We recently posted an article here at Speakergy about the best open-backed headphones, which talked about just how great they sound and that they can be considered the de facto choice of audiophiles, but we thought it would be interesting to exploring this idea a little more by getting into a comparison of some great open design and closed design headphones.
Specifically we want to ask (and hopefully answer) a few basic questions:
- What’s the difference between open back and closed back headphones?
- Which are better: open back or closed back headphones?
- Do open design headphones really sound better than closed design headphones?
- What are the best open back headphones on the market today?
- What are the best closed back headphones on the market today?
While most of us want the best possible sound we can get, and may assume that open design headphones really are the best, they aren’t always a viable choice – especially in certain situations. But are we really sacrificing sound quality for the sake of practicality by buying closed design ‘phones instead?
Let’s find out, as we compare open back and closed back headphones head-on – how they sound, how they feel, their advantages and disadvantages, and which is right for you.
What’s the Difference between Open-Back Headphones and Closed-Back Headphones?
You can usually tell the difference between open and closed headphones just by looking at them. Open-backed headphones have an open mesh or grill construction on the back of the ear cup – that is, the part that faces out, or away from your ears – and you can often look into them and see the headphone drivers and wiring. Closed-back headphones have solid cases all the way around and are only open on the inside of the cup, where the headphones point into the ears and the music comes out.
Sound Isolation: Open Backed vs Closed Back Headphones
And that is one of the main issues with open-backed headphones – that music comes out of both the side facing the ears and the side facing out, or the back. This “leaking” of sound can be pretty loud, especially when you’re listening at high volumes, but even if your music is soft it can still be easily heard by, and bother others. In the same way, outside sounds can also leak into the headphones, and can sometimes be a distraction if you are trying to listen intently. As a result, while audiophiles love open-backed headphones, they tend to use them in specific environments, like their listening room, or at times when their home is quieter.
Closed-back headphones, on the other hand, are usually great at sealing up the sound and isolating the listener, and can be used pretty much anywhere and at any time. Closed design ‘phones are the only really viable choice for the office, for commuting by bus, train or carpool, for noisy homes or other environments. Even without noise canceling, outside noise would have to be pretty loud for it to bother you while you’re listening, and with lots of closed ‘phones your music would have to be at or approaching dangerously loud volumes before it would bother those around you.
Sound Quality: Open Backed vs Closed Back Headphones
In addition to differences in physical build and sound isolation, the other main difference between closed and open design headphones is their sound. This may be a bit overstated in audiophile magazines and blogs, but there is nonetheless a marked difference between how the two types sound.
- Open-backed headphones have ease and openness to their sound that can make any music sound really beautiful and musical. They have a large soundstage which tends to be very specific and accurate and usually won’t sound compressed or distorted. They can also have a stronger sense of dynamics, with no internal pressure keeping them from quickly responding to transients or dynamic cues, and can handle even very large dynamic changes instantly, easily, and without constriction.
- Closed-back headphones can also have a wonderfully musical sound, but they don’t usually have the same relaxed and open sound as open designs. They do have, however, a kind of immediate quality to the sound, which can make them sometimes sound more energized and detailed, and more intimate as well, if again not as liquid or unhampered. Closed headphones generally play louder with less power, and can give you higher volumes even with phones and PCs.
As you can see, the choice is not quite as clear as some audio purists may think or claim it is. In terms of dynamics, for instance, a closed-back headphone can sound more dynamic and energetically exciting, while an open-backed headphone is actually faster, tighter and more accurate with musical dynamics – not as immediately exciting, perhaps, but for some listeners more satisfying over the long term.
The same is essentially true with resolution – the low distortion and unrestrained physical and sonic nature of open designs mean that they will actually resolve and reproduce more details from the original recording, but the more intimate and immediate sound of the closed designs may actually sound more detailed, and again initially at least more exciting.
Comfort: Open Backed vs Closed Back Headphones
Another main difference between closed and open headphones is comfort, but again this is not always clear-cut. The general consensus is that open designs are more comfortable – they put less pressure on your eardrums, and with air able to flow through them they are cooler for long listening sessions. Still, while open-backed ‘phones are usually more comfortable, closed-back headphones are often designed to be as wearable as possible.
Durability: Open Backed vs Closed Back Headphones
The last thing we should mention is that open-backed headphones are a little more exposed to the elements, and you should really be careful taking them outside, or just avoid it altogether. Sun, dust and water can easily reach the delicate inner workings, especially the sound driver, and cause problems. With closed-back headphones this is much less of a concern – they are, of course, not impervious to environmental dangers, but are much better for outdoor use.
