Closed-Back vs. Open-Back Headphones

Shopping online for a new pair of headphones can be difficult. Most modern-day retailers present you with a multitude of different options and, ultimately, this vast amount of choice creates more questions than answers. Wired or wireless? Affordable or premium? Comfort over aesthetics? Noise-cancelling or not? The list goes on...

While those should be key considerations, the most important thing to keep in mind is the kind of construction that a set of headphones has. In this blog, we’ve compared the two main types that you’ll come across: ‘closed-back’ and ‘open-back’.

Elliot Stent

Elliot Stent

If you love listening to music with the utmost detail, nothing beats a great pair of headphones. Muting all of your other senses so that you can focus solely on the subtle nuances in your favourite tracks; headphones also serve as fantastic tools for musicians who want to mix and record music. Producers and engineers simply swear by them!

While it’s easy to grasp what headphones do, you’ll find that there are many variations of them that serve different purposes. Some are made for casual listening, others are designed specifically for mixing and there are also types that are suitable for live performance. This diversity therefore makes headphones quite tricky to shop for.

If you’re in the market for a fresh set of cans but don’t know where to start, we believe that understanding the differences between closed-back and open-back headphones will help you to figure out what you really need. That’s why we’ve put together this concise yet comprehensive guide that reveals their main advantages and disadvantages!

Closed-Back Headphones

Closed-back headphones, otherwise known as “sealed” headphones, are extremely common and generally used for laid-back listening. Their name is indicative of their design; featuring ear-cups that have solid, unperforated exteriors to block most ambient noise from coming in. They are not to be confused with active noise-cancelling headphones. However, those do tend to adhere to the closed-back construction.

Thanks to their sealed shells, sound emitted from the drivers within a set of closed-back headphones is directed straight into a user’s eardrums. Audiophiles have often described this listening experience as immersive and as though the music they’re hearing is “in their head”. Isolated sound with heavily-reduced background noise is therefore the main selling-point of closed cans, but what other advantages (and even disadvantages) do they possess – especially in certain scenarios?

Advantages of Closed-Back Headphones

Recording Ready

Closed-back headphones are practically made for monitoring and recording, as only a minimal amount of sound can bleed (or “spill”) from them – due to their sealed ear-cups. This makes closed-back cans ideal for musicians tracking vocals, guitars, drums or any other acoustic instrument, as hardly any audio from the headphone mix will be picked up by the microphone(s) capturing their performance. This results in a cleaner recording and greater instrument separation during the mixing stage.

Their limited amount of spill is also a plus-point if you like listening to music while working or commuting with other people around you. Not everyone has the same taste in music as you, so they’re worth investing in if you want respect from your peers or members of the public!

Perfect for Performance

The quasi noise-cancelling qualities of closed-back headphones means that they lend themselves well to live performance. If you’re playing or recording as part of an ensemble in a live room, you’ll probably want to be able to hear yourself. Trouble is, using something like wedge monitors will only cause more soundwaves to bounce around in that space; making it harder for an engineer to capture your performance, which in turn, creates a cluttered-sounding mix.

Closed-back headphones can be used as an effective alternative, allowing you to hear yourself through playback while also reducing background noise by as much as 10dB. In-ear monitors are considered an even better solution in this situation, as they cancel-out more external sound. But sealed headphones, especially those that are ‘circumaural’ (with cups that surround the ear), can work almost as well.

Focused Mixing

While closed-back cans aren’t regarded as great for mixing (we’ll get to that shortly), they are still used by engineers for detailed production work. As they limit ambient noise around you from reaching your eardrums, they can be fantastic for when you need to precisely edit audio or carry out any other technical sound work.

Disadvantages of Closed-Back Headphones

Bass Heavy…

Despite their perks for recording and performance, closed-back headphones have been criticised for accentuating lower frequencies. This enhanced bass response means that they can’t offer a true representation of a song’s instrument levels, making them not particularly apt for mixing. This isn’t the case for all examples but, generally-speaking, it’s a trend that most experienced mixing engineers will attest to.

But good for DJs!

