Open-Back vs. Closed-Back Headphones

Which headphones are best for you?

While mostly similar, headphones come in several shapes, styles, and levels of comfort (depending on the weight, materials, and design). Modern ones also include desirable features, like enhanced wireless range, hands-free phone calling, active noise cancellation technology, and Bluetooth with aptX support.

No matter which electronic hardware is in a pair of headphones, there's one aspect that 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, some headphones meld the best of both worlds by being semi-open.

Open-back vs Closed-back microphones
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Closed-Back Headphones
  • Isolation for noisy environments.

  • Can listen at lower volumes.

  • Better privacy.

  • Enhanced bass.

  • More readily available.

Open-Back Headphones
  • Better awareness of the world around you.

  • More natural sound.

  • Superior accuracy and clarity.

  • Feels like listening to a quality stereo system.

To most users, the open or closed state of headphones shouldn't matter as long as the audio experience is enjoyable. You can find fantastic-sounding headphones of either type and stay forever pleased. However, open-back and closed-back headphones offer distinct advantages.

Depending on the listening environment and the genre of music played, you may prefer one type over the other. It's not uncommon to use more than one pair of headphones. Here's what you should know about the two.

Closed-Back Headphones

Advantages
  • Best isolation for noisier environments.

  • Can be enjoyed at lower volume levels.

  • Music isn't easily heard by others nearby.

  • Enhancement of lower-level frequencies.

  • Readily available in a range of prices.

Disadvantages
  • Overall clarity and accuracy can be diminished.

  • The soundstage seems less open and airy.

  • Music is more inside your head.

  • Ears can become hot with long periods of use.

Most of the headphones found online or in retail stores are closed-back headphones. 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 how the ear cups are designed (the cups lack vents, perforations, or see-through mesh). Since this isn't always the case, the best way to tell (other than checking the product specifications and features) is to put on the headphones and listen.

Closed-back headphones offer the maximum amount of isolation. When the headphone cushions create a complete seal on or around the ears, there's no airflow in or out. With closed-back headphones, most exterior noise is dampened or muffled. The amount that reaches the ears depends on the quality and density of the cup and ear cushion materials. This is ideal if you want a quieter listening environment to enjoy music in busy places, such as airports, shopping malls, bus stops, and train stations. Minimizing external sounds makes it easier to hear the smaller and quieter sonic details within music tracks, especially at lower and safer volume levels.

Closed-back headphones block outside noise from coming in and prevent music from leaking out. This is ideal when you want to listen without disturbing those around you, such as in a library, bus, or room where others watch TV or read.

Closed-back headphones also offer privacy, since no one knows what you're listening to or how loud you have the volume turned up, even if they're sitting 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 punchy bass. Think of closed-back headphones like having 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 to develop signature sounds and enhance specific ranges of frequencies.

But there are trade-offs for using closed-back headphones. Sound waves (and the associated energies) enclosed in the small spaces have nowhere to go. This affects how music is heard when compared to the experience of open-back headphones. Music can seem somewhat colored with closed-back headphones because the sound waves reflect off the materials used to create the ear cups (many manufacturers minimize this with anti-resonant materials). These small little reflections can also work against overall clarity and accuracy.

The soundstage—the perceived depth and width of the audio performance—of closed-back headphones seems smaller, less airy, and more cloistered than open-back headphones. The music you hear also feels like it comes from inside your head, rather than flowing past your ears. This effect ranges from subtle to more pronounced, depending on the headphones.

Physically, closed-back headphones trap more heat and moisture due to the lack of airflow. Still, having headphones double as earmuffs is an easy bonus during cold weather months. However, if you don't like that hot and claustrophobic feeling around your ears, use closed-back headphones less often during warmer periods of the year. Or, take frequent breaks to cool off.

Open-Back Headphones

Advantages
  • Allows better situational awareness.

  • The soundstage is open, airy, and natural.

  • Minimal reflections to color or to accuracy and clarity of the sound.

  • Music envelops the user, similar to stereo speakers.

