Open-back headphones offer a listening experience that's different from the more common closed-back style headphones most of us are used to using. As their name implies, open-back headphones don't have a backplate, which means sound from its drivers will hit your ears, then reverberate into the space next to your head. When listening to music on closed-back headphones, sound will come at your ears, hit the back of the headphone, and reverberate back toward your head. For some listeners, closed-back headphones can cause discomfort during long listening sessions, as sweat builds up around their ears. Open-back headphones don't have this issue because they're constantly ventilated.
Some listeners describe the experience of listening to open-back headphones as more similar to hearing music on a pair of speakers, which may make your favorite tracks seem more enjoyable. Other folks enjoy open-back headphones because they tend to be lighter — there's literally less material necessary to make them — than closed-back headphones. If you've never tried a pair of the best open-back headphones, we highly recommend giving them a chance because they offer a dramatically different listening experience.
How We Picked the Best Open-Back Headphones
Our best open-back headphones surround-sound system recommendations are based on a mix of research and hands-on testing. Below are the factors we considered most highly when deciding which headphones to include in this buyer's guide.
Headphone Style: All headphones can be broken down into three distinct styles: over-ear, on-ear, and earbuds. Each headphone type has its own advantages and disadvantages, which you should keep in mind as you decide on the right pair of open-back headphones for you.
Over-Ear Headphones: This is the largest style of headphone, which means it offers the best audio quality. Over-ear headphones have large drivers (the part of a speaker or headphone that produces sound) that can deliver both volume and fidelity.
The ear cups on a pair of over-ear headphones wrap completely around your ear, creating a more ideal listening environment. The tradeoff to using over-ear headphones is dealing with the fact that they're bigger and bulkier than the other headphone styles, which makes them far less portable.
On-Ear Headphones: This style of headphone occupies the middle ground between two extremes, offering better audio quality than earbuds, with less bulk than over-ear headphones. The padded ear pads used for on-ear headphones sit directly on top of your ears, and completely cover them. If you tend to sweat more, or don't like the physical sensation of having material touching the skin around your face, this is something to consider.
Earbuds: The most pocket-friendly style of headphone comes with one compromise: audio quality. There isn't enough space in earbuds for a lot of equipment, which means the fidelity of their sound suffers. That said, headphone manufacturers have taken advantage of improvements in technology (mainly the miniaturization of core components) to shrink that gap.
Wired vs. Wireless: Most open-back headphones are wired, which means you need to physically connect them to your device with a cable to listen to music. There are some wireless open-back headphones, though, which will connect to your devices over Bluetooth.
Using a pair of wireless headphones will mean accepting a loss in audio quality because the digital sound file you're listening to will be compressed on its way between your source device and the headphones. Wired headphones offer uncompromised audio quality, but require you to literally tether yourself to your source device.
Connector: If you choose a pair of wired open-back headphones, it's important to know which connector its cable terminates into. Some open-back headphones terminate into a 1/4-inch connector, which is larger than a traditional headphone jack, but allows them to be directly connected to a headphone amplifier. Other open-back headphones terminate into the typical 1/8-inch connector, so you can plug them directly into a computer or tablet.
Sound Leakage: One of the biggest differences between open-back and closed-back headphones is the amount of sound they leak. Open-back headphones leak a ton of sound, which means the people near you will also be able to hear your music. If you typically listen to audio in a shared space — the office, plane, train, or living room — open-back headphones may annoy those around you.
Best Open-Back Headphones: Reviews and Recommendations
Best Overall: Hifiman Ananda
Why They Made The Cut: Hifiman designed its Ananda headphones to sound as high-quality as possible without compromising aesthetics or repairability.
— Headphone Style: Over-ear
— Wireless: No
— Connector: 1/8-inch
— Large ear-cups
— Detachable cables
— Standard connector
Hifiman is considered by some to be the preeminent open-back headphone maker, and the Ananda are one of its most accessible premium headphones.
