There are two main kinds of over-the-ear headphones: open-back headphones and closed-back. Most headphones are closed-back, meaning that the outer part of the headphone cups have a hard enclosure that fits snugly around the entire ear. Open-back headphones do not separate your ears from the outside world - they are designed so sound is able to resonate from the rear of the speaker diaphragm. The unique design of open-back headphones reduces distortion and sound coloration that is often associated with closed-back headphones. Open-back headphones are able to not only produce a wider soundstage, they also deliver a more transparent sound.
Why Open Back Headphones are the Best Choice
The added airflow increases the sound quality produced by open-back headphones, and the design provides more comfort for the listener than the box-like experience of closed back headphones, which can get hot and even sweaty.
Closed-back headphones make music sound like it is coming from inside your head. Open-back headphones allow sound to pass through the back of the ear piece, creating an open, accurate and natural sound. This soundstage seems wider and has more presence. That extra air flow is able reduce the effect of sound "bouncing around" inside closed back headphones - creating a more natural and realistic listening experience, while also increasing the accuracy of the audio.
Due to the accuracy of the sound created and the experience provided to listeners, open-back headphones are the first choice amongst musicians, professional audio engineers, as well as avid video game players. The accurate, real-life sound created by open back headphones allow gamers to better judge the position of an off-screen sound source. They allow sound engineers to accurately mix and master music and they provide musicians with a wider sound stage and a more transparent sound.
If recording a vocal for your band you'll need to use closed back headphones to avoid sound leakage back into the microphone. But when it comes to mixing tracks use a good set of monitors, or some high quality open-back headphones. This is because the isolation of closed-back works against you during mixing and mastering, camouflaging frequency clashes and tuning problems. If you use closed-back headphones to mix, you'll be in for a rude surprise once you play that song on your car audio system.
Many audio engineers advise against using headphones at all when mixing, but these days the audience is often wearing headphones so you need to cover your bases. The true sound of open-back headphones is the best choice if you are working in a small studio or even a hotel room with a laptop.
Department store brands like Beats or Bose do not offer open-back models, but most of the serious audio manufacturers do, such as Sennheiser, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Grado, Philips, Audio Technica, and Shure. The professional models can run into the thousands of dollars, but Consumer Reports top pick in this category was the Grado SR325e at just $295.