HomeThe BestThe Best Headphones for Pop Music [In Depth Guide]
March 27, 2018
The Best Headphones for Pop Music [In Depth Guide]
3,633-word post, approx. 9-10 min. read
9/13/19. Removed outdated HD558 and replaced the 80e with the 60e as it’s cheaper and sounds identical. Also replaced LCD-XC with the Aeon Flow Closed. Added images.
9/14/19. Added Table of Contents.
1/25/21. Article/link cleanup.
<< If you enjoy this article, please consider sharing!! It really helps the site get noticed and is much appreciated!
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
This is part 5 in a 7 part series on Genre, which takes a nostalgic look at some of my personal experiences with various types of music, games, and pop culture over the years. Check out the others if you would like! Suggestions for how to improve? Contact me or leave a comment below!
This is going to be really embarrassing for me, but hopefully, you get some entertainment out of it! If you don’t care to read my ramblings/nostalgic trip down memory lane, you can skip over this obviously. 🙂
Pop Music matters, man.
Before I discovered Rap/R&B, Classic Rock, and Hip-Hop, I listened to Pop like everyone else. It was the cool thing to do. You remember the days of The Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, 98 degrees, etc. In fact, the very definition of Pop music is that it’s accessible to the broadest audience, i.e. it sells the most copies, draws the largest concert audiences, and is played the most often on the radio.
Pop really isn’t a genre technically. It originated in the mid-’50s in Britain as a description of Rock n’ Roll. The Oxford dictionary of music states the term “pop” refers to music by artists like the Rolling Stones. Huh? If you think about it, this is true. The Stones fit the criteria mentioned above, even though they are widely considered to be what “Rock” is. They are played on the radio a lot, they draw unthinkable audiences, and they’re up there in most copies sold (around 200 million).
Popular music is a little different in that it started during the Industrialization period of the 1800s. It’s music that’s most in line with the tastes and interests of the urban middle class. Bleh. Whatever that means.
I like to think of Pop as a sort of “Melting Pot”, (call it the Melting Pop) in that it borrows characteristics, elements, and ideas from other genres. Specifically:
It’s Vocal Harmonies are taken from Gospel/Soul.
It’s Form is derived from Sentimental Ballad.
It’s Instrumentation comes from Jazz/Rock.
It’s Orchestration comes from Classical.
It’s Tempo comes from Dance.
It’s Backing comes from Electronic.
It’s Rhythmic elements from Hip-Hop.
It’s Spoken Passages from Rap.
Looking at Pop in this way, it’s easy to see that it’s kind of everything at once. In 1967 the term was increasingly used in opposition to Rock, but that’s only because Hippies. Lol.
Some say Pop is a matter of enterprise and not art. It’s more commercial, ephemeral, accessible, and designed to appeal to everyone. It doesn’t come from any particular place or work off of any particular taste. It’s not driven by ambition, but by profit and commercial reward. In other words, it’s like a Ginger and has no soul. Just kidding.
Haha. Good old Copper Cab. Aside from that..
Why is it so embarrassing for you to talk about Pop Music?
Pop music and I have a strained relationship.
It was a dark and stormy night during late Summer of 1999. I was curled up on the bottom bunk of my bed listening to Sugar Ray and holding my Teddy Bear.
I suppose that’s not too embarrassing, aside from the fact that I was holding a Teddy Bear and listening to Sugar Ray.
I was 12 years old and interested in love, okay? The problem was that I could never find it. It seemed like I was the outcast, even though I knew some cool kids and had friends. I was actually quite handsome if I do say so myself, but the girls didn’t think the same. They were never interested in me for some reason. I just wasn’t bad enough yet. I had yet to channel my inner Copper Cab. Or that time Tommy from Rugrats turned bad in “Rebel Without a Teddy Bear” because he thought his mom took his Lion named Herman away from him when in reality she was simply cleaning it for him because he tried to clean it with Mustard and she was just trying to be a good Mom and Oh my God run-on sentence.
“HIS NAME IS HENRY!”
But darn it I loved me a good love song, and still do! Listening to Sugar Ray was my comfort zone, and we all love those good old comfort zones, right? To be fair, the album had some really good songs (Someday, Falls Apart, Every Morning) but most were flat-out duds. It’s never a good sign when you’re constantly asking, is the album over yet? I’m at 37:05 and can’t wait until it stops.
