Audiophile Headphone Guide
- Audiophile Headphone Guide
- Types of Audiophile Headphones
- Over-Ear Designs
- Earbuds and In-Ear Headphones
- Considerations When Evaluating Audiophile Headphones
- Sound Quality
- Comfort and Wearability
- Best Audiophile Headphone Brands
- B and O
- Top 10 Audiophile Models Reviewed
- AKG K240 MK II Open Backed Headphones
- Audeze EL-8 Over Ear, Open Back Headphones
- Audio-Technica ATH-R70x Open-back Dynamic Reference Headphones
- Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open-back Studio Reference Headphones
- Focal Listen Headphones
- Grado Prestige Series SR325e Headphones
- Sennheiser HD650 Headphones
- Shure SE846 Sound Isolating In-Ear Headphones
- Ultrasone Performance 860 S-Logic Plus Surround Sound Professional Closed-back Headphones
- B&O PLAY H6 Over-Ear Wired Headphones
Audiophile headphones offer the best sound quality headphones have to offer. While portable and wireless sets are great for some things, sometimes you just want to immerse yourself in audio and hear the music in ways only the best headphones can offer. If you’re like me and love to hear music at its best, this article is for you.
Just as there are many different types of earbuds, sports headphones, and wireless headphones, there are countless models of audiophile headphones. Why? Because audio quality is subjective and what sounds best to my ears may not sound best to yours.
Everyone’s ears, just like their personal tastes, are unique. For this reason, headphone manufacturers have to cater to many different audiophile needs. This is great for the consumer; however, because with so many choices, you are bound to find the right model that is the best audiophile headphones for your needs.
Types of Audiophile Headphones
The most common type of audiophile headphones is the over-ear or around-ear design. This type allows for the most surface area and gives the largest soundstage through which to present music.
Most audiophile headphones are open-backed as this allows air to flow through and gives you a sound that is more open and dynamic than most closed-back designs.
Closed-back designs keep the sound from escaping and this often causes a buildup in some frequencies. They can sometimes make you feel like the band is in your head as opposed to all around you. There are many, however, who require closed-back designs, especially those working in recording studios where headphone audio must be prevented from leaking into the microphones. Therefore, several excellent audiophile-level closed-back headphones are included in this article.
Earbuds and In-Ear Headphones
Personally, I believe that over-ear headphones are preferable for audiophile-level quality. But there are users who have to use earbuds, including musicians performing on stage, broadcasters, and many others.
For these, there are some amazing earbuds that provide audiophile-level quality in this format. Most of these are in-ear headphones, also known as in-ear monitors. These offer small size, excellent sound isolation, low visibility, and freedom of movement not offered in over-ear style models.
Fit is essential, though, and even the tiniest gap can ruin the sound quality of an otherwise fantastic set of earbuds. This is why most come with multiple-sized ear tips. Make sure you try them until you find the one that best fits. There are also many aftermarket ear tips in different sizes and made of various materials. It may take a bit of work to find the perfect material and fit, but the sound quality gained is well worth the trouble.
Considerations When Evaluating Audiophile Headphones
This is the most important aspect to consider. If you’re willing to spend the amount of money required to own a great pair of audiophile headphones, you want to find the best possible sound for the amount of money you spend.
You might think that with a flat frequency response and the highest quality, audiophile headphones would all sound similar. However, there is no way to be totally flat and all audiophile headphones sound different. This is the keyword, different.
You’ll find that once you get into audiophile level of quality headphones you won’t hear any models that sound bad. They will all sound good; they will just have a different sonic character or color. Some are brighter, while others are warmer, almost like different shades of the same color. Your goal is to find which shade you like best. There is no correct answer. It all depends on your ears. Don’t go with price alone. The most expensive may not be the best for your needs.
Comfort and Wearability
While the sound quality is important, you won’t be able to enjoy the sound if you’re constantly fighting with your headphones. You don’t want to have to adjust them, tug on them, or move them around on your head. So make sure you find a pair that is comfortable to wear for hours at a time. Most over-ear designs are pretty comfortable, at least for me. But some are more comfortable than others. This, like sound quality, is relative to the user as we all are different.
Audiophile headphones are an investment, one in which you don’t want to spend a lot of money only for them to tear up or break. Chances are you won’t be rough on your headphones, but it’s still a good idea to get a feel for them and evaluate their durability. Also, consider if they have replaceable parts. Some models have detachable cables that can easily be replaced. Others have replaceable ear cups. Some models even have completely replaceable parts.
Many people fall into the trap of buying with their eyes instead of their ears. What I mean is, don’t make the assumption that just because a pair is the most expensive that it’s necessarily the best. Also, don’t think you can’t get a great pair of headphones without spending $1,000 or more. There are great models under $500 and even great models under $200. Use your ears and find the best model for your needs. If you like something, then it’s right for you, whether it’s $100 or $1,000.
One thing about the best audiophile headphones is that past a certain price point, they will likely all be good headphones. Also, the difference in audio quality will be more subtle as you go up in price. What I mean is, you can easily tell the difference between a pair of $20 headphones and a pair of $100 headphones. You can also tell $100 from $300 or $500. But once you get above $500, the differences become more subtle, especially to less experienced ears.
I’m not saying the pair that’s $2,000 isn’t superior. It probably is. I’m just saying you should evaluate whether or not the extra $1,500 is worth the difference between a $500 model and a $2,000 model. After all, it’s a personal decision only you can make.
Best Audiophile Headphone Brands
Founded in Vienna in 1947, AKG has grown to become one of the world’s premier audio companies. They released their first headphones in 1949 and are still making innovations to this day. Their microphones and headphones are used in top recording studios, concert halls, and television and film studios throughout the world. AKG also has the distinction of producing the world’s first two-way headphones.
