Parent Article: Best Studio Headphones
Updated by Bobby
Recently updated on December 23rd, 2020
Updated links to headphones in the honorable mentions section and made minor changes to article formatting.
Best Open Back Headphones: Top Pick
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro
Recommended to us by multiple professional musicians and recording artists, the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro is one of the best open back headphone sets, ideal for both instrument monitoring and mixing. Though expensive, we believe the retail price tag is - mostly - justified.
When you're talking about large profile studio headphones, you've got three different types of ear cup backing to choose from: Closed back headphones, semi-open back headphones, and open back or "open air" headphones. The topic of this roundup is focused entirely on the larger open back headphones and the benefits of their construction, which means we'll avoid anything closed or even semi-open, like the popular AKG K-240 sets.
Best Open Back Headphones: Top 3 Picks
Open Back Headphones
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro Open Back Headphones
Audio-Technica AUD ATHAD500x Open Back Headphones
Sennheiser HD 650 Open Back Headphones
1. Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro
From the DT 990 series, you have three different versions of that headset based loosely on OHM count. They include the following:
DT 990 Versions
- 32 OHM
- 250 OHM
- 250 OHM Pro
In this particular article, we're singling out the DT 990 Pro, which is essentially the 250 OHM version with a view upgrades. It's also pictured in the above product highlight. We've also taken a screengrab of the Beyerdynamic product page below:
Specific perks include a two-year manufacturer warranty and a wide frequency range getting you from five to 35,000 Hz, which is fairly wide even by studio headphone standards. You'll also get the standard 3 meter cable (the coiled version) and an adapter for eighth and quarter inch compatibility.
V-Shaped Sound Signature
Like many open back headphone sets, the DT 990 Pro employs a v-shaped sound signature. This essentially means it emphasizes the high and low end of its frequency spectrum, while reducing midrange at the same time.
In simpler terms, it's kind of like the "rock" preset on your phone:
It's this parabolic shape that gives us a strong bass profile with an equally noticeable crispness on the high end. This combined with the airy resonance of the open back design is a great balance of high and low response.
Summary of a V-Shaped Sound Signature
- Brighter treble
- More distinct high end
- Heavier low end
- Warmer bass tones
- Essentially a "rock" preset
Though the following graph has more deviation, you can sort of see the parabolic curve that gives use some emphasis on the low end - around 50 to 100 Hz - and again on the high end, around 7k to 10k Hz.
This headroom graph of the Beyerdynamic DT 990 shows a similar graph where you get a spike in bass and treble and similar spots:
All this equates to an excellent balance of sound, giving you the clarity needed for mixing as well as the thickness and heavy bass required for casual listening or instrument monitoring. From a sound quality perspective, the DT 990 Pro doesn't leave a lot of room for complaining.
Cable Isn't Detachable
Where we do have some complaints would be the cable setup.
First, the cable cannot be detached from the ear cup, which means if it breaks you'll probably have to replace the entire set. In our opinion, a detachable cable should be an industry standard for studio headphones.
Additionally, the reinforcement around that cable connection to the ear cup is quite minimal, reignited concern about cable stability.
During the time we've spent using this set, and based on the testimony of those we know that own them, the cable has lasted without issue, so this isn't a deal breaker. However, it is something that should be noted by potential consumers.
Do I need a headphone amp?
In most cases we don't use a headphone amp when testing open back sets, primarily because we're testing with some kind of amplified instrument or audio interface. For playback and casual listening we also tend to go without a headphone amp.
This would lead us to recommend the DT 990 Pro (and most studio headphones) with or without a headphone amp.
It can be nice, but certainly not crucial.
IDEAL FOR: Mixing and instrument monitoring
2. Audio Technica AUD ATHAD500X
Audio Technica's venture into economy open back headphones is a fairly successful one, though with a few exceptions that need to be noted.
First, this is one of those sets that we don't recommend to bass players, simply because the tone and frequency response is not nearly as accommodating as other pairs, particularly the DT 990.
Tone, EQ and the Frequency Graph
If you look at the frequency graph, you'll see that the set favors mids almost exclusively, which will give you a balanced and natural sound but, will sound higher and more crisp overall.
