Headphones have been a part of people’s lives for decades. They come in many types, enclosures, prices and serve different purposes. Regardless of the type of headphones, they will always deliver sound in one way or another. This article highlights the differences between the two types of headphone enclosures. Open and closed-back headphones and how they affect the overall listening experience.
Enclosure refers to how headphones are structurally designed and define how they perform in different environments. There are three main designs of headphones: closed-back, open-back, and semi-open. When a headphone is closed, the ears are not directly exposed to the outside environment, which gives closed headphones a specific purpose and application. With open headphones, it’s the opposite. Of course, this is only a simplification of concepts.
- Three Main Differences Between Open-back and Closed-back Headphones
- Advantages & Disadvantages of Open and Closed Headphones
- Things to Consider When Selecting a Headphone based on Enclosure
- What Type is Best for You?
Three Main Differences Between Open-back and Closed-back Headphones
There are many differences between the two types of headphones, some are more obvious than others, but the most essential factor is that one cannot be used for all purposes. If you’ve had trouble deciding between open-back headphones and closed-back headphones by now, we’ll highlight the aspects that make these two types so different.
The first aspect we need to know about the two types of headphones is the enclosure design used.
Closed-back headphones are designed to completely enclose the driver and effectively block out sound from outside. They are great for listening to music in public because they control how much outside noise gets in and offer the user a high level of privacy.
An open-back headphone has open ear cups with grills or vents for the audio signal to flow through. The open design allows sound leakage and lets noise from outside in. Although you’ll be able to hear some outside ambient sound in an open-back headphone, the sound quality is usually better.
The level of sound insulation a closed headphone provides compared to open-back headphones can be 10 to 40 dB. The airtight design typically blocks out high frequencies and slows the airflow. However, since most closed-back headphones still let some external sound through, ANC closed-back headphones provide additional noise reduction for a total of -25 or -30 dB noise reduction. But that is not to say that headphones with active noise-cancelling are better than passive noise reduction.
In general, sound leakage from an open headphone is considered a better trait in closed environments. Sound leakage allows the ambient sound to pass through with no resistance, which is why open-back headphones have excellent ventilation, are less tiring over long listening sessions, and feel more comfortable. Some open-back may provide a slight sound reduction, but it’s in the 0-5 dB range, which is insignificant.
There are also big differences between open-back and closed-back headphones when it comes to comfort.
First, closed back headphones are heavier, as they generally include more material, and the pads are not as well ventilated and soft.
Because open-back headphones use velour or other breathable materials, they are more comfortable on the ears.
The open design also allows air to ventilate these pads, which won’t heat up your ears and cause discomfort, but closed-back headphones tend to be more soundproof to the user’s ears.
As noted, comfort between the two types of helmets is primarily a matter of personal preference.
Difference in Sound Quality
Open-backs have a more open sound but often have a less physical bass impact than closed headphones. As sounds are allowed to enter the headphones and mix with the audio from your devices, open-back headphones can be a bad choice if you don’t have a dedicated room for music listening or have a lot of noise in the area.
On the other hand, mixing with closed-back headphones is more complicated. The bass is punchy, highly defined, resonant, and moderately deep compared to open-back types of headphones.
Despite their well-extended bass response and impressive bass depth, open-back headphones have less powerful bass than closed-back headphones, which are frequently ignored by people who prefer even the tinniest bass thump.
Bass feels more realistic with open-back headphones, but it’s not as punchy as their closed-back counterparts; instead, it’s rather tight, well-controlled, and developed, providing a pleasantly rhythmic bass sound to music lovers of detail and precision.
Reproduction of instruments and vocals
Many people confuse open-backed headphones with “hi-fi” headphones. Hi-fi means having a wide frequency range and preserving and reproducing the sound of instruments with clarity and detail as close as possible to the original recording.
Open-back headphones sound natural because air flows through vents or grilles inside the earpiece, into which the sound can move. The air allows the sound waves to move more freely, resulting in an incredibly spacious soundstage.
Open-back headphones are popular among audiophiles who love listening to vocals and precise instruments, as they carry over the original sound wave better than any other headphones.
With open-back headphones, you can hear the rattle of a snare drum or even the subtle sound of a finger sliding down the strings of a guitar with greater accuracy.
Open-back headphones have a larger soundstage, which means you’ll feel like you’re surrounded by the music. The greater airflow in the open design of open-back headphones contributes to this effect significantly. On the other hand, because they lack the ear cup walls to allow sounds to bounce back and forth and reverberate to create a 3D sound effect, closed-back headphones create an enhanced sense of “depth” in the soundstage that is unlike any open-back headphone.
In general, open-back headphones have better extension, width, clarity, play with more accuracy, and better imaging. They also have a more linear or balanced sound, which helps reproduce instruments and vocals. Like saxophone and brass, wind instruments sound incredibly realistic, and voices are well reproduced, clear, and crisp.
On the other hand, closed-back headphones have more physical impact and more bass than open-back headphones. The soundstage of closed headphones has better depth, making closed-back studio headphones excellent for recording or listening in most environments (office, on the commute, at home, etc.). It also gives them a more intimate feel since the audio is concentrated in your ears, the bass is more direct, and the sound feels more rounded and full-bodied,
Ultimately, closed headphones sound more dynamic or engaging than open-back headphones, but they don’t have a natural and faithful sound like open-back headphones in most cases.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Open and Closed Headphones
- Lightweight with long-lasting comfort
- Breathable and airy sound
- Detailed and clear sound for sound purists
- Deep bass response
- Studio Reference sound quality
- Open-back headphones are great for mixing and mastering
- Low frequencies do not resonate or overshadow other frequencies
- Reduced pressure on the ear, discomfort, and fatigue during long hours of use
- Great to use in a hot climate as it provides good ventilation and dissipates heat
- Increased ambient noise is visible in the music
- Open-back headphones leak sound, so they are not suitable for recording
- Lack of “enveloping” effect, so some people may be more disturbed by the ambient noise
- Bass response and quality may not be as exciting as with closed-back headphones
- For some people, the sound is boring and clear sound may not be preferred
- Low frequencies cannot be felt in the same way as with closed-back headphones
- Sound stage appears more spacious but thinner than in closed headphones
- Requires a good listening setting, not to be used outdoors.
