Open-Back vs Closed-Back Headphones

High quality headphones make mixing more accurate or listening to music more enjoyable. There are two distinct varieties of headphones available: closed back and open back. Each type have specific advantages or disadvantages depending on your application. So which type is right for you?

Open-back and closed-back headphones next to each other

Closed-Back Headphones

Closed headphones are the most common variety available. In this configuration, the speaker is mounted into a solid ear-cup, which does not allow air or sound to enter or exit. The key advantage to this configuration is sound isolation. You can monitor or listen to your audio without distraction from outside noise and without disturbing those around you. Sound isolation makes closed-back models a good choice for recording applications, where you need to ensure that sound does not bleed into the microphone.

Open-Back Headphones

Open headphones have a different design. The ear-cup has holes or perforations, which allow air and sound to pass through the back of the ear-cup. Because air can pass in and out of the headphone, the sound signature is different to closed-back models. Open-back headphones are often described as sounding more natural, open, or “airy”, with a wider stereo image. This makes open-back models a great choice for recording engineers who use headphones to mix and monitor their productions. This is because they have the most accurate and most natural sound possible.

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking for a private listening experience or isolated monitoring during a recording session, your best bet is to use closed-back headphones. Open-back headphones are the most accurate and natural option, but would not be a suitable choice when listening to music in a noisy environment or when recording using a microphone.  Shure make a variety of both headphone types to suite a variety of applications and budgets. The following are some examples:

SRh440 – At under £100 these professional quality closed-back headphones are optimised for home or studio recording and provide exceptional sound reproduction at this price point.

SRH840 – The 840’s are also closed-back, and provide an ideal choice for professional audio engineers and musicians in the studio for recording and critical listening. From a personal listening perspective, they’re a little more bass heavy than our 940 model (up-next), which can enhance your favourite music if this is your thing.

SRH940 – The most accurate and flat sounding closed-back Shure model. Perfect for professional engineers who require great detail and accuracy in a closed back model also suitable for tracking. If you’re running a home or project studio and can only afford one pair of headphones – the 940’s offer the best balance between sound isolation and accuracy.

SRH1540 – The latest addition to the closed back Shure range. You could be mistaken for assuming these are an upgrade from the 940 model. This is not necessarily the case (a topic covered in our previous SRH940 vs SRH1540 post). The SRH1540 is the most premium closed personal listening experience from Shure, offering an extended low and high frequency response, and greater comfort – making them the perfect choice for music enthusiasts and audiophiles. The 940’s are still the more accurate of the two.

SRH1440 – Designed for mastering and critical listening, the 1440’s premium-padded headband provides hours of listening comfort. The perfect entry to professional open-back headphones.

SRH1840 – Developed with premium materials and precision engineering, the 1840’s are Shure’s premier open-back option. Natural, “airy”, and detailed sound, with wide stereo imaging makes them ideally suited to professional recording, mastering and audiophile applications.

The complete range of Shure headphones can be viewed on the website. If you have a question about which headphone is right for your application, pop it in the comments box below and we would be happy to assist. Happy listening.

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Marc Henshall

Marc forms part of our Pro Audio team at Shure UK and specialises in Digital Marketing. He also holds a BSc First Class Hons Degree in Music Technology. When not at work he enjoys playing the guitar, producing music, and dabbling in DIY (preferably with a good craft beer or two).

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  • Willa Porter says:

    When it comes to the best open-back headphones, I can personally vouch for the Shure SRH1840. I got them a couple of months ago after first seeing them on this list of the best mixing headphones. Before purchasing them I had been using the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro. These monitoring headphones are quite good, but not as good as the Shure SRH1840. Because of how impressed I am with them, I’m now considering getting a pair of closed-back Shure headphones. I’m currently torn between the SRH940 and the SRH1540. But before making a decision I’m gonna have to try both of them first.

  • Mad Scientist says:

    After a week listening to both of these headphones. I updated my opinion.
    The srh1840 sounds more spacious/ open than the 1540, instruments separation in some tracks is phenomenon. And I’m a neutral head so the bass of srh1840 is just right for me.
    The srh1540 has more fun sound, more accurate than 1840. The stereo imagining of 1540 is really good, it took me a while to realize the different between those two.
    In the end I decided to keep both, 1840 for open/spacious and neutral sound, 1540 for detail and fun.

    • shureUK says:

      Correct, the SRH1840’s are much more neutral. Glad to hear you liked both of them enough to keep the set; that’s quite the headphone duo you’ve got going on ;).

      Thanks for being a Shure customer. Take care!

  • Mad Scientist says:

    Is the stereo Imaging of srh1840 wider than that of srh1540. It’s pretty much the same for me. Does stereo imaging also depends on track recording ?

    • shureUK says:

      Thanks for your comment. Typically, open back designs do give the impression of a wider stereo image. However, high-end closed-backs, such as the 1540 are often described as sounding nice and “open”. Check out the review from What Hi-Hi:

      As for the track recording: The quality of your source material will always make the biggest difference to the final result.

      Hope this helps.

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