It’s a common question among sound engineers and music producers nowadays. What is the difference between open back vs closed back headphones? Which ones should you invest in? Well it’s all dependent on how you plan on using a set of headphones in your studio.
In most cases, I tend to recommend getting a set of both open-back and closed-back headphones for various different uses. This gives you more flexibility in your studio workflow. We’ll get into all of that, and more later on in the article. First, let’s understand the history behind these two types of headphones before diving into the nitty gritty details.
A Brief History Of Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones
Up until 1968, headphones used by music producers and sound engineers were mainly closed-back or on-ear styles. Nobody knew any different. Closed-back headphones had great isolation and were relatively accurate at reproducing sounds. In short, they got the job done.
Sennheiser was the first company to introduce open-back headphones to the industry, the HD 414’s. Their thought was to introduce a new style of headphone to the market that was less limited in design.
This innovation led to a pair of headphones that had a sound quality that wasn’t as constricted. How does it work you ask? Well let’s get into the more technical details to understand things better.
What Are Open-Back Headphones?
Open-back headphones are made with a perforated housing on the backside of the ear cup. This design varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. The main goal behind the perforated design is to allow sound to pass through the ear cups to relieve sound pressure from the speaker driver.
Overall, this helps to achieve a more natural sound from the headphones. The trade-off is lower quality isolation. This isn’t typically an issue for folks who plan to use these types of headphones in the studio where there’s less background noise.
In addition to the improved sound quality, open-back headphones tend to be more lightweight and comfortable over longer periods of time. With that lightweight design comes a greater level of fragility though.
Between the lesser isolation and fragile nature of open-back headphones, I strongly suggest you only use them at home in the studio. Open-back headphones have a very specific use, and it’s better to keep them in the lane they belong.
One more thing, despite the wide soundstage that’s typically found in open-back headphones, bass frequencies are not their strongest quality. Low ends tend to sound a little muddy and underwhelming. This is mainly due to the lack of sonic pressure necessary for good bass reproduction.
Advantages Of Open-Back Headphones
- Better soundstage – your music will sound “bigger” and more spacious with the perforated ear cups. This makes them perfect for mixing, mastering, and surgical audio jobs. Bass frequencies tend to sound less muddy on open-backs as well.
- More comfortable – open-back headphones are lightweight and breathable. Your ears won’t get hot and sweaty and you won’t feel pressure on the side of your head. This is especially great for very long listening periods.
- High-end driver options – open-back headphones have become the standard for professional sound engineers and audiophiles. This has led to manufacturers throwing the best drivers they have in terms of speaker drivers into their open-back products.
Disadvantages Of Open-Back Headphones
- Not great for taking on the road – again, with the fragile nature of open-back headphones, I wouldn’t recommend taking them on the go. Also, they’re not great for casual listening out in the noisy open world, say on a subway or at the park.
- They lack good isolation – this is obviously by design, but it’s important to make expectations of open-back headphones abundantly clear. Their lack of isolation means that these headphones won’t be great for monitoring live recordings or tracking because they don’t block out outside noise. These types of jobs should be done in a quiet environment with a pair of headphones with good isolation. Also, bass frequencies suffer a bit without good isolation.
- They’re expensive – this is to be expected, but open-back headphones are usually more expensive than any other type of headphones. With their higher-end speaker drivers and complex perforated design, it’s easy to see why.
My Top 3 Open-Back Headphones
To sum things up for open-back headphones: they’re perfect for mixing, they’re more comfortable, and they’re a great high-quality product.
If you’re thinking about going this route, then I’ve rounded up 3 of my favorite open-back headphone options available on the market today. Let’s get into it.
Top Pick – Open-Backs
“Every sound in every frequency is perfectly separated. The mids are lush and extremely detailed. The high-ends are sharp but not overwhelming.”
The top pick for open-back headphones unsurprisingly goes to the company that started it all. From the introduction of the first pair of open-backs in 1968, to their best recent options, Sennheiser still knows how to make rifts in the industry.
They have a number of super high-quality open-back headphones to choose from, but the perfect option in my opinion is the HD650’s. They seem to encapsulate the best of what the HD600’s, the HD660S’s and the HD800S’s have to offer.
First of all, the listening experience is amazing on these headphones. Every sound in every frequency is perfectly separated. The mids are lush and extremely detailed. The high-ends are sharp but not overwhelming.
