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**2012 Best Open-Back Headphones** Meet the , Sennheiser's successor to its successful [HD 555]() open-backed headphones. While it doesn't appear at first glance that Sennheiser changed much in the HD 558, it does provide a decent performance bump from the older headphones, and users who liked the older cans will definitely like the new ones. ####Design Despite the normal differences between open-backed and closed-back design, the Bose AE2s are made more cheaply, and with poorer elements. On top of this, they are less durable, and cannot have their cable replaced should breakage occur. ####Frequency Response The Sennheiser HD 558s trounce the AE2s here, as they provide a much flatter frequency response, with fewer erratic swings in emphasis. ####Distortion The Sennheiser HD 558s have less distortion as well, despite its tiny issue in the low end. ####Tracking The Bose AE2s have some very erratic shifts in channel preference, while the Sennheiser HD 558s maintain an even tracking response. ####Isolation By very virtue of the fact that the Sennheiser HD 558s are open-backed, they block out less sound, but don’t take that to mean that the AE2s are any good at isolation, because they’re not really. ####Comfort Both sets of headphones are fairly comfortable, but we urge you to try each on before making a decision, because comfort can make or break the experience for you. There were a few reported problems with the Sennheiser HD 558s on larger heads. ####Verdict For $40 more, you can buy the Sennheiser HD 558s over the Bose AE2s with far better sound quality, lower distortion, and better tracking. If you’re going to be using your headphones at home, there is virtually no reason to buy the AE2s over the Sennheiser HD 558s unless the extra cost will bankrupt you. ####Design Aside from the obvious difference between open-backed cans and the closed-back Crossfade LP 2s, the V-Moda headphones are built to survive just about anything, whereas the Sennheiser HD 558s can be killed any one of a number of ways. If you want to take your headphones out into the world, the LP 2s are a better bet. ####Frequency Response While the Sennheiser HD 558s are better for the stay-at-home types, the frequency response of the V-Moda LP 2s caters to the basshead or performing DJ, as the bass emphasis is very high. Both headphones treat mids fairly well, but the LP 2s are more erratic overall. ####Distortion Neither set of headphones has much in the way of distortion, but the V-Modas are technically (though inaudibly) better in this regard. ####Tracking The Sennheiser HD 558s win this one hands-down, as their tracking response errors are almost entirely inaudible. ####Isolation Because the Sennheiser HD 558s are open-backed, it’s no surprise that they do not isolate as well as the V-Moda LP 2s block out quite a bit more sound than do the HD 558s. ####Comfort Comfort is largely subjective, but both manufacturers when out of their way to make sure that their headphones did not put too much pressure on your ears. Because there is a litany of things that could potentially change how you perceive comfort levels, we urge you to try each on before making a judgment on which to buy. ####Verdict This one’s pretty clear-cut, but only for defined uses. If you’re looking for headphones to use at the computer, and you’re looking for a flat response, the Sennheiser HD 558s are a god bet. On the other hand, if you’re looking for headphones that you can pretty much take anywhere, and will withstand just about any punishment you can dish out, the V-Moda Crossfade LP 2s are probably a better choice. ####Design While both of these headphones are extremely similar, they don’t seem to share the same controversy that the HD 555s and HD 595s had over being virtually identical. The difference in design is obvious to the eye as well: while the Sennheiser HD 558s are jet black, and have chrome accents, the HD 598s are beige with burlwood accents. Both have removable cables. ####Frequency Response While both headphones have good frequency responses, the HD 598s win this comparison as they maintain more of the high end, and maintain a flatter bass response. ####Distortion Neither set of headphones has a huge problem with distortion, but they both have a little bit in the lower end. ####Tracking While the tracking response of the HD 598s is technically more erratic, the shifts in channel preference aren’t really what one would term “audible”. ####Isolation Neither set of cans are good isolators. ####Comfort Both headphones have extremely similar design, and net about the same comfort score. Be wary though, as listeners with larger heads may feel a slight pinch at the top of the ear cup. ####Verdict Both headphones are impressive, but if you’re looking for straight-up audio quality, go with the HD 598s. While the HD 558s aren’t a huge step down, for headphones that are essentially built for the same purpose, the only thing you’ll be gaining by buying the HD 558 over the HD 598 is saving some coin. The s' 10 foot cord terminates in your standard 1/4th inch adapter, or if you prefer, there is an 1/8th inch adapter for standard TRS jacks. There are no in-line accessories.

At this point in the review, we'd like to remind our readers that there are some aspects of headphones that are rather subjective, and chief among those is the comfort level. While to many people the s are very comfortable with their soft ear pads, those with larger heads reported a pinching sensation at the top of the ear cups after listening for about an hour.

Open-backed cans are called so because the back of their casings are open, allowing a huge range of driver movement for more accurate sound. Unfortunately, this also means that not only does sound leak out like crazy, but sound from the outside world comes in. Granted, even though your music will drown out some of the noise coming in, you'll probably want to limit the noise in the environment you're listening in.

