HomeThe BestThe Best Headphones for Rock Music [In Depth Guide]
January 11, 2018
The Best Headphones for Rock Music [In Depth Guide]
9/13/19. Added Ananda and Utopia to Open Back High End. Switched out 80e for 60e as it’s cheaper and sounds identical to the 80e. Added Sundara to Mid-Tier Open back. Added jump links to the Table of Contents.
1/25/21. Article/link cleanup.
4,100-word post, approx 9 min. read
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Hello there friend and Welcome aboard!!
This is part 3 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!
What is it about Rock music that enamors us? Ever since I can remember, I was a fan of it. Heck, I was raised on it! A guy I knew from college once joked that I heard the Rolling Stones’ “Rock and a Hard place” in my mother’s womb, and that was the only reason I liked it. Haha.
He was kind of a snob in a musical sense. That could have been one of the reasons that my music tastes changed from primarily listening to Rock to more Indie as I got a bit older. That said, I like Indie for what it is, as it satisfies me in a way that older Rock doesn’t anymore.
I’m also older.
There was a time when Classic Rock was it for me. But I think to some extent we kind of grow out of that phase, though I will always have a soft spot for bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin for what they symbolized as a teenager growing up.
Regardless, I’ll never forget my mom’s “Flashpoint” album, which had some of the Stones’ hits performed live. I actually like the album still, but it never received high praise from anyone in particular. I mean it’s just so 80’s man. Lol. You can’t deny that the graphic design on the album is extremely eye-catching. It’s not an image that’s easily forgotten, and I haven’t in over 25 years.
When I really got into Rock, it was because Marijuana. Haha. We all know the story. Get really baked, listen to Dark Side of the Moon. It’s a cliche now, but back in the day, it was just what you did. I’m sure there are plenty of kids coming up that are doing the same thing, so in that sense, it will never truly die out. Some other favorites included Wish you were here, and the spacey jam “Shine on you crazy diamond.” Perfect stoner song really, but it has a tragic backstory that I may write about in a future edit. I remember sitting in the car with some friends on a dark night. We were waiting for some weed of course, and someone had gone inside the dealer’s house. We literally sat there for what seemed like an eternity, listening to the entirety of the song. It was pure bliss. Lol. You know that feeling. When time slows down so much that you kind of just get lost in a trance, and then sort of “Come to.” When Christopher W. got back to the car, he was all like “What’s going on here?” And this is how we responded:
Go ahead, lose yourself. 😛
What I really like about stoner movies like Friday is that they depict this sensation so accurately. Well minus the whole talking head thing. Haha. When Ice Cube rummages through the pantry for a snack, time slows and when he comes to it feels like it’s been forever. This is one of the first noticeable side effects of being high for the first time, and “Friday” pretty much nailed it.
The Ice Cube Moment
I remember one time when I got my first apartment in College. I was playing Fallout New Vegas and had met this guy earlier in the day. He was kind of a burnout and was crashing at his girlfriend’s place right next to me for a while. He was a pretty down to earth dude but seemed lost. Weren’t we all though? He would tell me stories about taking Ecstasy, and though I was kind of fascinated by it, I had no desire to try it. I feel blessed that I never got into the harder stuff. I had an opportunity to do Cocaine once and turned it down. My friend Anthony who did not turn it down told me I had made a good decision. It was one of those nights where you end up in some random Ford Explorer and you have no idea how you got there. The type of night where you meet the old stoner red neck couple that can’t stop drinking light beer. Haha. I’m talking Keystone Light bad. Or Milwaukee’s Best. Take your pick.
But anyway back on topic.
Later that evening as I was having the time of my life trying to figure out how to defeat the Death Claws at Quarry Junction, I hear a knock at the door. “It’s like 11 p.m. on a school night, who the heck is bothering me at this hour? I’m trying to video game!” As I open the door, the skinny dread headed fella from earlier literally hands me a rolled fat blunt without even saying a word.
I be like:
So we smoked that fatty and I was so gone it’s not even funny. Like it really wasn’t. I walked back inside and over to the Freezer for my Ice Cube moment, no pun intended. Lol. I wasn’t even hungry yet, but I opened the freezer door and stared into it for what seemed like an eternity. When I came to, it was like I had woken up out of a sound sleep. No lie. I then began to chuckle out loud, you know that moment when you’re like “Man I am toasted, heh.”
