Open vs Closed-Back Headphones: What Is Right For You?

When looking at headphones, there are two kinds of headphones that you need to decide between. Open-back and closed-back headphones.

Open-back headphones can provide many benefits in sound and long-term comfort, while closed-back headphones can be friendly in more situations and can have a more “fun” sound signature. Both types are tailored for different situations with various pros and cons.

Let’s take an in depth look at the differences and see what is best for you.

Closed back headphones next to an open back pair

Open vs Closed Back: The Main Differences

Open BackClosed Back
LocationOnly good for private listeningGood for use anywhere
SoundHas best sound stage and midsHas best bass
Heat Buildup Can be an issue after a couple hoursCan become an issue after an hour
Bluetooth?Can’t work with BluetoothBluetooth compatible
Premium MarketMost of the high-end market is open backSome of the premium market

Open-Back: Open-back headphones are headphones with the driver being open or partially open. The earcups will often have grills to allow the sound out. This allows for a much more open sound, other benefits in treble and midrange, and improved long-term comfort. Heat build-up is less of an issue.

Closed-Back: Closed-back headphones are when the earcup is fully closed off. This traps in sound allowing the headphones to be more suitable in a public environment. Closed-back headphones also make it possible to have features such as Bluetooth connectivity. They typically have better bass response in comparison to closed-back headphones.

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How Does Open-Back Affect Sound?

Side view of closed back headphones

The main reason why open-back headphones are so beneficial is the many benefits to sound that they can have. The open driver allows some of the sound to exit the earcup away from the ears. This can improve the accuracy, the soundstage, and many other elements of the sound.

The main downside of the open drivers is that they leak sound. This means that if you are listening to music or playing a video game someone in the same room as you may be able to hear what you are listening to or at least the fact that you are listening to something. This is not ideal for public music listening.

While the open-back design can make the sound feel wider and more open, it can also cause you to hear more of the environment around you. If you are in a very noisy environment this could ruin the listening experience but at the same time, music listening is never that great in a noisy environment with both types of headphones.

Soundstage and Imaging

The biggest and most noticeable difference that you will notice between open and closed-back headphones is the soundstage and imaging.

Soundstage is the space and environment of the sound that is created by headphones, IEMs, or similar devices. Imaging is related to the location and size of the instruments or objects in that sound environment.

If you are playing a game it is very easy to pick out the location as to where someone is. You can hear the specific room where someone is and due to a wider sound, there is a wider area for sound to come from. This means you can more accurately hear where someone is in an environment.

The overall sound can feel a lot more immersive in both games and while listening to music. Open-back headphones also allow you to pick out where a sound is coming from better which is very nice, especially for those who like to analyze the music that they are listening to.

Bass

Open-back headphones don’t necessarily change things like the high end and the mid-range but one area where they can cause change is the bass. Typically one of the downsides of open-back headphones is that they often have less bass in forms of quantity. Often the bass is still accurate and still sounds good but there may be less of it.

This isn’t true for all open-back headphones as there are some headphones like the Philips X2HRs that have a lot of bass or planars that have a very punchy sound.

This does not mean that the bass on open-back headphones is bad. In fact, many open-back headphones have a lot of bass, and the low-end sounds very clean and punchy. Many closed-back offerings can make the bass sound muddy.

In the case that you do want more bass, you can always use an equalizer.

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Accuracy and Distortion

Another area where open-back headphones can improve the sound is in accuracy and distortion.

Open-back headphones often have improved sound accuracy, most notably in the mid and high range. This improvement over closed-back headphones is consistent in the area of sound distortion. Closed-back headphones often have distortion that can also affect sound accuracy because of echo from the wall on the outside of the driver. Sound can bounce off the closed ear cup causing distortion in the sounds. Open-back headphones are a lot better with this issue.

The levels of accuracy and amount of distortion can all depend on the headphone model regardless if they are open-back or not.

It is important to note that not all open-back headphones have perfect clarity and sound accuracy but they do help. As you spend more, the more premium options in the market will also perform better as well.

