What is an open-back headphone?
Open-back headphones also referred to as open headphones, are a popular design in high-end audio. They often have inherent qualities to their sound that offer listeners a spacious and airy sound. They also have a lot of detail and separation that can set them apart from their closed-back headphone competition.
An open-back headphone is different from a closed one in that the driver is, you guessed it, open.
The driver is not sealed inside the earcup and instead is free to breathe and move without the restrictions from pressure inside a closed cup. Many people talk about how they are great at creating a natural and open space feeling when listening to music, much like you would get with full-sized audiophile speakers but in a more portable form factor.
They are regarded as one of the best headphones for listening to Rock, Jazz, and Classical genres, and I can’t say I disagree. I have owned numerous Open Back headphones over the past ten years and still do to this day. Over the past year alone, I have tested around 50 headphones for this website and finally feel like I can put out a quality list recommending the best open-back headphones for 2021.
What Open-Back Headphones do i personally use?
As with any of these best headphone lists, I always get a lot of questions asking about the headphones I use. So I have a few of the headphones listed below and a few that aren’t. Mainly headphones that I have fallen in and out of love with over the past few years. In this section, I will tell you the current open-back headphones that are in my current rotation.
As of November 2021, Headphones in Rotation are:
- Sennheiser HD800s – All round listening and gaming
- Focal Utopia – My endgame heaphones that make everything sound great
- Koss Porta Pro – My Travel Headphones for casual listening (Super cheap and sound great)
I know in the audio hobby, things can get confusing. When discussing different technologies and qualities but it’s all relatively simple once you get familiar with the hobby. To help clarify the differences between other headphones and help you find what may be best for you, we have written many articles that might be useful in your search for the perfect set.
- Best Audiophile Headphones
- Best Headphones Under $100
- Audiophile Terminology Guide
Closed-back and open-back headphones. Additionally, if it is closed-back headphones you are after, you should check out our list of the best models available today.
Audeze LCD-5 – Best Open Back Audiophile Headphones
If you know audiophile headphones, then you know who Audeze is. This company is synonymous with good sound quality and have based their business model on making outstanding sounding open back planar magnetic headphones. The LCD-5 is their latest flagship headphone, and it’s incredible.
Build quality is unrivaled, and it seamlessly blends modern materials like carbon fiber with wood and metal. Despite being bleeding-edge tech headphones, they retain the classic styling, which is a nod to the companies heritage and previous versions of the LCD line.
The sound quality is fascinating about these headphones, with smooth and full tuning with enormous amounts of detail. The sound space is vast, and imaging is one of the best. This is about as good as headphones get, and on this list, it’s only really rivaled by the Utopia. An end-game god-tier headphones if there ever was one.
Grado SR80x – The Legend Continues
Grado had to make the list of the best open headphones. They are legendary in this space, and for many, the SR80 has been the gateway headphone to people getting into the audiophile hobby. The SR80x does a lot of things great and one thing brilliantly. Value for money. With an RRP of well under $200, the SR80e is simply unmatched.
The SR80x is newly released and is a refinement of one of the worlds longest running headphone lines. No significant changes, just gentle tweaks that help maintain its iconic reputation in the industry.
Why is the SR80x such good headphone? Well, they offer up the familiar Grado house sound of an engaging, detailed midrange combined with crisp and clear treble. If you are coming from a fairly standard level of headphones before this, you are going to notice an instant jump-up in audio fidelity.
As for what genres work best for the SR80x, we recommend using Rock, Folk, and acoustic to get the most out of them. The original Grado SR80 are the headphones that got me into high-end audio, and I still own the same pair today; and even though I have progressed to owning their more luxurious RS1e, the ’80s will always have a place in my heart.
Samson SR850 – Best Cheap Open Back Headphone
Ok, so maybe your budget is even too tight to be able to go out and grab yourself a set of the excellent Grado’s listed above but fear not, you can still treat your ears to the best open headphone sound under $50.
