Open Back and Closed Back Headphones: What’s the Difference?

Are you trying to buy headphones but have no idea if you should go with open back headphones or closed back headphones? Both come with their advantages and disadvantages that are worth knowing about before making a purchase. Not considering or understanding the differences between them might lead you to a purchase that doesn’t match your requirements as closely as you’d want.

There are many different features that headphones have which must be considered such as the size of the ear cups and the material they are made from, wireless vs wired, type of headband, the sound quality and so on. However, in this comparison guide we will just be focusing on the one element of the headphones: open back vs closed back. By the end of this comparison guide you should have a solid idea of which type best suits your requirements.

You’ll be surprised by just how much your experience can change when you select headphones from one category over the other one. Even if you are not that picky about the quality of your audio it’s worth knowing the differences discussed in this comparison guide. You’ll see that your selection will not only have audio related implications, but also practical ones that knowing before the purchase can make your life easier.

What are Open Back Headphones?

Open back headphones

Open back headphones allow sound and air to pass freely and this comes with a few disadvantages and advantages. Weighing them up allows you to figure out if this type is the one for you.

Advantages of open back headphones:

  • Breathability: The open design means that moisture and heat will not be trapped allowing it to dissipate into the surroundings. So if you’re going to be using the headphones for long periods of time you’ll benefit from the open design. It can be very uncomfortable wearing headphones for extended sessions if there is a build-up of moisture. Do you enjoy listing to music for hours, or engage in a gaming session for half a day at a time? If so then having high levels of breathability will be great for you.
  • Soundstage experience: With an open back design the sound of the music will have the feel that it is all around you, as opposed to closed backs where the sound is more “in your head”. The sounds are wider, deeper and the overall feel is said to be a soundstage experience. If you have been using closed back headphones or ear buds for many years, then the experience you’ll get with these will seem like an upgrade, or at the very least different. As an individual that loves their music and is very picky when it comes to their sound open back headphones are the ones for you.

Disadvantages to open back headphones:

  • Noise leakage: If you want to listen to the music at loud levels without annoying those around you then open back headphones aren’t for you. The open design allows the noise to be emitted in all directions around you causing noise pollution. If you’re on public transport or sitting in the living room where others are close to you then you may not be able to enjoy the loudest settings.
  • Background noise: The open design allows background noise to creep in and ruin an immersive experience. If you’re at home in the quiet atmosphere of your bedroom then it’s not a problem. On the other hand, if you’re walking down the street and a loud motorbike goes past the sound might take away from the quality of the audio experience. So you’ll need to consider the type of environment you’re likely to be enjoying the open back headphones to figure out if this issue isn’t going to be a problem for you.

Who should buy open back headphones?

Buying open back headphones

Since there is going to be sound leakage and there is the potential of background noise interfering with your audio experience it makes sense to use them in a quiet environment. They are ideal for individuals who plan to use them in their bedroom for gaming, watching movies, or listening to music. If primarily you plan to use the headphones in an isolated environment then the open back headphones are for you.

Furthermore, if you are very picky about the quality of your audio when listening to music you’ll love the increased soundstage effect of the music. You’ll feel as if the band is playing live and you are there to soak it all up. For those of you that have only been using closed back headphones thus far should try this experience out to see what all the fuss is about.

The type of person that open back headphones are not suited for is those who will be using them in a noisy environment due to background noise ruining the audio experience. Also it’s not ideal to make use of them if there are people around as sound will leak out of the headphones and that in turn will annoy people.

Therefore, they aren’t ideal on public transport, at the library or in the living room with the rest of the family. Consider the type of environments that you are likely to use open back headphones in before pulling the trigger on the purchase.

An example, of open back headphones is the Sennheiser Game One gaming headset that has massive ear cups, but they are designed to allow air to pass through. You’ll see little grooves on the side of the headphones. This is where air can pass through, which is great of ventilation, and it is what contributes to the bigger soundstage effect.

The way different manufacturers design the open back headphones differs, so the effect is going to be different. Have a close look at the description when buying one to see if they have executed it in a way that you feel will meet your requirements.

What are closed back headphones?

