Over-the-ear headphones come in two distinct types: open-back and close-back. Depending on the naturalness of sound and the level of isolation, we may choose one over the other.
What are open-back and closed-back headphones? Open-back and closed-back are the two predominant types of over-the-ear headphones. Open-back headphones have a perforated or open shell that allows the external environment and the headphone driver to react together. Closed-back headphones have solid shells that physically separate the headphone driver from the external environment.
Of course, there’s much more to it than that and this seemingly small design variation brings about big differences in the way the headphones perform and which applications they are best suited for. In this article, you’ll learn all about open-back and closed-back headphones; their differences and applications, and I’ll share a few examples of each to further our knowledge.
Table Of Contents
- A Primer On Headphone Drivers
- What Are Open Back Headphones?
- What Are Closed-Back Headphones?
- A Note On Semi-Open Headphones
- The Differences Between Open-Back And Closed-Back Headphones
- Open-Back Headphones Applications
- Open-Back Headphones Examples
- Closed-Back Headphones Applications
- Closed-Back Headphones Examples
- Related Questions
A Primer On Headphone Drivers
Before we get into our discussion on closed-back and open-back headphones, let’s first define the transducer element and the most important piece of headphone design: the driver.
The headphone driver converts audio signals into sound waves. Often this is done via electromagnetic induction though electrostatic headphones drivers perform this conversion via electrostatic principles.
Here are the different headphone driver types and their working principles:
- Moving-coil dynamic: electromagnetic induction
- Planar magnetic: electromagnetic induction
- Electrostatic: electrostatic
- Balanced armature: electromagnetic induction
- Bone conduction: piezoelectric
Why is this relevant information? Because open and closed-back headphone designs do not apply to all headphone types.
Bone conduction headphones do not really produce sound in the air. Rather, they rely on sending mechanical vibrations though our bones (typically our jaw and cheekbones) to our inner ear’s tiny ossicles bones. These ossicles then transmit the vibration to the cochlea, a fluid-filled structure that converts the vibrations into electrical impulses for the brain to process.
The main point is that bone conduction headphones do not produce much sound and so open-back and closed-back designs do not really apply to them.
Balanced armature drivers push sound via a diaphragm but are miniature and only found in in-ear monitors and earphones. Earphones are designed differently than headphones and the differentiation between open-back and closed-back is not a concern.
To learn more about the differences between headphones and earphones, check out my article What Are The Differences Between Headphones And Earphones?
So we’re left with moving-coil, planar dynamic and electrostatic headphones that are subject to the open-back and closed-back form factors.
A small detail worth making note of is that moving-coil drivers send sound waves unidirectionally due to the nature of their design. Planar magnetic and electrostatic headphone drivers, conversely, send sound bidirectionally. Again, this is a small detail but I figured it’s worth mentioning.
To learn more about dynamic headphone drivers, check out my article What Are Dynamic Headphones And How Do They Work?
For more information on headphone drivers in general, check out my article How Do Headphones Make Sound? (A Simple Beginner’s Guide).
What Are Open-Back Headphones?
Open-back headphones are described as having perforations of some sort in their ear cups that allows air and sound to enter and exit the ear cups.
This “breathability” allows the sound from the headphone drivers to escape from the headphones and also allows external sound and noise to reach the ears of the listener wearing the open-back headphones.
The open design allows excess sound pressure to escape from the ear cups and minimizes reflections/echoes within the cups. This improves the clarity of the sound; reduces bass frequency build up and widens the stereo image.
But this improvement in sound quality is really only available in quiet environments since the perforations allow environmental noise to enter the headphones.
What Are Closed-Back Headphones?
Closed-back headphones are described as having completely sealed ear cups that do not allow sound to enter from the environment nor sound to escape from the driver and ear cup.
This closed system is great for passive noise-cancellation (the physical blocking of sound waves) and the isolation is easily upgraded by means of active noise-cancellation.
For more information on passive and active noise-cancelling headphones, check out my article Passive Vs. Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones.
Because closed-back headphones do not let sound escape, they generally have narrower stereo fields (a less “open” sound) and can have a build-up on bass frequencies and other resonances.
Note that earphones and earbuds technically have closed-back housing designs. However, the distinction between open and closed-back is reserved for circumaural (over-ear) and supra-aural (on-ear) headphones.
To learn more about the inherent differences between earphones and headphones, check out my article What Are The Differences Between Headphones And Earphones?
A Note On Semi-Open Headphones
Semi-open headphones, as the name suggests, are a sort of hybrid between closed-back and open-back headphones.
To be honest, though, this is more a marketing term than a technical term. A “semi-open-back” design is simply an open-back design. The ear cups are either open to the external environment or they aren’t.
The Differences Between Open-Back And Closed-Back Headphones
The differences between open-back and closed-back headphones are summed up in the following table:
|Open-Back Headphones||Closed-Back Headphones|
|Perforated ear cups||Sealed ear cups|
|Allows headphone driver sound to escape from the ear cups||Traps headphone driver sound within the ear cup|
|Allows environmental sound/noise from entering the ear cup (poor passive noise-cancellation)||Blocks environmental sound/noise from entering the ear cup (good passive noise-cancellation)|
|More open sound|
Wider stereo image
|More closed sound
Narrower stereo image
|More realistic bass response (without tuning/damping)||Accentuated bass response (without tuning/damping)|
|Poor active noise-cancelling compatibility||Great for active noise-cancellation|
|Lighter weight||Heavier weight|
|Generally cooler around the ears||Generally warmer around the ears|
Note that both headphone types can have moving-coil, planar dynamic or electrostatic drivers. They can also be either supra-aural (on-ear) or circumaural (over-ear) and wired or wireless.
