The Difference Between Open-Back and Closed-Back Headphones

Learn about the pros and cons of open-back and closed-back headphones, as well as which type of headphones are best for you.

The difference between open-back and closed-back headphones is that open-back headphones allow sound to pass through the back of their ear cups, while closed-back headphones do not. Depending on what you plan to use your headphones for, one type of headphone may be more suited for your needs than the other.

We’ll be walking through the pros and cons of open-back and closed-back headphones, as well as taking a look at some of the best open-back and closed-back headphones on the market.

Open-Back Headphones

Figure 1: A pair of AKG K702 headphones.

Open-back headphones prevent sound pressure from building up by allowing sound to escape through the back of their ear cups; the result of this is an enhanced natural character and improved clarity. In the image above, the area that looks like a cheese grater is where sound is allowed to escape.

A quality open-back headphone design should provide you with an organic listening experience that feels like there’s space to breathe. Open-back headphones won’t sound like a pair of studio monitors because they cannot produce acoustic crosstalk, but the two listening experiences are still reminiscent of one another.

You don’t want to take open-back headphones out in public. They leak a tremendous amount of sound, so the person sitting next to you on the metro will be able to hear everything you’re listening to with an annoying level of detail. Additionally, you’ll be able to hear everything around you, which will be problematic if you’re trying to produce music.

Something else to consider is that open-back headphones are very exposed to the elements. Light rain can seep into the ear cups and potentially cause damage. Open-back headphones and public spaces don’t play nicely together; hang onto them solely for high-fidelity studio use, such as when you’re mixing and mastering your music at home.

The AKG K702 headphones are my recommended pair of open-back headphones. They’re natural-sounding, clear, and open to the outside world; precisely what you would expect from a pair of open-back headphones. These headphones have large cups, but they’re so light that you hardly notice them. Most people with a moderate to large size head should find that the AKG K702 headphones fit them nicely.

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Closed-Back Headphones

An image of a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50x headphones.
Figure 2: A pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50x headphones.

Closed-back headphones trap sound inside their cups, but also keep external noise out. In the image above, the back of each ear cup is enclosed.

A closed-back headphone design will result in music that sounds somewhat “stuffy,” but in many situations, the pros of using closed-back headphones far outweigh the cons. If I’m stuck choosing between a ridiculously high noise floor due to the environment I’m in, or a slight loss in clarity, I’m taking the loss of clarity.

The type of headphones that recording artists use while in the studio are closed-backed headphones. Closed-back headphones prevent sound from bleeding into microphones and ruining recordings. Some recording artists like their headphone mix loud, which can potentially prompt a better performance. However, it’s in your best interest as the recording engineer to provide the artist with a pair of headphones that mitigate bleed.

One of the smaller cons of using closed-back headphones is that they can make your ears sweaty since they don’t breathe as easily as open-back headphones. You know you’ve put in a lengthy production session when your closed-back headphones peel off of your head.

The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones are my recommended pair of closed-back headphones. They’re exceptionally comfortable and will clamp onto your head without applying too much pressure. These headphones adjust in size to fit almost any head, making them a great pair of monitoring headphones for guest musicians that you bring into your studio.

If you work as a music producer or audio engineer, it’s best to have at least one pair of open-back headphones and one pair of closed-back headphones; this will give you a good idea of how listeners using different types of headphones will perceive your mixes.

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