The benefits of open-back headphones

Sarah Lin Turner By Sarah Lin Turner - updated May 1st, 2021
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If you’re anything like me, you’ll have watched the world of widespread wearable audio trend toward the newest form factor: true wireless in-ear buds. While slipping a pair of Apple AirPods or Samsung Galaxy Buds Beans into your pocket or purse without dealing with tangled wires or material weight has made music more portable than ever – are we changing how we really hear it?
Both wireless and traditional wired sets offer noise-cancelling features, which is a popular proposition for open-plan workspaces, sidewalks within traffic, and homes where the neighbours are really into DIY.
But “noise-cancelling” doesn’t actually mute the world around us. It masks it. Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) uses a microphone to capture low-frequency sound around you, which is delivered to an amplifier – resulting in the generation of waves that counteract unwanted interruptions.
Not only that, the music itself is trapped inside the cup, creating echoes that interfere with the purity of your fave tracks.
So what do you do if you really want to hear it?

The Answer: Open-back Headphones

The concept won’t be new to seasoned audiophiles, but when I clapped my eyes on a pair of these, I thought they were ripped from an abandoned warship, or modelled for a steampunk festival. To be fair, my husband has used them to point where the leather band is twisted, the cuffs need replacing, and the wires definitely need some TLC.
Yes - wires. As much as wireless and true wireless are striding ahead, there is a quality of sound that can only be truly captured when you’re plugged in. Sorry to everyone who lost their headphone jack!
Choosing open-back headphones is all about the purpose you want them to serve. So, what are they and what can they do for you?

  • They’re easily identifiable by the holes - a grille - on the back of the earcup.
  • These holes allow sound to both enter and exit the cup.
  • Air can pass easily through the cup to the speaker element, resulting in a clearer, more natural sound.
  • This indoor-outdoor flow is a little like how music would sound if you were sitting directly between two small speakers - in fact, wearing them feels like that: soft, round, light speakers, resting against your ears.
  • That also means you don’t get the discomfort or overheating that closed-backs sometimes cause, and you can listen for as long as you desire. No claustrophobia here!
  • While sometimes frustrating to deal with, wired headphones deliver a better sound because no part of the music is lost or compressed in the ‘air-to-ear’ gap necessary in wireless models.

Because sound is going out as well as in, you probably don’t want to use open-backs in the office where your colleagues can catch an earful of your questionable 90s jams. On the flipside, allowing some sound in means you won’t miss your boss calling - or, if you’re working from home, the ominous retching of the cat being sick on the Persian rug.
In fact, the rise in numbers of people working from home around the world has seen a parallel increase in the popularity of open-back headphones.
This makes sense, because the best time and place for experiencing what open-backs have to offer is somewhere quiet, and some time alone.

Here you can see the grille design that allows for a clearer, more natural sound.
Here you can see the grille design that allows for a clearer, more natural sound.
This is in comparison to standard headphones, with fully enclosed cups.
This is in comparison to standard headphones, with fully enclosed cups.

How do you want to hear?

A wise woman* once told me that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
Having a good open-back headphone experience is worth doing well. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be expensive, however. It means you need just the right conditions – which include your motivation.
Listening to music in quiet solitude is a dying luxury. Free time is a commodity most of us are short on, so making the most of every minute is essential.
I’ve found ANC to be an immersive experience, like being underwater in a swimming pool. That can be great for pop music written on a certain curve, where it doesn’t matter if water washes against the cups or you can hear your heartbeat bopping along.
Using open-back headphones is more like being in a river. Imagine wading in until just your head is above water. There are birds chirping in the trees above.
You can see the clarity of the water, feel the current pushing you gently, the coolness trailing over your skin and raising goosebumps. If someone else joins you in the river, they will have a reflected, dampened experience, unless their noise disrupts the current (in which case, you have every right to kick them out the river).

Having said all of that, it’s too simplistic to claim that wired open-back cups alone deliver a better musical experience. You also need the right device to plug them into, and the right kind of high-quality audio file. If you’re using a three-year-old smartphone and streaming low-quality sounds, you probably won’t get the joy you’re looking for.
(An additional DAC – Digital to Analogue Converter – can help with this. Many DACs are built into any audio device. On a basic level, they turn 0s and 1s into sound we can hear. The very best will make that sound sing.)

Recommendation: Check out PB tech’s range of open-backed headphones, grab yourself a gift, and hunt down a quiet river. It’ll be music like you’ve never heard it before.

*My Mother-In-Law, so I’m contractually obliged to say this

Written By

Sarah Lin Turner

Hyperbole, hyphens and hidden ennui.

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