The best audiophile headphones | A COMPLETE BUYERS GUIDE!!

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Updated November 8th, 2018

  • Part 1: 2,108 words, approx. 5-6 min. read (You are here)
  • Part 2: 5,127 words, approx. 8-9 min. read
  • Part 3: 5,900 words, approx. 8-9 min. read
  • Part 4: 7,106 words, approx. 9-10 min. read

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Hello friend and Welcome aboard!!

Before we get into the best audiophile headphones grab a snack (or the entire pantry), sit back and relax because…

You’ve come to the right place!!

The best audiophile headphones
The best audiophile headphones

What I will bring you in this article

This is going to be a long winded one, but by the time you’re through reading, you should have a very good understanding of which headphones on the market are most worthy of your dollar.

  1. Introduction
  2. Criteria
  3. What is your price range?
  4. Closed back
  5. Open back
  6. Casual listening
  7. Critical listening
  8. Should you buy a headphone amp?
  9. The best audiophile headphones
  10. Final Word

Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!

Introduction

Making a headphone purchase can really be a daunting task. Nowadays, there are so many choices that it becomes fairly overwhelming if you don’t have a rough idea of what you’re looking for.

Things like open back vs. closed, casual listening vs. critical, your budget, the kind of sound signature you prefer, comfort, build quality, and a bunch of other unseen elements come into play.

Have no fear though, today’s mega long but definitive article should steer you in the right direction, and by the end we will hone in on exactly what it is you’re after! Do keep in mind, that a lot of this is my personal opinion, but I consider myself a research based reviewer, and out of the thousands of reviews I’ve gone through, no product that has been heavily endorsed by many has ever let me down.

I always know exactly what I’m getting into before buying something, and even though there are Pros and Cons to every piece of equipment, to me it’s about balance. No product is ever going to be perfect, and you must be willing to accept that. There is always a trade-off to be made when deciding on a piece of gear. You will nearly always have to sacrifice something in exchange for something else: namely an overall sense of satisfaction and confidence that what you purchased was worth it.

So with that, let’s get into the actual criteria involved in making a decision!!

What is your price range?

It’s important to know roughly the amount you want to spend before making a decision, and narrowing it down to a specific price range will drastically cut down on the amount of options you have, as well as make your life much easier.

Generally speaking, the headphones that will sound the best lie in the $300-$600 range. This is what I like to call the audiophile sweet-spot. Spend any less, and you may have problems down the road.

Things like:

  1. Ear-cups peeling/cracking.
  2. Headbands snapping.
  3. Ear-pads falling off.
  4. Sound that isn’t quite as detailed or open.
  5. Cheap chords that tangle easily.

These are just a few of the issues that I’ve had with lower priced models. The good news is that the sound you’re getting isn’t too far off from the higher priced stuff, and you’ll be around 75-80% of the way there. The price range I’m referring to is anywhere from $100-$300. There are some great models below $100 as well, and we’ll delve into those later.

Spend more than $600, and you’re also in for a dilemma: The law of diminishing returns. This basically means that paying more for a perceived “better” headphone results in an incrementally smaller and smaller improvement as the price goes up. In fact, at a certain point you won’t even be able to notice, unless you have the absolute best headphone amps available, and end up spewing all of your money away. How to choose a headphone amp!

Spewing money out of your bum is not what we’re about here at Home Studio Basics, so fret not. Lol.

Another thing to consider is the type of headphone you’re looking for. Closed back vs. Open back headphones.

Closed back

Closed back headphones isolate better than their open back counterparts. Why? Because they’re closed off, allowing no sound to escape the backs of the ear-cups. While closed backs will generally result in a tighter, more intense and enjoyable sound, they tend to tire you out more. When I was in my early 20’s, I could stay up all night and mix on closed backs. I don’t think that I could do that now that I’m in my 30’s.

That in your head feeling gets exhausting after an hour or two, and you will need to take a break. The good thing about closed backs is that they work anywhere. Because of the superior sound isolation, you can take them on the go, to the office, on the train, etc. and not bother a soul.

Open back

Best album ever.

Open back headphones work much better in an isolated studio environment, free from any extraneous noise, ambient sound, and chatter. The great thing about them is that they are much more revealing of smaller details than a closed back headphone, and will generally provide a wider and more immersive soundstage. What is Soundstage? They are also better for mixing, as you’re better able to discern individual instruments, sounds, and their placement.

The downside of open back headphones is that they aren’t suited for on the go situations, as the outside noise will inevitably mix together with the song, causing confusion. “Was that small detail outside, or was it the music?” You may ask yourself this question if you’re listening in a less than ideal environment.

You’re also going to bother the living daylights out of people if all they can hear is Big Willie Style from 1997. Lol.

Casual listening

Something to also keep in mind is the intended purpose. Are you looking for a fun headphone with an exciting bass and a crisp treble response? Most headphones that are labeled as “fun” are of the V-shape variety. What this means is that you’re getting a deep, tight, and somewhat exaggerated bass, a bright treble, and a recessed mid-range. Recessed just means pushed back, or not as prominent. Things like vocals and guitars don’t sound as present as they should.

