Open-backed headphones are considered by many of the most discerning audiophiles to be the best of the best, with the finest sound quality you can get. And indeed, some of the most fabulously expensive headphones on the market today – costing more than many of us might spend on a car – are open-backed.
And yet there are lots of surprisingly affordable open-backed headphones available as well, which offer many of the same advantages of the big boys at a fraction of the price.
Just because a headphone is of the open-back design doesn’t in itself guarantee that it will be a great headphone, of course, nor does the price tag or the brand name. That’s why we put together this buyer’s guide, to help you find the very best open-back headphones in 2021, no matter how much you want to spend.
What is an Open-Back Headphone?
Just as the phrase suggests, open-backed headphones have an open design, where rather than solid plastic or some other material on the flat outside surface there is an open grill instead, often allowing you to see the back of the headphone drivers and other components, and also allowing at least some of the music to come through the back.
This is in contrast to closed-back headphones, which effectively seal up the driver compartment on the outside, or back, and allow music to only move through the side facing your ears, or to earbuds and open ear monitors, which are also effectively closed designs, and are even more sealed up when you are wearing them.
What are the Advantages of Open-Back Headphones?
Why are open-back headphones such a clear favorite of so many audiophiles and critical listeners? There is no solid material around the sound drivers, and those drivers can simply move more freely, with an unrestrained ease and lack of pressure which allows for more detail, faster dynamics, bigger soundstage, lower distortion and a more relaxed presentation overall.
Compared to even the best closed-back designs, as well as in-ear monitors, ear buds and other designs, open-back headphones have several distinct advantages:
- Often dramatically larger and more immersive soundstage
- More precise stereo imaging
- Increased levels of detail
- Faster transients
- Better dynamics and more energy
- More ease and an effortless sound quality
- Lower distortion
- Better timing
While most of these are easy enough to understand, the last – better timing – may be a new concept to many. It is a little difficult to really define, but when all of the other factors fall into place – especially things like the accurate representation of space, dynamics and micro-dynamics, detail and micro-detail, and very low levels of noise and distortion – something kind of magical happens, where everything jumps to the next level of realism. Things begin to move forward in time with a kind of energy, inevitability and excitement that is much more like listening to live music.
But while timing is a bit hard to explain, you can easily hear it in those rare components that get it all correct, and the great news is that not only are open-back headphones famous for their sense of timing, even the least expensive ones can offer this, and all of the other advantages, and provide a thrillingly engaging and musical listening experience even on a limited budget.
Another often mentioned advantage of open designs in headphones is that they are more comfortable to wear. They can be noticeably lighter, cooler over long listening sessions, and put less pressure onto your eardrums, especially at higher listening levels.
What are the Disadvantages of Open-Back Headphones?
Since open-back headphones have, well, open backs, they will not isolate you or cut out outside noise, nor will they prevent the music you are listening to from being heard by those around you. While they are arguably the best headphones for high-level listening, there are a few things you should be aware of:
- Little or no sound isolation makes open-back headphones less suitable for commuting, use in the office, or anywhere where your music may bother others
- The lack of sound isolation also means that open-back headphones are best used in a quiet environment, so that excessive background noise doesn’t adversely affect your listening
- Because of their open design, open-back headphones can be more vulnerable to moisture and dust, and are not always the best for using outside. They are typically very well made, however, and if you take care of them they will last for years and years.
Some say that open-back headphones also have the disadvantage of being too revealing – that is, if you have poor sounding, low resolution music files, a low quality amplifier or other audio components, good open headphones will really reveal everything, warts and all. But here at Speakergy we’ve always taken a very different stance in this – if you have poor sounding components or music files and need to use a relatively lower quality pair of headphones (or speakers) so that you can’t hear these deficiencies, well you’re really just adding distortion to distortion, inaccuracy to inaccuracy, and getting farther and farther away from how the music really sounds.
Anyway, these grave predictions that the best open-back headphones are going to reveal how terrible everything else in your audio chain sounds – or even that one glaringly bad link – have rarely been our experience. Indeed, while the best and most revealing headphones will sound better and better with better and better related equipment, they can actually make anything – even moderate and lower priced gear (like a laptop’s internal DAC (digital to analog convertor) and amplifier, for example) sound much more musical.
How can You Find the Best Open-Back Headphones?
When you are trying to find the best open-back headphones one of the first things you’ll notice is that there is an enormous range of prices, from amazingly cheap to ridiculously expensive (really, tens of thousands of dollars!), and this alone can be quite off-putting – can you expect to find anything decent in your price range, or should you figure out a way (like a second mortgage, maybe) to get a really premium set?