It came at a time when Sugar Ray, like most mainstream artists, decided to scrap their original sound in favor of a more poppy tone, given the massive success of “Fly” off of the previous album. Read: Incubus followed a similar path. It doesn’t really work that well because it’s trying to be like 8 different things at once. Oh well. There are lots of things about my childhood that don’t make sense. Add Sugar Ray’s “14:59″ to the ever-growing pile.
Back then I had a friend named J.J. Bishop. He was always ranting and raving about teh Smashing Pumpkins, and I never took heed to his word. Why? Because Sugar Ray dude. Years later I would find out that the Smashing Pumpkins are what I was supposed to be listening to; not all this mindless drivel that I’m currently talking about. Sheesh.
That said, there was an extreme low point for me. Aside from Will Smith’s “Willenium”, Limp Bizkit’s “Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water” and Kid Rock’s “Devil Without A Cause” there was another album that I’m a little ashamed of owning.
It was LFO’s “LFO” released August 24th, 1999. I was just.. but I.. it had some good.. it wasn’t that…
Why? Why did you purchase that album man?
I can’t really tell you why.
Actually, now that I’m revisiting it again for the first time in over 19 years, it kind of holds up as a quintessential pop album. Well maybe not that good, but it’s good! You like! Sure, it was super corny at times (the song Every Other Time is pretty cringe-inducing), but there were some gems as well, including “Girl On T.V.” which is Rich Cronin’s love song to then-girlfriend Jennifer Love Hewitt. How could you cheat on such a gorgeous man! Ugh.
Unfortunately in browsing the Internet, I found out that Rich died of Leukemia in 2010, and another band member Devin Lima currently has Stage 4 cancer. Well, that escalated quickly. I was in a great mood and now I’m just like…
It makes you really stop and think about your own life and hopefully makes you grateful for what you have. Rich’s last song contained the lyrics:
“I was obsessed with this chase for wealth/’Til the doctor said, ‘Rich, it’s about your health. Your blood’s messed up, it don’t look good/I couldn’t stop time, but I wished I could.”
He would die just days/weeks later.
Listening to “Summer Girls” back then made me long for a girl to call my own. To this day people still talk about that jam, and for good reason. It was what Pop should sound like, even though people called it corny at the time. Yeah, it’s a bit cheesy, but it’s Pop in its most unabashed form, and that’s what people appreciate about it almost 20 years later.
With that, let’s get into why you’re actually here. 😛
Budget. How much are you willing to spend? Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to ascertain whether or not a headphone is good for Pop. We’ll take a look at some affordable options as well as some higher-end gear today.
Other than that, choosing a good headphone for Pop is fairly straightforward, but..
Should you get an Amp or DAC?
An Amp: If your headphones have a high impedance and/or low Sensitivity, they’re going to resist power and not be as efficient. Impedance is a measure of resistance and Sensitivity is a measure of efficiency. Generally speaking, anything around 97dB and lower is not very efficient and needs more power from the amp to perform optimally. Anything with an Impedance over 100 generally tends to resist power quite a bit. It really just depends on the headphone in question. Contact me for clarification!
A DAC: A Digital to Analog converters job is to convert the 1’s and 0’s from your computer, into an analog sound that you hear (and vice versa). During a microphone recording, the computer takes the analog (your voice) and converts it into data that it can understand (1’s and 0’s). Basically, either of these exchanges is always happening depending on what you’re doing. The only reason you would upgrade a DAC is if your existing one is crappy. You’ll know because it either won’t be loud enough or just generally sound bad (noise, crackling, etc). What is a USB DAC?
For low impedance headphones, the Sensitivity will usually be fairly high, resulting in a can that generally does well with mobile devices. That said, the quality of the song will still largely depend on the source file, as well as your DAC.
For instance, if you have a bad DAC and buy an amp, you’ll only be magnifying bad sound by raising the volume level. This is why it’s important to consider just what you will need and not need.
At the end of the day though, I’m nitpicking a little. Most entry-level closed backs will sound great and the discrepancies in sound quality are somewhat marginal when you’re starting out.
Now let’s get into the meat of it!
Bass. Here our options are varied. Pop sounds very good with heavy bass as well as bass that’s on the more neutral side. I enjoy Indie Pop especially with a wide range of headphones. So we’ll be cognizant to include an array today, not just some that are more bass oriented.
