Though there are many types of full-size (circumaural) or earpad (supra-aural) headphones, for this blog I'm going to compare an open-back headphone from Grado, the SR225i ($200), with a closed-back headphone from Phiaton, the PS 500 ($299).
Sure, other manufacturers make open- and closed-back (aka sealed) headphones, but generalizations about the sound of the two types hold up pretty well. DJs, musicians, and recording engineers generally prefer closed headphones because they seal the wearer's ears, limiting how much sound they hear from the world around them, and at the same time, people close to the person wearing the headphones don't hear very much sound "leaking" from the headphones. So closed 'phones are great to wear in bed. Isolation from external sound isn't as effective as a noise-canceling headphone, but the closed-back headphone doesn't use batteries to power the noise-canceling circuitry. And closed-back headphones tend to make a lot more bass than similarly priced open-back designs.
The Phiaton PS 500's outer earcups and earpads are covered with genuine black leather, and the cloth-covered cable adds a touch of luxury to the design. It's a very comfortable and beautifully built headphone.
With an open-back headphone, like the Grado SR225i, you hear external sound quite clearly. This is a good thing if you ever want to listen on the street. Anyone near you will hear some of the sound of the Grado. Bass may not have the weight of a closed-back design, but the bass quality and definition are clearer than most closed-back designs. Open-back headphones tend to be directed to the audiophile market, but that's not to say there aren't closed models that appeal to audiophiles. For me, the biggest sonic difference is spatial: closed headphones make a sound that's "inside the head," and open models are literally more open, so they sound a bit more like speakers. The better closed headphones exhibit less of the inside-the-head quality, but they sound less open than the very best open headphone models. … Read more