Over-the-ear headphones (or, for the terminology-loving, circumaural headphones) come in two primary flavors: open-back and closed-back. Before you sink some serious cash into a nice pair of headphones it pays to know the difference.
I’m in the market for new headphones and was doing a little browsing at a big box electronics store (which shall remain unnamed). They had tons of headphones, but the staff was less than knowledgeable about them. I didn’t get a very straight answer about the difference between “open-back” and “closed-back” headphones except the guy in the department said something like, “The open-back ones let sound out,” which seemed like a less than desirable feature. Given the number of these “open-back” models and the accompanying price tag, I have to assume that there is something to this whole “open-back” thing the electronics department guy was failing to impress upon me.
Before I buy a new pair of headphones I’d definitely like to get a straight answer on the matter, and you guys are always good for that kind of thing. What’s the deal with headphone backs?
In light of the fact that there are both open-back and closed-back headphones sitting on our desk right now, we’d like to think we’re at least moderately well equipped to give you the straight answer you’re looking for. In the tech world, whether we’re talking about computers or audio gear, there are lots of terms that aren’t the most transparent. In the case of open-back and closed-back headphones, however, the terminology is rather clear.
Open-back headphones are designed so that the outer shell of the ear covering is perforated in some fashion, typically with horizontal cutouts. Closed-back headphones have a solid outer shell with no perforations of any sort such that the shell effectively cups the entire ear. Think of open-back models as having a colander-like-shell (lots of openings) and closed-back models as having a mixing-bowl-shell (solid construction from edge to edge, no openings).
Now, while the terminology corresponds clearly to the physical design of the headphones it doesn’t do a very good job indicating what exactly those designs provide in terms of listening experience. Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of the two design types, starting with closed-back (the most common design).
Closed-back headphones excel at isolating noise. Note, we’re not talking about active-noise-canceling technology (although there are plenty of closed-headphones that have that feature), but just the very physical structure of the closed-back over-the-head design: there’s a big pad that cups your ear and an insulated shell of plastic that covers your ears. By virtue of that alone, most closed-back over-the-ear headphones provide around 10dB of noise reduction. Once you plug the headphones in and turn up the music, the presence of the music combined with that light noise isolation does a pretty good job of, in most applications, dampening the sounds of the outside world and bringing the sounds of the music to the forefront.
That right there is the primary benefit of closed-back over-the-ear headphones: they do a great job removing your from the noise of your environment and bathing your ears in the sound of the music. If you were, for example, sitting on your porch in the summertime listening to music with this style of headphones on all the light ambient noise around you (birds chirping, traffic in the distance, the sound of the wind rustling the leaves, and such) would be strongly dampened or entirely removed.
Audiophiles describe this experience as the music being “in your head” or, to describe it in a related fashion, it’s like you’re imagining the music and hearing it like your own thoughts: a sort of auditory dream.
Not only do many people like that sort of in-the-head intimacy, it’s also great when the listener needs to really focus on the technical aspects of the music (audio engineers doing studio work, for example, wear closed-back headphones for this reason) and it’s great when you don’t want to bother other people with your music. If you plan on using your headphones primarily while studying at the library, commuting on the subway, or any other place where the people sitting near you might not share your love of screamo music, it’s wise to use a pair of close-back headphones. Closed-back headphones are also good when you’re using a microphone for any purpose (gaming, video-conferences, etc.) as they prevent the sound from leaking out and creating feedback when picked up by the microphone.
Our two example headphones, seen in the image above, are the Sony MDR7506 and the Audio-Technica ATH-M50. The Sony model is an industry workhorse (once you recognize the shape and styling of it, you’ll see it everywhere) and a great value at $85; the Audio-Technica model is also a great value with excellent sound reproduction for only around $120.
If the strong point of closed-back headphones is that they both isolate the outside noise and capture (and reflect) the noise created by the headphones themselves, the strong point of open-back headphones is exactly the opposite. The perforations/grills on open-back headphones allow air and sound to pass freely in and out of the headphone cups.
The benefit of this design is that it significantly alters the listening experience. Instead of the “in your head” experience that closed-back headphones provide (because they isolate you from the ambient noise), open-back headphones provide a “in the world around me” listening experience. Let’s return to that summer porch to highlight how that experience plays out. When you sit on the porch with your closed-back headphones the sounds around you are dampened or completely removed; it’s as if you were plucked from your porch swing and stuck right into the listening booth at the studio with the audio engineers. When you sit on the porch with open-back headphones, the sounds around you bleed into the headphones. The cars in the distance, the birds chirping, and the rustle of the wind all travel to your ear just like they would if the headphones were off your head.
Now, for those who have used in-ear or closed-back over-the-ear headphones their entire lives (and have grown used to the lost-in-my-headphones effect those kind of headphones provide) the idea of sound leaking into the headphones might sound awful. The benefit of such a design, however, is a feeling of an increased space. Instead of feeling like you’re right there in the studio booth, it feels like the musicians are sitting around you on the porch, right there in your environment playing. This openness and sense that the music is around you and not in your head makes open-back headphones a popular choice for serious listeners looking to maximize their enjoyment listening to albums at home.
We framed that last sentence in terms of “at home” because the leaky nature of the open-back headphone makes them very poor for places outside your home or private spaces (like an office at work with closed door). You can clearly hear the audio from open-back headphones outside the headphones, especially in a quiet environment. Although the listening experience with open-back headphones is pretty fantastic, it’s also far too open for the library, commuting, or anywhere else it would be inappropriate to, say, use your cellphone’s speaker or a portable Bluetooth speaker to blast your tunes.
Our two example headphones, seen in the photo above are the Beyerdynamic DT-990 and the Audio-Technica ATH-AD900. The Beyerdynamic model is a personal favorite of ours: the headphones are astonishingly comfortable, sound great, and are a fantastic value as they can typically be snapped up for $125-150.
Which to Buy?
Now that we’ve learned a little about the differences between the two headphones types, we’re back to your original concern: which type to buy. Although listening enjoyment should always be the primary concern in terms of headphone purchases, this particular open-versus-closed debate actually shifts another consideration to the forefront. Your primary concern should be where you’re going to be using the headphones. Open-back headphones, for all their awesome open sound, are a terrible choice if you’re frequently going to be in mixed company (an open-floor office, commuting on the subway, etc.); no matter how great they sound there’s no way to get around how rude it is to blast your tunes off your head like you’re wearing some sort of speaker-studded helmet.
Once you’ve considered the primary use location, then it becomes a personal preference. Some people love the isolation the in-your-head effect of closed-back headphones provide and they want to be able to close their eyes and get lost in the music wherever they are. Other people prefer the (we think rather magical) effect of wearing open-back headphones and feeling as if the band they’re listening to has been transported right to the room they’re sitting in.
Before committing to a pair of headphones one way or the other, however, we’d strongly suggest branching out beyond your big box electronics store shopping experience and seeing if there are any small-time record shops, music stores, instrument stores, or other shops in your area that are both more knowledgeable about headphones and will have a variety of headphones for you to try out. Good luck in your quest for the perfect cans!
Have a pressing tech question about headphones, computers, or any other geeky pursuit you’re curious about? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to answer it.