Treble. There has to be some excitement in the treble, but I’ve found that even with a darker headphone like the HD600, Pop sounds fantastic. It’s more about overall detail than sparkle in my opinion, but some of that is fine as well.
Mid-range. I’ve found that a good, balanced mid-range is ideal, but if the headphone is more V-shaped (with recessed mids) it’s not as big of an issue as it would be with other genres.
Soundstage/Instrument Separation. This is always one of the more important traits of a headphone, as it will give you more of an out of body, 3D type of experience. If you’re used to headphones that don’t get this right, i.e. sounds stacking on top of each other, you’re in the right place!
Comfort/Build. Obviously, we want these two things, but I can forgive headphones that aren’t quite perfect in this regard. After listening to countless headphones, I’m of the mindset that if the build is a little off, I can deal with it. If comfort is a little off, it’s a bit more of a concern, but still not a deal-breaker. That said, all of the headphones I’m about to list will be pretty comfortable, but you’re always going to have to take breaks every so often. It’s just the nature of the beast. There are a couple of exceptions, and we’ll get into that in a bit. 🙂
Now it’s time for the moment you’ve all been waiting for…
Yeah, that was a bit anti-climatic, but work with me here. As usual, I’ll split this up into 3 categories: Entry Level, Mid-Tier, and Top Tier. If you have any suggestions, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments!
Entry Level ($0-100)
Philips SHP9500. Yep, it’s the headphone I always recommend along with the V6. Great for most genres, with an incredibly open, airy, and detailed sound. As an open back can, this is perhaps the closest you’ll get to a higher-end headphone, specifically the HD600. I talk much more in-depth in my review and video about this relationship. Learn more:Philips SHP9500 Review!
Grado SR60e. Handmade in Brooklyn by Grado Labs, this headphone is a real treat to listen to, with its fast transient response, articulate bass (with impact), and a phenomenal sense of detail. The G-cushions provide a nice comfort level, and Soundstage is pretty remarkable for a headphone under $100. Learn more:Grado SR60e Review!
Sony MDR V6. Perhaps the best buy you could make in regards to mixing/mastering/reference, this headphone has been around since the mid-’80s and for good reason. You can never go wrong in purchasing a pair, and I’m convinced every engineer should have one lying around. Learn more:Sony MDR V6 Review!
Audio Technica ATH M40x. This may be your go-to option in this price category. It’s about the best overall sound in terms of enjoyment that exists at this level or any other. Not quite as bass-oriented as a 50/50x, but what’s there is magnificent. Learn more:Audio Technica ATH M40x Review!!
Status Audio CB 1. Yeah, this is a worthy entry into the lineup and has a marvelous Soundstage given that it’s a closed-back. What is Soundstage? It’s also got some great detail and instrument separation, with a bass similar to the 40x’s but maybe a bit less controlled/cohesive. Learn more:Status Audio CB 1 Review!!
How about a step up?
Beyerdynamic DT990. A fantastic bass oriented headphone that still somehow sounds spacious and detailed. The DT990 is an easy choice for all things that involve lots of impact, but they’re also more than good enough for, well, anything really. Learn more:Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro vs. Premium!
Sennheiser HD600/650. The 600’s are my go-to headphones for an all-purpose set and will do fantastic with Pop as they provide an extremely detailed mid-range and incredible instrument separation. Learn more:Sennheiser HD600 Review!
HIFIMAN HE400i. This is a warmer sounding headphone than the HD600, but also has incredible detail, a bit more bass, and somewhat of a brighter treble (though still not harsh). An excellent choice if you’re looking for a signature like this. Learn more: HIFIMAN HE4ooi Review!!
Sennheiser HD25. These would make a great portable option because they’re lightweight but extremely durable. I’ve talked ad nausea about this in my videos, and even went so far as a Stress Test! 😛 You can see that in my review. Other than that, the sound is extremely intense and exciting, which does well for more upbeat, EDM type of pop music with heavy bass and a fast sound. These handle fast music with relative ease and therefore are a great option for DJ’s, Metal music, Pop, Rap, and anything of the like. If you’re looking to be blown away, look no further. Learn more:Sennheiser HD25 Review!
