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Open-Back vs. Closed-Back Headphones: What’s the Difference?

Last updated: 5 months ago
8 min read
  • Open-back headphones have an opening in the earcups so air can travel through.
  • Closed-back headphones have a closed casing that doesn’t let the air through.
  • Semi-open headphones are somewhere in between.

Learn how they compare to each other so you know which to pick.

Open-back vs closed-back-headphones

Headphone back design impacts overall performance. There are advantages and disadvantages to all 3 types.

Most importantly, the construction differences between open-back vs. closed-back headphones aren’t purely cosmetic but significantly affect your listening experience.

CONTENTS (click to show more)

    What are Open-Back Headphones

    Open-back headphones have open earcups that allow airflow in and out of the headphone. That means the headphone driver (speaker) is open to the environment. The benefits are that echo, resonance, and bass build-up can escape the earcups without affecting sound quality.

    They produce the cleanest and most natural audio quality. A fully open-back design doesn’t enclose the sound but lets the sound move freely in all directions (It doesn’t get congested).

    For this reason, the open-back design is typical in high-end audiophile headphones made for home listening without distractions.

    Because in case of background noise, you can hear all of it coming in through the headphones and ruining your listening experience.

    And they also leak sound. People around you can hear what you’re listening to with open-back headphones because they effectively function as small speakers.

    Benefits of open-back headphones

    • The cleanest and most natural sound quality
    • Bigger soundstage and spatial awareness
    • Less fatigue during prolonged listening
    • Common in best-sounding, high-end headphones

    What are open-back headphones best for?

    Here’s where open-back headphones excel:

    • Critical listening at home and in private – Although, for analytical listening, you have to make sure there is no background noise to distort your music.
    • Enjoying your favorite music at the highest audio quality – Enjoy the clarity and richness of your highest-resolution music tracks.
    • Watching movies – A bigger soundstage means better immersion. It’s an entirely different experience when you hear things floating around your head.
    • Playing video games alone – Improved spatial audio helps you hear the game environment better. It’s good for immersive single-player and competitive PvP.
    • Mixing and mastering in a studio – You need to hear every detail when creating a new track. And, the sound leakage isn’t a problem since you mix in a studio.
    open air headphones leak sound
    Many audiophile headphones have open-back ear cups.

    Disadvantages of open-back headphones

    • Little passive noise isolation
    • You can hear all ambient noise: Bad for noisy environments
    • Sound leakage: People around can hear what you’re listening

    What are open-back headphones bad for?

    Open headphones are not suitable for:

    • Using them in a city – It’s too noisy.
    • Work environment (that requires peace) – You don’t want to bother your co-workers.
    • Listening when walking on a street – The city noise overpowers the music.
    • Commuting on public transport – You don’t want other people to hear what you’re listening to and let their noise ruin your music.
    • Working out in the gym – You won’t hear much due to loud gym music.
    • Mixing and DJing at a party – Party noise will make it impossible to truly hear what you’re mixing.
    • Any activity where you want privacy and some noise isolation

    What are Closed-Back Headphones?

    Closed-back headphones have enclosed earcups that only let air through from the inside of the cups. The inside of the earcups is where you put your ears to listen to music, so no sound goes in or out without you hearing it.

    Because sound bounces around inside the earcups, echo, resonance, and bass distortion are common problems in closed-back headphones. But this is a small price for passive noise isolation that blocks background noise and almost eliminates sound leakage of your music.

    This makes closed-back headphones the best choice for noisy environments where you want peace and privacy. And likewise, they’re the only reasonable choice for active noise cancelling headphones for extra noise cancelling power.

    Benefits of closed-back headphones

    • Better passive noise isolation
    • Stronger bass response
    • Almost no sound leakage

    Closed earcups with tight-fitting earpads block sound from coming in and out.

    Low frequencies inside closed earcups get empowered, creating more bass.

    You can comfortably use them in a city, gym, work office, or other noisy places.

    There is minimal sound leakage out of headphones. Nobody will hear what you’re listening to.

    What are closed-back headphones best for:

    Closed headphones are great for listening without being bothered by others:

    • Traveling, especially flying – Combined with ANC, they will block most cabin noise.
    • Commuting on public transport – Commuters who travel a lot will appreciate superior isolation and additional active noise cancellation. They block a lot of noise from engines and people.
    • Working in the office – Good isolation helps, especially in a noisy office. Reducing external noise enables you to focus on your work.
    • Listening in a city – City noise won’t ruin your music.
    • Working out in a gym – Block the annoying gym music.
    • Watching movies and TV – Without bothering others, and vice versa
    • Streaming and podcasting – You want to avoid microphones picking up the noise leakage from headphones
    • Monitoring
    • Using them in all noisy environments
    • Bass-lovers. The bass has more meat and impact in closed-back headphones, with better sub-bass extension and rumble. That helps with both listening to music and watching movies.
    • Implementation of active noise cancelling (ANC).
    • Listening at a healthy volume because you don’t have to turn up the volume
    Bose QC35II wireless headphones
    Closed-back designs are the only ones that can successfully implement ANC.

