Open vs Closed Back Headphones for GAMING – Which Is Best?
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why someone would pick open-back headphones or being the one explaining why to use open-back design. So today I’d like to cover the topic of open versus closed headphones, and how it relates to my own experience in general and also in gaming, because audio is such an important element and there’s so much variety on how that audio gets processed via headphones and eventually received by our ears.
Okay, so let’s get the basics out of the way first. An open-back design means the ear cup is exposed or open, and the speaker inside the housing is not sealed. This way when the driver is vibrating it’s sending audio into your ear and out through the side of the headphone or the back of the headphone, thus creating this beautifully different acoustic sound signature versus a closed design. So with a closed pair of the ear cup is sealed and audio cannot escape through the back. That’s highly beneficial for many scenarios so let’s talk about advantages and disadvantages of both styles.
I’ll start with the good sides of an open-back design, and I feel like there are two main comfort advantages. First, because the ear cup housing is open via some form of mesh or grill the headphones breathe and there is significantly less heat accumulation inside the ear cup and on the surface of the padding. So you never really have to vent your ears like you would on the closed design, because all that heat gets just basically trapped inside and you have to occasionally open them up, but not with open-style design. For example, I can wear the Sennheiser HD series or the Game series for literally 12 hours a day without any discomfort or any heat accumulation. This is because of the open-back design and the velour pads that also breathe, and that of course is a massive benefit while gaming. The second reason I love open-back style is full ambient awareness, that means that while I’m present with my music or game, I’m also aware of my physical surroundings. I can hear my phone ring or the doorbell or someone calling me at my house, and also hear myself as I’m speaking because I tend to talk out loud when I’m typing something. I really dislike not hearing myself when I’m speaking. It’s almost like plugging up your ears and that whole muteness factor that just freaks me out. So having the ability to hear myself while also hearing the game is highly beneficial.
But on the flip side, the main two disadvantages would be sound isolation and sound leak, but that is just the nature of an exposed speaker. There’s really no private listening in public, everyone around you can hear what you’re listening to, and if you’re in a loud environment you can’t really do any critical listening of the audio until you get to a quiet environment. The main complaint when it comes to gaming with an open-style headphone is sound leaking from the headphone and the microphone being able to pick that up. So that’s usually unpleasant for the other people who are listening to you speak, but I found that to be an issue only if your microphone is really sensitive and if you are really blasting the volume in the headphone.
However, I feel like the sound advantages really outweigh all the negatives that come with the nature of an open-style headphones. Because of the open nature of the ear cup, you perceive your audio environment to be larger, more free and the audio is not coming from only one location. It’s not as claustrophobic. It’s more like speakers that are slightly further out and that feels like the room is sending you the audio. This recreates a nice wide soundstage, which means that you sense the audio environment to be quite large which is great for open world games. It’s kind of like having a natural surround sound coming from your headphones, but instead of it being simulated via software it is all natural. I also love different acoustic flavors we get with open-style headphones, some with deeper bass hits and incredibly fun signatures like the Sennheiser HD-58X Jubilee, or the sharper and slightly dryer treble on the HD-6xx, or the more airy presentation with the incredible HIFIMAN HE-4xx, or going full reference style with the analytical HD-800. That is not to say that closed pairs do not have different acoustic flavors, but I feel like with open-style headphones there’s just more variety.
My favorite gaming headset in the open-style right now are the PC-37x – which are based on the G4ME 1 series – which is fantastic, with nice smooth treble and almost like a flat bass response, which is excellent for a competitive environment but also easy to enjoy. The sound captured by the microphone is excellent too by the way.
Now what about closed-end headphones and headsets? Well their main advantage is full sonic isolation for when you want no distractions. For those in-the-zone moments – which I’m personally not really comfortable with – some gaming headsets like the Sennheiser GSP 300 have insane sound isolation at 70% volume. I do not hear anything that is happening in my physical environment. It is just my game, my audio, and it’s like tunnel vision for your ears. Of course, that is a massive competitive advantage since sound cues determine your alertness in game. You can train your aim all you want, but the player who is prepared and is aware of his environment based on sound always has an advantage.
And of course it’s excellent for private listening since you’re not leaking audio to the outside world. Most closed headphones or headsets have leather-like padding that normally enhances the bass frequency for a more powerful low-end and many gaming headsets also include velour pads that open up the headset a little bit as audio can escape through the padding and that makes it feel more open. As for disadvantages with closed designs, they are less breathable so there is more heat accumulation inside the ear cup. However, that might not be that big of an issue given your ambient temperature is cool enough and/or you don’t wear the headphones for too long. But I will remind you, I can wear open-style headphones for literally 10-12 hours and never remove them because I don’t have any fatigue or heat accumulation whatsoever, which is awesome.
And as for audio, because of the closed nature of the headphone we have a more intimate experience on how the audio is being delivered to the ear. So less spatial expansion in games, normally smaller soundstage and less element separation versus an open-style headphone. For example, I was extra terrified with an open headphone playing Alien Isolation because it really felt like the audio from the spaceship and the environment was coming from my room, whereas the ambient affect was slightly lost with a closed gaming headset. However, closed pairs can also have wildly different delivery in terms of how they open the sound and how large the soundstage is. The Fostex TR-X00 have an insanely large soundstage for a closed design, it’s almost like wearing my HD-58X or the HD-6xx, but with like a little bit more warmth because of the wood.
The GSP 300 has a slightly wider soundstage compared to the Logitech G Pro X, they give me a little bit more detailed separation when like a lot of things are happening inside the game. So while the Pro X is still great, the GSP 300 has that slightly wider field that I prefer while gaming.
In the end, open-style headphones are my daily drivers, the HD-58X for everything and the PC-37x for gaming when I need the microphone. And if you have not yet tried that open-back design, I highly recommend you check out some affordable options like the Sennheiser HD-58X Jubilee for some really nice open, airy, free sound. I feel like one pair for me does it all, but I do have so many that I do tend to choose whichever ones, and I’m really impressed with the Fostex TR-X00 because of their soundstage despite the closed design. I might use them from now on if I need that little extra isolation and not annoy whoever is nearby.