The first time I got High
I will never forget it. Halloween night 2003. I was at my friend Joe’s house just chilling, waiting for the effect to kick in. Some people don’t get high their first time, but I sure wasn’t one of those people. Lol. So we were just hanging out when the phone rings. “Ah heck, I’ll answer it. It’s not like it’s the cops or anything.” I pick up the phone and it’s my friend Dennis’ mom. I was all like:
Hahaha I can’t even write this without laughing.
I liked his mom just fine, but it’s almost like a trigger went off. I wasn’t high before I picked up the phone, but when she was like “Hi Stu how are you?” I immediately got extremely high, and not in a good way. Lmao.
We talked for what seemed like hours. I swear it was at least 25-30 minutes. Not exaggerating. It was like the conversation was dragging on forever and ever and I got increasingly more paranoid the more we talked.
“She knows I’m high. There’s no way she doesn’t think I’m completely baked right now.”
The more she talked, the more I couldn’t even register what she was saying. All the words were completely jumbled and it was like she was speaking in a foreign language. At this point, I started panicking because I had no idea what to say or how to respond because I was having so much trouble paying attention because I was so high and Oh my God “I gotta go bye.”
Those were my last words to her as I hung up the phone faster than the speed of light. “Who was it?” Dennis asked. “It was your mom dude!” “Oh crap you hung up on her and now she’s probably on her way over!”
HAHAHA. Luckily she never found us out and didn’t drop by.
WHEW!! We can continue getting high! Lol. “How long was I on the phone with her dude?!” “About 30 seconds, why did you hang up so fast?” Hahah case and point. It felt like an eternity.
I have many more stories but it would take forever and this article would be like a million words long. While I don’t smoke anymore, some of the best times of my life (thus far) were when I was high. I know it sounds ridiculous, but when you’re stoned you remember those times vividly even though your short-term memory gets completely jacked. Kind of ironic in a way.
But I digress…
When it came to Classic Rock and the sounds of the ’70s, I was all over it for a certain time period of my life. God knows I was the Pink Floyd fan. Even my mom still reminisces on it to this day. I think at one point I had every single album they ever released for a little while.
Funny enough, I was never a huge fan of the Stones, but there was an album in particular that I thought stood out from the rest: Sticky Fingers. Man what a perfect album from start to finish. It’s got so much variety. From the dreamy and melancholy “Wild Horses”, to straight-up rockers in “Can’t you hear me knocking”, it was in my opinion their magnum opus.
Dennis and I used to listen to it on the way home from school while not getting extremely baked. Front to back, it’s probably one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. Many will disagree, but I just never got the same feelings from any of their other stuff. It might’ve been due to the fact that original guitarist Brian Jones was not featured, instead replaced by Mick Taylor. Even Jagger had some contributions on the guitar! It just had this vibe, man. Reminds me a lot of Santana.
Lol I used to replay that intro over and over until Dennis was like “Alright that’s enough!” “Play the song!”
Aside from all that nostalgic nonsense…
Well, I’ll tell you what I’m blathering about…
There are some considerations you need to take into account when choosing the appropriate Rock headphone for your specific needs. Let’s delve into it!
What is your budget? What are you looking to spend? Today we’ll cover some entry-level budget options as well as some higher-end offerings.
Are you looking for the absolute best? If so, you may have to spend more. That said, we’ll cover the best in specific price categories to give you a better idea of the overall picture. It’s also important to remember that “best” is a highly subjective term. What my best is may be different from another. Regardless, these options will start you off on the right foot. As I always say to people, if it’s your first foray into what’s considered “good”, you’ll likely be satisfied with any of the options I’m about to go over.
Portable vs. Studio. Are you looking for a Rock headphone that will pair well with a portable device, or do you plan on investing in an Amp, DAC, or both? More on that in a bit.
Closed vs. Open. Piggybacking off of that, there are some great closed-back headphones for Rock as well as open ones. Keep this in mind as well. An open back will provide a better overall experience, but you’ll want to be in an isolated environment. Because I don’t know your specific situation, I’m going over both today. Let me know if you have any questions! Closed back vs. Open back headphones.
