Despite the fact that open back headphone designs have been around since the late 1960s, it’s seemingly become more popular in recent years in the consumer market, likely due to online communities of audiophiles having a stage to preach their gospel and influence the audio consumer’s purchasing decisions perhaps more than even traditional media. In turn, we’ve seen a rise in both gamers and music lovers asking the question of which is better, open back vs closed back headphones?
There was a distinct increase in interest around open back headphones over the last 12 years but even in the last 5 years, we’ve seen a nearly 50% increase in global search interest, with a peak in 2020 that was substantially higher.
So what exactly are the differences, are they worth it and do you need them?
The differences between open back vs closed back headphones
The differences between open back vs closed back headphones lie primarily in the earcup design. As the name suggested, an open back headphone design allows for air and sound to escape out the back of the earcup. Closed back headphones have a sealed earcup that retains audio and air movement inside of the cup, where it pushes the sound towards your ear. Other than these very basic differences, there is little difference between the construction of closed back and open back headphones.
While there aren’t many differences in the construction, the slight variation in design results in a number of differences in how their performance and audio traits come across. The most noticeable impact of the open back design is that it creates a wider soundstage.
Soundstage can be thought of as the experience of spatial awareness through audio. For instance, headphones with a bad soundstage provide audio that feels one-dimensional and lacks depth. Higher quality headphones and particularly open back headphones provide a better soundstage to the listener, which improves the experience not only for music but can be beneficial for gamers as well.
The way closed back headphones are designed, they create a type of echo inside of the can that bounces off the inner part of the earcup and is then subsequently channeled towards your ear. This is different with open back headphones where instead of having elements of the sound bouncing around, that which isn’t channeled towards your ear will escape through the open elements of the earcup. That is to say, the open back headphones are prone to a more clean sound since the audio is more precise.
Not to be confused with noise cancellation, noise isolation is a passive design feature that allows the headphone to isolate your ears from ambient noise and also prevent your audio from leaking out to the area around you.
Noise isolation is another distinct difference between open and closed back headphones. While it wouldn’t be accurate to state that every closed back headphone is good at noise isolation, most high-quality brands do take this into consideration when manufacturing their products. By and large, closed back headphones have pretty good noise isolation. In contrast, by the nature of their design open back headphones are not suited for noise isolation. The fact that their main purpose is to let sound escape through the earcups means that the pollution of audio is greatly increased.
Noise isolation is something that varies from model to model, primarily as the amount of isolation typically depends on how they fit your head, and the general construction around how the earcups fit. Headphones that fit your face flush and offer good padding will typically result in a lower leakage of audio.
So what about noise cancelation?
Noise cancelation, unlike noise isolation, is not a passive method of isolating from outside noise. Instead, noise cancelation is far more technologically focused and revolves around a system that actively counteracts the outside audio. Noise cancelation will typically be found in specific models of closed back headphones.
Which should you buy?
Ask audio lovers which headphone style they think is best and you’re going to get different answers. That’s because neither open back nor closed back is necessarily better than the other. They have areas where they excel and areas where they exhibit their drawbacks. The right headphone type for you is one that best meets your requirements.
Let’s look at a few common usages and how both closed back and open back headphones perform in that space.
Open back vs closed back headphones for music
If your focus is on music, open back headphones are typically going to give you the best soundstage and ultimately be the best investment. Of course, not all headphones are made the same and there will be closed back headphones that offer superior quality over some more affordable open backs.
For casual listening, you’re probably not going to notice too many differences in the quality of audio between these two types of headphones. Especially if you take two products from the same market space and compare them. What often happens is that one will move from a budget closed back option to a more pricy open back headphone and then be blown away by the quality difference, when in reality that had more to do with the quality of the headphones and less to do with their design.
With that said, for audiophiles or those looking for critical listening of music, where small nuances really do matter, open back headphones will typically have a slightly higher ceiling for quality in the same market.
You’re still going to need to consider your environment with any decision-making process between open back vs closed back headphones. If you tend to listen to music with others around you who may not want to hear your audio, then open back headphones can still be problematic.
