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toAfter one of our toughest reviews, we finally have a list of the best open back headphones on the market right now. We looked at headphones across a huge range of prices and performances. Some of our top picks were expected, but some will definitely surprise you. From our tests, the Sennheiser HD 599 emerged as the best open back headphones for the price.
Read on to find out how we arrived at this result.
Our Top Picks
Best performance: Sennheiser HD 650 ($$$)
“Spectacular sound with a finesse and precision that's hard to match”
Best overall: Sennheiser HD 599 ($$)
“The HD5XX series hits all audiophile grade standards without the audiophile price”
Best budget: AKG K240 ($)
“The K240 has been around forever and is ample proof that quality is timeless”
That's the word I like to use to describe open back headphones.
Unlike their closed back brethren, the sound in open back headphones feels like it is “breathing”. Since the back is open, sound from the surroundings can enter and escape the headphones. This creates a sense of “roominess” and space that's missing from closed back headphones. There is no isolation; sound leaks (and enters) into the surroundings. It's like wearing speakers on your ears.
Buying open back headphones isn't easy. Unless you know precisely what you're looking for, you'll quickly get confused with the sheer number of available options. And even when you zero down on what you want, who is to say that you won't be distracted by delicious deal on a pair of headphones that's just out of your budget?
Which is why I've taken a slightly different approach with this review. Instead of categorizing headphones by price – as I did in my best studio headphones roundup – I've sorted them based on buying criteria: performance, price, value for money, etc.
Overall, this was an expansive exercise. We ended up looking at over 30 headphones across a huge range of prices. This included everything from the cheap Samson SR850 to the extraordinary Focal Clear. I had first-hand reviews of most of these headphones. For others, I relied on input from friends and fellow-bloggers in the recording/audiophile community.
I divided all headphones into three categories based on price. Use the navigation below to jump to the category of your choice:
About your reviewer
Ryan Harrell is the founder of MIDINation and an experienced producer/DJ. His first experience with electronic music production dates back to Cubase 3.0 in the summer of 1997, and he's been a fan ever since. He prefers Ableton as his primary DAW these days, though he is still partial to Cubase and Pro Tools. He lives in San Diego and freelances as a producer and part-time DJ.
Here's a quick overview of our best open back headphones at a glance:
Final Review Scores
In the course of compiling this guide, we compared 26 different open back headphones spread across three price-based categories (budget, mid-range, performance).
Here are the final review scores for all these headphones:
|Headphones||Price Category||Editor Score||User Rating||Where to Buy|
|Samson SR850 Semi-Open-Back||$||4.4||4.1||Amazon|
|AKG K240STUDIO Semi-Open Studio Headphones||$||4.3||4||Amazon|
|SIVGA SV007 Over Ear Headphones||$||4.3||4.1||Amazon|
|Shure SRH144 Semi-Open||$||4||3.8||Amazon|
|Sennheiser HD 579||$$||4.5||4.2||Amazon|
|Sennheiser HD 599||$$||4.5||4.2||Amazon|
|Sennheiser HD 598 SR Open-Back Headphone||$$||4.4||4.2||Amazon|
|Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO||$$||4.4||4.1||Amazon|
|Grado SR80e Prestige Series||$$||4.4||4||Amazon|
|Grado Prestige Series SR125e||$$||4.3||3.9||Amazon|
|Audio Technica ATH-AD700X||$$||4.2||3.9||Amazon|
|Sennheiser HD 600||$$$||4.8||4.6||Amazon|
|beyerdynamic DT 1990 PRO||$$$||4.8||4.6||Amazon|
|Focal Clear Headphones||$$$||4.7||4.4||Amazon|
|Sennheiser HD 650||$$$||4.6||4.4||Amazon|
|Sennheiser HD 558||$$$||4.6||4.3||Amazon|
|Sennheiser HD 700||$$$||4.5||4.3||Amazon|
|Sennheiser HD 800||$$$||4.5||4.3||Amazon|
|Audeze LCDX Over Ear||$$$||4.2||3.9||Amazon|
|AKG K702 Reference Class||$$$||4.2||4||Amazon|
|Monoprice 116050 Monolith M1060||$$$||3.9||3.8||Amazon|
In the sections to follow, we'll take a closer look at the top five headphones for each of these categories.
If you're curious about how open back headphones sound, check out this video:
The Best Budget Open Back Headphones
Just because you're a budget buyer doesn't mean that you have to settle for poor performance and dodgy build quality. There are a surprising number of open back headphones that sound great without costing an arm and a leg.