Note that the graph starts trending up in the 50 - 100 Hz range, meaning the high end of your bass frequency gets a boost as well.
Now, this is not to say that you won't hear any bass with this pair. As you'll notice in many of the Amazon reviews, verified purchasers mention that any lack of bass response is easily remedied by whatever EQ mechanisms are at their disposal. This will be particularly true for you if you're using them in a guitar amp or instrument monitoring context.
However, there's no denying that this set favors the mids and treble of your sound, though without being too harsh or shrill. Overall, they sound incredibly good and distinct, allowing you to hear a lot of the nuances of whatever you're listening too, particularly in regards to the discrepancy between what's coming out of the left and right side of a stereo signal. This has less relevance for instrument monitoring but, is still a feature worthy of mention.
Once again, the set comes with a 9.8' cable that's plenty long but, is not detachable. On the plus side, it feels sturdier than the DT 990 and doesn't invoke any worry about connectivity.
One reviewer actually installed a headphone jack because of concerns with the existing cable and 1/8" jack, per the photo below.
If you're brave enough to attempt something like this (very inexpensive mod), the set gets a big boost in value and allows you to use whatever cable you want. It also alleviates concerns about cable failure which, in an un-modded pair, would essentially mean you'd have to fall back on the good graces of Audio Technica to replace it (only a one year limited warranty) or buy a completely new set.
The "Rubber Band" Mod
As you might have noticed under the "Cons" section in our review card, we mentioned that this set tended to slide forward or back and just didn't feel nearly as tight fitting, even with the head band adjusted.
We noticed a lot of other folks citing the same problem and correcting it with a really simple "rubber band" mod, which is pictured here.
This works fine, and is obviously one of the easier headphone mods on record. However, you can't help but feel like you shouldn't have to do this. Depending on the size and shape of your head, you may or may not need to consider it.
Its implementation is a fairly common refrain, particularly among the verified Amazon purchasers.
The Overall Value
All things considered, including a couple noticeable drawbacks, the price of these headphones and the reputation of Audio Technica still manages to give you a lot of value, especially for those interested exclusively in instrument monitoring.
EQ can easily be adjusted and the set sounded particularly fantastic with a clean guitar tone.
In that situation, it's hard to beat the $70 asking price, especially if a couple inexpensive mods give you the perks of far more advanced pair of open back headphones.
Gear Paired and Tested With
- Mac Mini
- Fender Thinline Telecaster Electric Guitar
- Warwick 5-String Rockbass Bass Guitar
- PreSonus Audiobox USB audio interface
- Amp models via Garageband and Amplitube 4
- Playback via iTunes, iPhone 6s and Audacity
- Source quality: Standard CD 44.1kHz/16bit, and native HD 88.2-96kHz/24bit
IDEAL FOR: Instrument monitoring, drummers, guitar players and basic playback.
3. Sennheiser HD 650 Open Back Headphones
A lot of people bulk at such a steep investment in something as peripheral as headphones. For guitarists and musicians, "peripheral" is almost always going to be an apt description for this type of purchase, simply because it's not an aspect of the source of their sound.
And, in most cases, we would agree with that hesitation.
However, for those who really want to invest in their headphones for the long term, particularly for open-air instrument monitoring, the HD 650 is worth every penny of the $300ish retail cost.
Sound Quality and Tone
Almost regardless of EQ or audio source, the HD 650s sounded incredibly good on all three EQ points. Bass, mids and treble were all incredibly smooth and full, without being too harsh, even on higher EQ settings from preamps and guitars.
Here's a quick look at the frequency range.
You'll notice that all of the treble is cut by at least a couple of decibels, which helps to give you that smooth EQ that some describe as a bit compressed, which isn't a bad thing when you're dealing with instruments.
We tested the pair out with a couple different physical guitar amps and our preferred selection of Garageband amp models and settings that we used for the other two headphone pairs.
These are, bar none, the most wonderful headphones I've ever heard. The the BMW 5-series of the headphone world. - Tony (verified purchaser)
Again, there wasn't much we could do to make them sound bad.
