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What headphone buyers need to know, Part 2

Open- vs. closed-back headphones, what's the difference?

Open-back Sennheiser HD 800 (left), closed-back AKG K 272HD (right)
Steve Guttenberg/CNET

There are many types of headphones, and if you understand the pros and cons of each before you go shopping, you'll make a more informed buying decision. Closed- and open-back headphones sound very different and serve different needs. To learn more about how they differ I spoke with two engineers, Sennheiser's Axel Grell and AKG's Philipp Schuster, and thanks go out to them. Today I'll look at open- and closed-back headphones; I covered on- and over-the-ear headphones in yesterday's blog item.

Closed-back headphones' ear cups have no openings, so they hush outside sound by creating a tight seal around your ears. Open-back designs are just the opposite, the ear cups are open to let you hear the world around you. So where you listen may determine whether you'd prefer open- or closed-back headphones. Generally speaking, open headphones sound better when you're listening in quiet settings. If you try to listen to an open-back headphone on a bus you'll have to turn the volume way up to overcome the bus' noise. Open-back headphones' sound can be heard by people nearby; closed-back designs keep most of the sound in the ear cups.

Closed-backs' noise isolation may be adequate for some buyers, but if you need maximum noise hushing, buy noise-canceling headphones. The upside for closed-backs is they don't use batteries or electronic processing to keep noise out, and dollar for dollar closed-back headphones sound better than noise-canceling headphones. I covered the difference between noise-canceling and noise-isolating headphones in a previous write-up.

Open headphones produce more spacious stereo imaging, because the "backside" of the drivers radiate sound in free space. With closed-back headphones the sound reflections inside the ear cups can play havoc with the stereo imaging; with open headphones you hear the sound directly, without reflections. Poorly designed closed-back headphones tend to sound "canned" and hollow. For a given price class, open headphones sound better than closed designs.

Beats full-size headphones, all of which are closed-back designs, have boosted buyers expectations for bass power, so most headphone manufacturers are producing bassier sounding models than they did in years past. The pumped up bass response is a benefit if you crave maximum bass oomph, or mostly listen in noisy places like trains, buses, cars, etc. If you prefer a more accurate tonal balance, or tend to listen in quiet surroundings and don't need isolation from noise, buy an open-back headphone.

Schuster pointed out that your ears will probably feel hotter with closed-back headphones than they would with open designs, which allow for greater air circulation. Almost all on-ear headphones are closed-back designs. So don't waste time searching for the "best" headphone, look for one that best suits your needs.

For more information about headphones, check out Justin Yu's Headphone Buying Guide.