How to Find Out Whether ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ Headphones Are Right for You

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Closed headphones: The type most peopleknow and use

The difference between “closed” and “open” headphones is in the way they’re constructed. Closed headphones contain a speaker with a hard, or closed-off, back. The vast majority of headphones are “closed” for a couple of reasons. The first is that by closing off the back of the headphones, they create a tighter “seal” around your ear.

That seal is what gives you punchier bass (especially with earbuds), because the sound can’t escape in all directions. The speaker in each side of your headphones is naturally directed toward your ear, but some of the sound waves will bounce off the back of of your headphones.  

Closed headphones also carry the benefit of not letting sound “leak” out, which makes them a lot more office- or commute-friendly. Because most people tend to listen to music in office environments, or through earbuds, closed headphones have become the de-facto standard in the headphone world.

Among my favorite closed headphones is this pair by Sony that has been in production for decades. The audio quality is phenomenal if you’re looking for a neutral-sounding pair of headphones, with my only gripe being its long cable.

Sony Professional Large Diaphragm Headphone, $79.99, available at Amazon

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Which Design Is Best Suited For You?

Now that we have compared the 2 designs, we can see the pros and cons of each design. Beyond this, a critical factor is what you will use them for.

Open-Back headphones are suitable for:

  • In quiet surroundings
  • Home listening
  • Music production (mixing/mastering)
  • Hi-res audio

Closed-Back headphones are suitable for:

  • Commuting/Travelling
  • DJs
  • Musicians
  • Music production (recording)
  • Studying
  • Open sound
Man walking in train station with headphones on
(
Man walking in train station with headphones on(From: pxfuel.com)

In favor of closed-back

This can immediately push you in a certain direction, or even leave you with no choice. If you are looking for a pair of headphones for commuting by public transport, listening while at the library, or in Art galleries you need to go for a closed-back design.

They offer useful isolation, keep the sound enclosed, and there are plenty of great models to choose from.

If you are a musician or music producer, closed-back is also your best option. The music in your headphones doesn’t disturb other players. If you are recording, what you are recording is not leaking into the surrounding microphones.

Those DJs among us also favor the closed-back design. In a loud club when auditioning music you need great isolation that only closed-back headphones can provide.

Open-back all the way

Open-back headphones are often referred to as audiophile headphones. Whether you’re a gamer, music listener, musician, producer or all of the above if sound quality is paramount, open-back is the way to go.

Silhouet of a person with headphones on
(From: fl
Silhouet of a person with headphones on(From: flickr.com)

You need a quiet environment, where sound is the main focus. While at home, listening, gaming, practicing music or working on audio, music, or video post-production they offer the most rewarding and accurate listening experience.

Closed-back headphones accentuate the feeling of being inside the music. The sound is very focused in the center of your head. This is a quality that some listeners really enjoy.

Open-back headphones, where the sound can travel outwards, creates a different experience. The music you are listening to appears to be coming from around you. You can close your eyes, and imagine the musicians sitting around you in an ensemble.

Both of these options sound desirable. Which is why it can be a difficult decision to make.

Your music, your sound

All this being said, listeners often choose a pair of headphones based on their sound, regardless of the design type. Some like an open, neutral sound, as the artist intended. Others prefer extended lows and hyped highs. The type of music you listen to also plays a large role.

For those who can afford it, the best option is to have one of each design, so you can choose the best option for the moment, mood, or application.

Disadvantages of Open-Back Headphones

Poor Noise-Cancellation

As we alluded to already, open-back headphones are terrible at reducing external noise. So if you regularly travel to work via public transport, these cans will not effectively block out car/train sounds or conversations. This may result in users cranking up the volume of their music in order to cancel-out the external ambience – potentially causing damage to their hearing. For commuting, closed-back cans or even headphones with active noise-cancelling technology are definitely recommended.

Excessive Spill

The other drawback with open-back headphones is how badly they leak audio. Their perforated ear-cups can’t suppress sound as effectively as ones that are sealed, meaning that anything you’re listening to can probably be heard by anyone within a few metres of you. Open-back cans are therefore more appropriate for the home and not quiet environments where other people are in close proximity.

This construction type also means that open-backs are poor for recording applications. The spill would be particularly noticeable when recording vocals, as a microphone is typically placed close to a singer’s mouth/head. While this isn’t the worst thing in the world, it would become very apparent and audible if you needed to move sections of a take in post-production that were, say, out of time or to be repeated later in a song with different accompaniment.

What are closed back headphones?