Chords on the lower frets had a nice thick "thud" to them, while upper-register melodies rang clear with a nice "chime" quality. Per the open design, the sound quality in each ear cup came off as natural and full.
Other Notable Features
There are two cables going into each ear cup which are both detachable from the headset. Not having to worry about a "fixed" cable is a major plus, though an expected perk in a $300 pair of headphones.
The head band is extremely comfortable and adjusts quickly to your head shape. We didn't experience any kind of slipping or discomfort while using the pair.
Sennheiser also provides a two-years warranty that doesn't feel needed, considering the solid construction of the headphone's exterior.
Reducing Structure-Borne Sound
You might also notice that the headphones themselves don't make much noise as they're moved around on your head or near your ears. This would be called structure-borne noise or vibration and it's nearly non-existent in the HD 650. This basically means that while the open back design allows airborne noise to come in, noise traveling through the physical headphones themselves is minimal.
This gives the HD 650s another big point for instrument monitoring as the only thing you'll hear is the natural resonance of your instrument and just the right amount of whatever airborne noise is happening around you.
The 600 series is a bigger step forward than the 500 series, while the 700 and 800 series aren't as significant (more for pride of ownership).
Then again, we've never had a bad thing to say about any of Sennheiser's products.
Do I need a headphone amp?
While you shouldn't need a headphone amp for direct instrument monitoring, casual listening, coming out of a headphone jack on a laptop or mobile device, will require one to get the full effect of the headphones.
Since we're focusing on instrument monitoring, we can't really make any recommendations in that regard, though we did use the PreSonus AudioBox USB interface, which acted both as an audio interface to Garageband and a headphone amplifier via the "PHONES" jack on the back of the device.
If we were to pickup a headphone amp based on second hand information and community consensus, we'd feel pretty good rolling dice on the FiiO E10K.
Unfortunately, the higher impedance (300 Ohms) means you need something more than a laptop sound card or mobile device to drive the set. For instruments that are already coming through a preamp or audio interface, you should be fine.
Gear Paired and Test With
- Mac Mini and Apple Cinema Display
- 2005 PRS CE 24 Electric Guitar
- Line 6 Spider IV 150 Watt Modeling Amp
- IK Multimedia iRig Pro Duo Audio Interface
- iPhone 6s running Pandora and the Apple Music app
- PreSonus Audiobox USB audio interface
- Amp models via Garageband and Amplitube 4
- Playback via iTunes and Audacity
- Source quality: Standard CD 44.1kHz/16bit, and native HD 88.2-96kHz/24bit
IDEAL FOR: Instrument monitoring, drummers, guitar players, bass players and long-winded listening sessions.
Best Open Back Headphones Honorable Mentions
What are open back headphones?
First, we need to establish a technical understanding of what open back headphones are and what their purpose is.
For starters, the difference between closed and open back headphones is exactly what it sounds like.
In a pair of closed back headphones, like the Audio Technica M50x, the back panel on the ear cup is "closed" in that it doesn't allow any air flow to the interior where your ear can hear airborne sound.
Blocking air flow means you're blocking external noise, which is meant to be a form of noise isolation. In the photo below, the first and third pair of headphones, going from left to right, have open back ear cup construction while the other two have closed back construction.
For studio monitoring, mixing or DAW use, closed back headphones are often preferable because they create a more isolated listening environment.
Other perks of closed back headphones include reduced audio leakage from the headphones and, in some cases, a better bass frequency response.
Brad Delson usually performs with a pair of closed back headphones.
In contrast, open back headphones do not isolate the user from outside noise. In fact, they are designed to intentionally allow air flow into the ear, usually by a wire frame covering over each side of the headphone set. As a result, the best open back headphones will provide a distinctly natural response and resonance, which can be incredibly helpful for stage use or if you're trying to hear an instrument that's not in your headphone's mix.
They're also known to be significantly lighter than their closed back counterparts.
Perks of open back headphones
- More natural sounding
- Lighter and more comfortable
- More ideal for instrument monitoring
Why are they better for instrument monitoring?
