Best Open-Back Headphones in 2021 - Audiophile Buying Guide
This is a list of the best home hi-fi headphones we've heard this year - while it's not exhaustive, we feel the headphones represented here cover a variety of price points and will offer solid choices for headphone enthusiasts. If you want more detail on what to look for in a headphone, or how to go about selecting components to pair with these headphones, check out our 2021 Buyer's Guide. Additionally, some of the headphones in this guide may go on sale from time to time, putting them into different price categories, however the price categories in this guide are based on each headphone's MSRP.
For this particular guide, we're going to focus on open-back headphones exclusively, if you're looking for closed-back headphones, there's an additional guide for that.
Best Headphones Under $200
HiFiMAN HE400se or Drop HE-X4 ($150)
The HiFiMAN HE400se and Drop HE-X4 are nearly identical headphones, and the only distinguishing acoustic difference is that the HE400se uses HiFiMAN’s ‘stealth magnet’ technology - or in other words, rounded edges to the magnets - while the HE-X4 does not. With that in mind, they both have the same frequency response, so the effect of this technology in these particular headphones is minimal at best.
What I love about these headphones is that they are the definitive entry level planar magnetic headphones to get when it comes to their overall tonal balance and sound quality. No they don’t extend perfectly in the bass, and they’re not without a few quirks up top - but at this price I can’t think of anything better sounding than the HE400se.
Buy the HIFIMAN HE400se at headphones.com
Check out FC-Construct's written review of the HE400se here
Check out Chrono's Review of the HE400se here:
Check out Resolve's review of the Drop HE-X4 here:
Sennheiser HD 560S ($200)
Sennheiser’s new entry level open-back headphone made waves this year because not only did it achieve exceptional bass extension not seen before in a dynamic driver open-back at this price point, it also improved upon their higher end HD 650 and HD 600 models in terms of soundstage and even image distribution, making the HD 560 S an excellent gaming headphone for those looking for some competitive advantage. With that said, it also does have a forward edge around 4-6khz causing it to be occasionally a bit spicy in the lower treble with certain recordings.
Buy the Sennheiser HD 560s at headphones.com
Check out Resolve's review:
Check out Chrono's review:
For an additional perspective, see what DMS has to say:
Best Headphones Under $500
Sennheiser HD 6XX ($220) or HD 650 (approximately $350)
In some ways the Sennheiser HD 6XX could fit into the sub $200 category because it’s so close to that price bracket and it sometimes goes on sale for around that, but for those looking at the official version from Sennheiser, that’s typically more expensive. While they're not exactly the same, they are nearly identical in terms of sound quality. Importantly, the HD 6XX (and HD 650) seems to change a lot depending on the upstream equipment being used and many enthusiasts swear by it as their end game with a high end tube amplifier. Importantly, you do need an amplifier of some kind for these headphones, but even the more moderately priced amps get you exceptional sound quality out of them.
The main thing they do well at is the ability to retrieve the finer little details and nuances in the music. They have a generally warm and pleasant tonal balance with a relaxed treble presentation, but that doesn’t stop them from being engaging. Additionally, those looking specifically for a natural ‘timbre’ to their music will appreciate how these headphones deliver sound. The downside? They have a bit of a tight and ‘blobby’ soundstage, where front left and front right aren’t filled in appropriately.
Sennheiser HD 600
While more difficult to find these days, the HD 600 is Sennheiser’s more ‘neutral’ and less warm variant. So it doesn’t have the upper bass bloom and the relaxed treble. At the same time, all of the strengths and weaknesses of the HD 650 are here too, and it’s a favorite among many enthusiasts as well.
For those looking for an option that's a bit easier to drive, there's also the HD 660 S, but my preference still leans towards the 300 ohm variants these days.
Check out the reviews:
HiFIMAN Sundara 2020 ($350)
The best value pick in this category has to be the HiFiMAN Sundara 2020. This headphone originally released at a much higher price tag, but has been permanently at $350 for a while now. The Sundara represents essentially the benchmark in tonal balance and technical performance in headphones at its price and much much higher. This is the headphone I often point to when indicating that exceptional tonal balance has already been achieved in a reasonably-priced planar magnetic headphone, and that more expensive offerings have to bring something else to the table.
