Open-back vs closed-back headphones: What’s best? Important differences to help you make the right choice

Image credit: Unsplash

When shopping for a new pair of headphones, it’s common to check out the features and overall style profile. However, many people overlook the importance of paying attention to the design type of the headphone, or at the very least, they aren’t aware of it. 

You may have come across the never-ending discussions about open-back and closed-back headphones on online forums or heard it from your friends. Or it may be recently that you have learned there are actually two types of headphone designs based on functionality. 

Whatever it is, we have put together just the right amount of information to help you decide whether you should go for mainstream closed-back headphones or their niche open-back counterparts. 

What are closed-back headphones?

Closed-back headphones do not come as anything new to many people as most of the commercial headphones, especially in the entry-level price range, have a closed-back design. One of the main reasons why closed-back headphones are more common is they have a higher mainstream market demand because of the noise isolation and punchy bass performance they deliver. 

Here is how a typical closed-back headphone looks like: 

Image credit: Sony

What are open-back headphones?

Open-back headphones are less common than closed-back headphones as they cater to more of a niche demand. The physical and aesthetic difference of open-back headphones is they have openings on the earcup enclosures. The earcup openings open up more room and help the sound drivers perform more dynamically. 

Here is how a typical open-back headphone looks like:

Image credit: Sennheiser 

Physical differences between closed and open-back headphones

The main physical difference between closed and open-back headphones is the former is completely enclosed and the latter has openings on the outer earcups. You can literally see the sound drivers from the earcup enclosure openings of open-back headphones. 

The second notable difference is closed-back headphones are usually available in different sizes while their open-back counterparts are reserved more for the large-sized over-ear design category. 

Closed-back headphones are available in over-ear as well as on-ear fit while most open-back headphones have an over-ear fit. 

Image credit: Rtings

Audio differences between closed and open-back headphones 

The difference in earcup enclosure makes the two types of headphones completely different from each other in terms of audio performance. In closed-back headphones, the sound waves are projected in one focused direction, i.e. towards the ear. Therefore the audio performance is more focused and punchy with emphasis on bass. 

On the other hand, sound waves partially escape from the earcup enclosure openings while traveling towards the ear in open-back headphones. This sound wave dispersion creates a wide soundstage and makes the audio performance more dynamic and natural sounding. 

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Frequency response

The differences are night and day when it comes to comparing open-back and closed-back headphones in terms of frequency response. Here’s an insightful look into how open-back headphones have a higher mid and treble range and lower bass performance while closed-back headphones are the complete opposite: 

Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro (open-back)

Image credit: Rtings test tool

Audiotechnica ATH M50x (closed-back)

Image credit: Rtings test tool

Also, it’s interesting to note that Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro (open-back) has a more stable frequency response than Audiotechnica ATH M50x (closed-back) from the bass range to the mid-range. 

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Use cases

With notable differences in audio performance, the two types of headphones cater to different types of usage requirements. 

Use case Headphone type Reason 
Work at office Closed-back  Most office spaces are noisy which calls for noise isolation when listening to music or other audio content.
Work at home Open-backWhen working from home, there’s little to no requirement for noise isolation. Instead, awareness of the surroundings is more important.
Traveling Closed-backTraffic noise can be bothersome when listening to music during everyday commutes. Noise isolation is, therefore, more preferable. 
GamingOpen-backGaming for long hours while using a headphone can cause ‘listener’s fatigue.’ Breathability and openness of open-back headphones keep ear discomfort at bay.

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Music genres

Open-back headphones have more headroom in their audio performance and are therefore well-suited for music genres with wider dynamic range. From the dynamic range analysis below, jazz, orchestra, Western classical, and Opera are the genres that vary more in dynamics. 

Closed-back headphones have limited headroom as they place more emphasis on the low end of the frequency spectrum. As such, they are best suited for music genres such as pop, rock, and electronic music that have a relatively stable dynamic range. 