Open back headphones have become more popular in recent years among instrumentalists and musicians because of their ability to produce a more true-to-life audio response that feels like you're listen to music through open air.
Again, this becomes much more important for stage use or in an environment where you have to hear an instrument that isn't mic'd.
Open back headphones produce a more true-to-life audio response that feels like you're listen to music through open air.
For example, if you want to listen to a mix where your drummer doesn't have their set mic'd at all, or even in part, you'll want to hear what's coming from inside and outside of your headphones. That kind of scenario is where open back headphones become a much more crucial investment.
Are there disadvantages to open back headphones?
Even the best open back headphones aren't ideal for isolated listening or mixing. That's just not their stated purpose.
We also don't like them as much for bass players or those who need more low-end in their EQ. To be sure, there are plenty of open back headphones with a great bass response, it's just usually not their strength if that's your main concern.
Otherwise, for guitar players, drummers and any instrumentalist who wants to hear their playing more naturally, the open back headphone set is a good option.
Unfortunately, the really nice open back headphones are often far more expensive.
You can span a wide range of costs but, the best sets are usually a pretty big investment. Then again, if you know that you want them for monitoring instruments and that the open air sound is important to you, it's a good investment to make.
What about the other "numbers" in each headphone series?
You might notice that with certain headphone brands like Sennheiser, for example, you'll have several different versions of a given product. In Sennheiser's case, they have headphones that are in the 500s, 600s, 700s, etc.
There's a lot of commentary out there on the differences between each series, which honestly makes it tremendously difficult to compare and contrast between open back headphones within the same brand. Generally speaking, we try to target products that are fairly new though not necessarily top of the line. For example, the jumps made to upper-tier product iterations, say the 800 and 900 series of Sennheiser, typically represents a dramatic increase in cost, without a significant increase in features or quality.
In other words, if the 500 or 600 series does the job well, we're going to recommend those products instead, since they're a far lower-cost option.
The jumps made to upper-tier product iterations, say the 800 and 900 series of Sennheiser, typically represents a dramatic increase in cost, without a significant increase in features or quality.
At the same time, these comparisons are often subjective and hard to give without bias. Many reviewers cite certain features as being "better" in the higher numbered models that are entirely dependent on environment and the situations of a particular user.
We would encourage you to view our choices, particularly in posts like this one, as what we would consider optimal for the most possible contexts.
Once you find something you like, you can narrow in on other more specific iterations of that product and see what would best fit your needs and budget.
Your Questions and Comments
Do you have questions about the best open back headphones listed here that we didn't address?
Feel free to drop them in the comments section below, or hit us up on Twitter.
We'd also recommend consulting the "Questions" section for each product on their Amazon page. Just click through the photo or red button and then go to the questions tab. Most FAQs are addressed their by a verified purchaser or a company rep of the given product.
Our Review Policy and Providing a Buying Context
As with all our reviews, we want to give you a thorough and complete explanation of the product at hand and provide a buying context. What this means is that we're not simply trying to sell to everybody.
We're trying to paint a picture of the ideal buyer so that you can tell whether you're that buyer or not and then be able to pick from our roundup based on your unique situation. Moreover, the information we provide is based on either first or second hand experience with the products mentioned from actual industry professionals (credited at the end of this piece) who are well-informed musicians and are routinely involved with the practice of music production.
Works Cited and Further Reading
- Audio Technica's blog: Covers the difference (and pros/cons breakdown) between closed and open back headphones with plenty of good examples from their own inventory.
- Open and closed back headphone summary: This thorough article covers some of the same issues as the AT blog piece, though with some more varied headphone examples.
- Headfonia blog post: Discusses basic EQ and provides some background info on the V-shaped sound signature.
- Headphonesty article: Covers the V-shaped sound signature in depth.
Additional Credits and Contributions
- Editing and proofreading: Millie Roark and Bobby Kittleberger
- Formatting and article layout: Bobby Kittleberger
- Gear and Product Consultation: Ben Eller, John K. Allen (Charm City Devils) and Paul Coleman (Newsboys & Paul Coleman Trio)
- Banner Image: Courtesy of Flickr Commons via Atlnav