Open-Back vs Closed-Back Headphones (Audio 101)

Personal audio is a complex topic. Many concepts may be daunting at first for those who are just getting into the hobby. But if you take things one step at a time, you will eventually begin to have a better understanding of the world of personal audio.

One of the most basic concepts is the type of headphone. There are generally two types of headphones; open-back and closed-back. Closed-back headphones account for most consumer-grade headphones such as portable headphones and most gaming headphones. Open-back headphones, on the other hand, are reserved for more advanced models that are built for specific tasks. 

Open vs Closed-Back Headphones

The most basic difference between the two headphones is that closed-back headphones are completely sealed and thus do not let the sound go in and out of the headphones. This means that you will generally hear less ambient noise while wearing, then Open-back headphones, on the other hand, usually have vents on the earcups that let sound pass through. This, of course, means that you will hear everything around you. 

By that definition alone, most people would assume that open-back headphones have an inferior design, which is why they are not commonly used in consumer-grade headphones. However, this debate is more complex. If you search through online forums, you will quickly learn that there are lots of benefits of open-back headphones. 

Users often comment that it is actually the superior choice for various tasks such as gaming and music listening. However, you will also encounter users complaining about poor isolation and sound leakage in open-back headphones. 

These are often conflicting ideas from supporters of open-back and closed-back headphones that can add to the complexity of the topic and often leads to the frustration of the buyer. If you are having trouble deciding between the two options, then you have come to the right place. 

In this article, we will be detailing all the major differences between open-back and closed-back headphones. By the time you finish reading this, you will have a better understanding of each headphone type, and hopefully, you can make a better purchase decision. 

Also, there are still other differences between headphones outside of their physical design. There are low impedance and high impedance headphones. Consider reading this article since most open-back headphones have a high-impedance and usually require a headphone amplifier. 

If you just want the best models available, you can read more about them in our Best Drop Headphones and Best Audio Technica Headphones articles. 

Open-Back Headphones

Sennheiser HD660s (Image: Stephen Menor)

As the name implies, open-back headphones do not have a seal on the back of the earcups. Most of the time, the earcups have vents or grills where you can see the driver. This open design allows air to pass through and prevents sound reflections or buildup of pressure inside the earcups.

Most high-end headphones tend to prefer this design over the closed-back design because of how close the open-back design can sound to a speaker setup. Of course, there are exceptions. Some brands still prefer to use the closed-back design because of its advantages over the open-back design. However, they also have their fair share of drawbacks.

Advantages:

Open-back headphones have a more natural sound compared to closed-back headphones. Highs are usually airier and have a better extension. Bass is also not too exaggerated with open-back headphones. 

The natural sound of most open-back headphones allows them to have better accuracy than closed-back headphones. This makes them more suitable for tasks that involve critical listening, such as sound production. 

Another notable feature of open-back headphones is their larger soundstage compared to closed-back headphones. Since sound is not trapped, open-back headphones tend to simulate a speaker-like experience. The most popular example of this is with the Sennheiser HD800s

Grado SR60E (Image: Stephen Menor)

This is not always the case as some open-back headphones have a tighter soundstage, such as the Sennheiser HD6XX/HD650. However, these headphones still outclass most closed-back headphones in terms of the soundstage. 

Also, since the soundstage of open-back headphones is larger, imaging is also better. There are still, of course, closed-back headphones with exceptional imaging such as the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro/Drop DT 177X Go. But most open-back headphones, in general, have superior imaging to closed-back headphones. 

Disadvantages:

The main disadvantage of open-back headphones is their lack of sound isolation. Since there is no seal in the earcups, sound can freely enter and exit from the earcups. This makes them impossible to use in noisier environments. 

Also, since they leak so much sound, you will also be creating noise that will inevitably annoy anyone near you. This is not the headphone for private listening. Also, the sound leakage and lack of isolation make it impossible to use open-back headphones in a portable setting. 

In terms of professional use, open-back headphones cannot be used in tracking/recording certain instruments such as vocals. Since the sound leakage in open-back headphones is so strong, it will naturally leak into the microphone of the vocalist. This makes the vocal track unusable. 

Overall, the poor sound isolation that open-back headphones provide makes them less versatile. Most open-back headphones either have a specific use, such as indoor use. 

Why Choose Open-Back Headphones:

Despite having several disadvantages, lots of enthusiasts still prefer using open-back headphones over closed-back headphones due to the better sound quality that they provide. 

They also provide better soundstage and imaging that is useful for specific tasks such as competitive/professional gaming, movies, and other forms of media that provide an immersive experience. 

If you want to potentially have a superior and realistic sound experience that will mostly be used indoors, then open-back headphones are the perfect pair for you. 