Regardless, the Sundara 2020 is exceptionally neutral and well-balanced, even though it doesn’t have the bass shelf that the Harman target asks for, but everything as far as the balance between fundamental tones and their resonant harmonics is exactly where it should be. Additionally, you get all of the advantages of planar magnetic instrument separation, being able to isolate individual instrument lines in the mix and hear each piece of the music with exceptional clarity. Downsides? The clamp can be a bit much at times, and it also does need an amplifier of some kind.
Buy the HIFIMAN Sundara at headphones.com
Check out FC-Construct's written review
See what Resolve has to say:
Best Headphones Under $1000
Focal Elex ($700) and Clear ($990)
Under $1000 we start getting into Focal headphones, and these are without a doubt some of the slammiest open-back headphones out there - and I mean that in terms of their technical performance, not in terms of a boosted bass response. For whatever reason, the Focal transducers with the independent surround just seem to hit like nothing else down low. In this price bracket you have the Drop Elex at $700, which was formerly the Elear, just with different pads, and you also have the recently reduced price Clear, which was the follow up to the Elear.
Both of these headphones have a generally excellent frequency response, with the Elex being a bit more intense in the treble, but on the whole they’re quite similar. They also both have a slight forwardness around 1.5khz, but one that’s balanced out by the rest of the frequency response, and they’re both amazing for piano recordings in particular. For my taste, the Clear is slightly more refined, but the Elex gets a strong recommendation from me since it’s the next obvious step up from the high value HiFiMAN Sundara 2020.
Buy the Focal Clear at headphoenes.com
Check out Resolve's Focal Elex Review:
Check out Chrono's Focal Clear Review:
Clear vs Clear MG Comparison:
HiFiMAN Ananda ($700)
If you’re looking for something more in the planar realm, the HiFiMAN Ananda is an obvious candidate. Basically it takes what was great about the Sundara and turns it up a notch. It’s slightly more forward in the ear gain region, but all very smooth and well-balanced, and it also improves on bass extension over the Sundara. This is possibly the most neutral headphone you can find, at any price depending on which target you consider neutral of course. But, when it comes to an even spectral balance, the Ananda is generally near the top of the list. It’s also impressively easy to drive, and you can run it off of just about anything.
If there’s one downside to these headphones, it’s that they once again have a softer presentation to the sense of impact and physicality - as do all of the more ‘egg-shaped’ HiFiMAN headphones. But this is a quality that not everyone requires. So for those looking for something that will take your head off, the Elex or Clear would be a better option, but for those looking for the more refined frequency response, the Ananda should take top consideration.
Buy the HIFIMAN Ananda at headphones.com
Check out Resolve's review of the HiFiMAN Ananda:
Audeze LCD-2F ($1000)
The Audeze LCD-2F gets my best value pick, even though it’s the most expensive, and the reason for that might not be a popular one as it has to do with EQ. For those unfamiliar with what EQ is, check out this video here. While the default frequency response isn’t as good as some of the lower priced headphones in this guide, it’s what you can do with the LCD-2F if you are willing to dive into EQ that makes it so remarkable. In short, these take to EQ like nothing else, and while it is possible to EQ just about all headphones, in many cases you can only go so far with it before things fall apart. Moreover, it’s also the most impressive for its technical performance, which really shines through once its frequency response is adjusted to bring out all the potential that’s there. I think some have debated between the LCD-2F and LCD-2 Classic, and let me state in no uncertain terms that the LCD-2F is absolutely a tier above the Classic when it comes to detail, incisiveness, separation and dynamics. It’s not particularly close to my ear.
The downside is of course that if you’re not into doing EQ or you think you shouldn’t have to at this price, you can get a better sounding headphone for the money with some of the other options on this list. With that said, Audeze have revamped the pads in 2021 on many of their models, and with the LCD-2F you shouldn’t have to do much to get it to be great (it’s certainly better than it was before).
