When you think of a good high-end pair of headphones, the average person will think of something that completely isolates the person and their music from the outside world. Sure, that may well be the point of headphones for many people, but for the people who are familiar with Hi-Fi audio know there is more to the story.
Open-back headphones are exactly what their name suggests. Instead of being completely close off, they often have an open grill or mess at both sides. This does mean that sound can leak quite heavily outside, and ambient noise can get inside to you. However, open-back headphones end up sounding more natural and clear due to this, and they have a wider soundstage. That’s one reason why they can be better.
Another is that they can also be more comfortable, as the open-back design prevents echoes from building up inside. They are also quite good for recording and mixing because of the wider soundstage. Still, there’s no clear winner here, some prefer open-back while others like closed-back.
That’s enough rambling, let’s cut to the chase. After extensive research, we’ve rounded up the best open-back headphones you should buy in 2021.
If I’m being completely honest, this was a very easy pick for the top spot on our list. The Sennheiser HD 800S are Sennheiser’s top of the line consumer rated headphones. They came out back in 2016 and gained a lot of attention from every media source. To this day, they still at the top of the throne of open-back headphones. But why have the earned such an incredible legacy?
For starters, the design has become somewhat iconic at this point. The earpiece grill/mesh on the outside surrounded by the huge drivers inside still looks astounding to this day. Usually, I would have wished for more colors, but the HD 800S scream premium in their stealthy black and grey color scheme. The construction is metal in most places, but plastic has been used here and there to keep the weight down.
Comfort is another huge plus point. They certainly look huge, but they don’t weigh as much as you think. At 330g, and with a well balanced clamping force, they sit comfortably around the ears. The design of the headband and earpads both use microfibre cloth which really makes them easy to wear. Fatigue is non-existent, thanks to the open-back design.
The sound is, quite simply, perfection. The bass is warm and tight with a very smooth roll off into the mid-range and treble. The vocals spring to life thanks to the bright yet well-balanced highs. The midrange is crystal clear and distinct, so it all provides a listening experience like no other. They do a much better job of balancing the sound than its predecessor. Tracks sound beautifully textured dynamic, and fluid.
A lot of people will be skeptical about spending this much money on headphones. It’s also worth mentioning that with a 300 Ω impedance, you’re going to need a decent DAC/Amp combination to bring these to life. But for the enthusiast and audiophiles, it doesn’t get much better.
Beyerdynamic is a name synonymous with making some of the best studio-grade professional headphones in the market. Headphones like the DT770 Pro, 880 Pro, and the T1 Gen 2 are just a few examples that have cemented Beyerdynamic’s legacy as one of the best in the game. The DT1990 Pro is no different.
The DT1990 Pro is a marvel of German engineering. The build quality and construction is exceptional, and still true to the Beyerdynamic style. They are mostly all-metal, they feel hefty and solid, and you’d have a hard time breaking these. The headband has good leather padding, feels premium, and does a great job for comfort. The design is sleek and understand, and it really is a work of art.
The velour earpads feel splendid, and you get two pairs of them in the box. At 370g they aren’t light, but they feel well balanced. They use Beyerdynamic’s 45mm Tesla drivers with an impedance of 250 Ω. No, your phone probably isn’t a good source to fully drive these headphones. You really want a good source and a nice amp to fully get your money’s worth out of these.
The sound is intended to be pure reference grade. This means you will hear music as the producer intended it, no fancy effects, and no coloration. It puts you right in that concert, with front row seats. The bass is tight, pronounced, and effortless. Imaging is also quite good with a wide soundstage. A lot of people might perceive the highs as a bit sharp, but switch to the balanced pads included in the box, and you’ll have an easier time.
All in all, these headphones do require you to burn them in. The sound signature is very different, and it will take a bit of time to get used to it. However, once you do, you’ll have a great time listening to these. If you are a professional, consider these for mixing and mastering.
There’s not much I can say about the Phillips SHP9500 that hasn’t already been said. Simply put, this is the best bang for your buck you’ll get with any headphones, without a doubt. If you don’t need the highest-end enthusiast setup or something for the studio, these are the best headphones for the average person and audiophile alike.
With all that said, the design might be a bit bland or boring for some people. They are mostly made out of metal, but the parts surrounding the earcups use plastic. Either earcup has the Phillips logo and the driver branding text. Both earcups have big L and R letters printed on their sides, respectively. So it’s not exactly ugly, but it can be a bit boring.
These headphones are large, but not exactly heavy at 320g. The breathable ear cushions and the double layer headband padding play a big role in making these comfortable. But when you put these on your head, you’ll be surprised by how lightweight they feel. This is because they have a very light clamping force, just enough to stay on your head. They don’t fall off easily, yet you never feel them. That’s excellent comfort if we’ve ever heard of it.
The sound quality is incredible for a pair that costs considerably less compared to the competition. They are more focused on the mid-range, which sounds warm and easy to listen to. The highs are by no means sharp, which is a good thing, The bass is actually surprising, it has a lot of depth to it and has a smooth roll-off. Still, for people who want sub-bass, you won’t get that with an open-back headphone.
All in all, if someone were to ask me what are the best audiophile-grade headphones that hold the best value, these will always be my answer.
This list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t include at least one of the many excellent headphones in the Sennheiser HD 500. Yes, I’m aware that this list already includes another Sennheiser pair, but I think including the HD 599 SE is justified for its versatility alone.
The design is reminiscent of the classic 500 series. It hasn’t changed much from the 598. The headband is reinforced with more padding and an updated more premium look. The velour earpads feel great on the head, and the overall size is more compact compared to other headphones, so these are really comfortable on the head. No fatigue issues here. I wish the frame was more robust, as it feels weak at the hinges.
As for sound quality, they sound like you’d expect a pair of Sennheiser’s to sound. However, it’s important to note that there is a huge difference between the 500 and 600 series. While the 600 series sound dark and have a more booming bass, the 500 series are more recessed in that area. I wouldn’t call the bass dark, but it is definitely warm.
These headphones are really versatile for any type of track you want to listen to. Jazz, Hip-Hop, Electronic, Classical, Rock, and even mainstream pop all sound spectacular. Your phone can drive these headphones as well. All in all, if you’re looking for a budget pair from Sennheiser, this is the best option.
The audiophiles reading this most likely might be offended by the inclusion of a gaming headset, but hear me out. As an audio enthusiast, I understand how a lot of gaming headsets can be gimmicky and overpriced. So if you’re someone who needs a great gaming headset that won’t disappoint your audiophile ears, the Astro A40 TR could be worth looking at.
The A40 TR has a very busy design. The sides of the headphones have a uniquely shaped slider to adjust the headphones according to your head. This looks quite weird, and in my book, that design isn’t earning any extra points. Despite that, the earpads on here feel very comfortable, and these might be one of the few gaming headsets that you can wear for extremely long sessions.
The A40 has a removable mic, comes in a variety of colors, and the DAC/Amp combo called the MixAmp Pro. I won’t talk about the MixAmp Pro too much, as it is a hassle to set up, and doesn’t really provide a major improvement. Sure there are convenient features for streamers but that is about it.
The sound signature was actually quite surprising to me. The bass is boomy and loud yet net overemphasized. The mid-range is well balanced and sounds pleasing. However, the treble is way too uneven for my tastes. For bass lovers, however, they work well in video games with loud explosions.
It’s worth mentioning that the A40 TR is semi-open back, so there will be a considerable amount of sound leak compared to a regular gaming headset. It’s a great option, but it has a lot of issues when setting up with a console, so I would avoid that.