The preferred headphones of mixing engineers and audiophiles, open-back headphones allow for critical listening and real-world perspective.
To close off my series about the best studio headphones on the market, let’s talk about the best open-back studio headphones! Open-back headphones are a mixing or mastering engineer’s best friend. Due to their open-back design, engineers and audiophiles alike gain an experientially wider expanse of sound and a more realistic depth of field.
How to choose the best open-back headphones.
When choosing a pair of open-back headphones there are 2 things that are of the utmost importance: comfort and truthful sound reproduction. Though truthful sound reproduction is paramount to comfort, buying an uncomfortable pair of open-back studio headphones can be the detriment of a mix or master; recording sessions may be long, but mixing and mastering sessions are far longer.
On the opposite side of the ear pad, physical ear-fatigue isn’t the only thing an engineer should worry about when using mixing or mastering headphones for an extended amount of time. Truthful sound reproduction is not only of the utmost importance during the mixing and mastering phase of the record making process, out of place tones and frequencies can psychologically make your brain temporarily change the way you perceive sound, loudness, and space in long stretches behind the board, on in most cases in front of a screen.
About our open-back headphone freshmen class:
This open-back headphone buying guide will focus on headphones that excel in their class, rather than go outside the norms of typical open-back headphones. The centerpiece of these headphones will almost always be geared toward mixing, mastering or other critical listening applications.
Sure, Shure’s SRH series is a personal favorite of mine, they’re stylish without being over designed and they also give a listener an extremely truthful sound reproduction. Jumping 1000 since my review of Shure’s SRH840 (if you’re also in the market for a great closed-back studio headphone you should check out my review of the SRH840), the SRH1840 is an amazingly open pair of mastering headphones.
Even though the SRH1840s look like a really fun pair of headphones to show off, DON’T. Even at their reasonably low ohmage, these bad boys are meant solely for the purpose of mastering or if you’re an audiophile, these could be a great pair of headphones for you to use while you’re reading a book next to your fireplace, NOT IN PUBLIC. Equipped with a mesh grille opposite 2 individually matched drivers, these mastering headphones will bring a new meaning to the “open” part of open-back headphones. If I didn’t quite make that clear, the SRH1840s WILL LEAK because they’re supposed to, and if you still decide to wear them in public, everyone will know that you’re listening to the sonic merits of Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping if you wear these in public.
These headphones pass my standard comfortability test with flying colors because they incorporate velour earpads (something you also know I’m mildly obsessed with if you’ve read any review that includes a pair of Beyerdynamic’s DT Pro series, more on that later, though). To enhance their comfortability, these headphones are highly durable and include the same independently adjustable ergonomic style of the higher-end SRH models. the inside casing of the dually detachable copper cables are shielded in Kevlar, yes, the same stuff bulletproof vests are made of.
- Style: Circumaural
- Impedance: 65 Ω
- Range: 10 Hz – 30 kHz
- Highs: Extended high-end response without over exerting its presence.
- Mids: Accurate mids.
- Lows: Natural response in bass without a boost in midbass creating distortion.
- Listenability: This is some of the best low ohmage accuracy that money buy without really jumping to a new price point.
- Comfort Level: If you’ve had a chance to read my other two lists for closed-back and open-back studio headphones, you know that I have an obsession with the comfort level of Beyerdynamic’s DT Pro series. Well, the velour ear pads are back, and Shure brings in some new tricks with 2 dual detachable cables and the fully adjustable ergonomic dual-frame.
- What’s it’s good for? Billed as mastering headphones, I would recommend actually doing what these headphones are made for. That being said, music production could totally be done in these without any problems.
- What’s it’s bad for? Don’t use these for recording, they will leak, and if you’re going to spend this much money on a pair of headphones for recording, they shouldn’t leak the amount of sound these will. Also, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR HOME STUDIO WITH THESE UNLESS IT’S TO GO TO ANOTHER STUDIO.
Sennheiser HD 600
Sennheiser’s headphones haven’t appeared as my top-tier picks within this review series, but their HD 600s hold their own and a special place in audiophiles’ hearts everywhere, even outdoing their big brother the HD 650 in a side by side comparison. Though mainly thought of as an audiophile’s headphone, the HD 600 can be used as an extremely capable mastering headphone, an acknowledgment Sennheiser recognizes.
