The Good, The Bad And The Fidelity
The main difference between the two lies in the ventilation of the headphone’s drivers.
A component inside the earpiece that converts electrical signals into sound.
Open back design:
Ventilation airways allow the passage of air to move freely around the driver.
Closed back design:
Drivers are not ventilated due to the backside of the ear cups being enclosed.
Impacts the overall sense of presentation in ways that will matter to you and to those around you.
- Moon-Audio founder and chief engineer, Drew Baird, recommends the Top 3 Closed Back and Open Back headphones for audiophiles at the bottom of this page.
- For a more concise briefing on the differences between closed back and open headphones, head over to our blog for a more skim-able version.
- And if you're a music lover who's searching for even more resources on the basics of high fidelity audio, don't miss out on Hi-Fi Basics at the official Moon Audio Resource Center. Our Resource Center has everything you need to know about high-end audio.
Which Headphones Are Best For Me?
A Most Critcal Investment
For true audiophiles, headphones are never just headphones. Choosing the right audiophile headphone is personal. It’s also the most important investment a music lover can make when upgrading the listening session. When wagering between closed back or open headphones, there are some important questions to answer, first.
What Are The Benefits?
- What are the benefits when purchasing headphones?
- What are the benefits of closed back headphones?
- Can headphones sound as good as speakers?
- Are open headphones better than closed?
- Why are closed back headphones beneficial?
What Are The Ergonomics?
- Can others hear open back headphones?
- Do all over the ear headphones leak sound?
- Which headphones are better for listening at home?
- Is there a type of headphone better suited for the office?
- Which headphones are better for portable audio on the go?
What Are The Trade-Offs?
- Are open back or closed back headphones better?
- Should I get open or closed headphones?
- Why open back headphones are better?
- Why do open back headphones sound better?
- What to look for when buying closed back headphones?
- Can each have a different sense of presentation and what does this offer you as the listener?
Choose the right headphone, and your listening pleasure will progress from casual listening and into the new world of musical details that delight your senses and catapult the discovery of your music collection as though it's the very first time. Choose the wrong headphone, and you might be wondering why everyone in the office suddenly knows your deep dark Bieber-fever secret. Gamers will definitely want to check out the official Moon Audio guide on Headphones for Gaming. In that guide, gamers will get the best audio advice on how to improve the immersive experience of gaming through headphones.
So, let’s dive in! This guide has all the juicy details on open vs closed headphones: the Good, the Bad, and the Fidelity!
What is the Physical Difference Between Open and Closed Back?
Can You Hear the Difference?
A great way to compare the differences in presentation between the two design types is by A/B testing a closed-back and an open-back headphone for yourself. Two excellent options for comparison are the Utopia and the Stellia headphones by Focal. The Focal Utopia headphone is the company’s open back top of the line, whereas the Focal Stellia is the top of the line closed back headphone.
The Utopia and Stellia both utilize almost identical dynamic drivers. So, the two Focal headphones make excellent references to clearly hear the difference between open back and closed back headphone types.
Another popular option amongst audiophiles and the perfect entry point for any music lover is the open back and closed back versions of the AEON Flow by MrSpeakers. Both headphones are compact and affordable headphones for on the go listening and they are easy to travel with as well. Both are planar magnetic driver headphones designed and built in San Diego, CA and at the under $1000 price point, they are hard to beat in performance and value.
Headphone Drivers: Open cs. Closed
The main difference between closed back and open back headphones lies in the enclosure of the headphone’s drivers. A driver is a component inside of each earpiece of the headphone that converts an electrical signal into sound through vibrations.
In an open back design, ventilation airways allow the free passage of air to vibrate freely around the driver.
In a closed back headphone design, the drivers are not ventilated (more on this later). This seems simple enough in principle, but as we’ll see later, each design impacts the overall sense of presentation you experience in ways that will matter to you and to those around you.
Drivers: The Presentation of Sound
What's a sense of presentation?
According to Drew Baird, founder of Moon Audio and the lead engineer behind Dragon audio cables for audiophile quality headphones, a sense of presentation is the way a sound is oriented or presented to the listener. It affects the way listeners perceive the locale of a sound’s source and provides a sense of where the sound is being produced.
Generally speaking, human hearing is optimized to be more attentive to sounds that are produced directly in front of our faces. This characteristic of human hearing probably evolved from our tribal heritage and the importance that communication has had on human survival. This characteristic has a big impact on the sense of presentation we perceive when engaging with sounds oriented in three-dimensional space.