My criteria for this category was price above everything else. Although I had a budget cap, I tried to find the cheapest open back headphones on the market that deliver acceptable performance. After evaluating nearly a dozen headphones, here's my list of the best open back headphones for budget buyers:
AKG K240 STUDIO
The venerable AKGK240 might be decades old but it retains its status as a premium budget-focused offering. Since it is often used in studio settings, fidelity and accuracy are its hallmarks, though the soundscape is also wide and pleasant. Effortlessly lightweight and reasonably priced, these are an easy pick for the best open back headphones for budget buyers.
Not all of you would remember this, but in 1985, Eddie Murphy released a song that would reach no. 2 on the Billboard charts – “Party All The Time“:
The music video for this song featured a familiar pair of headphones: the AKG K240.
The AKG K240s were huge in the '80s. They were the recording gear of choice for a number of producers. For a while, they were also AKG's flagship model (a mantle now taken over by the K702).
That you can buy these iconic, decade-defining headphones for less than three figures is a testament to how much audio technology has improved over the years.
Although unchanged, the K240s still retain a big following among producers and casual listeners alike. They're flat, nimble, and have well-balanced sound. Casual listeners might find this a little boring, but for critical listening, there are few better options in this price range.
Let's take a closer look:
- Comfort: The dual headband design with the wide padding makes these one of the more comfortable headphones you'll wear. The earcups are large enough to fit most ears. These are semi-open headphones so they're not as open or breathable as fully open-back headphones.
- Design: Since the design is literally unchanged from the 70s, the K240s have a decidedly retro look. This is an iconic design. It might lack the flair of more modern headphones, but it is instantly recognizable. The build quality isn't exceptional but good enough for this price range.
- Sound: The mid-range and trebles are exceptionally well-balanced in the K240s. The bass, however, is mediocre and lacks thickness. Aside from bass-heavy genres, you'll enjoy using them for pretty much everything.
On the whole, the AKG K240s are iconic headphones that look decidedly retro and boast a proven, balanced sound profile. There are better sounding alternatives on the market (even from AKG's own stable), but for this price, the K240s are impossible to beat.
Recommended for: I would recommend the AKG K240s to anyone in the budget range. They're perfect for critical listening and boast a classic, proven design and audio profile. And all for a price tag in the double digits.
- Classic design and sound profile
- Value for money
- Underwhelming bass performance
The No-Frills Option: Samson SR850
For a no-frills, no-fuss pair of budget open back headphones, you can't really go wrong with Samson's SR850s. They're priced less than lunch for two and boast sound quality that's good enough to compete against headphones 3-4x costlier.
The design is almost identical to the AKG K240. In fact, the two headphones share the same architecture. The comfort level is similar to the AKG K240s as well, though the padding is slightly inferior. The build quality is better than the price would suggest as well.
The design and materials might not be premium, but the sound certainly is. Samson calls them “reference” monitors, which implies neutral, balanced performance. While I certainly wouldn't recommend using them for mixing, they are certainly up to par on performance with more expensive studio monitors.
Since these are semi-open headphones, they have better isolation than purely open back headphones. Yet, they also have spacious sound staging and you'll enjoy the roominess on reverb-heavy tracks. Still, I wouldn't recommend wearing them outdoors – lots of sound still escapes.
Let's look at the details in brief:
- Comfort: Similar to their design inspiration, the AKG K240s, the SR850s are comfortable and light weight. The thick, adjustable headband is great for use over hours. My only complaint is that the padding isn't as plush as it could be.
- Design: The design is boring and utilitarian. There is no color anywhere, not even a dash of gray. They're unremarkable for the most part. The build quality is decent enough, but don't expect to use them for more than a couple of years.
- Performance: The sound performance is premium-grade, especially considering the price. The low-end performance is mediocre, but the mids make up for it. The highs are taut but have a shrill edge. Overall, these headphones sound expansive and spacious.
Overall, the Samson SR850 is a near clone of the AKG K240s but at a lower price point. They're comfortable but unremarkable looking with premium-quality sound quality at a less than premium price.
Recommended for: If, for some reason, the AKG K240s are out of your budget, choose Samson's SR850s. They're competitive in terms of sound quality and have nearly the same aesthetics and comfort.
- Comfortable and lightweight
- Good mids performance
- Poor low-end performance
- Boring, unremarkable design
The Lightweight Choice: Shure SRH144
The teeny-tiny headphones that could.
The Shure SRH144 aren't exactly a sight to behold. They look like the cheap headphones that would ship with Sony's Walkmans in the '80s. In a sea of headphones with massive earcups, the SRH144's tiny earpads feel out of place.
