Closed- Versus Open-Back EL-8: Which One Is Right for You?
In a perfect world, when a manufacturer releases two versions of the same headphone, one with an open and one with a closed back, they would sound identical and the end user could choose which one best suited his needs based on whether the ’phones were going to be used in a quiet or noisy environment. But this is not a perfect world, and the two versions of the EL-8 do not sound the same. If their sonics were identical, it would make more sense for most users to purchase the EL-8C (for closed) over the EL-8 because it could be used in more environments successfully. But because there are sonic as well as ergonomic differences between the two, your decision on which would be best for you will be more complex.
As for sonic differences, starting with the bass, the EL-8C goes deeper and has noticeably better damping than the EL-8. When using a solid-state headphone amplifier, the damping differences are less obvious, but if you happen to have a single-ended tube ’phone amp available (and one that relies more on the headphone’s own internal damping abilities), such as the new Inspire by Dennis Had Dragon IHA-1, you will notice how much tighter and faster the EL-8C’s bass can be than that of the EL-8. The open-back EL-8 simply sounds looser and less controlled than the EL-8C when connected to the Inspire amp. With marginally powered portable devices, such as an iPhone, you will also notice the EL-8C’s more controlled and extended low-bass output.
Moving up the sonic spectrum, the EL-8 has a slightly warmer, and more harmonically complex midrange character than the EL-8C. In comparison, the EL-8C has more upper-midrange energy that moves female vocalists forward in a mix, but robs male vocalists of some of their lower-midrange harmonic richness. Holding the palms of my hands about ¼" away from the open backs of the EL-8, I can almost duplicate these differences, so I suspect they are in part the result of the closed back creating some midrange frequency cancellations.
Treble response through the two EL-8 versions is virtually identical. Both have substantially more air and zing than the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, for example, but aren’t as airy as the Audeze LCD-2.
One last area where the two EL-8 designs sonically differ is in soundstaging. The EL-8C has a smaller and less dimensional soundstage than the open-back EL-8. The EL-8’s soundstage dimensions were almost identical to the LCD-2’s, but the EL-8C had noticeably less immersive dimensionality and scope.
Whether you find one of the two EL-8 designs to be sonically superior to the other depends more on your own personal tastes in music rather than on some absolute sonic criteria. On modern pop the EL-8C’s excellent bass and sub-bass damping and control made it my preferred option. But on my own live classical concert recordings the open-back EL-8 delivered a more accurate and detailed soundstage that was closer to what I heard when I was monitoring the recordings during the sessions. On pop selections I also preferred the EL-8C’s lively and more prominent upper midrange response, but on classical chamber music and contemporary bluegrass tracks I found the EL-8 to be more harmonically neutral and representative of what I’ve come to expect from the recordings.