Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones

Open back vs closed back headphones next to each other

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Should You Choose Open Back or Closed Back Headphones and what is the difference?

In my early days as a listener, the headphones I used were a pair of whatever came bundled with my music player. These afterthoughts made everything sound like I was either underwater or listening to a cheap AM radio.

Editor’s Pick
Beyerdynamic DT-1990-Pro
I love this set of Open Back headphones from beyerdynamic. They are my favourite pair and don’t need too much power to drive them unlike the Sennheiser HD 650. They have come down a lot in price so definitely still worth checking out.

Thankfully, you can purchase some extraordinary-sounding headphones at a wide range of price points. But at some point the question will pop up: “Open back headphones or closed back headphones?”

So let me try to address that question as simply as possible so you can stop reading and start shopping.

Also, read my guide on different Headphone Types

Key Differences in Open-Back vs Closed-Back Headphones

Open-backed headphones and closed backed headphones tend to differ in the following key respects:

  • Construction – True to their names, open-back headphones have open grills on the outward-facing sides of the earcups. This feature allows some of the sound generated by the drivers to escape from the earcups. By contrast, closed-back headphones feature solid earcups that retain most of the sound.
  • Driver Types – The majority of both closed-back and open-back headphones contain dynamic drivers, in which voice coils vibrate a membrane to produce the sound. However, some open back headphones also come with planar magnetic or electrostatic drivers. These drivers can produce a more precise, accurate sound than dynamic drivers. But they also require tons more amplifier power than dynamic drivers, which may drive the total retail price up to eye-watering levels. 
  • Sound Signature – When I say “sound signature,” I mean the overall frequency response that gives a headphone its trademark sound. Both closed back and open back headphones can deliver a balanced sound signature. However, open-back headphones often do a better job of presenting treble detail and a natural-sounding midrange, while closed-back headphones typically deliver deeper, more satisfying bass than open-back headphones. It’s not a matter of better or worse, just a question of personal taste.

Pros and Cons of Open Back Headphones

Image of Open Back headphones on bench side on - Beyerdynamic DT-1990-Pro
Beyerdynamic DT-1990-Pro Open Back Headphones – one of my favorites

Open-back headphones offer some nice virtues. The airflow through the earcups makes them especially good for marathon listening sessions. They can also produce a wide, natural soundstage that approximates an “out of head” experience as if the sounds are coming from several inches outside the headphones themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, the level of detail they can reveal makes them the first choice for many audiophiles.

Nobody’s perfect, of course. Open-back headphones often struggle to produce bass at the same levels as closed-back headphones (not to mention speakers) without introducing distortion at high volume levels. The sound escaping from the open earcups may also annoy other people in close quarters, so please don’t break them out on your next plane flight.

PURE AUDIOPHILE SHOP

Keep Calm and Bi-Wire Tshirt in Red - Pure Audiophile

Pros and Cons of Closed Back Headphones

Set of Closed Back Headphones on table - Fostex TH-X00
Fostex TH-X00 Closed-Back Headphones – another one of my absolute favorites

Closed-back headphones offer their share of advantages over open-back headphones. First and foremost, the closed design keeps low frequencies inside the cups instead of letting them dribble into thin air. This is the secret to these headphones’ punchy bass, making them the first choice for lovers of bass-heavy music. They also provide some degree of isolation from outside sounds, a blessing for anyone trying to listen in a crowded, noisy public space. At the same time, they keep much of your music from leaking out and disturbing the people around you.

When Should You Go With Which Headphones?

Some headphones are designed with specific applications in mind. For instance, the closed-back Sony MDR-7506 has enjoyed a reputation as a leading audio/video monitoring product for decades.

Bose shines as a noise-canceling closed-back headphone choice, while Focal produces high-end closed back headphones for discriminating tastes.

Bose QC 35 Closed Back Headphones on a counter top with wooden chopping board underneath
Bose QC35 Closed Back ANC Headphones

Among the open back options, Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic have earned praise for their HD 500-600 and DT 880-990 series, respectively.

Audeze excels at planar magnetic open-back headphones, while HiFiMan and Stax offer several models of electrostatic headphones.

So how do you choose the right headphone for your needs? That depends on your priorities. If you want clarity and detail above all else, go for open-back headphones.

If you crave bass, skip the open-back headphones and focus on closed-back models instead.

Want to feel like you’re sitting in the middle of an expansive concert hall? Buy open-back headphones.

Want to create your own personal sound world that no one else can enter? Invest in closed-back headphones.

As you can see, you’re not likely to get everything you want from either closed back or open back headphones.

Editor’s Pick
Bose QC45 ANC Headphones - Closed Back
I know these are not passive closed back headphones but it’s hard to get my Foster TH-X00 these days so these are my next favourite pair. Such a nice, light feel with good sound and amazing isolation.

Many listeners pursue the simplest solution to this dilemma by keeping one of each on hand. The serious hobbyists may even own multiple makes and models of each type to suit particular applications, genres of music, or whatever mood they happen to be in that day.

For instance, a serious gamer might want to use an open back model such as the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro purely for gaming due to its extraordinarily wide soundstage and accurate imaging, while retreating to the warmer, more soothing sound signature of the open backed Sennheiser HD 650 for music listening.

Unfortunately, not everyone has infinite amounts of disposable income to spend on a gigantic pile of headphones.

If you need a more budget-friendly answer, look for headphones that offer a sensible compromise by mimicking some of the better qualities of each type.

For instance, the Beyerdynamic DT 770 offers a wider soundstage and more detail than many other closed back headphones in its price class, making it an attractive option for those who might otherwise long for an open backed model. In the open backed world, the Philips Fidelio X2HR packs a considerable bass punch, allowing fans of bass-heavy music to enjoy the advantages of an open design without sacrificing this part of the sonic spectrum.

Ultimately, you must experiment to find the sound signature and combination of technical qualities that gives you the optimal experience for your individual ears.

That’s why I recommend buying from a vendor with a solid return policy so you can listen to your headphones long enough to get a good impression of them. Don’t just evaluate the sound — wear them long enough to determine whether the fit will agree with your head, especially if you also wear glasses.

Best of luck on your journey into the fascinating world of headphones!

Let me know if you have any questions below.

Kate

This post was last updated on 2022-06-10 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.


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