Yes, they're an investment, but the headphones use detachable cables, which means you can easily swap them out once they fray. This shouldn't happen for several years, but it's nice to know you can make this repair yourself for the cost of a cable. The Ananda also terminates into a standard 1/8-inch connector, so you won't have to buy an adapter to plug them into your computer.
If you do prefer listening to music through a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and headphone amp, the Ananda's detachable cable design comes in handy. You can easily swap out the cord Hifiman includes with these headphones with one that terminates into a 1/4-inch connector. Using a dedicated cable instead of an additional dongle means you won't have to worry about how two pieces of gear will fit together.
If you're new to the world of higher-end audio, you may be wondering why the Hifiman Ananda headphones have a 1/8-inch connector on each ear cup. That's because these are balanced headphones, which means audio coming from your source (a phone, tablet, computer, etc.) will be routed to each ear cup individually. This means electronics don't need to be routed between the headphones ear cups through its headband. Again, when it comes to reparability, balanced headphones are actually a better bet. If the Ananda's headband snaps (this should never happen under normal listening conditions), the electronics inside the headphones should remain unharmed.
We're fans of the Hifiman Ananda headphones' design, but the company's focus on audio quality is equally as important. The company says the Ananda's mix of premium materials, ear cup shape, and the outer grill all contribute to both excellent audio quality and comfort during everyday use. The most significant difference between the Ananda and its competition is Hifiman's decision to design an ultra-thin diaphragm — a component connected to the headphone's driver, which creates sound. Reducing the physical barrier between the headphones and your ears — even by the tiniest amount — can make a difference in the tone and clarity of the music you're hearing.
In many cases, you'll have to choose between the most technically advanced gadget and the one that's easiest to use, but that isn't true with open-back headphones. If you're okay with the Hifiman Ananda headphones' price, you won't need to look further.
Best Budget: Sennheiser HD 560S
Why They Made The Cut: Sennheiser’s HD 560S sound better than they have any right to, given their sub-$200 price.
— Headphone Style: Over-ear
— Wireless: No
— Connector: 1/4-inch
— Audio quality
— Detachable cable
— Plastic design
After testing them for several months, we feel comfortable recommending Sennheiser's HD 560S headphones to anyone who wants to try an open-back pair before making a big financial commitment. Don't mistake the HD 560S' cost-conscious price as a sign that they aren't excellent-sounding headphones, though, because nothing could be further from the truth.
In our experience, the HD 560S are among the best over-ear headphones under $200 in any category — and that includes wireless pairs. We've enjoyed every track we've listened to using the headphones, and have been especially impressed by their bass response. The design of open-back headphones makes them naturally better at reproducing sounds in the midrange frequencies, so vocal, acoustic-heavy, or live music sounded especially good. The HD 560S' ability to clearly reproduce vocals also made them great to use while watching movies or TV shows, listening to podcasts, and hearing colleagues on video calls.
We were also happy that Sennehsider decided to design the HD 560S headphones with a detachable cable, which terminates into a 1/4-inch connector. We'd typically ding wired headphones that don't use the standard 1/8-inch connector, but Sennheiser includes an adapter in the box, so it's not an issue. The one tradeoff Sennheiser made when designing the HD 560S was choosing a rigid, plastic shell that looks uninteresting and feels kind of cheap. Don't get us wrong, the company's prioritization of audio quality and repairability over aesthetics should be celebrated, but there's a big enough disconnect between form and function that we had to mention it.
Overall, Sennheiser's HD 560S are an easy pair of headphones to recommend, given how little they cost and how great they sound. Our only hope is that newer generations of this hardware look and feel a little nicer.
Best Earbuds: Sony LinkBuds
Why They Made The Cut: The LinkBuds have a totally unique design that allows you to clearly hear the outside world without substantially sacrificing the sound quality of your music.
— Headphone Style: Earbuds
— Wireless: Yes
— Connector: None
— Audio quality given their size
— Unique design
— Microphone performance
— No noise cancellation
Sony's LinkBuds are the only pair of open-back earbuds we feel comfortable recommending, and their unique design needs to be seen to be appreciated.
