Hey guys! Before we get started, check out Apos Audio. They are a great up-and-coming distributor with a phenomenal-looking website and excellent customer service. They also offer free shipping, the lowest price guarantee, a 2-year warranty, and a 45-day return.
Also, consider Sweetwater sound and/or B&H where applicable. I have been buying from them since around 2007 and don’t regret a single purchase. They both have the best customer service in the business and really care about your satisfaction. What other company (Sweetwater) calls you to make sure you’re happy with your gear? I digress.
Full disclaimer: I do make a small commission if you buy from any of the links below (and above). It really helps out the blog and channel, so if you found value here, consider supporting! It’s much appreciated. 🙂
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
Before we get into the Top 5 Audiophile Headphones Under $500, grab a snack, sit back and relax because…
I’m Here to Help!!
If this is your first foray into better audio, you’re in for a real treat! Below I’m going to list my top recommendations with regard to Headphones and Amplifiers.
If you’re new to all this and want to upgrade your sound, you’re most certainly in the right place!!
This page will be updated frequently as I garner new experiences, but do expect my top choices to more or less stay the same.
You may have been like I was; someone who simply loves music but is unsure of where to start.
If you’re coming from cheaper headphones like those you’d find in your local Drug Store (or you’ve just never heard anything good), then be prepared to have your life changed almost immeasurably.
One of my good friends had no idea what she was missing out on until I let her borrow my Sennheiser HD600 and an iFi xCAN.
“I can pair it wirelessly with my phone or use it as a desktop Amp/DAC?”
*smooth, sexy voice* “Yeah girl, you can.” 😉 Lol. It’s extremely versatile in that sense.
Her reluctance to give me my headphones back stemmed from the sheer mind-blowing experience of it all.
“Oh my God!” “It sounded so amazing!” “I can’t believe everything I was missing out on before!” “I never want to leave my room!”
^ She actually said this too.
“I NEED THIS!”
Lol. Inside joke with that last one. <3
This is likely how you will also react if you’ve never heard of more expensive headphones with a good Amplifier/DAC. What the heck is a “DAC” though?
Amps & DACs
In simple terms, a DAC is a digital-to-analog converter.
It converts the digital 1’s and 0’s that your computer understands (binary), into the analog (sound) that your brain understands.
The amplifier simply amplifies that conversion/signal to a listenable level for you to gush over, like the amazing girl in the above example.
- Related: Beginners Guide: What is a USB DAC?
Don’t forget to leave me some love!! <3
Since you’re likely new, I’d almost always recommend an all-in-one to start.
You can always upgrade down the road when you get the “upgrade-itis” itch. Trust me, you will. Sorry in advance. XD
With that in mind, let’s run down my Top 5 !
By the end of this article, you should have a clear idea of which headphones to go with if you’re brand-spanking new to audio!
You will also get a feel for some of the best Amps & DACS on the market for these headphones.
Let’s get rolling!
The Apos Caspian
- Highlights: Harman-y type of flavor, fantastic mid-bass, great overall sound.
- You may not like: A bit on the warm side.
- Best for: Most genres of music.
- Bread and Butter: Hip-Hop, Indie Pop/rock, and modern, well-mixed/mastered music.
- Amplification Needed: No.
Since I wrote this article back in 2020, there hasn’t once been a shakeup, until now.
To be frank, I wasn’t expecting to be as impressed with the Caspian as I am.
I was excited to listen and certainly looked forward to it, but I didn’t actually foresee it being added to any best-of lists.
Perhaps that’s a bit unfair, but after demoing 115+ headphones at the time of this writing, I’m .. a bit jaded. Lol.
There are many reasons why it’s worth a purchase at just an eye-lash under $500: build, comfort, and sound are all nearly perfect in my eyes + it comes with a balanced cable and a really nice carrying case.
This is a warm sound signature but somehow avoids the pitfalls of traditional closed-back headphones with too much bass even though the Caspian certainly aims for a fun experience overall.
The catch is that the mid-bass – something a lot of companies ruin – sounds delightful.
There’s just enough of a rise to keep you excited, and it slams just right giving the songs that little bit of extra body that they need without going over the top or becoming overdone like your mom’s meatloaf.
