Choosing between open vs. closed-back headphones can be challenging for anyone. In addition, there is an overwhelming number of options available that can complicate your decision further. Fortunately, uncovering as much information about the two can help narrow down your picks and settle on a satisfactory listening experience based on your needs.
1. Open-Back Headphones
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Open-back headphones have a distinct design feature that differentiates them from closed-back models: you can see the headphone driver. Typically, these cups have a characteristic vent, either as a mesh or grill, giving sound and air free reigns through the driver housing. Consequently, an open headphone style ensures natural-sounding audio since it lacks the air pressure increase in closed-back counterparts.
The perforated design of the open-back headphone styles comes with advantages and disadvantages. It has performance gains that make it popular with audio professionals while being tricky to use in a noisy environment. Understanding where open-back headphones excel and flunk will help you decide whether they fit your needs.
Perks of Open-Back Headphones
1. Sound Quality
Plenty of open-back headphones rely on planar magnetic drivers, and you can tell from rectangular openings in the design. This driver technology consists of two flat magnets separated by an electrical conductor that is equally flat. Hence, the electromagnetically charged conductor will generate vibrations in the diaphragm as it moves between the magnets.
As a result, open-back headphones ensure you get a more natural sound. Nevertheless, the trade-off from using planar magnetic drivers means you need an amp to achieve high volumes. Plus, there is less distortion in the loudest setting. Feel free to check out some great recommendations of headphones relying on this driver technology here.
Moreover, open-back headphones ensure you have more options to choose from in driver technologies and designs. After all, these products often promise an audiophile listening experience where manufacturers have been experimenting with different tech for decades. On the other hand, most closed-back headphones use simple dynamic drivers apart from advanced models.
The driver technology combined with the open design bears the sound quality reproduction in open-back headphones. For starters, low-pressure build-up means you mean the audio will sound expansive, allowing critical listening. Consequently, these headphones are work well as reference cups for studio monitors and stereo imaging.
Whether you are going for over-ear or circumaural headphones, the open-back models allow your ears to breathe. Air moves freely between the interior and exterior of the ear cups to cool the area and allow you to engage in longer listening sessions without worrying about comfort. In addition, if you sweat at the slightest suggestion of heat, you can grab a nice pair of open headphones.
3. Lightweight Construction
Having vents on open-back headphones instead of a continuous shell means you get a lighter pair of cups. In addition, closed-back models require anti-resonant materials on the inside of the shells to help with dampening the sound. Thus, you have to contend with the extra weight of the included materials.
Moreover, lighter open-back headphones mean you can listen for long periods without feeling the weight of the pair on your ears. You can remain incredibly comfortable since the mass of the product is not weighing down on your outer ears. It is a no-brainer why most audio professionals prefer these types of headphones.
Drawbacks of Open-Back Headphones
1. Noise Isolation
If you are in the market for active noise-canceling headphones, open-back designs should not be on your list. Air moves freely between your environment and your ears, making sound isolation impossible. After all, sound waves propagate through air molecules.
2. Sound Leakage
The open-back headphone design allows the pair to leak sound to the surrounding. As mentioned above, air moves freely, carrying sound waves with it. If you are interested in a private listening experience or do not want to bother the people around you, try to avoid open headphones.
2. Closed-Back Headphones
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Closed-back headphones have a solid outer shell that encloses the earcups and headphone driver. The continuous design will completely seal your ears, prevent sound leakage and enable noise isolation. Thus, if you listen at a moderate volume, a person seated next to you will nearly hear music sounds while you remain oblivious to background noise.
Perks of Closed-Back Headphones
1. Private Listening with Noise Isolation
Since air does not pass freely between the driver and the outside world, closed-back headphones can sequester the user from outside noise. Consequently, your enclosed ears are completely sealed, and you can listen comfortably even in noisy environments. So, if you want to lock yourself away from the outside world while commuting in public transport or chilling at a coffee shop, closed-back headphones offer better isolation than their open counterparts.
Moreover, blocking ambient noise allows you to listen at a much lower volume than you would with open-back headphones. Hence, the closed-back design helps you protect your ears from loud music. If your primary concern is a private listening experience, the sound isolation feature is a must-have.
2. Numerous Options
You do not need to listen in a quiet environment to enjoy your music on closed headphones, making these models popular. In addition, these products come in a wide range of designs that appeal to their portability. For instance, some have a rugged look that makes them pretty durable. Alternatively, some allow you to fold headbands, while others can be incredibly thin while offering a punchy bass.