The only downside to the sound quality of the HD650’s is the low-ends, but that’s the case with most open-back headphones. All in all, these puppies are a wonderful pair of open-back, reference headphones that are sure to make mixing and mastering in the studio a pleasurable experience.
So, if you want one of the best open-back headphone options from the company that invented them, then the Sennheiser HD650’s are a solid choice.
Runner-Up – Open-Backs
Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO
“Many music producers have gravitated to these headphones for their mixing and mastering needs. They really excel at delivering a wonderful reference for critical listening.”
Beyerdynamic is one of my all time favorite audio companies out there. The German-based company continues to put high-quality products on the market for all of us audiophiles, and each one is better than the last.
Their DT 990 open-back headphones have been around for a while now, but they’re still one of the most popular open-back options ever created. This is mainly due to their unique soundstage experience.
The frequency response of these open-backs is super flat. This does mean that the low-ends suffer a bit, but the overall reproduction is very authentic.
Many music producers have gravitated to these headphones for their mixing and mastering needs. They really excel at delivering a wonderful reference for critical listening.
That quality does come with a sacrifice though. The lowest impedance option available in the DT 990 open-back headphones is 80Ω. Most computer sound cards won’t be powerful enough to handle these things. Therefore, you’ll likely need an amp.
Overall though, the Beyerdynamic DT 990 open-back headphones are consistently one of the best reference headphones out there. Plus, you won’t have to break the bank to add them to your arsenal.
Related: DAC Amp Combos Guide
Well-Rounded – Open-Backs
“At this price, you’ll be hard pressed to find a pair of open-backs that have such a wide soundstage.”
Audio-Technica has made a substantial name for themselves in the audio world. They have a number of different open-back headphones in their repertoire, but I find the ATH AD700X’s to be the best all around choice.
At this price, you’ll be hard pressed to find a pair of open-backs that have such a wide soundstage. This is largely due to the one-of-a-kind 53mm drivers that are the core of these things. The lows and highs aren’t as impressive as others on this list, but the overall reproduction is clean. This still makes them great as reference headphones for surgical jobs.
On top of that, the ear cups are pretty dang comfortable, and the build quality is immaculate. These open-back headphones feel solid and durable the more you use them, and that’s a huge plus.
If you’ve ever tried out any product from Audio-Technica, then you know why they’ve become such a household name in audio. This pair of open-back headphones live up to that name and then some.
What Are Closed-Back Headphones?
Now, closed-back headphones are a little more simple to understand than open-backs. Closed-back headphones are completely sealed around the ear cup. The name kind of suggests that, but this design ultimately makes for a different listening experience entirely.
Like I said at the beginning of the article, closed-back headphones used to be the standard in the industry because it’s all there was. That being said, they haven’t lost any of their appeal, or necessity, since open-back headphones were created.
The sealed nature of the ear cups help to create great isolation by blocking out ambient noise. This sealed ear cup environment is typically made of plastic or metal with thick padding around the rim.
This design makes closed-back headphones great for monitoring live recordings or tracking and writing music. The trade-offs are pretty substantial though.
For one, closed-back headphones are typically much less comfortable for long listening periods. Your ears tend to get hot and sweaty and they feel heavier on your head.
Secondly, noise-canceling headphones tend to be less accurate sound wise. Low frequencies will be noticeably embellished and mids will be a little too present. It is true that sounds will be more “detailed” with closed-back headphones, and yes, there is a difference between detailed sound and accurate sound. Just like open-back headphones, closed-backs have a very specific lane that they should stay in.
Advantages Of Closed-Back Headphones
- Better isolation – the ear cups are completely sealed which is great for noise-cancelation and blocking out ambient noise. This is perfect for studio jobs that require little to no background noises or interruptions. This also makes closed-backs great for casual listening on the go.
- More durable – closed-back headphones are more sturdy and durable than open-backs. This is mainly due to the extra protection in the ear cups. This means that you can take them on the road with you and not have to worry about breaking them as much.
- Detailed sound – as I said before, there is a difference between “detailed” sound and “accurate” sound. The pressured listening experience of closed-back headphones make them much more ideal for recording and writing songs.
Disadvantages Of Closed-Back Headphones
- Less comfortable – closed-back headphones are heavy, hot, and sweaty for your ears. You’ll really start to notice how uncomfortable they are after an hour or more of listening.