Where they do deliver, however, is in the sound quality.
The SRH144s have sharp highs and robust, thick mids. The bass notes aren't exactly punchy, but we're okay with compromising on the low-end if it means we get these crisp, clear highs. The sound staging is expansive and roomy. For the price, you can't really beat the performance.
- Comfort: Since these are on the ear headphones, they're not as comfortable as large over-ear competitors. Nevertheless, they're exceptionally light at under 150gms and feel great to wear for long hours. Some more padding on the headband would have been nice.
- Design: Shure has tried to evoke a Beats-like feel with the design, but it only ends up looking more like cheap retro headphones – not that it's a bad thing. The foldable headband works well but the hinges are a little weak.
- Performance: As expected, the bass is twangy and weak, but the mid-range more than makes up for it. The highs are clear except some muddiness in the low-high range. The sound staging creates a sense of space, which is complemented by the open design.
If you're looking for an affordable, portable set of headphones with superb (for the price) mids and trebles performance, look no further. The retro-like design looks great and the low weight makes them extremely comfortable for long-term use.
Recommended for: Buy the SRH144s if you value portability over everything else. The K240s and SR850s sound better, but they aren't nearly as lightweight and comfy as the SRH144s.
- Lightweight, collapsible design
- Good mids and trebles performance
- Dodgy build quality, especially in headband hinges
- Poor low-end
The ‘Surprisingly Good' Option: SIVGA SV007
Headphones from Chinese brands are often derided as “Chi-Fi”, a description that, I feel, is unfair. As you might have seen in my review of the best earbuds under $50, Chinese brands can hold their own in audio equipment now.
The Sivga SV007 is a great example. These made in China headphones look good and perform exceptionally well. They're not as cheap as some of the others in the budget category, but their mix of price, performance, and design is difficult to beat.
Everything about these headphones screams “premium” (except for the price). The all-black packaging, carrying case, and even cable hardware feel good to hold. The headphones themselves have wooden ear cups that add a definite premium finish.
The sound quality is good, not great. The bass is poor but the mids trebles sound nice. The clarity is good enough to make this a worthy addition to this list, especially when coupled with the premium build quality.
- Comfort: The adjustable headband and thick stock earcups are comfortable to wear for long hours. They are slightly on the heavier side, however. The relaxed fit removes some of the discomfort from the weight.
- Design: Both the design and build quality are fantastic for this price range. The materials feel premium and there is a satisfying clickiness when adjusting the headband. The wooden finish looks nice as well.
- Performance: Low bass and tinny high-highs stop these headphones from becoming “great”. Nevertheless, the level of detail and clarity in the mids make these an acceptable, if not exceptional set of open back headphones.
While the SV007s aren't cheap, their premium fit-finish and decent performance makes them one of the best open back headphones in the budget category. If you value build quality, these should be high on your shopping list.
Recommended for: Buy the SVIGA SV007 for the build quality and design. The sound quality is good enough for most purposes. Coupled with the design, it's a compelling package.
- Great build quality and premium design
- Comfortable to wear
- Bass performance is poor
- Shrill trebles, especially in the high-highs
The Value Pick: Audio-Technica ATH-M2X
If there's one way to describe the ATH-M2X, it's “great value”.
These don't sound exceptional, nor do they feel “premium”. What they do offer, however, is robust Audio Technica performance at a wonderful price-to-performance ratio.
The sound is well-rounded and thick with an even profile across lows, mids, and trebles. The construction quality is good and their lightweight enough to wear for long hours without complaint.
Here's a quick look at the details:
- Comfort: The low weight and relaxed fit makes these one of the more comfortable options on this list of the best open back headphones. The earcups are slightly on the smaller side, however, and might not fit large ears.
- Design: The ATH-M2x are designed for function over form. The plain black design won't draw any attention. They do, however, feel well-built, with good construction quality. The plastic feels good to touch and the faux leather headband is durable enough to last years.
- Performance: The bass, as expected in this range, isn't anything to write home about. But the rest of the sound profile is even and balanced. Since they're open back, the sound staging feels wide and spacious as well. Great for most casual listeners.
These are some of the cheapest Audio Technica headphones you can buy. They don't don't anything particularly well, but they don't do anything bad either. If you're looking for robust, no-frills performance, you can't go wrong with the ATH-M2x.
Recommended for: Buy the ATH-M2x if you're on a budget and want Audio Technica's proven performance. They won't disappoint, regardless of your use case.
