Looking for a set of headphones that offer good isolation? Here's our selection of models from some of the leading brands, with links to the SOS review where available.
Open-backed headphones are generally considered to offer superior sound compared with their closed-back cousins. So why would you opt for the latter?
Broadly speaking, headphones can be divided into two types: open-backed and closed-backed. The chief difference between the two is that in the former, the rear-facing side of the diaphragm is exposed to the outside world, while in the latter it is not. In terms of sound quality, the open-backed type is capable of superior results, because the diaphragm isn't pushing against a sealed volume of air, and can thus move more freely — which translates directly to lower distortion. The disadvantage of such headphones, however, is that sound from the outside world can more easily reach the listener's ear, and also that sound intended for the listener can creep out to the outside world. This lack of isolation can, in many circumstances, be a real problem, hence the popularity of closed-back cans in both live and studio situations.
Most home-studio owners don't have the luxury of dedicated live and control rooms, and this can make the art of perfecting a microphone's position a somewhat hit-and-miss affair. While some engineers swear by using their ears alone as the judge of where to point a microphone, the most sure-fire way to know you've got it right is to monitor the signal from the microphone itself — and in the absence of a soundproof control room in which to monitor things, headphones are pretty much the only way to do so. If you're manoeuvring around a drum kit, say, or a loud guitar amp, you'll need some pretty serious isolation from your headphones in order to hear how your mic position is making a difference.
The ability of closed-back headphones to prevent sound travelling in the opposite direction — from the diaphragms back out into the room — also makes them invaluable for artist foldback. Many an excellent vocal take has been ruined by leaky headphones projecting sound back into the vocal mic. Metronomes are notorious for this, since they continue even during quiet sections of a song, and can therefore be impossible to effectively silence or mask in a mix.
The advantage of improved isolation also makes closed-back headphones popular with live-sound engineers. People who mix shows usually have to do so in very loud environments, which aren't the best place for trying to tune a noise gate or set up a compressor! Indeed, some headphones, such as the AKG K171 MkIIs and Beyerdynamic's DT770Ms, are designed specifically for this role, and accordingly achieve extremely high levels of sound isolation.
The final advantage that closed-back headphones have over open-backed ones is price — they are almost always significantly cheaper! And in the case of headphones intended for foldback, where fidelity is lower on the list of priority than low leakage, you really needn't spend a fortune. Indeed, you could feasibly buy enough closed-back cans to satisfy a whole band's worth of foldback mixes for under £100 $100!
The KNS 8400s are KRK's first headphone design. They are light and comfortable (the ear cushions are made of memory foam), and their emphasis on the mid-range makes them useful for checking mixes.
Focusrite +44 (0)1494 462246
www.krksys.com KRK Systems +1 954 949 9600
Ultrasone are unique among the manufacturers here in that they truly specialise in headphones — they don't make anything else! All their models, including these, use what Ultrasone call S-Logic 'Natural Surround', whereby the drivers aim at your outer rather than inner ear, a design which is claimed to yield a more natural sound.
Synthax Audio +44 (0) 1727 821870
www.ultrasone.com Ultrasone +1 951 677 4600
The closed-back design of these headphones is claimed to offer outstanding isolation, which should make them suitable for tracking purposes. The headband is self-adjusting, promising a comfortable fit for most users.
www.samsontech.com Samson Technologies +1 631 784 2200
Claimed by Sennheiser to attenuate external sounds by up to 32dB, the HD380 Pros can deliver up to 110dB SPL, thus making them suitable for drummers and players of other loud instruments. They come with their own carry case, and are covered by a two-year warranty.
Sennheiser UK +44 (0)1494 551551
www.sennheiser.co.uk Sennheiser USA +1 860 434 9190
Boasting a frequency response of 5Hz to 35kHz, the DT770s have proven extremely popular not only for their isolating qualities, but also for their neutral reproduction, which makes them suitable for mixing as well as tracking.
Polar Audio +44 (0)1444 258258
www.beyerdynamic.com Beyerdynamic USA +1 631 293 3200
Unusually, the AKG K171 MkIIs are designed for live front-of-house engineers and drummers. AKG claim to have met these two specific needs by endowing these cans with a high output and excellent isolation, to overcome the inherent levels of background noise in either scenario.
Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000
www.akg.com Harman USA +1 800 342 6939
Said to offer extremely good isolation, the ATH M50s' low impedance (38Ω) should mean that they'll work well with pretty much any device, from high-end headphone amps to consumer music devices. The company have just announced an updated version, the ATH M50x, which you can read about in this month's news.
Audio-Technica +44 (0)1132 771441
www.audio-technica.com Audio-Technica +1 330 686 2600
Although the TH7BBs are described by Fostex as 'semi-open', in our review we found them to offer impressive isolation comparable with most closed-back cans, hence their inclusion here. We also found them easy to drive loud, which bodes well for use in live situations or for drummer foldback mixes.
American Music & Sound +1 800 431 2609
SCV London +44 (0)20 8418 1470
Offering "high-definition bass and ultra-transparent highs”, the HPS5000s are, like most Behringer products, affordable. Their closed-back design should make them suitable for tracking, so they might be an ideal choice if you need several pairs of headphones for recording multiple musicians at a time.
The Music Group +49 2154 9206 4149
www.behringer.com The Music Group +1 425 672 0816
The SRH1540s sit at the very top of Shure's range of closed-back models. Their 40mm diaphragms are powered by neodymium magnets, and coated to reduce harmonic distortion. Their frequency response extends from 5Hz to 25kHz, and they ship with a detachable cable and replacement ear pads.
Shure UK +44 (0)1992 703058
www.shure.co.uk Shure +1 847 600 2000
French monitor experts Focal wowed us last month with their new closed-back Spirit Pro headphones. In our review, we praised their revealing sound and, especially, their impressive degree of isolation.
SCV London +44 (0)20 8418 1470
www.focal.com Audio Plus Services +1 800 663 9352