Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones: Which One Should You Choose?

When you’re in the market for new headphones, it can be daunting as to where you should start your search.

The options and variety in headphones seem to exponentially grow every year as audio technology rapidly advances, and there has never been a better time for the consumer to pick up a new pair of headphones.

Despite all the differences and innovation in the industry, over the ear headphones have for a long time, and still can be classified into two major categories: open back headphones and closed back headphones.

Although a fiery open back vs closed back headphones debate exists among audiophiles, it largely just depends on the context in which you plan on using them.

Do you need headphones for a professional studio where you’ll be interviewing guests for a podcast, or are you planning on using a pair at the office to block out external noise and concentrate on your work?

This article is a thorough outline of the differences between open-back and closed-back headphones, the pros and cons of each, and the various scenarios and situations where one style might suit you better than the other.

Keeping your priorities for over the ear headphones in mind, this article should help guide you in making the most informed decision that will satisfy your audio listening needs.

What Are Open-Back Headphones?

open back vs closed back headphones

The major physical difference in the design of open back vs closed back headphones is the design of the driver on each earcup. A headphone driver is a unit that converts electrical signals into sound, almost like a tiny loudspeaker. Open-back headphones have dynamic sound drivers that are vented to the outside world.

The free passage of air through the earcup allows the sound from outside to seep into your ears, along with the sound produced by the driver.

How does this affect the listening experience? Simply put, being able to hear from outside creates the effect of a natural sound-source.

Sounds are airier and larger sounding, giving the effect of hearing all around you and not just inside your head. This effect is known as soundstage, and it aims to replicate the listening experience of a stereo system.

Besides letting the headphone driver breathe and create the airy soundstage effect, open back headphones are great for letting your ears breathe.

As the earcups are open, heat and moisture aren’t trapped in your ear. This ventilation is especially key for prolonged hours of use, where comfort is a crucial factor in the headphones you choose

Pros
  • Soundstage effect closely replicates the sound emanated from a sound system in a room.
  • Creates the experience of music being played around you rather than inside your head.
  • Usually made with the highest quality sound-drivers for the most accurate sound.
  • Offer options with planar and electrostatic drivers which are highly uncommon in closed-back headphones.
  • Open earcup allows for air ventilation to the ear which is comfortable in extended listening sessions.
  • Often built much lighter than closed back headphones, another crucial factor in comfortability.
Cons
  • Sounds being played inside the headphones will leak out to the outside.
  • Sounds from the outside will leak inside and mix with your listening experience.
back to menu ↑

When Should You Buy Open Back Headphones?

Audio-Technica ATH-AD700X Audiophile Open-Air Headphones
  • 53 mm drivers reproduce clear treble and midrange. Connectivity Technology: Wired
  • Bobbin-wound CCAW voice coils for superior power handling. Impedance: 38 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 100 dB/mW . Full open-air type headphones produce no sense of pressure on the ears, resulting in a completely natural sensation
  • Lightweight aluminum honeycomb casing with excellent acoustic properties
  • Self-adjusting 3D Wing Support provides a comfortable listening experience; total ear-fit design minimizes pressure. Maximum Input Power: 700 mW

Last update on 2020-09-19 at 05:10 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Open-back headphones are the weapon of choice for studios, audio engineers, and other professionals who need to hear the sound as accurately as possible.

That being said, in such environments, one is usually listening in a place where audio leakage to the outside isn’t bothering anyone.

A quiet environment such as a studio is the best place to maximize the listening experience of open back headphones as outside sounds won’t be interfering with the audio.

If you are planning on using the headphones to study at the library for instance, while it is true that you will get the most accurate sound, you will be disturbing others with the audio leakage.

Open-back headphones are great for gamers as well, as the soundstage effect creates a more lifelike and dynamic listening experience.

In games such as first-person shooters where listening for location is a strategy, the soundstage effect can come in especially handy.

back to menu ↑

What Are Closed Back Headphones?

open back vs closed back headphones

While open back headphones are designed with drivers that interact with the outside world, closed back headphones are designed with drivers that sit isolated within each earcup.

The lack of driver venting means that all sound comes from inside the headphone, and not the air on the outside. So there’s no soundstage effect, but rather an effect of music being played inside your head.

All the sounds produced by a pair of closed-back headphones are sealed off into your ear, so they cannot escape out as they do in open-back headphones.

This also creates an effect of noise-cancellation, blocking sounds from getting inside your ears. While the sound quality won’t be on par with open back headphones, you won’t risk bleeding audio out and being disturbed by the sounds around you.

Pros
  • Noise-cancellation to block out unwanted external sounds from interfering with your listening experience.
  • Ability to discretely listen to your audio as closed-back headphones do not leak audio.
  • Often designed with more advanced portability features such as Bluetooth capabilities.
  • Due to the closed air-pocket inside your ear and headphone earcup, bass will sound much deeper and richer with compared to open-back headphones.
Cons
  • Lower quality audio drivers and less accurate sound compared to open-back headphones.
  • A lack of ventilation means closed back headphones are not good for prolonged use, will cause heat and sweat build-up.
back to menu ↑

When Should You Buy Closed Back Headphones?

Sale
Sennheiser HD280PRO Headphone (new model)
  • Dynamic, closed ear headphones.Weight w/o cable: 285 gram Ear coupling is circumaural
  • Lightweight and comfortable, ergonomic design, Cord Length 3.3 9.8 feet Coiled
  • Ear pads, headband padding, and audio cord are easily replaceable, ensuring long life
  • Extended frequency response and warm, natural sound reproduction. Nominal impedance 64 ohm. Sound pressure level (SPL) 113 dB
  • Around the ear design with padded ear cups Dynamic, closed ear headphones with up to 32 dB attenuation of outside sound. Frequency response (Headphones) 8 25000 Hz

Last update on 2020-09-19 at 04:59 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Closed-back headphones are the absolute best choice when you are planning on using them in an environment around others who may not want to share your listening experience with you.

This means if you’re planning on using the headphones in libraries, commutes on public transit, or offices, it’s a better choice out of courtesy for others.

Noise cancellation is great for focusing as well if you are in noisy environments like a coffee shop and want to block out external sounds.

back to menu ↑

Conclusion

In the end, there is no superior category of headphones when it comes to open back vs closed back headphones.

It all comes down to how you plan on using the headphones and where you will use them. Open back headphones allow sound in and out of the headphones, creating an experience of sound being produced all around you.

Closed back headphones trap the sounds they produce inside your ears, creating an experience of sound being produced inside your head.

Open back headphones are great when you prioritize accuracy over noise cancellation and vice versa for closed-back headphones. A general rule of thumb is closed-back headphones are best for casual listeners, whereas open back is best for professional settings.