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Man at computer mixing music - Open back vs closed back headphones
Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones

In any field where different artists and manufacturers come at things from different angles, you are bound to have a debate over which of these different approaches is best. Sometimes that’s a matter of taste. Oil-based paint, watercolors, and acrylics have been used by painters as different as Leonardo, Monet, and Warhol, all to very different yet great effects. Other times the difference is more definitive – who would go back to old-fashioned small boxy TVs given our new flat screen high-definition technology?

Enter closed versus open back headphones. They offer very different listening experiences, and to their proponents, they are each the superior way of listening to music. Since I am pushing the former over the latter, I clearly think that they offer a listening experience which, if not superior for everyone in every situation, they are still the more favored among the two options for many people.

So what’s the deal with this open-back vs closed back headphones duel, why are both models defended as much as they are by proponents, when are they each so popular, which is right for you, and what about some options for each? Before you take a listen, let’s take a look!

Open Versus Closed 101

The big difference between open and closed headphones comes down to sound isolation. Sound leakage, or spill, is a fancy name for the sound being heard beyond the confines of your headphones.

Have you ever sat next to someone whose headphones are blasting so loud you can make out every note and lyric of the music they’re listening to, whether you like it or not? Congratulations – or commiserations – you’ve experienced “sound leakage” at its most annoying. On the flip side, maybe you hate outside sounds filtering and drowning out the music, sports, or whatever else you’re listening to. 

This is where the principle difference between open and closed headphones – the former do not block out external sound or prevent sound leakage, whereas the latter do. 

While that may seem like a one-sided endorsement of one over the other, the story is actually a lot more nuanced than that, so let’s take a closer look at the case for each.

The Case for Closed Headphones

As indicated above, the biggest recommendation for closed headphones comes from the fact that they are excellent at blocking out external sound and preventing sound leakage. This degree of sound isolation is essential for audiophiles who want to make sure they can hear every last faint detail on a recording. If you are looking to do nuanced sound editing that requires the utmost precision, chances are you’ll want to make use of one of these.

In addition, some find closed headphones to have a heavier bass sound. Think of a song you love that has a lot of bass. Chances are you’ll love it all the more with a set of headphones that encourage that sound quality even more.

For some users, closed headphones can cause a buildup of pressure, but you shouldn’t have to worry about this unless you crank up the volume to the most blasting levels.

Finally, closed headphones can be a bit sturdier than open headphones, which tend to be a bit lighter and thus more easily damaged.

The Case for Open Headphones

If open headphones aren’t as adept at blocking out external sounds or preventing sound leakage, why would you want to consider them? Surely if you’re going to listen to music for hours on the train or while recording or gaming you want to block out as much noise as possible?

Well, let me ask you this – have you ever actually tried wearing headphones for hours? If so, chances are you know how hot and sweaty the cups can get. Blocking out sound is all well and good, but what if it leads to a buildup of slick cold sweat (and the smell that can come with it!). That’s not exactly a pleasant listening experience, either, which is why some people prefer to turn to open headphones instead, which breathe way better and are thus often way more comfortable for protracted periods of use.

This is why some gamers prefer open headphones. If you’re engaged in an intense game of Call of Duty or working your way through the World of Warcraft for hours on end, you’re not going to want to feel like your ears are trapped in their own personal sauna. 

Open headphones that are made with gaming in mind often boast several special features, including:

  • The softness and quality of the padding
  • Lighter pads
  • Comfortable designs that conform to the shape of your head
  • The length of the cable, or if the headphones are wireless
  • A size that fits the shape of your ears – bigger isn’t necessarily better, picture comfort instead

In addition to this airier, breezier, more comfortable wearing experience, I also love the fact that you can actually hear what’s around you while wearing these. After all, as much as you might want to block out the sound of blaring horns and shouts while listening to your music downtown, you also need to be aware of traffic, right? Block out too much external sound and you might walk right into danger!

