Closed Back vs Open Back Headphones | Which is Better?

closed back vs open back headphones - a pair of closed back headphones

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Recently, I decided to purchase a new pair of headphones for mixing and mastering purposes. As it turns out, the headphones I had been using (for over 10 years) weren’t optimal for mixing and mastering. The truth is that when we compare closed back vs open back headphones, there isn’t one that’s better than the other, BUT… They DO have different functions!

Once I understood the difference between closed back and open back headphones, it became clear to me… The headphones I had been using weren’t giving me accurate results when I was mixing and mastering, but why? As it turns out, closed back headphones weren’t ideal for mixing and mastering so I needed a pair of open back headphones. However, as we discuss the major differences between these two types of headphones, you’ll understand why open back headphones aren’t the best for recording purposes. Can you live with only one of these types? Do you need both? Let’s find out!

The major differences between closed back and open back headphones

There are many different types of headphones, but to generalize, we place them into one of these categories. Most headphones actually fall into the “closed back” category because as the name suggests, the back is completely isolated.

However, headphones that fall into the “open back” category actually let some of the sound escape.

What this means is that if you were listening to music on open back headphones, someone sitting next to you would most likely hear what you were listening to. With a pair of closed back headphones, this would most likely NOT be the case (if they’re any good, that is).

closed back vs open back headphones - a pair of closed back senheiser hd280 pros
A pair of Sennheiser HD280 Pros. These fall into the “closed back” category.

I’m sure you can see some potential flaws with open back headphones, but BOTH of these types have their advantages and disadvantages.

For example, if you were recording vocals with open back headphones, you’d most likely get some microphone bleed. In layman’s terms, this simply means that your track would include some of the output from your headphones (not good).

However, closed back headphones won’t give you the most accurate results when mixing and mastering. The fact that they retain all the sound within the ear cups makes them sound TOO isolated (as if you were listening into a pair of cans, literally).

closed back vs open back headphones - a pair of open back headphones
These headphones fall into the “open back” category. Notice the ventilation on the back which allows sound to escape.

This experience is nothing like listening to your music through a pair of excellent studio monitors. Sound travels through the air providing the most realistic experience of a musical performance (and how most of us listen to music).

In other words, open back headphones are somewhat of a compromise between the two. They allow some of the sound to travel freely, but retain most of it inside the ear cups.

Without getting too technical, open back headphones provide a much more accurate frequency response, especially in the bottom-end. The sound “breathes” and ultimately allows you to hear things “as is” without emphasizing any particular frequencies.

In the next sections, we’ll be discussing the proper application of each instrument and deciding which type is best suited for your work.

Using closed back headphones for recording purposes

If you spend most of your time in recording studios, I can almost guarantee that you’ll need a pair of closed back headphones. It’s even more important that these headphones are incredibly well-isolated.

Keeping sound inside is just as important as keeping sound out, remember that!

The frequency response of these headphones isn’t as important as the quality of their isolation. Basically, you can save yourself some money on these headphones because having accurate frequency-response (especially in the high-end) will usually end up costing more.

Closed back headphones are used much more like tools than as delicate instruments. Here’s what you should be listening for when you try them out:

  • Maximum attenuation (isolation from external sounds)
  • Maximum isolation (someone next to you shouldn’t hear anything)
  • An around-the-ear design (also known as circumaural)

That last point is really important to consider. Remember when I said that there were even more types of headphones?

In the closed back category, there are some that completely envelope your ear and some that DON’T. The ones that don’t are usually “cheap” and not designed for professional musicians. There’s no way that these over-the-ear headphones can provide maximum isolation.

closed back vs open back headphones - a pair of closed back headphones with an over-the-ear design
Although these headphones are closed back, the over-the-ear design makes them less than optimal for professional musicians.

An excellent example of affordable, great-quality closed back headphones would be the Sennheiser HD280 Pros. Their frequency-response isn’t that good in my opinion (especially in the low register), but they sound amazing when tracking guitars!