The mid-range never gets lost, and the treble – while leaning somewhat darker – fits perfectly in the mix. So it loosely follows the Harman target.
In addition to all that,
the music is actually enjoyable to listen to without it feeling like it’s trying too hard to impress you.
It’s rich and life-like, and the instrument Timbre feels natural and effortless.
It’s clear that Apos put a lot of time and effort into this project and it shows.
I don’t get excited about gear anymore, but the Caspian was truly a breath of fresh air.
Oh, to be Prince Caspian.
Image Coming Soon!
- Highlights: Ruler flat response, even sound for the most part.
- You may not like: Somewhat bright/peaky treble.
- Best for: Most genres of music.
- Bread and Butter: Mixing, Mastering, and Reference.
- Amplification Needed: Yes.
Like both the K702 and HD600 series, Beyerdynamic’s venerable DT880 has long since been a staple in studios around the world.
While other headphones claim the title of “Studio Monitor”, or “Reference Headphone”, in reality, they aren’t.
A couple of examples of this include the famed Audio Technica ATH M50/50x and M40x.
The problem with advertising those as reference headphones is that their sound signature represents anything but.
An elevated bass, pushed-back mid-range, and somewhat exaggerated treble response in no way warrant those kinds of sentiments, and in no way are they the most ideal studio options when it comes to mixing/mastering, and reference.
The DT880 by contrast is marketed as a studio headphone and does actually fit the profile of one incredibly well.
There’s a somewhat rolled-off bass, but it’s not too lean.
The mid-range is just about as ruler flat as it gets, with no real added coloration or emphasis at any one particular part of the frequency.
After about 1kHz, it does roll off a bit, but there’s a small bump in the presence region (3kHz), which is just enough to not render them lifeless.
The treble is definitely spiked at around 9-10kHz, and some people will go back and forth on whether this allows you to hear more going on in the mix vs. not being able to with a more relaxed presentation type of headphones.
The Sony MDR-V6, which I have owned, has a similar peak in the treble and does resemble the overall sound signature of the 880.
I tend to reach for a V6 when I’m mixing more than any other headphones because you can hear a lot going on when you’re trying to find flaws and hear the mix clearly.
The 880 is the same way, although it’s definitely more of an even-sounding, smoother response.
- Highlights: Amazing Soundstage and detail retrieval. Incredible spacing and depth. Very natural but crisp sound.
- You may not like: Very lean bass.
- Best for: Most genres of music.
- Bread and Butter: Jazz, Gaming, Film.
- Amplification Needed: Yes.
- Recommended Album: Miles Davis – “Kind of Blue”
- Recent Films: Primal Fear, Inception.
- Currently Gaming: Outer Worlds, Fallout 4, New Vegas, Uncharted series.
The K702 has long since been a staple in the studio but also works well as a headphone you can kick back and enjoy some lighter genres with.
These are the type of headphones that you’ll want if you’re more of a snob like me who enjoys quieter passages like Jazz, Classical, Acoustic, Folk, etc.
It works best with a glass of scotch, some caviar, and a navy blue turtle neck.
If you want to thumb your nose up at everyone while you listen to your old records, grab one today! Lol.
You too can be this hip and fancy for the low low price of haha just kidding. Just hold your pinky out!
The higher you hold it, the fancier you are.
The K702 does work well for most types of music, but you’ll find that it fares best at lower volumes.
Try to push this one and it won’t respond that well.
The absolute highlight of this headphone is its ability to reproduce a very wide and grand Soundstage.
At times it becomes almost uncomfortable the amount of detail you’ll start to hear all around you.
I’m talking about extremely subtle nuances that most cheap headphones tend to gloss over.
You’ll find yourself frequently taking the headphones off to check your surroundings.
“Did that come from outside, or am I just imagining things?”
“What’s going on outside?”
“Tell those darned kids to stop with all their hooplah!”
All of these phenomena and more are likely some things that you might mutter or think to yourself while you’re gaming or watching movies.
With music, it’s more of the same.
You may periodically stop to simply look around, pausing the track and feeling totally batty (bat sh** crazy).
Just make sure to keep your melon on a swivel alright?! You never know when Jason Voorhees may be lurking in the shadows. 😛
Nah but seriously, the K702 has just about the best Soundstage in this price category or otherwise.