That said, if you get a really well made, high quality pair of headphones of either type, and take care of them properly, they should last and provide great listening enjoyment for many years.
Which Should You Get – Open Back or Closed Back Headphones?
Whether a closed or open design headphone is best for you really comes down to your listening preferences and habits.
Closed Back Headphones are better for:
- Commuting & Public Transportation
- Working in an Office
- Listening in Public Places
- Using Outdoors
- Loud Environments and Busy Homes
- Anywhere where Your Music may Bother Others
- Private Listening (if, for example, you don’t want others to discover that you’re really a Britney Spears fan)
Open Back Headphones are better for:
- Listening at Home
- Using Indoors
- Quiet Environments and Dedicated Listening Rooms
- Serious, Concentrated Listening
- Very High Resolution Stereo Equipment and Sound Files
We should be very careful about those last couple of points, though – we still tend to think of open headphones as being ideal for audiophiles, and just sounding “better” overall, and yet the best-closed designs – at any price – can also have superb sound quality, and are good enough for any audiophile, any associated equipment and any quality of music files. Either type can be equally good for any type of music as well, though closed designs do tend to be used more for rock and pop, rap and hip hop, electronica, and IDM, while open designs are more associated with classical and jazz.
At the end of the day, though, the best closed-back headphones and the best open-backed headphones are perfectly suited for, and will sound great with, any and all types of music.
How Can You Find the Best Open Backed or Closed Back Headphones on the Market Today?
Not just because it is such a fun exercise, but also to help you find the best headphones for you, we are going to directly compare really great open-backed and closed-back headphones at seven different price points:
- Super Cheap
- Budget Premium
- Budget Pure Audiophile
- Pure Audiophile
We will compare two sets of headphones, one open-backed and one closed-back, at each level, considering sound quality and many other factors, and so if you have an idea of how much money you want to spend you can look at that category and our review should help you in choosing the right ‘phones for you.
We will recommend our two favorite headphones at each level and in each face-off, headphones which we love for their sound, their design, their overall quality and value, so in either case you can be sure you would end up with a brilliant new set of headphones that will provide immense listening pleasure for years to come.
The Best Open Backed Headphones and Closed Back Headphones
Koss Porta-Pro Versus Sony MDR-V150
The Koss Porta-Pro Open Backed On-Ear Headphones are a bit of a legend among audiophiles, and often cited as the least expensive truly high-resolution headphones on the market today, and good enough for even discerning listeners. They have an open, airy sound, with tons of detail and a large and solid stereo image and soundstage. The frequency response is very flat and extended, the bass strong but not overly emphasized and the mids and highs clear and clean. This is a very low distortion headphone, sweet and musical, and with the incredibly light and adjustable design can be worn and listened to for hours and hour without any fatigue.
The Sony MDR-V150 Closed Back On-Ear Headphones are a little less expensive than the Koss, and represent Sony’s excellent entry into the super-budget audiophile market, offering a much more neutral sound overall than most other Sony (or other Brand) headphones in this price range. They are not as neutral as the Koss, and do not have the same transparent and laid-back quality, but with their slightly emphasized bass, an overall sound signature that is bright and detailed but without harshness, and great musical energy, they may be the more exciting of the two, and still have the levels of clarity, resolution and tonal accuracy that are so important to audiophile listeners.
The Sony MDR-V150 headphones are immediately impressive and impactful, while the Koss Porta-Pro headphones may take some time and listening before you fully realize their virtues. In general, we could say that the Sony are better for popular music while the Koss are more for acoustic, jazz and classical, but really they are both highly accurate and highly musical headphones and great for all genres.
AKG 240 Studio versus AKG K92
The next two choices in our comparison of open-backed and closed-back headphones are, in actual fact, not significantly more expensive than our recommendations for ultra-cheap headphones, and in the realm of high fidelity and high musicality these are also truly super-budget ‘phones.
The AKG K240 Studio Semi-Open Over-Ear Headphones are the latest generation of what is surely the most popular headphone AKG has ever made. The 240 Studio is actually a “semi-open” design, which does not leak nearly as much sound out, or let as much noise in, as other open back headphones on our list, and yet still offers incredibly open and natural sound, with super-fast transients and unforced dynamics, very deep bass and extended highs and a wide and precise soundstage. The K240 Studios are designed for professional use, which means they are not only exceptionally accurate but also really comfortable, and their sweetly musical sound is never fatiguing, even at higher volumes or during extended listening sessions.
