If you’re partaking in the ever-so-thorough process of buying headphones, then you may have found yourself wondering what the popular two different options available to choose from when it comes to ‘headphone design’: closed-back or open-back headphones? If you aren’t sure which particular ‘back’ to choose between, it’s a good idea to learn about the benefits and drawbacks of each option, since one may be perfect for you as opposed to the other. Considering how confusing it was for us when we first began our dive into the studio headphones world, today we’ve written a guide to help you understand the differences between closed-back headphones and open-back headphones.
Closed-back vs. open-back headphones
Technically speaking, all of these terms imply studio headphones. But as you continue to shop and find the best pair of headphones for you, you may be stuck at this particular point of shopping: what does the “back” of a headphone” even mean? Open or closed? Most of the time in traditional shopping and “average” consumer targeting, many popular headphones are classified as ‘closed-back’, and this means that the outer part of the headphone cup has a hard enclosure. On the other hand, if the headphone is open-back (which is typically seen in more advanced studio environments), it means that it’s ear cup back is “open”, or allows some of the headphone to be exposed and unprotected. But why would anybody want this?
With the open-back headphone, there are some huge pros to this design. Of course, the sound will be emitted by the headphone in two directions: either to the ears or to the world. However, for those in the engineering world and want some of the audio to leave their cup and keep a clean mix, it can be a make or break. On the other hand, closed-back headphones will block the sound which goes out and disallow any of our audio from escaping into the real world. These types of headphones have been designed to isolate you from the outside world and great for recording environments — it will be just you and whatever you are listening to. The problem is that everything will be taking place inside of your head, and this at times causes some ‘build-up’ that many mix and master engineers and even audiophiles dislike. As always, if you do want to buy a higher-end pair of either open-back or closed-back headphones, headphone amplifiers are always a good idea.
Not to make it even more confusing, but keep in mind there are also some ‘types of headphones‘ that you may want to sift through before you choose between closed-back and open-back headphones. What we mean are the differences between in-ear, over-ear, on-ear, earbuds, etc.
Technically speaking, open-back headphones help air to pass through to the ear cups and to the speaker element within the headphones themselves. In this case, the pressure will not build up, so it can’t affect the overall clarity and quality of sound and you won’t have to deal with some echoes or pesky lower-end frequency build-up within the headphones. Most headphones that are high quality for the price within the mix and mastering realm are made with an open-back because it helps their sound to be clear and natural. This “build-up” can start to affect the mix and throw off the engineer, which basically makes or breaks their entire job as a whole. The “sound” of open-back headphones are more “roomy” than closed-back headphones, and give us an “open” feeling (which is still subjective and we hate explaining it this way, but once you use them you’ll understand).
On the contrary, this only works if there is no noise around you since the open-back design of the ear cups will not block the ambiance that comes from the outside world and you can hear everything that is taking place around you, so for those who are just leisure listening and are in public spaces, an office or somewhere you wouldn’t want another person hearing your full on Katy Perry mix, it can be a problem. However, it isn’t as big of a problem as for let’s say people recording in the studio, since background noise can make or break a recording, not only from the outside world but also from the headphones themselves — for example, you want a clear vocal track without the instrumental part of the track being blended in, and if you record with open-back headphones, you’ll be getting that easily.
Another problem some may encounter is that these headphones don’t last as long as closed-back since there is nothing to keep the moisture away from inside the electronics. The headphones will have to be cared for properly as you can see in the photo some exposure of that “open” “back” of the headphones (you can actually see some of the electronics). High-end open back headphones can be still be used for home listening, high quality audio files, and critical listening (again, many audiophiles prefer open-back even though they don’t mix or master — they want as exact of a sound as possible). At the same time, you cannot use them if you are on a plane, in a noisy environment, commuting, or in the office, unless of course those around you don’t mind hearing what you’ve got spinning the entire time.
On the other hand, closed-back headphones are a type of headphone that have been sealed at the back. It allows the sound to reach the ear of the user only, and keeps it all private and quiet. Even if the sound is not as ‘natural’ as it is with open-back headphones, budget-friendly closed-back headphones will still be able to keep out most of the noise. The bass notes may have imperceptible echoes, and wearing them for a long period can make your ears warm or feel ‘tired’ after a while (if you haven’t experienced ear fatigue, for example while producing or making music for more than 6 or so hours, it’s a real thing). However, they are the best choice if you want to record instruments or vocals to disallow any of our instrumental from being passed on to the mix, or perhaps listen to your music in a public area or if you are commuting and need some privacy.
You should get this type of headphone if you’re recording in a studio, producing (although some producers we know still prefer open-back, so long as you aren’t using a mic), or will be traveling by some type of public transportation in a subway train or airplane most of the time. These are definitely more versatile than open-back headphones and pertain to more of the ‘average’ consumer of headphones (most Beats by Dre for example are closed-back), so if you still aren’t sure and want to be safe, grab a closed-back pair of headphones.
Wait a second, there’s three types of headphone builds? Don’t forget about these. When learning about the difference between closed-back and open-back headphones, you should also be aware of semi-open headphones. As the name implies, these headphones are in the middle of being open or closed, and as seen in the photo, have both a closed cup yet a few lines here and there to allow some sound leakage accordingly. They look like closed-back headphones, but they don’t have a complete seal for the speaker elements, which allows the passage of at least some air in or out of the chamber. This allows headphones to have the advantages of both the open-back and closed-back headphones, but they also have their disadvantages also. The semi-open backed headphones can leak sounds and noise can get inside, but not as much as completely open-back headphones. This means that they’ll give you the worst of both worlds as well — some sound leakage out to those around you, as well as keep some of the low-end build up or bring the possibility of eventual ear fatigue.
You can use semi-open headphones if you want to listen to music at home or if you want to enjoy casual listening with some more clarity than traditional closed-back headphones. These headphones are definitely better if you want to block the outside noise while you are in the office or commuting, but you’ll still be portraying at least some of the mix to those around you. In most cases, these are preferred by those who are stern about their leisure music listening and consider themselves ‘audiophiles’.
How to make the final decision
After learning about the difference between closed-back and open-back headphones, we hope we’ve been able to highlight some of the major pros and cons of each type of headphone build. Or perhaps it’s more confusing? This is because even if you understand the differences among closed-back vs. open-back headphones, you may want to use each type at different times. Heck, we know people with all three types of headphone builds to have in their audio listening arsenal, so don’t be afraid to grab both if you have the cash, or first start with closed-back and grab a high-end open-back pair of headphones later down the road (that’s what we did).
Everything will come down to how you like to listen. You may like to sit back in a quiet area and enjoy each song you are listening to or you may want to listen to your songs without disturbing other people around you. If you have decided on these two things, then it will be easier for you to choose when it comes to closed-back vs. open-back headphones. If you buy a pretty good open-back pair of headphones, it will be a sign that you want to advance away from the casual listener to become someone who is more serious about his music. However, you may have to listen at a low volume so that you do not disturb others.