    Closed-back headphones are the best to combine with active noise cancelling (ANC). The noise isolation and ANC produce the best noise-cancelling effect. That way, the outside world disappears, and you can only hear your music.

    Because of the closed-back design, the bass is the easiest to boost and the hardest to absorb. And since there is very little ambient noise, you can enjoy the bass in its full glory. However, some headphones can go overboard and make the sound overly warm and muddy.

    Disadvantages of closed-back headphones

    • Resonance, echo, and bass distortion
    • Smaller soundstage, bad spatial audio
    • Can’t handle high volumes
    • Listening fatigue during long listening sessions

    What are closed-back headphones bad for:

    • Using them for critical, analytical listening – The closed-back cups distort and color music.
    • Use where sound accuracy is essential – You won’t get accurate audio feedback due to distortion.
    • Using in a hot environment – The lack of air ventilation makes you sweat.
    Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro 250ohm
    Closed-back headphones, such as Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO, are perfect for studio work, especially as studio monitors.

    Resonance, echo, or reverberation are the result of the sound reflected from the surfaces inside the earcups. Sound loses clarity and becomes muddled.

    In most headphones, unwanted reverbs are prevented by carefully designing the earcup. However, some manufacturers use it to amplify a specific frequency. This causes coloration of the natural sound.

    Also, because the sound gets trapped inside the earcup, closed-back headphones can’t handle high volumes. It leads to distortion, which occurs once you bring them to painful loudness.

    The soundstage is smaller. While some closed-back headphones create a decent sound field, it’s more of an exception than a rule. With a small soundstage, you hear music in your head or right in front of you instead of all around like in a concert.

    What Are Semi-Open Headphones

    Semi-open headphones have partially closed earcups with smaller openings. Hence, the sound still travels in and out, but less than with open-back headphones. You can’t see the driver like in open-back headphones. Semi-open design is between the open-back and closed-back with all the advantages and disadvantages of each.

    Semi-open headphones have some passive noise isolation but less than closed-back headphones. They have some sound leakage but less than open-back headphones.

    The cups’ openings are small enough to reduce outside noise and sound leakage. If you pair them with thick leather earpads, you can use them in an office without bothering others.

    Likewise, the soundstage in semi-open headphones is generally bigger than in closed-back headphones but smaller than in open-back headphones.

    Benefits of semi-open headphones

    Every benefit of semi-open headphones also has a disadvantage.

    Semi-open compared to closed-back headphones have:

    • Less audio reverberation, echo, and bass build-up vs. closed-back
    • Bigger soundstage and more accurate spatial audio vs. closed-back
    • Less passive noise isolation vs. closed-back
    • More sound leakage vs. closed-back

    Semi-open compared to open-back headphones have:

    • More passive noise isolation vs. open-back
    • Less sound leakage vs. open-back
    • More audio reverberation, echo, and bass distortion inside earcups vs. open-back
    • Smaller soundstage and less accurate spatial audio vs. open-back
    Samson SR850 auto adjust headband
    Semi-open headphones are the middle way and offer the best of both worlds.

    What are semi-open headphones best for:

    • Listening at home when you want a balance between sound quality and noise isolation
    • Non-critical music listening
    • Listening to music for fun – They have a great sound balance that’s fun to listen to.

    What are semi-open headphones bad for:

    • Critical, analytical listening – Audio distortion in semi-open headphones isn’t optimal for analytical listening.
    • Professional work that requires sound accuracy
    • Listening to bass-heavy music – They generally have less bass.

    The sub-bass extension is usually better than with open-back headphones.

    That isn’t to say there are no bassy open-back headphones, with Philips Fidelio X2HR being one of the examples. However, pushing drivers to produce more bass can lead to audio distortion.

    This is where semi-open design helps. Like the open headphones, it boasts a more airy and less congested sound, with a noticeably larger soundstage. The other good thing is that the bass is also boosted compared to the open-back design and can extend further into sub-bass regions.

