Open-back headphones are pretty common in the audio world, especially among audiophiles and audio engineers. But when it comes to earbuds, the convention prioritizes noise isolation, portability, and ease of use.
It seems like good sound quality and convenience are two competing forces that never get along well. But this is changing thanks to open-back earbuds. Let’s see what they are, how they work, their pros and cons, and if they are worth the money.
Difference Between Open-Back and Closed-Back
So, before considering open-back earbuds, you need to know the difference between open-back and closed-back headphone designs. The former is designed to let air and ambient noise around you pass through the speaker driver and into your ears, whereas the latter blocks it for better isolation.
Most consumer-grade headphones (in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear alike) have a closed back because people simply prefer it that way, and it’s also cheaper to produce. With closed-back headphones, you can ignore the outside world and enjoy your music without disturbance.
However, this design has a flaw: it doesn’t feel natural.
You must’ve noticed that after a long listening session in closed-back headphones, your ears start to warm up and sweat. That’s because the enclosure causes the ear cups to trap heat, which results in sweating as a natural bodily reaction to cool down.
Open-back headphones solve this problem by letting in air to help your ears “breathe” and facilitate a more immersive listening experience. Many high-end headphones have this design because it has better soundstage and audio imaging. You’ll find countless audiophiles recommending open-back headphones if you want the best sound quality possible.
But, they’re not free from limitations. The open design leaks out sound from the drivers, meaning someone sitting next to you can hear (although not clearly) what you’re listening to. Also, if you’re in a noisy environment, all those sounds will hinder your listening session.
To fully experience the prowess of open-back headphones, you need a quiet environment (or one with soothing ambient noise) with minimal disturbances. That’s why most people who have them only use them indoors. They’re just not a good fit for outdoor use like the gym, jogging, commute, etc. Furthermore, most open-back headphones and earbuds are not friends with water and do not come with a water resistance rating. When you think about their design, it makes sense, as they have a giant, open vent on the rear, which allows water ingress to critical components.
So, Why Make Open-Back Earbuds?
At first glance, open-back earbuds don’t make sense because TWS earbuds today already come with Transparency Mode that amplifies ambient noise using the mic on the earpieces, so you can hear your surroundings clearly.
However, open-back earbuds have one major advantage over the alternatives: they make the open-back experience portable and fit for outdoor use. With them, you can enjoy the natural sound that audiophiles keep raving about, all while paying attention to your surroundings when doing outdoor chores and activities.
In other words, they offer a sound similar to open-back headphones in the body of TWS earbuds. Some examples of this form factor are the Sony Linkbuds and the Audeze LCDi3. The former is a pair of open-back TWS earbuds made for casual users, while the latter is a pair of open-back in-ear monitors (IEMs) for audiophiles.
As innovative as they are, open-back earbuds are still a niche product. They’re trying to solve a problem that’s already been solved, just in a “better” way. Plus, since they obviously can’t have Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), they won’t adapt to your changing needs for when you need to isolate yourself from ambient noise.
Open-Back Earbuds Require Commitment
As of right now, you should probably not buy open-back earbuds unless you’re an audiophile looking for a miniature version of open-back headphones. The tech is still very young and needs a few iterations before it becomes recommendable.
Even then, it’s not a good fit for most causal users because you’re giving up ANC for something that’s basically a natural version of Transparency Mode. That’s a sacrifice that most people wouldn’t be willing to make.
Earbuds are great, but are IEMs even better? What’s the difference between IEMs and earbuds, anyway?
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