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.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on June 15, 2021, to update technical information.

What are open-back headphones?

A close-up of the Philips Fidelio X2 open-back, over-ear headphones ear cups and grill.

Headphones with velour ear pads play nicely with glasses.

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.

Start here: Ultimate headphone buying guide

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. 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 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:

Open-back headphones are not good for:

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

What are closed-back headphones?

The Sennheiser HD 350BT next to the Sennheiser HD 450BT Bluetooth headphones to illustrate how similar the two headphones are to one another.

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, yielding much better isolation.

Low frequencies can sound amplified, or “bumped-up,” and won’t sound as natural due to the resonance of the sealed rear chamber. 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 more noise.

Closed-back headphones are good for:

Closed-back headphones are not good for:

What are semi-open-back headphones?

A woman wears the Koss Porta Pro semi-open headphones worn by a woman.

The Koss Porta Pro are semi-open headphones that have been around for decades.

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.

You might also like: Studio headphones: Why you should get a pair

Frequently Asked Questions

Are open back headphones better for mixing?

Yes, generally speaking open back headphones do have a more accurate sound 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.