    Learn more:

    Difference Between Open Back vs. Closed Back vs. Semi-Open Headphones

    SoundClear, accurate, less bassSome echo and distortion, stronger bass       Medium accuracy, some bass response
    Noise isolationNo noise isolation      Great noise isolation        Some noise isolation
    SoundstageBig, spaciousSmallerMedium

    Comparison of sound quality and characteristics

    Open-back headphones generally have the best sound quality of the 3. They produce a natural, accurate sound that breathes.

    A neutral sound signature is important for mixing and music production, especially if you want your tracks to sound great.

    Also, better detail and soundstage help you place instruments around the mix. Open-monitoring headphones are useful for monitoring your voice and the sound of instruments during recording.

    Closed-back headphones are the winner at producing a lot of bass. If you’re a basshead and you enjoy a deep, powerful rumble, get closed headphones.

    The enclosed drivers “amplify” the low frequencies by bouncing them around inside the case.

    Semi-open headphones are the middle ground. They don’t excel at clarity or bass but are the best of both worlds.

    Comparison of comfort and ergonomics

    Regarding comfort and ergonomics, all 3 types of headphones are similar in size and weight. You can find big, heavy, or small, light headphones of each type.

    The only difference is in breathability.

    Open and semi-open headphones allow more airflow through the earcups. It helps your skin breathe. They cause less sweating during a long listening session.

    As a result, there is no accumulation of heat, your ears don’t sweat, and wearing them is much less fatiguing.

    Comparison of price range and availability

    Open-back headphones are generally more expensive than closed-back headphones. There’s one simple reason.

    HIFIMAN Shangri-La-jr

    You can find open-back headphones in all price ranges, but they’re the only ones that cover the high-end market above $1000. Because of the design, they can achieve much better sound quality compared to closed-back headphones.

    • Most open-back headphones are aimed and priced at enthusiasts and audiophiles willing to spend more.
    • While closed-back headphones are your average consumer headphones, which generally cost less.

    If you look at the most expensive headphones, once you get over the $5000 price tag, almost all headphones are open-back. Some are part of a limited series that can sell out, and you can’t buy them again.

    On the other hand, if you check the consumer headphones, even the premium ones are largely closed-back. And the manufacturers have the goal of selling as many as possible.

    Which One Should You Choose?

    What are the factors to consider when choosing between open-back and closed-back headphones?

    Closed-back headphones have superior noise isolation including all Beats headphones.
    Closed headphones are the most appropriate for commuting.

    Your listening environment

    In a quiet listening environment like your home, go for open-back and semi-open headphones.

    Go for closed-back in noisy places or at work where you need noise isolation and privacy.

    Your music genres

    If you’re listening to jazz, classical music, or rock then the accuracy and details of open-back headphones make them the best choice.

    But if you’re a fan of modern, popular music genres like hip-hop, pop, RnB, and metal, then you want powerful bass. And closed headphones are the way to go.

    Open-back vs. closed-back headphones for gaming

    Open-back headsets are better for competitive gaming, where spatial audio gives you an advantage. On the other hand, they produce less bass, and sound leakage is often picked up by your microphone when chatting with friends.

    Closed-back headsets produce more bass for immersive single-player gameplay. And are also great for playing with friends because you don’t want the mic to pick up sound from your headset.

    There is no perfect gaming headset that has it all. You have to cut some corners.


    What is the difference between closed-back and open-back headphones?

    The difference between closed-back and open-back headphones is that the first have a fully enclosed driver inside the earcups. This improves noise isolation, boosts bass, minimizes sound leakage, and creates sound distortion and a smaller soundstage.

    What is the point of open-end headphones?

    The point of open-back headphones is to create an optimal audio environment in which sound can travel naturally from the headphone drivers to human ears. This results in natural, accurate, and detailed sound enjoyed by demanding users.

    Is open or closed-back better for gaming?

    Open-back headsets are better for competitive first-person shooters where you have to pinpoint the direction sound is coming from to have an advantage. On the other hand, closed-back gaming headsets are better for immersive gaming thanks to stronger bass and playing with friends without a microphone picking up noise leakage.

    Why do open-back headphones have a better soundstage?

    Open-back headphones have a better soundstage because the sound is not enclosed inside the headphone earcups but can travel out of the casing, which human ears can hear.


    Hopefully, you understand the difference between open-back, closed-back, and semi-open headphones.

    The back design type impacts the sound quality, noise isolation, and comfort, but it’s not the only important thing. Audio tuning, earcup shape, materials, and technology like ANC have a major impact on the previously-mentioned features.

    When choosing headphones, look at all the important factors to get the best headphone for your needs.