Choosing A Pair of Headphones – Open Back vs Closed Back

In 1968 Sennheiser shook the world with the debut of their now famous HD 414’s, taking the world by storm upon release, the world’s first open-back headphones sold over 100,000 units by the end of 1969 and 10,000,000 in total (yep, it’s the best selling headphone of all time).

Their release and subsequent success sparked a debate that still carries on to this day among music lovers all over, which headphones are better, open-back or closed-back headphones.

Depending on who you ask the question to, you’ll get a variety of answers and opinions, all of which can get confusing very fast.

This guide discusses the pros and cons of each type in order to help break down any confusion for those who might be stuck on what to choose.

What Are Open-Back Headphones?

Sennheiser HD650 Headphones on the foreground

An audiophile’s dream, the Sennheiser HD 650

Open-back headphones are so called because of the open covers on the earcups (usually identified by the mesh/wire or vented covers), a feature which allows air to flow through the whole set up. This one feature results in a few changes in sound compared to closed back headphones.

First of all, there is no echo in the sound as the lack of hardcovers allows sound to flow outward. Pressure and heat buildup are non-existent (which is good for comfort) and last but not least, external sounds flow inward.

The number one effect of all these minute changes is open-back headphones sound very natural and clear. In fact, very few closed-back headphones can compare when it comes to critical listening purposes.

The soundstage on open-back headphones is incredible (usually), to the extent you’ll feel like you’re listening to a live band whenever you have them on.

Best Uses for Open-Back Headphones

While the open-back is great for authentic music reproduction, the flipside of that is the same mechanism allows external sound into your headphones as stated above, meaning if you’re in a noisy environment you’re going to have a tough time listening to your music.

So places like the train, airplanes, and busy streets (generally anywhere noisy) will mean your sound is compromised and you’ll probably have a bad listening experience in those situations.

Because sound flows freely in and out of the headphones, your open-back headphones should not be used in office environments as whatever you’re playing will be clearly audible to your colleagues and while you might not care about disturbing their peace one bit, you don’t want anyone judging you based on your love (newfound and otherwise) for One Direction and all things Fifth Harmony, do you?

Sennheiser HD598 Open Back Headphones

A great audiophile ‘budget’ open back headphone, the Sennheiser HD 598

However, if you need to be able to hear your environment then these would be great; say maybe you’re jogging, cycling or maybe you just need to keep an ear out for the kids at the park, then open-back headphones would serve you well.

The best place to use these types of headphones would be in a quiet environment, so in your home office while you get some work done, in the studio for critical listening sessions, and other places where you’re alone or unlikely to annoy anyone with your music.

A small tip for getting the best out of your listening sessions wherever you choose to have them, use high-quality audio tracks. You’ll thank me later.

Let’s take a look at the Pros and Cons of Open-Back Headphones:

Pros
  • Authentic sound reproduction
  • No pressure and heat buildup results in comfort
  • Environmental awareness comes with the package

Cons
  • Sound leakage means they cannot be used in quiet places
  • Not for bass heads and other lovers of the lower frequencies as they’re not emphasized as much
  • The volume used to compensate for noisy surroundings can get dangerous

What Are Closed-Back Headphones

Fostex TH-X00 and AKG K92 Closed Back Headphones

The Mahogany Fostex TX- X00 with the budget-friendly AKG K92

The more well-known type of headphone, most headphones you’ll find in your local store or online are closed-back.

These, of course, have a seal on the back which locks in sound and prevents leakage (to a certain extent).

The net effect of the seal is that sound that would project externally bounces off the seal and back inwards to your ears, giving the headphones an “inward” sound and an echo (usually indistinguishable unless the headphones are very poor quality).

Because they lack the spaciousness of open-back headphones, closed-back headphones will usually lack or have very little soundstage in turn, minus a few exceptions.

For some closed-back headphones the seal comes with pressure and heat buildup for the wearer, so slight discomfort might arise depending on the headphone in question.

Best Uses for Closed-back Headphones

Because closed-back headphones are naturally noise-isolating, it’s pretty much safe to use them in noisy environments without the external noises interfering with your listening too much. So these are the headphones you want should you be in any traveling situation.

In turn, your music won’t affect people around you very much so you can safely listen to it in the office or wherever you fancy.

AKG Pro Audio K92 Closed Back Headphones

While there are a few closed-back headphones made for critical listening, their primary purpose (usually) is for casual listening. This is why so many of these types of headphones come with boosted lower end frequencies to cater to the casual listener and bass heads the world over.

For recording artists using closed-back headphones while recording is an advantage as this allows them to hear themselves while making sure the microphone doesn’t pick up back play from the headphone.

Pros
  • Natural noise isolation is great for noisy environments
  • The seal prevents sound leakage to a large degree
  • Great bass on most headphones of this type
  • Good for recording music

Cons
  • Sound reproduction is not as faithful as in open-back headphones
  • Soundstage is limited
  • Heat and pressure build-up can get uncomfortable over long listening sessions

Which One Should You Pick?

From the above information, I’m sure you’ve gleaned enough to know that what headphone you end up choosing is almost entirely up to the situation in which you’ll be using it.

If you want to use your headphones in a private environment without much chance of disturbing anyone else (and being disturbed yourself) and at the same time you value a natural sound over anything else (in other words you’re a certified audiophile) then open-back should do the trick for you. The same can be said for people who need situational awareness on a frequent basis but cannot do without their music.

TH-X00 Closed Back vs LCD-2 Open Back Headphones

Both have wooden earcups, both sound great. But the difference in sound between the Audeze LCD-2 and the Fostex TH-X00 is extreme!

On the other hand, if you’re in it for the boom and the bass with no critical concerns to your music listening then jump aboard the closed-back train and you’ll have the time of your life. But then again, you could just as easily go with both…

So what’s your favorite type of headphone? Do you have multiple headphones depending on the occasion? Are you looking for your first headphone and you need some help? Let me know in the comments below!

4 Comments

  1. Jaime June 7, 2018
    • Jurgen June 7, 2018
  2. sheikave June 4, 2018
    • Jurgen June 5, 2018

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