How Does Closed-Back Affect Sound?

Side view of open back headphones

Closed-back headphones may not have all the benefits of open-back headphones but they can still help to provide a very fun sound signature. There is often a sacrifice for sound quality for practicality to have features like Bluetooth and noise cancellation.

The closed-off driver blocks off sound from escaping. This allows you to not have a problem with sound leakage so you can use closed-back headphones in public. This also can result in an improvement in the bass.

Closed-back headphones may not provide all the sound benefits of open-back headphones but they can deliver a fun sound profile for bass heads and certainly are great for practicality. You can use closed-back headphones without bothering others and also without getting bothered by others.

Soundstage and Imaging

As mentioned previously, closed-back headphones usually have a lesser soundstage in comparison to open-back headphones. This does not mean that the soundstage is bad with closed-back headphones but the soundstage is more intimate and the imaging may be less specific and accurate.

While some open-back headphones may have what seems like an endless soundstage, closed-back headphones vary greatly in soundstage. Cheaper offerings often have minimal soundstage while more premium closed-back headphones can have a much wider soundstage.

Overall the level of soundstage depends greatly but won’t be as good as open-back headphones. The same goes for imaging.

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Bass

One area where closed-back headphones have a potential improvement is in the bass. Open-back headphones often have clean sounding base but closed-back headphones will usually have more bass. Depending on the quality of the headphones the bass will sound more punchy and less muddy.

Often cheaper closed-back pair will have bass that is there but does not really have any impact and it may have a lot of distortion causing it to sound what is described as muddy. Although cheaper offerings may have a large quantity of bass, the quality is not that good.

On the flip side, more premium offerings can deliver clear, punchy bass in great quantities that can be very enjoyable, especially for bass heads.

The additional bass can allow for a more fun-sounding pair of headphones. This means that many-closed back pairs of headphones are great for just sitting back and listening to music rather than analyzing the sounds or listening to how different instruments interact with each other.

Accuracy and Distortion

One of the worst areas, in particular with budget offerings, that the closed-back headphones affect sound is by adding distortion and echo.

To most people, you will not notice this issue but if you have tried more premium headphones then the distortion in many closed-back headphones will become more of a noticeable issue. The distortion I am talking about is not from the driver itself but it is a result of sound bouncing off the wall of the earcup causing reverb in the sound, potentially distorting it.

You may not have perfect accuracy in vocals or mid-range with many closed-back options but more premium closed-back headphones will have a very accurate sound with minimal distortion and no audible distortion for most.

This is more of a nitpick and this issue is something that you will only notice if you are using a budget option or if you are accustomed to better options.

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Comfort and Heat Build Up

One of the most important things about headphones is comfort, especially long term comfort.

The comfort of open-back headphones and closed-back headphones can’t directly be compared in all aspects because there are so many different kinds of headphones designs for both styles.

One area where they can be compared is heat build-up. A big issue that plagues the long-term comfort of closed-back headphones is how quickly the earcups get hot. Often many closed-back headphones will get hot after 30 to 90 minutes with many people not being able to use their headphones for longer because of how uncomfortable it can get.

Due to the nature of open-back headphones, they deal with this issue a lot better. Since the side of the earcup is open, not only does this affect sound but this gives your ear access to air on the other side of the driver.

Heat still generates within the earcup but it does not become as unbearable as closed-back headphones, at least not as quickly. Since the hot air does not get trapped your ears can stay a lot cooler for a lot longer. This is especially useful for those who get hot ears quickly or those who use headphones for long periods.

If you wear headphones for long durations and are in a private space, you could notice a benefit from an open-back option.

Should You Get Open Back or Closed Back

What Is Best For Gaming – Open Back

Angled view of open back headphones with setup in the background

One of the main benefits of open-back headphones is that they provide a wider sound than closed-back headphones. This directly benefits gamers because it is easier to hear who is around you. The location of information of where information is coming from is usually more accurate on open-back headphones compared to closed-back too.

