Semi Open vs Open Headphones vs Closed Back Headphones. Which One Is Right For You?
Choosing the right headphones for mixing music is essential because the type of headphones you use can affect the final sound. There are three main types of headphones: open-back, closed-back, and semi-open. Open-back headphones provide an honest and accurate soundstage representation but may not be ideal for noisy environments. Closed-back headphones provide isolation and quietness but may limit the accuracy of your mix. Semi-open headphones offer a balanced mix of precision and isolation but may not give the extreme presentation of open or closed-back headphones. Consider your specific mixing needs and choose the headphones that give you the most accurate representation of your mix.
Let’s go through each type so you can make the right decision. We’ll also recommend several pairs along the way.
If you plan to use some reference Headphones for Mixing or Mastering, here are some recommendations. Most of them are open-back headphones for mixing and mastering.
Sennheiser HD600 (Extremely clear sound, Very comfortable to wear, Very durable)
AKG K-612 Pro
Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 58X
Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6XX
Beyerdynamic DT-880 Pro
Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro
Audio-Technica ATH-R70 X
beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro
Slate Audio VSX
Neumann NDH 30
Focal Clear MG Professional
Hifiman - HE1000se
Hedd Audio Heddphone
Open-back studio headphones are mostly ‘open’ at the back of the earcups. Well, not entirely. Usually, they feature some grill or hole design, which allows air to flow to the internal speaker components, such as the drivers.
Regarding sound quality, the open-back style is consistently ranked amongst the best mastering and mixing headphones you can buy.
Why? Because they offer superior sound quality!
The design allows for a more natural soundstage where the sound comes to your ears and moves away into the surrounding environment. There is also little echo and minimal pressure. These qualities mean that music is more natural and feels like it comes from around you rather than just from the speakers themselves.
If you’re a music professional, you want to get open-back headphones for mixing or mastering. These applications require you to hear the best quality and most accurate sound possible.
The bad news is that since sound leaks out into the environment, everyone can hear what you are listening to, and you can hear what is going on around you. It’s best to use these headphones in quiet and private environments.
If money is no object, the Sennheiser HD 800 S is widely regarded as one of the best open-back headphones. We don’t blame you if the price tag is too exuberant. In that case, the Sennheiser HD 600 is also a great choice. Otherwise, check out the AKG K240’s which can be grabbed for under $100.
Natural and open sound: Open-back headphones provide a more natural and open sound, as the soundstage is not limited by the closed design of the headphones.
Comfortable: Open-back headphones are often more comfortable, as the lack of pressure from a sealed ear cup design allows for better ventilation and less heat buildup.
Reduced ear fatigue: Open-back headphones can reduce ear fatigue.
Lack of noise isolation: Open-back headphones do not provide noise isolation, which can be problematic in noisy environments.
Not suitable for public use: Open-back headphones are not ideal for public use because they allow sound to leak out,
As the name suggests, closed-back headphones feature closed earcups. Naturally, this makes them great at blocking out surrounding noises. Typically, they can reduce surrounding noise by more than 10dB, and if you were to turn the volume up, you could virtually cancel out any noise other than what is being listened to. Some even come with active noise-cancellation, emitting waves that cancel out outside sound.
Hence, closed-back headphones are fabulous for recording. Say you’re listening to a track and then need to record yourself playing an instrument or singing. There will be minimal sound escaping the earcups, so the recording will not be distorted with that extra sound.
Furthermore, these headphones are fabulous for public use since environmental sound will be kept to a minimum and won’t disturb those around you. The bad news is that this limits the soundstage by only directing sound towards your ear, so of course, the sound is not as natural as using an open-back design. This creates a sort of ‘in your head’ listening experience. Plus, your ears will have less breathing room, making them more likely to get hot, stuffy, and uncomfortable after long listening sessions.
For all these reasons, I would not prefer this type of mixing on headphones.
Regarding balancing price and performance, Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x is about as good as possible. It is widely agreed among audiophiles and sound engineers that these closed-back studio headphones are some of the best.
Immersive listening experience: Closed-back headphones provide a more intimate and immersive listening experience because the sound is contained within the headphones.
Noise isolation: Closed-back headphones provide excellent noise isolation, making them ideal for noisy environments.