- Not great for mixing and mastering – the detailed sound of closed-back headphones are great for certain situations, but don’t expect it to translate well to studio monitors or open-back reference headphones.
My Top 3 Closed-Back Headphones
As you can see, the key differences between open-back and closed-back headphones are exactly why I recommend getting a set of each for home studio use. Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses, yet both are super useful in their own right.
With that, I want to show you guys my top 3 favorite closed-back headphones out there. Let’s check it out.
Top Pick – Closed-Backs
Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO
“The ear pads are the best part. The velour padding is really comfortable and the closed-back ear cups don’t get too terribly hot.”
Okay, so these are the closed-back headphones that I’ve personally used for a number of years now. There’s so many things to love about them which is why they’re taking the top spot in my eyes.
The Beyerdynamic DT 770 closed-back headphones are one of their most popular products. There are three different impedance options to choose from: 32Ω, 80Ω, and 250Ω. The most widely used is the 80Ω, which still might require a headphone amp to properly power them.
As far as sound quality goes, you can’t really get better than this for music production. The frequency response is about as flat as you can get with closed-back headphones. The bass isn’t too embellished, the mids are clean, and the highs aren’t too sharp. The DT 770’s simply do a great job.
The ear pads are the best part. The velour padding is really comfortable and the closed-back ear cups don’t get too terribly hot.
The only gripe I have with these closed-back headphones is the included cable. You do get a detachable ¼” adapter for the 3.5mm headphone jack, which is cool, but the cable is a little too long.
The DT 770’s are legendary studio headphones though. The high-quality German engineering is apparent, and even though they aren’t the best looking headphones out there, they perform very well.
Related: Frequency Response Guide
Runner-Up – Closed-Backs
“The bass frequencies sound especially incredible on these things, which has made them super attractive to EDM and hip-hop producers.”
When talking about the most popular closed-back headphones, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50X’s are sure to come up. They’ve consistently found themselves at the top of the bestsellers list for a long, long time now, and it’s easy to see why.
First of all, these closed-back headphones are one of the best all-around performers that money can buy. They have a reliable sound quality to them that you can’t find in any other pair of closed-back studio headphones. The bass frequencies sound especially incredible on these things, which has made them super attractive to EDM and hip-hop producers.
Secondly, these closed-back headphones come with multiple interchangeable cables. This adds some portability and flexibility.
Now, the ATH-M50X’s aren’t perfect. The ear pads tend to become pretty uncomfortable after a while and the high-end frequencies are a tad sharp. That being said, all it takes is one trail-run of these headphones to fall in love with them. There’s a reason why you see so many producers using them.
The Classics – Closed-Backs
“The bass frequencies sound especially incredible on these things, which has made them super attractive to EDM and hip-hop producers.”
The Sony MDR-7506 closed-back headphones have been used in an endless amount of ways for decades. Whether it be broadcast studios, T.V. stations, or music studios, these headphones can be seen laying around somewhere.
These closed-back, noise-canceling headphones are the definition of classic. The sound quality is super reliable and unforgiving with its accuracy. The MDR 7506’s are sure to bring out all of the imperfections in your mix.
The ear pads are surprisingly comfortable as well. The lightweight design makes them pretty airy as well. My point is that you can rest assured that wearing these headphones for a long period of time won’t affect you.
The only problem with these closed-back headphones is the included cable. Not only is it long, but it’s coiled as well. Both of these factors make the cable a pain to deal with.
If you’re looking for a pair of closed-back studio headphones that are true classics, then look no further than the Sony MDR-7506’s. At this price-point, you really can’t go wrong.
Now is the time for me to reiterate an important point: get a pair of each type of headphone! Open-back headphones are perfect for mixing and mastering, and closed-back headphones are great for live recording and tracking.
I know I’ve said this numerous times, but it’s super important to keep in mind as you do your research. You don’t want to limit yourself to one type of headphone in your studio.
With that, my top pick for open-back headphones are the Sennheiser HD650’s. They’re well-rounded performers from the company that invented open-back headphones.
As far as closed-back headphones, the Beyerdynamic DT 770’s take the top spot. With their comfortable ear pads and flat frequency response, the DT 770’s are all you can ask for from a pair of closed-back headphones.
My only hope with this article is to shed some light on the differences between these two types of headphones.
As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me!