Understand Open vs Closed Back Headphones and How Each Affects Audio

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Two Basic Types of Headphones

While mostly similar in nature, headphones can be found in a variety of shapes, styles, and levels of comfort (depending on weight, materials, and design). The more modern ones also pack in a bunch of snazzy features, like enhanced wireless range (e.g. Master & Dynamic MW50 on-ear headphones, Ultimate Ears UE Roll 2 speaker), hands-free phone calling, active noise cancellation technology, Bluetooth with aptX support, and more.

But no matter what kind of electronic hardware lies inside a pair of headphones, there’s one aspect that (arguably) affects the sonic signature more than anything else. Headphones can be ‘open’ or ‘closed,’ sometimes referred to as ‘open-back’ or ‘closed-back.’ Although less common, there are headphones which attempt to meld the best of both worlds by being ‘semi-open.’

To most users, the open/closed state of headphones shouldn’t really matter as long as the audio experience is enjoyable; one can find fantastic-sounding headphones of either type and stay forever pleased! However, open- and closed-back headphones each offer distinct advantages. Depending on the listening environment and/or genre of music being played, an individual may prefer one type over the other. Just like how we can own sets of clothes for different occasions (e.g. summer vs winter wear), it’s not uncommon to use more than one pair of headphones! Here’s what you should know about the two.

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Closed Back Headphones

The Master & Dynamic Bluetooth wireless MW60 headphones in black
The Master & Dynamic Bluetooth wireless MW60 are designed as a closed back set of headphones. Master & Dynamic

Most of the headphones that one would normally encounter online or in retail stores are of the closed back kind. Although open back headphones have been growing in popularity, there currently aren’t as many models available (by comparison). Typically, you can visually identify closed back headphones by the way the ear cups are designed (e.g. lacking vents/perforations or see-through mesh). But since this isn’t always the case, the best way to tell (other than checking the product’s specifications and features) is to put the headphones on and listen.

Closed back headphones offer the maximum amount of possible isolation. This means that once the headphone cushions create a complete seal on or around the ears, there should be no flow of air in or out. With closed back headphones, most all exterior noise – the amount that gets in to reach the ears really depends on the quality and density of the cup and ear cushion materials – will be dampened or muffled. This is ideal for people who would want a quieter listening environment to enjoy music in busy places, such as airports, shopping malls, bus stops, train stations, etc. Having external sounds minimized makes it easier to pick up on the smaller/quieter sonic details within music tracks, especially at lower (i.e. safer) volume levels.

Not only do closed back headphones block outside noise from coming in, but they also prevent your music from leaking out. This is ideal for when you want to listen without disturbing those around you, such as in a library, on a bus/car/airplane, or in the same room with others watching TV or reading. Closed back headphones also offer some personal privacy, since no one will know what you’re listening to or how loud you have the volume cranked up, even if they’re sitting right next to you!

Another advantage of closed back headphones is an enhancement to lower-level frequencies. The nature of the enclosed space acts like a stereo speaker cabinet, which results in more intense and/or punchy bass. You can think of closed back headphones like having all of a vehicle’s windows rolled up while driving down the street, where all the sound and pressure is contained. Some manufacturers leverage this aspect when designing headphones in order to develop signature sounds and/or enhance specific ranges of frequencies.

But there are trade-offs for using closed back headphones. Sound waves (and their energies) enclosed in the small spaces have nowhere to go, thus affecting how music is heard – at least when compared to the experience of open back headphones. Music can seem somewhat ‘colored’ with closed back headphones, since the sound waves end up reflecting off the materials used to create the ear cups (many manufacturers try to minimize this with anti-resonant materials). These small little reflections can also work against overall clarity/accuracy.

The soundstage – the perceived depth and width of the audio performance – of closed back headphones tends to seem smaller, less airy, and/or more cloistered versus that of open back headphones. The music that you hear can also feel like it’s coming from "inside your head," rather than flowing past the ears. This effect can range from subtle to more pronounced, depending on the headphones themselves.

Physically, closed back headphones end up trapping more heat and moisture due to the lack of air flow. Sure, having headphones double as earmuffs is an easy bonus during cold weather months. But if you hate that hot-claustrophobic feeling around your ears, you might find yourself using closed back headphones less often during warmer periods of the year. Or, at the very least, expect to take frequent breaks to cool off.