- Low weight makes them supremely comfortable
- Great price tag for a storied brand
- Small earcups are a poor fit on large ears
- Mediocre bass
Best Open Back Headphones (Mid-Range)
How much is too much to spend on a pair of headphones?
If you looked at my selection of headphones above, you might have asked yourself this question. A $800 pair of headphones might sound nice, but are they really that good to warrant the price tag?
For most of you reading this, value for money trumps performance. Sure, you want your headphones to sound good, but you also want them at an affordable price tag.
Hence, in this section, I've looked at headphones that offer a good mix of price and performance. These headphones aren't cheap (we'll get to that later), but they will give you near audiophile-grade sound quality without the price tag.
Let's start from the top with my first pick:
Sennheiser HD 599
The Sennheiser HD 599 is an updated version of the legendary HD 598. The latter remains one of the best-selling premium headphones on the market. The HD 599 builds off the same architecture with a few minor aesthetic changes, but a substantially lower price. Altogether, it remains one of the best price-to-performance offerings on the market from a respected brand.
The first thing you'll notice about the HD 599 is that they look really great. The silver, cream, and brown accents come together really well to create a “premium” feel. They're a long way from the blandness of the ATH-R70x or Sennheiser's own HD 650.
But it's not just about the cosmetic touches. The HD 599 also perform remarkably well, with a even, balanced sound and spacious soundstaging. They're a good fit for most genres but perform particularly well on treble-heavy tracks thanks to Sennheiser's signature brightness.
Here's a quick look at the key features:
- Comfort: Large ear pads, comfortably padded headband, and a light, relaxed fit make these one of the most comfortable headphones you'll ever own. Since they're open back, they're highly breathable and are great for long listening sessions.
- Design: The HD 599 look great. The cream and brown color scheme looks really classy, and the silver accents add a dash of style. Although the earcups are large, they're slender enough to not look awkward. The build quality is similarly premium and robust.
- Sound: Round low-end, even mids, and bright, chirpy trebles make up the HD 599's audio performance. Save a slight muddiness in the low-mids/high-bass frequencies, these headphones sound as good as you can possibly get in this range.
On the whole the Sennheiser HD 599s have a near-perfect mix of everything you'd want from headphones in this range: great performance, great design, premium materials, and long-term comfort. If you can find a deal on it, there will be few better buys in this category.
Recommended for: If you can afford them, the Sennheiser HD 599s should be your top value for money pick. They aren't cheap, but the performance is worth the slightly higher price tag.
- Strong build quality and premium materials
- Cream and brown color scheme looks great
- Even, balanced sound
- None that I can think of!
The Well-Balanced Choice: Philips SHP9500S
The Philips SHP9500S aren't the most stylish headphones on the market. Nor are they the best sounding. Their build quality could be better. And maybe the soundstaging isn't as wide as it should be…
…but that doesn't really matter, because as far as value for money goes, the Philips SHP9500S is one of the best open back headphones on the market right now.
The 9500S gets a ton of things right: decent, well-balanced sound, spacious soundstaging, an understated aesthetic, and low weight. Throw in the affordable price tag and you can see why I've ranked them second on my list.
Here's a quick look at their key features:
- Comfort: The SHP9500S boast large, well-padded earcups, a relaxed fit, and most importantly for us, low weight. They sit comfortably over the ears and feel light enough to use for hours on end. One of the most comfortable pairs of headphones you'll ever use.
- Design: Simple and practical, the SHP9000S design is nothing to write home about. It looks good in an understated way, but if you're looking for something with more flash, look elsewhere (though you're not likely to wear this outdoors anyway).
- Sound: The Philips SHP9000S excels in the mid-range. The mids are nearly as flat as you can get without any muddiness. Treble performance is good as well save a dip in the high-highs. Bass, while solid, has some muddiness in the low-bass frequencies.
On the whole, the Philips SHP9000S is one of the best value for money deals on the market. They don't excel at anything in particular, but they do everything well enough to warrant a place in your shopping cart.
Recommended for: If you're on a budget, there are few better buys on the market than the Philips SHP9000S. Buy these if you want a great mix of performance and price, and if design isn't a priority for you.
- Lightweight and comfortable for long use
- Great value for money
- Exceptional mids performance, decent treble
- Slight muddiness in low-bass range
- Bland design
Spacious Soundtage: Grado SR80e Prestige Series
The Grado SR80e are a strange pair of headphones. For starters, they're on-ear instead of over-ear – a rarity in the open back headphones category.
(For uninitiated, on-ear headphones don't cover the ear fully. Rather, they sit on top of the ears, allowing the sound to enter/escape. Most open back headphones are over-the-ear to allow some degree of isolation).
