Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones

Open Back and Closed Back headphones are terms used to distinguish between two types of headphones. Some people may not be in tune with their fundamental differences especially if you have started to get into higher fidelity gear. If you are one of those people, this article will certainly help to inform you about the differences in build and functionality between these two categories of headphones. We will also highlight examples of each so you may experience the best of each in-class.

What Are Open Back Headphones?

Open-back headphones are those where the earcups are open allowing internal structures and drivers exposed to air. The result is a more expansive and ‘open’ sound due to their inherent design compared to their closed-back counterparts. The obvious disadvantage here is that as the earcups are open, sound can leak and can be heard by people close to the headphones. Open-back headphones tend to be produced by companied which serve audiophiles as part of their user demographic. These headphones typically involve the use of more premium materials and driver types with the aim to recreate a home studio listening experience.

Gold Planar GL2000 (From Linsoul)

Pros

  • They produce enhanced stereo imaging
  • They feature less ear fatigue and resonances
  • They create an open sound

Cons

  • They are relatively expensive
  • There is sound leakage

What Does ‘Open’ Sound entail?

Open-back headphones operate in a way that allows air to escape in either direction of the earcup. It will mean that no pressure will accumulate within the ear cups and result in a transparent listening experience and improved stereo imaging.

Enjoying a more open sound also gives the music room to breathe and creating a less enclosed audio environment. They can simulate a speaker-reproduction of frequencies where sounds emanate from different cues in the overall soundscape. As a result, you may be more immersed in music owing to the less ‘in-the-head’ presentation of sound.

What Are Closed Back Headphones?

Closed back headphones are headphones where the back of the earcups are closed to airflow. Sound is enclosed and sealed from the external environment, resulting in less sound leakage.  These type of headphones tend to be superior at noise-isolation.

Since closed-back headphones are widely available, there is a good chance you would have encountered them in local stores. They tend to be cheaper than open-back alternatives and are sold by both consumer and audiophile companies alike.

Neumann NDH 20 Closed Back Headphones at Gear4music
Neuman NDH 20 (From Neuman)

Pros

  • They offer excellent isolation from external noise
  • They feature minimal sound leakage
  • They are more practical in noisy commutes
  • Active noise cancellation can be a feature

Cons

  • They tend to produce a more ‘closed-in’ sound
  • They can feature unwanted resonances

How Do Closed Back Headphones Create Better Noise Isolation?

The design of having the back of the earcups closed to airflow entirely isolates you, the listener, from any external noises. The noise attenuation of these headphones can be 30 dB on average. Although the value is not perfect, it still accounts for a notable effect on your listening experience when listening in noisy environments. This reduces ear fatigue since a lower volume is needed to make music audible. The implementation of active noise cancellation can further aid long-term listening comfort.

What Is the Proximity Effect?

Proximity effect is the technical term used to refer to a scenario where the lows get louder when you are too close to the sound source. When listening to audio using closed-back headphones, you get a punchy sound with extended low frequencies options. It may come as an advantage to some, while others may take it as a con; it all depends on your tastes and preferences regarding sound.

Which Situations are Open Back and Closed Back Headphones Ideal for?

The key to knowing your ideal design between these two headphone types is considering how you plan to use them. Here is a shortlist of some typical applications each of the types is most suitable for:

Ideal Situations for Open Back Headphones

  • In quiet environments
  • When you are listening at home
  • In music production, during mastering and mixing
  • When you are listening to Hi-res audio

Ideal Situations for Closed Back Headphones

  • When you are traveling or commuting
  • DJs and Musicians
  • When you are recording in music production
  • When you are studying

Why Would You Choose Closed Back Headphones?

If you are looking for a pair of headphones that offer practical isolation and effectively keep sound enclosed, closed-back headphone models are your best prospect. In addition to its explicit features and designs, you also get to choose from a wide variety of models. The isolation feature makes them perfect for noisy areas or surroundings where you do not want to disturb others around you.

Closed-back headphones are also a worthy option for music producers or musicians to consider in some of their routines. What you are listening to in your headphones will not disturb other parties within the recording room, making it an ideal space for music recording. In another scenario, you eliminate the chances of sound leaking from your headphones into the closest recording microphone.

DJs are also huge favorites when it comes to closed-back headphones. These headphones make it easy for them to audition music when performing extremely loud clubs, making them ideal for this application.

open back vs closed back
From Appuals

Why Would You Choose Open Back Headphones?

Audiophile headphones is another name commonly used to refer to open-back headphones. Applications that require paramount sound quality are where you will most likely find these headphone types ideal, and they include gaming, listening and producing music.

Specific surrounding requirements are necessary for you to enjoy your listening experience with open-back headphones. One key consideration is a quiet environment where sound is your primary focus. When used at home in listening to audio, gaming, music, or video production, they guarantee you the most authentic and rewarding listening experience.

Sound travels on either side in open-back headphones, inside your ear and to the immediate environment creating a unique experience. Unlike closed-back headphones, your music is not centered, and the sound source feels around you. If you close your eyes during your listening sessions, you can picture musicians performing around you more naturally.

Both headphone designs are practical and desirable, making it even more challenging to pick one. Try considering your environment and headphone application before making a final decision on which to purchase.

