Open-Back vs. Closed-Back Headphones: What’s the Difference?
Buying new headphones seems easy at first but can get more complicated once you learn there are different headphone designs to choose from. Here we’re going into the differences between closed-back headphones and open-back headphones.
Headphone back design isn’t some marketing term that, in reality, doesn’t impact overall performance. On the contrary, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types.
Most importantly, the construction differences between open-back vs. closed-back headphones aren’t purely cosmetic but significantly affect your listening experience.
Let’s break down the headphone types and list their pros and cons.
Quick Comparison of Open-Back vs. Closed-Back Headphones
- Superior sound quality
- Poorer passive isolation
- Bigger soundstage
- Can handle higher volumes better
- Superior passive noise isolation
- Deeper bass and rumble
- Small, intimate soundstage
- Bigger chances of sound distortion at higher volumes
What Is the Difference Between Open-Back and Closed-Back Headphones?
This is the most common type of headphones that you can find. This design is the most practical for daily use. Everyone has at least one pair of closed-back headphones at home, primarily for gaming and casually listening to music.
Superior passive noise isolation and reduced sound leakage
Closed-back design can affect many areas of your listening experience. Most notably, passive isolation. Because there is a barrier between your ear and surroundings, a considerable amount of ambient noise gets blocked.
When you consider all the extra padding behind and in front of the driver, isolation gets even better. Of course, earpads also play an essential role, helping close up any potential leaks between you and the outside world.
Speaking of leaks, this is also another area where a closed-back headphone does a great job. In most cases, there is minimal sound leakage out of headphones. That makes them perfect for wearing in an office or commuting with many people around.
Manufacturers often upgrade the already high level of isolation by implementing features like active noise cancelling. That way, the outside world disappears almost entirely, so that you can only hear your music.
Also, thanks to great isolation you don’t have to turn up the volume to unhealthy levels.
Deeper bass response but more distortion at higher volumes and smaller soundstage
A completely enclosed driver (speaker) changes the sound. The sound gets trapped inside the headphone cups, which forces it directly into your ears.
Sound waves start bouncing around and cause reverberation. 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.
It’s also known that because the sound gets trapped inside the earcup, closed-back headphones can’t handle very high volumes, which can lead to distortion. Of course, that usually occurs once you bring them to painful loudness.
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 with it and make the sound overly warm and muddy.
The soundstage is quite intimate in most cases. While some closed-back headphones can create a decent sound field, that’s more of an exception than a rule. That means you hear sounds in your head or right in front of you instead of being pushed further back.
The majority of in-ear headphones have a closed-back design. In-ears are the type of headphones that are usually made for stage monitoring or commuting, which is why we don’t see many models with open-back housings.
What are closed-back headphones best for?
For starters, they’re the best for listening to music with people around you. In this case, you need proper isolation, so other people don’t bother you and vice-versa. Places like offices and public transport, crowded city streets.
They also come in handy for monitoring in the studio, where you want to avoid your microphones picking up the noise leaking from headphones. Closed-back headphones are preferred for everything from music studio monitoring, online streaming, or running a podcast.
These aren’t as common among a consumer-based set of headphones that you see in stores. However, open-back headphones are highly praised by audiophiles and sound engineers. The secret lies in the way they present the sound.
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.
However, completely open-back earcups also have many disadvantages if you use them in the wrong place.
Isolation is almost non-existent
This is where the open-back design shows its weaknesses. Fully open-back headphones allow the outside noise to come in very easily. Because of that, you practically don’t need to take off your headphones when speaking to someone since there is no isolation whatsoever.
Sound leakage is, in many cases, quite awful. Even to the point where people around you can hear your music precisely. Because of that, open-back designs are completely useless when it comes to commuting.
Earpads do help to some extent but can’t entirely prevent surrounding noise from ruining your listening experience. Therefore, manufacturers don’t bother with providing isolation and somewhat improve comfort and breathability using velour pads.
Semi-open headphones are good middle ground. While it isn’t a night and day difference, semi-open backs ensure a better overall passive isolation. Earcups are not entirely open, and you can’t see the driver like in many open-back headphones.
The cups’ openings are small enough to reduce outside noise while also reducing sound leakage to a minimum. If you pair them with thick leather earpads, you can use them in the office without bothering the others.
More natural sound quality with a bigger soundstage
This is where things get a bit more interesting. A fully open-back design doesn’t enclose the sound but instead let the sound move freely in all directions, meaning it doesn’t get congested. That’s why open-back headphones have a much more natural sound reproduction, as if you’re listening to music through room speakers.
The soundstage is considerably bigger than closed-back headphones. Sounds are pushed further away, creating a more natural presentation of musicians playing in front of you.
There is also much less distortion. That makes them perfect for professional work, like mixing and mastering. Combined with a bigger soundstage, they can more accurately place instruments and sound effects in the mix.
The sub-bass extension is usually worse. You can’t rely on open-back ear cups to amplify lower frequencies. The latter is also due to the lack of isolation, making you more aware of barely audible low-end frequencies.
That isn’t to say there are no bassy open-back headphones, with Philips Fidelio X2HR being one of the examples. However, pushing drivers in open-back headphones to produce more bass could lead to unnecessary distortion.
This is also where semi-open design can help. Like the open-back 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.
What are open-back headphones best for?
Open-back headphones are the best to use at home for casual or analytical listening. Although, you have to make sure there are no background noises that will distort your music.
They’re also excellent for gaming and movies since a bigger soundstage means better immersion. It’s an entirely different experience when you hear things floating around your head.
Lastly, open-back headphones are ideal for mixing since you need to hear every detail in your mix when creating a perfect track. Also, the sound leakage isn’t a problem since engineers already like to mix with speakers.
Which Should You Get?
Before making any rushed decision, you have to evaluate what design fits your personal needs. However, now that you know the main differences between open-back vs. closed-back headphones, picking your next pair of headphones should be less complicated.
Are great for:
- Commuters. Users who travel a lot will find many benefits in superior isolation and additional active noise cancellation. That makes closed-back headphones a better choice for all public situations.
- Office use. Good isolation characteristics help here too, especially if you work in a noisy office. Reducing external noise should help you focus on your work. It can also help you protect your hearing since you don’t have to crank up the volume to hear music.
- 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.
Are great for:
- Private listening at home. Step up the game and invest in sound quality and natural presentation. While you’re likely to only use them at home, your ears will be happier.
- Studio use. For audio professionals, a neutral sound signature is important during mixing and music production, especially if they want their track to sound great. Also, better detail and soundstage can help them with placing instruments around the mix. Monitoring headphones are also useful to monitor your voice or the sound of your instrument during recording.
- Breathability. While that’s not entirely open headphones domain, they cause less sweating during long listening. The reason is they usually come with velour earpads, which help your skin breathe. Your ears don’t sweat as much, which can be a bit nasty.