If you’re buying a new pair of headphones, one of the most important early decisions is figuring out if you want open vs closed headphones. Open and closed models each come with their pros and cons, so it’s worth your time to consider the options carefully before settling on your choice. We’re here to help you better understand the difference between open air headphones vs closed models.
What’s the Difference Between Open Back and Closed Back Headphones?
The difference between open back and closed back headphones is almost exactly what it sounds like. The former contains exposed drivers and creates space between your ears and the outside world, while closed ear headphones completely seal your ears underneath the cups. In general terms, open ear headphones are better for critical listening while closed ear headphones are better for crowded environments, but things can be a bit more complicated than that.
Comfort is a very personal thing as far as headphones are concerned, so there’s no clear cut winner between open back versus closed back headphones. That said, open back definitely has an advantage. Since closed headphones trap your entire ear beneath the cups, they often have a tendency to become hot during long listening sessions.
By contrast, the space that open back headphones creates between the cup and the ears allows for more airflow. That means that sweat, moisture, and heat doesn’t have a chance to build up within the headphones. That said, closed back headphone manufacturers are becoming better at creating softer and more luxuriant options that doesn’t build up heat and sweat.
Sound Isolation and Leakage
If you’re planning on listening to music on a subway, plane, your office, or practically anywhere with excess noise, the difference between closed vs open headphones isn’t even a contest. The breathability that open back models offer ensures that outside noise will come in whether you like it or not. Closed models also take the crown as far as leakage is concerned. Leakage refers to how much sound bleeds out from your headphones. If you’re concerned at all about the people around you being subjected to your music, then closed models are hands down the way to go.
And if you’re really serious about blocking out the world around you, many closed back headphones come with noise cancellation technology. These cost a pretty penny more, but they utilize a really cool technology that recognizes the sound coming from outside the headphones and delivers an opposing signal that counterbalances it.
The sky’s the limit for noise isolation options in closed back headphones, but even the most basic pair is likely to provide more isolation and better immersion than any pair of open back models just because of the fundamentals of their respective designs.
When looking at open back headphones vs closed you’ll find models of both types that offer phenomenal sound quality. There are some exceptional manufacturers out there, and the overall sound quality comes down to the quality of how the headphones are engineered. Whether you’re looking for something bass heavy, headphones that really lean into the highs, or a flat sound for the purpose of critical listening, there’s enough diversity in the market to find both closed and open models that suit your needs.
But open back headphones distinguish themselves from their closed back brethren in one critical area: the soundstage. If you’ve ever listened to a true surround sound setup, you’ve experienced what a soundstage offers. True surround sound isn’t accomplished just by using more speakers. It’s also about creating the proper space between those speakers. By properly positioning these speakers, you create a richer and more realistic sound.
Obviously, in terms of surround sound depth, speakers are going to win out in the headphones vs speakers battle every time, but the same fundamentals apply when you’re talking about wired or wireless open back headphones. The space created between your ears and the cups gives the music more room to breathe and creates a soundstage you won’t otherwise experience in the more concentrated soundscape that closed back headphones offer.
Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones For Gaming
So there’s a pretty clear narrative here. Open back headphones tend to be better for critical listening but require a level of silence in the room to really appreciate. Closed back headphones work more ably in a wider variety of situations. So which option is better for gamers?
That depends. Are you a single player gamer? If you can find the right environment to avoid noisy roommates, you’ll find an unparalleled level of immersion with open back headphones. The clarity and depth of both subtle and explosive sounds that open back offers creates a more immersive experience whether you’re playing a creepy survival horror game or a blockbuster first person shooter.
If you’re more of a competitive player, closed back is likely the way to go. Here, the field of depth is less important than the ability to communicate with your teammates. This is especially true if you’re looking for a headset vs headphones. Since the only difference between a difference between headphones and headset is the inclusion of a microphone, the ability to isolate outside noise and communicate more clearly is important. Closed back headsets offer that advantage. Beyond that there’s no fundamental difference between gaming headphones vs music headphones.
Semi Open Headphones
One final option to consider is semi open headphones. In a way, they offer the best of both worlds. But that means that they have some of the weaknesses of both as well. They tend to offer more airflow and a slightly larger soundstage than you’d find with closed back headphones, but their noise isolation and leakage protection tends to be somewhat minimal. When evaluating semi open vs closed back headphones, they offer a happy medium that doesn’t quite excel at anything.
So what are the right options for you? Fortunately, the decision should be fairly simple. Do you find yourself regularly listening to music in crowded environments, or is music listening a sublime experience that you undertake in the confines of your home? If you find yourself unable to decide, why not try both? Our guide to the best headphones under $100 can lead you to some quality headphones that don’t cost a fortune.