The 10 Best Audiophile Headphones
This wiki has been updated 31 times since it was first published in May of 2015. While high-fidelity headphones are a highly subjective field, some models stand out as the cream of the crop when it comes to accurate reproduction and clarity. They are often more basic in their functionality than their less expensive counterparts, but serious music fans will appreciate the quality of these audiophile-level options, all of which are highly regarded by experts around the world. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
March 27, 2021:
While you will find many modern headphone options that feature plenty of bells and whistles, such as Bluetooth connectivity, complicated in-line remote controls, noise-canceling technology, and equalization, audiophile cans are usually very basic, wired models, and their focus is purely on comfort and sound. In this regard, they are not best-suited to listening to music on the move, or for an immersive audio-visual experience, and often not even for studio monitoring, especially if they are open-backed, as in this instance sound leakage can be an issue.
With that said, our latest update introduces one model that is intended for studio use, namely the Austrian Audio Hi-X50. This relatively new brand founded by ex-AKG employees has been impressing with its quality products, and the Hi-X50 are the cream of their crop. We also liked the Beyerdynamic Amiron, which, unlike their industry-standard DT-100 studio reference headphones, are designed purely for leisure. These impress with their highly detailed sound that covers a frequency spectrum that surpasses the audible range of most human ears.
Finally, we included the Meze 99 Classics, which are, without a doubt, some of the most beautiful headphones, we have encountered over the course of our many reviews. However, this ranking is chiefly about the audio quality of the selected products, and these deliver on both fronts. We liked the fact that there is no glue used in their construction and all parts are serviceable, meaning you should get many years of listening pleasure from this affordable set. The only issue we had was that, given their high-end materials and construction methods, they didn't opt to use real leather for the headband, as some boutique manufacturers such as Grado do.
January 17, 2020:
Audiophile products are a decidedly subjective and personal topic. They're categorically more expensive than common headphones and, generally speaking, aren't useful for on-the-go listening. In fact, given the fact that they're generally in an open-back configuration, they're often not ideal for studio work. But, provided you haven't spent too much time standing next to overly loud speakers, you should be able to tell the difference between mid-range headphones, and those that cost several times the price.
Neophyte audiophiles might consider some less expensive models such as the Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 (formerly MrSpeakers), which, while unconventional in appearance, are quite comfortable, while being competitively-priced. The Focal Elear are in a similar price range, and come from a highly respected manufacturer of high-grade cans; the Focal Clear, while about twice as expensive, will satisfy all but the most demanding listeners. Then there are the Beyerdynamic T1 2nd Generation, which come in a handful of varieties with differing impedances; the 600-ohm version are widely considered to be the most sensitive, but they will require a powerful amplifier, so if you are a pro at pairing various components, they may not be right for you.
Venturing into the higher price bracket, your options open up considerably. The Sennheiser HD 800 S are all-around high performers, and well-renowned for dynamically-driven cans. The Sony MDR-Z1R, while even more costly, feature massive, 70-millimeter drivers that can push nearly any type of sound you desire. Their closed-back construction also lends them to studio use, unlike many others in the category. We also want to point out the Audeze LCD-X and Audeze iSine20, which come from a popular manufacturer of planar magnetic headphones, and the Stax SR-009, which are often called the finest electrostatic headphones in the world. Keep in mind, though, that these more specialized technologies don't sound quite the same as traditional dynamic drivers, and won't be right for everyone.
Sonoma Model One Warwick Acoustics only makes two pairs of headphones, and these high-end cans are considered some of the best in the business. They're hard to get your hands on, not particularly loud, and only sold by a select few dealers, but given their price, you'll probably want to give them a listen on studio-quality equipment before you purchase them, anyhow. warwickacoustics.com
Abyss AB-1266 Phi Some people call these the greatest headphones ever made, and while that is, of course, highly subjective, what's not in argument is how they're quite unconventional. They look a little, well, odd, and they don't clamp your ears like normal headphones, but rather float along side them in a very unusual way. Nonetheless, if you're a dedicated collector of high-end audio equipment, these updated cans are definitely worth a look. abyss-headphones.com
Sennheiser HE 1 If money is truly no object, check out these successors to Sennheiser's already absurdly expensive -- and unwaveringly famous -- Orpheus headphones. If your motto is, "He who dies with the most toys wins," then these should at least be on your list. Of course, they'll probably be at the very end of said list, because they cost about the same as a brand new family car. sennheiser.com
Grado SR325e Hand-built in Brooklyn, NY, the SR325e represent true quality and craftsmanship. As part of Grado's "Prestige Series", these open-backed, powder-coated aluminum cans are surprisingly affordable for a pair of audiophile-quality headphones. They are very sturdily-built, with earpads that rotate 360 degrees and they deliver highly accurate sound reproduction over a wide frequency spectrum. gradolabs.com
Inside Audiophile Headphones
Generally speaking, the smaller these two things, the less likely you're going to get a deep bass.