Like the HD600, there’s a reason it’s stuck around in some form or fashion all these years later.
The original AKG K701 and K702 were made in Austria and had bumps on the headband.
A lot of folks complained because they became very uncomfortable over time, and didn’t really provide any sort of real padding.
The newer models don’t have any bumps and are fairly comfortable, even though they do still have the capacity to dig into your head a little over long listening sessions.
Still, it’s one of the most faithful reproductions of sound you’ll ever come across.
Nothing really stands out unnaturally, but the mid-range does have a presence bump most notably around 2kHz (basically the vocal region).
I find it to be just the right amount.
The headphone never sounds overpowering, but also generally doesn’t come across as dull.
There’s a nice balance here.
It’s placed third because there are some people who will inevitably not really enjoy the sound signature as much as our top 2 options, both of which are more immediately enjoyable and accessible to the beginner enthusiast.
For more seasoned snobs, the K702 fits the bill quite nicely.
The K702 is just about the best option you could go with if you’re going to be listening to a lot of quieter genres and passages like Acoustic, Folk, Jazz, Classical, etc., and also plan on watching a lot of movies and doing a lot of gaming.
Here I compare the K702 to the venerable HD600
- Highlights: Fantastic instrument separation, detail, and timbre.
- You may not like: Nothing. This is essentially a perfect headphone. Well, I can’t say that. Some people find it a bit dull sounding, but if you’re not a total whiner, you’ll love it. XD
- Good For: All genres of music.
- Bread and Butter: Rock.
- Amplification Needed: Yes.
- Recommended Album: Pink Floyd – “Dark Side Of The Moon.”
One of the best ways to avoid that “itch” mentioned above is to just cut through all the BS, snag an HD6XX, pair it with an Amp/DAC combo, and be done (more on Amps later).
The 6XX is absolutely one of the best representations of the “audiophile sound” without the audiophile price tag.
What do you mean by that?
With a 6XX, you’re most of the way there in terms of achieving the best sound possible.
While there are other better setups, the cost of them is rarely warranted.
Even despite that, you may just want to save some money long-term and cut to the chase.
Oftentimes, people will start out small as I did.
My first purchase was a Sony MDR-7506 as I needed something for mixing my beats back in 2010-2011.
The 7506 is indeed an amazing experience (surely one of the best-selling headphones of all time) and will cause you to react in a similar way to the 6XX.
Still, you’ll find yourself upgrading fairly quickly.
Why not save some money upfront and go for the best (The 6XX). You do like to save money, don’t you?
You may have also heard of the Audio Technica ATH-M50x. That was my second purchase.
While not a true upgrade from the 7506, it was more enjoyable from a casual listening standpoint.
Think in terms of a V-shaped sound like Beats by Dre: More bass, more treble, but a somewhat recessed (pushed back) mid-range.
The 7506 is also a fantastic sound for a new enthusiast.
Its overall rating and reviews speak for themselves. Over 12,000 people have reviewed it on Amazon!
The great thing about the HD6XX is 2 fold.
- Because it’s a Drop (Formerly Massdrop) collaboration with Sennheiser, it’s much more affordable and thus appeals to a wider demographic of people. The original HD650 still retails at around $500, and the HD600 is around $400. You can of course get both for cheaper, but the HD6XX sits at a perfect price point for the average person who doesn’t really care to spend a bunch of money right away.
- But what about the sound, you might ask? Fret not, the 6XX retains all of the amazing qualities that the original HD650 had. I personally think it sounds like a cross between 600 and 650. While the original 600 had mid-range issues with regard to vocals and instruments, the 650 improved on that notion by making the mids more relaxed and less in-your-face. Even so, it kind of sounded just a tad too overly warm at times.
Wait, wait .. what the heck are you talking about?
What is a “600?” 650? I feel like I’m in math class.
Haha. Sorry about that.
Sennheiser’s HD600 and 650 are 2 of the most popular audiophile headphones of all time.
They represent the initial gateway into the world of better audio, sort of like how Marijuana (pronounced Mehruh-Juwanna) is considered a gateway into harder stuff like Meth and Crack.
Fair warning: There’s no coming back from the audiophile rabbit hole. Once you’re in, you’re never coming back out.
