Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 6

3d1This post is part of my series of blog posts and slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater. In this post, I cover the difference between closed back and open back around-ear headphones.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, Blu-ray disadvantage
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance, analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream, Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, broadband internet router

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins

Two Types of Around-ear Headphones

There are two types of around-ear headphones: Open back and closed back (or simply “open” and “closed”). Each type offers distinct pros and cons, making it a game of matching the correct type to your particular preferences and listening environment(s).

Closed headphones are best for noisy environments, where you can’t afford to bother others, or if you want a more intimate, “in your head” listening experience. Open headphones typically provide the best sound possible. If you’re a home theater owner who is also an armchair audiophile, this is the type toward which you should gravitate. This design offers a much wider soundstage than closed headphones (their biggest advantage) and don’t suffer the heat buildup of some closed models. If you purchase some of your favorite albums in a high-resolution format like SACD or DVD-Audio or as a vinyl LP, open-back headphones are beckoning to you.

There are also open-back and closed-back models of on-ear headphones (with Grado being one of the best examples of a high-quality open-back, on-ear brand). However, on-ear models are obviously inherently less sound isolating than around-ear types. Thus, many closed-back on-ear models do a relatively poor job of separating your ears from the outside world (but sometimes a good job of dissipating heat from your ears).

Open Back

Because open-back headphones leak sound and offer very little (and sometimes zero) sound isolation, they can be bad for two reasons. They’re rude to those around you, but also ruin your experience by tainting it with local conversations and ambient noise. This is why these models are best positioned as a part of your home theater, never leaving your living room or den. Closed-back headphones are much more common than open back (and are often less expensive). In a perfect world, you’d own a nice pair of each type, pulling out a particular model when the situation was most appropriate.

Some of the best models of open-back headphones—many within an affordable range—are produced by Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser. Notable models from Sennheiser range in price from the HD 518 at $130 to the HD 598 at $250 (street price $180) to the universally loved HD 600 at $400. Beyerdynamic offers models ranging in price from under $100 to several hundred, including the DTX 710 ($80), DTX 910 ($100), and DT 440 ($210). If you want to spend a bit more, the company also makes the DT 990 ($400) and T 90 ($680), topping out with the $1,400 T 1.

Other good models of open-back phones include the Shure SRH1440 Pro at $300 and SRH1840 at $700 ($500 street price). If you have deep pockets or want to frustrate your spouse, consider the universally lauded and ultra-pricey Audeze (“Aw-deh-zee”) LCD3 for $2,000. If that’s not quite good enough (or expensive enough) for you, consider the Stax SR-009 at a divorce-summoning $4,500. Yikes. The SR-009 makes Sennheiser’s best open-back model, the $1,500 HD 800, look cheap.

Closed Back

Also called “sealed” headphones, closed-back types are, unlike their open-backed siblings, great for being in public or noisy environments. Closed-back units, along with in-ear models, are among the best at noise isolation. Whether they’re preventing the noise around you from tainting your audio or protecting those around you from your poor taste in music, closed-back headphones typically do the job with practicality, good fidelity, and sometimes great value.

Sennheiser offers closed-back headphones ranging in price from $35 to $300, include the $300 Momentum and $200 ($140 street price) HD 380 Pro. Other recommended models include the $400 B&W P7, the award-winning $300 PSB M4U 1, the AKG K 550 for $240, and the Beyerdynamic DT 660 for $250. Also consider the T 70, Beyerdynamic’s most expensive closed-back model at $600.

Of note is Skullcandy. While not the first name to come to mind when audiophiles think of headphones, this company is on a rampage producing models that perform well at loud volumes and often feature enhanced bass. Many professional headphone reviewers and journalists believe the $150 Aviator and $330 Mix Master are two of the finest closed-back headphones in their respective price categories (if you don’t mind their lack of transparency).

I’ve had both closed-back and open-back models that I’ve really loved—but only within their respective intended environments. There are many great closed-back headphones available, some of which are almost amazingly reasonably priced. Two of my favorites are the previously mentioned Sennheiser HD 380 Pro and the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (and M50x). Both sound great, are relatively transparent (providing natural, unbiased sound reproduction), and are excellent values. Many models costing much more don’t sound as good.

[Also check out Understanding Headphone Amps.]

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.