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Headphone Sound Leakage: What Is it and How Can You Stop it

When headphones leak sound, they essentially are picking up sound from sources that aren’t intended to be in the recording. Sound leakage, also called spilling or bleeding, is unpleasant and can make the recording sound jumbled and messy. No musicians want to experience leakage from their headphones when they are making a recording; fortunately, there are things that you can do to make the situation much better so that your final recording is top-notch.

Headphone sound leakage occurs when your microphone picks up sound from something that it isn’t supposed to be recording. This can happen, for instance, if you are playing an instrument near a close mic yet there is sound being heard from another instrument a few feet away. This is what leakage is and in most situations, it is considered a negative thing. Oddly enough, there are some genres in which it might be either not a big deal or even something desired, such as orchestral music and jazz music.

If you’re recording and trying to process different tracks, sound leakage is not a good thing because it causes mixed signals to be heard at the same time. This is a problem not only when music is being recorded but also in live performances because it makes the sound engineer’s job a lot more difficult. After all, trying to get a guitar solo to be heard by the crowd can be nearly impossible when the guitar’s sound is leaking into other mics, such as those for the drums or even the vocals.

Of course, the main reason why you don’t want your headphones to leak sound is because the unwanted sound can include everything from a squeaky piano pedal to someone nearby who is coughing near a mic. Simply put, leaking sound can ruin a recording, which means that you’ll have to do it all over again at some point.

Why Do Headphones Leak Sound?

When air pressure starts moving air particles around so that we can sense it through our ears, this is called sound. Headphones leak because some of the air vibrations will break through the items on the headphones made to stop them, such as the ear cups and ear pads. Once it breaks through, that’s when you get the leaking that few people desire. Unfortunately, all headphones are going to leak at least a little because no one has been able to figure out how to make a set of headphones that is 100% resistant to sound leaks.

When sound travels, it travels from a starting point then extends all the way around until it finally starts to diminish. Some objects, including plastics and sound-absorbing foam, can stop it from spreading, but some sound — both far away and close up — always manages to come through. If you tried to block every audible sound within a certain physical area, you’d have to add large amounts of material that would not only be uncomfortable for the person wearing the headphones but that may make those headphones essentially useless for other purposes.

This is why, for the most part, headphone manufacturers stick with the same design year after year; they realize that a certain amount of headphone leakage will always occur.

What Type of Headphones Leaks the Most?

There are many headphones on the market today that claim to be noise-isolating headphones or noise-cancelling ones but, as you can imagine, not all of them are the same. There are three basic types of headphones and you can get a different sound from each of them. Although there are exceptions to the following tips, as a general rule, here is how the headphones on the market today are rated when it comes to sound leakage:

      • Closed-back headphones: These are the headphones preferred by most musicians and most laypeople as well because when it comes to sound leakage, they tend to leak the least.
      • Semi-open headphones: The quality of these headphones is somewhere in between a closed-back headphone and an open-back headphone. They are better at stopping sound leakage than open-back headphones but not as good as the closed-back kind.
      • Open-back headphones: Because of their open-to-air design, air vibrations aren’t blocked; therefore, these are the worst type of headphones if you’re wanting to eliminate any sound leakage.

With open-back headphones, the ear cups cause the sound to be more airy and open but there are people who appreciate this aspect, including sound engineers who are mastering and mixing within the studio setting.

Does Sound Leakage Affect Performance?

By this point, you may be wondering if headphone sound leakage will affect the performance of the headphones and the answer is simple to understand. The bad news is that, yes, leakage or bleeding will always affect the quality of the headphone performance and how well it performs. The good news is that there are things you can do about it.

First of all, you have to take good care of your microphones because if you don’t, your headphones won’t matter as much. It is also possible to get a better sound out of a cheap microphone that is in the correct position than it is a more expensive microphone that is incorrectly placed. In fact, these two things can directly affect the performance you experience even if sound leakage isn’t a problem. Make sure that you take good care of your mics and make sure that they are always placed in the right location each and every session.

In general, your microphones should never be dropped or slammed around and they should be covered when you aren’t using them so that no dust or dirt gets inside of them. Also, if you’re not going to be using them for a while, store them in a cool dry place because heat and humidity can affect them in not-so-positive ways.

How Can You Tell If Your Headphones Are Leaking Sound?

Leakage or spilling is usually not a good thing but if you know that your headphones are leaking, it might be possible to do something about it. Of course, sometimes that means giving up your current headphones and getting some more but before you run out and do that, consider the different ways that headphones can leak.

In addition to having problems when sound or music is being recorded, sound can also leak out when you’re listening to music on your headphones, allowing those around you to hear what you’re listening to. The more your headphones enclose the entire ear area, the less leakage will occur. If they are closed headphones, they will essentially form a seal on your ears and not allow sound to get out.

Having headphones that are less than snug-fitting also means that outside sounds can leak into the headphones because in order to keep sound in or out, the part of the headphones that covers the ears has to cover them completely; otherwise, a leak can occur. If you notice sound leaking into or out of your headphones, it is likely time to buy another set that covers the entire ear area snugly, or at least as snugly as possible.

How Do I Stop My Headphones From Leaking Sound?

Fortunately, there are a few ways to stop headphones from leaking sound without buying a brand-new set. First, if you have the earbud-type headphones with silicone tips, try changing them to tips that are made out of foam instead. It is the same with the ear pads; make sure that they are the foam type and not made out of another type of material.

You can also purchase a pair of noise-isolating headphones, which are different from noise-cancelling headphones. The ones that isolate noise block all ambient noise because there is a seal that fits right against your ear while the cancelling headphones cancel the sound waves themselves. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily, because they each have pros and cons that you’ll need to check out for yourself to see which one you prefer.

Headphones that isolate noise can sometimes be a bit pricey, though, so if this isn’t an option for you, you may want to consider other methods, such as the ones listed above.

Conclusion

Whether you’re recording a song or listening to one, having even the best headphones could always result in a bit of leaking sound. Now that you know what to look for and how to reduce this leakage, you can figure out what to do to improve the situation. Most headphones will leak some but if you choose the right ones and know what to do when you’re inside a recording studio, you can reduce the effects of this leakage. 

Indeed, some people even search out headphones that result in a more “airy” sound, especially those who record orchestral and other types of music. But even if you’re not one of these people, it is still good to know that you can do things to make sound leakage a little less of a problem.