Pros of Closed Back Headphones:

  • Best isolation for noisier environments
  • Can be enjoyed at lower/safer volume levels
  • Music won’t be easily heard by others nearby
  • Enhancement of lower-level frequencies
  • Readily available across a wide range of prices

Cons of Closed Back Headphones:

  • Music is often ‘colored’ by reflections
  • Overall clarity/accuracy can be diminished
  • Soundstage seems less open/airy
  • Music is more "inside your head"
  • Ears can end up hot/sweaty over long periods of use

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Open Back Headphones

The Audio-Technica ATH-AD900X headphones in black
The Audio-Technica ATH-AD900X are designed as open back set headphones. Audio-Technica

Open back headphones are far less commonly encountered at your typical/local electronics retail store. However, all sorts of models are available online from various audio manufacturers offering selections of both closed and open backed headphones as part of product lineups. Many open back headphones can be readily identified by their vented/perforated or mesh-covered ear cup enclosures, presenting a kind of "see-through" quality. But, just as with closed back headphones, the best way to be completely sure is to try them on and listen.

Open back headphones don’t really offer much (if any) isolation from the surrounding environment, thanks to the way that air is able to flow in and out. Once the ear cushions have been placed snugly on/around your ears, you’ll still be able to hear all sounds around you like normal (albeit slightly reduced, depending on each headphones’ design). This can be ideal for those who want/need to have that situational awareness at all times. People who enjoy music while jogging/running can stay safer by being able to hear vehicle traffic/warnings. Or maybe you’d want to be accessible to friends or family calling for your attention.

But the significant advantage to using open back headphones is presentation. Since the space underneath the cups is not absolutely confined, sound waves and their energies are free to flow past the ears and out. The result is having a soundstage that sounds larger, wider/deeper, and more open/airy. You can think of the open back headphone experience like listening to a properly placed set of stereo speakers – the music seems more immersive and enveloping (like a live event) instead of emanating from "in your head."

Open back headphones also tend to be better-suited towards delivering more natural- and realistic-sounding music. Since the sound waves are able to escape, reflections off the materials used in the creation of the ear cups are significantly minimized – less reflection equates to less coloration as well as an improvement to accuracy/clarity. Not only that, but the open nature of the ear cups means that there is less air pressure to work against. The result is that the drivers are able to respond more quickly and efficiently to changes in audio signals, which also helps towards maintaining better accuracy/clarity.

And if you hate that hot sweaty feeling, open back headphones give your ears space to breathe. The vented design lets excess heat and moisture escape, making the headphones far more comfortable to wear over periods of time (without having to take breaks). Maybe less ideal during cold weather – when one might appreciate toasty ears – open back headphones can be a better choice for hot summer months. Open back headphones can be lighter to wear, since less materials are used in the construction (but this isn’t always guaranteed).

Just as with closed back headphones, there are trade-offs that come with using open back headphones. First and foremost is the lack of isolation and privacy. You’ll be able to hear ambient noises mixing in with the music: passing cars, nearby conversations, sounds of wildlife, running appliances, etc. This can be distracting and/or make it more difficult to hear the quieter elements/details within tracks, which can encourage an unsafe increase in volume in order to compensate (be mindful not to bring it up to harmful levels). Open back headphones aren’t really ideal for those times when you want it to be just you alone with the music and nothing else.

Another drawback is that the lack of privacy can also disturb others nearby. By allowing air to freely move in and out, open back headphones make it readily known who/what you’re listening to. As such, it would be considered rude to use open back headphones in libraries, on public transportation, or around those trying to work, read, or study. Even at lower volume levels (depending), people will be able to clearly hear what you’ve got playing underneath those cans.

If you enjoy that feeling of pressure that accompanies heavy, low-end beats, open back headphones may seem slightly disappointing. Since the air isn’t confined, open back headphones can’t quite deliver the same intensity of lower-level frequencies as their closed back counterparts. While open back headphones may present music more true and natural, it all comes down to tastes and preferences – some of us love hearing that weighty bass up against our ears.

Pros of Open Back Headphones:

  • Allows better situational awareness
  • Soundstage is more open/airy and natural
  • Minimal reflections to color or affect accuracy/clarity of sound
  • Music envelops the user, akin to stereo speakers
  • Ears won’t get so hot/sweaty
  • Readily available across a wide range of prices

Cons of Open Back Headphones:

  • Least amount of isolation from surrounding environments
  • Volume used to compensate for noise can reach unsafe levels
  • Music leaks, easily disturbing those nearby
  • Lower-level frequencies can seem less punchy/intense