Then there is the company itself. Grado is over half a century old, founded in 1953 by a watchmaker. Although it is a recognizable name, the company has brushed past bankruptcy plenty of times, selling as few as 12,000 units a year (something Sennheiser would likely accomplish in a day). The company is still family run and operates like a mom and pop store, not a corporate behemoth – surely, something a few of you would appreciate.
Back to the SR80e. These were among the first of Grado's new “Prestige” series meant to revive the company. Their retro design isn't just whimsical nostalgia; these are actually based off the original SR80 created in the 1980s. Plus, the retro design means that the company can keep material costs to a minimum.
Let's take a quick look at some of the key features:
- Comfort: Although they're light and comfortably padded, the on-ear design never sits right. The headband is also sparsely padded. You can wear them for hours, but expect your ears to be slightly sore afterwards. They could also use better padding material.
- Design: Simple and utilitarian is how you would describe the SR80e's design. There are no design flourishes or color relief. The retro design looks good by itself and the construction materials are sturdy, but a few aesthetic touches would have helped.
- Sound: Nimble – that's how you can describe the Grado SR80e performance. The sound is sparse and lean with sharp demarcations between frequencies. The low-end is smooth and the mids even. You can really feel the shift when a track switches from bass to high notes. The soundstaging is wide and spacious as well.
On the whole, Grado SR80e are one of the more interesting open back headphones on this list. They're on-ear, open-back, and have a spacious sound staging. The sound is nimble and clear with well-stratified lines between lows, mids, and highs. If Grado can get its comfort and design problems sorted, I would happily recommend them even further
Recommended for: The Grado SR80e is a good buy if you're looking for spacious, roomy headphones that won't burn a hole in your pocket. I recommend buying them if you're looking specifically for on-ear headphones in the low three figure range.
- Spacious, sharp sound
- Good for critical listening
- Boring “retro” design
- Poor padding and comfort levels
The Enduring Classic: beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO
Although they lean heavily on the “price” side of the price:performance matrix, the beyerdynamic DT990 PRO are just too good to not include on this list. Boasting nearly the same performance as the DT1990 PRO but at a substantially lower price point, these are some of the best sounding headphones in this range.
The first thing you'll notice about them is their big, sturdy-looking design. The earcups on the DT990 PRO are massive, offering ample cushioning. The design itself is fairly utilitarian, though it does have the same meshed back as the DT1990.
The build quality is fantastic. The headphones are built off a solid metal frame that can take a fair amount of punishment. The plastic on the earcups is dense and rugged.
Let's look at some other features quickly:
- Comfort: Large earcups with generous padding make these one of the more comfortable headphones around. However, the fit is a little tight and the headband doesn't have enough give in it. This makes them slightly uncomfortable after a couple of hours of use.
- Design: Although the design is fairly simple and utilitarian, the DT990 looks premium thanks to the high-quality materials used. The large earcups with white padding material stick out and attract attention. They are a little on the larger side, but I doubt you'll wear them in public anyway (too much noise leakage in open back headphones).
- Sound: The DT990 PRO excels in the mid and treble ranges. The sound is even, balanced, and rich. They're not as bright as the Sennheiser HD 599, but the mid-range is sharp and clear. The bass is thick and punchy, but there is an absent low-low end. Sub bass won't jump out quite as much as it should.
On the whole, if you're looking for a top of the line beyerdynamic and are willing to spend a little more, the DT990 PRO should be your top choice for the best open back headphones. They're fantastic for critical listening and have the build quality to last you a long time.
Recommended for: The beyerdynamic DT990 PRO are the best value for money audiophile grade headphones you can buy. They're not cheap, but if you can afford them, they're good enough to be the only headphones you'll need for years.
- Great build quality
- Exceptional mid-range performance
- Poor sub bass performance
- Headband is slightly tight and uncomfortable after a few hours
The Starting Audiophile's Choice: Audio Technica ATH-AD700X
I've made no secret of my love for Audio Technica as a brand. Their headphones consistently rank at the very top of my lists. So it shouldn't be a surprise to see yet another offering from Audio Technica earn a spot in my rankings.
The ATH-AD700X are different from AudioTechnica's other popular offerings (M20x, M40x and M50x) in that they're open back, and they're huge. The earcups are absolutely massive and if you walk around wearing them, you might as well look like an extra from Bladerunner.
(On that note: it's always a bad idea to wear open back headphones in public. The sound will leak out and you'll earn more than a few angry stares from people around you).
