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 out 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 choice to more or less stay the same.
What is my best recommendation for people new to the hobby?
You may have been like I was; someone who simply loves music but 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 wireless with my phone or use it as a desktop Amp/DAC?”
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 a more expensive headphone 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, 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?
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, what’s my top choice?
Highlights: Fantastic instrument separation, detail, and timbre.
You may not like: Nothing. This is essentially a perfect headphone.
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 the best representation of the “audiophile sound” without the audiophile price tag.
What do you mean by that?
Glad you asked. The first has to do with The Law of Diminishing Returns, something that I talk very frequently about on my blog and YouTube channel. With a 6XX, you’re most of the way there in terms of achieving the best sound possible. While there are other better set ups, the cost of them is rarely warranted.
Even despite that, you may just want save some money long term and cut to the chase.
Often times, people will start out small like I did. My first purchase was a Sony MDR7506 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 up front 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 recessed (pushed back) mid-range.
It’s also a fantastic sound for a new enthusiast. It’s overall rating and reviews speak for themselves. Over 12,000 people have reviewed the MDR7506 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 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 the 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.
Wow that escalated quickly. XD
The HD6XX is simply a collaboration between Sennheiser and Massdrop. It’s a way for newer folks to get a taste of that sweet, sweet, audiophile sound without forking over their 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.
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 2o 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 fret-board.
The way a Classical composer breathes through his nose in between notes.
The way an electric guitar sounds in it’s most raw and organic form.
How natural an instrument sounds. How it’s supposed to sound. How it likely sounds in real life vs. through a device.
The details in the background that you didn’t know were there.
The flaws in the recording that somehow actually make it sound better.
The intimacy and inflection of the human voice.
The soundscapes and textures of backing instruments that seemed lost or non-existent before.
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 a long 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’s. 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 head and shoulders above the rest. It’s crisp, detailed, natural, revealing, and immensely enjoyable all at the same time.
Don’t forget to leave me some love!! <3
Interested in a more affordable alternative to the famed HD600 and 650?
Highlights: Great Soundstage, Fantastic bass response and low end extension.
You may not like: Sound sometimes lacks a certain energy or zest.
Best for: All genres of music.
Bread and Butter: Hip-Hop, Rock.
Amplification Needed: Yes.
Recommended Album: Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
One of the best experiences I ever had 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.
I know #2 is supposed to be “Sundara”, but bear with me for a sec.
Remember how I mentioned there’s music that you probably know like the back of your hand? And that it would 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 set up 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 artist’s; why they were band mates, how they interacted with each other, 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’d 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 year book 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 of 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 Sundara.
Sorry about that!
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 (kind of). Some of the newer 400i’s had headband issues. With the Sundara, HiFiman fixed all that by constructing the product out of more robust materials and an overall streamlined look.
Even so, some people do still have issues with the connection into the ear-cups. I personally have not, but then again I’ve never actually owned one. I’ve only demoed it on many occasions.
Like the 6XX, the Sundara is also super comfy!
So why is it #2 on the list, even despite some issues?
BECAUSE I SAID SO!!
Haha just kidding.
The reason is because it’s planar magnetic drivers make it sound even more natural and realistic than even an HD6XX or K702.
Here I gather all of my impressions of the 400 Series since 2017!
Highlights: Amazing Soundstage and detail retrieval. Incredible spacing and depth. Very natural 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 studio, but also works well as a headphone you can kick back and enjoy some lighter genres with. This is the type of headphone that you’ll want if you’re more of a snob like me. If you enjoy quieter passages like Jazz, Classical, Acoustic, Folk, etc. It’s the type of headphone that 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 it’s ability to reproduce a very wide and grand Soundstage. A times it becomes almost uncomfortable the amount of detail you’ll start to hear.
I’m talking about extremely subtle nuances that most cheap headphones tend to gloss over. You’ll find your self 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 for all these years.
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 overtime, 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 small presence bumps at 1 and 2k (basically just 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 for the most part.
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 a Sundara or HD6XX, 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.
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 examples of this include the famed Audio Technica ATH M50/50x and M40x, one of which we discussed earlier.
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 is the most ideal studio option 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 like the above K702.
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 headphone.
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 headphone 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.
In my Budget Kings series, the Philips SHP9500 has remained in the top spot since the articles inception. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
The reason is because it performs more like a headphone in the $200 range. Build, Comfort, and Sound are all top notch, and really have no business being so good for something so cheap.
