Audio nerds like to brag about their big, fancy, open-backed headphones. And hey, it turns out that they’re worth bragging about. Open-backed headphones sound fantastic, and while they aren’t that portable, they may be worth staying at home for.
Update, 8/12/21: Added Table of Contents and checked text for accuracy.
Physically, the difference between open-back and closed-back headphones is pretty straightforward. Close-back headphones look “normal” and create a barrier between your ears from the outside world. Open-backed headphones, on the other hand, look like they’re full of holes and don’t shield your ears from your surroundings. But who cares about looks? Why do these headphones sound different from one another?
Fans of open-backed headphones will tell you that they sound substantially better than closed-back headphones. That’s cool, but it’s just an opinion. Sound quality is a matter of taste, so instead of telling you what type of headphones I prefer, I’m just going to describe how open and closed-back headphones sound different.
Typical closed-backed headphones create a seal over your ears. You can hear the effect of this seal by throwing on a pair of cans without playing any music. It sounds echoey like the ocean, or like a conch shell, right? This closed echoey environment affects the sound of your music, creating a tone that some people describe as “muffled.” But could also say that the sound is “close-up,” “dark,” or “in your face.”
Open-back headphones don’t create a seal over your ears. Instead, they let sound leak out. As you might expect, the result is that music sounds less “muffled” and more “clear.” Additionally, open-backed headphones provide a better sense of dynamics and stereo imaging than closed-back headphones. Sounds aren’t echoing within the cans, so it’s easier to distinguish between loud and quiet, left and right.
People often compare the sound of open-backed headphones to the sound of freestanding speakers or studio monitors. The comparison isn’t entirely accurate, as headphones don’t allow you to hear music bounce around a room, and they prevent any bleed (or “crossfeed”) between the left and right audio channels. But, like freestanding speakers, open-backed headphones allow you to hear your surroundings, like the sound of typing, talking, or slamming doors. And for many people, that’s a total deal-breaker.
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Open-backed headphones are famous for their use in studios. Musicians like open-backed headphones because of the increased dynamic range, which is useful when recording instruments or mixing music without a full-sized speaker. And because open-backed headphones allow you to hear your surroundings, they make it easier for some musicians to stay in the zone.
But you rarely see people wearing open-backed headphones out in public because there isn’t a plastic barrier to keep sound from leaking in or out. If you wear a pair of open-backs on an airplane, you’ll piss off everyone around you because they’ll be able to hear what you’re listening to. Plus, you’ll find yourself getting pretty pissed off because you’ll still be able to hear the drone of the engine and any baby that’s crying on the plane.
It goes without saying, but open-backed headphones can’t have Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) features. They’re also less durable than their closed-back counterparts. Rain and debris can slip in and damage the speaker hardware, which makes them a poor candidate for outdoor use or careless owners.
In short, if you need a pair of headphones to protect yourself from outside noises (or protect others from your music), then your money is best spent on a quality pair of closed-back headphones.
Audio-Technica ATH-R70x Professional Open-Back Reference Headphones
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If you’re interested in using headphones that have increased dynamics and stereo imaging, then a pair of open-backs is probably worth buying. They’re available in all price ranges, although Bluetooth options are few and far between.
Affordable open-backed headphones like the Audio-Technica AD700X or the Beyerdynamic DT-990 PRO offer a great entryway into the technology. If you’re on the fence, you could even buy the $150 semi-open AKG K240 MKII headphones, which have less sound bleed than typical open-backs.
More expensive options like the AKG K 702, the Sennheiser HD 600, Shure SRH1840, Monolith M1060, Audio-Tehnica R70X, or headphones from MassDrop will provide a better listening experience, and are fantastic options for professionals or audiophiles. And if you’re willing to shell out a fortune, then planar magnetic open-back headphones from brands like Audeze, HIFIMAN might be your best bet.
Just keep in mind that open-backed headphones aren’t great for privacy or travel. They’re great for when you’re sitting around at home alone or while working on music, but that’s about it.
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