Also a bit confounding are the seemingly countless brands and models, with new examples of both appearing seemingly every single day. New companies, old companies, known entities and wholly unfamiliar names, established reputations and newcomers receiving almost unbelievably positive reviews.
That’s exactly why we have put together this buyer’s guide for the best open-back headphones available today, to cut out some of the chaff and present the very best headphones you can get at all price levels. We will consider how each pair of headphones sounds, how well they are built, the reviews and experiences of verified customers, and not just the price but the value offered.
So you can be sure that, regardless of your budget, you can select any of the models listed below and will end up with the best open-back headphone for you, and ones that will give you enormous listening pleasure for many years to come.
The Best Open-Backed Headphones in 2021
Best Super-Cheap Open-Back Headphones
One of the true legends in hi-fi, the Koss Porta-Pro portable open-back headphones have remained essentially unchanged for decades, and still have not only the same basic design but the same sweet, neutral and engaging sound they have always had.
The Porta-Pros’ small, foldable design does not, at first glance, really inspire much confidence in how they will sound, but once you have them on your ears and are listening to your favorite music all of that will disappear, and the remarkably deep bass, large soundstage and full-on dynamic energy will make you think you are wearing full-sized headphones – only the comfort and weight really say otherwise.
A great little set of headphones, the Koss Porta-Pro are still, after all these years, one of the very best bargains in hi-fi, and our choice for best super-cheap open-back headphones in 2021.
Best Budget Open-Back Headphones
With a slightly “popular” sonic signature – emphasized bass and high frequencies, and a more dark and recessed midrange – these Philips SHP9500 headphones may be the least neutral set we’re recommending in our list of best open design ‘phones, but they are also among the most exciting, with an indescribably musical sound, tons of energy, deep, strong and fast bass and incredible clarity for their price.
Overall, despite their somewhat v-shaped frequency response, these are still audiophile headphones, and for a very low price, with real transparency and transient speed, low distortion and the overall sense that you are getting a clear and accurate presentation of the music itself.
A fun and rewarding listen, with very high fidelity at a very low price, the Philips SHP9500 are one of the most highly rated headphones on the market today, and our choice for best budget open-back headphones in 2021.
Best Budget Open-Back Headphones – Premium
From one of the most respected companies in both high-end consumer audio and among professionals, the Audio-Technica ATH-AD700X is a next-level product, with far less of its own sonic characteristics. In fact, if you are used to Beats, Sony, JBL and the like – all brands we know and love – these Audio-Technica ‘phones may sound almost too flat at first, but let’s remember that “flat” is actually one of the most positive words to describe sound in the world of true high fidelity.
The more you listen to the Audio-Technica ATH-AD700X headphones, the more engaging they become, with really deep, fast bass, silky smooth mids and high frequencies, incredible openness and very low distortion. Not only is there amazing musical energy, but even the tiniest changes in dynamics are heard clearly, and the overall presentation is exciting in a way none of the more mainstream headphones could ever offer.
Approaching the true ideal of absolute fidelity in musical reproduction, the Audio-Technica ATH-AD700X is an amazing set of headphones for a still affordable price, and our choice for best premium-level budget open-backed headphones in 2021.
Best Next Level Open-Back Headphones
With the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro Open-Backed headphones we hear a beautifully v-shaped sound signature – that is, with strong, punchy bass, prominent, sweet and clear high frequencies and a slightly laid back and dark quality to the midrange frequencies. This is not done to excess, as with many more mainstream ‘phones, but just enough to make music really come alive.
At the same time, these premium headphones have the kind of neutrality and accuracy we would expect from Beyerdynamic, and all of the sound quality the small German audio firm has become famous for over the years, like transparency and detail, transient speed and the ability to reproduce even the most subtle changes in dynamics, and a big, precise and immersive soundstage – everything sounds open, fast and relaxed, with pure energy and at the same time absolute ease.
A great headphone for audiophiles on a budget who listen primarily to popular music, the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro are exciting and rewarding with all other types of music as well, and are out choice for best value in mid-priced open back headphones in 2021.
Best Mid-Priced Open-Back Headphones
While all of the less expensive headphones we’ve recommended in this list of best open-backed headphones are really brilliant, and much more accurate and musical than other choices in their price range, many would say that these Sennheiser 599 headphones are the first actual step into the upper realms of true audiophile reproduction, with whole new levels of transparency and musicality.