These headphones pick up where Shure’s SRH1840 left off, fitted with a mesh grille behind computer-optimized drivers to minimize harmonic distortion, Sennheiser’s HD 600 have an accurate spatial placement that makes them a good alternative for Shure’s slightly more expensive SRH1840.
- Style: Circumaural
- Impedance: 300 Ω
- Range: 12 Hz – 40.5 kHz
- Highs: Smooth highs that are palatable.
- Mids: Rich midrange.
- Lows: Full sounding bass with extended range.
- Listenability: These are naturally accurate and extremely spatial headphones. It gives a bit more of a dynamic range than that of Shure’s SRH1840s simply because it can with the extra two-hundred or so ohms.
- Comfort Level: f the SRH1840s are on the luxe side, the HD 600s are fall in line to the comfort profile that I find moe Sennheiser headphones have, it’s not that they’re uncomfortable, it’s that they are solidly on your head. The build quality is also in a modular fashion which allows you to switch out your earpads for something more comfortable if you so desire, but in that case, you could just spend a bit more for Shure’s SRH1840.
- What’s it’s good for? High-fidelity critical listening and music production; these will also work well as a pair of mastering headphones with a large dynamic range.
- What’s it’s bad for? See the above Tubthumping reference from the above SRH1840 write-up, don’t use these in public or for recording.
AKG has a habit of making products that can stack up against the big guns and their class K701s are no different. With a dynamic range that can match the accuracy of cans 3 times their price, the K701s are technically perfect for their price point. Their stylish 3D fit ear pads and immense sonic depth make these the perfect mixing headphones and a huge tool for reference.
- Style: Circumaural
- Impedance: 62 Ω
- Range: 10 Hz – 39.8 kHz
- Listenability: These headphones seamlessly allow the listener to hear player’s technicality with its extreme of sonic depth. This breadth of sonic control allows for the texture you generally wouldn’t pickup to become readily apparent without being “in-your-face,” they’re there, but not to the point of being a distraction if the work is mixed correctly.
- Comfort Level: Personal opinion, AKGs headphones have always felt weird on my very round head. Professional opinion, I have seen people wear these for what basically equates to a day with little to no complaints.
- What’s it’s good for? At heart, these are an amazing pair of technical reference headphones. Using these behind the board of a live recording session can be a great way to hear stray sounds from players instruments such as bow and rosin noises, or harmonic issues in from sustained notes. Also with their low ohmage and amazing dynamic range, the AKG K701 is a perfect production or mixing headphone.
- What’s it’s bad for? Don’t put it behind a mic, if you really want to you can wear it in public, but it will have a bit of leak, and by a bit I mean, a lot of leak.
So I’ve been fanboying about Beyerdynamic’s DT Pro line for three articles now, and finally we reach the granddaddy of the of the line, which finally isn’t specifically for mastering, it’s for “critical listening.”
Boasting the same frequency range as the DT 770 Pro (250 Ω) and DT 880 Pro, Beyerdynamic’s DT 990 Pro takes the spatial sonics of the 880 to the next level with a cross-hatched mesh grille and open-back design. A recreation of the award-winning DT 990, the DT 990 Pro is a lighter, steel-spring headphone with a lightweight diaphragm.
- Style: Circumaural, though I find them to sit on the edge of supra-aural.
- Impedance: 250 Ω
- Range: 5 Hz – 35 kHz
- Highs: Accurately bright reproduction.
- Mids: Slightly thick, yet truthful reproduction.
- Lows: Warm and subtle.
- Listenability: These are for critical listening, so you will hear every mistake in a mix with these, they aren’t meant to sound pretty, they’re meant to be accurate.
- Comfort Level: I really could go on about the immense comfort level of Beyerdynamic’s velour earpads and leatherette headband, but you should just read my previous two write-ups.
That being said, one cool plus side of Beyerdynamics DT Pro line is that you can customize your headphones with other parts to change the comfort feel and style of your headphones. At the end of the day if velour is too gaudy for your taste you can switch out your earpads for leather or leatherette depending on your taste.
- What’s it’s good for? These will not sound good unless your music sounds, so this takes them out of the mixing headphone category and moves them right to mastering headphones.
- What’s it’s bad for? Headphones for general listening do not these make. Secondarily, at 250 ohms these are professional grade audiophile headphones, ergo they’re mastering headphones and not made for the general public regardless of how comfortable they may be.
Until I find an open-back studio headphone that really hits the major marks for professional use under $100, this space will remain empty, but for now, the search continues and this list concludes.