Under $50? Really? No im not kidding, and yes, you will be making sacrifices when you put them against the far more expensive headphones on this list, but for the money, the Samson SR850 is a crazy bargain. The 850 are no-frills headphones with clear, detailed sound making them great for enjoying music or gaming. They have a wide soundstage and represent jaw-dropping value for money in the budget audiophile space.
For under $50, nothing comes close, and there are even some simple mods you can easily do to make them sound even better.
Hifiman HE400SE – Best Value For Money Open Back Headphone
The Hifiman HE400SE Are the cheapest planar headphones on the market, and I can’t quite figure how Hifiman manage to offer such a good headphone at such a low price. Not many corners have been cut because everything works and works well. Nothing feels cheap, and the sound is worth at least double the price and quickly blows away dynamic driver headphones at the same price point.
Tuned to be highly transparent and neutral, we were impressed with the natural and detailed presentation. Lows were punchy but controlled and never bled into the midrange; treble extension was also great, which improved the overall energy and soundstage of the headphones.
They are very well made for the money and highly comfortable. The air circulates through the open back grills, and the hybrid earpads that have velour touching your head instead of leather kept us nice and cool. Finally, I love how versatile the HE400SE was when it came to source compatibility—easily driven from most source components and very efficient in power draw.
The new Sennheiser HD800s are legendary. A headphone loved and revered for years by audiophiles around the globe and is what many consider to be the gold standard for headphones, myself included. There are few headphones in existence right now that sound as perfectly accurate as the HD800s, a headphone that does pretty much everything ideally and whose soundstage is unmatched by any other.
The S is the newest version and refinement on the original HD800 headphones known to have a slightly hot treble. That has been taken care of, and the new HD800s comes in sporting a beautiful new color scheme with a few other additions that make this one of the ultimate end game headphones on the market today.
The price isn’t low, but there are deals to be found, and even at full price, they are one of the best open-back headphones money can buy. As mentioned above, I own these headphones, and despite having access to many others, these are the ones that I use as a reference. I love them so much I bought a second set for home and the office.
Sivga Pii – A Mid Price Hi-Res Headphone
Sivga has been hard at work building their headphone lineup in the past year. They started by rebranding generic headphones and now seem to be producing goods tuned and branded in their style and are doing a great job at it. Th Sivga Pii is the companies midrange planar headphones with open-back earcups that offer significant value for money. They threaten more established brands because the sound quality they produce in such an affordable package is tough to match.
The build quality is excellent, with retro styling a good combination of metal and wood to round off what looks and feels like a premium piece of audio equipment. They are also comfortable to wear over long periods because they use a unique blend on their earpads that stops heat from building up.
The sound is very planar magnetic. It’s detailed and smooth and has an outstanding bass response both in terms of quantity and quality. Vocals shine, and guitars are very impressive.
Focal Utopia – Test Winners and Staff Pick 2021
Maybe I am a touch biased given I own a set of Focal Utopia and consider them my end game, god-tier headphones. The one that I listen to for pure enjoyment. The one that I believe is the best headphone ever. Yeh, these things are just incredible.
Focal are famous for their high-end audiophile speakers. Still, they got earnest about high-resolution headphones a few years ago. Through their bold designs and attention to tuning, they captured a large chunk of the market by those who thought traditional audiophile headphone brands like Hifiman and Audeze had become stagnant and dated.
Material choices are pure luxury with copious amounts of lambs, leather, and carbon fiber used in the design. To tune the headphones, a beryllium cone driver whats chosen that produces sound with impact detail and fullness I haven’t heard on any other headphones.
For me, the Focal Utopia is an experience, a headphone that gives me nothing but enjoyment and one that leaves me with a massive smile on my face every time I use it. It’s a masterpiece.
We understand that a list of the best open-back headphones will never cover everything. Above is meant as a taster offering lots of options at different price points. Over the past few years, I have tested and reviewed lots of open-back headphones, and I want to extend this list by adding to it over time. Below you will find other models that I highly recommend; in most cases, they represent the number 1 or 2 picks for the best at that price point.