The HD6XX is simply a collaboration between Sennheiser and Massdrop.
It’s a way for newer folks like you to get a taste of that sweet, sweet, audiophile sound without forking over a kidney to do so.
The average person isn’t going to want to pay retail for a headphone like the HD600, and that’s certainly understandable.
I gladly paid over $300 for mine back in 2016 as a result of much research and deliberation, but:
Enter the 6XX.
The 6XX to me sits in a perfect middle ground between the 2. Do you see what I mean about cutting to the chase?
I could have saved that initial $250 (that I spent on the 7506 and M50x) and just purchased a 6XX for way less cash money.
Even if you do upgrade down the road, you’ll never really outgrow the 6XX.
It’s a studio staple and has been around in some form or fashion for over 20 years, dating back to 1997!
You’ll find yourself nearly always going back to it because of how true and natural it sounds. I have one on my big head right now!!
But what can you expect when you put one on your big head and listen to music?
Well, maybe not an orgasm. But definitely an eargasm!
One of the best examples I ever read about the experience of an HD600 was that of an Amazon Reviewer.
He described the sensation of it in terms of “rediscovering the music that had long since been forgotten about.”
It’s not a direct quote, but very close to it.
Think about all of the music you’ve heard over the years. All of your favorite tracks that you know like the back of your hand.
Now imagine hearing those same tracks in a different light, as if they were fresh and new. As if they somehow sounded “foreign” to you.
This is what it’s like to experience an HD6XX with a good amplifier.
It’s the indescribable feeling of putting a song under a microscope and discovering everything you had previously missed out on.
Things such as:
- The way a finger slides across the fretboard.
- The way a Classical composer breathes through his nose in between notes.
- The way an electric guitar sounds in its most raw and organic form.
- How natural an instrument sounds. How it’s supposed to sound. What it may sound like in real life vs. what it sounds like through a device.
- The details in the background that you didn’t know were there.
- The flaws in the recording somehow actually make it sound better.
- The intimacy and inflection of the human voice.
- The soundscapes and textures of backing instruments seemed lost or nonexistent before.
I could go on. These may seem like exaggerations, but I can assure you that they’re not.
When you put on an HD6XX, your reaction is likely to be something along the lines of:
“Wow, so this is what music is supposed to sound like.”
I can’t count how many times I’ve said that over the years listening with my HD600.
I’ve had them since 2016 and really couldn’t imagine life without them.
Out of the 10+ headphones I sold in 2019, the HD600 and Philips SHP9500 are the only ones that still remain.
There’s a reason for that.
It’s because out of the 100 or so headphones that I’ve demoed, the HD600 series stands out significantly.
It’s crisp, detailed, natural, revealing, and immensely enjoyable all at the same time.
It’s also really comfortable and built extremely well too!
Everything on it is replaceable, so in theory, it should last you a lifetime given proper care.
If you want to experience audio in its purest form, the 6XX is your ticket to paradise!
Don’t forget to leave me some love!! <3
Interested in a more affordable alternative to the famed HD600 and 650?
Let’s get into my number 1 option, and the moment you’ve all been waiting for…
The HIFIMAN HE400se
- Highlights: Nearly dead neutral sound profile, superior instrument timbre, and above-average Soundstage.
- You may not like: The mid-range after 1kHz takes a gradual decline which may be a bit problematic at times.
- Best for: All genres of music.
- Bread and Butter: Hip-Hop, Rock, Jazz.
- Amplification Needed: Yes.
- Recommended Album: Led Zeppelin – “Houses of the Holy”
One of the best experiences I ever had as an AudioFILE was listening to a FLAC version of Led Zeppelin’s “Over The Hills & Far Away” through a Bryston BHA-1 Headphone Amp and the HiFiMan HE400i.
- Related: What is an Audiophile?
I know #1 is supposed to be the 400se but bear with me for a sec.
I mention in a bit how there’s music that you probably know like the back of your hand, and that it will sound foreign with good headphones.
“Over the Hills” is a prime example of a song that I thought I knew, but really didn’t at all.
When you’ve listened to albums through crappy equipment all your life, it takes something like this setup to realize what you’ve missed out on.
