Welcome to ‘Kagoo Explains’ - a series of short articles de-mystifying some of the confusing terminology used to describe tech. Today we’ll be looking at the difference between closed- and open-backed headphones, and which is better for your listening pleasure.
Headphones are basically quite simple devices - a shell molded to fit in/on your head, holding a pair of small speakers that project music into your ears. The ‘driver’ (the part that converts electrical signals into sound waves) is angled towards your ear canal, while the rest of the casing is designed to minimise sound leaking out. The same basic principle holds true for everything from £5 plastic earbuds to £5,000 audiophile-quality headphones.
As you’d expect, there are a lot of nuances with headphones, and one in particular is highly important, but rarely explained: whether the casing around the headphones are ‘closed-back’ or ‘open-back’.
This article will just be discussing larger headphones - those that either go on the ear (supra-aural) or around the ear (circumaural). Smaller in-ear headphones (intra-aural) are almost entirely closed-back, primarily because they are designed for outside/public use, where noise isolation is key. Open-back in-ear headphones do exist, but they are few and far between.
As I mentioned earlier, the casing of a pair of headphones is normally solid, so as to block any sound-waves from passing through. This design serves 2 important purposes:
Stopping your music from ‘bleeding out’ and being heard by the outside world.
Stopping the noise of the outside world from ‘bleeding in’ and interfering with your music.
These twin effects allow you to put your headphones on and zone out the world, so that you can listen to the Best Song Ever without being disturbed! Headphones with this design are known as ‘closed’ - or ‘closed-back’ - because the sound is isolated from outside.
Closed-back headphones are very much the standard design, and the noise isolation allows them to be great all-round headphones. They are well-suited for everything from commuting and noisy offices, to recording studios and DJ booths!
However there is another style of headphone design, which replaces the solid back of the headphones with a permeable membrane, allowing your music and outside noise to flow freely. Headphones with this design are known as ‘open’, or ‘open-backed’.
So why would you choose to put another hole in your headphones and remove the noise isolation? There are several reasons, but mostly it concerns sound quality. Closed-back headphones can cause unwanted changes in the sound, as the audio waves bounce off the inside of the headphone casing. This may cause small echoes, and some people feel this makes the music sound unnatural: less expansive and more ‘in your head’ than if you were hearing the same song played live.
Open-back headphones seek to fix this by letting your tunes freely mix with the ambient noise surrounding you. This allows the music to be more spacious and airy - it creates the feeling that the music is in the space around you, rather than being piped directly into your ears. It rids your music of any strange echoes, and lets you hear more details that you may otherwise have missed. Open-back headphones can also be more comfortable, since there is less pressure on the ear area, and less heat buildup.
However there is a price to pay - the open-back means that you sacrifice any noise isolation - everyone will be able to hear what you’re listening to, and any loud noises are liable to interfere with your music. This severely limits the uses of open-back headphones, so think carefully when choosing a pair of open-back headphones. For instance, open-back headphones are all but useless when commuting or in public, since all the background noise will leak into your music, and conversely everyone else will be able to hear your music. They are also unhelpful for recording - the lack of noise isolation means the backing tracks will leak into the recording. However if you’re enjoying music by yourself, or critically listening to high-quality audio, a good pair of open-back headphones will serve you well.
There is a 3rd option: ‘semi-open’ headphones. As the name suggests, semi-open headphones sit halfway between open and closed: they have a partly-closed back, which allows some air to enter, but not as much as fully-open headphones.
These hybrids have some of the benefits of open-backed headphones, but also many of the disadvantages - as such they still can’t be used in public, but don’t quite have the sound quality to make up for this. While they are an option, we feel you’re better either to go purely open, or purely closed.
As you see, both designs of headphones have their optimal uses, and where/when you listen to music will largely dictate which style is best for you. Let’s take a closer look at the different styles:
Good noise isolation
No audio ‘leaking’
Support for noise cancellation technology
Sound quality less expansive
Closed-back causes small echoes
Uncomfortable to wear for long periods
Great for general listening, commuting & recording. Less suited for critical listening & audiophiles.
Better sound quality
Music has more ‘presence’
More comfortable to wear for long periods
No noise isolation
Unusable in noisy environments
Sound from headphones leaks out
Generally more expensive
Great for critical listening, audiophiles & zoning out while alone. Less suited for communal/office use, recording & noisy environments
Hopefully this helps straighten out the difference between closed and open headphones. Generally you won’t go wrong with a good pair of closed-back headphones, but an open-back style is preferable in certain situations.
If you want to put this new knowledge into practice, take a look at our lists of close-back & open-back headphones and find yourself a deal!