There are only really two major types of headphones – open backed and closed back.
When you’re in the market to make a decision about which one is right for you, it’s a good idea to learn all about the pros and cons for both types.
In this article, we’ll take a look at both styles and delve into the details of what makes each one popular, what you use open back headphones for, possible negatives with both types, and a comparison of both types for activities like private listening, mixing tracks, gaming, and recording.
So, what exactly is a closed back headphone? Your current pair of headphones and most of the ones that you’ve used since playing cassettes in your Sony Walkman are closed back headphones.
These are the standard ‘earmuff’ looking tech devices that fit comfortably over each ear, with a band that goes around the top of your head and holds the headphones in place. The earpieces on each side are called ear cups.
They are sometimes called over the ear headphones, as opposed to in-ear headphones like earbuds.
Closed back headphones create a private sound environment. That’s the reason most of us use them – to drown out the world and become immersed in whatever we’re listening to.
We don’t want outside noises interrupting our music, radio, podcasts, news, sports, audiobooks, or anything else we’re listening to. We only want to hear the audio. Otherwise, we’d blast the sound through outside speakers and share it with others in our environment.
One great positive attribute for closed back headphones is that you are able to pick up on every subtle nuance of the music you’re listening to. Unlike speakers, which tend to diffuse sound, headphones ‘beam’ it right into your head.
A seal is formed around your ears with the padded ear cups on closed back headphones, and that isolates you from the noise. Closed back headphones are designed to separate you from all other sounds around you. For thousands of users, they are the preferred way to listen to their favorite tracks.
Closed back headphones come in two main varieties. You can choose wired ones that connect directly to laptops, smartphones, or mp3 players, or you have the option of wireless.
The wireless ones use Bluetooth to connect to devices, so both connections must be made before you can use the headphones. Wired headphones tend to be less expensive, because they don’t have any expensive software in the ear cups.
Noise cancellation closed back headphones have become increasingly popular and are loved by those who prefer to drown out the world around them!
The ear cup sizes on these headphones are much larger than non-noise cancelling models and are padded well, so they’re comfortable, too.
They completely encompass the entire ear and create that perfect seal. Noise cancellation closed back headphones are great for noisy environments, long commutes, travel, and at work. They’re usually wireless headphones.
What’s the difference between surround sound and stereo closed back headphones? Stereo, also called 2.1, is really just a pair of speakers sitting next to your ears. Surround sound, which is 7.1, should have three left channels and three right channels, plus sound coming through the center.
This is usually artificially stimulated through software, although occasionally you’ll find headphones that have more than two speakers.
This software gives the illusion that the sound is coming from multiple locations and directions while you’re listening to it.
Have you ever felt like your head is being squished by headphones? The closed back type, even with padded ear cups, tends to be less comfortable than open back headphones. They’re also much heavier, which can give you headaches and put strain on your neck from the extra weight.
Closed back headphones are over the ear and the ear cups might not provide exactly the type of isolating seal that you’re looking for.
Also, closed back really do cut off the sounds of the world around you, which might be a negative in certain situations where you can’t hear important sounds. Despite these negatives, the closed back headphones are an extremely popular option for listening to music, podcasts, audiobooks, the news, and your own tracks, too.
So, that’s everything about closed back headphones. What about the second type, called open back headphones?
They can also be referred to as circumaural headphones or “reference” headphones. What are they used for and how do they work?
Not every auditory environment calls for complete sound isolation, and not every headphone user wants complete separation. Have you ever seen a professional singer in a sound booth wearing headphones while belting out a tune?
That singer has been wearing open back headphones. They want to hear the orchestra in addition to their own singing pitch and volume. Closed back headphones would muffle the orchestra too much.
These are often called “reference” headphones in the music industry, since they’re great for studio engineers to listen to previous recordings so that they can mix and master the tracks.
Radio show speakers and podcasters also use open back headphones. They want to be able to hear themselves and the other people they’re talking to in the studio.
Closed back headphones would prevent them from carrying on an on-air conversation.
Open back headphones can also be used to promote new songs. By wearing them, the small amount of sound leak can be heard by those near you.
While wearing open back headphones that play your own music, you can entice new listeners into becoming customers and buying your music.The sound leak from these headphones is not as loud as speakers, so it’s not as obtrusive. But it can still be heard.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice about open back headphones is how much more expensive they are than closed back. This is due to the inner electronics at work within the actual headphone ‘ear’ sides.
