Hey guys! I just did a separate post on some of my top recommendations for beginners. Definitely check that out also and let me know what you think! The 5 Best Audiophile Headphones For Under $500! That list is a bit more concise, while this 4 part article is very in-depth! If you want to know the best option quickly, that’s the article to read^ 🙂
To send me a pair of headphones for a demo, for the purpose of potentially adding it to this list: Click Here!
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!!
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.
- What is your price range?
- Closed back
- Open back
- Casual listening
- Critical listening
- Should you buy a headphone amp?
- The best audiophile headphones
- Final Word
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!
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 comes 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!
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 number of options you have, as well as make your life much easier.
Generally speaking, the headphones that provide the best value lie in the $300-$400 range, but getting your fee wet with audio has certainly become a lot easier over the years!
The $300 or so range is what I like to call the audiophile sweet spot. Spend less, and you may have problems down the road. Spend any more, and you’re quickly delving into Diminishing Returns territory.
In the case of the former, you may experience the following:
- Ear-cups peeling/cracking.
- Headbands snapping.
- Ear pads falling off.
- The sound isn’t quite as detailed or open.
- Cheap cables 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 75-85% 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, of course, you can hear the grass growing.
Another thing to consider is the type of headphones you’re looking for. Closed back vs. Open back headphones.
Closed-back headphones isolate better than their open-back counterparts.
Because they’re closed off, allowing no sound to escape the backs of the earcups.
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 20s, I could stay up all night and mix on closed backs. I don’t think that I could do that nowadays.
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 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 closed-back headphones, and will generally provide a wider and more immersive soundstage.
- Related: What is Soundstage?
They are also generally 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 part of the track?” 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.
Something to also keep in mind is the intended purpose.
Are you looking for fun headphones 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 (to way more than 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 (most of the time) 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.
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.
Many of these are made for mixing/mastering and minimally coloring 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.
This is why I don’t particularly care for headphones like the K612 and even the 560S.
As well-tuned as both are, they simply fall flat (pun kind of intended) and just don’t sound as good to my ears. Neutral? Absolutely. Dull and boring? You betcha buns.
There are 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 mid and treble ranges.
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 PM-3 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?
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 is very inefficient and/or has a high impedance.
To know if you need an amp, you need to know the Sensitivity of the headphones 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 around 97dB and under is less efficient and needs more power from the amp to reach peak loudness.
- Related: What is Sensitivity in Headphones?
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.
- Related: What is Output Impedance?
Put another way, the output impedance of your amp should never exceed the impedance of your headphones.
- 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.
Here’s a video I did on the subject:
DAC Measurements: Do They matter?
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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 along, 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
- Entry level, critical listening, closed back
- Entry level, critical listening, open back
- Entry level, casual listening, closed back
- Entry level, casual listening, open back
($100-300) – The audiophile Introduction – Part 3
- Mid-tier, critical listening, closed back
- Mid-tier, critical listening, open back
- Mid-tier, casual listening, closed back
- Mid-tier, casual listening, open back
($300-600) – The audiophile sweet spot – Part 4
- Top-tier, critical listening, closed back
- Top-tier, critical listening, open back
- Top-tier, casual listening, closed back
- Top-tier, casual listening, open back
($600 and beyond) – The audiophile dream – Part 4
- Upper echelon, critical listening, closed back
- Upper echelon, critical listening, open back
- Upper echelon, casual listening, closed back
- Upper echelon, casual listening, open back
Whew! Strap on your seatbelts 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!
CONTINUE TO PART 2!!
[SKIP TO PART 3!!]
[SKIP TO PART 4!!]
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Good article, but I found a few inconsistencies:
“An amp is only necessary because (in most cases) the headphone itself has a higher impedance, thus needing more voltage to reach an acceptable listening level.”
That’s not entirely true. First off, headphone may have 2000 Ohms, but very high sensitivity so the resulting volume even from sub-1V sources is acceptable.
Secondly, as most recent models of headphones, an amp is needed as more of a buffer than an amplifier – to decrease the output impedance of a particular source to the lowest level.
There’s still this ongoing myth that high impedance headphone needs an amp. Bottom line, you can’t say that they do, unless the sensitivity is considered.
Also, I would have definitely listed Beyerdynamic DT-250 as a critical listening option. In fact, I prefer them over Senns HD-800S as far as their truthfulness.
Thanks for stopping by.