- Sealed headphones with passive sound insulation, so you do not have to worry about the outside noise.
- High comfort and durability
- Vibrant sound quality with a more powerful bass response
- Bass is more pronounced, but the lower frequencies aren’t as accurate as in open-back headphones
- Sound is more intimate, warmer, and fun to listen to
- Great for recording music, especially modern popular music
- Can be used outdoors in various settings (whereas open-back headphones can’t)
- Ideal for commuting, trips, and business travel
- Don’t rely on properly sound-insulated rooms
- Mid-frequencies are often masked by the pronounced lower frequencies
- Soundstage is narrow and instrumental separation is poor
- Detailed sound is often lost in the louder bass
- Closed headphones can be heavier and create fatigue due to the heat buildup, which is why you cannot use any closed-back headphone for studying
- The difference in comfort level between closed and open headphones is substantial
- For some people, the bass can be overwhelming, as it resonates inside the headphone earpiece
Things to Consider When Selecting a Headphone based on Enclosure
Open-back headphones offer a crisp sound and are commonly used in recording studios for mixing and mastering because of their linear and revealing sound. Unless you’re a bass-head, open-back headphones are an excellent option for most people who get pleasure from other aspects of the sound spectrum than powerful bass notes.
Sound leakage is a crucial point to consider when using open-back headphones because they are meant to be used in a relatively quiet environment. Listening to your favorite artists through open-back headphones while in the office or studying room in the library is not recommended because everyone around will be able to hear what you’re listening to.
Since open-back headphones sound better than closed-back headphones and offer a more airy sound, they are the preferred choice for audiophiles. The audio is usually less harsh and can be enjoyed in the comfort of your home as you would with closed-back models. Open-backs also tend to have a spacious soundstage, which means that the audio appears to come from all directions, and distinguishing between the various instruments is easy and enjoyable.
The sound isn’t as exciting as that of closed headphones due to the reduction in the bass, but this doesn’t mean that it is terrible; it is actually just different. If you love classical music, you will definitely appreciate how open-back headphones portray the high frequencies and offer a very close sound to what the artist meant for you to hear.
Closed-back headphones are more aimed at bass enthusiasts, often towards people with modern tastes, and are a good choice for almost all listening activities. As such, closed-back headphones are good for gaming, watching movies, listening to music, recording music at home, etc. They can produce deep, powerful bass and make your experience more stunning.
A closed-back headphone seals off your ears from the outside world, providing you with privacy and comfort when you are using them. Because of this reason, closed-back headphones are the primary option for recording and gaming. Closed-back headphones are also an excellent choice for listening to music in public transport, cars, and planes.
If you don’t When buying a closed headphone, low weight (under 300g) is an essential factor to look for because lightweight models will be very comfortable and won’t press your ears or cause irritation after long periods of use. Noise insulation level is also essential, as not all closed headphones provide a good deal of noise reduction. The more dB, the better (go for min – 20 dB noise reduction).
What Type is Best for You?
The ramifications of choosing between open-back and closed-back headphones are numerous. Some consider the latter to be more comfortable; others prefer the soft ear cushions and spacious soundstage offered by open-back models. The former tends to be warmer, while the latter has a realistic, less bassy sound.
Gaming with open or closed headphones
When it comes down to gaming with open or closed-back headphones, the choice is just as hard. For that reason, we wrote a comprehensive guide on whether you should be gaming with open or closed-back gaming headsets.
Open-back headphones aren’t incredibly versatile, but they provide an immersive experience that’s great for gaming, mixing, listening to music, and watching videos. As such, the best open-back headphones for gaming are Drop + Sennheiser 6XX, EPOS I Sennheiser GAME ONE (headset) for mid-range prices. In the high-end, we recommend the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro for both gaming and music listening.
For music listening only, there’s Sennheiser HD 559 (the best open-back headphones under $100), Sennheiser HD 660S, and Hifiman Sundara for more serious users. AKG K712 Pro and DT 1990 Pro are fantastic for music listening, but they’re the preferred mixing open-back headphones for those who want to take their music production seriously.
On the other hand, if you need a more portable headset with active noise reduction, closed-back headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM3/XM4, Beyerdynamic Lagoon Traveler, and Bose QC35 II are good wireless options.
For home music listening, the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro, Shure SRH1540, and Audio-Technica ATH-M50X studio headphones are simply excellent for those who want solid sound and a wonderfully comfortable feel. Gamers can benefit from a high-quality pair of gaming headsets like the HyperX Cloud Alpha, Sennheiser GSP 350, or GSP 600, which offer the best passive sound isolation in gaming headphones.
The truth is that there are pros and cons to both types of headphones, as they are particularly suited to different personalities and purposes. Open-back headphones defeat the purpose of listening to music in private but offer more detailed and realistic sound reproduction besides outstanding comfort.
On the other hand, closed-back headphones are for those who want the isolation and privacy of a closed listening environment and like a more intense and vibrant listening experience.
So which one is right for you? It depends on what you want to use them for. Open-back headphones are great for home listening and professional studio use. They generally hold their value well, making them a good investment choice.
Suppose you prefer a mobile lifestyle or a rounder, more vibrant sound. In that case, closed-back models are more suitable, for example, for listening to music while studying or working in a noisy environment.