Popular Models:

Sennheiser HD 660s/HD 600 Series

HD660s + iFi Nano BL
Sennheiser HD660s (Image: Stephen Menor)

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Sennheiser HD800s

Sennheiser HD 800 S Reference Headphone System
Sennheiser HD 800S (Image: Amazon)

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Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro

beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open Studio Headphones
Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro (Image: Amazon)

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Hifiman Ananda

HIFIMAN Ananda Over-Ear Full-Size Planar Magnetic Headphones with High Fidelity Design Easy to Drive by iPhone/Android Studio Comfortable Earpads Open-Back Design Easy Cable Swapping
Hifiman Ananda (Image: Amazon)

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Focal Elear

Focal Open Back Over-Ear Headphone
Focal Elear (Image: Amazon)

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When Should You Use Open-Back Headphones?

  • Indoor Listening
  • Critical Listening
  • Monitoring in a quiet environment (inside a studio, for example)
  • Competitive/Professional Gaming
  • Mixing and Mastering (if there are no studio monitor speakers available)

Closed-Back Headphones

Audio Technica M50 50th Anniversary Limited Edition (Image: Stephen Menor)

Closed-back is the more conventional design for headphones. There is a physical seal in the earcup that prevents sound from going in and out of the earcup. This creates passive noise cancelation that helps make the music more engaging. 

The closed-back design is seen on consumer-grade products such as portable and gaming headphones. They are, of course, also seen on professional products such as studio monitoring headphones. Just like open-back headphones, they have their strengths as well as weaknesses. 

Advantages:

The main advantage that closed-back headphones have over open-back headphones is the passive noise isolation that they provide. This makes them ideal for noisy environments and outdoor listening scenarios. This is why all portable headphones have a closed-back design. 

Another advantage of closed-back headphones is their minimal sound leakage. Compared to open-back headphones, closed-back headphones do not leak as much while wearing them. This also makes closed-back headphones ideal for several professional use cases. 

Due to the minimal sound leakage and passive noise isolation, closed-back headphones are the preferred design for monitoring headphones. The passive noise isolation makes sure that there is no external noise that can influence the sound. This is especially important in live events. 

Also, in recording, closed-back headphones are used in recording almost every instrument. Since closed-back headphones don’t leak as much as open-back headphones, they are less likely to bleed into the microphone signal. 

The sound isolation alone that these headphones provide arguably makes them the more versatile choice for most users.

Disadvantages:

The main disadvantage of the closed-back design is the unnatural sensation and pressure buildup in the ears caused by passive noise isolation. Some headphones with strong passive noise cancelation can block too much noise and prevent you from hearing important sound queues in your environment. 

Also, the closed-back design causes reflections inside the earcups. This makes the sound inaccurate compared to closed-back headphones, which makes them less ideal for critical listening tasks such as mixing and mastering. 

Another disadvantage that closed-back headphones have is their limited soundstage. Due to their design, the sound is trapped in the earcups. This prevents closed-back headphones from achieving a speaker-like experience. Some headphones like Sennheiser’s GSP 300 can simulate a wider soundstage due to their tuning.  

Sennheiser GSP 300 Gaming Headset with Noise-Cancelling Mic, Flip-to-Mute, Comfortable Memory Foam Ear Pads, Headphones for PC, Mac, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Smartphones
Sennheiser GSP 300 (Image: Amazon)

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However, the soundstage of these headphones still does not feel as wide or as natural as open-back headphones.  Along with the soundstage 

Why Choose Closed-Back Headphones

Despite not being as accurate as open-back headphones, closed-back headphones can arguably be used in more scenarios. They can both be used in professional and casual scenarios. 

Most closed-back headphones can get close to the performance of open-back headphones. They will not have the same imaging and soundstage performance as open-back headphones, but they will give an experience that is close enough. 

If you can only purchase one pair of headphones that will be used in different kinds of applications such as portable use, gaming, and casual listening, then closed-back headphones are the better option for you. 

Popular Models:

Audio Technica M50X

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones, Black, Professional Grade, Critically Acclaimed, With Detachable Cable
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (Image: Amazon)

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Sony MDR Z1R

SONY MDR-Z1R WW2 Signature, Hi-Res Headphone, Black (International Version)
Sony MDR Z1R (Image: Amazon)

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Drop X Beyerdynamic DT 177X GO/Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro

beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro Studio Headphone
Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro (Image: Amazon)

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Beyerdynamic X Drop DT 177X Go

Check on Drop

Fostex T50RP Mk3

Fostex T50RP MK3 Professional Studio Headphones, Semi-Open
Fostex T50RP MK3 (Image: Amazon)

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Audio Technica ATH-AP2000TI

Audio-Technica ATH-AP2000TI Closed-Back Headphones, Black
Audio-Technica ATH-AP2000TI (Image: Amazon)

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When Should You Use Closed-Back Headphones?

  • Indoor or Outdoor Listening
  • Monitoring in loud environments (concert venue, for example)
  • DJ Monitoring 
  • Competitive/Professional Gaming (especially in live environments such as championships)
  • Monitoring during recording/tracking

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