Closed Vs Open Back Headphones (Which do I need?)


closed back headphones in the recording studio

Headphones are an essential tool for engineers. They allow you to hear the audio clearly and make adjustments as needed. But not all headphones are created equal.

There are two main types of headphones: closed-back and open-back. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Closed-back headphones have a sealed ear cup that blocks out external noise. This makes them ideal for noisy environments. Open-back headphones have an open ear cup that allows some external noise through. This helps reduce ear fatigue and makes them more comfortable to wear for longer periods.

In this article, I will share the most important features of closed vs open back headphones, and help explain what you need for your sound application.

I will cover:

  • What is the difference between closed and open-back headphones?
  • Should I get open or closed-back headphones?
  • Are closed or open headphones better?
  • Do open-back headphones really sound better?

What Is The Difference Between Closed And Open Back Headphones?

When we talk about “open back” and “closed back” headphones, we are referring to the physical construction of the cover over the earpiece, also known as the ear cup.

In the following image, you can see the difference in the ear cup construction between a pair of closed and open-back headphones.

1. Closed Back Headphones

Closed-back headphones have a sealed ear cup that blocks out external noise. This makes them ideal for noisy environments. Closed-back headphones also have a more bass-heavy sound, which can be beneficial for certain types of music.

The downside of closed-back headphones is that they can cause your ears to sweat more than open-back headphones. And because they block out external noise, they can also cause you to feel more isolated from your surroundings.

Closed Back Headphones Summary

  • The headphone’s outer cover is “closed” to restrict airflow.
  • Excellent for wearing while recording, as the sound leaking from the headphones is minimal and creates a quieter recording environment.
  • Can be uncomfortable when worn for long periods of time as the closed construction places more pressure on the ear. 
  • Perfect if you don’t want to disturb others.
  • As well as reducing audio leaking out, closed-back headphones also reduce noise leaking in, so if you want to work undisturbed by your surrounding environmental noise, these are a good option.

2. Open Back Headphones

Open-back headphones have an open ear cup that allows some external noise through. This design helps reduce ear fatigue and makes them more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. Open-back headphones also have a more natural sound, which can be helpful for mixing and mastering audio.

The downside of open back headphones is that they’re not effective at blocking out external noise. And because they have an open design, they’re not ideal for noisy environments.

Open Back Headphones Summary

  • The headphone’s outer cover is “open” to allow greater airflow.
  • This headphone type is excellent for audio monitoring and critical listening such as music mixing and mastering, as the headphone audio will better represent the true recorded sound and how others will hear it through a speaker. 
  • Typically, open-back headphones can be worn for longer periods of time without discomfort as the open design allows air to flow more freely, reducing pressure on the ear. 
  • This type of headphone is not recommended to be worn when recording, as the open back structure will allow sound to escape and leak into any microphones nearby.
  • If you are working in an environment where you don’t want to disturb others, such as an office or public space, open-back headphones are not the best choice as some low-level sound will leak through the open-back so others can hear what you are listening to… very faintly. 

Should I Get Open Or Closed Back Headphones?

In choosing between open and closed back headphones, there are a few factors to consider:

  • Are you using them in a noisy environment?
    Closed back headphones will be better at blocking out external noise.
  • Do you need more bass in your music?
    Closed back headphones will typically have a more bass-heavy sound.
  • Do you want a more natural sound?
    Open back headphones will offer a more realistic soundstage.
  • Do you need headphones for long periods of time?
    Open back headphones are more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.

The following table lists some of the most common applications of headphones, from gaming to audio mixing, and lists if closed back or open back headphones are suitable.

ApplicationClosed Vs Open Back HeadphonesComments
Live RecordingClosed BackClosed back headphones will help to block out external noise.
Podcast RecordingClosed BackClosed back headphones have less audio escaping from them – you want to record voices, not audio leakage from headphones. Use closed back headphones while recording and in close proximity to microphones or your mic could pick up the faint sound of the audio coming from your headphones. 
Audiobook RecordingClosed BackMany vocal artists will wear headphones whilst recording audiobooks to hear their voice intimately. Ideally, these should be closed back to reduce the possibility of the headphone audio leaking onto your audiobook recording. 
General Audio RecordingClosed BackFor all audio recording, anyone close to a microphone should be wearing closed-back headphones to prevent audio leakage from the headphones and unwanted noise on your recording.
Sound Editing & MonitoringOpen BackEither type can be used. Personally, I recommend open back to allow more “air” into the sound and a better representation of how the audio will sound when played through a speaker. 
Music MixingOpen Back Both work, but I recommend open back as I find these play back audio in a way that is truer to how it would sound when played through a loudspeaker. You can also get a better bass extension with some open back headphones. 
Game StreamerOpen or Closed BackOpen or closed back will work for game streaming. If you are recording your stream and your headphones are close to your microphone, using closed-back headphones to prevent your headphone audio from leaking onto your recording and creating noise can be a good thing. That said, comfort is key when gaming and many find open back headphones more comfortable as there is less pressure on the ear and also the greater airflow makes them less sweaty for wearing over long periods of time. 
This Table Shows Closed Vs Open Back headphone Applications

Are Closed Or Open Headphones Better?

The answer to this question is not a simple one, as it depends on a variety of factors, including the type of music you listen to and your individual listening preferences.

Generally, closed back headphones are better for blocking out external noise and provide a more focused listening experience. This can be helpful when you’re trying to focus on your music in a noisy environment, such as on a busy street or on a packed train.

In addition, closed back headphones are essential for recording audio. If you are recording with open back headphones too close to the microphone, you will get audio leakage. Closed back headphones while recording will reduce this.

Open back headphones, on the other hand, offer a more spacious and natural soundscape, which can be ideal for classical or jazz music. They also tend to be more comfortable for long-term listening, as they don’t create the same level of heat and pressure build-up as closed back headphones.

Ultimately, the best type of headphones for you depends on your own individual needs and preferences.

Do Open Back Headphones Really Sound Better?

The answer to this question is subjective, as everyone’s ears are different and will respond differently to different sounds. However, many people believe that open back headphones have a better sound quality than closed back headphones.

This is because the sound can escape from the headphones and into the surrounding environment, which gives you a more natural and realistic sound experience.

With closed back headphones, all of the sound is trapped within the headphones, which can create a more artificial and enclosed sound experience.

From my many years of experience mixing and mastering audio with headphones, there is no doubt in my mind that open-back headphones really sound better. I have found that with closed back headphones; the audio feels forced and creates unnatural pressure on the ear, which does not match a natural listening environment.

If it is sound quality you are after, then open back headphones will work really well.

Final Thoughts

In choosing between open and closed back headphones, there are a few factors to consider. Depending on your needs and preferences, one type of headphone may be better than the other.

Open back headphones offer a more natural soundscape and are more comfortable for long-term listening, while closed back headphones block out external noise and are essential for recording audio.

Ultimately, the best type of headphones for you depends on your individual needs and preferences, however using the right type of headphones for the job will make your listening experience so much better.

Happy listening!

Engineer Your Sound

We love all things audio, from speaker design, acoustics to digital signal processing. If it makes noise, we are passionate about it.

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