Audiophile headphones are custom-tailored for maximum fidelity and uncompromising performance. They are the créme de la crème of portable audio gear. As expected, such high quality has to come with an equally premium price tag. Indeed, if you are intending on purchasing a pair of audiophile-grade headphones, be prepared to spend a lot of money. The cost starts with the headphones themselves and extends to other parts of the audio chain. Even the best headphones in the world can easily perform at a fraction of their maximum ability, unless everything is of similar premium quality.
This article should serve as a comprehensive introduction to the world of audiophile headphones. It goes over some of the most important aspects and features of premium headphones and gives you an overview of the most respected brands and their products.
It’s best to think of audiophile sound quality as a path you embark upon, rather than the ultimate goal. That way, you will get to enjoy a fantastic hobby without feeling the need to constantly throw large sums of money at it. But enough with the introduction, let’s start our foray into the world of exquisite audio clarity and superb detail.
- How to choose the best audiophile headphones
- Best Audiophile Headphones and Brands
- What Are The Best Budget Audiophile Headphones?
How to choose the best audiophile headphones
Like any other type of headphones, audiophile headphones come in different types and construction variations. Musicians performing on stage have a completely different set of requirements than home listeners. That’s why manufacturers have to cater to a wide range of customers and their individual preferences.
Audiophile Headphone Types
Headphones are commonly subdivided according to the type of their construction and enclosure.
Earbuds – are the type that you are most likely to find included with your MP3 player or smartphone. They don’t insert all the way into your ear canal, but they sit relatively loosely in the outer part of your ears. They are compact, easy to use and usually cheap to manufacture.
Because of the low quality of many earbuds that come included for free as a bonus with many electronic devices, people wrongly assume that they are incapable of producing a good sound quality. That’s a big mistake. Premium, audiophile earbuds such as the Venture Electronics (VE) Zen offer very impressive sound quality and characteristics of open headphones. You will most definitely don’t find earbuds of that caliber included as a free bonus; they cost up to several hundred dollars.
The single biggest advantage of this type of construction over the more common in-ear type is how gentle they are on ears. As such, they are often sought after by people who suffer from ear infections.
In-ear headphones – insert deep into your ears and provide a good seal from outside noise. They are preferred by stage musicians and people who want a fantastic sound quality on-the-go. With in-ear headphones, it’s critically important to achieve a great fit. Even the smallest gap can completely ruin your listening experience; not to mention potential problems with comfort. Manufacturers often included several different pairs of replaceable eartips. If none of them works, you can also try third-party tips from companies such as Comply.
Good examples of high-quality in-ear headphones are the Etymotics ER-4, Klipsch X11i or the Shure SE425, Shure SE535. They offer exquisite sound quality surprisingly good value. Many in-ear headphones offer the same sound quality as 2-3x more expensive over-the-ear models.
The one negative that naturally comes with this type of headphones construction is how difficult it can be to achieve a good fit and comfort. It can take a while before you are able to find the right combination of headphones and eartips that will enable you to listen for hours without taking a single break. But we believe that the search is well worth the time.
On-ear headphones – are the least represented type of audiophile headphones. They stand right in the middle of excellent portability offered by earbuds and in-ear headphones and maximum comfort and sound quality associated with over-the-ear headphones. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a market for this type of construction. Headphones like the Audio-Technica ATH-ESW10 and the Grado PS1000 perfectly illustrate many possible advantages that come from the combination of relatively small size with large drivers.
Full-size (over-the-ear) headphones – represent the category of choice for most audiophiles. They offer an unparalleled listening experience with fantastic comfort and hand down the best audio quality money can buy – just be prepared to spend some resinous money. Many people consider the new version of Sennheiser Orpheus to be the best pair of headphones in the world. The cost of this headphone system? 50,000 euros. Of course, not all full-size headphones are that expensive. For example, the Sennheiser HD800 or the Ultrasone Signature Pro cost “just” over thousand dollars.
Closed-back Vs Open Headphones
Audiophile headphones show a strong preference for open earcup construction. With open earcups, air can pass freely in and out, which results in a better sound quality, greater level of details, and noticeably wider soundstage. There is basically no pair of audiophile headphones that is fully closed, expect for the very rare exceptions such as the Sony MDR-Z7.
The new Orpheus sound system from Sennheiser perfectly demonstrated that design matters. The system features a housing crafted from a real glass, a single solid block of Carrara marble and a stunning use of brass. All these elements are designed with a single purpose – to prepare the listener for a unique experience. This is not something exclusive to audiophile headphones. The same principle applies even when you take out your gym headphones and instantly feel how your blood starts rushing through your vein in an anticipation of another intensive workout. If you like how your headphones look, you will look forward to each listening session even more than you would otherwise.
No other aspect of audiophile headphones is more important than sound quality. You can expect all high-end headphones to provide you with an impressive performance and clarity. The main difference between individual models tends to boil down to their own individual sound signature. Simply put, each pair of headphones has its own sound “fingerprint” regardless of how much detail it can reproduce or how neutral its frequency response is. Some headphones produce a distinctly warmer sound, while others sound very analytical, if not almost surgical. Considering how much audiophile-grade headphones cost, it really pays off to take your time and carefully consider which model is the best one for you.