Everything sounded different, from Robert Plant’s voice to Page’s guitars, to Jones’ bass, to the otherworldly drums of John Bonham, and everything in between.
It was as if I got a glimpse into the soul of the artists; why they were bandmates, how they interacted with each other, and what made them so close.
I had read somewhere that after Bonham died, the band refused to play without him.
Listening to this song during that moment in time finally made me realize why.
The 400i rendered it with such startling realism that I couldn’t help but squirm around in my seat.
When the drums came in, it was the most perfect amalgam of sound I’d ever heard together on one track.
Nothing was overpowering, but nothing lacked weight or impact.
Each and every note was of the utmost importance and could be dissected like a gutted frog under a microscope.
It was intense, enjoyable, revealing, and raw all at the same time.
The song was rendered in such an incredible way that I knew I would never be the same.
I knew in the back of my mind that even if I ended up hearing something better, I would never forget that moment for as long as I lived.
It’s like the feeling you get when you meet someone who ends up being really dear to you.
Those people in your life are few and far between. You never forget them. They hold a special place in your heart.
A few months ago I opened up my senior yearbook for the last time before throwing it away and moving on.
As I thumbed through the last few pages and took one final glimpse at my old high school friends and acquaintances, one quote from a guy named Tyler Ballengee (who I played JV baseball with my sophomore year in 2003) stuck out:
“Many things in life will catch your eye, only a few will catch your heart … pursue those.”
Now I didn’t plan on getting all emotional, but the 400i was sort of like that.
It was a deeply emotional experience that sort of “catches” your heart.
It’s the kind of thing that really can’t be described with words, much like a soulmate or a deeply intimate relationship.
It’s been years later and I’m still talking about it, ad-nausea to anyone who will listen. Heh.
I’ve said it over and over again, and my regular readers and subscribers are probably sick to death from hearing about this story.
If you’re new here, you are exactly the reason why I continue to tell the story.
You’ll know it when you hear it though, so don’t fret!
It’s something that every person should experience in some form or fashion before they die. I truly believe that.
Think about how important music is to you.
Could we live without it? I’m not entirely sure. Music is a part of everyone’s life on a daily basis.
It’s one of the main ways that we connect and relate to each other.
If that was taken away, I don’t think mass chaos would ensue. But I also think we would be much worse off.
By this point, you may be wondering about the 400se.
It’s simply an updated version of the 400i in terms of build quality.
The sound is more or less the same as the original, but now you won’t have to worry about it breaking down as it mimics the excellent build of the updated DEVA – something HIFIMAN sorely needed to fix in their mid-fi line and did.
Some of the newer 400is had headband issues. With the 400se, HiFiman fixed all that by constructing the product out of more robust materials and giving it a more streamlined look.
So why has the 400se replaced the 6XX for the top spot on this list?
In a nutshell, because it’s a planar magnetic headphone.
Planar magnetic drivers utilize more magnets around the diaphragm that are spread out evenly.
This results in lower distortion and a more natural, realistic, and spatially aware presentation.
In addition to that, the newer 400se simultaneously outperforms a 6XX and is somehow cheaper!
But wait, there’s more.
It also utilizes stealth magnets which basically means that they’re constructed in such a way (read: rounded off vs. square) so as not to impede the sound waves as they’re traveling from the driver toward your ears.
A subtle difference but surely noticeable.
All of these things caused me to make the decision to finally de-throne the 6XX.
It was tough, but the 400se is a superior headphone.
There is a lot of snake oil in audio, but the transition from a dynamic headphone to a planar headphone is most certainly not a case of that.
There is a clear difference, and it manifests most prominently in what is known as Timbre; how an instrument may sound in real life vs. the way it sounds through a device, or, its unique tone. What is Timbre?
Purchase a 400se, and you’ll come to realize what makes this distinction so remarkable.
Here I gather all of my impressions of the 400 Series since 2017! Note: 400se video coming soon so stay tuned and bookmark this article!
So.. you’ve decided on a headphone but now you need an Amp!
No problem at all. To keep you from getting confused today, I’m just going to recommend a few really good options to get you started.
AudioQuest DragonFly Red/Cobalt
The perfect solution for desktop and phone users
This little flash drive-sized wonder is the perfect solution for that person who not only doesn’t want to deal with separate DACs but also can’t be bothered with a wire either. Enter the DragonFly Red.