Closed back headphones

The closed back headphones are all about sealing yourself off from the world. The over ear design means there is no way for sound to escape from the ear cups, or at the very least sound leakage is kept to a minimum. This noise cancelling feature is the main feature of closed back headphones.

For those of you that want an “in your head” experience that allows you to block the sounds of the outside world then these are for you.

Advantages of closed back headphones:

  • Background noise: The amount of background noise that will be creeping in is kept to a minimum, which means you can enjoy your music in a noisy environment and not be put off. So if you’re walking down a noisy street and there are people talking all around you’ll be able to ignore it effortlessly.
  • Sound leakage: The sound produced by the headphones will not leak out by a significant amount to your surroundings. This is advantageous if you want to use the headphones where there will be people around and you do not want to disturb them. For example, when you’re on a train the other passengers will not give you dirty looks due to noise pollution. As a result of the minimal noise pollution you’ll be able to use these headphones in far more environments giving you more flexibility. You can even turn the volume up to a max with the bass turned on without having to worry about it.

Disadvantages of closed back headphones:

  • “In your head sound”: This disadvantage is somewhat subjective because your particular tastes might dictate that closed backs sound better than open backs. However, with closed backs the there is not as much of a soundstage effect and the sound is said to be more in your head. Perhaps going to your local shopping mall to try out both types will give you a clear idea of what the audio differences are.
  • Moisture and heat: Due to the fact that in the ear cups it is a closed environment moisture and heat build up is inevitable. If you plan to use the closed back headphones for many hours at a time then you might begin to feel uncomfortable and require a break. However, this depends a lot on the specific headphones you buy. Some come with a much better design than others with respect to comfort and ergonomics.

Who should buy closed back headphones?

Buying closed back headphones

Do you like to listen to music wherever you go? Do you play games in a room that you have to share with others? If so then investing in closed back headphones might be the clear way forward. Closed backs allow you to enjoy the audio experience regardless of what environment you might be in. Therefore, it gives you a lot more freedom.

Also you might like the audio of closed back headphones better than open backs. If that’s the case then it’s a no-brainer to purchase the closed backs. You’ll need to hear the audio for yourself to come to a decision on this. If you’ll ask other people a lot will give varying opinions. This is one of those cases where your opinion counts the most – after all you’ll be the one who will be listening to the audio.

An example of closed back headphones is the Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7GM SonicPRo Over-Ear High-Resolution Audio Headphones. As you can see from the ear cups the design is closed so once you put them on your ears there is no way for air, and thus audio to get in and out.

Open back headphones vs closed back headphones

Open back headphones and closed back headphones

To conclude, in this comparison guide we weighed up the main considerations you’ll need to make between the two models. As you might have already worked out both types of headsets are for different types of buyers. In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to purchase headphones from both categories if your budget allows it. This in turn will allow you to use the headphones that best match your particular needs for that day.

You are encouraged to go to a friend’s house, a shopping mall or anywhere else where you have the option to try out both types of headphones. This will give you a better understanding of what the audio will be.

Then consider what your likely environment will be when using them. If you plan on using them in an isolated environment then the open backs are great as you’ll get to take advantage of what some say is a higher audio quality. On the other hand, if you plan on mostly using them in noisy environments with plenty of people around then it’s a no-brainer to purchase the closed back headphones.

You cannot really say that one type of headphones are better than another – it all depends on the type of buyer and circumstances. So examine your needs and select the headset accordingly. Some will hate open backs while others could never switch to a closed back design ever again.

Also keep in mind that some manufactures implement the open back design in such a way that it’s really a hybrid of the two. The ear cups are mostly sealed, yet there is a minimal amount of air that passes though. This allows the headphones to take the advantages of both types. You’ll need to shop around to see what’s out there.

We hope that this comparison guide on open back headphones vs closed back headphones has shed some light on one of the main distinguishing characteristics of headphones. Now you are better informed to make the correct buying decision so that your audio experience better matches your needs.

Martynas Pupkevicius

Martynas Pupkevicius

Martynas Pupkevicius is a freelance writer who writes articles, blogs, reviews and webpage content on a wide variety of topics. Enjoyed the quality of this review? Then get in touch for more of the same.
Martynas Pupkevicius

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