There are more companies than ever before producing audiophile-quality headphones. The surge in interest has grown beyond the headphile community and the increasing number of consumers attending personal audio trade shows around the globe has taken what was once a small cottage industry and created a multi-billion dollar category.
The rising level of quality has also brought with it skyrocketing prices for headphones; consumers can easily spend $10,000 on a headphone system. The reality is that for some music listeners, however, a high-end headphone system offers numerous advantages over a comparable home audio system; portability, less use of space, and comparable, if not better sound quality.
With so many expensive headphones flooding the market, it’s become difficult for consumers to keep up or even know if spending a lot of money makes sense for them. Most high-end headphones require a dedicated headphone amplifier, or DAP (Digital Audio Player) to justify the expense, which is something else to keep in mind. We totally understand if the prices affect your breathing and not just your aural satisfaction.
1More Triple Driver Over-Ear
If your budget maxes out at $200, these are the most balanced sounding audiophile dynamic headphones on the market. 1MORE has a great track record of producing affordable audiophile headphones. The closed-back Triple Driver Over-Ear offer high levels of resolution, detail, and tight bass for the asking price. If you are looking for an easy-to-fold pair of headphones for the plane that can be driven by your smartphone, these are the ones to get.
Planar magnetic headphones have driven a lot of the newfound interest in the audiophile personal audio category, and HiFiMan has been at the tip of that spear for many years with models ranging from $499 to $50,000. There is a lot to admire in the sound quality and uniqueness of the more expensive HiFiMan headphones, but the Sundara might be our favorite for its transparency, punchy bass response, midrange resolution and overall comfort. You can wear these for hours without feeling fatigued, but keep in mind that they are open-back headphones that will allow everyone to be jealous…hear what you’re listening to.
Grado Labs RS1e
Grado Labs invented the stereo moving coil phono cartridge, but this Brooklyn-based family business has become a lot more famous for its affordable open-back headphones with a very distinct look. Grado toughed it out during the dark days of digital and the unexpected boom in both vinyl playback and personal audio has allowed them to invest heavily in new driver technology to compete with all of the new brands. The RS1e are the embodiment of the Grado house sound that certainly favors rock and detail freaks. The gorgeous wood earphone cups add some necessary warmth to the tonal presentation and there is a visceral feel to the music that can be quite intoxicating.
B&W P9 Signature
Bowers & Wilkins manufactures some of the world’s most revered active and passive loudspeakers and have taken a slow and steady wins the race approach to their headphones. If you’re looking for a very clean sounding pair of headphones with great detail retrieval and decent bass response, the P9 Signature are an easy recommendation. They fold up easily for the business traveler or commuter and don’t require a lot of power to sound their best.
Sennheiser HD 800 S
For many years, the original HD 800 sat on the iron throne in the world of headphones. They were revered for their reference-level neutrality and transparency. For some people, they were too much of a good thing; hence the interest in the warmer sounding planar magnetic headphones that ripped off its crown. The HD 800 S are a revised version of the over-the-ear open-back Teutonic classics with new driver technology, even better construction quality, and a much smoother presentation that is world class on a lot of levels. The HD 800 S require a comparable headphone amplifier to justify their asking price, but get the combination right and these are sonic nirvana.
Beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro
Beyerdynamic has a long and distinguished track record building some of the best studio headphones in the world and the DT-1990 Pro might be the best value in open-back headphones if you prefer their tuning. Their greatest strength is the overall balance of their presentation which makes them easy to listen to for hours. The open design sounds incredibly spacious and you can modify their tonal balance by switching out the 2 sets of provided ear pads and decide for yourself which one sounds best. Built in Germany, the DT-1990 Pro can handle the abuse of day-to-day use and are inexpensive for what they offer.
MrSpeakers Ether 2
MrSpeakers was one of the first planar magnetic headphone manufacturers to emerge from the Head-Fi community, with its modified versions of Japanese Fostex headphones, but after a decade of innovative design and perseverance demonstrating it wares at audio shows around the globe, this brand has earned the right to call itself ‘A’ list. The Ether 2 utilize their proprietary planar magnetic drivers and deliver layers of resolution, detail, and transparency that is category leading by any standard. The Ether 2 are also very lightweight for the category making them ideal for long listening sessions. Drive them with a great sounding headphone amplifier to truly appreciate their sonic magic.
Focal is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of loudspeakers, and their proprietary beryllium drivers are used in some of the most expensive loudspeakers money can buy. Their $3,000 asking price is rather steep for a pair of closed-back dynamic headphones, but it’s hard to argue with the build quality, comfort, accessories, and reference-level sound quality. The Stellia is for the music listener who wants to hear everything; which may or not be a good thing depending on the quality of your source or music. The Stellia deliver deep bass but it’s more cerebral than visceral. One major plus – their low impedance makes them smartphone friendly.
Meze Audio Empyrean
Meze Audio is a small headphone manufacturer based in Romania, but they have become a household name in the audiophile category. Having established their credibility with their affordable and award-winning Classic 99 headphones, Meze spent the past few years developing their planar magnetic Empyrean which takes a backseat to very few headphones at any price level. Offering almost hypnotic imaging and midrange resolution, the Empyrean is only limited by the quality of the amplifier that you connect them to. Meze Audio knew that their $3,000 statement had to look the part as well and this is industrial design at its finest.
Audeze were at the forefront of the planar magnetic revolution and have been subjected to more praise and abuse than any other brand in the category; something that happens when you push the envelope with radical driver technology but also charge $4,000 for a pair of over-ear, open-back headphones. Audeze headphones energize the music like few other products, but often feel like you’re wearing a suitcase on your head and require a lot of power. The LCD-4z sound better with a higher quality headphone amplifier but sound just fine with a smartphone or DAP and we approve of the lighter design. Did we mention that they are $4,000? That.
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