The AKG K92 Closed Back Over-Ear Headphones are also really sweet and musical, and offer a surprisingly open and natural soundstage and eerily precise stereo imaging. These are, like the K240, meant to be as accurate as possible, given their low price, and yet they do have slightly raised bass for a warm and engaging sound and real low end power. Ultimately not as open or as refined as the K240, the K92 still sound more like an open design pair of headphones than anything we’ve found in this range, and yet still have the advantages of noise isolation, versatility and efficiency – they will, in fact, play very loud with little power (and very, very little distortion). Very light and comfortable for full-sized ‘phones, the AKG K92 closed-back headphones are one of the best values we’ve ever found, and an ideal budget choice for audiophiles who can’t pull off a pair of open design headphones.
If you are using your phones a lot outside, at the office or on the train, the AKG K92 offer real audiophile sound and are surprisingly affordable, and if you are staying at home and doing really focused listening in a quiet and non-distracting environment, the AKG K240 Studio offer easily the best sound in their price range – win/win!
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro versus Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro
With the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro Over-Ear Open Back Headphones we reach a new level of transparency and tonal neutrality, which helps explain why these are among the most beloved and widely used headphones not only among professional studio engineers and musicians but also audiophiles who can’t quite spend several hundreds (or thousands) of dollars. Here, more than at any point so far on our comparison of open-back and closed-back headphones, we get into that area where absolute accuracy leads to much more sweet and beautiful sound. Not colored or prettified in any way, just naturally musical and lovely to listen to.
And while the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro are a bit less expensive, and a closed design, they offer a very similar sound signature to the 990, with similar speed and tightness, exciting musical energy and incredibly clear, low distortion sound. The main difference is that the 770 does not have such a large and open soundstage, nor such an open sound overall, but if you need closed-back ‘phones they offer a far and far more open presentation than pretty much anything we’ve found in the price range, and have the same kind of sweet, neutral musicality that makes the 990 so special.
In this case, we think the Beyerdynamic DT 990 is a marginally better sounding headphone, and if you can make an open backed design work it would be the better choice. On the other hand, the DT 770 is also a truly special set of ‘phones, and if you want or need a closed design you will get an exceptionally well designed, comfortable and high quality headphone with the same sweetness, musical energy and excitement.
Both of these headphones like power, and really benefit from either higher quality stereo components or a good outboard DAC / headphone amplifier – the 770s especially, though great for moving around and taking with, won’t fully light up with most PCs or phones. We strongly recommend the AudioQuest Dragonfly Black headphone amp and DAC dongle, which is a perfect complement to either of these ‘phones, both in terms of price and sound.
Hifiman Sundara versus Focal Listen
With the Hifiman Sundara Planar Magnetic Open Back Headphones we find a different kind of experience, with such high resolution and low distortion that music begins to take on a kind of reality in time and space (this thing that audiophiles call “timing”), with new details and qualities revealed that less expensive (or often more expensive) open backed headphones can’t quite manage. Neutrality and openness are at such high levels here than music takes on a dynamic energy and life, as well as a sort of glowing beauty, that are quite compelling. The Sundara are also amazingly comfortable for as big as they are, and I’ve worn them for many hours at a time without a bit of discomfort – indeed, I was so into the music that I often forgot the headphones entirely.
The Focal Listen Over-Ear Closed Back Headhones are, for a closed design, also exceptionally open and spacious, with a very wide soundstage and rock solid, accurate stereo imaging – I have, in fact, never heard any other closed ‘phones around this price come close in this regard. They lack the ultimate level of neutrality or ease of the Sundara, but have a really beautiful and clear sound with enormous detail, warm, rich vocals, liquid highs and slamming tight, fast and powerful bass that goes way down. Yes, the Hifiman are more accurate, with higher resolution and more ease, but the Focal Listen are more fun, easier to wear and use in lots of different situations, and an absolutely amazing value. Their dynamic energy and excitement, their likable character and the beauty of the sound are all extraordinary, and the Listen have become one of our favorite headphones.
If you want the most neutral and accurate high resolution headphones on the market today, the Hifiman Sundara are without question the very best in their price range, but if you want true audiophile headphones you can use every single day, wherever you go and whatever you do, the Focal Listen will bring more listening enjoyment.