The earbuds come in two parts: the traditional, circular bud, which fits into your ear, and a "sound ring" that lets ambient audio in. This two-piece design skirts the line between open- and closed-back headphones, but the features afforded by the open sound ring made it eligible for this story. Rather than using the earbuds' microphones to let outside noises in, the ring allows sounds around you — like cars, birds, or people — to filter into your ears naturally.
The LinkBuds break the one rule of earbuds: making a tight seal around your ear to create the ideal listening environment for your music. It's true that the LinkBuds’ audio quality — bass, specifically — suffers because of their open design, but the pros outweigh the cons. These are the ideal pair of open-back headphones for working out, especially running outdoors, because you won't have to worry about missing a car's beep, or a passerby's warning that there's an obstruction in your way.
When you crank up the volume, the LinkBuds can still create enough noise that you can focus on your music unless there's a loud noise around you. The biggest feature you sacrifice by choosing the LinkBuds over other wireless earbuds is active noise cancellation. A tight seal around your ear is required for this feature to work, and the LinkBuds weren't designed that way. The earbuds do have microphones, though, so you can use them for voice calls. The microphone performance is pretty good, and the LinkBuds’ open design allows you to safely take a call during a run — if you have enough breath.
We were afraid that the LinkBuds would feel weird to wear, but that was never the case. The inside of our ears had enough room to accommodate the earbuds' two-piece design, and both parts sat comfortably during long listening sessions. If you've typically had trouble keeping earbuds in your ears, the LinkBuds' design may actually work in your favor.
If you're OK with giving up noise cancellation, Sony's LinkBuds are the best open-back option in the wireless earbud category.
Best Wireless: Grado GW100 v2
Why They Made The Cut: The GW100 V2s are the culmination of decades worth of effort into constructing open-back headphones, and making sure nothing got lost in a wire-free pair.
— Headphone Style: On-ear
— Wireless: Yes
— Connector: 1/8
— Battery life
— Cabled backup
— USB-C Charging
— Abrasive ear cups
Grado has been hand-making open-back headphones in New York City since the 1950s, but they waited to release their first wireless pair until the late 2010s. The GW100s — now in their second iteration — proved that it was possible to successfully capture the sound of open-back headphones in a wireless design.
The original GW100s sounded excellent, and retained the iconic look of Grado's wired open-back headphones, which is simple and classy looking. The GW100s distinctive design is striking from the moment you take them out of the box through the end of each listening session. What can we say, these headphones just look cool. A more controversial design choice is the GW100s ear pads, which are made out of a porous foam rather than leather. The material Grado chose felt comfortable, but a little more abrasive than the ones most headphone manufacturers use. This is something to keep in mind if you've got sensitivity to certain fabrics or materials touching your face.
We've had a lot of experience listening to music on the first-generation GW100s, and always found them to be surprisingly high quality for a pair of wireless headphones. That's due, in part, to the fact that almost every pair of wireless headphones available right now have a closed-back design; being able to experience the natural sound of open-ear headphones anywhere you go is very appealing. We were very impressed at how well Grado managed to recreate the sound profile of its wired headphones, which tends to be pretty neutral, in a cable-free pair.
Grado did make a couple of noticeable improvements to the second version of the GW100s, though. This updated model charges via USB-C instead of MicroUSB, which was our biggest complaint about the original GW100s. The second-generation of these headphones also supports Bluetooth 5 for better connectivity and improved range, plus support for the latest audio codecs, so you'll hear improvements in how they sound. When it comes to battery life, the Grado GW100 V2s offer up to 40 hours of music playback per charge. If they do run out of juice, you can use the headphones' 3.5mm audio output to plug them into the source of your choice.
The market for open-back wireless headphones is small, but we're lucky that Grado took their time to make the GW100 V2s as well as they did. If you hate cables but love this style of headphones, you've found the ideal pair.
