Over-ear headphones come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they can primarily be broken down into just two types: open or closed. Whether a pair of over-ears are open or closed isn’t always immediately apparent to the eye, but essentially it comes down to their structure and the resulting effect on performance.
Closed-back is undoubtedly the most common type, with virtually all wireless over-ear headphones being closed, and most wired over-ear headphones also opting for a closed-back design. Open-backs are less common and are mainly found in wired headphones (although Grado, king of open-back headphones, has uniquely applied the design to its GW100x wireless headphones).
Although headphone manufacturers produce open and closed headphones in different quality levels, in our experience the fundamental differences between open and closed designs are obvious…
Open-back headphones win in terms of sound and comfort
Open-back headphones have no enclosure behind the drivers, meaning sound is fired both to and from the listener’s ears. Therefore, if you’re sitting next to someone using open-back headphones, chances are you’ll be able to hear their music without any problem, albeit in a thin and jittery tone. You would hear the sound being shot out of the listener’s ears and out of the ear cups of the headphones (which often have holes for that sound to escape through).
It also goes the other way, with outside sounds interfering with the listening experience. With this kind of design, there’s little isolation from the environment and you can hear pretty much everything that’s going on around you. Do you want to enjoy open-back headphones on the bus, train or plane? Good luck. These are definitely headphones better suited to the quiet privacy of your own home, where noisy distractions are – we hope – limited.
Why do some manufacturers continue to make such designs? Well, there are some really important benefits when it comes to sound quality. The lack of a housing behind the drive unit means that the back-firing sound can escape freely.
In a closed design, this sonic energy would be trapped and create resonances in the enclosure, causing unwanted noise. This is noise you don’t want and it overlaps that of the drive unit. The result is a loss of clarity, transparency and resolution. Also, there’s a good chance that any sound bouncing around in that closed enclosure could come back out through the drive unit’s diaphragm and add to the output – again, detrimental to sound quality.
It doesn’t stop there either. The inherent bounce in the trapped air behind the driver can limit diaphragm movement during longer excursions, which would affect the way the headphones reproduce music and limit performance at higher volume levels.
When it comes to pure sound quality, open-back designs have most of them…but not all. All things being equal, closed-backs tend to have the punchier, more muscular bass. As a result, they usually sound heavier and more substantial, and possibly even more exciting. Sure, as a breed they come second in terms of outright transparency, detail resolution and dynamic expression, but as the Beyerdynamic DT 700 Pro X and Sennheiser HD820 prove, it’s still possible to get great performance if you throw enough. technical know-how in the problems.
Comfort can also be aided by an open design. Ears get less warm during longer listening sessions, while the lack of housing offers the potential for lighter weight. Great examples of open design are the Focal Clear Mg and Grado SR325x, both of which are on our list of the best over-ear headphones.
Closed-back headphones are more practical
Move away from sound quality to more practical considerations, and closed-back designs pile on the pluses. Such headphones are better able to isolate the listener from outside distractions and make it possible to sit with someone in the same room without disturbing them.
When you’re on the go, closed back is the only good way to go, and adding wireless and noise canceling technologies just increases their advantage in this context. Wireless functionality and open-back designs simply don’t go hand in hand.
Take into account the typically greater sonic muscularity and it’s no wonder that such designs are becoming the obvious choice for most people in this increasingly mobile world.
Closed-back vs open-back: which one should you choose?
The answer is not simple or even the same for everyone. If you’re looking for the last word in sound quality and want over-ear headphones for the home with your desktop or hi-fi system, the open route is the way to go. You get a more insightful, clearer sound overall.
But when real life creeps in and your needs relate to domestic harmony or on-the-go, less-than-quiet listening environments, you really only have one option: the practicality of a closed-back design will win every time.
Whichever design you choose, both feature heavily in our list of the best over-ear headphones, so be sure to check out our expert picks – all tried and tested by our dedicated review team – before you buy.
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