This is Kind of Obsessed, a column about all the stuff our team is really, really into right now.
There's a reason you're not supposed to use headphones alone when you're mixing music. It's an unnatural experience. Headphones and earbuds just beam sound directly from the left or right channel right into your ears, giving you the feeling that the sound is emanating from inside your head instead of coming to your ears through actual space, reflecting off the world around you.
But AirPods, or closed-back noise-cancelling headphones, are how most people are listening to music these days, either on a commute, out in public, or in the privacy of their own home. However, if you find the notion of using a loudspeaker impractical, you should know there is a middle ground.
Open-back headphones have exposed grilles on the backs of the drivers. Instead of solid cups meant to keep sound in, these headphones' open backs purposely let some sound escape. As a result they're maybe not great for blasting in the office, but by letting the music breathe, they create a more natural sound than any closed-back cans can muster.
I've been using Audio-Technica's ATH-R70x, which at $350 are no impulse buy, but are far more affordable than top-shelf, planar magnetic models. With an impedance of 470Ω, they really need to be driven from a dedicated, powerful headphone amplifier to be fully appreciated, but I found that just cranking up the volume on my computer was enough to give a damn good listening experience.
Like many open-back models, they have a somewhat "scooped" frequency response — the lows and highs are slightly pronounced, while mid-frequencies are less so — but the overall listening experience is much more neutral compared to that of a pair of closed-backs. Basically, music sounds much closer to how it does when coming from a pair of studio good monitors or hi-fi speakers than from a pair of typical, closed-back headphones. The ATH-R70x are truthful.
Is the sound as balanced as on a pair of multi-thousand dollar monitors such as you'd find in Electric Lady or Abbey Road? No. Is the listening experience as revelatory? Of course not. But the sound is clear and vibrant — much better than whatever headphones you probably have right now — and I found that their design lends itself to very comfortable listening for hours on end; something you won't get from buds or ANC.
Almost absurdly lightweight, the The ATH-R70x feature two, lightly spring-loaded headrests that hold the earcups in place. A 3-meter 1/8" TRS jack (with 1/4" adaptor) terminates in two stereo jacks that can plug into either earcup and lock firmly in place, so there's no screwing up the stereoscape. Large, padded foam earcups fit a variety of ear shapes, and the entire package fits in an included leatherette bag.
I fired up my typical reference material — Steely Dan's 1977 masterpiece, Aja — and was blown away by the clarity. I checked out mixes of my own music, and was given a (painfully) truthful picture of how much work I had left to do. Finally, a pair of cans that gave something resembling a studio monitor experience. Now all I have to worry about is not pissing off the person next to me on the plane.