Regular closed-back headphones have coverings and sealed speaker housings to achieve a sense of isolation.
However, as the name suggests, open-back headphones don’t have covers for ear cups on either side.
So, what impact does this design have on loudness?
Open-back headphones are generally much louder than closed-back ones. Since there’s no covering on the ear cups and the speaker housing, the sound is more accurate and flows more openly. In contrast, closed-back headphones tend to have a more ‘muffled’ sound as all of the output remains sealed in.
Open-back headphones may provide a louder and more natural-sounding feel. However, they come with a few downsides.
In this article, I’ll discuss it all in detail — so let’s get to it.
Are Open-Back Headphones Really Loud?
Open-back headphones have many valuable benefits in sound quality, thanks to a design that doesn’t restrict air or sound from flowing in or out of the earcups.
When sounds get room to flow, the audio naturally seems more open and crisp.
Air also easily passes through the ear cups, so there’s no pressure buildup — and hence the sound is free of echo.
Open-back headphones can get really loud, significantly more than their closed-back counterparts.
Plus, they have better dynamic range and stereo imaging than closed-back headphones.
Closed-back headphones are designed for maximized isolation and privacy to the listener.
However, that requires the earcups to be closed off, keeping the output sealed inside. As a result, there’s an evident muffling effect that makes it sound less natural.
Note: While you might prefer headphones that get super loud, it’s worth noting here that sounds louder than 85 decibels (about the same as a food blender) can cause ear damage with only 2 hours of exposure.
Do Open-Back Headphones Have Sound Leakage?
Before I address this, let me quickly define what ‘sound leakage’ means.
Essentially, it’s the noise that your headphones produce due to the audio pushing in and out. With open-back headphones, it’s loud enough to bother the people around you.
Almost all models of open-back headphones have considerable sound leakage.
However, this isn’t considered an issue, as that’s what the open-back design is all about.
If the sound doesn’t get room to flow out openly, it kills the purpose of an open-backed design.
However, some higher-priced brands have found ways to tweak their design and material choices to minimize it.
Most models have their sound leakage percentages mentioned on the packaging — with cheaper open-back headphones averaging around the 40% mark.
How To Know if Your Open-Back Headphones Are Too Loud
You can have someone with you for trial runs when testing the volume level of your open-back headphones.
Another way to test the loudness is by getting a decibel meter that can give you accurate sound leakage numbers.
Most shops allow customers to test audio devices first before purchasing.
Put on several open-back headphones from brands you like, and listen to some music at high volume.
You both can take turns and listen to compare which model has the least amount of sound leakage.
Sound leakage percentage is a vital specification to check when you’re in the market for a pair of open-back headphones, especially if you’re planning on using them with people around.
You shouldn’t trust the packaging on the sound leakage percentage advertised by manufacturers, as those numbers can be inflated with checks performed in unusually favorable conditions.
Can People Hear Your Open-Back Headphones?
People can hear your open-back headphones. Open-back headphones are known for their lack of privacy as everything you listen to also travels outside.
If you share your room with someone or spend most of your time out in social situations, you might want to get closed-back headphones instead.
While open-back options have a long list of sound quality benefits over their closed-back alternatives, there’s one area where they simply can’t compete — and that’s isolation.
Thanks to the open ear cups and unsealed speaker housing, the people sitting around you will be able to hear what you hear pretty well.
Not only that, you’ll be hearing them as well. As sound freely travels out your headphone’s ‘open back,’ the sounds from the outside also get in just as easily.
The open-back design restricts their portability, as people will hardly be okay with getting music blasted into their ears in social settings.
For instance, there’s no way you can use them in a library for obvious reasons.
But their ‘openness’ gets in the way even in other situations where you’d usually put on a pair of headphones, for example, on the airplane or bus.
Those headphones will be a noisy nuisance to anyone sitting around you.
Plus, you won’t enjoy your music as much either due to the background noise creeping into your headphones.
Engine noises, people murmuring, random laughs — you’d be surprised how annoying it can get.
Open-Back Headphones Sound More Natural
Open-back headphones provide a more accurate and natural sound than closed-back ones.
But what makes them sound more natural? Let’s look at a real-world example to understand this.
When you’re out in the open, everything you hear simultaneously travels into both of your ears — not one of them individually.
For instance, a bell ringing on your right side will mostly be audible in the right ear, but some of that sound will also travel to the left one.
In closed-back headphones, the left channel audio gets delivered to the left ear and the right channel audio to your right ear.
The sound from one speaker doesn’t escape it (due to coverings on the ear cups), and even if some of it does, it still can’t make it inside the closed ear cup on the other side.
As a result, no sound gets cross-fed to both ears — but that’s not how hearing naturally works.
On the other hand, open-back headphones allow sound to flow easily in and out of both ear cups.
The sound fed to each side leaks out and makes its way to the other ear as the earcups aren’t closed off.
Hence, this cross-fed sound results in much more natural-sounding audio.
This phenomenon is also the reason why many music producers and professional mixers prefer speakers instead of headphones.
With speakers, there’s an even better cross-feeding of sound between both channels.
That’s because both your ears can openly hear sound out of the speakers on each side.
Open-back headphones are the only ones that can somewhat replicate this.
Who Should Buy Open-Back Headphones?
It’s safe to say that the ideal conditions for using open-back headphones are restricted to a very specific setting — and that’s a quiet space with ideally no one around.
However, there’s a lot of people who only use their headphones in such conditions.
Gamers, music producers, students, or someone who casually watches Netflix or YouTube in their room should buy open-back headphones.
Open-back headphones are especially useful when you’re watching movies late at night while everyone else is sleeping.
If you don’t have other roommates or housemates to worry about, the sound leakage percentage of your headphones doesn’t matter!
In that case, you’re free to pick whichever open-back pair you like. However, they still won’t be usable in a library, public commute, etc.
Like any other purchase decision, this one also depends on the type of user you are.
Open-Back Headphones Are Worth It
The improvement in quality — including increased loudness, dynamic range, a more natural sound — is worth it, especially if you don’t commonly use your headphones in social situations.
The only trade-off is privacy, and that’s irrelevant in the use cases I’ve mentioned above.
Open-back headphones get much louder than closed-back alternatives, sound more natural, and have a better dynamic range and wider stereo imaging.
However, they have their downsides — the biggest one being a complete lack of privacy and isolation.
Open-back headphones can’t have any form of active noise cancellation as a feature, which is a major deal-breaker for most buyers out there.
However, if you mainly use your headphones in a separate room, the considerable improvement in sound quality may be worth the sacrifice of portability.