Buying new headphones can be daunting if you’re not aware of the right terminologies and can’t keep up with the lingo. I remember I was just like you a few years ago when I was buying gear. Before that, I never thought much about what design would be better suited for better listening, but here I am now – all seasoned and (somewhat) wise. You see, thorough research makes all the difference in the world.

Now, when buying headphones, you have two main designs to choose from, and those include: open back and closed back models. In this guide, I’ll be providing you a detailed guide on what design would be better suited for you. But before I get started on the details, let me brush you up on the basics first.

What’s the difference between the two?

If you’re a complete novice, here’s what you need to know. As the name indicates, open back models include woofers that are exposed or open. These models typically include a solid plastic grill back with holes instead of being completely covered like closed back models which are completely sealed.

Apart from the physical difference in design, the sound quality differs in both models too. Closed back models block out more external sound from the surroundings.

What are open back headphones, anyway?

The name probably reveals it all. These models include holes that let air enter through the ear cups followed by the speaker element. While this may seem counter-productive, the air prevents pressure from building up inside. This makes the sound output make more clear and natural. A lot of high-end gear feature open back models because of its exceptional results.

However, this kind of gear works best in an environment with limited noise since these headphones are not designed to block out external noise very well. Aside from not being able to block out external noise, these models also allow sound to leak in which is definitely not ideal in some cases. Also, I personally feel that these headphones are not very good at taking a beating simply because the part can let moisture in. This can be detrimental for sensitive electronics that need to be handled more carefully.

Who should use them?

This kind if probably best for folks who work in surroundings that don’t have a lot of background noise as sound can bleed in. It might not be the best option for when you’re recording but you can use these headphones for playing video games or when you’re using studio mixers.

This is a preferred option as mixers often need reference for their work. Also I don’t recommend that you use their headphones at work or in quiet places as noise will bleed through and others might not be too happy about being forced to listen to someone else’s playlist.

In short, open back gear works well for the following scenarios:

  • When you want to listen to music alone.
  • While mixing in a controlled environment.

Pros

  • Great for mixing as it allows some external noise to blend with the gear’s sound output (great for mixing with headphones).
  • A better option for folks who prefer natural sound output as compared to closed back models.
  • This type of gear is typically more comfortable to use because of its lighter weight earpiece.
  • Usually less expensive compared to closed back models.

On the other hand, if you’re not fond of the sweaty feeling that comes with using closed models (by the way, check out this guide to learn how to clean sweaty headphones), you might prefer this guide. Open back models will give your ears some room to breathe and let’s be honest, nobody dislikes some extra ventilation. This element of design also makes the gear comfortable to use in the long run. I’d also say that this is great for light use since it made using lesser materials.

Cons

  • Works ideally in a noise-free environment if you want to concentrate on sound output.
  • Allows sound to bleed in and leak out.
  • Typically not an excellent choice for professional use unless you need it  for mixing.
  • Lack of privacy and isolation. You’ll be able to hear traffic noise and people chatting in the background which is not ideal.
  • Not great for cold weather conditions as cold air will penetrate into your ears.

What are closed back headphones, anyway?

Now for the other star of our guide: closed back headphones. As the name suggests, these models are completely sealed from the back to allow maximum isolation. The covered end also prevents airflow to create a firm cushion. Unlike their counterparts, you don’t have to worry about external noise finding its way inside these headphones.

Since this model does not bleed or leak in noise, the quality of sound output solely depends on the quality of the construction and the density of the ear cushion. I advise you to particularly take note of this since you wouldn’t want the sound to be too muffled. You can sometimes detect a faint echo in bass notes. Also, keep in mind that these models are heavier in weight which means it might feel a little bulky on your ears. However, the overall all experience isn’t too bad just as long as you invest in the right headphones.

Who should use them?

Closed back models are great for home recording if you’re having trouble minimizing external noise or enjoy working in an isolated environment. Additionally, these models are great for recording since you won’t have to worry about your mic picking up noise.

Closed back headphones are also a more appropriate option if you’re listening to music in a quieter setting such as in an airport or the subway. Being able to minimize external noise works well for folks who want to completely submerge themselves in the world of music. This will allow you to pick up finer sonic details that you might not have been able to with a different model.

To summarize the above, these models are for the following settings:

  • When you’re recording and are in need of an isolated background.
  • If you are a professional and want to focus on the sonic details of sounds.
  • When you’re listening to music at the airport or other public spaces where you wouldn’t want to disturb others.

Pros

The pros of these headphones should not be undermined, since they are great for professional and home recording use. A few major pros include:

  • Being able to enjoy the craft of mixing while listening to minor details.
  • Blocking external noise and being able to work in an isolated environment.
  • You can critically listen to music, paying close attention to the sound.
  • Being able to enjoy crisp sound in a noisy environment .
  • Great for cold weather conditions as the design will keep your ears warm.

Cons

  • Keeping in mind that sound is travelling in an enclosed environment, you might notice a minor reflection. This isn’t a major con so you don’t have to worry about it too much. Plus, the chances of you experiencing this is quite low as you would have to listen very intently to pick up echoes.
  • The output might not sound too ‘natural’.
  • Your ears will be subject to high pressure. I personally recommend that you don’t listen to music at a very high volume as it can damage your eardrums.
  • May cause ear fatigue if worn for long periods of time.

Oh Wait, There’s More…

I will be giving my final verdict but first, it would only be fair to talk about semi-open back headphones. As the name indicates, this particular kind of gear is a cross between the two main choices. This ultimately means that the speaker element isn’t completely sealed so it’ll allow some air to pass through the chamber.

I’ll be honest, I’m not much of fan. These headphones leak sound and are not a favorite choice among professionals. However, these headphones are great if you need something for casual listening or if you’re on a limited budget and can’t afford high-quality gear (check out this guide on affordable headphones). Plus, you can also use this model for mixing if you’re not completely comfortable with the open-design.

Verdict

While my verdict should be pretty obvious by now, it really does come down to one’s personal preference and purpose of use. Generally, I’d recommend that you get your hands on closed back models right away. Open back headphones can be slightly disappointing if you’re fond of the sensation that comes with experiencing low-end beats. Also, these models don’t do a very good job of delivering lower-level frequencies so that is also something you should consider.

I get that some people want their sound output to be more natural but if you’re in it for the long run, you’re better off investing in a closed back model. This is great for home recording and even general use for that matter. But like I said – it’ll all come down to personal preference.

Let me know what you thought about this detailed guide! I’d love to know what kind of headphones you personally enjoy using. Happy recording!