With strikingly open sound and precise and accurate representation of the space around the musicians, the 599s give an amazing sense of the acoustics and environment of the original musical performance, and their high level of phase correctness and ability to reproduce micro-detail and micro-dynamics allow the listener to hear every expressive nuance in the music. Flat overall frequency response, with deep, fast bass, smooth and open midrange and extended high frequencies without a touch of sibilance or harshness, add to the sweet, clear and thrillingly musical listening experience.
Though a definite step up in price, the Sennheiser 599 open-backed headphones are well worth the money. They are, in fact, a great value, a great entree into true high-fidelity sound, and our choice for best mid-priced open back headphones in 2021.
Best Bluetooth Wireless Open-Back Headphones
We may be expecting too much here – for our choice of best wireless open-backed headphones, we would want not only real high-fidelity sound quality, approaching the audiophile ideal, but also flawless Bluetooth performance, and all for an affordable price. The Grado GW100 version 2 ‘phones, however, not only met but totally blew away our expectations.
Grado headphones have always, for many, many years, had legendary sound, and while they are not inexpensive, they are widely regarded as having about the best price-to-performance on the market, and are often the darlings of really high-end audio boutiques around the world (and about the least expensive items in those shops). And the GW100 V2 wireless headphones offer that brilliant Grado sound – absolute transparency, sweet musicality, incredibly open, fast and detailed, and indescribably engaging and fun – with absolutely stable and glitch-free Bluetooth 5.0 wireless, including Apt-X codex for full lossless high resolution sound.
The perfect ‘phones for audiophiles who want uncompromising quality and fun, engaging and beautiful sound with full high resolution Bluetooth wireless protocol, the Grado GW100 V2 are our choice for best open-backed wireless headphones in 2021.
Best Value in Audiophile Headphones
Fifteen years ago nobody had even heard of Hifiman, and today they are known for manufacturing the very best audiophile headphones and headphone amplifiers in the world, with unparalleled realism, dynamic energy, spatial representation and musical ease. Nothing sounds like a Hifiman headphone, and a Hifiman headphone sounds like nothing at all.
That last bit, nothing at all, is truly the ideal for any real audiophile gear, that it disappears and allows the musicians and music, the original recording in all its glory, to speak directly to the listener, without modification or “improvement” of any kind. When you hear just how great so many original studio and live recordings really are, you understand how important this transparency actually is, and why pure audiophile listening is so incredibly compelling.
And so when we describe Hifiman gear, we use words like extremely fast dynamics, open sound and wide soundstage, pure tonal representation and ultra-flat frequency response, no distortion and absolute ease and musicality, but what we’re really describing is the music, as it is meant to sound and as the recording engineers worked so hard to capture it.
Hifiman headphones come closer to disappearing than any other, and while the Sundara, their “budget” phones, do not have the nth degree of radiant transparency of the top of Hifiman’s product line, they are arguably more transparent than any other brand – even those on this list of best open-backed headphones. An incredible set of headphones, and our clear choice as best value in true audiophile headphones, the Sundara are in a class occupied only by Hifiman.
Most Popular Open-Backed Headphones
Of course, with all this talk about the best audiophile gear simply disappearing, and allowing the original master tapes to shine through, there is still room in our hearts for a pair of headphones that has a little of its own character – especially when that character is fun, lively and exciting, with deep, powerful bass, liquid highs, rich, warm vocals, pure musical energy and an amazing sweetness that denotes incredibly low distortion.
But it’s not just our hearts that are won over. The Sennheiser HD 660S headphones are perhaps the most popular premium headphones on the market today, and are almost certainly the most beloved and positively reviewed – an amazing feat at this level where listeners tend to get a bit more picky and critical. But everybody loves the 660s, and not just their fun, dynamic character but the fact that these are still audiophile ‘phones, with really transparent and accurate sound and an amazing ability to represent detail, dynamics and soundstage.
A wonderful listening experience, able to do full justice to the best and highest resolution audiophile recordings and a great match for even the highest end stereo equipment, the Sennheiser HD 660 S are our (and everybody’s) choice for most popular open-backed headphones in 2021.
Best Audiophile Open-Back Headphones for Computers
An amazing headphone on its own, with arguably a more neutral and accurate sound than the Sennheiser 660s just above, the Beyerdynamic Amiron becomes something really special when paired with the Beyerdynamic Impacto Essential headphone amplifier and DAC (digital to analog convertor). The two pieces have a kind of synergy which brings them to a whole new level of dynamic energy, clarity and musical sweetness, which sounds not just more correct and more transparent but just plain better.
Using this brilliant Beyerdynamic combination on any computer – even the best and most expensive PCs – and completely bypassing your computer’s DAC and headphone amp will yield much, much better sound. In fact, with a good media player on your PC, like Foobar2000 or JRiver, you can have a full and true audiophile listening experience from any computer, with the highest levels of transparency, detail, transient speed and dynamics, incredibly flat frequency response and the lowest levels of noise and distortion.