Best for Comfort: beyerdynamic DT 900 PRO X
Why They Made The Cut: beyerdynamic designed the DT 900 Pro X headphones for professional audio engineers and serious music listeners; we think they succeeded with aplomb.
— Headphone Style: Over-ear
— Wireless: No
— Connector: 1/8-inch
— Audio quality
— Detachable cable
— Cable uses proprietary plug on one end
If you're the type of listener who wears headphones for several hours a day, beyerdynamic's DT 900 Pro Xs are the open-back pair for you.
We tested these headphones daily for several weeks, and never experienced the familiar feeling of fatigue that comes with wearing over-ear headphones. This is due, largely in part, to the amount of padding beyerdynamic used for both the ear cups and headband. There's enough material for your head and ears to feel comfortable without making the headphones too heavy. This was a delicate balance to strike, and beyerdynamic nailed it.
The company bundles the DT 900 Pro X headphones with two cables: One terminates into a 1/4-inch jack, the other terminates into a 1/8-inch jack. We like that beyerdynamic offers you the choice of which cables to use, but couldn't help feeling a little annoyed that the connector that fits into the headphones is non-standard, which limits your ability to swap out cables inexpensively. This shouldn't be an issue if you handle your headphones with care, but it's important to know before you pick up a pair of DT 900 Pro Xs.
When it comes to audio quality, we've been completely satisfied with the DT 900 Pro X headphones. Music sounds crisp, dynamic, and almost surprisingly life-like. These headphones do a great job at recreating the experience of being at a live concert when listening to live tracks. beyerdynamic says it developed these headphones for professionals mixing and mastering music, and they sound so good that we can definitely recommend using them for those tasks. After countless listening sessions, we can sum up the DT 900 Pro Xs’ sound in a single word: full. We never felt that sounds in the bass, midrange, or treble range sounded underrepresented or lacking.
One design choice aside, the beyerdynamic DT 900 Pro Xs are an incredible set of headphones that any music lover will be able to instantly appreciate.
Things to Consider Before Buying Open-Back Headphones
One feature you won't find on open-back headphones, whether they're wired or wireless, is any type of noise cancellation. That feature requires the headphones to have a closed back, because your entire ear needs to be completely surrounded to physically block out noise.
Open-back headphones don't offer the same level of bass response as closed-back headphones because they don't create that tight seal around your ear. You'll still hear bass frequencies clearly, but they won't be as prominent as they would be on a closed-back pair of headphones. This is something to strongly consider if you prefer bass-heavy genres of music
Q: How do I responsibly dispose of my old headphones?
If you're replacing old headphones with a new open-back pair, we recommend reading our guide on how to responsibly dispose of e-waste.
Q: Are open-back headphones lighter than closed-back headphones?
Not necessarily. Although they’re made up of less material, open-back headphones (specifically over-ear pairs) can have quite a lot of padding. In some cases, the materials used to make open-back headphones are heavier or more dense than the plastic used for closed-back pairs.
Q: Why aren’t open-back headphones more popular?
Active noise-cancellation has become such a core feature of the headphone world that closed-back pairs have taken the spotlight. The fact that open-back headphones leak a lot of sound, limiting their usefulness in public areas, is another big reason.
Q: Are open-back headphones good for music production?
Yes. Open-back headphones will give you a better approximation of how your music will sound through speakers, which is one of the biggest benefits of using them. That said, most of your listeners will likely hear your music on closed-back headphones, so it’s important to make sure each track sounds good on that hardware, too.
Final Thoughts on Open-Back Headphones
Having tried both open-back and closed-back headphones, we recommend keeping a pair of each around if at all possible. Listening to music on both styles of headphones is different enough that you may find yourself gravitating toward one or the other based on the genre of music you're listening to, or how many people are physically close to you. We generally found the comparison of open-back headphones and speakers to be accurate, and did like the more live-feeling sound open-back headphones produced. The only downside is that their sound leakage may limit your ability to listen to music everywhere you go.
This post was created by a non-news editorial team at Recurrent Media, Futurism’s owner. Futurism may receive a portion of sales on products linked within this post.