Image credit: Researchgate 

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Game genres

Open-back headphones have a wider soundstage and therefore are perfect for open-world games such as No Man’s Sky, Fallout, The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Far Cry 5, and Trove. 

Closed-back headphones, with their punchy audio, are more favorable for fast-moving games such as Overwatch, Doom Eternal, Rocket League, Killing Floor, Forza, Counter-Strike series, and Painkiller: Black Edition. 

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Sound drivers

Both open-back and closed-back headphones are available with two commercially popular sound drivers, including dynamic drivers and planar magnetic drivers. Open-back headphones are the best choice for planar magnetic sound drivers as they are more bassy than dynamic sound drivers. And since open-back headphones don’t have powerful bass as closed-back headphones, planar magnetic sound drivers adequately compensate. 

Planar magnetic sound drivers tend to be more bassy and cause little to no audio distortion. They have magnets on both sides of the diaphragm to ensure uniform diaphragm movement. 

Image credit: Andover Audio

Dynamic sound drivers are well-suited for closed-back headphones as their closed-back ear cup enclosure boosts bass performance. And in most cases, dynamic sound drivers are less bassy than planar magnetic drivers.

Unlike planar magnetic sound drivers, dynamic drivers use only one magnet which is located at the back of the diaphragm. Dynamic sound drivers use less power, and are more compact and affordable than planar magnetic drivers. 

Image credit: Branch Education YouTube

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Wireless connectivity  

Open-back headphones haven’t made it big in the wireless connectivity territory as the way closed-back headphones have gained a strong foothold in the TWS (true wireless) connectivity category. There aren’t any open-back headphones specifically dedicated to the TWS category that we could find. And it’s justifiable considering the technical challenges that come with making open-back headphones truly wireless, including the risk of circuit board damage due to open-back enclosures, and optimizing portability.

One way to bring open-back headphones to the TWS domain is to use them with a dedicated Bluetooth receiver. You can use a manufacturer-recommended receiver such as the Bluemini receiver that comes included with the Hifiman DEVA headphone. 

Image credit: Hifiman

You can also go for a third-party receiver add-on that includes an internal battery pack for long hours of wireless playtime.

Image credit: Amazon

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Portability

Portability is a tricky test for open-back headphones. Although you can use open-back headphones on the go, it’s best not to. Sure, there are many medium-sized open-back models available, but the only downside is they have wired connectivity. Unless you aren’t bothered about following the latest trend of wearing a pair of TWS headphones, you’re good to go.

Medium-sized open-back headphones such as the AKG K240 Studio are portable enough for on-the-go use. However, its downside is wired connection and non-foldable design. 

Image credit: AKG

On the other hand, closed-back headphones are perfect for portability. Apart from having TWS connectivity, the latest closed-back headphones, such as the Sony WH1000XM4, also have a foldable design.

Image credit: Sony

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Phone calls

Open-back headphones aren’t the best choice for making phone calls. This is because many open-back models do not have a built-in mic that is required for making phone calls. You do get many models that have a detachable boom mic though. One such model is the Philips Audio Fidelio X2HR. 

Also, if you want to keep your conversations private when making phone calls in public spaces, open-back headphones are not the best choice as they leak audio from the ear cup enclosures. 

Image credit: Amazon

In contrast, closed-back headphones are perfect for making phone calls as they have a dedicated mic on the audio cable.

Image credit: Behance

Also, TWS closed-back headphones have dedicated built-in internal mics for HD phone calls. 

Image credit: FCCID

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Longevity 

Longevity of both open-back and closed-back headphones has got a lot to do with how carefully you use your pair. There are several longevity impairment risk factors that are common to both open-back and closed-back headphones, including wire damage and flaking of the ear pad cushioning. 

Image credit: Reddit

One major longevity-shortening risk factor that is specific to open-back headphones is damage to the sound drivers. The openings on the earcups of open-back headphones let in moisture which can shorten the lifespan of the sound drivers. 

