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Open versus closed headphones

Generally, open-backed (or “open”, or “open air”) headphones produce higher-quality sound at lower prices than closed-backed (“closed”) headphones, and all of the best-sounding high-end headphones are open.

But you probably shouldn’t buy open headphones. It’s irresponsible to discuss headphone recommendations without emphasizing the important distinction between open and closed, since most people aren’t familiar with how much this matters in practical use.

So I was disappointed in this explanation from Sam Grobart in the New York Times:

Open-backed headphones allow air to circulate, which is more comfortable. They also can help give the impression that sound is coming from around you, as opposed to emanating from your corpus callosum, which is a characteristic of closed-back and in-ear headphones. Closed-back models are better at sealing off the outside world, but your ears may get hot from the lack of air circulation.

That’s true, but “better at sealing off the outside world” needs to be expanded with a very important distinction.

Grobart’s right that open headphones, such as the entire Sennheiser 500-series and the great-sounding-but-uncomfortable Grado SR-60, do let a lot of outside noise in, so they’re terrible for blocking sound in loud environments.

But, critically, open headphones also let your music out. Even if you’re listening at a moderate volume, everyone in the room will hear a tinny, annoying version of your music. So open headphones are a poor choice for environments with people nearby, such as open offices, home use with anyone else in the room, airplanes, buses, or trains. (Don’t be that guy on the subway.)

That rules out a lot of the situations in which people use headphones. Therefore, generally, I don’t recommend open headphones. My best-sounding pair of headphones, the Beyerdynamic DT-880, is also my least-used because I’m hardly ever in my office alone and they’re too big to walk around with.

It’s also unfortunate that Grobart’s article didn’t even attempt to suggest some specific models as starting points. The article’s takeaway seems to be “do your own research”, but that’s not very helpful to average consumers facing the barrage of similar-looking models spanning huge price ranges from the high-end headphone brands.

So here’s where I think you should start:

The “non-portable” models are too big to walk around with. You can, but you’ll look odd, and you might need to wrangle a long, heavy, coiled cord. They’re fine for airplanes, though, if you’re willing to devote the carry-on space.

There’s a lot of Sennheisers on the list for good reason. I’ve had headphones from AKG, Grado, and Beyerdynamic that all sounded just as good (and sometimes better), but I’ve always found Sennheiser’s models to be more comfortable, practical, and durable.

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