V-Moda Crossfade M100. Perhaps the best pure bass head can out there, the M100 is sure to satisfy. This is purely a fun listen, but what surprised me was how detailed it is, being closed back and being a V-shaped signature. The bass has plenty of impact but really doesn’t get out of line which I really appreciated. Learn more:V-Moda Crossfade M100 Review!
Beyerdynamic DT770. A similar-sounding can to the DT990, this closed-back beast is extremely well respected among audiophiles, and for good reason. It’s got an incredibly exciting sound and has plenty of bass for your needs. That’s really all there is to say. Learn more:Beyerdynamic DT770 Review!
Audio Technica ATH M50/50x. Yeah, I will still recommend these because they are extremely fun to listen to regardless of the hate they’ve gotten in the past few years. I’ve had a pair of M50’s since January of 2013, and they’re still going strong to this day. The 50x improved upon the sound by adding a detachable cable, more bass, and less harsh of a treble. All wins. I got a chance to try out a pair and the differences aren’t earth-shattering, but they are there. Learn more:Audio Technica ATH M50 Review!
PSB M4U. Just ignore the weird name. These are fantastic for bass heavier genres but have a more balanced sound than something like the M100. I enjoyed them so much upon demo, that I had a hard time even taking them off my head! Learn more:PSB M4U Review!
How about some high-end homies?
Top Tier ($300 and beyond)
Audeze Sine. These headphones have some of the best instrument Timbre that I’ve personally heard. What is Timbre? I’m fully convinced that the Sine is one of the most balanced headphones around, with a lot of detail and a smooth overall sound. Learn more:Audeze Sine Review!!
Audioquest Night Owl. An extremely fun headphone that sounds smooth, detailed, and is extremely comfortable with a great build. Learn more:Audioquest Night Owl Review!!
Bowers & Wilkins P9. I didn’t like the P7 much and wasn’t expecting a lot out of the P9, but boy howdy do these puppies ever deliver. A marked improvement over their predecessors, the P9 cleans up the sound considerably, as it’s less stuffy, and the bass isn’t flabby or bloated. Learn more:Bowers & Wilkins P9 Review!!
Sony MDR Z1R. Whew! It’s astounding how open this headphone sounds considering it’s closed back. Perhaps one of the most natural signatures I’ve heard, music really comes to life while also not becoming overbearing. Learn more:Sony MDR Z1R Review!!
MrSpeakers Aeon Flow (Closed). This is honestly in my Top 5 of best headphones I’ve personally ever heard, and certainly, the best closed back I’ve tried. Pair this puppy with a Chord Mojo and prepare to have your face melted off. It’s really that good. It has this warm detail that strikes an absolutely perfect balance. Add to that its comfort is probably the best I’ve ever experienced and you’ve got yourself a winning combo. Learn more:MrSpeakers ÆON Review!
Simply put: This is the best sounding around-ear, sealed, headphone I’ve heard to date. Tonal balance is spot on but for a very slight emphasis 5-10kHz. The bass is tight, well balanced, and does not bleed into the mids. Transition to mids is seamless and excellent. The midrange is excellently balanced; vocals and overtones are very well proportioned giving voices just the right sense of presence and ease simultaneously. Treble is terrifically proportioned as well; cymbals and snares sound very natural. Tyll Herstens, Inner Fidelity
Audeze LCD-X. Yup, this headphone is one of the best I’ve ever heard, to be honest. Audeze really has nailed the perfect sound signature. Low, rumbling, coherent bass, perfect mid-range, and a darker treble make for an unbelievable listening experience. Learn more:Audeze LCD-X Review!!
Focal Utopia. This beast costs $4000 big ones, but is it worth it? Considering that it is the best and most natural headphone I’ve personally heard, the price may be justified. Would I pay it? It’s hard to say. I probably would not pay full retail but would shell out over a grand for it if I had the money. Learn more:Focal Utopia Review!!
So what’s my recommendation?
Recommendation & Final Word
If I had to recommend just one on this list for Pop, I would go with the Aeon Flow closed. It’s as close to perfection as you’ll find, while also being efficient enough to work out of a mobile device if you don’t want to buy an Amp/DAC right away. It’s also wonderfully built and extremely comfortable; perhaps the best all-around headphone I’ve ever come across. Don’t believe me?
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.