Lack of natural sound: Closed-back headphones can provide a more intimate and immersive listening experience but also limit the soundstage, resulting in a lack of natural sound.
Ear fatigue: Closed-back headphones can cause ear fatigue, as the pressure of a sealed design can become uncomfortable over time.
Increased heat buildup: Closed-back headphones can increase heat buildup because the sealed design does not allow ventilation.
Semi-open headphones provide a compromise between closed-back and open-back headphones. They bear a resemblance to closed-back headphones but also expose some internal components, enabling air movement through the earcups.
Mostly, they have the advantages and disadvantages of open-back and closed-back headphones, but to a lesser degree.
Sound does leak out, to a lesser extent. At the same time, noise isolation can be OK but not as good as closed-back headphones. On top of this, the sound does have a wider sound stage, but again, it is not as complete as you would get with open-back headphones.
So, what does this mean in a practical sense? Well, since there is sound leakage, your listening sessions should be done in privacy. Furthermore, sound may leak and cloud your music if you need to do some recording.
Music professionals have differing opinions on semi-open headphones. While some believe they offer a balanced approach, others question their advantages if they cannot provide superior performance for mixing or recording.
At the end of the day, the decision to invest in such a pair of headphones is up to you. But if you are specifically going to record or mix, you are probably best to either get open-back or closed-back.
It can be tricky to choose which semi-open headphones to recommend. After all, defining such a type of headphone isn’t an exact science. The Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro’s will not disappoint and strike a balance between being well-priced and performing to an exceptionally high industry standard.
Balance natural sound with noise isolation: Semi-open headphones offer a balance of natural sound and noise isolation, making them ideal for use in various environments.
Reduced ear fatigue: Semi-open headphones can reduce ear fatigue because the pressure of a sealed design is not as intense as with closed-back headphones.
Comfortable: Semi-open headphones are often comfortable because the partially open design allows for better ventilation and less heat buildup.
Lack of noise isolation: Semi-open headphones provide less noise isolation than closed-back headphones, which can be problematic in noisy environments.
Lack of natural sound: Semi-open headphones may not sound as natural and open as open-back headphones because the partially open design limits the soundstage.
When selecting headphones, the type labels can be useful, but it's important to remember that marketing often plays a significant role in the decision-making process. Unfortunately, marketing isn't always geared towards the buyer's best interests and instead prioritizes increasing sales and profits for the manufacturer.
Some closed-back headphones have a lot of sound leakages, while some open-back headphones do not sound that great. When you get to a higher price range, you will notice that many closed-back sounds as good, If not better, than other open or semi-open designs.
One of the best ways of telling if a studio mixing headphone is worth its weight in gold is to see how long it’s been used in the industry. Studio headphone manufacturers tend to stick with what works, unlike other technology products. If they can perfect a pair of headphones, you’ll see those headphones circulating for years, sometimes decades.
One can confidently assume that a pair of headphones which have been trusted by studio professionals for years is a dependable and superior option.
Of course, there are other ways you can perform your due diligence before buying a new set. Read reviews across multiple reputable sites and test them in-store if you can. Doing so will ensure you make the right purchasing decision.
The choice between open-back, closed-back, and semi-open headphones ultimately comes down to personal preference and the listening experience you seek. Open-back headphones may be your best choice if you prefer a more natural and open sound. Closed-back headphones may be better if you want a more intimate and immersive listening experience. And if you want a balance of natural sound and noise isolation, semi-open headphones may be a perfect choice.
When deciding, it is also essential to consider the environment in which you will use your headphones. Closed-back headphones may be the best choice for noise isolation if you use your headphones in a noisy environment. On the other hand, if you use your headphones in a quiet environment, open-back headphones may be better because they allow for a more natural and open sound.
Choosing between open-back, closed-back, and semi-open headphones comes down to personal preference and the listening experience you want to enjoy. When deciding, it is essential to consider your environment and what you want from your headphones, by understanding the pros and cons of each type of headphone, you can choose the best headphones for your needs and get the most out of your listening experience.
Hello! My name is Marcus, and I am a music enthusiast who runs a mixing and mastering business. I also write enlightening articles for my blog and produce music as a member of the techno duo Agravik.