Massive earcups aside, the AD700x is comfortable and feels really open and spacious, thanks to a completely open back design. Wearing them feels like carrying around two little speakers strapped to your head.
On that note, let's look at their key features:
- Comfort: Don't let the huge earcups fool you: the AD700x is lightweight and comfortable. The dual-strap headband design removes a lot of weight without compromising on the comfort. And the massive earcups provide ample cushioning. My one complaint is the small size of ear openings in the earcups.
- Design: The design is nothing to write home about; it is as plain and utilitarian as they come. The mesh grill on the back of the earcups dominates. The large earcups also gives them an awkward silhouette. Fortunately, the build quality is decent and the construction solid enough to last you a long time.
- Sound: The AD700x performance is mixed bag. The low-end is surprisingly thick (for open back headphones), but the mid-range is on the muddier side. The trebles are bright and veering on the side of “shrill”. The sound staging is extremely spacious which creates a real sense of depth that I love.
On the whole, if you want a well-priced pair of Audio Technicas with robust, proven performance, you can't go wrong with the AD700x. They're not perfect, but the overall package is compelling, especially at the current price point.
Recommended for: The Audio Technica ATH-AD700x is a great buy if you want a good mix of price and performance. They're more comfortable than the Philips SHP9500s and have better bass performance than Grado's SR80e. Plus, you get proven Audio Technica performance.
- Lightweight and comfortable
- Value for money
- Slightly shrill treble performance
- Underwhelming design
The Best Open Back Headphones (Performance)
Performance. And nothing else.
If you're looking at this category, your primary criteria is audiophile-grade sound quality. Price isn't a concern for you. You want the best and you're ready to splurge for it.
Audiophile grade headphones come in a range of prices. You can get reference-quality monitor headphones for a hundred bucks. And you can spend half a month's salary on a pair of Focal Clear headphones.
At the bare minimum, expect to spend a few hundred dollars at least if you're looking for audiophile-grade headphones. For a better mix of price and performance, jump to the next section.
Here's my pick of the best open back headphones by performance:
beyerdynamic DT 1990 PRO
Everything about these headphones screams “quality”. The fit and finish is without compare. The design is the same as the rest of beyerdynamic's Pro series (including our favorites like DT990 and DT770), but everything is upgraded. The cushioning is better, the earcups are denser, and the headband even more comfortable.
Think of these as your run of the mill beyerdynamic DT770 turned all the way up to 11. Little wonder that they're our performance pick for the best open back headphones.
Along with AKG, Sennheiser, AudioTechnica, and Sony, beyerdynamic ranks among the top “mainstream” headphone brands (beyond this, you'll get into smaller audiophile brands).
Given that the DT1990 Pro is beyerdynamic's top-of-the-line consumer-grade model, you can bet that it sounds absolutely fantastic. Let's look at how it performs in more detail:
- Comfort: The comfort is top-notch, thanks to all the extra padding. The earcups are large but light, and the headband is generously padded. They're also lighter than you'd expect (as with most open back headphones). The only complaint I have is that they sit slightly tighter if you have a large head
- Design: The DT1990 Pro looks good by all means. They are a little bulkier, but since they're open back, you won't likely use them outdoors. They also ship with an additional set of ear pads for “analytical” listening. If I have one complaint, it's that they look too similar to beyerdynamic's lower tier models.
- Sound: Since these are “critical listening” headphones, their sound signature is nearly flat.The bass is deep and punchy, the mid-range is flat and balanced, the highs are even. From music to gaming to movies, everything sounds sharp and clear. The one negative is that the trebles sound too sharp on bright, treble-heavy tracks.
While all these are fantastic, there is the question of value for money. As incredible as the DT1990 perform, they're not so much better than the DT990 Pro, which are priced nearly a third of these headphones. If you're buying these, you have to ask yourself: do I care so much about the small increase in sound quality to justify the price?
But if performance is your only criteria, you can't go wrong with the beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro.
Recommended for: The beyerdynamic DT1990 are one of the best headphones you can buy in any price range. Apart from $x,xxx audiophile-grade headphones, it is difficult to find any consumer headphones that can beat the 1990 Pro in performance. Buy these if your only criteria is sound quality and nothing else.
- Exceptional sound quality
- Comfortable for long use
- Balanced performance across all frequency ranges
- Slightly shrill on bright tracks
- Value for money is a concern
Best for Critical Listening: Sennheiser HD 650
As one of the top offerings from another iconic manufacturer, the Sennheiser HD650 ranks among our top performance picks. Meant for “critical”, rather than casual listening, these headphones are designed to give you an accurate rendition of the music as intended.
