Closed-back headphones, otherwise known as “sealed” headphones, are extremely common and generally used for laid-back listening. Their name is indicative of their design; featuring ear-cups that have solid, unperforated exteriors to block most ambient noise from coming in. They are not to be confused with active noise-cancelling headphones. However, those do tend to adhere to the closed-back construction.
Thanks to their sealed shells, sound emitted from the drivers within a set of closed-back headphones is directed straight into a user’s eardrums. Audiophiles have often described this listening experience as immersive and as though the music they’re hearing is “in their head”. Isolated sound with heavily-reduced background noise is therefore the main selling-point of closed cans, but what other advantages (and even disadvantages) do they possess – especially in certain scenarios?
Advantages of Closed-Back Headphones
Closed-back headphones are practically made for monitoring and recording, as only a minimal amount of sound can bleed (or “spill”) from them – due to their sealed ear-cups. This makes closed-back cans ideal for musicians tracking vocals, guitars, drums or any other acoustic instrument, as hardly any audio from the headphone mix will be picked up by the microphone(s) capturing their performance. This results in a cleaner recording and greater instrument separation during the mixing stage.
Their limited amount of spill is also a plus-point if you like listening to music while working or commuting with other people around you. Not everyone has the same taste in music as you, so they’re worth investing in if you want respect from your peers or members of the public!
Perfect for Performance
The quasi noise-cancelling qualities of closed-back headphones means that they lend themselves well to live performance. If you’re playing or recording as part of an ensemble in a live room, you’ll probably want to be able to hear yourself. Trouble is, using something like wedge monitors will only cause more soundwaves to bounce around in that space; making it harder for an engineer to capture your performance, which in turn, creates a cluttered-sounding mix.
Closed-back headphones can be used as an effective alternative, allowing you to hear yourself through playback while also reducing background noise by as much as 10dB. In-ear monitors are considered an even better solution in this situation, as they cancel-out more external sound. But sealed headphones, especially those that are ‘circumaural’ (with cups that surround the ear), can work almost as well.
While closed-back cans aren’t regarded as great for mixing (we’ll get to that shortly), they are still used by engineers for detailed production work. As they limit ambient noise around you from reaching your eardrums, they can be fantastic for when you need to precisely edit audio or carry out any other technical sound work.
Disadvantages of Closed-Back Headphones
Despite their perks for recording and performance, closed-back headphones have been criticised for accentuating lower frequencies. This enhanced bass response means that they can’t offer a true representation of a song’s instrument levels, making them not particularly apt for mixing. This isn’t the case for all examples but, generally-speaking, it’s a trend that most experienced mixing engineers will attest to.
But good for DJs!
The bass-heavy nature of closed-backs can be beneficial in some scenarios though. For example, DJs typically make musical use of lower frequencies in their performances to unite audiences. Therefore, they’d require cans that not only reduce background noise efficiently, but that can also pump bass frequencies into their ears for a more realistic representation of what their listeners are experiencing front-of-house. Some brands actually manufacture dedicated DJ headphones for this purpose!
Drummers, who often play in tandem with bassists, may also prefer the unique EQ qualities of closed-back cans in order to accurately follow a bass-line when recording or performing. The same can be said of guitarists who like to stay in time by listening closely to the rhythm section.