The 10 Best Open Back Headphones

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This wiki has been updated 38 times since it was first published in August of 2015. If you think closed-back headphones produce a sound that's too much in your head and you favor a more "out in the world around me" audio experience, consider picking up a pair of these open-back pairs. They create a more spacious stereo image by allowing their magnets to resonate in all directions. Just be aware that other people can hear whatever it is you are listening to. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.

1. Focal Utopia

2. Sennheiser HD 800 S

3. Audeze LCD-2

Editor's Notes

July 29, 2021:

Selecting open-back headphones is an exercise in audiophilic dedication. None of these are meant for use on the bus or at the gym; they're designed almost exclusively for critical listening in a quiet room and can deliver some of the fullest and most lifelike sound of any cans on the market. With that in mind, we're confident in our current selection, although we did swap in the Audeze LCD-2 for the no longer available Audeze LCD-3. In fact, while the LCD-2 are not cheap, they're among the least expensive planar magnetic from premium manufacturer Audeze.

April 15, 2020:

The ribbing on the headband of the AKG Q701 Quincy Jones Signature added to what was already a heavy pair of cans, making them a little rough on the dome after too much time, and that's something particularly unforgivable in a set designed for hours-long use in a studio environment. We replaced them with a similar pair from the same company in the AKG Pro Audio K702, which still aren't the most cozy pair out there, but they're an improvement.

We also sent off the Sennheiser 700 model in favor of the Sennheiser HD 800 S, which offer superior performance at just about every turn, especially considering the size of their drivers, which often correlates to a wider, clearer frequency response than you see on small models. That's why these headphones sound so much better than most earbuds to begin with. There was another couple of newcomers to our list in the HiFiMan Arya Full-Size and the Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2, the latter of which is a name you might recognize from pilots' headsets designed for everything from pond hoppers to helicopters. It adds plenty to their durability to be from such rugged roots, though the thin headband feels like a bit of an afterthought.

Special Honors

Rosson Audio Design If you're looking for the opportunity to customize a pair of cans inside and out, this company has the ability to make them look and sound like you want them to. They also have a range of pre-designed models you can choose from and rest assured that each will be created to order by the hands of their in-house craftspeople. They're very comfortable, as well, but they also cost quite a bit, and turnaround can be a little slow.

4. HiFiMan Arya Full-Size

5. Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2

6. Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro

7. Shure SRH1840 Professional

8. Focal Elear Over-Ear

9. AKG Pro Audio K702

10. Monoprice Monolith M1060

Open-Back Vs. Closed-Back Headphones

To say it's all in the name would be an apt description here, as the structural difference between the two really is all in the name.

Understanding the difference between open-back and closed-back headphones will help you determine which kind is right for your needs. To say it's all in the name would be an apt description here, as the structural difference between the two really is all in the name. Closed-back headphones have completely closed backs or cups. Open-back headphones on the other hand, have backs with many tiny holes or slits in them: picture the difference between a soup bowl and a colander. The soup bowl would be the closed-back headphones and the colander would be the open-back headphones.

Closed-back headphones are ideal for isolating noise. If you were to sit in a park listening to music with a pair of closed-back headphones, you wouldn't hear any of the ambient noises around you like birds chirping, people talking, etc. A standard pair of closed-back headphones produces roughly 10dB of noise reduction. Just as no ambient noise leaks in, closed-back headphones also prevent noise, like your music, from leaking out.

This isolating property makes closed-back headphones ideal for certain situations. In studio applications, where a sound engineer needs to hear every little nuance of the music, closed-back headphones are essential. They are also ideal for situations where one plans on listening to music, but doesn't want the noise leaking out to disturb their neighbors, like in a library or on an airplane. Closed-back headphones are also useful in applications where one will also be using a microphone, like with a gaming headset. They help prevent unwanted feedback from the headphones from bleeding over into the microphone.

