Open Back Headphones

One of the challenges our Ragazzi YME boys have faced with our weekly online rehearsals was adjusting to how they heard their own voice.

There seems to be disagreement over the value of hearing your own sound echoed back in the mix on your headphones. Some say that this is essential to being able to perform with other people online, because you hear (roughly) the same delay of your audio that everyone else hears. Others say that this is too distracting.

I’ve grown to believe that the answer may be different for vocalists versus those of us who are playing instruments. In discussing this topic with various vocal educators, they explained to me that singing is very different. The relationship of a vocalist with their vocal chords seems to require a more natural and immediate feedback loop. Hearing something different — either sound that is delayed or muted by headphones covering their ears — can be very distracting.

So far, most of the Ragazzi boys strongly preferred not hearing their audio played back in their headphone mix. Some have gone so far as to only wear headphones on one of their ears.

Which leads me to open back headphones. Unlike closed back headphones, open back headphones allow you to hear the ambient sound of the room. You can hear yourself with little or no difference versus not wearing them at all. Audiophiles love these because they usually provide higher quality sound than what is possible with closed back headphones. We’re learning that they are important for vocalists as well: everyone who has tried them so far has reported a greatly improved experience.

Because the primary market for open back headphones are audiophiles, it’s not easy to find reasonably priced options. One pair I have used and would recommend is the Grado SR60e ($79). For decades, these have widely been acclaimed as the best quality headphones in this price range. They may not be for everyone, though. Their fit & finish is intentionally minimal to keep the cost low, sacrificing comfort in favor of the best sound. For those with a little more cheddar to spare, you may want to consider these alternatives on Sweetwater. Here is a viable alternative for the budget-minded ($10); although they look a bit flimsy, Audio-Technica tends to make very solid audio gear.

If you don’t already have a microphone, another route may be to consider one of these open back gaming headsets (disclaimer: I haven’t tried any of these):

4 thoughts on “Open Back Headphones

  1. A few additional open back headphone options for consideration:

    * Philips SHP9500 ($75)

    * Superlux HD668B ($39)

    * Koss Porta Pro ($35)

    * Koss KSC75 ($14)

  2. I bought a pair of the Koss Porta Pro for $35. Their sound is very clean and good volume when connected to my Pi + HiFiBerry ADC DAC+ Pro. They are extremely portable and light-weight. You hardly know you are wearing them, which bodes well for longer sessions. Only downside is that they are very delicate and may not respond well to rough handling by small hands.

  3. We just set up the JackTrip studio for my CG chorister. Both of the corded headphones that we tried had a lot of crackle. Is that most likely from the headphones? I tried swapping the ethernet cable for another one, and that made no difference. Before I buy a new pair of headphones I’d like to get some sense if that is the most likely source of the crackle, or if there’s something else we should try. Thanks in advance, and thanks for making this cool technology available!

    1. It’s hard to say for sure, without trying another pair of headphones, because crackles can also be caused by problems with your Internet connection. So far the headphone problems we’ve seen almost exclusively involve Apple EarPods with microphones, which use non-standard connector jacks and have trouble making a proper connection. I recommend testing with both JackTrip and Jamulus audio server backends. If you hear the same crackles with both, it’s most likely caused by your headphones. If you purchase another pair, consider a store with generous return policy, so that you can return if it doesn’t help.

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