Open Back headphones have long been a favorite among audiophiles and music producers. They tend to be larger than closed back headphones, and cost more on average. Many of them also require an amplifier to get optimal performance. What, then, is the appeal?
It’s simple: open back headphones give users a clean, natural sound. They also tend to be more comfortable for extended wear while allowing users to remain aware of the ambient sounds of their surroundings.
Think of it like this: closed back headphones are like listening to music in a car. You can make the sound bass-heavy easily, due to the contained environment. But getting the music to sound clean, even, and spacious is just about impossible without a high-end stereo system. Open back headphones, on the other hand, sound like you’re listening to music in a room that was designed around that purpose. The music can reverberate around the space, bass can escape and the high notes can sort of dance around rather than hit you square in the eardrums. But you can still get the full range of sound. Even basic open back headphones, ones that may not cost all that much really, can deliver a fantastic listening experience.
If you’re looking to grab a pair of them, there are many to choose from. Our top open back headphones are as follows:
Starting off the list is a pair of headphones that is most often mentioned when the topic of “best open back headphones for the cost” comes up. While their price point does put them in the mid to high range of prices on this list, that money gets a lot of high end features you could not find in competing headphones in the same range. They’re comfortable, versatile, and have an incredibly clear sound.
High end headphones in general are known for tight quality control, and you get the incredible engineering that Sennheiser brings to the table on top of immaculate quality with the HD650. When the drivers are tested, for instance, they are then paired up based on frequency response to ensure that each pair has the most symmetrical sound possible. The speakers themselves are a specially made silk material crafted to deliver clean and consistent sound. All of the wiring is copper to avoid any excess noise and the aluminum voice coils offer great response to changes in audio.
Next up is the biggest competitor to the Sennheiser HD650, the HE-400i from HiFiMan. Sennheiser is the name to beat when it comes to price point audiophile gear, and multiple models of phones from HiFiMan are direct competitors in terms of features and price points to popular Sennheiser models. So to go up against the best, what have they brought to the table? The biggest feature that you get with the HE-400i is the planar magnetic technology they use to drive the sound. Rather than have the driver physically push the diaphragm of the speaker in these headphones, a magnetic coil causes the diaphragm to move without physically contacting it.
This means these headphones have an incredible transient response and have very little noise in the signal path. Due to the larger driver, it is advised that these headphones be used with an amplifier, while they can still be used directly from a computer or cell phone headphone jack. They also look a bit more stylish than the Sennheiser headphones, so if you routinely post to instagram while mixing, these will stand out better.
The SR80e comes in at number three with their SR80e open back headphones. Grado spent years an an untouchable high end brand that handmade their products with hardwood bodies in their Brooklyn factory. With each pair costing over $1000, it’s refreshing to see offerings from them in a more down to earth price range. While they didn’t win our award for best under $100, they certainly deserve a spot on this list. They aren’t the most comfortable or powerful headphones on this list, but the all around quality, style, and prestige (on top of being handmade in NYC for what they cost) of this set of phones can’t be matched by competitors.
Crafted for music listening, these headphones excel in the mid-range frequencies and have a warm sound. Especially when going between bass and mid, these headphones sound effortlessly clean and precise. If you are looking for a stylish pair of Grado open back headphones and don’t want to shell out the price of a used car, check out the sr80e.
While the name may be a mouthful, the Audio-Technica ATH-R70x open back headphones hit way above their weight class in terms of performance. The price point seems even suspiciously low for professional-quality studio headphones that are in their element both mixing audio in a professional studio and plugged into a laptop. The housing is acoustically transparent, meaning these phones get you as close to a hifi speaker system as possible in a compact package.
These headphones use magnetic drivers to reduce distortion and noise, and are built out of a carbon composite for maximum rigidity. This means the audio is as clean as possible and none of the reverberation from the drivers makes it to the body of the headphones. They are also lightweight and extremely comfortable, made for extended wear. Perfect for professionals and gamers.
The HiFiMan Ananda are the first headphones on the list to break the four-digit mark for price. This may seem a bit taxing on your wallet, but bear in mind these headphones are trying to compete against considerably more expensive units from competitors. On top of that, these can routinely be found for well under even $900. Using the planar magnetic technology also found in the HE-400 (see above), the Ananda also packs an ultrathin diaphragm that is 80% lighter than the one found in the HE-400. Even the stylish grille on the outside of the drivers has a purpose, the design allows the sound to reverberate even less than with a mesh screen.
They have an incredible range and are lightweight and stylish to boot. All around, these headphones pack a ton of performance in a package that’s surprisingly approachable. Made for a maximum mix of comfort, durability, and sound quality, the Ananda from HiFiMan can hold their own against the fiercest competitors.