Open headphones are a fantastic choice for strolling through busy streets on a summer’s day, listening to your favorite tunes while being aware of the rhythm of the city around you all the while.

Finally, not only do they allow for more airflow and thus combat sweaty headphone caps, some listeners find open headphones apply less pressure to the ear, and are thus more comfortable that way as well. This is due in part to the fact that they are more lightweight and so much more comfortable to wear.

So if spill from the headphones isn’t important many people really prefer open back. I have to say I LOVE my DT 1990 Pro but prefer my Foster TH-X00 for the office. The closed back keeps my music to me and I don’t have to share it. At home? The DT 1990 Pro every time.

Great Open Headphones

1. Audio-Technica ATH-R70x Open Back Reference Headphones

Combining soft plush padding and a sturdy design, these are among the best headphones for those looking to block out the most sound possible. Even better, these headphones are foldable and the ear cups swivel, making them that much easier to take with you, which makes these a great portable option. In addition, the headphones do a good job of presenting low frequencies without playing them up too much, which should please purists. 

2. Sennheiser Game ONE Open Back Gaming headphones

This is another model that offers nice plush padding. It boasts 50 Ohms, but the big story is that these headphones are noise-cancelling, making it the best choice for blocking out as much sound as possible. They are highly comfortable and boast high-quality sound.

3. Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro 

One of the first things that should be said about this model is that it provides better bass performance than you might expect for an open backed model. Again, typically closed backed headphones offer superior bass, so if you are looking to enjoy better bass performance while still feeling breezy and easy in a light open backed headphones set, this unit is a good one to consider.

This model comes in two different Ohm levels but you’ll find it hard to source the 80 ohm. The core offering is the 250 model which gives the most balanced experience and the other two being more extreme in terms of the amount of impedance they allow. The pads are made from soft elegant velour, so if you’re looking for headphones that are as comfy as they are fashionable, these may be a good choice to consider.

That said, this model is on the pricier side, so I’d recommend first making sure that you both really want open backed headphones and really love the features offered with this model before paying that much. Still, oftentimes you get what you pay for, and that’s definitely true in the case of a quality brand such as Beyerdynamic and models such as the DT 990 Pro.

Great Closed Headphones

1. Sennheiser HD 569 Closed Back Headphones

The first thing you’ll notice about these headphones is that they’re big and bulky. That may be off-putting for those looking for a slimmer model, but if you like models with huge cups that can give you lots of cushioning, this is for you. They have 23 Ohms and offer a nice balanced sound.

2. Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro Headphones

This is very very popular Beyerdynamic mode. The DT 770 Pro comes in three different Ohm levels, 32, 80, and 250. I find both the 80 and 250 models to be incredibly balanced, and it offers fantastic bass that is quite rich and deep. Add to that good noise cancellation technology and this offers one of the best all-around bargains on this list. Keep in mind if you are going for the 250 ohm model you’ll want a powerful source.

3. Shure SRH440 Close back headphones

Try a Shure? Well, sure! This is another model that offers good noise cancelling capabilities. These headphones are on the stiffer and bulkier side, but that also means that they are sturdy. The cups trap the sound perfectly, allowing you to enjoy studio-quality sound without sound leakage, and it blocks out external sound just as well.

Final Words

So, where does that leave us?

For one thing, by now you should definitely be able to see that there is no right answer to the question of open versus closed headphones. I have my preference, of course, especially when it comes to listening to music for pleasure or editing and music mixing preferences, but to each their own. It isn’t like electric guitars are “better” than acoustic ones, or vice versa – they’re just different, and the same is true of headphones.

Do what I do…buy at least one pair of both…

Bottom line – is if sound spill is a problem or if you need privacy then a closed back is the only option. If those two requirements are not important – the world is your oyster.

In short, the question of open versus closed headphones is far from an open and shut case, and the world of possibilities for audiophiles is wide open.


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