Headphone Revelation

I had an accidental “ah ha!” moment in my ham shack when my inexpensive headphones decided that I no longer needed to have audio in my right ear. Those of you who know me know that I can be cheap (errr…I mean frugal) so the idea of spending actual money on headphones always made me bonkers. After replacing a couple pairs of headphones that were in the sub $30 range though, I finally decided I was going break down and look for something in the ~$100 range to see if I’d have better luck.

After doing internet searches that ran me in circles, revelation came in the form of open-back headphones.

Say what now?

Audio folks know all about these, but I found surprisingly little talk about this style of headphone in ham radio circles. For the unaware, open-back headphones look just like normal headphones, except that that backs of the drivers are exposed, instead of being in a sealed plastic cup. Audio folx will argue with each other about the merits of this type of design, but I’m not an audio person - I’m a ham! The things that are most often cited as the ‘negatives’ for this style of headphone, are things that I realized, would make them perfect for use in my home shack, and I suspect they would for a lot of you as well.

Without further ado, here’s the 3 most common things that people say is terrible about this style of headphone, which also happen to be the things that I’m now loving about the pair that I bought, and have been using for about a week now:

  • Open-back headphones have no bass!
    • In ham radio, not only do we not care about the bass, we usually don’t want it! Many of us just completely roll off anything under 300hz or so anyway.
    • The reason open-back headphones have no bass is because they are more realistically recreating the sound from the source, and not artificially boosting the bass by having a little echo chamber right around your ear.
  • Open-back headphones are ‘leaky’
    • because they are open back, other people close to you can hear what you’re listening to. This is a non-issue for me because I don’t generally have strangers hanging around me while I’m in my shack that would be irritated by hearing what I’m listening to.
  • Open-back headphones don’t provide any isolation (i.e. they don’t block out background noise)
    • While true, for me this is actually a benefit. I can hear my radio clearly through the headphones, but I can also hear what’s happening in my surroundings. As a ham, we have to be careful what we transmit over the air - being able to hear what’s happening in the background makes me more comfortable that I’m not going to accidentally start transmitting music or other noises from the kids toys in the next room (they recently found my old keyboard….)
    • Similarly, I like the awareness that still being able to hear the room brings - I like hearing the various relays clicking, my door opening if a family member stops in, etc.

In addition to the supposed negatives that I see as positives, open back headphones have 2 additional benefits over their closed back counterparts:

  • Ear sweat eliminated! Because of their open design, air flows much more freely around my ears, keeping them much more comfortable during long sessions.

  • Weight! because they have physically less material, they generally weigh less, again keeping them much more comfortable during long sessions.

So the next time you’re in the market for headphones, consider your use case. If you’re going portable with them, a traditional closed-back pair might be best, but for use in the shack - consider open-back headphones. For something around the $100 mark, so far I’ve been very pleased with this pair from audio-technica. They have a somewhat unique headband arrangement, so if you have a tiny head the fit might not be great, but for my average-large head, they work great: