Open Back Headphones; Are they Really Better for Mixing?

Headphones should be in every Professional- and Home-Studio, they are one of the essential components used to mix music properly, but which ones should you choose, open back or closed back headphones? They each have their place and depending on what you plan to use them for, you should get one or the other.

But, why are open back headphones better for mixing music?

Open back Headphones are better for mixing music because you get a much better representation of the depth and the dimension of how the music was originally played.

This allows you to perceive the layout of the instruments in the song and not just the difference between right and left, coupled with being in the room and being able to hear the room, they give you a much more realistic feel, as if you were in the actual place where the music was played.

Also, Open back headphones tend to sound more natural and less compressed.

To really know why open-back headphones are better for mixing, we should first take a look at what open- and closed-back ones are and how they work.

What are open back headphones?


As the name implies it, open back headphones have an open back, this means that the driver will be in direct contact with the exterior and is normally only covered by a grille, allowing air to pass through the ear cups and the speakers.

This reduces resonant cavity effects and provides some cross-feed between the ears, giving these designs a more natural sound when mixing, since you not only hear the right channel in your right ear and left channel in your left ear, but you can also hear some of the left side with your right ear. This is much more realistic, since we hear that way in real life.

They are great for long mixing sessions because, since air can flow through them without any issues, you won’t get sweaty ears, also hearing fatigue is much less of a concern since some of the air pressure gets pushed outwards and not straight into your ears.

Most of them are Over-ear or full size circumaural headphones, which means that they have cups large enough to cover the entire outer ear.

This is important for two reasons; They give the deepest and most natural bass end, but also provide more comfort, since they won’t be pressing on to your outer ear.

My favorite open-back headphones are the Sennheiser HD650, which you can find on my recommended gear page.

If you’d like to know more about the Sennheiser HD650, make sure to check this article I wrote on why they are good for mixing.

Even though they are better for mixing, they have some drawbacks too…

Since they have an open back and air can flow through them, then sound can too. This means that if you’re listening to music in a noisy environment, you will definitely hear everything around you. They don’t provide any isolation.

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

Since the speakers are in direct contact with the exterior, there isn’t much you can do to prevent moisture from reaching the electrical components, which in the long term might be harmful.

One last, yet important reason people don’t use these so much, is that they usually 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 buy a headphone amp.

What are closed back headphones?

ATHM50x
ATHM50x

Closed back headphones are completely sealed around the back, this allows sound to only come out where it can actually reach your ears. What this means is that they will isolate you a lot more from external noises.

These are the ones that most people tend to choose since they are a lot more versatile than open back headphones. You can use them at the office, while travelling, etc. But they are also used for recording sessions, when you need to send a mix to the musician while in the studio.

They are useful during recording sessions since they don’t tend to bleed all over the place. All of these features allow them to be used in almost any setting.

So, why choose Open-Back over Closed-Back Headphones for mixing?

I think the answer to this question can be summarized in one word; Soundstaging.

What is Soundstaging?

Soundstaging would be the spatial representation of the instruments in the song, what I mean by this is that it allows you to locate the instruments in the stereo field with only your hearing.

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

Imagine you’re watching a live acoustic band, you can see the percussion in the middle, one guitar to the left, another guitar to the right and the bass player near the middle.

If you close your eyes you will still be able to feel the position of each instrument perfectly, you would know that one guitar is to the left, even how far to the left, and the other to the right, even if one instrument is closer to you or further back.

Open back headphones are a lot better at reproducing the soundstage effectively than closed back ones.

Why is this?

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

This is why soundstaging on closed back headphones doesn’t work that well, the feeling of space is a lot more restricted. You will still perceive the effect, just not as much as with open back ones.

With open back headphones you can hear the song and also the room where you’re in, this makes you feel as if you were in the actual place where the music was being played, everything just sounds more natural, open and realistic.

This is primarily why open back headphones are better for mixing, they provide better spatial representation of where each instrument is and also just give you a more natural sound overall.

Examples of Soundstaging

This song is an example of what can be achieved when the soundstaging process was achieved properly.

This is a binaural recording, so only listen to this song using headphones, otherwise you won’t be able to appreciate it to its fullest.

What is a Binaural Recording?

Binaural recording is one of the best ways to record sound, since it emulates the human hearing. It uses two microphones which are placed in such a way that they end up working like human ears, and often even a dummy head is used, where a microphone is placed into each of its ears.

This way the same sound source reaches both microphones at different levels and at slightly different times, like it happens with our hearing.

Like I stated earlier, binaural recording is intended for replay using only headphones and will not translate properly on speakers.

This is the best way to achieve that three-dimensional feel, the whole idea behind this is to make you feel like you are actually in the room with the musicians.

You can listen to this song and perceive where every instrument in the stereo field is, even using earbuds, but with open back headphones, especially high quality ones, the experience will be much better.

Back to the video I just linked…

Imagine you were facing the band that is playing in this video, where do you hear each instrument?

Remember, this should be done using headphones, don’t just try to pick up the location of every instrument while listening on your speakers, especially on cheap laptop speakers.

When I listen to it, I can distinctly hear the percussion down the middle and further back from the other instruments.

To the left I can hear the piano and a tuba, with the tuba being a bit further back, while to the right and very close to the front I can hear two clarinets, with one being a bit further back than the other.

Lastly, I can hear a banjo all the way in the back and a bit to the right.

When you close your eyes, you can place each instrument in the stereo field quite well and it gives you that feeling that you are in the room with the musicians, especially if listened to on open back headphones.

Choosing the right open back headphones for Mixing

Each make and model of headphones sounds different and to be honest, you generally get what you pay for! But this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to break the bank in order to get some of the best audio quality.

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

These are circumaural or over the ear headphones, which means that they will be quite comfortable for long mixing sessions, plus since they have an open back, you won’t get sweaty ears or suffer from hearing fatigue as often.

Open back headphones tend to be, in general, a lot more expensive than closed back. The Sennheiser HD650 are the ones I like the most, but they are quite more expensive than almost every closed back one.

If you feel like that is too much, you could always go with the Grado SR80e, which are a lot more affordable but still sound amazingly well.

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

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

Getting a Headphone Amp

Lastly, I’m going to address the fact that some, if not most, of 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 probably not give you the necessary volume nor the sound quality that they could be capable of.

One would think that every modern Audio Interface should have the required power to drive them but sadly, this isn’t the case. Plenty of them are capable though, you just need to check the specifications of the AI you own.

To find out if your Audio Interface is able to power them properly, you can use a simple headphone impedance calculator like the one on Headphonetsy.com.

Another website  that I recommend which will do this for you in no time Digizoid.com

If, however, you realize that you need an amp, then I’d recommend the FiiO E10k, which not only will get your headphones sounding a lot louder but also better!

Conclusion

Mixing is also possible on closed back headphones, open back are just better at it for all the reasons I described.

If budget isn’t an issue, then I’d absolutely recommend the Sennheiser HD650, otherwise, the next best option would be the Grado SR80e, which you can both find on my recommended gear page.

Now, since I assume that you are going to want to mix using your brand new headphones, here is a quick guide on how to mix a song using only headphones…

Yes, it’s possible to achieve great mixes using just headphones, even though it’s not the ideal case, using speakers AND headphones is ideal.

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