If you’ve made a decision that you want to invest in a set of headphones that you aim to use for guitar practice, you’ve come to the right spot. There are numerous headphone types, each packing a unique bag of tricks, benefits, and shortcomings.
In short, both open and closed-back cans are great for practice from a subjective point. OB headphones are generally a bit more comfortable to use while CB cans can tolerate higher frequencies; open-back headphones are terrific for recording and critical listening while closed-back headphones are more suited for mixing and casual listening.
Before we answer the question before us, let’s dive into a bit more detail regarding what open and closed-back headphones are, their advantages, and their disadvantages:
Closed-Back or Open-Back Headphones for Guitar Practice?
Open-Back Headphones in a Nutshell
Essentially, OB headphones feature ‘exposed’ speakers that allow the air to freely circulate between the cups. In some cases, the speakers are guarded by wires, but such features are simply meant to reinforce the durability of the cans.
Open-back headphones alleviate most of the pressure that’s building up through high-volume sounds and low-frequency notes, eliminating the natural reverb. They’re also, at least in most cases, slightly lighter in comparison to closed-back headphones, and they certainly don’t cause as much ear fatigue.
The ‘lack’ of a sealing element on the speakers, however, also has a significant impact on the headphone’s ability to negate ambient sounds. A good portion of the sound will ‘bleed’ into the environment because of this.
Benefits of Open-Back Headphones
The first and most notable benefit of OB headphones is unparalleled comfort. The fact that they’re light and pressure-free will possibly lead you to forget that you’re even wearing them, allowing you to concentrate on your playing and embrace the music and all of its beautiful moments.
Secondly, open-back headphones mimic the effects of low and high-pass filters in the sense that they’re grazed by the lowest, as well as the highest frequencies instead of taking a direct ’hit’, which is the case with closed-back headphones. These extreme frequencies are let off into the environment instead, as they linger for mere seconds, whereas CB headphones capture them completely.
That leads us to the third benefit of the open-back headphones, which is their natural suitability for critical listening. The fact that you’ll be able to recognize, but not be smothered by the entire soundstage of your guitar means that you’ll get to hear every note at every frequency with comfort.
Disadvantages of Open-Back Headphones
The flawed ability of open-back headphones to reduce ambient noise while also being loud to anyone around you are the two main drawbacks of this headphone type.
While using them you’ll definitely be quieter than by playing on a cranked-up amp, but most people in the room next to you will still be able to hear you quite strongly. On the flip side, you’ll be able to hear pretty much everything that’s happening around you, which makes open-back headphones virtually useless in particularly loud environments.
Furthermore, OB headphones tend to be fairly flimsy due to the fact that the speakers are exposed. The seal on closed-back headphones also acts as a shield from physical damage, water, dust, and moisture. This means that open-back headphones require extra care and more effort during maintenance.
Closed-Back Headphones in a Nutshell
The main difference between open-back and closed-back cans is that the latter feature closed-off (sealed) speakers while the open-back cans are intentionally designed without such a feature. This single dissimilarity affects multiple aspects of CB-headphone performance, such as durability, outside noise reduction, and obviously, its intended use.
The rest of the features, such as connector joints, cables (or wireless technology), the headband and the hardware can, in theory, be identical in both cases; if you have a particular brand you favor above others, you may find an exact model in open-back and closed-back variations, sporting the same features and technologies, with the only exception being the sealed/unsealed speakers.
Benefits of Closed-Back Headphones
Closed-back headphones are excellent for practicing guitar if you really want to be as silent as possible. Their main benefit is unmatched ambient noise reduction, which is in some cases amplified by both passive and active sonic reduction features, meaning that only you will be able to hear your guitar.
As mentioned before, closed-back headphones feature a sort of a seal above both speakers, which prevents any noise from leaving the cups.
With some practice, you’ll be able to find the golden middle in terms of adequate volume level at which you will be able to pleasurably listen to your guitar tone in its full bloom without being overpowered by frequencies you would otherwise be oblivious to.
The second most notable benefit of closed-back headphones is sturdiness. They pack a fully enclosed design, which means that both the speakers and drivers will be perfectly safe even if your headphones fell to the ground or were accidentally stepped on.
Thirdly, closed-back headphones are not overly demanding in terms of maintenance. Given the fact that they feature shielded speakers, no amount of dust will enter the cups from the exterior side; additionally, they’re somewhat protected from water and moisture, unless you’re using headphones that feature wood-made speaker shields.
Disadvantages of Closed-Back Headphones
The main problem with closed-back headphones is that you won’t be able to actually enjoy playing your guitar for hours and hours on end.
First and foremost, the lowest and highest frequencies you’ll be able to hear will be much more pronounced, which takes away a bit of the enjoyment through overpowering pressure. Furthermore, the enclosed caps generate air pressure (which has little to do with sounds, this happens even if you don’t listen to anything).
This makes them hard to wear for extended periods, but on top of that, they also generate heat more quickly. Closed-back headphones are generally great for quick warm-up sessions and 15-minute jams. Even though it’s not too easy, you can get accustomed to this pressure, but straight out of the gate, open-back headphones are a bit better for practicing guitar.
Senior editor for Ultimate-Guitar, passionate about good music and quality gear. Bassist. King Crimson fan. Travel enthusiast. Compulsive buyer of Bose headphones and old Fender amps.