If you use the Focal Listen headphones with your phone, PC or tablet, you will get beautiful, fun and refined sound even from the headphone jack, but adding a separate outboard DAC / headphone amplifier will truly bring everything to a much higher level. For the desktop we recommend the basic, affordable and superb sounding Schiit Magni 3 for these Listen ‘phones, and as a portable dongle the AudioQuest Dragonfly Red is ideal.
Sennheiser HD660 versus Shure SHR1540
Probably no premium headphones have had more written about them, or garnered more praise, than the original Sennheiser HD650 open back headphones, and somehow the brand new Sennheiser HD660 High Resolution Open Back Headphones are even better – lower distortion, more ease, higher resolving power, faster and more controlled transients, and with the same legendary deep bass, extended highs and flat frequency response and the same large, open and realistic soundstage. It is, in fact, almost surprising that so many words have been written about either of these ‘phones, since they themselves have so little character – in essence they simply disappear, leaving the clearest and most accurate view of the music itself. A breathtakingly beautiful listening experience with good electronics, the Sennheiser HD660 is sure to be as legendary as their predecessors.
The Shure SHR1540 Premium Closed Back Headphones on the other hand are relatively unknown – at least compared to the Sennheisers – and deserve much more exposure and popularity. They are a superb pair of headphones, similar in overall signature to the famous Shure in-ear monitors but with even lower distortion, deeper and faster bass, radiant high frequencies and a neutral and transparent sound all across the audio spectrum. The Sennheiser are more open, and more neutral overall, and thousands of customers will tell you that nothing comes close in this price category, but actually the Shure SHR1540 do come very close, and if not as transparent are perhaps more beautiful in sound – still exceptionally accurate and neutral, but unmistakably beautiful.
But thousands of Sennheiser fans can’t be wrong. If you want the ultimate audiophile listening experience for around 500 dollars, the HD660 are the best of the best. But keep in mind that the Shure SHR1540 are, for closed design headphones, also the best in the price range, and if you want to wear them outside, listen to music on the train, in your office or at a cafe, you will still experience astonishing sound and the very highest levels of craftsmanship and overall quality.
One of the finest sounding portable headphone amplifiers we’ve ever used, and in its ease and neutrality a perfect complement and traveling companion for the Shure 1540 headphones, is the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt. Any really good external DAC/amp will trounce all over virtually any computer’s or smart device’s onboard audio circuitry, but the Cobalt is an exceptional combination of exceptional transparency, dynamic energy and sweet musicality and an amazing value – just like the Shures!
Budget Pure Audiophile
Focal Clear versus Fostex TH900 Mk 2
Considering that there are a few very highly regarded no-holds-barred high resolution headphones that cost thousands of dollars more, it is pretty impressive how many audiophile best of lists the Focal Clear Over-Ear Open Back Headphones find themselves at the very top of. But there is literally nothing to not like about these amazing ‘phones, which achieve an almost unparalleled openness and neutrality – bettered only perhaps by the Hifiman Susvara at 4 times their price – and essentially perfect representation of space, time, tonal and dynamic characteristics, subtleties and interactions. Everything is there, and nothing stands out or calls attention to itself, and so the overall impression is of effortless beauty and complete musicality.
Is the Hifiman Susvara better? Yes, in that it is ultimately even more invisible, and virtually nothing at all stands between you and the full potential of the music to express and transport. But you can achieve a truly stunning audiophile experience, one of the very best sounds available, with the Focal Clear – far better than any other higher priced open back headphones we know – and if you combine them with a truly synergetic high resolution DAC / amplifier (especially the astounding Naim DAC-V1) some would say the Focal Clear are just as good. To my ear they are 99.9 percent of what the Susvara are, and very similar in terms of (basically nonexistent) sound signature, but to my wallet the Focal/Naim combo is about three grand less.
And then there’s the Fostex TH900 Mark II Premium Closed-Back Headphones, which honestly are not as neutral, open or laid back as the Focal. They are closed back headphones, and don’t have the most airy or effortless overall sonic picture – at least when compared to open back designs at or above this level. The Fostex are, though, probably the most detailed and dynamic headphones I have ever heard, with an almost heart-stopping excitement and an engaging quality I’ve never heard the likes of anywhere else. To be fair, the Focal Clear and other high end ‘phones will resolve just as much detail and dynamic information, but none will present them with this kind of impact. Is it as accurate? Probably not, but the TH900 Mark II phones are still more accurate than almost any headphones on the planet, and arguably more fun and exciting than any of them.
