question can be summed up in a single word: sound staging.

Pros of closed back headphones

  • They provide good isolation
  • More affordable
  • Really flexible, can be used for multiple things

Cons of closed back headphones

  • Much more compressed sound
  • You feel as if the music was playing inside your head, rather than in the room
  • Placement of the instruments in the stereo field is a lot harder

What is Sound staging and why are Open Back headphones better at it?

Open-Back vs. Closed-Back Headphones

Sound staging is the spatial representation of the instruments in the song, which allows you to locate the instruments in the stereo field using only your hearing.

There are different layers that you can perceive, not just left and right, but also depth from front to back.

Assume you’re watching a live acoustic band, with the percussion in the center, one guitar to the left, another guitar to the right, and the bass player in the middle.

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Even if you close your eyes, you will be able to feel the position of each instrument perfectly; you will know that one guitar is to the left, no matter how far to the left, and the other is to the right, regardless of whether one instrument is closer to you or further back.

Closed back headphones are much better at reproducing the soundstage than open back headphones.

When you put on closed back headphones, because sound can’t really exit through the back and can only be sent directly into your ears, you get the impression that music is being played directly inside your head and not as if it’s coming from the room; it’s a difficult feeling to express, but once you try them both, you’ll understand what I mean.

This is why soundstaging on closed back headphones is less effective; the sense of space is much more limited. You will still notice the effect, but not as strongly as with open back ones.

With open back headphones, you can hear both the song and the room you’re in, giving you the impression that you’re in the actual location where the music is being played; everything just sounds more natural, open, and realistic.

This is primarily why open back headphones are better for mixing; they provide a more accurate spatial representation of where each instrument is as well as a more natural overall sound.

What is a Binaural Recording?

Binaural recording is one of the best methods for recording sound because it simulates human hearing. It employs two microphones that are positioned in such a way that they function like human ears, and it frequently employs a dummy head with a microphone in each of its ears.

As a result, the same sound source reaches both microphones at slightly different levels and at slightly different times, just as it does with our hearing.

As previously stated, binaural recording is intended for use with headphones only and will not translate properly on speakers.

This is the best way to achieve that three-dimensional feel; the goal is to make you feel as if you are in the room with the musicians.

Even with earbuds, you can hear every instrument in the stereo field, but open back headphones, especially high-quality ones, will provide a much better experience.

Choosing the right open back headphones for Mixing

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Open Back Headphones

Each brand and model of headphones has a distinct sound, and to be honest, you usually get what you pay for! However, this does not necessitate breaking the bank in order to obtain some of the best audio quality.

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My personal favorites are the Sennheiser HD650 headphones, which are an industry standard and are known for their natural and detailed sound; I highly recommend them!

These are circumaural or over-the-ear headphones, which means they’ll be very comfortable for long mixing sessions, and because they have an open back, you won’t get sweaty ears or hearing fatigue as often.

In general, open back headphones are much more expensive than closed back headphones. The Sennheiser HD650 are my favorites, but they are significantly more expensive than almost every other closed-back model.

Getting a Headphone Amp

Finally, I’ll discuss how some, if not most, good open back headphones require more power to be driven properly than most other headphones. This means that connecting the Sennheiser HD650 to your smartphone will most likely not provide you with the necessary volume or sound quality.

One would think that every modern Audio Interface would have enough power to power them, but this is not the case. However, many of them are capable; you simply need to check the specifications of the AI you own.

You can use a simple headphone impedance calculator like the one on Headphonetsy.com to see if your Audio Interface can power them properly.

Another website I recommend that will do this for you quickly is Digizoid.com.

If you realize you need an amp, I recommend the FiiO E10k, which will not only make your headphones louder but also sound better!

Conclusion

Closed back headphones can also be used for mixing; however, open back headphones are superior for the reasons stated above.

If money isn’t an issue, I’d strongly recommend the Sennheiser HD650; otherwise, the Grado SR80e, both of which can be found on my recommended gear page.

FAQs About Open Back Headphones

Are open back headphones better for recording vocals?

To begin, the singer should wear open-back headphones. While closed-back headphones prevent bleed into the microphone, they create an unnatural listening environment for the singer. This is due to the fact that the headphones form an airtight seal around your ear.

Are open headphones good for recording?

Some people will buy open back earphones haphazardly with the intention of using them while recording. The issue is that the backing track will bleed through the headphones and into the microphone. For this reason, they are not recommended during the tracking phase of the recording process.

Which headphone is best for mixing?

Focal Listen Professional Studio Headphones. The best studio headphones for all music production needs. …
Sennheiser HD-206 Studio Headphones. …
Beyerdynamic DT 700 PRO X. …
Sony MDR-7506 Studio Headphones. …
Sennheiser HD-25. …
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Studio Headphones. …
Beyerdynamic DT 900 Pro X. …
Audio-Technica ATH-R70x.

Trina Oralde

I'm a tech writer and contributor who covers the latest in gadgets and technology. I keep my finger on the pulse of the tech world, so you don't have to. Stay up-to-date on the latest with me!

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