 Closed back headphones
Closed back headphones

Closed back headphones are physically constructed to minimize sound from leaking out or into the ear cups. You can tell, without even looking at the specs sheet, whether or not the headphones you are considering are closed or open back. The ear cups would have a solid design if they are closed. Often times, with an open back headphone, you can see through the cups into the headphone driver, or see some of the other internal components. With the closed back headphones, everything is simply… well, “closed,” isolating your ears from the sounds of your environment.

A note on noise canceling headphones…

Closed back headphones can also be called noise canceling headphones, because they do, in effect, cancel out outside noises from reaching your ears. But there are two types of noise canceling headphones:

  1. Active noise canceling headphones
  2. Passive noise canceling headphones

Active noise canceling headphones are designed with an external microphone that monitors the acoustic ambience of the environment around the ear cups. The microphone creates a sonic signature that will cancel out the sound of the incoming noise. Hence, the term “noise canceling.” (You can read more about it at this Wikipedia article – active noise canceling).

The typical closed back headphones, which we can call passive noise canceling headphones, do a pretty good job at isolating the sounds around you, but they are not perfect. They passively cancel out ambient sounds when you have music playing through them, therefore “masking” any external sounds that may reach your ear (see this Wikipedia article on the principles of auditory masking).

Now let’s go over the pros and cons of closed back headphones.

Advantages of closed back headphones

  • Isolates sounds to minimize outside noise
  • Minimize sound leakage
  • You can listen to audio without disturbing anyone else
  • Very detailed “upfront” audio reproduction

Disadvantages of closed back headphones

  • Small potential for sound bleeding in (passive noise canceling)
  • Potential for “listening fatigue” (lower quality products)

That said, close back headphones are the most popular types of headphones. That’s because most people listening to headphones don’t want to disturb other people. Close back headphones provide the ability to block out your sound environment, immersing you into the audio you are listening to.

4.Open-back vs. Closed-back

Both open and closed-back headphones can be either large full-size over-ear models or the smaller on-ear types. Most audio professionals (DJs, mixers, recordists, studio producers) use closed headphones to allow for better concentration and isolation. Nowadays, the very best closed headphones can almost compete in sound quality with the best open headphones. You can’t say one design is better than the other in general because both have their pros and cons.
  • Soundstage, positional accuracy of the sound (which is better sound quality) is better with open-back headphones.

  • Awareness, hearing the background noise so you can react to a possible danger is also better with open headphones.

  • On the other hand, noise isolation and block the noise is better with closed-back headphones.

  • Also, the sound leakage is minimal with closed headphones so you can keep your music private.

Know your own needs and make a better decision so your new pair of headphones do exactly what you want.

Noise Isolation

Poor Isolation  Open-back

Sennheiser HD 650

Good isolation Closed-back Sennheiser Momentum 2.0

Noise isolation refers to a headphones' ability to isolate you from the outside world by preventing ambient noise from seeping into your audio.

Results: Noise isolation for passive, closed-back headphones depends on the quality of the seal created in, on, or around the listener's ears. This usually blocks a fair amount of high-frequency noise but may require additional noise-canceling to reduce the lower frequencies. However, even passively isolating closed-back headphones block sufficient noise to give listeners the flexibility of listening to audio in loud environments.

Open headphones, on the other hand, are designed to let in as much of the room ambiance as possible. This gives the audio reproduction a more natural sound quality that feels like it's part of your environment. Unfortunately, this also means that open headphones are very sensitive to noise and not as practical to use in loud settings. Unless you listen to your audio in isolated environments, open headphones may not be versatile enough for you.

Winner: Closed-Back

Learn more about noise isolation

Conclusion So what is the best option for you?

In this article, we discussed the various characteristics and qualities of both designs. There are considerable differences in the type of environments they suit. There are also big differences in the sonic characteristics, and listening experiences that they create.

You have the answer

You already know your listening habits – where you listen to music the most, and the type of music. If noise entering or escaping is not a concern or issue, open-back headphones are a good option, as long as you like their sound. Listeners argue they provide the most enjoyable listening experience.

We can’t forget, listening to music is a subjective experience. Even when presented with all the reasoning and data, it’s down to you to decide how you want to hear and experience your audio.

For audiophiles

Open-back designs are said to be the best for critical listening. If your work, private or professional, requires you to make accurate considerations in the absence of, or even reinforced by speakers, they can help you make the correct decision.

That being said, many audio professionals used closed-back designs.

Versatility

Closed-back headphones allow you to hear better in a larger variety of listening environments. If you can only get one pair of headphones, it will be these. This design is also the most produced, so there is a vast array of options to choose from.

They can also be the choice for audiophiles. It is not so much one design versus the other, it is a whole collection features the user needs to consider.

We hope this article has helped in clearing up any questions you had. The next time you purchase a pair of headphones you’ll already know which design of headphones to choose to create the listening experience you are after.

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