Buy the Audeze LCD-2F at headphones.com
We're still waiting on a 2021 version of the Audeze LCD-2F, so stay tuned for a future review of the latest version, but in the meantime here's a review of the 2020 Audeze LCD-2F:
Best Headphones Under $2000
HiFiMAN Arya ($1600)
The HiFiMAN Arya is a commonly recommended headphone in the sub-$2000 price bracket, and I’m going to echo that recommendation. It’s basically a more detailed and technically impressive Ananda. There are some things to be aware of though with this headphone, and it’s that it has a frequency response that’s slightly more forward in the upper mids and treble when compared with the Ananda. With that said, the Arya still sounds reasonably smooth in the treble because all of the resonant harmonics are balanced with one another. So the general shape/slope of the curve is good, just slightly above the target. Moreover, the Arya also has exceptional bass extension all the way down past the range of human hearing, and the latest version with the Stealth magnets seems to even be a bit more present in the bass, so this serves to balance out the ear gain forwardness a bit.
I think a lot of questions have been raised regarding the three different Arya versions. Having evaluated all three of them, let me try to clear that up here. V1 was the most spacious sounding, at the cost of being a bit gritty and sibilant around 7khz. V2 was smoother and less sibilant in the mid treble, at the cost of some sense of depth presence. V3 (the current ‘stealth magnet’ version) is very similar to V2, it just has slightly more energy at 12khz and the upper treble, which further balances out the treble harmonics, and has a bit better sense of impact down low.
In any case, if you’re looking for a more analytic and detailed presentation from a high end planar magnetic headphone, the HiFiMAN Arya gives you exactly that, and for this reason I’m going to echo the many endorsements you’re likely to find online when researching it.
Buy the HIFIMAN Arya at headphones.com
Check out the reviews:
Check out Chrono's HiFiMAN Arya Review
Check out Resolve's HiFiMAN Arya Review:
Check out the HiFiMAN Arya V2 vs V3 discussion, along with measurements of each.
Sennheiser HD 800 S ($1600)
The Sennheiser HD 800 S is a legendary flagship dynamic driver headphone that’s always in the conversation when it comes to high end open-back audiophile headphones. In the wake of many newer headphones that have done interesting things, it’s worth asking if the HD 800 S is still a great buy for those looking for a spacious and detailed presentation. My answer to that is emphatically yes, with the caveat that there are some things to take note of with regards to its tuning.
It may be the soundstage king, and it’s certainly in my top 3 most detailed dynamic driver headphones, but there are also certain recording styles that can sound a bit shrill at times with it. It’s similar to the HiFiMAN Arya in that it’s a bit forward for the treble region, but at the same time the HD 800 S almost has a kind of shifted ear gain region from the upper mids towards lower treble. In my view, this is part of what gives it that kind of effortless and spacious presentation, but it’s also a bit unforgiving at times.
With that said, this is a legendary headphone for a reason, and in many respects, everyone else is still catching up to the technology found in its ring radiator driver design. It’s also Chrono’s favorite headphone.
Buy the Sennheiser HD 800S at headphones.com
Check out Chrono's HD 800 S Review:
Check out Precogvision's 'Critical Take' on the HD 800 S:
HiFiMAN HE6se V2 ($1800, occasionally on sale for under $700)
The HiFiMAN HE6se V2 (not V1) is an outstanding 'super Sundara', with a very similar tonal balance, and just everything scaled up in terms of technical performance. HiFiMAN have also ditched the older clampy headband and stiff pads in favor of the newer headband that's on some of their lower end models, which is much more comfortable in my opinion, and has cup swivel! The new pads also provide an improvement when it comes to the tonal balance, bringing the upper mids back in line a bit when compared with the V1, which had a huge boost to the ear gain region, way more than was necessary. At the same time, there are several things working against the HE-6se V2.
The main one is that it's not always available at its insane $700 sale price on Adorama. Usually it's at the much more expensive $1700+ mark, which puts it into this category. I would not consider it a particularly high value pick there, but it's still a great sounding headphone. Those who are lucky enough to get the sale price did extremely well when it comes to value for sound quality. The other thing working against the HE6se V2 is that it's not particularly spacious of a presentation, with a somewhat forward and intimate soundstage, very different from something like the Arya, but this is a tradeoff not everyone is going to mind. Lastly, it's also not on the same level as the original HE-6 (4 screw or 6 screw). That headphone simply can't seem to be replicated, and it's a real shame. But, the next best thing in the HE6se v2 is still a great option - especially at its sale price!