When you begin to look closely at the components that come together to form most audiophile headphones, you see that there aren't a whole lot of variables to adjust from brand to brand.
A signal is converted from its digital state by a dense magnetized coil of copper wire that vibrates a membrane, usually made of plastics, or fabrics, or a combination of the two, and that sound hits you in the ear along with the resonance of the ear cup itself. Pretty simple stuff.
What is it, then, that can make one pair of cans so much more expensive, or sound so much better, than another? At times, it can feel like distinguishing between two other cans: Pepsi and Coke. Sure they're different, but they're both just carbonated, flavored sugar water. Is either really better than the other (yes, one is better, and it's called Royal Crown)?
Well, since the primary point of signal conversion is that magnetized coil of wire, the quality of that magnetic field is about as vital as that of any other component.
Many nicer headphones will use neodymium magnets, which are touted as the strongest permanent magnet available on the market, though it's important to note that even these have their own grades to them.
Once it's all put together, things like the diameter of the main speaker, and the size and shape of the ear cup will all play a role in tonal quality and bass response. Generally speaking, the smaller these two things, the less likely you're going to get a deep bass.
To Tweak Or Not To Tweak
I hope your taste in music is eclectic. I really do. What we listen to says a lot about who we are, and the more musical styles we expose ourselves to with an open mind, the more we'll find to like. This will do nothing but make you a more interesting, well-rounded person. I believe it's inevitable.
This is the case with a tremendous amount of headphones produced for audiophiles in the past decade.
Eclectic musical tastes will also likely make you better versed in the equalizer settings in your car, on your phone and your computer. That Carter Family track is going to sound pretty strange if your EQ is set up to maximize your dubstep experience.
Each style of music thrives at its own equalization, and knowing what your new set of headphones is designed to play will tell you how you ought to tweak your EQ, for the best sound on your favorite tracks. You might find that a set with deeper bass is stifling the vital mid tones in your favorite classical pieces, so you can lower some of the bottom frequencies or boost the mids and highs as you see fit.
This is the case with a tremendous amount of headphones produced for audiophiles in the past decade. The advent of Beats by Dr. Dre has a lot to do with this trend, as those headphones came along and told the marketplace that it needed as much bass as humanly possible, whether it knew it or not.
It's taken a while for manufacturers to fight back against the empire of the lower case 'b', but companies like AKG and V-Moda are daring to reduce their bass output in favor of a clearer, more balanced sound.
If you only really listen to modern pop music, hip hop, and R&B, you might want to start out by sacrificing those mids for a booming bass and clear vocals. Most all other styles though will work best with something a little less artificially bass driven.
Communing In Private: On Headphones and Isolation
I was on a road trip once with my childhood best friend and his family, some time around the fifth grade. We each had the same CD in our respective Discman players. We got the discs spinning on track one at the 0:00 mark, and simultaneously pressed play so that we could listen together without bothering with the music on the car radio. It was a great bonding experience to be a separated individual in sync with your friend right next to you.
It was a great bonding experience to be a separated individual in sync with your friend right next to you.
That's because music is a communal art. We come together to make it and appreciate it. Of course, our tastes vary so wildly in today's endless musical expanse that it's increasingly difficult to share music without the fear of offending another, or embarrassing ourselves by openly displaying anything we like.
Now, headphones are neither the cause of our increasing social anxiety and alienation, nor are they necessarily an antidote for it.
When they first came around, headphones were a military device. Later, they entered the private sector through telephone and radio operations, but they didn't truly become a staple in our way of life until the advent of the Walkman in the late 1970s.
Now they're as ubiquitous as denim jeans, and the right pair can set you apart from the crowd in wondrous ways while you peacefully appreciate the finest nuances of your favorite music. Just don't forget to let someone else in the bubble every once in a while.