Audiophile headphones are not usually known for their durability. When you spend hundreds of dollars on a piece of audio equipment, you are expected to take a good care of it. It’s best to dedicate a special place just for the storage of your headphones. A high-quality headphone stand helps to protect earpads and the headband from damage and excessive wear.
If you own a pair of audiophile in-ear headphones for travel or stage performance, it’s a good idea to invest into a quality hard-shell pouch. Always avoid carelessly tossing them in your pocket. If that sounds like a too much hassle, it might be best to own multiple pairs of headphones, each for a different purpose.
If you are considering buying a pair of audiophile headphones, you should be prepared to spend some serious money. Most high-end models start at around $500 and prices can go up to thousands. Keep in mind that improvements in sound quality become progressively harder to notice the more you pay. It’s very easy to spot the difference between a pair of $50 headphones and $500 ones. The same may not be true about $500 and $5000 headphones. Try to avoid putting too much focus on the price tag. Always trust your ears and stay true to what they tell you. The money you save could be better invested into other parts of your particular audio chain.
Best Audiophile Headphones and Brands
Founded in 1947, AKG is an Austrian manufacturer of audio equipment. They were acquired by the American company Harman International Industries in 1994, and received Technical Grammy award in 2010. Their flagship model is the K812. AKG is known for their exceptionally comfortable construction and very pleasant airy sound signature. In fact, they were the very first company to produce a pair of open-back headphones, back in 1959.
Best model: AKG K812PRO Superior Reference Headphones
Audeze is a California-based high-end audio manufacturer founded in 2008. The company has a goal to remove the boundaries between artist and listener. Their products exemplify superb engineering, high attention to details and the best sound in the world. They were the first company to ever produce on-ear planer magnetic headphones – the SINE. Their EL-8 closed-back headphones offer sound quality that was unfathomable in this class just a few years ago. However, their newest reference standard planar magnetic headphone, the LCD-4, deserves the most attention. It features nano-grade diaphragms and unique Double Fluxor magnet arrays and a new suspension-type carbon fiber and leather headband.
Best model: Audeze LCD-4
Beyerdynamic is a German family owned audio equipment manufacturer that was founded in 1924. They are known for their innovative approach to design and construction of audio equipment they manufacture. Their flagship product is the T 1 headphone. They are designed to produce a faultless impulse fidelity and powerful, pure sound. Their drivers are able to produce twice the volume of regular models, which gives listeners a very high-performance reserve and margin from distortion.
Best model: Beyerdynamic T 1
If you are looking for the best in-ear headphones Etymotic Research is the company you should look into. Their first headphones were released in 1984 and used balanced armature receivers, which later became a standard for other in-ear headphones to follow. Their famous ER-4 earphones are produced in the US and channel-balanced to 1dB. The level of passive noise isolation they offer is absolutely unparalleled to anything else on the market. It’s no wonder that the company generated over 100 patents over its relatively short existence.
Best model: Etymotic Research ER4 MicroPro
HiFiMAN Electronics is a Chinese designer and manufacturer of audio products including headphones, amplifiers and portable audio players. Founded by Dr. Fang Bian in late 2005, HiFiMAN is also known for their Planar-Magnetic headphones that feature advanced driver technology. Their flagship headphones are the HE1000. They are world’s first headphones to feature a diaphragm measured in Nanometers. The resulting sound offers exceptional clarity and detail.
Best model: HiFiMan HE1000
Grado is an American company founded in 1953 by master watchmaker Joseph Grado. Their specialty is the design and production of open, supra-aural headphones. Headphones by Grado are easily recognizable thanks to their unique retro look. The GS1000e uses hand-crafted mahogany as the primary construction material. Needless to say that the headphones are a thing of beauty.
Best model: Grado PS1000e
OPPO Digital is based in the Silicon Valley, where they produce enthusiast-focused audio equipment. They are primarily known for their amazing planer magnetic headphones such as the OPPO PM-1. The one common characteristic of each and every one of their models is the distinct natural sound that engages listeners from the very first moment. The PM-1 feature a unique 7-layer diaphragm with double-sided spiraling coils.
Best model: OPPO PM-1
It’s probably not too much to say that Sennheiser is the best known audio company in the world. Founded in Germany in 1945, the company has factories and offices in many countries all over the world. They are behind many legendary models such as the HD 25, DH 595, DH 800, and, of course, the Orpheus sound system. The HD 800 is the ultimate goal for many audiophiles, as it provides incredible sound performance for attainable amount of money.
Best model: Sennheiser HD 800
Shure is one of the oldest audio manufacturers in the United States. The company was founded in 1925 and has managed to expand its offices into many countries such as China, Dubai, Mexico, and Japan. Besides headphones and earphones, they are most known for their high-quality microphones, mixers, and DSPs. The Shure SE846 is the highest performing in-ear headphone designed by the company. It features four MicroDrivers and detachable cables.
Best model: Shure SE846
What Are The Best Budget Audiophile Headphones?