Mid-range & Treble. For the most part, these are the two key ingredients to a good Rock headphone. You want clarity and detail first and foremost when listening to this genre. A good Rock headphone will provide both. The treble will be crisp and bright, and the mid-range very revealing.
But what about amplification?
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. What is Sensitivity in Headphones? 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.
What about criteria? Certainly, there are things to consider?
A good Rock headphone will provide all of the following:
Good bass. Not too deep, not too light. With Rock, you want there to be a happy medium. I personally prefer it to be lean. It sits down low where it should, and provides plenty of detail, accuracy, and articulation without becoming overbearing.
Good mid-range. This is perhaps the most important ingredient, as it will provide the clarity of the vocals and instrumentation. The mids can make or break a Rock headphone.
Treble. It’s bright, but not too Sibilant. What does Sibilant mean? It provides a nice crispness at the top, which ends up delivering excitement to the music. Very important.
Soundstage/Separation. I’ve found that the better the instrument separation, the more effective the details in the song become. This is true for most genres, but with Rock, it’s especially important. What is Soundstage?
Type of Rock. Generally speaking, the best Rock headphones should do well with a plethora of different types. Up for consideration here are Classic Rock, Indie Rock, Alternative Rock, Metal (and all associated acts), Progressive Rock (bands like Yes, Chon, Plini, etc.). If you have any additions please let me know!
Comfort and Durability. I put this last as it kind of goes without saying. I’m generally not going to recommend a headphone that fails to deliver on these counts unless the sound is just so good that I have no choice. A good example of this is the AKG K240 Studio. It’s extremely flimsy and almost feels like a toy, but the sound is absolutely magnificent so I will recommend it in certain instances. Learn more: AKG K240 Studio Review!
Okay, now we can discuss options. 🙂
Entry-level ($0 – 100)
Shure SRH440 (least amount of bass). As far as pure transparency goes, it’s hard to beat the closed-back SRH440. This puppy is extremely airy and open for a closed phone and provides a crisp top end with plenty of mid-range clarity and detail. Bass is light, but lean and provides enough of an impact to remain enjoyable for Rock. Learn more:Shure SRH440 Review!
Sony MDR V6/7506 (moderate amount of bass). A perfect all-around headphone. I’ve talked about this so much that I simply cannot do it anymore. Lol. Learn more:Sony MDR V6 Review!
Audio Technica ATH M40x(most amount of bass). A headphone with a little more bass than the above-mentioned models, this one thrives with a wide variety of genres including rock. Another great all-around can. Learn more:Audio Technica ATH M40x Review!
Note: I do prefer the V6 over the 7506, but if you were interested in a comparison: Sony MDR V6 vs. 7506.
Philips SHP9500. This has become my new favorite headphone, and in all honesty, it’s astounding how good this puppy really is, especially considering I got one for around $54. This is likely the only headphone you will need for quite a while, in the open back category or otherwise. The level of detail it provides is mind-blowing, and dare I say it could be a better overall buy than the venerable HD600. Some people may scoff at that notion, but I’m telling you, this is the real deal. It’s about as close as you’ll get to a headphone in the upper echelon and comes uncomfortably close to providing just as good of a sound. I mean they’re basically giving them away. Learn more:Philips SHP9500 Review!
Grado SR60e. I placed these second because build and comfort to an extent do suffer a little. However, between this and the 9500, it’s hard to make an outright recommendation for one over the other in terms of sound. These will provide a bit more bass slam, but still have an incredible amount of detail for a headphone at this price point. In fact, I’ve talked ad nausea about how this one provides about 95% of the Grado sound at a fair price. As you spend more and more, you’re getting less of a jump in sound quality due to the law of diminishing returns. Learn more:Grado SR60e Review!
AKG K240 Studio. These will need some sort of amp to sound their best, even at a modest 55 Ohm impedance. That said, they provide a lot of nice texture and nuance, and the bass is very lean. I thought these did excellent with Progressive Rock in particular. Learn more:AKG K240 Studio Review!
What about the mid-tier?