In actual use, this means that you won't see the exaggerated bass or sharp trebles that characterize so many cheaper headphones. This can give you the impression that these headphones aren't as loud as, say, a pair of Beats, but the clarity and accuracy is unmatched.
There are better Sennheisers on the market in terms of pure performance (and I've included a few below), but for the price-to-performance ratio, the HD650 is a great pick.
- Comfort: Large earcups, breathable open back, and a wide headband make these one of the more comfortable headphones you'll wear. They sit slightly loose which can cause stability issues but also reduces the clamping effect common in so many headphones. If you want something you can wear for hours, don't look further.
- Design: The Sennheiser HD650 isn't the world's prettiest set of headphones. The large earcups look bland and there is little color to break the monotony of black and gray. The headband is also slightly flimsy which a weak joint holding it in place. At this price point, you expect slightly better build quality and aesthetics
- Performance: These headphones stand out in their performance. The bass is round, full, and well-balanced. The mids are even and the treble doesn't have the shrillness of the DT1990 Pro. My one complaint is the slight muddiness that plagues the low-bass frequencies. The performance is slightly below par on bass-heavy tracks.
Apart from the slight niggles in the low-end, these headphones perform remarkably well, especially considering that they're priced significantly lower than the DT1990 Pro. You can get better sounding headphones, even from Sennheiser itself, but you have to ask if that slightly better performance warrants the substantially higher price.
Because of this price-to-performance ratio, I've ranked the Sennheiser HD650 among my 5 best open back headphones by performance.
Recommended for: Buy the Sennheiser HD650 if you can find a good deal. They're top-of-the-line performers and can match up to any headphones in this price range, and even beyond. Get them if you want beyerdynamic DT1990 quality performance without the price tag.
- Comfortable for long use
- Good value for money buy in this category
- Well-balanced sound across all frequencies
- Slightly muddy low-end
- Bland design
The Sincere Audiophile: Audeze LCD-X
It's difficult to evaluate the Audeze LCD-X. While the DT1990 Pro and Sennheiser HD650 still fall into the “consumer” category, the Audeze LCD-X is right up audiophile alley.
You can't – and shouldn't – just plug the Audeze LCD-X into your phone headphone jack and start blasting out Taylor Swift. You need an entire setup that will help you fully enjoy the intricate performance that the LCD-X brings to the table.
Here's a bare minimum of what you'll need: lossless WAV audio files (no MP3s), a dedicated headphone amplifier, and XLR cable connections. If you don't have a dedicated headphone amp, don't even bother with these headphones – you won't really have much fun with them.
The other thing you need to know about the Audeze LCD-X is that they use planar magnetic drivers. Nearly all conventional headphones use dynamic drivers. They perform well, but they're also susceptible to slight distortion, especially in the low-mids range.
If you recall our review of the best bass headphones, you'll remember that planar magnetic drivers use two heavy magnets with a coil suspended between them. Because of the planar magnetic drivers, the Audeze LCD-X are one of the heaviest headphones you'll ever wear. People frequently joke that they should be sold as fitness accessories, like weight vests.
Here's a look at its key features:
- Comfort: Comfort isn't the LCD-X's strong suit. These cans are HEAVY. Despite the open back, they're not particularly breathable either. Although the earcups are large, they're held loosely in place. A real disappointment considering the price tag.
- Design: The Audeze LCD-X won't win any design awards, but it isn't completely hopeless either. The perforated headband is the only “unique” design touch. The earcups themselves can easily pass off as any standard open back headphones.
- Sound: The LCD-X sound so good that I'm okay overlooking the deep flaws in design and comfort. They sound bright, can handle any genre, have a large sound stage, and give you a real sense of space. It's tough to find headphones that sound as good as these, even beyond this price range.
If you're comfortable with the heft and setup prep, you'll find that the Audeze LCD-X are simply the finest sounding pair of headphones you've ever used. They sound warm, soft, and lack any discernible distortion, even with the amp turned up.
Recommended for: Buy the Audeze LCD-X if you want exceptional sound quality and prioritize critical listening over comfort. Keep in mind that you'll also need a good amp to get the most out of these headphones, so factor that into your budget.
- Exceptional performance
- Balanced sound output
- Heavy and uncomfortable
- Bland design
The ‘Frighteningly Expensive' Pick: Sennheiser HD 800
The HD 800 is the big daddy of the Sennheiser line-up, a pair of headphones so extraordinary in their performance – and price – that they transform mere mortals into audiophiles.