A perfect solution for discerning audiophiles who want to use their computer for listening, the combination of the Beyerdynamic Amiron headphones and the Beyerdynamic Impacto Essential headphone amp is our choice for best audiophile open-backed headphones for computer listening in 2021. And it should not go without saying that, especially for classical, jazz and acoustic music, the Amiron ‘phones by themselves are simply unmatched at the price.
Best Value in High-End Open-Backed Headphones
You may notice that we have made quite a jump in price to reach our next recommendation in this buyer’s guide for best open design headphones. This is simply because the less expensive headphones are that good, and it takes something really special to reach the next level. Well, at a little over a thousand dollars we have just such a headphone, and from another company that may not be that well known but has secured a place in the hi-fi firmament by hand-making superb sounding and premium quality headphones – Audeze.
The Audeze LCD-X is their most popular headphone, and is actually more meant for professional audio engineers and producers at the very highest levels, but it is their ability to resolve the finest and most subtle details, dynamic shifts and changes in space and time that make these absolutely superb open design headphones for critical home listening as well. There is no discernible coloration, the frequency response is not only incredibly wide but nearly perfectly flat, and the natural sweetness and flow of any music, as well as the best attributes of any associated equipment, come through with startling clarity.
If you think music needs help from headphones, to sound more sweet, to have more bass foundation, dynamic energy or accuracy, you owe it to yourself to move to the highest level, where music is revealed as it really is, with thrilling musicality, energy and impact, space, time and movement. The Audeze LCD-X is an amazing pair of headphones, and one of the finest quality products we’ve ever used, and an easy choice for best value in high-end open-backed headphones in 2021.
Best Professional Open-Back Studio Monitor Headphones
If absolute fidelity is the be all and end all of the audiophile listening experience, then we can all stop right here and get on with our lives, because the AKG K812 professional monitor headphones are one of the most purely neutral and accurate headphones ever made. They are designed specifically to be just this, and are perfect for the most critical audio engineers and recordists whose work is in preparing master tapes of the highest quality.
And it makes perfect sense that the ability to hear more and more on those master tapes is exactly what true audiophiles would want too, especially when listening to really high resolution digital master downloads and the best analog vinyl recordings. The AKG K812 ‘phones may not ultimately have the very best ability to resolve incredibly small differences in timbre, dynamics or spatial relationship, especially compared to the outlandishly expensive Utopia or Susvara ‘phones listed below, but they are incredibly neutral and honest headphones, and would unquestionably satisfy any audiophile at any level.
If you are a professional audio engineer interested in making the very best recordings, the 812s are an almost automatic choice. And if you are a home listener who is first and foremost interested in hearing the music itself, in all its power and subtlety, they are a brilliant product, revealing to the extreme and, ultimately, one of the most musical, sweet and pleasing listening experiences we’ve ever had – a strong recommendation for the best professional open-backed headphones in 2021!
Best High-End Open-Back Headphones
For our last set of recommendations in this buyer’s guide to the best audiophile headphones on the market today, we have moved to that most rarefied and astonishing realm of the best of the best, with headphones which are absolutely unparalleled as regards accuracy, detail, dynamic energy, impact and musicality.
Even though they are all expensive (I should say “justifiably” expensive), we are going to give three different options: a “bargain” pair, a “mid-priced” pair and, well, the best headphones in the world.
Best High-End Open Back Headphones – Bargain
An extraordinarily clear and open headphone, the Hifiman Arya will immediately reveal details in music that you have never before heard, no matter how many times you have listened. Even when music is complex and multi-layered, the ability to discern between all of the individual elements is astonishing. Indeed, despite what we have said about the best headphones making associated components sound better, these are such accurate and uncolored headphones that they really need the best of the best in amplifiers and analog and digital playback equipment.
When heard with the right system, though – like the amazing Peachtree Audio Integrated Amp & DAC – the Hifiman Arya is breathtaking, with incredibly fast transient attack and delay, flat and really extended frequency response, eerily precise imaging and a soundstage, and an ability to discern the smallest of details that are all unsurpassed at this level. In terms of resolution, in fact, the Arya is much better than most audiophile ‘phones I’ve heard at even much higher prices, and the same can be said about the overall musical impact, tonal balance, temporal and spatial representation, and, most especially, musicality and listening enjoyment.
