Open-Back vs Closed-Back Headphones

The comparison between open-back vs closed-back headphones is a point of contention for every headphone user. Even if you’ve got the best open-back headphones and enjoy their open soundstage and airy highs at home, you’ll most likely choose for the sealed type on a train or subway ride. Closed-back headphones can be a great choice for recording, whereas open-back headphones provide a more natural sound during live performances.

Open-back headphones differ from closed-back ones by the following parameters:

  • design 
  • noise cancellation 
  • sound leakage 
  • width of the soundstage 
  • representation of highs 
  • representation of bass

Let’s check in more detail, what are open-back and closed-back headphones and which activities they’re best for.

What are Open-back Headphones?

The first model of open-back headphones was represented in 1968 by Sennheiser. These headphones had a perforated speaker enclosure with a thin layer of foam for comfort. The modern open-back headphones feature various designs while preserving the non-closed slotted or perforated ear cups. Such a design lets the air pass through the headphones ventilating the speaker driver and your ears. As a result, open-back headphones are comfortable for long listening. Hence, the open-back cans produce a wide soundstage and detailed and airy highs. At the same time, they let you hear the noise of the outer world and leak your sound as well.

What are Closed-back Headphones?

Closed-back headphones were first introduced in the early twentieth century and were primarily utilized for military purposes. In 1958, a model for widespread public usage was introduced.

These headphones have sealed ear cups and usually are heavier than open-back ones. Apart from the closed cup design, they feature the filling inside the cups that helps avoid resonance from the driver. Thanks to such design, closed-back headphones leak very little to no sound into the environment. They also keep your ears “in a chamber” and don’t let the outer noise inside. While the soundstage of the closed headphones feels narrower than with open cans, they provide punchier bass and beats with a lot of impact.

Comparison

Both open and closed-back headphones have their advantages and downsides. Nevertheless, this is defined by how and where they are used. Let’s compare open vs closed headphones strengths in the different spheres of use.

Studio use

Many sound engineers or producers prefer open-back headphones for studio use. These headphones provide a more detailed sound picture than their closed counterparts letting you hear the slightest nuance throughout the frequency range. Thanks to a wide soundstage, they reflect the way the sound will be performed through speakers—and that’s their huge selling point. They let you be aware of what’s going on around you and react timely to questions or remarks your coworkers make.

However, in a busy studio where several projects are worked on at once, open-back cans might become of little use. No noise protection means you’ve got to be in a relatively silent environment, and sometimes that’s not an option during working hours. If you record drums, it’s a good idea to listen to their output only to follow the rhythm. In such cases, a pair of high-quality closed headphones would be a good solution.

Streaming

When streaming, it’s important to regulate your voice level and control the way you sound for your followers. This is where open-back headphones are efficient. You can focus on the game or another object you represent, without fearing your voice is too low or too loud.

Still, if you stream from a noisy environment, open cans might be of no use. You’ll hear both your voice and what’s going on around you including traffic, conversations, and so on. That’s where closed-back headphones will fit.

Audio mixing

When it comes to audio mixing, the decision about open versus closed headphones is more clear. The flat response and high-class separation of open-back cans make them a primary choice. When combining various instruments and tracks, it’s important to hear the details in real-time, which also adds a score to open headphones.

But, if your environment is noisy, high-quality closed cans will be a better choice. They might add a bit more bass than needed but still provide exact mids and highs. Besides, they’ll help you keep concentration on the track, not the conversations around.

Bass Heavy

Closed headphones reign supreme in this situation. If you’re looking for powerful bass with high impact, choose the cans with the closed design. The sealed form and little to zero resonance create a surging bass effect. However, the narrow soundstage might make your audition tiresome quicker than with open-back headphones. Yet, it highly depends on personal preferences. If you’re a “bass head”, the closed-back design is the way to go.

Open-back headphones could be right for you if you want a more natural and less powerful bass. They don’t lack bass as it might seem when comparing the output of both types. The bass in open cans sounds pure, with a lot of space and detail. It isn’t as punchy as in closed headphones though. But the overall sound balance is usually more accurate.

DJing

DJing usually involves mixing the lower frequencies. The bass and rhythmic pattern are important, while the parameters of the soundstage are secondary. Thus, closed-back headphones serve well for DJing.

Another factor making closed cans a better choice is their passive noise resistance. The sealed design lets in a little of the environment sound, even if the latter is very loud. That’s perfect for keeping control over the sound in dance clubs and disco events.

Still, if you intend to mix less dynamic (e.g. lounge, pop, etc.) tracks, you might benefit from the open-back headphones’ design. With less bass-heavy music styles, the open-back cans reflect the sound output from the speakers closely. If you’re going to talk to the public and/or listen to their reaction during a performance, open headphones can be quite handy.

Gaming

If you’re considering open-back or closed-back headphones for gaming, think of what’s important for you when you play.

Do you need to hear all the effects and what your fellow gamers say clearly and in time? Then, open-back cans will be a good choice. They’ll let you hear each sound and don’t get tired of it.

Do you need to control your own voice when you play and use the microphone? Again, open headphones are made for it.

Do you mostly listen to music while playing? Then, probably, closed cans will fit you better, providing immersive bass and beats.

Are there other people nearby, and if so, do you want them to hear your gaming sound? In this scenario, closed headphones will also be a wiser choice, as they leak considerably less sound than open ones.

Noise Cancellation

When it comes to noise cancellation, closed headphones get their score. Their design makes them more massive than open models while ensuring the passive isolation of the ear from the outer noise. This design lets out little noise outside as well, securing your listening privacy and not disturbing other people around.

Still, if you need to communicate with others once in a while, closed headphones might become a hindrance. To hear what they are saying, you’ll have to turn them off or turn down the volume. In this scenario, open-back headphones may be preferable if your surroundings aren’t too noisy.

Conclusion

While open and closed-back headphones have their distinctive features (construction, noise cancellation, sound parameters, etc.), in each particular case there can be a different choice. Open-back headphones are suitable for audio mixing, live performance, music listening in a quiet environment. They feature flat frequency response and a wide soundstage. Closed cans provide strong bass and can be used during travel, for studio recording, gaming.

The particular decision also depends on your surrounding. If you need to keep your listening private or don’t want to disturb others, take closed-back headphones. If you’re going to use the headphones in a quiet environment, with no one to disturb, you can go with open-back ones. Take into consideration all the factors and opt for the headphones that’ll let you enjoy your sound the most!