Beyerdynamic T90 Tesla
Handcrafted in Germany, the T90 headphones are a very compelling product from a company with a history dating back to 1924, when it was founded by Eugen Beyer, who believed that the cinema presented a new opportunity in communication media. As the company evolved, they were quick to adapt to the ever-changing audio market, ultimately becoming one of the most recognized manufacturers of microphones, headphones, wireless audio systems in the world.
According to the company, “The T90 is the first high-end headphones with a completely open design utilizing our revolutionary Tesla technology.” This technology promises to bring together the feeling of closeness, transparency, and spontaneous listening enjoyment with the relativelyaffordable price of under…
HiFiMAN Electronics is a designer and manufacturer of audio products that cater to the higher end of the audio market. The company was founded in in New York City by Dr. Fang Bian in late 2005, and they have since started two small factories in China, where they are also now headquartered.
The newly released and redesigned HE-400i promise an audiophile-grade listening experience for a price that won’t make your wallet flee in terror.
Once we got our hands on the HE-400i, we immediately noticed several improvements over the older model, the HE-400. At just 370 grams (13.05 ounces), the headphones feel noticeably lighter, the headband has been redesigned for easier adjustment and greater comfort, and all materials feel…
Audio Technica ATH-W1000Z
Audio Technica, a Japanese company that designs and manufactures professional microphones, headphones, phonographic magnetic cartridges, and other audio equipment, created the Audio Technica ATH-W1000Z for home listeners who demand audiophile-grade sound quality for music, movies, and even video games. If the headphones look somewhat familiar to you, it’s probably because they are, essentially, an enhanced version of the Audio Technica ATH-W1000X, a year-old model that became hugely popular. In this review, we want to find out whether Audio Technica has managed to improve the…
NAD Viso HP50
Founded in 1972, NAD (originally an acronym for New Acoustic Dimension) is a group of audio industry veterans driven by passion for great sound and by the desire to cut through the marketing hype and overelaboration that had become pervasive in the audio industry, as described on their official website.
One of their latest products are a futuristic-looking over-ear headphones called Viso HP50. Their target is the audiophile with a limited budget but virtually unlimited expectations for sound and build quality. It’s the same customer who might be tempted to purchase the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 or other similar upper-mid-range headphones. But now, with the NAD Viso HP50 Over-Ear Headphones, there’s a good reason to consider going with a lesser-known brand…
Sennheiser HD 558
The Sennheiser HD 558 Over-Ear Headphones are audiophile-grade open over-the-ears headphones that promise to provide an outstanding bass and vocal projection. When you mix in Sennheiser’s traditionally high level of build quality and comfort, you get a recipe for success.
The 558s closely resemble other headphones in the 5xx range. High-quality plastic materials are primary building blocks used for the construction of these headphones, and we never managed to find a single flaw when it comes to build quality and general, everyday comfort. The lightweight construction and super comfortable earpads make these headphones a real pleasure to put on after a long day at work. It takes just a few minutes for you to…
Audio Technica ATH-AD700X
With their signature self-adjusting wing support construction, large 53 mm drivers with bobbin-wound CCAW voice coils, and a lightweight honeycomb aluminum casing, the ATH-AD700X are set fiercely compete with established brands such as Sennheiser. This short review will tell you everything you need to know to make an informed decision all by yourself.
The Audio Technica ATH-AD700X are full open-air type headphones that grab the attention of bystanders thanks to their timeless design and lightweight construction. They put so little pressure on your head that it can, at times, feel like they are going to slip out and fall down on the ground. Make no mistake, Audio-Technica knows how to make…
Grado Prestige Series SR80e
The SR80e are the next generation of Grado’s popular SR80 open-back headphones. It replaces the SR80i and we have no reasons to doubt that these headphones will sound just as great as the previous model.
The one thing that many people love about Grado headphones is how the company stays firmly faithful to their roots. The design of these headphones is basically the same as previous models. The simple leather band and open earcups with mesh-wire on the outside evoke 80s Lo-fi audio gear aesthetics. This simple design results in a…
Sennheiser HD 650
What are some common marks of audiophile headphones? Could it be the use of hand-picked components, special acoustic materials, and exceptional engineering? Sennheiser definitely seems to think so, because that’s exactly what they say about Sennheiser HD 650 Open Back Professional Over-Ear Headphones. With statements such as these, we are really anxious to see how they perform in real life.
The Sennheiser HD 650 are built without any compromises. They work best at home, where their 9-foot Y cable terminated with a 1/4-inch plug doesn’t feel out of place. It can, however, be easily replaced with one of many aftermarket alternatives. The quality of their build is another step higher from…
Unlike many other high-end over-the-ears headphones, the Beyerdynamic DT-770-PRO-32 Closed Dynamic Over-Ear Headphones are completely closed, which results in a fantastic sound isolation and many possibilities for night or library use. Their history dates back to the 80s, and it’s safe to say that Beyerdynamic had plenty time to tweak the sound of these headphones to a near perfection.
The Beyerdynamic DT-770-PRO-32 are a quite unique representation of closed headphones in the audiophile market. They were designed for use in a studio, but they feel just as at home outside as they do indoors. They rugged construction makes them seem to be almost indestructible, which sharply contrasts with the…