It may seem insane to think of a 1,600 dollar pair of headphones as a bargain, but if you have ever compared the Arya to even the most highly regarded or high priced competition, you would know that not only is bargain true statement, it is in fact a vast understatement. A perfect choice, then, as Best “bargain” high-end open-backed headphones, and a nearly perfect audiophile product.
Best High-End Open Back Headphones – Mid-Priced
Yes, the Focal Utopia is a better pair of headphones than the awesome Hifiman Arya. While they don’t have quite as much bass, the impact can be staggering with the right recording, and the speed and decay are nearly ideal. The ability to work out spatial and temporal relationships in even very complex soundscapes is almost unparalleled, the flow of music through time and placement in space only limited by the original recording and associated equipment. There is a sweetness and musical ease in the mids and highs which is, again, perhaps a bit better than the Arya, and the overall frequency response is incredibly wide and extended (if not always perfectly flat), and sounds just right at every frequency. The Focal Utopia offers, for its premium price, an incredibly revealing, exciting and musical listening experience, in my experience bettered only by the Hifiman Susvara.
But, if we can get real here for a moment, the Utopia headphones are 4,000 dollars – more than twice as expensive as the remarkable and, it must be said, remarkably priced Hifiman Arya above. While they are better, it is by such a narrow margin that, unless you absolutely needed that tiniest improvement in detail, accuracy, impact and timing, I would actually prefer the Arya. And if the extra money is making your pocket smoke and smolder, you can get the Aryas and the amazing Peachtree Audio amp I mentioned above for a little more than the Focal Utopias by themselves, and IMHO have better overall sound and a more musical and fun listening experience.
Really, though, these are the two best ‘phones I know short of the blessed behemoth listed just below, and the Utopia is not only discernibly better than the Arya in most ways, it is also one of the most beautiful and premium quality products I have ever seen. If you can afford them, there is no doubt that they are worth the money, and then some, and the Focal Utopia are our recommendation for best “mid-priced” high-end open-backed headphones in 2021.
Best High-End Open Back Headphones – Period!
At the end of the day we can say anything we want to about the unbelievable bargain an Arya represents, the slight improvements offered by the Utopia, or the merits and shortcomings of any other headphones on the market today, but when we hear the Hifiman Susvara all conversation stops, all thought stops, all comparison and even all rationality stops, and there is just music.
And we can talk all we want to about these Susvaras and their clearly superior qualities, like the absolutely solid, open and precise soundstage, the freakishly fast and accurate transients, the extreme sensitivity to all dynamics and energetic cues, the pure musicality at all frequencies and the way music flows through time with an irresistible and thrilling momentum, and yes, the Susvara headphones are better in all of these respects than anything we have ever heard at any price. But what it comes down to, over and over again, is that this is simply what music sounds like.
In the sake of full disclosure, I don’t own Hifiman Susvara headphones, and have in fact only spent a few hours overall listening to them, but I have to say that I count those few hours as the best audiophile listening I’ve ever done. Quite a while ago I had the opportunity to hear Magnepan Timpani loudspeakers, all six of their enormous flat panels perfectly set up in a great room and with a superb associated equipment, and that stood for years as the best sound I’d even heard. But my time with the Susvara was better – more revealing, more impactful, more convincing and more emotionally engaging.
No, I said “convincing,” but that’s not the right word. These superb ‘phones did not convince me of anything, but instead simply gave me music, real, living music. Not a reproduction, not a near-perfect representation, not an amalgam of audiophile qualities, just music. The Hifiman Susvara are not only our choice for the best high-end open backed headphones in 2021, they are the best headphones in the world, and as close as I have ever seen to a perfect audio product.
Final Thoughts: Are Open-Backed Headphones Right for You?
There are lots of different reasons to buy and use headphones, from casual listening while exercising, commuting or working in the office to the most critical audiophile listening in a relaxed and non-distracting environment.
If you are listening in a place where others will hear and possibly be bothered or distracted by your music, or if you want to keep what you’re listening to private, open-back headphones may not be a good idea, and if you are going to use them outside or expose them to the elements, or in a very noisy environment, again they may not be ideal.
But please don’t think that because of this (or because of their price or their exceptional performance and quality) open-back headphones are somehow too much for “casual listening.” The best open-back headphones, regardless of price, really do have ease, musicality, clarity, and energy that other headphones can’t offer, and will make all listening, from the most casual to the most critical, more fun, enjoyable and rewarding.
Great open-back headphones can be a revelation, allowing you to hear more, feel more, and get closer to your music than ever before. If you’ve felt like you have somehow lost something of the pure joy music can provide, or just want to feel that joy even more strongly and vividly, the best open-back designs can and will take you there.