Whether you’re a music fanatic whose ears are constantly occupied with sweet sounds of your favorite tunes, or a professional sound engineer/DJ with high standards, choosing the right headphones can be a mind-boggling experience. Especially today in the 21st century when there are literally thousands of manufacturers, each offering a different set of headphones in various shapes and sizes. But let’s say that you’ve narrowed the list down to circumaural (over the-ear) headphones that are generally divided in two categories – open-back and closed-back, yet you still need can’t decide which will better suit your needs. Well, look no further, because this article is written with a sole purpose of helping an indecisive buyer.
What are open-back headphones?
Any set of over-the-ear headphones with perforations (or “grills”, as they call them in the trade) which allow the sound and air to flow freely in and out of the headphones cup, are
considered open-back headphones. This way the headphone sound is always mixing with other sounds in your surrounding, which may not seem like a good idea to someone who’s used to over-the-ear or in-ear headphones, but it’s actually a pretty neat addition while listening to rock bands jamming and similar live recordings.
Open-back headphones give you that special effect of being aware of your environment,
while at the same time make you feel like you’re in a front row seat at a concert; the sound is
wider, deeper and feels more “alive”, yet it keeps you present in “the real world”. This effect is
known as “soundstage sensation” and is highly appreciated by music lovers. And that’s exactly
what makes open-back headphones great – they are designed to give you the goosebumps
each time you listen to your favorite artists. Also, the mentioned perforations on open-back
headphones will allow your ears to breathe at all times, so there won’t be unnecessary
moisture buildup inside the ear cups.
Obviously, the sound is leaking from open-back headphones wherever you are, which
can be inappropriate and very annoying in quiet environment such as library, public
transportation, waiting room etc., especially if you like listening to music at full blast. Also,
open-back headphones allow you to hear almost everything from your external environment,
meaning unwanted city noise, barking dogs, nervous taxi drivers and so on. This is yet another
reason why open-back headphones are ideal for private spaces, where you can fully enjoy the
open sound of your favorite band, far from anyone who may be annoyed by it. The questions is:
are open-back headphones what you really need? Ask yourself how important is the “soundstage” effect to you and how often will you be able to use such sound-leaking piece of
What about closed-back headphones?
These are headphones whose physical structure and design allow your ears to be covered by an insulated plastic shell, and therefore isolated from all external noise. Sounds great, right? And it is, because closed-back headphones provide around 10 dB of noise reduction, meaning you won’t hear a thing from the outside world while listening to your favorite music.
The noise isolation effect is dampening the environmental sounds, pushing the music to
the front and making you feel like the band is playing inside your head, just for you. This way
you can hear every single sound like the band’s producer intended, minus all the unwanted
noise from your environment. Unlike open-back headphones, nobody can hear what you’re
listening to either, and that makes closed-back headphones ideal for (sometimes rare)
moments of solitude, no matter where you are. Noisy, crowded places such as airports, city
streets, or even factories won’t bother your ears whenever you put your closed-back
headphones on. Especially if the model you’re using has active-noise-cancelling technology, but
that’s a whole different article. Also, closed-back headphones are excellent choice for
professional sound designers and engineers doing studio work or recording live performances,
because they can really focus on technical aspects of the music.
Sometimes too much noise isolation can be dangerous, especially when you need to be
careful and aware of your surrounding (e.g. while driving, crossing the street, operating heavy
machinery). Being completely cut off from the outside world is usually not a good idea in urban
environment, and it’s always better to balance the volume of music you’re listening to with
external sounds. In comparison to open-back headphones, there’s no “stage sound” effect and
the music might even become overwhelming and too loud. Depending on design
characteristics, the closed-back headphones’ enclosure might warp the sound, which is why
most manufacturers have to use anti-resonant materials (usually not the case with top rated,
expensive models on the market).
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons why you should choose both types of
headphones depending on your needs and personal taste. But if we take long-term hearing
health into consideration, closed-back headphones seem to be a much wiser choice. Why?
Because 85 decibels is the world wide ceiling level considered to be safe for hearing, and
everything above it may cause permanent damage to your ears. Open-back headphones and
their leaking sound can make you crank the music while trying to mask the environment, which
can obviously lead to long term hearing damage. Needless to say, closed-back headphones by
design wouldn’t let this happen to you, as their insulated plastic shell isolates environmental
noise and prevents sound from leaking.
Either way, choosing the right headphones can help to make mixing and editing audio
more accurate, as well as listening to music much more enjoyable. Don’t be surprised if you end
up buying different sets of headphones for different purposes. That may the best solution after
all, because this way you can choose what you really need for every occasion. And don’t worry
about the prices either; good, reliable open and closed-back headphones can be bought for as
little as $40. From our personal experience, some of the major brands with affordable
headphones you should keep an eye on are definitely Shure and Sennheiser. But first, try visiting
a local audio shop whose friendly salesman will let you try a couple of models before you
choose your perfect fit.