With the right amplifier, the Fostex headphones become even better. My experience with them powered by a iFi Pro iDSD high resolution digital streamer, converter and hybrid solid state/tube headphone amplifier was fairly overwhelming – and this from a normal laptop PC! With the iFi Pro, these TH900s open up like the best open back designs, have new levels of ease and speed, and still retain the directly impactful detail and dynamics which make them so special. With this amazingly complementary pairing of Fostex and iFi we are, indeed, approaching the very highest level of audio reproduction – or, better, the very highest level of musicality. But whether with the iFi or not, the Fostex TH900 Mark II headphones are never short of stunning.
Hifiman Susvara versus Focal Stellia
But there is the best, there is the best of the best, and then there are the Hifiman Susvara and the Focal Stellia, absolutely the finest open-backed and closed-back headphones on the market today.
I was able to spend some extended time with a pair of Hifiman Susvara Full Sized Planar Open Back Headphones recently, with the same superb iFi Pro iDSD high resolution digital streamer, converter and amplifier, and I could it as easily one of the best, most satisfying and moving – overwhelming is a better word – listening experiences of my life. The absolutely silent, clear and open field from which all sounds appeared made me drop so deeply into a suspension of disbelief, over and over again, that I was able to be more fully with the music than I have ever been with any other headphones.
I can talk at length about perfect accuracy in phase, temporal and spatial relationships, dynamics and micro-dynamics and their emotional weight, best-ever resolving power and the sudden and dramatic appearance of otherwise completely hidden details and musical elements, the sheer beauty of the music and how this can only be heard when the highest levels of sonic neutrality have been achieved – in every quantifiable and/or perceivable parameter, the Susvara are the best I’ve ever heard. But all I could talk about for days and days after listening to them was the music. Not how the Susvaras made the music sound, but just the music. This is the highest compliment I can possibly give any audio gear, and I have never fully fallen into that space with any other headphones except the unparalleled Hifiman Susvara.
And so the best headphones in the world are without a doubt open backed, but how about the best closed back headphones in the world? Without a moment’s hesitation I would answer, and urgently recommend, the Focal Stellia High Resolution Closed Back Headphones. So how do the Stellia sound compared to the Susvara? At this rarefied level this is a more and more difficult question to answer. I heard the Stellia with a less expensive headphone amplifier, the beautiful iFi Pro iCan balanced tube/solid State headphone amplifier (which, to be fair, is still a pricey amp), and, while ultimately not as open or offering quite as empty a canvas as the Susvara, they had just as much ease, were just as fast and had similar levels of tonal accuracy, as well as essentially totally flat and very extended frequency response.
The Focal Stellia impressed me as being perhaps the most excitingly dynamic and engaging headphones I have ever heard, and yet even with all of their thrilling impact and energy they sound more like an open design than most open-backed headphones in the same price range, and with a clearly better overall sense of actual music in space and time. They cannot be recommended more highly, as testified by so many owners who not only praise them, but say that these super-spendy headphones are the best audio investment they’ve ever made.
But to me, while the Focal Stellia have probably the best, most musical, most exciting and engaging sound I have ever heard, and are easily the finest closed-back headphones I know, the Hifiman Susvara have no describable or discernible sound at all, and one is left with only the music.
Final Thoughts: Are Open-Backed Headphones Really Better than Closed-Back Headphones?
It’s funny that, with everything we’ve just been through, direct comparisons of open and closed designs on seven different price levels and detailed descriptions of each pair of headphones’ qualities and characteristics, I’m still not sure that we’re any closer to answering this simple question.
Yes, open headphone designs are beloved by audiophiles, are more open, spacious and effortless, have higher levels of accuracy and detail and often a more sweet and musical sound, but closed designs can have a kind of immediately impressive and persuasive dynamic energy and excitement, more pronounced detail (if, again, not more actual detail), and the best of them approach the levels of openness and neutrality of the best open designs.
Closed designs are better, then, for casual listening, and open designs for serious listening? Yes, perhaps, but this is still too easy and not the whole story, any more than saying that closed designs are better for popular music genres and open designs better for classical and jazz.
Better, I think, to let your circumstances decide for you – will you want to take your headphones with you as you commute, sit in public or work in the office, or are you more likely to keep them in a place of pride at your home listening station? If the former, get closed-back headphones, and if the latter you should strongly consider open-backed designs – and if you get the best ones possible for you and your budget, you will surely stop wondering about which is better, or about anything else, and just fall into the music itself.