Thankfully, there are still some really good closed back headphones on the market, and often at a slightly lower price point than some of the open back options. If you are looking for noise isolation open back is not the direction you want to go, instead, focus on a high-quality pair of closed back headphones in that case.
Open back vs closed back headphones for gaming
Let’s start with the recurring theme here. The noise isolation. Games can be loud, first-person shooters can be more than just loud at times. So one should once again take into consideration the noise isolation aspect. If you have your computer in the same room as your sleeping child, for instance, open back headphones are going to cause you a lot more headaches than you’d like.
However, if you’re in your own space and don’t need to worry about your sounds being distracting or frustrating to those around you, then going for open back headphones is again the best choice.
The primary benefit of a wider sound stage can be really beneficial when FPS gaming for instance. For games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, being aware of enemy positioning is essential. You often end up relying more on the audio than you do on the visuals, at least prior to engagement. This is where open back headphones can give you a bit of an advantage.
If you’re in the competitive gaming space and rely on positional audio to make your plays, it is worth investing in a high-quality pair of open back headphones that can really give you the slight bit of competitive edge you may be looking for.
With casual gaming, open back headphones will still provide a better experience, particularly in immersive titles where atmospheric elements may create your experience. Having the wind blow across your headphones in the tundra for instance can be an overall better, more immersive experience with open back headphones.
If you’re simply playing Sims or Fall Guys, for instance, the sound engineering isn’t going to be done in a way where you’d benefit from an open back headphone, and in those situations either option would perform rather similarly.
Open back vs closed back headphones for music production
If you’re into music production, whether professionally or as a hobby, open back headphones are really going to be the immediately recommended choice. In sound production, it’s extremely beneficial to have a wide sound stage in conjunction with a flat sound signature. This will give you the best representation of the actual sound being produced.
There are seemingly more open back headphone options on the market which cater to these two elements. You’re still going to be able to find closed back headphones which offer a good sound stage and flat signature, but it’s probably going to be easier and cheaper to find open back options that meet that same level of standard.
Tracks produced or mixed on sub-par headphones or headphones with a significant signature curve (V or U shape for instance) can result in a poor final product. If you’re working in music production, it can also be worth saving a little bit extra and investing in your craft with a high-quality pair of open back headphones, these are going to be what ultimately can determine what your final track ends up sounding like.
Open back vs closed back headphones for travel
If you’re going to be in an open space, whether that’s traveling on holiday via plane or taking the subway to work, open backed headphones are going to present you with a big challenge, noise isolation.
Closed back headphones will allow you to jam your favorite tracks without causing the person next to you to become agitated at your audio blasting out the open back of your headphones.
For travel, we would actually recommend a noise-canceling ear-bud design, these are smaller and easier to travel with. For long flights, it’s also not uncommon for one to opt for a larger headphone design that offers noise-canceling design, something like the Bose QuietComfort series or the Sony WH-1000XM4 are popular examples of these.
In short, if you’re traveling on busses, trains, or planes – a closed back design is best and both earbuds and headphones will do the trick. If you’re backpacking, sightseeing, or doing a lot of walking around, larger headphones are not going to be great. Instead, some noise-canceling earbuds will be ideal. The Bose QuietComfort series remains popular in this space too with their noise canceling earbud option, though this pair offers very mild water resistance. If you’re looking for something that caters better for an outdoor, active lifestyle as well, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro offers IPX7 waterproofing with its active noise cancelation technology.
Open back headphones will typically offer a better experience for most forms of use due to their wider sound stage, but with one big caveat. Because they do not isolate noise, they are not going to be a good choice for those who plan to listen to music or game around others who may get annoyed at the sounds. Similarly, open back headphones are not going to offer much in the way of noise cancelation, meaning outside noises will also be able to interfere more easily with your listening experience.
For those on the move, traveling, or commuting to and from work – we recommend noise-canceling earbuds over both traditional closed back headphones and open back headphones.