Headphones - Open or Closed?

The physical difference between open and closed headphones is in the construction of the enclosure to the headphone drivers. The closed ones are a sealed unit with no holes; the open versions have holes which allow air to freely move in and out of the back of the headphone driver into the surrounding airspace.

The one difference that makes to the user is that open ones will allow sound from the back of the driver to escape (which can prove annoying for those around you!), but more importantly for monitoring purposes they will allow the noise in the room around you to get through to your ears. Closed ones obviously minimise the effect of both those problems. Closed headphones also have a plus side when it comes to bass. Being a similar concept to a loudspeaker cabinet means that the cavity design can be tweaked to produce a flatter and more extended bass response down below 10hz.

The downside of closed headphones is that because the speaker driver is essentially mounted in a very small sealed box right up against your ear they can sound a bit dead and non-dimensional. The driver can’t respond to transients as fast due to less air pressure against the rear of the driver, so there is a loss of fidelity.

Open headphones on the other hand can respond more quickly, they also don’t have the problem of coloration caused by standing waves and reflections from the solid back, leading to higher fidelity. Add these factors to the subtle mixing of the signal with external sounds and you get a more 3 dimensional sound stage, more akin to listening to live music.

So for critical monitoring applications where you need to accurately work out what’s going down on the recording then the closed back option is the weapon of choice, otherwise background noise could well mask low level detail or problems with the recording. Secondly if you’re using them for vocal or instrument work with an open mic close by then closed back is essential otherwise you could get bleed through of the headphones into the mic, which at the least will cause phasing issues and at worst you’ll get nasty feedback.

Whilst the majority of our pro-audio and DJ customers will be needing closed back headphones, we do sell a lot of top end open hi-fi headphones such at the Sennheiser HD600/HD650 to studios who are wanting to monitor in a quiet environment with higher fidelity. However caution needs to be used whenever this is done and you must make sure all studio monitors are turned down, otherwise you could experience major phasing issues between the headphone audio and the slightly delayed sound from the monitors reaching your ears.

A final and very important word for all the budget conscious who are wanting to save money on monitors and create a good stereo mix using headphones… DON’T!!! Unfortunately you can’t get a 100% accurate stereo mix using headphones only. That is due to the fact that when listening to monitors your left ear will still pick up the sound that’s coming out of the right speaker, same for your right ear with the left speaker. There will be a very small time difference in the sound reaching the 2 ears, which is the whole principle behind a stereo image and how your brain creates it. When you listen to headphones each ear is listening to a totally isolated signal from that side of the audio, totally missing out on the other track. This therefore can greatly reduce the stereo image produced by the brain. So in conclusion, yes closed back headphones are a great option for track laying and basic monitoring, but when creating a final stereo mix, especially one with lots of stereo reverb/FX, then a good set of studio monitors are essential.

If you would like any advice about which headphones are most suited to your application and budget please feel free to contact us.