Open or closed cup: how to choose a business headset and not live to regret it

A man wearing headphones using a laptop.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Choosing your next headset can be a complicated mission, and once you’ve decided that your personal circumstances require headphones over more compact earphones, you’re faced with another choice: open cup or closed cup.

Whether you go open or closed, both are available as smaller on-ear or larger over-ear fittings, but their uses vary dramatically and making the wrong decision could lead you to live in regret for years to come. 

Both have their merits, so it can be difficult to determine which style is best suited to you, but comparing them in the same light should help you to make the right decision.

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Open cup 

In this form, the headphone’s cup (the part that sits on or over your ear) will have some form of ventilation, usually in the form of a mesh, allowing air to pass through the drivers before it reaches your ear. Don’t be fooled by closed cup designs that have a stylistic mesh finish: you will be able to see some of the inner workings of an open cup design.

The movement of air through this vent allows your audio to sound clearer and more natural, leading to a better sound quality overall. This makes open cup perfect for jobs that require you to hear the finer details of the sound, like editors and mixers. High-resolution audio files are best played through an open cup headset.

While it helps improve the sound quality, the ventilation also plays a large part in how comfortable a headset is to wear. The free movement of air means you won’t get the warm or sweaty sensation that you might experience in closed cup headsets. This can be vital if your job requires you to wear a headset for long hours at a time as it leads to less ear fatigue.

Open cup headphones aren’t without their drawbacks though. The open design that allows air to move freely also allows sound to move freely. Not only will ambient sounds impede on your experience, but any music you’re listening to will also leak outwards - not great if you’re taking part in a confidential business call and you thought popping on a set of headphones would rule out any unwanted guests.

All of this means that open cup headphones aren’t great for loud environments like a busy office, the commute to your workplace, or the gym. 

You’re also limited to fewer choices, and those that are available are usually more expensive than their closed cup counterparts because they are aimed at higher-end customers.

Closed cup 

The back of a closed cup headphone is sealed which means that the sound is only directed into your ear. This type of headset is designed to isolate you from ambient noises, as well as prevent any sound from leaking out. The origins of this style is said to come from the military where privacy is key.

This means that a closed cup headphone naturally features passive sound cancellation, especially larger over-ear sets. As a result, active noise cancellation in a closed cup set will likely sound better than in an open cup set.

Trapping the air in a confined space also means better bass, which can lead to a more rounded experience. Be aware that low frequencies can sound amplified, though, meaning they may not sound as natural as an open cup set. This type of headset is best suited to casual listeners who don’t require the last word in sound quality. 

The opposite of what we said about open cup headphones is true of closed cup headphones in that heat buildup can make wearing them for extended periods of time uncomfortable. The lack of ventilation means you’re likely to have to take them off regularly, which many users may want to do anyway as a result of feeling distanced from their surroundings due to the higher level of noise isolation.

Compared with open cup headphones, you’ll notice a difference in noisy environments. If shutting yourself away from ambient noises is important - like a busy office or on a crowded commute - closed cup will perform better.

Which one? 

Making the right decision will come down to how and where you intend to use your headphones.

If you’re using a headset in the production of audio, whether that’s making or editing, an open cup design will allow you to hear the best quality. An open cup design is best suited to those who can virtually guarantee that they will be in quiet environments - or at least those who aren’t bothered about being isolated when they’re in busy environments.

If your purpose is just to listen to audio - whether that’s music or the person on the other end of the line - we think the benefits of a closed cup headset outweigh those of an open cup headset. Their adaptability means that they can be used in a range of environments, including noisy ones.

We think spending extra on a closed cup model with active sound cancellation balances the best of both worlds. Most models with active sound cancellation will have a toggle that enables you to allow ambient sounds in (Apple calls this its ‘Transparency’ mode in its AirPod lineup, for example). While you won’t get the superior sound that an open cup model delivers, this is unlikely to be an issue if you’re purchasing your next set of headphones on the premise that their primary use shall be for work calls and the odd bit of casual music.

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With several years’ experience freelancing in tech and automotive circles, Craig’s specific interests lie in technology that is designed to better our lives, including AI and ML, productivity aids, and smart fitness. He is also passionate about cars and the decarbonisation of personal transportation. As an avid bargain-hunter, you can be sure that any deal Craig finds is top value!