Out of the 10+ headphones I owned in 2019, all but 2 of them were sold. Can you guess which ones remained?
That’s right, the HD600 and Philips SHP9500 both still occupy a space in my studio because they were head and shoulders better than the rest (at least worth keeping over the others, anyway).
Which of these 2 (X2HR and 9500) you go with depends on if you prefer a more fun sound signature vs. a more revealing one.
The 9500 is the crisper, cooler sound, with less bass and a sharper sounding upper mid-range. Some have accused the 9500 of sounding grainy in that region, but I wholeheartedly disagree. I will say that yes, at times it does sound a bit peaky/hot, and bright. I personally believe there’s a difference between that and “grain.” Grain is a very specific trait that is easily distinguishable in headphones. The 9500 is definitely not that.
People will generally try to legitimately fight you over it though. At one point it was so out of control that it became somewhat of a meme on my YouTube channel. For awhile there I was poking fun at a couple of people who got very upset and angry about my opinion. 😛
I wouldn’t call it a bump” per se, but there is a rise at starting at around 60Hz (moving into the mid-bass) on the X2HR which gives it that EXTREME excitement that people tend to wet themselves over.
Both the 9500 and X2HR have a bump around 1-2kHz, but the X2HR dips after 2k whereas the 9500 does not.
Overall, the 9500 is a more laid back sound with a mostly neutral profile, whereas you’ll want the X2HR if you prefer some more excitement out of your purchase (more bass, more fun, warmer type of sound).
Both do very well for Gaming, but the X2HR might be better for action films, explosions, etc.
The Fidelio X2HR is a perfect example of a headphone that sounds incredible for Hip-Hop, EDM, etc. without muddying up the other frequencies.
Like the 9500, you’re still going to hear all of that amazing detail, but it will be more of a fun listen whereas the 9500 is great for picking apart the song and honing in on subtle intricacies.
If you’re a gamer, you’d be hard pressed to find something better than either of these headphones paired with a V-Moda Boom Mic Pro.
It’s just a match made in heaven (no pun intended). Get it? Because in FPS gaming you’re in a matc… Nevermind XD
I HAZ A PUN!
With the Boom Mic Pro, you can yell obscenities at people more effectively! Oh Boy!
Seriously though, I’ve been using the 9500 for gaming and movies for a couple of years now. I really love the openness of the sound and it’s propensity to deliver an excellent Soundstage. Perhaps it’s not as wide or immersive as the K702’s, but it’s getting there.
There are a lot of people that claim the 9500 has no Soundstage.
They’re LYING. Haha. Those people most likely haven’t even tried the headphone for movies or gaming, and have an agenda against the product itself with no basis for accusation.
Anyways, I digress. The positive feedback on Amazon cannot be disputed!
So.. you’ve decide 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
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, so you can play master files to your hearts 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 teh Cobalt and Red. In short, there are basically none, and I would recommend the Red because it will save you an extra $100 (roughly).
The Zen is iFi’s answer to all of your problems, basically. As an all in one combo amp/dac at little over $100, it performs magically and has plenty of power for all of the headphones mentioned above. I have one sitting on my desk and it sounds exemplary. If you run Tidal, the Zen has you covered, supporting Tidal’s MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) tracks and up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM files. It also supports DSD! I was able to try out various tracks and get the Zen to display all of the colors.
If you’re feeling frisky, it has a balanced 4.4mm jack for any balanced headphones you may purchase down the road, and comes equipped with a power match button (basically gain), and a TrueBass button if you want some extra low end slam.
Add to that you can also use the RCA Outputs on the back to connect to separate speakers or monitors!
It’s a fantastic solution and probably the easiest way to get up and running with something like an HD6XX.
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 it’s 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 it’s RCA Analog Outputs.
It can be used with a separate DAC via it’s RCA Analog Inputs.
You can simply use it on your desktop via it’s 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 CD’s if that’s your cup ‘o tea.
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 awhile and I fell in love with this set up. 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. 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 (and a lot of them do). For instance, I have both a FiiO K3 and E10K in my studio and each of them has 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!
As alluded to above, I would most certainly go with the HD6XX and pair it with an ATOM for the best sound. If you’re new and don’t feel like hooking up a DAC to an Amp (understandable), then just get the Zen or DragonFly Red and you’ll be set. You won’t have to worry about choosing a separate DAC as the Zen is a combo all in one.