Mid-tier ($100 – 300)
Sennheiser HD25. Some of the fastest, most durable, lightweight, and portable headphones you’ll find. These are incredibly intense and exciting cans that won’t always be the most comfortable. Aside from that, they are perfect for rock. There’s plenty of bass slam, but it’s not bloated. This headphone absolutely destroys when it comes to rendering electric guitars as well (and really anything crunchy). Learn more:Sennheiser HD25 Review!
Sennheiser HD600/650. What can I say? The 600’s are probably the most covered headphone on this site. Great for all genres including Rock, but perhaps a bit too laid back for the aggression present in Metal. As far as an all-around buddy, it may be the only headphone you’ll ever need. Learn more: Sennheiser HD600 Review! The differences between the 600 and 650 are very subtle. The 650 is warmer and has a more lush sound with a bit of a meatier bass. That’s pretty much it. If you were curious: Sennheiser HD 600 vs. 650.
HIFIMAN HE400i. I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Over the Hills and Far Away” through the Bryston BHA-1 and a pair of 400i’s. It was almost otherworldly. Everything came through so crystal clear that it sort of made me feel a bit uncomfortable. It was as if I got a glimpse of Led Zeppelin’s collective soul, how they related to each other, and what they were like at their absolute core. For rock, these are a real treat. Learn more:HIFIMAN HE400i Review.
HIFIMAN Sundara. The Sundara is basically an updated 400i, with a better build, slightly better comfort, and a better overall sound. Highly recommended! Learn more:HIFIMAN Sundara Review!
Beyerdynamic DT880. The 880 is a more affordable alternative to the above-mentioned cans, with a brighter treble and a somewhat more clinical/surgical type of sound. Great for detail retrieval, supremely comfortable, and highly durable.
Let’s talk about some “high” end headphones before we wrap this up…
High end ($300 and beyond)
Audeze Sine. If I had to recommend one high end, closed-back On-ear headphone for the rest of your life, this would be it. If there were ever a headphone that provided an accurate instrument Timbre, this is it. What is Timbre? These are absolutely wonderful headphones that do well with all genres including rock. Prepare for an incredibly revealing experience. Learn more:Audeze Sine Review!
Audeze LCD-X. Plug this puppy into a good amp and be blown away. For rock? Forget about it. Some of the best headphones for rock bar none. Bass is perfect, mid-range is flat as a pancake, and the treble provides just enough to be sizzling without being harsh. Learn more:Audeze LCD-X Review!
Grado GS1000e. The 1000e is a detailed headphone on steroids. I especially enjoyed Yes’ “Starship Trooper” with these. Revealing to the point of being almost unreal. Worth the price jump? I would say no, but if money is no object these are some of Grado’s best. Learn more:Grado GS1000e Review!
HIFIMAN Ananda. This just may be the best all-around Planar Magnetic headphone for around $1000. It provides an extremely open, spacious, and airy sound with a great Soundstage and phenomenal resolution. For rock, these work really well because they have a fast response, crisp treble, flat mid-range with a bit of emphasis on 1k, and perfect bass. Learn more:HIFIMAN Ananda Review!
Focal Utopia. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like the Utopia. This headphone renders Rock music with startling accuracy, precision, detail, and clarity, to the point of simply being unbelievable. It’s really the perfect package but does cost a pretty penny. Learn more:Focal Utopia Review!!
What’s the word?
If I had to recommend one headphone from this entire list, I would go with the HIFIMAN Ananda. It’s really the perfect headphone for Rock in every aspect. While all of the others excel, there are caveats and potential issues with each.
In thinking it over, I kept going back to this headphone because it does everything right. Bass is neither rolled off nor boosted, which is what you want listening to the genre. You get a perfect amount of impact.
The mid-range has emphasis around 3k, which is great for bringing out vocals and instruments.
The treble is bright and crisp, but not too bright. Admittedly, it’s a tad hot (and I’ve talked about this a lot) but I’m really really nitpicking.
The soundstage is spot on, as the headphone is given ample room to breathe and express itself. Listening to this headphone feels and tastes like you’re chewing Winterfresh gum while skiing down a mountain in January. It’s just incredibly lively and refreshing without being invasive.
Along with comfort, tonal balance and resolution are also on point. The headphone is really the complete package and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
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.