The GOAT, the head honcho, the contender: the Sennheiser HD800s. They are the headphones to beat, and set the gold standard for audiophiles and music enthusiasts everywhere. Already a classic in their own right, these headphones are startlingly popular for a product with such a startling price.The design alone stands out, they seem like something you would find on a spaceship. Considering the bland, practical styling usually applied to Sennhieser products, these definitely stand out.
The design itself is based around allowing the smallest amount of material to cover the drivers and diaphragms themselves while retaining the stiffness of the headphones themselves, eliminating the vibrations going into the body and headband of the headphones. While the headphones themselves are made of aerospace materials, the drivers are also able to operate with minimal noise and are designed to not only produce a clean sound, but also absorb tones that cause the human ear to mute interfering frequencies. The 56mm drivers in these headphones do operate better when the audio is sent through an amplifier, but the result is beyond worth it.
Best Open Back Headphone for Mixing: AKG K702
I have to admit, I do have a bias towards AKG. I believe they make the best looking headphones out there, and own multiple models they have produced. They offer a great range of closed back, open back, and semi-open headphones and manage to balance style and sound quality with a consistency that could only come from an experienced manufacturer of audio gear. The AKG K702 is a great example of this. They look amazing and still manage to produce an even, crisp, and spacious sound with no bias towards any frequency, making them perfect studio headphones.
Not only do these headphones look good, but they can beat their competitors in terms of durability as well. The mini XLR jack attaching the cable to the headphones themselves can stand up to consistent abuse, and the soft ear pads lend themselves well to extended wear. Their extremely open design paired with a double layer diaphragm lends to the K702’s clean and accurate sound, well worth the price.
Best Open Back Headphone for Gaming: Audio-Technica ATH-AD700x
I’m not sure why every pair of Audio-Technica headphones has an impossibly complex name, but I do know that I have been impressed with every Audio-Technica product I have used. The ATH-AD700x Headphones, despite the impractical name, really hold their own when it comes to gaming performance. They really excel with mid range and high range frequencies, and the lightweight design is extremely comfortable for extended wear. The massive ear cups are comfortable as well. Every factor that matters to a gamer is present in these headphones, and the price tag is hard to beat.
Best Open Back Headphone under 200: Beyerdynamic DT-990 pro
While several great pairs of open back headphones on this list come in under the $200 mark, the Beyerdynamic takes this award because they manage to do everything you could want a pair of open back headphones to do incredibly well. They are nice and even for mixing, but have great performance with both bass frequencies and high treble frequencies. They are comfortable and durable as well thanks to their simple design and plush ear pads.
They don’t have the same air of “special” like Grado headphones, nor the precise and practical feel of Sennheiser phones and the like. But as a whole package, they can’t be touched. Nothing else under $200 is as well-rounded as the Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, plain and simple.
Best Open Back Headphone under 100: The Philips SHP9500
To some it may seem odd to see a name like Philips, a brand known for their value-priced electronics, on a list next to so many high end brands. But the SHP9500 will make a believer out of anyone who tries a pair on. They are comfortable, come with a nice pair of 50mm drivers for a huge sound, and are as durable as more Philips products, meaning that they are perfect for musicians and gamers. They also make a great pair for travelling or more casual use for someone who owns a more expensive pair that they don’t use on every occasion.
Open Back Headphone Buying Guide
Driver size: One of the first specifications you will see listed in the description of a pair of headphones is the size of the driver. But what does this mean?
The driver is the part of the speaker or headphones that creates the sound based on the audio signal coming in. The larger the driver, the more volume the speakers can produce. But the point is not to create more volume overall, as most headphones can already reach a level of volume that is uncomfortable for the listener. Reaching a comfortable level for music listening with less amplification overall makes the sound cleaner makes for fewer opportunities for distortion among the signal path.
This also affects the frequencies that headphones can comfortably produce. Larger drivers have a lower resonant frequency. Resonant frequency is basically the midway point in the range of a speaker, so having a lower resonant frequency means that bass notes and deep reverberations can be heard clearly. These are the frequencies that headphones struggle with the most, as the resonant frequency for even a fifty millimeter driver, very large by headphone standards, is nothing compared to an eighteen inch subwoofer like you would find in a professional system in a theater or venue. So to really capture that big, spacious sound like you would get in a concert hall, a big driver makes all the difference.
You will often see headphones paired with headphone amplifiers, either as bundle deals from retailers or within reviews for the headphones or amplifiers themselves. Most headphones are made to simply plug into the headphone jack on your device and then produce sound just fine. Many open back headphones, on the other hand, gain a lot of sound quality from the use of a headphone amplifier due to the large driver size (see above section). Large drivers take more power to make sound, but are capable of producing very clear and pristine audio without distortion.