However, one similar risk factor that can negatively affect the longevity of closed-back headphones is water condensation inside the ear cups. Sweat build-up due to long hours of use is one of the common reasons for this. 

Image credit: Reddit

Another longevity-shortening risk factor that is common to wireless closed-back headphones is gradual lowering of the internal battery’s lifespan. Over time, the degradation in the battery’s lifespan will lower the overall play time of the headphone. 

Source: Apple

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Controls and accessibility  

Open-back headphones score low in the controls and accessibility department. Many of the most open-back models do not have dedicated controls that improve the overall accessibility. However, you can get your hands on an open-back headphone that includes a remote control in the audio cable for volume controls and playing/pausing audio tracks. 

Closed-back headphones are the best choice for convenient controls and accessibility. While wired closed-back headphones include remote control in the audio cable, TWS closed-back models, specially top-tier ones, include touch, tap, and swipe support for effortless controls and accessibility. 

GIF credit: Jam Audio

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Audio customization

When it comes to audio/sound profile customizations, open-back headphones are a different ball game. In most cases, open-back headphones are dynamic enough to adapt to different types of audio content and usage requirements. Therefore, you don’t necessarily need to customize the audio or sound profiles. However, if you do want to improve the audio performance, you can use a high-quality headphone amp with an open-back headphone. 

A proper headphone amp makes up for the lack of voltage and wattage in adequately powering open-back headphones with high impedance. In simple words, it makes it possible for the headphones to actually perform the way it is intended to. 

Image credit: Amazon

The latest TWS closed-back headphones open up a world of audio customization options. TWS models offer physical as well as app-based audio customization options. For example, the Skullcandy Crusher Bass headphone includes a dedicated bass booster button on the right ear cup. 

Image credit: Skullcandy 

Most modern TWS closed-back headphones include app-based audio customization options, including changeable sound profiles and tweakable equalizer. What is interesting to know is that app-based equalisers can vary from having simple to in-depth parameters. 

Bose app equalizer is fairly simple to use. 

Image credit: Reddit

Sony app equalizer shares a similar simplicity factor. 

Image credit: Reddit 

JBL app equalizer offers more advanced EQ customization options. 

Image credit: JBL

Open-back vs closed-back headphones: Music production 

Open-back and closed-back headphones, especially top-tier high-performance models, are both well-suited for music production. Open-back headphones are more suitable for mixing and mastering as they are dynamic. Here’s a short clip of an audio engineer recommending open-back headphones for mixing as they sound more natural: 

Watch it here

For monitoring, especially direct monitoring, closed-back headphones are the best choice. This is because they do not leak audio as open-back headphones and therefore do not raise the risk of the audio leaks bleeding into the live recording track. Closed-back headphones are great for studio as well as outdoor recording sessions. 

Sound leak in open-back headphones

A major criticism about open-back headphones is they leak sound from the openings on the earcup enclosures. While the sound leakage may not be suitable for privacy, it certainly isn’t a major issue when you are using an open-back headphone in your room where there is nobody around you. 

Watch this quick test that analyzes the level of sound leakage that’s typical of open-back headphones. In the test, the sound leakage is significant only when the volume level is turned up to 75% and higher. 

Watch the video here

Can you transform a closed-back headphone into an open-back headphone?

Practically, it is possible to transform some closed-back headphones into open-back headphones by simply removing the back enclosures of the earcups that cover the sound drivers.  

Here is a quick and simple tutorial video that shows you how to. Watch the video here

Wrapping up

Open-back and closed-back headphones are the right choice in their own territory. Open-back headphones are an unmistakable choice for audiophile-level listening and music production. They are more suitable for you if you prefer enjoying your favorite audio content by yourself at home. 

On the other hand, you cannot go wrong with closed-back headphones, especially TWS models, if you want to quickly and conveniently access and listen to your favorite audio content on-the-go. 

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