Sifting through audio reviews can be a little daunting if you’re not up on all the lingo needed to make heads or tails of what we’re talking about. Considering just how complex personal audio can be, it’s not surprising that buzzwords and jargon can make your eyes gloss over a little bit. However, some of these things can’t be ignored—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. While the concept is simple, the reasons why you’d buy one type of headphone over the other is less so.

What are open back headphones?

Open back headphones allow air to pass through their ear cups to the speaker element. This means that pressure can’t build up and affect your sound, and there aren’t little echoes inside your headphones. Many expensive high-end headphones have open backs because it helps them sound more natural and clear.

But that’s really only the case when there’s no noise nearby. Because open back headphones can’t block outside noise that well, you’ll hear everything going on around you. On top of that, they also leak sound out. 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 these 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 getting into the sensitive electronics. These headphones need to be treated with care.

Open back headphones are good for:

  • Critical listening
  • High-quality audio files
  • At-home listening

Open back headphones are not good for:

  • Commuting
  • Blocking outside noise
  • Listening on the plane
  • Listening at the office

What are closed back headphones?

These are closed back headphones, which block outside noise well.

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

There may be nearly-imperceptible echoes in bass notes, and 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 more noise.

Closed back headphones are good for:

  • Casual listening
  • Listening at the office
  • Commuting
  • Recording/mixing audio

Closed back headphones are not good for:

  • Venting heat around your ears

What are semi-open back headphones?

Semi-open back headphones are headphones that are more or less closed-back, but don’t completely seal 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 the disadvantages of them 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

Hopefully this guide is helpful to you, and if you have any questions about audio jargon, be sure to drop us a line on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Next: Best headphones of 2019

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