The bass-heavy nature of closed-backs can be beneficial in some scenarios though. For example, DJs typically make musical use of lower frequencies in their performances to unite audiences. Therefore, they’d require cans that not only reduce background noise efficiently, but that can also pump bass frequencies into their ears for a more realistic representation of what their listeners are experiencing front-of-house. Some brands actually manufacture dedicated DJ headphones for this purpose!

Drummers, who often play in tandem with bassists, may also prefer the unique EQ qualities of closed-back cans in order to accurately follow a bass-line when recording or performing. The same can be said of guitarists who like to stay in time by listening closely to the rhythm section.

Open-Back Headphones

Open-back headphones are considered more niche than their closed-back counterparts. With shells that feature small openings such as grills or holes, open-back cans allow air to pass through their ear-cups. Consequently, they are not as effective at keeping noise out or containing it. The trade-off, though, is that open-backs produce a clearer sound with a far more even frequency response.

Headphones with this type of construction still direct sound straight into the user’s ears, but instead of blocking exterior noises – they let most of it through. The listening experience is therefore quite different, and you’ll find that your other senses aren’t dulled quite as much as if you were listening through closed-back cans. In short – you’ll still have some impression of what is around you! Let’s uncover more of the advantages of open-back headphones over their closed-back cousins, as well as their disadvantages.

Advantages of Open-Back Headphones

Made for Mixing

Dedicated studio monitors have always been regarded as the best medium to mix music on, especially if they’re placed in an acoustically-treated room. However, creating that complicated setup at home can be expensive, and it also isn’t practical if you have attentive neighbours! Open-back headphones are considered as the most appropriate alternative to monitors for mixing. Delivering an airy, natural sound with more detailed highs; open cans provide a truer representation of a song’s mix instead of the more inaccurate, bass-heavy portrayal you’d get from closed-back headphones.

Open-backs somewhat increase your awareness of space too, and don’t create the compressed or claustrophobic feel that you may experience with sealed cans. The separation between instruments is also more perceivable when listening through open headphones, which is why they are far superior for carrying out equalisation work. It can be argued that listening through these is less fatiguing for your ears and thus more enjoyable too.

Disadvantages of Open-Back Headphones

Poor Noise-Cancellation

As we alluded to already, open-back headphones are terrible at reducing external noise. So if you regularly travel to work via public transport, these cans will not effectively block out car/train sounds or conversations. This may result in users cranking up the volume of their music in order to cancel-out the external ambience – potentially causing damage to their hearing. For commuting, closed-back cans or even headphones with active noise-cancelling technology are definitely recommended.

Excessive Spill

The other drawback with open-back headphones is how badly they leak audio. Their perforated ear-cups can’t suppress sound as effectively as ones that are sealed, meaning that anything you’re listening to can probably be heard by anyone within a few metres of you. Open-back cans are therefore more appropriate for the home and not quiet environments where other people are in close proximity.

This construction type also means that open-backs are poor for recording applications. The spill would be particularly noticeable when recording vocals, as a microphone is typically placed close to a singer’s mouth/head. While this isn’t the worst thing in the world, it would become very apparent and audible if you needed to move sections of a take in post-production that were, say, out of time or to be repeated later in a song with different accompaniment.

Conclusion

We hope that we’ve cleared up a few questions that you may have had about closed and open-back headphones. Ultimately, our aim at Andertons is to make the shopping experience as easy as possible for our customers! So if you still have any burning questions, make sure to use our contact us form and a member of the team will get back to you.

As a whole, we’d argue that closed-back headphones are far more versatile than their open-back counterparts. They are constructed to heavily reduce background noise and provide you with an uninterrupted, isolated listening experience – making them more adaptable for everyday use. However, if you’re looking for a set of cans to conduct detailed mixing work with and nothing else – open-back headphones are practically unmatched!

Want to Learn More?

Interested in finding out more about music gear and expanding your knowledge? Click here to view all of our Labs articles! For more information on the other topics mentioned in this guide, check out our related articles:

Elliot Stent
Elliot Stent
Elliot is a Senior Product Copywriter at Andertons, a guitarist and a YouTube gear demonstrator. Having studied Music and Music Technology, his interests lie equally in both performance and production. Favouring Fender instruments and Marshall amps, Elliot is also a pedal fanatic with a large collection of effects.

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