Open-backed cans are not really meant to block out sound.

[Click here for more information on our isolation test.](/content/How-We-Test-149.htm#Isolation) If you're looking for a flat frequency response, the have a good one. What isn't pictured here, is a dropoff of about 10dB at 90Hz, meaning that these headphones may not be the best bet for bass-lovers, but will do fantastically well for most everyone else. That being said, it does do a somewhat poor job of maintaining a constant sound pressure level in the high end.

Very close to our ideal, you shouldn't notice any errors in frequency response.

[Click here for more information on our frequency response test.](/content/How-We-Test-149.htm#Frequency_Response) Meet the HD 558s.

For the price you'd pay, the s offer a good level of sound quality, comfort, and aesthetic appeal, and are the worthy successors to the Sennheiser HD 555s. The Sennheiser HD 558s are impressive mid-range headphones.

While they don't light the world on fire with their performance, when you buy the s, you're getting a set of headphones that give you a remarkably flat frequency response for the price. Be wary though, as bass lovers will probably not like the dropoff in emphasis at the 90Hz mark.

Should the cable break, you can always replace it with another Sennheiser cable, which is a huge plus in terms of prevented frustration, wasted money, and time lost. While open-backed cans aren't typically the most durable headphones in the world, the s offer the right features to make sure that they'll stick around for quite a while should you take them home.

If you're looking for a set of solid performers for a mid-range budget, the s are a good bet if you're okay with a little lacking bass. With features built in to protect your investment, the s are a good buy if you liked the HD 555s.

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Due to the length of the cable, and the fact that open-backed cans are not as adaptable for the outdoors, these cans stay at the desk. There are no carrying cases or the like included in the packaging.

Unsurprisingly, these cans leak a fair bit of sound, again due to the nature of open-backed headphones. If you're going to be listening in a highly-populated room, be sure to keep the volume at a minimum. These are not recommended for the office if you like to blast your music.

Click here for more information on our leakage test.

The s don't have much in the way of distortion, but there is a little bit at the low end. Still, as it's at worst 1%, you shouldn't be able to hear it.

The ~1% distortion level in the low end is still inaudible.

[Click here for more information on our frequency response test.](/content/How-We-Test-149.htm#Distortion) Here we see the speaker element of the , guarded by a very thin mesh, and surrounded by soft ear pads.

Over the length of a 6-hour listening session, the fit doesn't change too much, so it gets similar marks here.

Aside from replacing the cable with another purchased from Sennheiser if you elect to do so, there really isn't much you can do to customize your headphones. Thankfully, they look pretty cool as-is.

Even though the can blast out sound at a level of 117.17dB, we urge you to keep your volume at a minimum, as it is super-easy to fry your ears with headphones. If you'd like to know more about safe listening habits, check out our article on Noise-Induced Hearing Loss.

Click here for more on our maximum usable volume test

Sennheiser took many of the same design elements from the HD 555, and brought them back for the , except in the cleaner-looking black.

If you're someone who hates inexplicable shifts in channel preference, the s maintain a nice, smooth tracking response, with only a minor hiccup towards the 7kHz mark. Even at that, you shouldn't be able to hear a 3dB shift unless you know exactly what you're looking for.

There aren't any audible errors in channel preference either, as the HD 558s maintain an even tracking response for the most part.

[Click here for more information on our frequency response test.](/content/How-We-Test-149.htm#Tracking) Aside from wiping down the mesh over the speaker elements when they get saturated with bio-gunk, there isn't a whole lot one needs to do to maintain these cans. Replacing the cable is a good idea if you break a termination, but otherwise, there isn't much you should be doing to maintain your headphones outside of the normal "don't bang them around or sit on them" protocol used for decades by professionals. The band of the is a pliable black plastic affair with a super-soft pad at the top. Both ear cups are independently adjustable.

At the end of the cable is a rather robust 1/4th inch plug.

The cable guards of the s are thick rubber, with the exception of the one that leads into the left ear cup, as that

Along with your s, the packaging contains a 1/4th inch to 1/8th inch adapter, and that's pretty much it.

While the band material isn't the most durable thing in the world (heavy plastic), the s do offer good protection from the ills of a broken cable by making the whole thing removable in the event of breakage. Cables on headphones are the most likely point of failure if there are no additional solder points.

While it's very obvious what Sennheiser was trying to with their aesthetically, they actually did a pretty good job updating the look of their headphones. The all-black look is well executed, and very clean-looking.

Meet the tester

Chris Thomas

Chris Thomas

Staff Writer, Imaging


A seasoned writer and professional photographer, Chris reviews cameras, headphones, smartphones, laptops, and lenses. Educated in Political Science and Linguistics, Chris can often be found building a robot army, snowboarding, or getting ink.

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