How Much Can You Hear With Open Backed Headphones?

If you’re an aspiring audiophile and are in the market for a decent pair of high-quality over-ear headphones, you definitely must’ve come across a few cans referred to as closed-back or open-backed.

Open-back headphones are generally the type that is more preferred by audiophiles. This is because open-back headphones typically have superior audio quality and a wider soundstage than closed-back alternatives.

But, a significant drawback and significant complaint that many people have about open-back headphones is the amount of sound it leaks. 

This raises an important question “Just how much can you hear with open-backed headphones?”

Are the Designs Different?

Well, due to their design, open-backed headphones tend to leak sound both ways, both in and out. When worn without audio playing through them, open-backs can make you hear all surrounding noises and make you feel like you’re not even wearing headphones at all. 

You can still hear a few things at medium volumes, like keystrokes on a mechanical keyboard, fans running, and other background sounds, but the noise will be muffled. Turning up the headphone’s volume, though, can overwhelm the ambient noise from the outside, and you won’t be able to hear what’s going on around you, but this means people around you will be able to listen to what is being played.

What Are Open-Backed Headphones?

To fully answer the question “how much can you hear with open-backed headphones,” we first need to understand the term open-backed means and how headphones with this design allow for sound leakage and poor isolation.

Open-backed headphones allow for the passage of air through their ear cups from the back of the speaker driver. This means that the sound produced by the drivers can flow both ways: into your ear and outside towards the surrounding environment.

This open design also eliminates the build-up of low frequencies and resonances often found in closed-back headphones. Generally, more expensive audiophile-grade headphones adopt this design due to the ability of open-backs to produce clear and natural audio. Although, that’s only when there’s not much background noise nearby. 

Due to not having a tight seal and good sound isolation, open-back headphones can’t block noise from the environment effectively. Additionally, they also leak audio outside. 

This means that if you intend on using open-backed cans in a public area, the people around you will be able to make out what you’re listening to. Similarly, you will also hear them unless you decide to crank the volume up to compete with the outside noise present.

So even though they might sound superb, you’re going to want to use these headphones mostly at home. 

Lastly, you’ll also want to keep these headphones at home because these types of cans are generally more fragile than closed-back headphones and should be handled with care. This is mainly because there’s less of a barrier protecting sensitive innards from moisture in open-backs.

Here’s a brief list of the pros and cons of open-back headphones:

Accurate and natural soundDoesn’t block background noise
More breathableLeaks audio a lot
No more hot ears due to the open designGenerally more expensive than closed-backs
Less fatiguing on our ears

Sound Leakage: How Much Can You Hear With Open Backed Headphones?

As stated previously in this post, the sound isolation of open-backed headphones is not ideal. Isolation refers to the overall amount of outside noise that enters the headphones when using them. 

This means that headphones with poor isolation, such as open-backed cans, will leak audio both ways. You will be able to hear people calling your name, and people in your immediate proximity will be able to listen to what’s playing. Closed-back headphones generally have better sound isolation than open-backs and prevent leakage of sound.

The question is, though, just how much sound do open-backs leak? Well, the amount of leakage varies with different headphones and brands. 

But, according to a few tests done using a bunch of different headphones, open-backed headphones were found to leak up to 30dB more audio than closed-backs at some frequencies. That’s a massive difference!

These results were compiled by playing a full-range sine frequency sweep through some open and closed-back headphones worn on a dummy head and recording the sound leakage with a mic nearby.

Although various factors affect sound leakage from headphones, this test should still provide a rough idea of how much leakage and the kind of sound isolation you should expect from open-back headphones.

How To Decide: Are Open-back Headphones For You?

The best way to determine if open-back headphones are a good choice for you is to try them out at your local store. Trying them on lets you get a feel for the sound quality, helps you assess if they are comfortable enough for your use, and decide if they are worth your money.

You are bringing a friend along when shopping can also help you figure out if the amount of sound leakage from a pair of open-backs is acceptable according to your needs. Just make them wear a pair, play some music through the headphones, and listen for any leaking audio. 

Likewise, you can also test how much you can hear through them by trying them on yourself and listening for outside noise. Just be sure to take your time and try out different volumes and genres during testing.

The Takeaway

Open-back headphones are excellent for playing back music with accurate sound and a nice wide soundstage. But, they’re not ideal for use in noisy environments. 

If you don’t want to annoy people around you and don’t like the idea of having people listen in to your choice of music, closed-backs are the better option. 

But, if audio quality and a wider soundstage is the main priority, you should be able to work through all inconveniences open-backed headphones might throw your way. 

Hopefully, this post has helped answer the question “how much can you hear with open-backed headphones” once and for all and has helped clear up most of the questions you had regarding open-back headphones.

Audiophile Haven

AudiophileHaven is a site dedicated to Hi-Fi audio, and helping others learn more about premium quality sound equipment.

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