  • Ears don't get hot and sweaty.

  • Available in a range of prices.

Disadvantages
  • Least amount of isolation from surrounding environments.

  • The volume used to compensate for noise can reach unsafe levels.

  • Music leaks can disturb those nearby.

Open-back headphones are less commonly encountered at local electronics retail stores. However, all sorts of open-back headphone models are available online from audio manufacturers offering closed-back and open-backed headphones. Many open-back headphones can be identified by the vented, perforated, or mesh-covered ear cup enclosures, presenting a see-through quality. However, as with closed-back headphones, the best way to be completely sure is to try on the headphones and listen.

Open-back headphones don't offer much (if any) isolation from the surrounding environment. This is due to the way that air flows in and out. When the ear cushions are placed snugly on or around your ears, you can hear all the sounds around you like normal (although slightly reduced, depending on the headphone design). This can be ideal if you want or need to have situational awareness at all times. If you enjoy music while jogging or running, you'll stay safer by hearing vehicle traffic and warnings. Or, maybe you want to be accessible to friends or family calling for your attention.

The advantage of using open-back headphones is the presentation. Since the space underneath the cups is not confined, sound waves and the associated energies flow freely past the ears and out. The result is a soundstage that sounds larger, wider, deeper, and more open and airy. 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 are better-suited towards delivering more natural and realistic-sounding music. Since the sound waves can escape, reflections off the materials used in the ear cups are significantly minimized. Less reflection equates to less coloration and an improvement to accuracy and clarity. Also, the open nature of the ear cups means that there is less air pressure to work against. The result is that the drivers respond quickly and efficiently to audio signals changes, which also helps maintain better accuracy and clarity.

If that hot and sweaty feeling makes you uncomfortable, open-back headphones give your ears space to breathe. The vented design lets excess heat and moisture escape, making the headphones more comfortable to wear over periods of time (without taking breaks). Maybe less ideal during cold weather, when you might appreciate warm ears, open-back headphones can be a better choice for hot summer months. Open-back headphones can be lighter to wear since fewer materials are used in the construction (but this isn't always guaranteed).

As with closed-back headphones, some trade-offs come with using open-back headphones. First is the lack of isolation and privacy. You can hear ambient noises mixing in with the music: passing cars, nearby conversations, sounds of wildlife, and running appliances. This can be distracting and make it difficult to hear the quieter elements and details within tracks, which can encourage an unsafe increase in volume to compensate (be mindful not to bring it up to harmful levels). Open-back headphones aren't ideal when you want it to be only you and the music and nothing else.

Another drawback is that the lack of privacy can also disturb others nearby. By allowing air to move in and out freely, open-back headphones make it known who or what you're listening to. It's considered rude to use open-back headphones in libraries, on public transportation, or around those who are working, reading, or studying. Even at lower volume levels, people can hear what you're playing.

If you enjoy that feeling of pressure that accompanies heavy, low-end beats, open-back headphones may seem disappointing. Since the air isn't confined, open-back headphones don't deliver the same intensity of lower-level frequencies as the closed-back counterparts. While open-back headphones may present music more authentic and natural, it all comes down to tastes and preferences. Some people enjoy hearing that weighty bass up against their ears.

Final Verdict

As with any audio gear, listen to it first. Before investing in headphones, get hands-on experience, if you can. Look for something that enhances your listening experience.

There are a few things to keep in mind. First, if you use headphones in public, the closed-back ones will probably be better. Listening to open-back headphones in most public situations is rude. The only exception may be jogging, since you're not in one place for long and the increased situational awareness helps you avoid potential accidents.

If you listen at home and want a natural feeling and less claustrophobic experience, go with open-back headphones. You'll get a similar experience to a quality stereo without the price tag or the effort of strategically placing speakers. These also have advantages for situations where you're at home and need to hear the world around you, for example, if you're a parent.

Ultimately, it comes down to preference. Try out the headphones, and consider how you listen. Choose headphones that feel natural to you and work best with the way you listen to audio.