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The best open-back headphones under $500

Top-notch sound quality doesn't come cheap.

The Wirecutter
02.12.16 in AV
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By Brent Butterworth

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a buyer's guide to the best technology. Read the full article here.

If a serious music lover who wanted to spend less than $500 were to ask us what open-back audiophile headphones to buy, we'd recommend the HiFiMan HE400S. This pair isn't cheap, yet it emerged as the favorite after our panel of audio professionals spent 60 hours evaluating 29 open-back and semi-open-back headphones—nearly every model available for less than $500. Among those, the HE400S headphones were the only ones that we all agreed deserved a high ranking.

Who this is for

While most headphones have closed backs that trap the sound coming from the back of the headphone driver and block most outside noise, open-back headphones have an open grille on the back so the sound from the backs of the headphone drivers can escape into the air (and some of what's in the air can make its way into the headphones). The sound is much more like what you hear in a nightclub or concert hall, though you get little isolation from the world around you. If you're a serious music lover who likes to sit for hours at home listening to music, a pair of open-back headphones is a great investment.

How we tested

Some of the open-back and semi-open-back headphones we tested.

We gave each set of headphones 24 hours of break-in time, playing music from a Los Angeles rock radio station at a fairly loud volume. After breaking them in, we separated them loosely into two groups, the under-$100 models and the over-$100 models. The panelists all provided their own music for testing and used separate amplifiers to drive the headphones. They were free to listen to any headphones for as long as they wished, in any order, and to compare any pair against any other pair before choosing their favorites.

Our pick

Our panel picked the HiFiMan HE400S as our top recommendation based on their sound quality, comfort, and low price.

The HiFiMan HE400S was the only model of all those we tested that every panelist agreed was worthy of our recommendation. It matched or exceeded the performance of any under-$500 competitor we tested, and it's relatively affordable at about $300.

The HE400S has a decent amount of bass compared with most other open-back models. Unlike the competition, the HE400S headphones also play at a fairly loud volume when connected straight to a smartphone; it's nice to be able to plug your headphones directly into your phone or computer when you just want to give something a quick listen. This pair is also one of the more comfortable models we tested, and since the earpieces fold flat, you can quickly slip the HE400S between a couple of shirts in your suitcase. The cable is easily detachable and replaceable in case you damage it, too.

Another great choice, with a different sound

The Sennheiser HD 600 headphones are superb for jazz, classical, and folk music, in particular.

If our top pick is out of stock, or if your taste runs more mellow, give the Sennheiser HD 600 a spin. The HD 600 headphones have a classic sound that fans of jazz and classical music are likely to love; this model is also a nice choice if you value a full, rich, and relaxing sound but don't lust after every last detail.

A lower-priced choice for audiophiles

Fostex's T20RP mk3 is billed as "open for deep bass," while the T50RP mk3 is billed as "semi-open for flat and clear sound."

If you want the magic of big audiophile headphones but need to keep your budget below $200, Fostex has two models worthy of recommendation. The company markets the T50RP mk3 and the T20RP mk3 as pro models, but they work well for music listening at home. Both are sensitive enough to deliver plenty of volume from a smartphone, and both are extremely comfortable.

Audiophile sound for less than $100

The Grado SR80e delivers the big, open-back sound audiophiles love at a bargain price.

If you want the full-on audiophile experience but have only $100 to spend, get the Grado SR80e. These headphones produce much of the same big, spacious sound as we heard from the HE400S. Grado headphones all sound treble-heavy, emphasizing instruments such as cymbals and acoustic guitar, and bringing out the breathiness in woodwinds and the upper notes of a piano, but you'll get a reasonable amount of groove, too.

The ultra-low-budget choice

The Fostex TH-7BB doesn't deliver as spacious a sound as big open-back models, but it does a really good job for its price.

Fostex's TH-7BB is technically a semi-open-back model, and it might be the least open-sounding of all the sets we tested. Still, the fact that three of our four panelists really liked it, and that you can pick it up for less than $80, makes this recommendation an easy one. In fact, panelist Geoff Morrison thought the TH-7BB sounded better than most of the other open-back and semi-open-back headphones we tested, regardless of price.

Wrapping up

If you want to get in on the big, spacious, natural sound of open-back headphones, we think the best way to start is to choose the HiFiMan HE400S. If you want a mellower sound, go for the Sennheiser HD 600. If you want something for about half the price, try the Fostex T50RP mk3 (or the T20RP mk3 if you like a little more bass). And if you want open-back sound for less than $100, try the Grado SR80e or the Fostex TH-7BB.

This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

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