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Can you REALLY hear a difference between open-back headphones and closed-back headphones?

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by double-a, Apr 27, 2013.
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  1. pyite
    Not really.  Especially the surround sound part -- that is just wrong unless you have two speakers per ear.*
    The big difference is whether you want to be isolated from the noise around you -- all other differences are trivial compared to this.
    95% of the time I'm listening at work or at home when people are awake, and I want to hear what's going on -- so I prefer open ended headphones.  I have a set of Q701's and they are great for this...
    They are awful on a plane though!  You need closed ended headphones for this, or data center work.  Also, when I need to concentrate I'll switch to a closed ended pair.
    It seems like most of the cheaper headphones are closed (e.g. the $10 Big Lots specials), so it will probably cost more to go open.
    * - it would be really cool for gaming to have extra surround speakers for up/down as well as front/back but I don't think there is a good S/PDIF type of protocol for this yet.
  2. CoffeeDog
    There seems to be life left in this thread, and the topic will likely remain relevant for some time, so here's my two cents worth.
    Many of the posts in this thread comment on the noise isolating properties of closed headphones, and if you are concerned about keeping outside noise out or keeping your music from intruding upon others then closed back headphones are the way to go.  But the original poster had asked about sound quality, and that is another matter altogether.
    As has also been pointed out previously, we can not definitively conclude that the acoustic differences between one pair of closed back headphones and another pair of open back headphones are due solely or primarily to the ear cup type, IF we are only using those two samples as the basis for our conclusions.  On the other hand, when we notice that virtually all of the open back designs have common sonic properties that differ significantly from closed back designs, we can safely conclude that those differences are due to the design.  It's similar to an argument regarding automotive performance: if a V-12 Ferrari consistently leaves a four cylinder Toyota Corolla behind when drag racing, you don't need to put the Toyota's engine in the Ferrari and measure performance in order to correctly conclude that the designed performance differences are mainly due to engine differences.  There are sonic differences between open and closed back designs.  The bigger questions are: will you notice those differences and will you care?
    I do notice those differences, and to my ear they are significant.  However, based upon the comments of others, it is apparent that not everyone can hear them, or perhaps they do but they aren't listening closely.  (I think one common characteristic of audiophiles is that they do listen closely, very closely.  Music listening is not simply another activity, but is for the duration the entire focus of attention and concentration.)  All of this having been said, one headphone type is not necessarily better than the other, only different.
    Overall, I prefer the sound of open backed headphones.  I won't try to describe the differences, for many others have already attempted to do so and in a manner far better than can I.  I think they sound more natural, open, fuller, and so on.  I have two pair of open backed, Sennheiser's HD650 and Hifiman's HE-1000, and they are (I think) standard setting.  Yet, there are exceptions.  I have just finished auditioning a demo pair of Oppo PM-3 phones, courtesy of the loaner program currently under way by Oppo.  (Thanks guys!!!)  I've found that I am a fan of planar-magnetic headphones, but when fully enclosed within the ear cup they lose that sense of air, expanse, and "reality" found in open-backed designs.  BUT, I preferred the PM-3 phones to the HD650 when listening to natural, acoustic sets such as jazz, fingerstyle guitar, orchestral, and the like.  Although I tend to prefer an open back sound, there are other considerations in play; I still preferred the HD650 for much rock and synthetic sounds.  But not all.
    I'd purchased my HD650's blind, having considered many of the opinions and reviews found online, primarily those here on Head-Fi.  I have absolutely no regrets at having done so!  All things considered, going in blind and unable to audition any of the better headphones, I'd say you can't go wrong with a well regarded pair of open backed phones.  The only closed back I have heard that I often prefer to my HD650 are the planar-magnetic PM-3, but that sound may not be to everyone's liking or preference.
    So yes, you REALLY can hear the difference between open-back and closed-back headphones.  To me, and apparently to many others, the differences are obvious, and chances are they will be to you as well.  I'm sure the originator of this thread has made up his mind long ago, and I wonder what his thoughts about all of this are now.
  3. goodvibes
    Open back do tend to be better for me but it's not an absolute or about reflections of the cup. Wavelengths are too to short for that to be a major issue. It's also not hearing the 'air' outside like some have also described in ported IEMs which respond similarly as described here. It will have to do with changes in Q (damping) and corresponding changes in frequency response. Cups can over damp the system and create a less free sound along with more midbass and sometimes less low bass. This is partially due to the surrounds having sufficient damping on their own (without the added resistance of a sealed enclosure) with the drivers usually being of a universal design and rarely intended for added acoustic suspension type damping. A good sealed phone maker will specifically design and build drivers to work properly in that environment, I would suspect with a softer surround and smaller diaphragm to get the system resonance frequency lower. There's no real better or worse here but I do think it's easier to build for open and fine tune the back resistance.
    sonitus mirus likes this.
  4. sonitus mirus
    I would guess that all of those that claim open headphones to be more "spacious" would question this after listening.   Most of the differences in sound signature could probably be attributed to the room characteristics. For me, headphones are a compromise when I am in a situation where either I do not want to disturb others around me or when I need to block outside noise.  Open headphones would be ok, but in limited situations, such as in an apartment or similar close quarters.  Otherwise, I almost never listen with headphones anymore, just with speakers.  Work and travel is about it for me for headphones, but when compared to speakers, I can't get into the music as much.   I also use an older HeadRoom amp with crossfeed at work with my closed headphones.  This makes a subtle difference with a lot of the music that I enjoy.  With headphones, I've always attempted to find a solution that best replicates what I hear with a stereo speaker setup.  To me, closed Denon AH-Dx00 are the closest I've come to this, at a price I'm willing to pay.  I suppose some newer Fostex or Massdrop variant would be my choice now, since the older Denons are no longer manufactured. 
  5. ScanSpeak HiFi
    Yes, there is a definite difference between the two. In general, I'll argue that open back will give superior sound quality yet at the expense of some low end. Easily fixed with a little EQ though.
  6. sikki-six
    I'd say good bass really about the frequency curve - you can't simply EQ a K701 to have a punch in the lows like many closed models (DT770, D2000 etc.). Big bass is where closed models do generally better, though Philips X2 and many Audezes can do that fun kind of punch well too. Sub-bass is quite often lacking in dynamic-driver open pairs vs the easier to achieve higher bass frequencies.
    With guitar cabinets, you get more bass with closed-back cabinets. I think this is somewhat similar.
    stalepie likes this.
  7. goodvibes
    It's not. With guitar amps, closing the back inhibits the out of phase rear wave from cancelling the front. The open back version actually has a lower free air resonance frequency than the sealed back but you don't hear as much bass because the lowest out of phase front and rear frequencies are effectively wrapping around the cabinet and cancel out in free air. The sealed back also tends to bump up the midbass in smaller cabinets making bass that much more apparent and warmer. In a headphone, the sealed back does the the bass bump part but there's no cancellation happening in an open back because the back and front wave are not generated into the same space. The same driver in an open back vs sealed back will actually go lower but may not sound 'bassy' enough due either lower damping or less amplitude in the midbass.
  8. nofarewell
    I vote for open back headphones. They are more spacial, "airy", even the best earbuds in the world are open designed.
    Though it can be tricky as the best Sony Headphones - the MDR-R10 is closed and they say it is very airy and detailed.
    I guess many years of engineering laid down in that beautiful set of caps.
    I have the best buds, the Aiwa HP-V99 and several Sony headphones from the "Hair" fepartment, which are all open.
    I could not find any recent earphone/headphone that can match them.
    So at the end, not to start the last sentence with "I" :), open buds/phones are better imho. Nice open cans are really
    dynamic and they make up for the resonance closed cans produce (which are mostly artificially sounding with their
    spacial, beautiful airy presentation and better, more lively dynamics and even more balanced sound. IMHO.