Whatever reasons humans perceive sound the way we do, the point is, not all headphones are designed to take this specialized characteristic into account. What sets many of the best headphones for audiophiles apart from average consumer headphones is in the way audiophile grade headphones are designed to take advantage of how humans hear and articulate a sound’s location.
For example, some of the best audiophile headphones like the Sennheiser HD800S are geometrically designed to align the ear cups at angles that direct sound toward the ear canals. The unique contours of the human cranium can consequently make certain headphones a better fit than other headphones for audiophiles of varying head shapes and sizes. If the angular geometry of the headphone is “off,” and it does not align with an audiophile’s unique head and ear geometry, this can impact the headphone’s sealing condition, and cause the sound to leak out. When this occurs, the headphone’s awesome sense of presentation may be compromised, entirely.
A Headphone's Unique Sense of Presentation
We can articulate a headphone’s sense of presentation more tangibly by thinking of the way we listen to stereo loudspeakers. Due to all the variables affecting human hearing, it's technically incorrect to say that headphones precisely emulate the sense of presentation that a set of stereo loudspeakers provide in three dimensions.
But, when discussing a sense of presentation achieved through headphones, we can use the analogy to facilitate a deeper appreciation for the stereo image as a concept. Using this analogy allows us to compare loudspeakers with the special sense of stereo presentation that headphones have become so famous for ever since the first stereo headphone was introduced in 1958.
Imagine you’re seated in an armchair directly across a loudspeaker system. Your head is positioned at just the right orientation, centered between the loudspeakers as you sit in the armchair enjoying the music’s stereo image. Based on the position from where you sit, the loudspeaker’s stereo image is presented in the “sweet spot.”
However, when you rise from your armchair to retrieve a glass of single-malt scotch from the wet bar behind you, the sense of presentation you perceive is impacted as you walk farther away from the loudspeakers.
Depending on the number of drivers and the way the loudspeakers are angled, walking away from the loudspeakers changes the “height,” “width” and “depth” in the stereo field that your ears perceive. As you change your orientation and walk toward the wet bar (away from the stereo field) this imparts a greater sense of stereo “depth” that your ears can sense, spatially. Of course, you perceive the change in “depth” as sounding “farther” away. But when you return back to your seat in the armchair, the stereo width-to-depth ratio is restored back to that glorious equilibrium “sweet spot.”
This principle might seem obvious, but what’s less apparent is that headphones (closed back or open back) allow the audiophile more portable control over a fixed sense of presentation. The stereo image is always presented to your ears in a musically “sweet spot” that never changes regardless of any change in your mobility. The stereo field follows you wherever you and your head may roam.
Ultimately, since different audiophile headphones offer unique sound signatures, this is what makes choosing a headphone such an important and personal decision for not just audiophiles, but for anyone who loves music. If you’ve decided that you’re an audiophile, or if you’re a music lover whose serious about great sounding music, then this is the number one reason why you need to upgrade your headphones.
This principle might seem obvious, but what’s less apparent is that headphones (closed back or open back) allow audiophiles more portable control over a fixed sense of presentation. The stereo image is always presented to your ears in the musically "sweet spot" that never changes regardless of any change in your mobility. The stereo field follows you where ever you and your head may roam.
The next step in your audiophile journey, then, is deciding which headphone design to start with first. We're here to help with that.
Open Headphones: How to Choose a Pair
What are Open Back Headphones?
As mentioned earlier, ventilation airways or grills allow the free passage of air around the dynamic, planar magnetic, or electrostatic drivers. But what does this actually mean for you? Typically, open back headphones offer a more open, natural and a wider sense of presentation, but with some compromises. First, the good.
- Reduced ear fatigue
- Better comfort over longer listening sessions
- Lighter weight design thanks to fewer materials
- Allows ventilation for the ears to “breath” thanks to the omission of outer cups
Best for Certain Situations
- Best for at home listening
- Best used when you don't mind being interrupted
- Great when you want to maintain awareness of background noise
More Driver Options
- Dynamic drivers
- Electrostatic drivers
- Planar magnetic drivers
- These drivers are more established and mature
- Not a good portable option to travel with
- Being made of lighter materials means they could be more prone to accidental damage
Fewer Ergonomic Uses
- Best used at home
- Not good for blocking out background noises
- Not a good option for commuting on the train, or plane
- Not a good choice for use at work around other people
Less Bass Impact
- Not the preferred choice for bass-driven music genres
- Escapism has a more “live” soundstage
- The best option for critical listening sessions
- A more open, natural and wider sense of presentation
The Sense of Presentation:
"A more open natural sound as though the music is all around me. Escapism feels more 'alive.' The immersive experience is a feeling of being completely surrounded by the music. Transients are wonderfully outside of my head in a way that makes me want to dance with the music. It’s a liberating sense of presentation and an openness that makes me want to dance along with exceptional enthusiasm."
