My buddy Steve and I would get on the BART subway system in Northern California’s Bay Area every morning. We’d spend about an hour on the train as we headed to our office in San Francisco. And each morning we’d put in headphones to listen to our own music or audiobooks.
Most mornings we had our routine down. No issues. No problems. But if you’ve ever spent time on a subway train, you have likely experienced that moment when someone sitting close to you had headphones on and you can still hear their music. Well, that happened to us one morning.
Only, here’s the thing - we were wearing our own headphones. Not fancy ones - just the new white ones that came with Apple iPods. But still! We had headphones in. Someone else had their own on, and we could still hear their music louder than our own!
That’s what can happen when you use open-back headphones. Sound leaks. On purpose. And on trains it’s a bad thing. But in my home office, I don’t mind it at all - since I’m the only one here.
Which brings us to the question - which is better, open-back or closed-back headphones?
Open-Back or Closed-Back Headphones - Which is better?
When are open-back headphones the right choice?
Open-back headphones are best when you don’t have to worry about others hearing your music. Open-back headphones are best when you want to enjoy your music as if you were listening to a nice stereo in your living room.
Open-back headphones deliver a better experience when you’re listening for long periods of time, want to be aware of your surroundings (because sound comes in), and don’t mind that some sound is leaking (as it goes out the open back).
But this review is for the Massdrop Focal Elex because they’re my new favorites! We’ll get there in a just a second….but first,
When are closed-back headphones the right choice?
Closed-back headphones are what I use most. That’s because I’m on planes a lot - and the guy or gal sitting next to me didn’t sign up to hear my music. When I visit our company’s offices, I sit next to co-workers who have their own music preferences - so again, it’s not a great place for open-back headphones.
Closed-back headphones are great when you want isolation. They’re great when you don’t want the rest of the world to intrude on your time listening to music. When you want to focus on what you’re hearing, they’re the best.
This is when I tell you that my favorites continue to be the Noise Cancelling Headphones WH1000XM3 by Sony.
The Focal Elex open-backed headphones
Where did these come from?
If you’ve never heard of Focal, what you likely should know is that they make speakers. That’s important because when it comes to enjoying music when you put these headphones on, it feels like you’re listening to speakers more than headphones. And that’s not something that’s easy to do.
Focal had three pairs of headphones that I was aware of - Elear ($500), Clear ($1000), and Utopia ($4000). The reviews had ranged from interesting to great but the price points suggested I might never get the Utopias on my ears.
Thankfully, Drop, formerly of Massdrop fame, does what it does. It finds tech like headphones and an audience and then works with the manufacturer to help provide enough feedback and suggestions to get a custom version.
That’s how the Focal Elex came to be. You can find them here.
How do they sound?
The first song I played was Miles Davis’ So What, from Kind of Blue. I do that because I want to know how well I’ll hear the bass and whether the headphones can deliver the punch that comes from the piano. Just before you hit the minute mark in the song, you’re going to hear all the instruments - and I want to hear the crispness of the symbols, while the piano, trumpet, and bass move me forward.
This is the kind of song you want to enjoy with open-backed headphones. I feel like I’ve stepped into a jazz lounge and these guys are at the front of the room. It’s airy. The soundstage is large. They don’t sound like they’re playing in my ears. Instead it sounds like they’re playing in the room.
D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar is next. This is a step away from the jazz I was just listening to, but still carries some running bass, an organ, and the snare drums. More importantly, now I get vocals and background vocals. What can I say except that nothing is muddy. Everything is crisp, clean, and the vocals float.
To change things up, I switched to Synchronicity II by The Police. The drums kick in the beat with Sting yelling, guitar starting its riff, and I fall in love with these headphones. This is when I like adjusting the volume - going high and low - to see if things go from great to crap. But like I assumed, everything is perfect!
How do they feel on my head after 6 hours?
When I test headphones with Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), I like to wear a pair of headphones for hours to see if my ears feel the fatigue that some pairs of headphones can create. These were open-backed headphones, so the test was a little different.
Headphones of this weight, like the Elex, can make your neck sore. I know folks who have purchased headphones I’ve suggested before, who circle back and tell me they were too heavy. So I work the Elex for 6 hours. And all I can tell you is that they didn’t feel too heavy for me. I wasn’t sore at the end.
How did they hold up in bed?
On my old headphones blog I would rate the headphones and one of my consistent ratings was on how sturdy they were. One of my tests was to wear them in bed.
You might ask why?
Ultimately, the ear pads would feel too stiff and make them feel uncomfortable when laying down with a pillow behind my head. Or worse, after an hour or two, I’d move in a certain way and they’d fall off. And I’m talking about ear pads that weren’t supposed to come off!
So how did the Elex pair do? Excellently. For two nights I took them up to bed, knowing that I would have a few hours to listen to music before falling asleep. They were comfortable, didn’t create any soreness, and didn’t break.
Did I mention? These are now my favorite open-backed headphones.
So the final verdict is that I’ll be taking these with me for my hotel stays as I travel. I won’t use them on the plane, but since I’m used to carrying two pairs of over-the-ear headphones, it won’t be a problem.
Can I tell you what else I’ll be carrying with me? Beyond my Tidal account for hifi music downloads? Here is what’s going in my bag with these headphones:
Both of these make it easy to listen to the best audio ever - which is fantastic if you have a pair of Elex on your head.