It’s much more complicated than simply taking off the back of a pair of closed headphones and calling them ‘open.’
What you’ll see with open back headphones is that there are some noticeable differences on the ear pieces. The outer sides – the ones opposite the inner sides which press against your ears – are perforated and resemble a grill or a screen. These openings act just like the surface of speakers and transmit sound outward.
Air is also passing freely back and forth between the outside and into your ears. This changes the listening experience considerably.
You will hear outside noises in addition to the music or podcast you’re hearing with the headphones.
The two types of sounds are blended together, almost as if they’re being mixed. Also, your music is being transmitted outward, so others can hear.
This is due to the inner electronic drivers within the headphone ear cups. It expands the soundstage area of sound beyond the actual ears and widens it, making you feel as if the sound is encompassing you.
It’s similar to being able to sit in an orchestra or be on stage with a band, with the musicians and their instruments coming from different directions.
It’s a completely different experience than the privacy of closed back headphones.
What about open back headphones for gaming? Many gamers suggest using open back headphones for video games and computer games.
You’ll be both immersed in the gaming environment and be able to hear the surroundings better. It’s especially recommended for FPS (first person shooter) games. Some gamers even recommend open back headphones over specialized gaming headsets.
You want something with a more neutral sound signature that also gives you an incredibly diverse soundstage experience. That’s what open back headphones offer that closed back or gaming headsets don’t.
While some are of the opinion that headphones shouldn’t be used for mixing, there are quite a few professionals in the music business who do.
You’ll want mixes to sound good with headphones, since they are the preferred way of listening to music for so many millions of users.
Commercial mixing sounds strange coming through headphones, because you’re hearing the left channel in your left ear and the right channel in your right ear. So, the sound might come out one-sided.
While open back headphones are excellent for being able to hear live instruments in addition to what’s coming through the ear cups, they’re not recommended for performers while recording.
The sound leaks into the microphone recordings. The majority of recommended headphones for mixing tend to be open back, since they are lighter and comfortable for long-term use. They are also circumaural, creating a deep and natural bass end.
You’ll want the closed back type if you need isolation, so make sure to choose a model to that can provide long term comfort and an extended bass.
Regardless of which type you choose, both closed back and open back headphones offer pros and cons for mixing or gaming.
In addition to not being the best option for performers while recording, open back headphones do have other negatives that are unique to the airier design.
Since these headphones don’t create a sense of privacy, the key negative is what’s called sound leak. Others would be able to hear whatever you’re listening to, since the sound leaks out of the ear cups just like speakers. It’s not at the same volume you’re hearing it, but it is noticeable.
So, these types of headphones should only be used if you’re not going to be around others or if you are in an environment that is soundproof.
Also, you wouldn’t be able to use these in any public space, like on a commute, in a library, or even in an office environment.
One of the biggest issue open back headphone users run into is in the recording studio. Since these headphones create a lot of sound leak, it’s difficult to record vocals over music and drum tracks. In addition, the condenser microphone a singer would use picks up the background noise, too.
You’ll also notice the price of open back headphones. They are definitely going to be more expensive than closed back headphones. That’s largely due to the technology needed to manufacture them. It’s much more intricate than other types of headphones, like over the ear or earbuds.
While open back headphones are enjoyed by those who require them, they aren’t as versatile as closed back ones.
So, which is better for your aural pleasures and needs? As you’ve read, comparing closed back vs open back headphones is an interesting exercise in exactly how you will use the headphones. There’s definitely a difference in price between the two, so that could be the deciding factor.
If you’ve never tried open back headphones, then sample them and see if you prefer the much more immersive sound experience. It’s much different from the closed back headphones and just might convince you to get a pair for gaming, mixing, or private listening.
Your risk for hearing loss isn’t as high with open back headphones, since you can hear plenty of other sounds.
Closed back headphones definitely have more uses and are more versatile. You can listen to anything you want in any environment, and nobody else can hear what you’re hearing, either. The music and audio is transmitted from the ear cups directly into your ear canals.
This creates a soundproof experience that can transport you to a different place. Closed back headphones are excellent if you need to focus on a project, providing ambient sound. Make sure to keep the volume at lower levels though, since hearing damage and loss is real possibility.
Now, if the inventive powers that be could only come up with closed back headphones with removable backs, then you could have the best of both worlds!