Moreover, the popularity of closed headphones means many manufacturers have dipped their toes into the large market. Consequently, you are spoiled for choice in the different designs and driver technology available. Closed-back headphones are excellent if you want to be expressive through your gadgets and accessories. Plus, the price ranges in the affordability bracket for these types of headphones.
3. Bass Response
Low frequencies tend to sound better when they come from an enclosed earcup. After all, audio propagates in a punchy way thanks to the pressure build-up within closed-back headphones. The great sound comes from the product directly targeting your ears, making you feel like you are in a bubble.
Furthermore, the low frequencies are clearer and tighter when sound is closer to you. Hence, you feel more immersed in the music. If you are not in the bracket of studio producers, the audio enhancement of closed-back headphones is a treat for any music lover.
Drawbacks of a Closed-Back Headphone
Closed headphones do not allow your ears to breathe, making long listening sessions uncomfortable. People who sweat or find heat unbearable may need to take breaks to avoid feeling like their heads are in a steam room. Thus, they may not be ideal if you are in hot and humid climates. Still, you can go around this issue by focussing on comfortable materials for the cups that will not worsen the sweating.
2. Smaller Sound Stage
Since closed headphones do not let air move between the drivers, they can produce punchier sounding bass. Unfortunately, this perk means that the diaphragm's vibrations are not well controlled. Consequently, the bass can overpower other aspects of the audio, making some frequencies less clear.
Critical listening is not a strong suit of the closed-back design because of the frequency overload. Nevertheless, some manufacturers include anti-resonant materials in their designs to dampen the sound bouncing within the enclosed cups. Hence, you may use them for recording, but you cannot pick up minute details while mixing. After all, you need specialized headphones for such tasks.
3. Choosing Between the Two Headphone Styles
a). Sound Quality
Open-back headphones can reproduce the effect of listening to a live concert where you can notice the location and depth of the different instruments in the musical performance. The open design allows the varieties to cater to a broad sound stage where the stereo feels more immersive. Conversely, closed-back headphone makes you feel as if the audio is coming from inside your head instead of flowing across the ears.
Moreover, you should avoid closed headphones if you want to experience realistic and natural-sounding audio. After all, the sound produced by the cups will not bounce within an enclosed shell. Consequently, you will not get the level of clarity and accuracy present in open-back headphones.
Headphone drivers in open-back designs are more responsive to changes in the audio signal because air moves freely across them. However, the lack of pressure within the cups means you will not hear the lower frequencies as rich or punchy. So you should go for a closed-back design if you want the bass to shake your core.
b). Listening Situations
Listening to your favorite songs in noisy places can be incredibly challenging when using open-back headphones. Sound from your environment can reach your ears through the vibrating air molecules, which have the freedom to move through the cups. Hence, closed-back styles are excellent for commuters or even studio professionals interested in isolating themselves with their music.
Since sound escapes from open-back headphones, they are not ideal for private listening in public places. Whether heading to the library or taking a train ride home, you would not want to broadcast your musical tastes to the people around you. Therefore, consider your listening situation to decide which style to buy.
c). Comfort and Choices
Open-back headphones work well for people who sweat often and live in hot and humid climates. Since your ears can breathe, you can listen for long periods without getting uncomfortable. On the contrary, people in cold places may find closed-back headphones better as they would keep their ears warm. Plus, your comfort hinges on the movement of the diaphragm and how it concentrates sound to a single place inside your head.
There is a wider variety of designs, materials and features in closed-back headphones than in their open counterparts. Consequently, it may be down to personal preference on which one to get once you consider the other differences. Still, if you need more guidance on picking between open vs. closed-back headphones, you can check out our comparative guide.
Frequently Asked Questions on Open vs. Closed-back Headphones
1. What is active noise cancellation?
Active noise cancellation refers to an audio system that combines a microphone and a chip that works to neutralize noise that comes from the environment. The microphone picks up audio signals from the outside world and within the cups, for starters. The chip compares these sound waves, and a speaker within the cups produces a counter acoustic wave to cancel the background ones.
This technology allows manufacturers to develop products that create an immersive listening experience free from distractions from the environment. The feature is popular with earbud, earphone and closed-back headphone enthusiasts as their design allows for this tech.
2. Are semi-open-back headphones worth it?
Semi-open-back headphones combine the perks of closed and open-back styles. They still leak sound and allow some air to pass through, for starters. However, you get more sound isolation than the open counterparts.
Admittedly, opinions on these variations are split between some calling it a marketing trick while others can swear the combination makes a noticeable difference in the listening experience. Consequently, the best way to figure out whether they are worth your money is to try them yourself. After all, it may fit your needs better than going for closed or open-back headphones.
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