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The Complete Guide To Open-Back & Closed-Back Headphones

My New Microphone The Complete Guide To Open-Back & Closed-Back Headphones

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

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 (click the links for more information about each driver type):

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 through 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, so open-back and closed-back designs do not truly 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 noting 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).

Back to the table of contents.


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.

Back to the table of contents.


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?

Back to the table of contents.


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.

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.

Back to the table of contents.


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 HeadphonesClosed-Back Headphones
Perforated ear cupsSealed ear cups
Allows headphone driver sound to escape from the ear cupsTraps 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 compatibilityGreat for active noise-cancellation
Lighter weightHeavier weight
Generally cooler around the earsGenerally 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.

Back to the table of contents.


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, 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

Back to the table of contents.


Open-Back Headphones Examples

To better understand open-back headphones, let's have a look at some real-world examples:

Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro

The Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro is a pair of circumaural (over-ear) moving-coil dynamic open-back wired headphones.

| My New Microphone
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro

The Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro is featured in My New Microphone's Top 5 Best Open-Back Headphones Under $200.

STAX SR-007A MK2

The STAX SR-007A MK 2 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 electrically bias the diaphragm.

mnm 300x300 Stax SR 007A MK2 | My New Microphone
STAX SR-007A MK2

The STAX SR-007A MK2 is featured in My New Microphone's Top 5 Best Electrostatic Headphones.

Audeze LCD-4

The Audeze LCD-4 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.

| My New Microphone
Audeze LCD-4

Grado Labs SR80e

The Grado Labs SR80e is a pair of open-back supra-aural (on-ear) wired headphones.

| My New Microphone
Grado Labs SR80e

The Grado Labs SR80e is also featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Open-Back Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Supra-Aural (On-Ear) Headphones Under $100

Beyerdynamic, Stax, Audeze and Grado Labs

Beyerdynamic, Stax, Audeze and Grado Labs are featured in My New Microphone's Top 13 Best Headphone Brands In The World.

Back to the table of contents.


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

Back to the table of contents.


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 is a pair of circumaural (over-ear) moving-coil dynamic closed-back wired headphones. These headphones come in 4 variations: 16-ohm, 32-ohm, 80-ohm and 250-ohm for different sound quality and versatility.

| My New Microphone
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro 80-ohm

The Beyerdynamic 770 Pro is also featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 5 Best Headphones For Podcasting Under $200
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $200

Bose QuietComfort Series 35 II

The Bose QuietComfort Series 35 II is a pair of wireless active noise-cancelling headphones. They utilize moving-coil dynamic drivers inside a circumaural closed-back design.

| My New Microphone
Bose QuietComfort Series 35 II

The Bose QuietComfort Series 35 II is also featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 5 Best Wireless Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $200
Top 5 Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones Under $200

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro

The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro is a pair of circumaural wired closed-back headphones. They, too, have moving-coil drivers.

| My New Microphone
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro

The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro is also featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 5 Best Moving-Coil/Dynamic Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Closed-Back Headphones Under $100
Top 5 Best Circumaural (Over-Ear) Headphones Under $100

AKG N60NC

The AKG N60NC 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.

| My New Microphone
AKG N60NC

Bose, Sennheiser and AKG

Bose, Sennheiser and AKGs are also featured in My New Microphone's Top 13 Best Headphone Brands In The World.

Back to the table of contents.


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 drive headphone/speaker drivers properly.

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?


Choosing the right headphones or earphones for your applications and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Headphones/Earphones Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next headphones/earphones purchase.


Leave A Comment!

Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section at the bottom of the page! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

MNM Ebook Updated mixing guidebook | My New Microphone

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