People, for some reason, recognize these. They'll ask you if they're are those “super expensive headphones” they once saw on Amazon. Audiophiles will nod in agreement with your taste. Like a superhero costume, You feel like a different person once you put these on.
Jokes aside, the HD 800 are a serious set of headphones, with the price to match it. They're certainly one of the priciest of Sennheisers and sit at the top of the brand's totem pole of consumer-grade offerings. Their sound quality is exceptional, as is their design and comfort. The only headphones that can beat them in pure performance is the Audeze LCD-X, and that too if you care more about critical listening than pure music joy.
Let's see what they're all about:
- Comfort: The Sennheiser HD 800 have large earcups lined with a soft suede-like material. The headband is similarly soft and well-padded. They fit slightly loose which is ideal for long listening sessions. These are pretty heavy, so you might get tired after using them for a while.
- Design: The HD 800 uses a lot of metal and premium materials in its construction. Everything feels well built and sturdy. The conical earcups with the silver finish are hard to miss. My only complaint is that they're a little bulky for casual use.
- Sound: The HD 800 are one the best open back headphones in terms of sound quality. The output is consistent and well-balanced across the board. The bass has a strong punch, the mids are even, and the treble is bright without being sharp.
Of particular note is the treble performance. With most headphones, I have to turn down the volume because the treble gets too sharp. The HD 800 finds that rare balance between sharpness and brightness. Vocal and lead-guitar heavy tracks sound particularly good.
Recommended for: Buy the Sennheiser HD800 if you want a top-of-the-line pair of headphones and have the money to splurge. These are easily the best open back headphones you can buy in this price range with stupendous all-around performance.
- Exceptionally well-balanced performance, especially trebles
- Instantly recognizable design and great build quality
- Slightly on the heavier side
- Very high price
The Neutral Choice: Audio-Technica ATH-R70x
In an earlier review, The Verge called the Audio Technica R70x the “definition” of neutral sound.
I have to agree. AudioTechnica says that these are professional “reference” headphones, which means they're meant to be used in a studio setting. Their frequency response is flat as it can get. You won't find any of the colorization that often plagues headphones in the performance category.
Lookers these headphones are not. There is no color, no brushed metal, no fancy plastic pieces. The design is bare and industrial. These headphone are all about the performance in a studio setting.
This focus on studio performance also means that the R70x doesn't do that well for casual listening. The flat sound can be a bit boring, especially when compared to the Sennheiser HD 600's chirpiness. Nevertheless, if studio performance or critical listening is your criteria, you will love the R70x.
- Comfort: Although the ear pads are well-padded, they are slightly on the smaller side which can be uncomfortable for some. The headaband has an open top loop and two protruding pads to reduce the weight. This improves the comfort for long-term listening.
- Design: The ATH R70x feels well-built, but with an industrial aesthetic. There are few design flairs and everything looks like it was made for function, not form. This fits their purpose – studio recording – but a bit of color would have looked nice.
- Sound: In terms of sheer accuracy, the R70x sit right up there with the very best studio monitors around. They're certainly better than one of my top picks, ATH M50x. The sound is flat and balanced, especially in the low end. Perfect for the studio, but a bit bland for casual listeners.
One of the problems I encountered is the high impedance. This means you'll need a powerful amp if you want to get the volume up. Again, if you're looking at reference headphones in this category, it is safe to assume that you already have access to a headphone amp.
Also read: Our list of the top Audio Technica headphones to buy in 2019.
Recommended for: Buy the AudioTechnica ATH-R70x if you want reference-quality headphones for use in the studio or some serious critical listening. They won't add any color to your tracks and the flat frequency response makes them great for recording.
- Solid build quality
- Neutral output that's perfect for studios
- Boring to look at; industrial aesthetics
- Neutral frequency response can be boring for casual use
Over to You
That draws this lengthy guide to the best open back headphones to a close. Hopefully, this should help you make a better decision on the right open back headphones for your budget and needs.
For more recommendations and advice, don't hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Bass heads should read our guide to buying the best bass headphones
- If you're on a budget, read our list of the best headphones under $100
- Pair up your headphones with a good DAC to get the best possible sound. Here are our top budget picks
- If you like your Audio Technica headphones, you'll want to read this guide
- Sennheiser headphones [Official website]
- Sony headphones [Official website]
- Audio Technica [Official website]
- AKG [Official website]
- beyerdynamic [Official website]
- Shure [Official website]
- August 12, 2018: Article first published
- August 6, 2019: Article updated with new information
- November 26, 2019: Review table added
- January 30, 2020: Title updated, minor fixes
- September 17, 2020: Minor updates to article structure
- January 7, 2021: Video and images added