If you’re a casual listener, you aren’t as concerned with accuracy, but would rather have fun and hear the music in a pleasurable way. This means a trade-off of less mid-range for more bass (in most cases).

Also remember that a fun headphone will in most cases be more forgiving of your source material, and may even improve the sound by covering up any loose artifacts, errors, bad mixes/masters, and general mistakes in the song.

Critical Listening

With this type of headphone, you’re more concerned with accuracy, and you’d rather hear the music as it was recorded, good or bad. These are the headphones that are made for mixing/mastering, and minimally color the sound. What this means is that however the song originally sounded is more or less how it’s going to be conveyed to you, the listener.

People like to use terms such as “flat”, “balanced”, and “neutral.” The thing we must remember is that no headphone is perfectly flat, balanced or neutral. If that were the case, a frequency response would literally be a flat line. There’s always going to be peaks and valleys with any headphone, and a lot of the time, in a critical listening headphone, those peaks appear around the treble range (2kHz and above). The mid-range in one of these headphones is often times more forward, with an emphasis on vocals and instruments rather than the bass.

With a critical listening can, your focus is on instrument separation, detail, and overall timbre. What is Timbre? The primary concern is hearing what went into the song, and unveiling the blanket that inevitably covers a lot of what you’re missing in lesser models.

When delving into some of these more sophisticated offerings, you’ll start to understand why the price is higher. In my Oppo PM3 Review, I described the sound as being those “missing puzzle pieces.” Everything you’ve always wanted to hear comes through. But do you need an amp? That’s also an important consideration.

Do you need a headphone amp?

My Stack of Schiit

This can be a challenging question depending on your understanding of why one is needed in the first place. An amp is only necessary because (in most cases) the headphone itself has a higher impedance, thus needing more power to reach an acceptable listening level. What is Headphone Impedance?

To know if you need an amp, you need to know the Sensitivity of the headphones are as well. A Sensitivity # is just a measure of how efficient the headphone is at using the power it receives. Generally, anything 100dB and over is more efficient and needs less power from the amp to reach peak loudness. Anything 97dB and under is less efficient and needs more power from the amp to reach peak loudness. Related: What is Sensitivity in Headphones?

Output Impedance

Another way to know if your amplifier will suffice is by simply dividing the impedance of your headphones by 8. If the resulting number is higher than the output impedance of your amp, you should be fine.

Put another way, the output impedance of your amp should never exceed the impedance of your headphones.

Example:

  • The Schiit Magni has an output impedance of less than 0.1
  • The Sennheiser HD600’s have an impedance of 300 Ohms.
  • Divide that by 8.
  • Get 37.5
  • This number is greater than 0.1
  • So, the Magni works for the HD600. 🙂

You can use this simple formula to determine if any pair of cans need an amp. Just note the output impedance of the amp, and the Impedance of the headphone for your calculations. It helps to look at Sensitivity as well. Generally, anything above 97 dB will be easier to drive.

With all that said, now comes the fun part!

The best audiophile headphones

This list is subject to change depending on new experiences, research, my opinions, etc. but will likely not deviate all that much from what I know to be solid. That said, there are always new headphones coming a long, so think of this as your permanent, and frequently updated guide. It will ebb and flow with the times! 🙂

I will do my best to split this up into 4 categories, 4 price ranges, and 4 parts. 😀

($0-100) – The budget minded audiophile – Part 2

  1. Entry level, critical listening, closed back
  2. Entry level, critical listening, open back
  3. Entry level, casual listening, closed back
  4. Entry level, casual listening, open back

($100-300) –  The audiophile introduction – Part 3

  1. Mid-tier, critical listening, closed back
  2. Mid-tier, critical listening, open back
  3. Mid-tier, casual listening, closed back
  4. Mid-tier, casual listening, open back

($300-600) – The audiophile sweetspot – Part 4

  1. Top-tier, critical listening, closed back
  2. Top-tier, critical listening, open back
  3. Top-tier, casual listening, closed back
  4. Top-tier, casual listening, open back

($600 and beyond) – The audiophile dream – Part 4

  1. Upper echelon, critical listening, closed back
  2. Upper echelon, critical listening, open back
  3. Upper echelon, casual listening, closed back
  4. Upper echelon, casual listening, open back

Whew! Strap on your seat-belts folks! This will be the most comprehensive headphone guide on the internet!

I would highly recommend that you bookmark this and come back to it as needed. Don’t try and digest it all in one sitting. I’ve done my best to break it up into chunks though, so you can peruse based on price range. 🙂

Oh and before we get started, I would like to make a little disclaimer: I am not perfect, this site isn’t perfect, and there will inevitably be headphones that I left out, ones that you may have thought should have been included, ones that you believe shouldn’t be in my list, etc. etc. What I’ve come to learn about this craft is that it’s highly subjective. Opinions differ, people have different genetics when it comes to how they hear sound, and some prefer vastly different signatures. That said, if you feel differently about anything listed here, or would like to make a suggestion, leave a comment below or just Contact me!! I’m not sure why comments weren’t enabled before, but I finally was able to find the enable box inside WordPress. Apologies for the delay!


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