Ultimate Guide to the Best Closed Back Headphones
Over-ear headphones come in two main varieties: open back and closed back. Each have their own features, strengths, weaknesses, design differences, and situational advantages to consider when making a purchase. In this buying guide, we’ll look the advantages, disadvantages, and specific functions we’ll encounter when using closed back headphones, design choices that set the best apart from the rest, and finally go through a list of the best closed back headphones in 2019.
If you’re looking for closed back headphones specifically geared towards music production, take a look at this buying guide.
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In a Hurry? Here’s Our Top 3
10 of the Best Closed Back Headphones
NAD VISO HP50 (Best Closed Back Headphones – Budget)
Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 SonicPro
V-MODA Crossfade M-100 (Best Closed Back Headphones – Mid range)
Sennheiser Momentum 2.0
Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H6
MrSpeakers Aeon Flow (Best Closed Back Headphones – High-end)
Fostex TH900 Mk2
Why Do I Need Closed Back Headphones?
In general, all headphones can serve as as a second reference during the mixing and mastering phases of production. Closed back headphones specifically are great for recording because of their ability to block outside noise from reaching the wearer’s ears. They also have several other advantages that we should consider.
- Both open & closed back headphones
- Save room! They are much smaller than speakers.
- Can be geared towards portability and mobility in some models
- Relatively low noise when in use due to proximity to the listener and the inversely squared relationship between sound intensity and distance
- Good for identifying flaws, clicks, and pops in your mixes if you’re a producer
- Closed back headphones only
- Forms an acoustic barrier between the listener and the surrounding environment.
- Don’t need to worry about room acoustics and background noise as much
- Eliminate feedback when recording
- Better to use in noisy, public places
When compared to speakers or studio monitors, headphones do have many disadvantages as well. These include poorer sound quality, poorer stereo imaging, relatively inaccurate frequency response, and discomfort.
- Both open & closed back headphones
- Harder to judge the loudness of percussive elements when compared to monitors
- Harder to judge stereo width when compared to monitors
- Not advised as a sole reference for an entire mix – headphones should be used with monitors to reference each other!
- Closed back headphones only
- Low-end response is generally less accurate when compared to studio monitors or open back headphones
- Sound is “trapped” inside the ear cups, which also causes inaccuracies
- Heat and sweat can build up during long sessions
Design Choices for the Best Closed Back Headphones
The decisions that engineers make while designing a pair of closed back headphones have a lot to do with how good they are, and how expensive, too! Below is a list of some of the design choices to consider in your search for the best closed back headphones for you and your needs.
Build Quality & Materials
The padding is a very important part of your headphones for two reasons: comfort and sound isolation. The best closed back headphones put a big emphasis on comfort and isolation. Below are some typical materials you’ll find that enhance the comfort and isolation of the padding:
- Memory foam – denser is better for sound isolation
- Leather – comes from the skin of livestock. Comfy but may become sticky when sweating happens.
- Velour – a soft, knitted fabric or textile usually made of cotton
- Alcantara – a soft, synthetic material developed in the 1970s in Japan. Sometimes found in automotive interiors as well
- Lambskin – it’s soft, and it comes from lambs. Vegans, you’ve been warned!
The headband should a thin band of strong, ductile metal, usually stainless steel. Stainless steel is corrosion resistant (will not rust when exposed to sweat) and can take quite a beating too. The headband should be lightly padded and covered with leather or some type of durable synthetic material like the ones mentioned above.
Connectors should be designed to minimize stress at the point where the connector and cable conductor are soldered together. Usually, headphones for commercial and consumer audio purposes are the 3.5 mm TRS variety, and connectors for professional audio and broadcast are the 6.35 mm TRS variety, also called quarter inch connectors.
Some high-end headphones use 4-pin XLR connectors. The connectors should be gold or silver alloy plated to prevent corrosion that may eventually impede the signal.
The cables used in the best closed back headphones will be shielded and balanced. Why do these things matter? Well, shielding and balancing are two methods that engineers use to reduce or eliminate radio-frequency noise from distorting your audio signal.
Ever have your phone near a speaker and hear random clicks, pops, and static noise coming from the speaker just before a call or text? This is RF noise from your phone at play.
The magnets are important because they provide the magnetic field that interacts with the voice coil. We want magnets with a high strength-to-weight ratio that will not lose their field strength over time. For this application, the best closed back headphones will have rare-earth magnets like neodymium or samarium-cobalt.