Literally, just plug it into a USB slot on your PC, plug your headphones into it and you’re ready for music.
It’s really that simple and doesn’t even require any drivers. Oh, you have Tidal? Even better.
The DragonFly supports Tidal’s MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), so you can play master files to your heart’s content.
The DragonFly will improve your audio experience immensely across the board, providing a crisp, neutral presentation with plenty of air and spacing around the instruments.
All that basically means is a smile on your face, so fret not!
If you’ll be pairing it with a phone, you will need an adapter.
The newer Cobalt does come with AudioQuest’s Type-C Dragon Tail adapter, but you also have other options if your phone has a micro USB input.
You may be wondering about the differences between Cobalt and Red.
In short, there are basically none, and I would recommend the Red because it will save you an extra $100 (roughly).
Everything you’ll need to know is in this video!
FiiO K5 Pro
All-in-one combo that’s also great for gaming!
The FiiO K5 Pro is one of those amps that you’ll probably never get rid of because of how much it can do:
- You can use it with your console via its optical input. So just run an optical cable from the back of your console to the back of the K5 Pro!
- It can output to separate speakers or monitors (like the Zen) via its RCA Analog Outputs.
- It can be used with a separate DAC via its RCA Analog Inputs.
- You can simply use it on your desktop via its USB Type-B cable.
And lots more. Lol. Just check out this graphic from my video at the beginning:
Wow! If you plan on doing any gaming, I’d go with the K5 Pro as it can do basically anything you need it to do. You can even hook it up to your turntable or receiver and listen to records or CDs if that’s your cup ‘o tea.
Video Comparison to the K3
JDS ATOM + ATOM DAC
Perfect pairing with the HD6XX
If you decide to go with the HD6XX (and I think you should), the ATOM is a perfect match for it sound-wise.
I got a chance to demo both for quite a while and I fell in love with this setup.
- Recommended: JDS Labs ATOM HEVI Review; ATOM Got An Upgrade?!
I would say out of everything I’ve discussed today, going with a 6XX and pairing it with the ATOM is your best bet as far as coming close to the pinnacle of audiophile sound at a fraction of the “audiophile” price.
Like the K5 Pro and Zen, the ATOM too is a preamp and can hook up to separate studio monitors or speakers.
- Related: What are Studio Monitors?
It also has a pair of RCA inputs for connection to a separate DAC like the OL DAC (which you will need as the ATOM is just an amp).
Perhaps the most valuable piece to this Amp is the line-in feature, which allows you to connect it to any DAC that has a line-out feature or RCA outs (pretty much all of them have a line-out, RCA out, or both).
For instance, I have both a FiiO K3 and E10K in my studio and each of them has a line out.
Notice how in the above picture the K3 is sitting on top of the ATOM.
I was using the K3 as the DAC that day into the Amp (ATOM), and it sounded fantastic!
You may be asking, what about the ATOM DAC?
I would recommend the ATOM DAC to pair with the ATOM because both of them come from the same company and therefore are pretty much made for each other.
Video Comparison to the Objective 2
So with that, what’s the final word?
Recommendation & Final Word
Since 2020, the 6XX held the top spot, and for good reason.
It’s a fantastic-sounding headphone and represents the hobby well.
It’s still a good purchase today, but the 400se, to me, is a much better value at its current price and sounds better.
In all honesty, the top 3 here can be interchangeable – that is to say that if you shuffled them around or thought one was better than the other (hence didn’t quite agree with my rankings) I wouldn’t be that mad at you, and can definitely see why you’d think that.
If you’re new and don’t feel like hooking up a DAC to an Amp (understandable), then just get the K5 Pro and you’ll be set.
You won’t have to worry about choosing a separate DAC as the K5 Pro is a combo all-in-one (something I mentioned at the start).
Ready to level up your listening experience?
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on the Best Audiophile Headphones For Under $500.
Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!
If you love what I do here and want to support the blog and channel in a more personal way, check me out on Patreon and discover all the value I have to offer you.
Which of these headphones sounds more like you? What do you hope to achieve within your listening environment? Do you think the 400se is a better value than the 6XX? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…
All the best and God bless,