Open-Back vs Closed-Back Headphones for Music Producers, Audiophiles, & Engineers

Written By Kyle Mathias  |  Audio Gear, Mixing, Recording 

Before choosing a specific brand or model of headphones, watch this video to learn what TYPE of headphones you should be using for music production, critical listening, or recording.

In the video above, you’re going to hear the differences for yourself later in the video when I demonstrate a pair of Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro closed-back headphones and a pair of Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro open-back headphones through a binaural microphone.

Closed-Back Headphones

Closed-back headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pros have an enclosure around the outside of the ear cups. Headphones with a closed-back design like this tend to be the ideal choice in noisy environments or in situations where you want to focus on the sound in the headphones without being influenced by the sound around you. 

You may want to use closed-back headphones if you’re recording a loud instrument and want to dial in the right mic placement and tone. Sometimes, it’s difficult to hear what’s happening in the headphones when the sound from the instrument itself is very loud.

In addition to keeping sound out, closed-back headphones keep sound in. This is good for privacy and it’s essential for recording acoustic instruments and vocals. If the sound weren’t kept inside, it could leak out of the headphones and into the microphone. A common example of this is when the click track (or metronome) can be heard in the recording. 

If you’re using the headphones to work in any area that is noisy, you will probably be much better served with a pair of closed-back headphones. You may find that the headphones feel more unnatural, but they definitely help to shut out exterior noise.

Open-Back Headphones

Open-Back headphones like the DT990 Pros are open behind the speaker. Headphones with open-back design tend to sound more natural. The sound isn’t pent up inside the ear cups like it is in closed-back headphones. This means the reflections within the headphones will be allowed to escape, minimizing the interference and cancellations that can occur and making the listening experience more comfortable and enjoyable.

Many listeners feel that open-back headphones lead to less ear fatigue, compared to closed-back headphones. For me, it’s much easier to listen to a full album or film with open-back headphones, so long as I’m in a quiet environment. They just breathe better. 

There is, of course, far less isolation from noise around you if you’re using open-back headphones. These headphones are best-suited for quiet environments where the surrounding noise won’t be distracting. For example, open-back headphones aren’t great for recording instruments that are within the same room, but they are excellent for critical listening, mixing and mastering.

A lot more sound will escape from open-back headphones, which means people (and microphones) around you will hear the leakage.

Assuming you’re in a quiet environment, you’ll generally get a more accurate and open sound with open-back headphones. The indirect sound can escape more easily and you feel more connected to the environment, which contributes to an improved soundstage. Where music from closed-back headphones seems to take place from the space between your ears, music from open-back headphones seems to take place in the room. It’s still not quite as good as listening through speakers though.

Which One Is Right for You?

So, which one is right for you – open-back or closed-back? Let’s give each pair of headphones another listen to compare them side-by-side.

I believe a music production studio should have at least one of each. While it’s nice to have a few pairs of closed-back headphones for providing an isolated listening experience for you or a band during recording sessions, it’s also useful to have some open-back headphones for mixing.

If you’re choosing headphones for casual listening, consider the environment you’ll be listening in. If you have a quiet space at home and you want to optimize your listening experience, go with open-back headphones. If you want to take your headphones to different places like a coffee shop or gym, you’ll definitely want to avoid open-back and go with closed-back headphones.

I’ve found open-back headphones to be great for video conferencing, live streaming and working from home because they allow you to hear your voice and surroundings much more naturally. It’s a similar effect to the transparency feature within Apple AirPods. I tend to talk too loud when I’m wearing closed-back headphones, but that’s not a problem for me with open-back headphones. 

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