Housing & Frames
The housings are the parts that cover the headphone drivers and diaphragms. They should be made of a strong, corrosion resistant, and lightweight material like anodized aluminum or high-strength plastic. Some high-end models use wood as the housing material, which can reduce resonance and add unique sound characteristics to the headphone. They should also be thick enough so that they will not crack when run over by a steam roller, thrown out off an airplane, or sunk to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (not advised).
The voice coil is an important component because how responsive and agile it is is directly related to the accuracy of the audio that the headphones can reproduce. Agility, and hence weight reduction are key when it comes to voice coil design, as lighter coil weight means more precise movement and more accurate sound.
Engineers choose CCAW (copper-clad aluminum wire) for the voice coil conductor as a weight reduction measure since aluminum weighs significantly less than copper.
A second weight reduction method is the use of thinner (higher gauge) wires. This, however, will require more windings, which increases the impedance and usually necessitates a headphone amplifier to drive the coils. Some headphones use both of these weight reduction methods in conjunction with each other to create headphones with very high fidelity.
We touched on this above, but electrical impedance is the resistance to current flow. Generally speaking, for headphones, higher impedance means higher fidelity because it is a direct result of weight reduction in the voice coil.
For all headphones used for casual listening mentioned here, the impedance ratings are relatively low. This means that the transducers can all be driven without problems by a mobile device like a smartphone. No need to worry about an amp unless you’re after an even more refined sound.
The frequency response is like the “sonic personality” of the headphones. For instance, some of the best closed back headphones will have a higher bass response, meaning lower frequencies are slightly exaggerated, adding to the low-end thump found in hip hop and dance music.
There is no “best” frequency response curve. Some buyers will prefer a more tame low end and opt for a better treble response. And some like a completely flat, uncolored reproduction of their audio. This is all personal taste and will have a lot to do with what type of music or audio you listen to. Below is a typical V-shaped response you’ll find in a lot of headphones. If you can find the data, I highly suggest considering the frequency response before making a purchase.
There is also some debate out there on whether or not a frequency response range that exceeds human hearing (below 20 Hz, above 20 kHz) effects the sound or not. Some headphones have an upper limit of 30 kHz or more. This means they can reproduce audio in that range, but you can’t hear it.
My personal opinion is that the extended range is simply clever marketing aimed at uninformed buyers. While there is some reasoning behind up to 22 kHz (effects of roll-off), anything above that doesn’t make much sense.
This type of marketing hype happens a lot in both consumer and pro audio. Add in the subjectivity of human hearing and you have the perfect recipe for raging debates on everything from copper conductor purity to sample rate to frequency response.
Total Harmonic Distortion
THD, also known as total harmonic distortion, is a measurement of unwanted harmonic content in your audio signal. THD is a product of the circuitry of your amplifier and the headphones themselves, among other things, and increases as volume is turned up.
The key takeaway here is that higher THD means lower fidelity and lower accuracy when it comes to audio reproduction. High-end cans have a THD of less than 0.1%.
Driver diameter plays a big part in how your headphones will sound. Usually bigger means better. Larger drivers mean larger diaphragms, and this will effect the accuracy of the bass response of your headphones.
Specific Uses & Other Considerations
These are the more subjective items to consider when purchasing a pair of closed back headphones. Of course there is no “best” fitment size, or cable length, these are situational decisions you’ll need to think about to make a choice that best serves you.
- Size – How big is is your head?
- Foldability – Will you be carrying them from place to place, or mostly using them in a stationary studio?
- Cable length – Will your connection point be far from you when you use them?
- Amped or not amped – Depending on the impedance, you may or may not need to buy a separate amplifier for your headphones. This in turn will effect overall price of your purchase.
- Price – What can you afford? What level of quality are you willing to pay for?
Some of these factors along with the prices and buyer’s reviews were accounted for while formulating this list of the best closed back headphones in 2019. Without further ado, let’s take a look.
Best Closed Back Headphones: Concluding Remarks
We can see plainly that the best closed back headphones can vary wildly in price, from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. So, ultimately, your decision here will mostly be based on price. Cost-wise, it’s what level of quality you’re willing to pay for. As we’ve seen, there is a wide range of capabilities across the board. The list we covered is really just a snapshot of what’s out there.
Have a pair of closed back headphones I missed? Let me know in the comments. But for now, that wraps it up for this buying guide. Thank you for reading, and I hope this list helps you make a great choice for your closed back headphone purchase!