Open headphones offer a much more open, natural and wider sense of presentation. The more natural sense of spatial equilibrium experienced when listening to a great loudspeaker system is essentially what an open back headphone simulates. And while open headphones offer a totally separate listening experience from that of loudspeakers, open back headphones perform the job much better than their closed back brother.
The sound of a moving driver pushing sound waves around in the air freely has a certain “width” in the presentation’s signature. This is why open back headphones are most audiophiles’ preferred choice. Of course, there are comprises to consider too, but the compromises are worth the investment if you are serious about your music. For some popular choices in open-back headphones, great examples to check out are the MrSpeakers AEON Flow and the HiFiMan HE1000 V2 headphones.
POPULAR OPEN BACK HEADPHONES FOR AUDIOPHILES
Closed Headphones Expained in Detail
What are Closed Back Headphones?
In a closed back design, the backside of the ear cup on the headphone is covered. Essentially, this locks in sound and focuses it back onto the listener.
- The best option to study with
- Best when you don't want to be disturbed
- Best when you want the most focused listening session
More Ergonomic Uses
- Best for commuting
- Best portable option to travel with
- Best when you can afford not to be disturbed
- Great for office use when you want to block out background noise
Greater Bass Impact
- An excellent choice for bass heavy music genres
- Little to no ventilation
- Can cause sweat around the ears to build up
- Can cause ear fatigue over prolonged listening sessions
Fewer Driver Options
- Dynamic drivers are one of the only options
- While more driver types are becoming available, the technology is less mature than in open back headphones
The 'In Your Head' Sound
- Escapism is incredibly immersive
- Centrally located sense of presentation
- A slightly less musical sense of presentation.
- More isolating and introspective sound signature
The Sense of Presentation
"A more focused 'in your head' presentation. Escapism feels more 'cerebral.' The immersive experience is a feeling of being completely 'introspective,' and inside of the music, or rather like the entire mid range of the music is inside of my head. Transients of the rhythm section are snappier, and more detailed, making my head nod almost involuntarily to the music's pulse.
This is the idealized immersive sense of presentation I imagine when I think of a melody inside of my head. This must be what it's like when an artist's muse allows the inner composer to 'hear' the music before the music is even composed."
Audiophiles might describe a sense of presentation that’s “taller" in "height” and more centered. This is due in part to the more narrow focus created by isolating the drivers inside of closed-back headphones, and the way the human ear perceives the volume of lower frequency content as being both louder and closer.
Focusing the direction of the music’s frequency content back to the listener's ears, and isolating it from leaking out, creates the most centrally oriented presentation available. Of course, there are comprises to consider with closed headphones too. But, the compromises are worth the investment if you are serious about mobility, and bringing your music into even more ergonomic situations. A fantastic example of one of the most popular closed-back headphones ever made is the Fostex TH900 MK2 Premium Reference headphone. But for music lovers just getting started, we recommend the MrSpeakers AEON Flow closed-back as the perfect entry-point for music lovers to dive in and begin training their ears.
POPULAR CLOSED BACK HEADPHONES FOR AUDIOPHILES
Which Headphone Style is Right for You?
As we've seen, there are pros and cons for each headphone style. The next step in making a final decision is choosing the headphone that fits best within the ergonomic scenarios in your life. To learn more about the benefits of choosing a headphone style that's right for you, read the Essential Guide to Headphones that Fit Your Lifestyle.
Since music is more mobile than ever before, many audiophiles incorporate both styles of headphones into their lifestyles. For example, leaving the lighter and more fragile open back headphones at home where they are safe is the best way to listen to your music for the best results. On the other hand, pack up a great pair of closed back headphones to achieve the best sound possible when commuting. Having both designs gives music lovers access to the best of both worlds!
Take the Next Step
At Moon Audio, we're music lovers and audiophiles too! Since we design the cable connections between your music and your heart, our expertise directly transfers to headphones as well. To help you take the next step, we created the Moon Audio Headphone Connection Guide so you can take your music to the next level. Using this guide, you too can begin hacking the cable connections between your headphones and your music.
To get you up and running quickly, Moon Audio's own Drew Baird curated a list of his top 3 closed back and open back headphones. Check it out below and find your own path to audiophile nirvana!