Open Back Vs Closed Back Headphones – Understanding the Differences

In the world of audio, listeners with a higher budget tend to prefer gear of a certain kind. Speakers are important for Hi-Fi audio systems but most audiophiles like headphones, for a couple of reasons. Whether the privacy or the intimacy of the listening experience, headphones can make a good song or even video game sound better.

While affordable headphones can do some miracles if you get the right pair and have a decent DAC and amp, mid-range headphones often have a huge difference in sound quality.

Another feature that affects the sound quality and presentation immensely is whether the headphones are open back or closed back. There are plenty of open back vs closed-back headphones debates, yet examining their general features and tendencies in sound presentation will give us a better understanding of them.


What makes them different is the way the ear cups are designed. Open-back headphones have an open or semi-open design, while closed-back headphones are completely closed. Semi-open headphones are still open, but to a lesser degree, isolating more and leaking less noise. These differences are emphasized in sound presentation, namely the soundstage. The open-back variants are considered to have a wider soundstage.

A sound stage is how far the instruments seem one from another when you are listening to a song. A narrow soundstage will make it seem like they are all close to one another, while a wider one will give you a listening experience more akin to speakers.

The Benefits of Each Design

Open headphones do a couple of things amazing. They often have a wide soundstage which is preferred in a set of headphones. Since they are open, they allow sound to leak, which is much better for long-term usage. Another benefit of the open design is that they sound more natural and will be more similar to what you would experience if you were to listen to speakers or a concert.

grado open headphones side view

Closed-back headphones give you great sound isolation by nature. You cannot hear noise from the outside world and even more importantly, the world will not be able to hear what you are listening to. Closed-back headphones tend to emphasize the bass a bit more, since sound can bounce back off the cups. The material of the cups also has an effect on the sound.

The Flaws

Like the benefits, every design has its flaws. No device can do everything perfectly and the same is applicable for open and closed-back headphones.

Open-back headphones leak a lot of sound. If someone is in the room with you, they will be able to hear everything you are listening to. If you are outside, this can be even more annoying for the people around you, particularly in a cafe or a library. Open-back headphones will also allow a lot of noise to come in, simply because they are not closed.

Closed-back headphones have other issues, such as being too tiring to listen to for a long time. All those frequencies bouncing back can be difficult to tame and make into a pleasant listening experience. The sound stage of closed-back headphones is not as good as the open-back ones, most of the time. They also produce more heat due to their closed design.

Open Back Vs Closed Headphones for Gaming

Gaming is a special use case where the type of headphones you use should most likely have a wide soundstage and good stereo imaging. Stereo imaging is where the sounds are placed when you are listening, for example, behind you, to your left and forward, above you, etc. The wider soundstage allows better placement of footsteps and gunshots, for example.

One of the ways to make your gaming headphones sound better is to get a pair with amazing stereo imaging. Open-back headphones tend to be by design wider in terms of the soundstage. The stereo imaging part can be great on both open-back and closed-back headphones. Notably, the Audio Technica A2000Z headphones are closed-back, but their soundstage is really wide, which is uncommon for closed-back headphones.

Gaming headphones often have a microphone attached, making them easier to use as an all-in-one solution. In this case, they are called a headset. The model below is a closed-back design with both a detachable cable and microphone, essentially making it a headphone/headset combination.

closed headphones example

Gaming headphones should also emphasize the highs more than anything else, especially if one is playing shooter games, where the footsteps and gunshot noises may mean winning or losing if you hear them on time.

Audiophile and Studio Professional Preferences

Audiophiles often use open-back headphones, though they will have closed-back models, because some simply sound amazing. Studio professionals have both types, as long as they are reference, meaning that they sound very flat and reproduce the sound as close as possible to its recording.

For the average user, a closed-back design is more practical if the headphones are to be used outdoors. Open-back headphones are much better indoors where there is not a lot of sound pollution.

Conclusion and Summary – Which Ones Are Better for You?

Open-back headphones typically have a wider soundstage and they allow more noise to come in and leak what they are playing. They are also more comfortable for longer listening sessions. Closed-back headphones typically have a narrower soundstage and they isolate very well, both you and the outside world. Closed headphones can be more tiring because the sound reflects off the cups, but that can be remedied by a better headphone design.

Gamers should go with open-back headphones if they do not live in a noise-polluted environment. A good closed-back set can be just as good for gaming, albeit rarer. Professionals and audiophiles can find a use for both types. Try both types out and see which one fits your use case best.

About The Author

Milan Zagorac

Milan has always been interested in writing and technology, but managed to pick up a love for music, literature and sports along the way. Essentially a jack of all trades, his interest in all things tech as well as love for the written word, keeps him well occupied.

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