Here are a few situations where you might want to consider closed back headphones:

  • Recording sessions that include microphones
  • Recording sessions with loud instruments (drums, horns, etc…)
  • Listening to music in public (on public transit, libraries, etc…)

That last one is worth mentioning because everyone hates that guy/girl listening to music we can ALL hear on the bus!

Using open back headphones for mixing and mastering purposes

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been using closed back headphones for the majority of my music career. However, as I began focusing more on mixing and mastering, something just wasn’t adding up… 

I had actually started relying on my 2013 iMac’s speakers for accurate mixes and stopped using my Sennheiser HD280 Pros entirely.

Although I actually became accustomed to using those speakers for reference, I knew that it wasn’t a sustainable path. Not only did I purchase a pair of excellent quality open back headphones, but I also purchased an amazing (yet surprisingly affordable) pair of studio monitors.

I had finally taken complete control of my mixes by equipping myself with the appropriate tools. Here are some of the qualities I was looking for when considering my pair of open back/semi-open headphones:

  • Adequate ventilation (this is the part that lets sound escape)
  • Flat frequency response (no boosted frequencies)
  • An around-the-ear design (also known as circumaural)

It’s completely normal that you can hear external noises (such as yourself talking) through a pair of open back headphones. I still opted for the circumaural design because you’d still want SOME isolation.

However, the most important element with this type of headphone is the flat frequency response. As you may have deducted, open back headphones are usually more expensive relative to their closed back counterparts.

However, the model I ended up going with (the AKG K240s) are quite affordable AND they’re incredible! I can mix and master with these in complete confidence because I can hear the music “as is” without any colouration.

closed back vs open back headphones - a pair of open back akg k240s
A pair of AKG K240s; my pair of choice! Notice the circular vents laid out on the back.

Here are a few situations that would seriously benefit from a pair of these:

  • Mixing and mastering sessions
  • Listening to music (in a quiet environment, of course)
  • Transcribing music

Most people haven’t considered that last point. Before finding out about open back headphones, I was incessantly taking off my headphones and putting them back on while transcribing music. Now I can easily sing along or play my instrument while hearing both the music and my performance.

However, if you’re a versatile musician on a budget, could you live with just ONE of these two types of headphones?

Having a little trouble deciding between open back and closed back headphones?

If you’re still having a little trouble deciding between the two types of headphones we mentioned, I’d personally go with closed back. However, I would NOT go with the Sennheiser HD280 Pros since their frequency response isn’t all that great.

An excellent compromise between the two would be another model from AKG, the AKG K92s.

closed back vs open back headphones - a pair of open back akg k92s
A festive pair of AKG K92s, the perfect compromise for music producers on a budget!

Basically, if you were trying to make a compromise, you’d want closed back headphones that also featured a flat frequency-response (or as close as possible). Usually, you’d need to splurge a little more, but the K92s are actually less expensive than the K240s!

Regardless of what you decide to go with, make sure that your headphones are comfortable. The common complaint with around-the-ear/circumaural headphones is that they can be uncomfortable after long periods of time.

I personally experienced this problem with my Sennheiser HD280 Pros, but the AKG headphones I mentioned are remarkably light and comfortable.

If I hadn’t already purchased the HD280 Pros, I would’ve probably opted for a set of AKGs. They’re the most affordable headphones for the quality they provide and believe me, they’re up there in terms of quality!

If you trust my judgment, here’s where you can find these headphones at a great bargain:

The closed back AKG K92s (the all-in-one solution)…

The open back AKG K240s (for mixing and mastering engineers)…

The Sennheiser HD280 Pros (for sessions musicians and DJs)…

I hope this blog post has finally cleared up the battle between closed back vs open back headphones. Finding out about the differences really helped me make well-informed decisions for my mixing and mastering business. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and please share this page on your social networks if it’s been helpful. Thanks!

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