Open-Back vs Closed-Back vs Semi-Open Studio Headphones. Which One Is Right For You?
When choosing which studio headphones you want to buy, there are three types to consider – open-back headphones, closed-back, and semi-open. And they all serve a distinct purpose depending on what you want to achieve. Let’s go through each type so you can make the right decision. We’ll also recommend several pairs along the way.
Open-back studio headphones mostly are ‘open’ at the back of the earcups. Well, not completely. Usually, they feature some sort of grill or hole design, which allows air to flow to the internal speaker components such as the drivers.
When it comes to sound quality, open-back style is consistently ranked amongst the best studio headphones you can buy.
Why? Because they offer superior sound quality!
The design allows for a more natural soundstage where the sound is both coming to your ears and moving away into the surrounding environment. There is also little echo and minimal pressure. These qualities mean that music is more natural and feels like it comes from around you rather than just from the speakers themselves.
If you’re a music professional, you want to get open-back headphones for mixing or mastering. These applications require you to hear the best quality and most accurate sound possible.
The bad news is that since sound leaks out into the environment, everyone can hear what you are listening to, and you can hear what is going on around you. It’s best to use these types of headphones in quiet and private environments.
If money is no object, the Sennheiser HD 800 S is widely regarded as the best open-back headphone. We don’t blame you if the price tag is a little too exuberant. In that case, the Sennheiser HD 600 is also a great choice. Otherwise, check out the AKG K240’s which can be grabbed for under $100.
As the name suggests, closed-back headphones feature closed earcups. Naturally, this makes them great at blocking out surrounding noises. Typically, they can reduce surrounding noise by more than 10dB, and if you were to turn the volume up, you could virtually cancel out any noise other then what is being listened to. Some even come with active noise-cancellation, which emits waves that essentially cancel out outside sound.
Hence, closed-back headphones are fabulous for recording. Say you’re listening to a track and then need to record yourself playing an instrument or singing. There will be minimal sound escaping the earcups so the recording will not be distorted with that extra sound.
Furthermore, these headphones are fabulous for public use since environmental sound will be kept to a minimum and won’t disturb those around you. The bad news is that this limits the soundstage by only directing sound towards your ear, so of course, the sound is not as natural as using an open-back design. This creates a sort of ‘in your head’ listening experience. Plus, your ears will have less breathing room, so they are more likely to get hot, stuffy, and uncomfortable after long listening sessions.
When it comes to balancing price and performance, Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x is about as good as it gets. In fact, they are regarded by many audiophiles and sound engineers as the best closed-back studio headphones period.
Semi-open headphones strike a balance between the other two types.
They are mostly closed-back in appearance but still show parts of the internal headphone elements. Therefore, there is some movement of air through the earcups.
Mostly, they have the advantages and disadvantages of open-back and closed-back headphones, but to a lesser degree.
Sound does leak out, to a lesser extent. At the same time, noise isolation can be OK but not as good as closed-back headphones. On top of this, the sound does have a wider sound stage, but again, it is not as complete as you would get with open-back headphones.
So, what does this mean in a practical sense?
Well, since there is sound leakage, it’s recommended your listening sessions be done in privacy. Furthermore, If you need to do some recording, sound may leak and cloud your music.
It’s for these reasons that semi-open headphones have divided opinion amongst music professionals. Some argue that they strike a great middle-ground while others wonder what the real advantages are if they cannot indeed excel in mixing or recording.
At the end of the day, the decisions to invest in such a pair of headphones is up to you. But if you are specifically going to record or mix, you are probably best to either get open-back or closed-back.
It can be tricky to choose which semi-open headphones to recommend. After all, defining such a type of headphone isn’t an exact science. The Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro’s will not disappoint and strike a balance between being well priced as well as performing to an exceptionally high industry standard.
The Truth About Headphone Types
Although these labels are handy when choosing which type of headphone is right for you, a lot of it comes down to marketing. And as we know, marketing does not always benefit the buyer, but instead helps sells units and makes more money for the manufacturer.
Some closed-back headphones have a lot of sound leakages, while some open-back headphones do not really sound that great. When you get to a higher price range, you will notice that many closed-back sounds as good, If not better than other open or semi-open designs.
One of the best ways of telling if a studio headphone is worth its weight in gold is to see how long it’s been used in the industry. Unlike other technology products, studio headphone manufacturers tend to stick with what works. If they can perfect a pair of headphones, you’ll see those headphones circulating for years, sometimes decades.
After all, if a specific pair of headphones has been used by studio professionals for years, surely that means it’s a good pair?
Of course, there are other ways you can perform your due diligence before buying a new set. Read reviews across multiple reputable sites and test them in-store if you can. Doing so will ensure you make the right purchasing decision.