With a wider sound, everything can feel more immersive in open-world titles and it can also provide more information in competitive titles. With a greater sense of space, it is easier to understand how close or far another player may be and where exactly a gunshot may have come from.

If you talk while you game with others you may want to be able to hear your own voice. Often closed-back headphones make it harder to hear yourself, especially with a loud game playing. This can be quite weird.

With open-back headphones, this can be less of an issue. Since you can hear your voice you can also hear other things around you. If you are gaming in a loud environment that can distract you from your game too.

Another important consideration is long term comfort.

When gaming you can be playing for a few hours at a time and some people even game for most of their day as a job. This means that you will want headphones that are comfortable, especially for long periods of time.

While the comfort of the earcups and headband is different for each headphone, most open-back headphones will accumulate heat and a reduced rate compared to closed-back options and will accumulate less of it overall. Heat is not trapped in the headphones because the earcup is open to an extent.

Heat build-up is often one of the most uncomfortable things about wearing headphones. This can make wearing headphones a lot more comfortable, especially for longer periods.

When you are gaming you are typically at a more private place like a desk. This means it does not matter if noise comes out of your headphones. This means you can use open-back headphones without bothering others.

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What Sounds The Best – Open Back?

Someone’s taste in sound is a very subjective matter as some people like sounds closer to their ear others like a wider soundstage and some may like more bass while others may prefer a more balanced sound signature.

Open-back and closed-back drivers often result in different sounding headphones. If you want the best bass experience there are good options that are open-back but some of the best pairs are closed-back. If you want a wider sound or something with solid vocals, your best bet is with open-back.

Open-back headphones typically are praised for having improved sound over closed-back headphones in many ways. We would say open-back headphones are the best sounding in many cases but because sound is so subjective you want fully determine what truly is better, especially with so many headphone options.

Overall what matters is that your headphones suit your preferences and needs. Getting open-back headphones will often be your best bet for having great sound quality but they’re a few more premium closed-back offerings that are quite strong such as the DT 1770 from Beyerdynamic.

What Is Best For Public Listening – Closed Back

Close up of closed back headphones

If you are in a public environment often or you need headphones for going out, closed-back headphones are the best option here.

The main downside of all open-back headphones is that sound is able to leak out of the earcup. Although this is a result of a wider soundstage and optionally more immersive experience, this can allow other people to hear what you are listening to.

The level of sound leakage depends on each pair but is an issue with all open-back headphones to an extent. It also depends on what volumes you are playing audio at. In some cases someone can only hear what you are listening to when right next to you and other times they may be on the other side of a room, still able to discern what you are playing.

Overall this won’t affect the listener and actually assists in making the sound feel very wide. This just makes open-back options bad if you are in an environment where people won’t want to hear what you are listening to like a bus or open office.

Closed-back headphones leak no sound most of the time and maybe a little at very high volumes but it is usually not an issue. Closed-back headphones, like earbuds, are commonly used and almost nobody will use open-back headphones because of this issue.

On top of all this, closed-back headphones often support features like Bluetooth connectivity for ease of use and active noise cancellation to make them a better option in public.

Closed-back headphones are just the more practical option in a public setting, even if you may lose on some sound quality.


Conclusion

Closed back and open back headphones on a desk

Overall open-back headphones will often deliver better sound for the same price as a closed-back offering but closed-back headphones deliver more practicality. Open-back headphones limit you to a private environment that should also be quiet but you can use open-back headphones anywhere without bothering others and some even have noise cancellation so you aren’t distracted from what you are listening to.

If you are a gamer or you just want to appreciate a wider and potentially clearer sound, then open-back headphones are great but they aren’t needed. Closed-back headphones don’t deliver bad sound and often can deliver better bass.

There is no wrong choice between the two but instead better use cases for both. Within both categories there are hundreds of options with different features and sound profiles to consider so doing additional research after seeing what is best for your use case is very important.

If you want to see more of our content, check out our newest articles.

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