The Best Open-Back Studio Headphones
We recently published a list of the best studio headphones, which included a wide variety of headphones that can be used for everything from tracking and casual listening to more focused mixing and mastering sessions.
Included in this list were two pairs of open-back headphones that are used almost exclusively for mixing: the Beyerdynamic DT 990 PROs and the Sennheiser HD 650s. These headphones, along with virtually every other type of open-back headphone, can be tricky beasts since they serve only one purpose. If your goal is to mix and master tracks with a critical ear in an environment that somewhat resembles a traditional near-field monitor setup, these types of phones are for you.
If, on the other hand, you’re interested in tracking or listening to music on the go (or in public), you’ll be much better off with a more traditional pair of closed-back headphones, which provide far more isolation.
With that in mind, we’ve decided to create a separate list dedicated to the best open-back headphones money can buy.
We usually don’t award our number one spot to relatively expensive pieces of gear, but we’re betting that anybody who’s searching for a great pair of open-back studio headphones won’t mind dropping a few extra dollars in order to lock down exceptional quality.
As we’ve said before, these open-back Sennheiser phones are used by some of the most famed producers in the world’s most expensive recording studios, and are truly exceptional when it comes to build, quality, and frequency response.
They feature acoustic silk netting that ensures precision damping over the entire frequency range, and their frequency response of 10 to 39,500 Hz means that they’re practically unparalleled when it comes to transparency and “honest” sonics during the mixing process.
These phones have world-renowned drivers that deliver a surprising amount of power and depth, and have super-lightweight aluminum voice coils that allow for an incredibly fast transient response—making them ideal for picking up those tiny glitches that even some of the most detailed studio monitors can miss.
As with all open-back headphones, there is a significant amount of bleed from the cones, but that’s the entire point of the design. Unlike closed headphones that keep all the sound “in your head”, these phones release a large portion of the music into your immediate and surrounding environment, which creates an atmosphere of open-air listening that’s far more reminiscent of mixing with near-field monitors.
And although it may sound trivial, the fact that these headphones are supremely comfortable is significant, since any audio engineer or producer will tell you that enduring an extended mixing session with uncomfortable headphones is a truly hellish experience.
There’s a reason why Sennheiser has earned the top two spots on our list of stellar open-back headphones: they’re just that good. These phones take our runner-up spot since they offer a great deal of the quality and transparency of the HD 650s at a significantly lower price point.
Aimed at serious producers and engineers who want a professional-level mixing experience without having to break the bank, these compact phones deliver a truly natural and balanced sound—devoid of artificial and distracting “coloring” that can lead to uneven and misleading mixes.
These phones also feature an ‘Ergonomic Acoustic Refinement’ design, which channels audio directly into your ears in order to produce a more ‘in room’ like listening experience.
A padded leatherette headband allows you to sit for extended mixing sessions without experiencing ear fatigue, and your order comes with two cables—a 3 meter cable terminated with a 1/4-inch jack and 1.2 meter cable terminated with a 3.5mm jack that features an in-line one-button remote with a microphone for taking calls.
Don’t let the incredibly low price of these headphones fool you. Although not quite as detailed as the above Sennheiser models, these compact phones are more than qualified for serious mixing and production.
They’re “semi-open-back”—meaning that they provide slightly more isolation than fully open-back headphones while still allowing for a relatively free movement of sound around your ears. This half-and-half design can be beneficial if you need to occasionally take your work on the go, or if you work with a studio partner who may not want to hear everything you’re working on.
These phones offer a 10Hz-30kHz frequency response, 50mm drivers that deliver a truly balanced and wide dynamic range, and a self-adjusting headband for a secure, comfortable fit.
These phones also come with a 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch gold plated adapter (which makes it easy to switch between consoles or listening environments) and the bass response is solid without being exaggerated. The upper treble frequencies are also quite pronounced without being shrill or unnecessarily grating.
Next up, we have the world-renowned AKG K240s. Known for their unique look and signature tonal balance, these semi-open headphones thrive in the lower register. Unlike a disturbingly large number of open headphones that aren’t able to faithfully represent bass frequencies and tones (especially subs), these phones manage to deliver a powerful but still accurate representation of the lower frequencies.
They come with a highly accurate dynamic transducer that aids in the delivery of natural and “open” tones, and the ear pads are comfortable enough to wear for extended periods of time. And with a wide frequency range of 15 Hz to 25,000 Hz, these phones ensure that you won’t be missing out on hearing and identifying sonics at either extreme of the spectrum.
Perhaps most importantly, a patented Variation diaphragm that’s used in these phones creates a more powerful transient response, and aids in the delivery of crisp, detailed highs. This technology also makes the overall sound more life-like and three-dimensional, so you’ll be able to “feel” the tones resonate more robustly.
These headphones are also extremely well-constructed (unlike some other leading open-back headphone models), meaning you won’t have to worry about harming them even when you’re recording more rambunctious artists.
Jumping back into the middle of the price point range, we find these extremely competent and popular open-back headphones. Ideal for instrumental and acoustic reproductions, these phones are equally well-suited for any genre of music, and create a balanced sonic image that won’t deceive you or your listeners.
They feature large-aperture 53mm drivers and CCAW voice coils that provide truly astounding sound reproduction, and 3D wing support housing offers a vibration-proof mechanism that provides comfortable support for extended listening sessions.
The only small area in which we found these headphones to be lacking was the upper-midrange, although this is unlikely to be an issue with most producers who are focused primarily on the upper and lower ends of the frequency spectrum.
Rounding out our list is another pair of Audio-Technicas, which provide noticeably better sonics and clarity than the ATH-AD900Xs but at a higher price point. If you’re an up-and-coming producer or engineer who lacks the kind of professional equipment that can be found in high-end recording studios, you probably don’t need a pair of these admittedly expensive phones.
If, on the other hand, you have a decent amount of experience under your belt and some extra cash to throw around, we highly recommend spending the extra money on these truly exceptional cans.
Thanks to high-efficiency magnets and pure alloy magnetic circuitry, these headphones actively and efficiently reduce distortion in order to ensure that an extended high-frequency response is achieved at all volume levels.
The carbon composite resign improves the structural build and durability of the phones while allowing for a more detailed transient response, and the aluminum honeycomb-mesh housing provides a natural and spacious open-back listening experience.
These headphones are also incredibly lightweight—meaning they’re easy to transport and comfortable enough to wear during long mixing sessions. Your order also comes with a very convenient dual-sided straight cable along with a protective carrying pouch.