Notice how I said “in most cases.” You’re right in the sense that high sensitivity headphones pretty much never need an amp, but I would say that for the majority of time, a headphone that’s very high impedance is virtually never going to have a high sensitivity to go a long with that, thus it needs more power to perform optimally.
But to your point (and something I talked about in my 400i video) is that a headphone like the 400i has a low impedance but also has a low sensitivity which gives credence to your stance. It needs an amp; not because it has a high impedance per se, but that it has a Sensitivity of 93dB which just won’t cut it out of a phone and most mobile devices.
As for your point of “Bottom line, you can’t say that they do, unless the sensitivity is considered.” Perhaps you didn’t read the part where I clearly said “To know if you need an amp, you need to know how sensitive the headphones are, as well as the impedance.”
I linked two separate articles for people who would like further clarification. Also my article How to choose a headphone amp goes into the process in much greater depth.
Anywho, I will take into consideration the DT250. Thanks for pointing it out!
Hey Stu. Thanks for putting together this article. It is very practical, no-nonsense advice. As one who was headed down the rabbit hole, I really appreciate this. It’s refreshing to hear this perspective after reading way too many reviews from people probably blowing smoke. Your advice helped reground me. Hopefully I’m now an audiophile in recovery and can just enjoy the reasonably priced but solid equipment I have. Very happy with an O2 amp and HD6xx. Your articles were also quite enjoyable to read. Thanks again!
Hey Evan! Thank you so much 🙂 And my pleasure! So glad to hear this and glad it helped. I love that setup! Minimalist and perfect for most people. Honestly, man, that’s 98% of the experience if I’m being real. I do think there are upgrades (ananda is a perfect example) but diminishing returns always tends to kick in; even more for Amps & DACS beyond a certain threshold.
I have the Sennheiser HD 6XX. What AMP/ DAC can I use to power it. I currently using the Helm Jolt AMP DAC but it doesn’t connect to phones with Android 12. It would be extremely helpful if you can point me in the right direction
Hey man, so you have USB-C I’m assuming? My current recommendation for phones is the FiiO BTR5 and you can hook that up to your phone with a simple USB-C to USB-C cable. Here’s the article: https://homestudiobasics.com/fiio-btr3k-vs-btr5-vs-dragonfly-red/ Let me know if that helps.
Hello Stuart ? I’m gonna write a long post, for a purchase recommendation but I do have some specific criteria ? I’m looking for an open sounding, wide, relaxing, a tad warm but not bassy headphone that is comfortable to wear. Not being comfortable would be a deal breaker since I want this headphone to serves as therapy after a long day of work 🙂
I have Mojo and I’m not willing to change that part of my setup. I’m not obsessed with details, too many times “too good headphone” revealed to me what I didn’t want to hear in a song I liked and made my experience worse… I don’t want to judge recording, I want to enjoy music.
I listen to electronic music (not fast pace, mostly minimal, ambient, tech house… for example I love David August boiler room set, but enjoy NTO, Worakls etc. If that names ring a bell). I also like orchestral, enjoy chansones and some jazz and blues, but modern music also… I can find something in almost any genre but I’m not a big fan of metal for example… one thing to point out also is I noticed I enjoy vocals in general but prefer male opera and I have a special place in my heart for songs that have piano in them.
As a reference point, and although it’s IEM, I enjoy FR of etymotic er2sr but could enjoy just a touch more low end, although etymotic er2xr is too much low end for me…
When talking about headphones I can tell you that I din’t like senns 58x because thay were too “intimate” for me, it felt almost claustrophobic… one headphone I liked (although it was closed back) was Audeze Sine with chifer cable… I loved their sound with that EQ but just couldn’t get over comfort issue and I tried so hard to make them not hurt… on ear is no no ??
That’s it and any followup questions are welcomed, my budget would be around 500$ but can be stretched to closer to 1K if needed. Thank you ???
Hey man! Yeah, the Sine is an amazing headphone but I could never own it due to the comfort issue. I liked the 58X but it’s not as good as 6XX imo.
For your criteria, I’d strongly suggest looking into the Apos Caspian.
I think it fits what you’re looking for really well. Super comfortable, warm but not overly so, definitely not sterile, works for most genres and has just the right amount of mid-bass emphasis without going overboard. It’s also priced right where you want at around $500 and is a great value for everything you’re getting in the box. Check out the article and hit me back with any questions 🙂