For gaming purposes, this can mean that the sound card on your PC may produce a signal too weak to get quality sound out of high end headphones. Weak audio is a common complaint from gamers using headphones that contain large drivers, and the addition of a headphone amp is always the solution. For everyday listening, amplifiers are a great tool to increase sound clarity and volume as well. There’s really no downside. Amplifiers can be solid state of tube driven.
Solid state amplifiers use electronic circuits to achieve more amplitude, or volume. They are ready to go the moment they are switched on, and tend to be less expensive than tube driven amplifiers. Tube amplifiers are a favorite among audiophiles and can be had for a reasonable amount of money. However, high end tube amplifiers can cost an astounding amount, easily in the thousands of dollars. They are also much more sensitive to shock when compared to solid state amplifiers, and they take time to warm up once they are initially powered on. That said, tube amplifiers produce a rich, warm sound and even the distortion, when present, sounds kinder to the ear than with a solid state amplifier.
With all high end audio gear, the sky’s the limit when it comes to cost. With headphones, speakers, amplifiers, turntables, etc, top shelf gear can hit the five digit price mark. So keep that in mind when looking at headphones. To some people, $2,500 for a nice pair is a steal and to others, spending $150 on headphones seems utterly ridiculous. The range is massive. Also high end headphones tend to benefit from a quality amplifier, so if you are looking to shell out $500 or more, be prepared for some extra costs to be tacked on before your listening setup is complete.
If you are just starting out and want a simple pair of headphones that you can later pair with an amp, go with a brand that has a good reputation and get a simple pair that will do what you need. Gimmicky knock-off or cheap headphones with large drivers will almost have more distortion and unpleasant sounds in the mix. Sennheiser, AKG, Audio-Technica, and Philips all make headphones in the $50-$200 range that are perfect for starting out. With your first pair, learn what you are looking for in an upgrade; do you want more bass? More brightness? More clarity? With this information, your search for an upgrade can be narrowed down easily.
Generally, any open back headphones will be able to do the same things and have the same downsides. They are not good for listening to music when travelling or for use outside of the home at all. All open back headphones let outside sounds in and leak audio out. They are all generally better for critical music listening and taking in audio in general.
For gaming, the biggest factors are the range of sound and amount of cushion on the headphones’ ear pads. This may seem silly but gamers will know right away if they made a good choice, as wearing a pair of uncomfortable headphones for two or more hours (or twelve) can result in sore, sweaty ears and painful impression marks. Aim for headphones with a broad range of frequencies, focusing on bass and mid tones. Headphones with loose, adjustable bands and highly cushioned ear cups are ideal.
For mixing audio, you want headphones with the flattest, cleanest sound possible. There should be no preference to bass or treble frequencies. Sometimes the best headphones for music listening have a brighter sound that makes the audio a bit more dynamic. This can make mixing trickier, as mixing is done to make the music sound consistent regardless of the system it is played back through.
Open back vs. closed back headphones:
When choosing high end headphones, there will almost always be a comparable model that is a closed back headphone along the open back options. Closed back headphones do have some advantages: they block out outside audio and sounds that may interfere with what you are listening to, they can be used outside of the home in loud environments, they tend to have more bass due to the fact that the audio is all contained within the ear cup.
The downside is that it is hard to get an even sound out of closed back headphones. High end units will have the sound equalized to compensate for this issue, but it is not the same as not having the issue in the first place. Also they take away from situational awareness, meaning that the listener could miss when someone is speaking to them or when a phone is ringing.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are open back headphones?
Open back headphones are headphones that have the driver and speaker pointed towards the listener’s ear and have a mesh backing on the driver that allows the audio to leave the headphones. Outside sounds can also be heard by the headphone wearer. This is similar to the effect of listening to speakers in a room set up for audio listening. The sound is clean and even, and it is not contained in a small space, making it appear more natural.
While this makes open back headphones a poor choice for listening to music outside of the home, the benefits to using them in a quiet environment outweigh the drawbacks considerably.
Why choose open back headphones?
If you are mixing audio, open back headphones are an easy choice because they produce a very even mix of frequencies comparable to speakers. You can mix audio and get a good idea of how it sounds in its natural state before it is put through a system that will equalize the frequencies differently. Lots of other headphones can have higher bass or treble levels, but most open back options don’t prefer one frequency over another.
For listening to audio and gaming, open back headphones are more comfortable and enjoyable. You don’t feel cut off from the outside world and wearing larger headphones for a long period of time tends to be more comfortable than headphones that sit on top or within the ear of the listener. Comfort, audio quality, and audio consistency are all strong points with open back headphones.
There is no single answer to the question of “what is the best pair of open back headphones?” instead there is a whole range of choices with different price points, strengths, and weaknesses. With some high end models representing the peak of quality to audiophiles and music enthusiasts, even a low price pair of open back headphones lets users experience incredible sound quality and comfort. If you haven’t experienced a pair of nice, open back headphones, then you don’t know what you’re missing.