How Your Music Affects Your Headphone Type

When it comes to picking the ideal headphone for your listening needs, listeners opt to make a decision greatly based on their sound preferences. Typically, orchestral music and tracks which call for large and open sounds will benefit from open-back headphones. Punchy and enhanced low-end may benefit from closed-back headphones although good open-back headphones can also demonstrate capable bass performance.

The Best Open Back and Closed Back Headphones

There are numerous models for you to choose from when deciding on the best pair in each of the two headphone designs. The following are some recommended choices for both categories of headphones with a more affordable option followed by a more expensive top of the range model.

Recommended Closed-Back Headphones

Sennheiser HD280 PRO

Check the latest price on Amazon

The Sennheiser HD280 Pro is among the most common and significant closed-back headphones present in the current market. Its design features robust construction with a modular design that brings life to every audio transmitted via its drivers. A unique collapsible design and swiveling earcups give the structure maximum flexibility in any scenario.

Other notable features include soft earpads, which create a comfortable fit and an accurate, linear sound reproduction into your ear. Its build is lightweight and has an ergonomic design with a cord length of 3.3 inches. If you seek closed-back headphones with a professional appeal and functioning, the Sennheiser HD280 Pro is a great affordable bet.

Pros

  • Very affordable
  • Great for use in studios

Cons

  • Not the most robust of materials

Focal Stellia

Check the latest price on Amazon

The Focal Stellia are one of the best closed-back models on the marketplace. They hail from speaker veteran French audio brand Focal and feature a leather headband plus memory foam ear pads. The overall sound is smooth with a great tonal balance, dynamics and pinpoint imaging.

The dynamic drivers produce a well-defined stereo image with a wide frequency range. The Focal Stellia is an example of excellent craftsmanship and comes in a unique cognac and mocha finish.

Pros

  • Excellent build and craftsmanship
  • Fantastic sound output
  • Easy drivability

Cons

  • Expensive

Recommended Open Back Headphones

Sennheiser HD600

Check the latest price on Amazon

The Sennheiser HD600 still stands the test of time as a great headphone for both consumers and audiophile enthusiasts. It produces a natural sound with outstanding scalability. While not as modern as some other offerings, it offers excellent value for money. The sound signature is overall neutral and balanced with great bass and detailing.

Pros

  • Affordable open-back model
  • Great versatile sound

Cons

  • Often requires amplification for the best sound

HiFiMAN Susvara

Check the latest price on Amazon

The HiFiMAN Susvara is one of the best open-back headphones money can buy. For those where money is no concern, the Susvara provides an outstanding open sound, with impeccably fast transient responses and a capable low-end. The Susvara does benefit from appropriate desktop amplification and produces an ethereally rich sound which is both immersive and engaging. The Susvara incorporates a nano-diaphragm material with 24K gold voice-coils for a refined listening experience.

Pros

  • Outstanding top-tier sound
  • Lightweight and comfortable

Cons

  • Highly expensive

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Open Back or Closed Back headphones better?

Both open-back and closed-back headphones are worthy options to consider when deciding on a pair of personal listening transducers. However, when comparing which is better between the two, the answer will vary depending on personality and environment.

Open-back headphones are better than their counterpart in quiet environments where you will cause no disturbance to those surrounding you. Despite their success in audio delivery in the scenario mentioned, these headphone’s performance will be poor if you try using them in noisy areas since they offer no isolation, making it harder to focus on their drivers’ sound.

Closed-back headphones perform better in noisy environments since their isolation potency is more significant than their open counterparts. It is why you may find DJs and artists opting to use them while performing in crowded events. The headphones lock out any unnecessary noise, giving you enough space to focus.

Are Open Back or Closed Back better for gaming?

In gaming, deciding whether to use open back or closed back headphones depends on where you will play your games. If your gaming location is around your home, then open-back headphones are your ideal selection as they offer enhanced stereo imaging with better pinpoint localization of spatial sonic cues. However, if you are gaming in a place with background noise, it would be wise to consider closed-back prospects for their isolation properties.

Are Open Back headphones noise-cancelling?

Active noise cancelling technology reduces ambient noise with the use of one or microphones placed near the ear and the use of electronic circuitry to generate an ‘anti-noise’ signal. The technology relies on sealed ear cup for added passive noise cancelling. By virtue of their design, open back headphones allow air and ambient sound in which would defeat the purpose of ANC technology. For these reasons, this technology is seen in closed back headphones only.

What are Semi-Open Back headphones?

Semi-Open Back headphones are harder to find than either open back or closed back headphones. They lean more towards closed back headphones in their design with the only difference being that the some portion of their earcup is exposed to the external environment. They therefore inherit some of the openness of Open Back models while also reducing sound leakage. These models are certainly for those who are undecided about which model may be suitable for them.

Conclusion

After going through each of the two headphone model characteristics, the complex task remaining is deciding which is best for you. I believe that most of you already have the answer, since only you know best your listening habits. Besides personal preference, it may also help identify a pair that will give ideal results in your existing environment. Open back headphones offer a larger soundstage with a more speaker-like presentation of sound whereas closed-back are ideal for noise isolation and enhanced bass. For those wishing to exploit the best of both worlds, it may also be wise to invest in semi-open back headphones or even a pair of each.

You may also be interested in:

Leave a Reply