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Open back vs closed back headphones: Which is right for you?

We take a look at open back vs closed back vs semi-open headphones and what they're good for.
By
December 21, 2022
Comparing the Audio-Technica ATH-GL3 (Closed Back) and Audio-Technica ATH-GDL3 (Open Back).
Austin Kwok / SoundGuys

Sifting through audio reviews can seem a little daunting if you’re not up on all the lingo needed to make heads or tails of what we’re talking about. However, knowledge is power—especially if you’re spending a bunch of cash on a set of cans that you want to use every day. One of these terms is open-back versus closed-back headphones. In this article we’ll look at reasons why you’d buy one type of headphone over the other.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on December 21, 2022, to update technical information.

What are open-back headphones?

The Sennheiser HD 660S shown held in one hand.
42mm transducers are visible through the HD 660S’ steel mesh.

Open-back headphones allow air to pass through their ear cups from the rear of the speaker driver. This means that resonances and low-frequency build-up caused by the rear enclosure aren’t a concern. Many expensive high-end headphones have open-backs because it allows them to sound more natural and clear, giving the best possible presentation of your source material. But that’s really only the case when there’s no ambient noise. Because open-back headphones can’t block outside noise at all well, you’ll hear everything going on around you.

On top of that, they also leak sound out. They have very little to offer in terms of isolation. So if you work in an office, your coworkers will be able to hear what you’re listening to, and you’ll be able to hear them complaining about your taste in music. While they may sound fantastic, you’re going to want to leave open back headphones at home. Additionally, open-backed headphones tend to be a little more fragile than closed-back headphones because there’s less to stand in the way of moisture and other debris getting into the sensitive internal components. These headphones need to be treated with care.

Open-back headphones are good for:

Open-back headphones are not good for:

  • Commuting
  • Blocking outside noise
  • Listening on your commute or whilst traveling
  • Listening at the office
  • Listening at the gym
  • Using as monitors when recording with microphones

What are closed-back headphones?

A set of Beyerdynamic DT 700 Pro X rests on a white window sill.
These Beyerdynamic DT 700 Pro X are closed-back headphones, which block outside noise well.

Closed-back headphones are headphones that are completely sealed around the back of the ear cups, only allowing sound out only where it can reach your ear. This means that while your music might not be quite as natural-sounding as it would on an open-back set of headphones, closed-back headphones will block out a lot more outside noise, yielding much better isolation.

Low frequencies (bass) can sound a little more emphasized, or “bumped-up,” and won’t sound as natural due to the inherent resonances of the sealed rear air volume. Another consideration is that sometimes wearing closed-back headphones for long periods of time can make your ears a bit warm. But, on the whole, these are the best choice for commuting or listening to music in places where you’re in public.

If you’re going to be on an airplane, subway train, or in a car every day, you want closed-back headphones for your trip. Additionally, if you’re recording music in a studio: closed-back headphones allow you to listen to yourself while you record without much danger of your mic picking up unwanted noise.

Closed-back headphones are good for:

Closed-back headphones are not good for:

What are semi-open-back headphones?

A photo of the AKG K240 Studio semi-open headphones with the left ear cup in focus.
A semi-open design like the AKG K240 creates a more natural listening experience.

Semi-open-back headphones are headphones that are more or less closed-back but don’t completely seal the rear of the speaker elements, allowing the passage of some air in and out of the chamber. While this does allow the headphones to have some of the advantages of open-back headphones, they will have all of their disadvantages as well. Semi-open-backed headphones will leak sound and let noise in, though not as much as open-back headphones.

Semi-open-back headphones are good for:

  • Casual listening
  • Listening at home

Semi-open headphones are not good for:

  • Commuting
  • Listening at the office
  • Blocking outside noise

As you might have noticed, one type of headset isn’t inherently better than the other. However, certain designs are better suited for certain situations.

Frequently asked questions

Yes, generally speaking open back headphones can offer more accuracy in some respects than closed back, but it doesn’t guarantee they all have the kind of neutral response that’s best for mixing. Check out our article on studio headphones for more details.