Open-back headphones are designed to allow the ambient noises to pass freely through the headphones cups. This alters the listening experience and gives the effect that the music is playing in the world around you. Consider the scenario from before when sitting in the park. If you were listening with open-back headphones instead of closed-back headphones, you would be able to hear the birds chirping and the people talking.

While this might sound like a disadvantage at first, it can actually be an advantage in many scenarios. For example, if you like to listen to music while skateboarding or jogging, being able to hear the cars and the sound of a horn honking can be a lifesaver. Some also feel that having the sound feel as if it is filling the room makes it more enjoyable and allows them to feel less isolated from the people around them. A person who is relaxing on the beach and wants to hear the sound of the waves while listening to music at the same time would be better off with a pair of open-back headphones.

Considerations For Picking The Perfect Pair

Picking the perfect pair of headphones can be tough. It often becomes a juggling act of portability, comfort, sound, and price. Understanding your intended applications is a big step in helping you pick the right pair.

If you want a pair of headphones to use while traveling, portability will be an important factor. If they are too big, you may wind up not taking them along or storing them in a place that becomes too inconvenient to access. Then, no matter how good they sound, you may wind up rarely or never using them. If you travel often or need a super compact pair, consider headphones that fold up.

If you want a pair of headphones to use while traveling, portability will be an important factor.

Comfort is another factor of vital importance. If a pair is uncomfortable to wear for more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time, this can be problematic if you intend to use them on long train or airplane rides. On the other hand, if you just want to use them for quick 20 minutes walks or rides to work, comfort may not be as important. Most often headphones that are lighter in weight and those with thick foam ear cushions will be more comfortable for extended use.

One should also take the build quality and warranty into account. The more durable the build, the longer a pair will last. Those who plan to use their headphones in more extreme conditions like jogging and biking will need a more durable pair than one who will be sitting in a chair listening to music. It never hurts to have a good warranty either. Most high-end headphones come with a one or two year warranty.

After all of the above has been taken into account, sound is the final factor which must be considered. This may seem counter intuitive that sound is the final consideration for headphones, but if all of the above factors aren't considered first, one will often end up with a pair of headphones that are rarely used or break after just a few months.

Understanding Frequency Response and Impedance

Headphone specifications can be hard to understand with confusing terms like frequency response and impedance thrown around. Understanding what these terms mean and how to read the specifications will help in picking the best pair of headphones for your needs.

Those who are purchasing a very high quality pair of headphones for use with a standalone headphone amplifier, can purchase a pair with 300 or more ohms of impedance.

Frequency response simply refers to the headphones capability to reproduce audio frequencies. You'll often encounter frequency response written in the following way: 20-20,000Hz. The first number refers to how deep the bass reproduction will be. The second number represents the highest frequency the headphones can reproduce. The wider the range, the better.

Impedance refers to the electrical resistantance of the current being passed through the headphones. In essence, it means how much power it takes to push sound through the headphones at a particular volume. It is represented in ohms, and the higher the number, the more energy your device needs to play sound at certain volumes.

Those looking to listen to their headphones with MP3 players or computers, should look for models with a lower impedance of 100 ohms of less. Those who are purchasing a very high quality pair of headphones for use with a standalone headphone amplifier, can purchase a pair with 300 or more ohms of impedance.

Christopher Thomas
Last updated by Christopher Thomas

Building PCs, remodeling, and cooking since he was young, quasi-renowned trumpeter Christopher Thomas traveled the USA performing at and organizing shows from an early age. His work experiences led him to open a catering company, eventually becoming a sous chef in several fine LA restaurants. He enjoys all sorts of barely necessary gadgets, specialty computing, cutting-edge video games, and modern social policy. He has given talks on debunking pseudoscience, the Dunning-Kruger effect, culinary technique, and traveling. After two decades of product and market research, Chris has a keen sense of what people want to know and how to explain it clearly. He delights in parsing complex subjects for anyone who will listen -- because teaching is the best way to ensure that you understand things yourself.

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