Check out Resolve's HiFiMAN HE6 Comparison:
Audeze LCD-X 2021 ($1200)
The LCD-X gets another high value mark for me, particularly the 2021 version. Just like the LCD-2F, these really shine with EQ because of just how outstanding their technical performance is. It's not going to take your head off like a Focal Clear, but it's absolutely one of the most detailed headphones for the price, easily competing with headphones that cost upwards of $2000. Where the LCD-X beats the HE6se V2 is in terms of the clarity for trailing ends of tones, and where the HE6se V2 beats the LCD-X is in terms of tightness and immediacy of the initial leading edge. Soundstage is also a bit wider on the LCD-X. In any case, the LCD-X 2021 is an easy recommendation, as its frequency response is already great, and those who want to get the very last little bit out of it (say add a bass shelf to guilty pleasure levels), will happily adjust their EQ sliders.
Buy the Audeze LCD-X at headphones.com
Check out Resolve's Audeze LCD-X and LCD-XC Review and Comparison:
Check out Chrono's Audeze LCD-X Review:
HEDD Audio HEDDphone ($1900)
The HEDD Audio HEDDphone deservedly received a lot of attention when it launched in 2020, and it's still good in 2021, particularly because it uses a full range AMT (air motion transfer) transducer, rather than any of the more traditional driver types. While there are very clearly benefits to using this type of tech for sound reproduction, it also comes at the cost of additional weight, and so one of the key considerations with the HEDDphone is that it's over 700g - a beast of a headphone.
But for those who have no problem with heavier headphones, it's worth considering if this might be the right one for you at around the $2000 asking price. Why? In my view, the HEDDphone's main strength is that for whatever reason the AMT driver delivers a very unique sense of physicality and tactility to every part of the music. Its other technicalities and sound quality aspects are all generally good, like it's well detailed and has a good sense of lateral definition, and it has a generally pleasant and neutral tonal balance, but it's the HEDDphone's tactility across the full frequency range that keeps me engaged. Downsides? apart from the weight, the HEDDphone also needs some serious power to drive appropriately. This is where you're really going to enjoy the power benefits of a balanced solid state headphone amplifier.
Buy the HEDDphone at headphones.com
ZMF Auteur ($1600)
The ZMF Auteur was released a few years back, but it's still my favorite tuning of all ZMF headphones to date. This is ZMF's somewhat warm and rich take on neutral, but there's also potentially a touch of extra treble depending on the pads you use. Moreover, there's something pleasing about its biodynamic driver, which yields a decently dynamic and impressively wide and spacious soundstage. But above all, the key consideration for the Auteur is that it has a very natural sense of timbre coming through. Is it as detailed as the Focal Clear or Sennheiser HD 800 S? not quite, but this is a headphone where you really stop listening to the gear and just focus on the music. Add to that the fact that ZMF headphones are generally quite comfortable, the absolutely insane variety of different pad options they have available to customize the sound, different types of wood for the cups, and it starts to make sense why these guys have such a dedicated fanbase.
Audio Technica ATH-ADX5000 ($2000)
The ADX5000, or ADX5K, is Audio Technica’s flagship, open-back headphone. With its 58mm dynamic driver, tungsten diaphragm, baffle and magnetic circuit, it represents the best that Audio Technica has to offer in their over-ear headphone line-up. This, I think, is a very interesting headphone because it’s one that clearly leans on the brighter side for tonal balances, but--at least in my experience--never manages to become fatiguing; instead making for a superb listening experience.
Also worth mentioning that it’s one of the more comfortable and lightweight flagship models available out there thanks to its magnesium chassis. So, without a doubt, I think that the ADX5K is an easy recommendation at its $1,999 price point; it’s a fantastic alternative that both competes and blends some of the better elements of the HD800S and Clear MG if you don’t mind a bit of added brilliance.