  9. music4mhell
    I will go for open back headphone/earbuds anyday.
    It gives some air for sound wave to breath, and i don't feel suffocation with open backs.. while closed back.. i feel suffocation.
    Meze 99 is a great headphone, but as it's very nicely build closed back, i felt like as if i am isolated from the world .. which i don't like that kind of feeling :)
    I know the thread is three years old... but I have to ask... Isn't this a loaded question?
    The only way you could answer this is if you had two identical sets of headphones... one in an open back design and one in a closed back design. I don't know such a product exists...
    Certainly there is no easy way to measure the "back lobe" or, more importantly, how much of it is reflected back from the cup? And how much interference (e.g. comb filtering, etc) it causes... 
    But it leads to an interesting question... can a closed back headphone with absorbing material attenuate the "back lobe" enough to have the effect of an open back? I imagine the cups would have to be prohibitively large....
  11. Per Axel Hagne
    What exactly do you mean with identical sets of headphones? Drivers are made different depending on closed or open design so you can't really compare them with the same driver!
    I guess you could compare Audeze's EL-8(CB) and EL-8(OB). 
  12. watchnerd
    Of course I can hear the difference between open back vs closed back headphones.  Just like I can between different speakers.
    They're measurably different...they have different frequency responses...
    Not sure why this is even a thread / question?
  13. sonitus mirus
    What if the FR is the same?  In a quiet environment, open headphones may not sound any different than closed headphones.  Once isolation is matched, there is not much to separate the two, other than reflections, but those would be minimal at best, and possibly not audible.
  14. KamijoIsMyHero

    Do you know of one?
  15. watchnerd
    No...you're ignoring free-air vs sealed driver resonances.
    I know of no headphone that uses the same exact driver to make both a closed and open variant of the same.  Even if they did, the resonant frequency (absent EQ) would be different, thus making them different headphones.
    I don't understand the point of this thread...
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