All differences between closed-back and open-back headphones stem from the fact that their cups are either open to external sound or closed to external sound.
This seemingly small design difference causes many contrasts in headphone performance. We’ll get into more specific in the following sections on open-back and closed-back headphone applications.
Open-Back Headphones Applications
Open-back headphones are generally preferred by mixing and mastering engineers due to their open sound. These headphone types, in general, sound closer to how studio monitors sound. The stereo width and relatively flat frequency response allow these headphones to reproduce a cleaner and more accurate sound.
It’s important to note that, in these “mixing environments,” the level of environmental noise is practically zero. Therefore, the engineer will not be subject to extraneous noise. The headphones will be the main source of sound in the room since the sound can escape from the cans.
A tip for mixing engineers: most people will be listening to your mixes on earphones or closed-back headphones. So although the open-back headphones will yield a natural and wide-sounding mix that resembles a great monitor mix, the cross-over experienced with open-back will not necessarily translate to the end listener.
Therefore, I’d recommend mixing/mastering on both open and closed-back headphones.
Similarly, open-back headphones are a great choice for solo listeners and gamers when by themselves in a room. The improvement in stereo width and realism can enhance the listening experience without disturbing the people (or lack thereof) around you.
An added benefit of wearing open-back headphones in the above situations is that they are less noise-isolating and so the listeners can still hear external sounds. Examples of external sounds could be a knock at the door, a roommate trying to get your attention or any other audible signal.
To recap, open-back headphone applications include:
- Mixing and mastering
- Solo listening
- Solo gaming
- Situations where you must be aware of your surroundings
Open-Back Headphones Examples
To better understand open-back headphones, let’s have a look at some real-world examples:
Beyerdynamic DT 990
The Beyerdynamic DT 990 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a pair of circumaural (over-ear) moving-coil dynamic open-back wired headphones.
STAX SR-007A MK2
The STAX SR-007A MK 2 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a pair of open-back electrostatic headphones. These headphones require a special headphone amplifier to drive the high-voltage low-current signal to the stator plates and also to electrically bias the diaphragm.
The Audeze LCD-4 (link to compare prices on Amazon and B&H Photo/Video) is a pair of wired open-back circumaural planar magnetic headphones. The planar magnetic drivers of these headphones require an external headphone amplifier or integrated amplifier.
Grado Labs SR80e
The Grado Labs SR80e (link to compare prices on Amazon and B&H Photo/Video) is a pair of open-back supra-aural (on-ear) wired headphones.
Closed-Back Headphones Applications
Closed-back headphones are, in most cases, the better choice for the average listener. The main reasons for this are closed-back headphones, by the nature of their design, keep the intended sound “in” and the external sound “out”. This means that other people in the environment will not hear your music/audio and you will not hear the environmental noise (unless either is particularly loud).
As previously mentioned, open-back headphones are great for mixing and mastering but most end-user will be using closed-back headphones to listen to your mix. Therefore, it’s important to at least reference your mix/master with closed-back headphones to get a better idea of what your listeners will experience.
Closed-back headphones are also recommended for public listening when the listener wants to block out environmental noise. These headphones have natural passive noise-cancellation and are the standard type for active noise-cancellation technology. In addition to this, closed-back headphones effectively block your music from disturbing the people around you. This is a win-win.
Specific situations where this noise-cancelling comes into play include libraries and study areas; public transport and at home.
It is generally not recommended to be wearing closed-back headphones when alertness to sound is necessary like when walking down a sidewalk or across a street.
To recap, closed-back headphone applications include:
- Mixing and mastering
- Recording/overdubbing vocals and instruments with a microphone (less bleed)
- Listening in public
- Listening in noisy environments
- Solo listening
Closed-Back Headphones Examples
To better understand closed-back headphones, let’s have a look at a few real-world examples:
Beyerdynamic DT 770
The Beyerdynamic DT 770 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a pair of circumaural (over-ear) moving-coil dynamic closed-back wired headphones. These headphones come in 3 variations: 32-ohm, 80-ohm and 250-ohm for different sound quality and versatility.
Bose QuietComfort Series 35 II
The Bose QuietComfort Series 35 II (link to compare prices on Amazon and B&H Photo/Video) is a pair of wireless active noise-cancelling headphones. They utilize moving-coil dynamic drivers inside a circumaural closed-back design.
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro
The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro (link to compare prices on Amazon and B&H Photo/Video) is a pair of circumaural wired closed-back headphones. They, too, have moving-coil drivers.
The AKG N60NC (link to compare prices on Amazon and B&H Photo/Video) is a pair of supra-aural active noise-cancelling headphones. Their on-ear closed-back design provides ANC but the supra-aural design is not as efficient at noise-cancellation as a circumaural design would be. The N60NC headphones have moving-coil drivers.
What is a DAC amp? A DAC amp is a digital-to-analog converter/amplifier. They are regularly used at the headphone outputs of smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc. and in audio interfaces and DAC headphone amps. They convert digital audio to analog audio and apply gain to properly drive headphone/speaker drivers.
Do headphones sound better than speakers? Though “better” is subjective, headphones are certainly more consistent than loudspeakers/monitors. Having headphone drivers next to your ears yields an accurate representation of the audio signal. Speaker sound waves rely on room acoustics. Note that speakers let us “feel” bass while HPs do not.
To learn more about speaker bass versus headphone bass, check out my article Do Headphones Have Subwoofers & How Do HPs Produce Bass?