Best AKG Audiophile Top Picks:
- K712 open-backed headphones $499
- K240 MK II open-backed headphones $199
Based in California, Audeze has been making high-end audiophile headphones since 2008. Their products offer world-class engineering and the forward-thinking ingenuity that has made them a serious player in the audiophile market. Audeze headphones are known not only for their rich sound quality but for their beautiful visual design as well.
Best Audeze Audiophile Top Pick:
- Audeze EL-8 Over Ear, Open Back Headphones $549
Since 1962, Audio-Technica has been making electronic products for home and professional use. Originally known for state-of-the-art phonograph cartridges for turntables, they now produce world-class headphones, microphones, wireless microphones, and other electronic products. Their headphone offerings include in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones.
Best Audio-Technica Audiophile Top Pick:
- Audio-Technica ATH-R70x Open-back Dynamic Reference Headphones $349
- Audio-Technica ATH-M70x Closed-back Monitoring Headphones $299
Beyerdynamic has been making professional audio products since 1924. In 1937, they earned the distinction of producing the first-ever dynamic headphone, the DT48. Production of these continued until 2012. Today, Beyerdynamic makes top-of-the-line headphones, microphones, and tele/video conferencing products for recording, film, studio, live performance, and high-end consumer use.
Best Beyerdynamic Audiophile Top Pick:
- Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open-back Studio Reference Headphones $599
- Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro 250 ohm Open-back Studio Headphones $179
B and O
B & O, Bang, and Olufsen is a Danish high-end audio company that has been making quality products for 90 years. Known for their distinctive visual style and high-end audiophile sound, B & O makes top-quality headphones for audiophiles the world over. Their offerings include over-ear and on-ear designs with features such as Active Noise Cancelling, Touch Control, and Transparency Mode. B and O is also known for the quality of their construction, as well as wearing comfort.
Best B & O Audiophile Top Pick:
- B&O PLAY by Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H6 Over-Ear Wired Headphones $299
Focal, a company based in France, has been making high-end audiophile equipment since 1979. They make home audio products, car speakers, high fidelity headphones, and professional monitoring speakers for recording studios and television studios. Focal is an innovative company that strives to offer top-quality and unique listening experiences.
Best Focal Audiophile Top Pick:
- Focal Listen Headphones $249
Family run since 1953, Grado makes some of the best headphones in the world in Brooklyn, NY. Founded by watchmaker and later Audio Hall of Fame inductee, Joseph Grado, they came to fame through the design of audiophile phonograph cartridges. Today they produce a full line of headphones and cartridges. Their headphones are known to look as beautiful as they sound.
Best Grado Audiophile Top Pick:
- Grado Prestige Series SR325e Headphones $295
Shure has been making quality audio products since 1925. This legendary company is a part of not only American music history but national and global history as well. A Shure microphone captured Elvis when he first recorded at Sun Studio. Shure was also the microphone through which JFK announced he would put a man on the moon. In fact, Shure SM57 microphones have been on the President’s podium exclusively since 1965. You’ll also hear Shure microphones on famous albums in all genres. The SM7 was the mic of choice to capture Michael Jackson’s vocals on the bestselling album of all time, Thriller. Certainly, their headphones were used in many classic records as well. Today, Shure makes a wide variety of products including microphones, wireless monitoring systems, wireless microphone systems, headphones, and much more.
Best Shure Audiophile Top Pick:
- Shure SRH1840 Open-back Mastering and Studio Headphones $499
- Shure SE849 $899 In-Ear Monitors
Since its founding in 1945 by engineering professor, Dr. Fritz Sennheiser, Sennheiser has been an audio innovator, creating products that are used by professionals worldwide. Known for microphones, headphones, wireless systems, and other audio solutions, you’ll find Sennheiser products in recording studios, concert halls, sound stages, TV and movie studios, and professional sound installations the world over.
Best Sennheiser Audiophile Top Pick:
- Sennheiser HD650 Headphones $399
Handcrafted in Wielenbach, Bavaria, Ultrasone has been making quality headphones for over 25 years. They have been granted over 60 patents relating to headphone technology, showing how committed they are to making the best headphones possible. Ultrasone is famous for its ‘natural surround sound’ which is designed to reproduce the audio exactly as the artist and mix engineer intended. Their patented S-Logic technology uses natural reflections of the inner ear to create a larger sound stage that results in truer and more accurate sound.
Best Ultrasone Audiophile Top Pick:
- Ultrasone Performance 860 S-Logic Plus Surround Sound Professional Closed-back Headphones $229.00
I hope this article has shown you that audiophile headphones don’t have to cost thousands of dollars in order to be great. Check out some of these models reviewed below and find the right pair of audiophile headphones for your unique needs. Once you do, you’ll never go back.
Top 10 Audiophile Models Reviewed
AKG K240 MK II Open Backed Headphones
AKG K240 MKIIs prove that audiophile quality doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
They have a sound that is on par with much more expensive brands. Their frequency response is flat and ranges from 15Hz to 25kHz, with rich powerful bass, vivid clear mids, and shimmering highs.
K240s are also incredibly comfortable to wear. Their design is semi-open, giving you the best of both closed and open-backed designs. You get the isolation of closed-back, with the open sound quality of an open-backed pair of headphones. They are lightweight and durable, with leatherette and velvet earpads which feel great on your ears.
The headband is comfortable as well and the headphones are nice and durable. One thing I especially love about AKG headphones is how dynamic they are. The music seems to jump out at you. When a guitarist digs in and plays a little louder, you notice it on these phones.
An additional feature is a cable that can easily be removed and replaced. The K240 MKIIs comes with a 10’ straight cable and a 16’ coiled cable. All in all this a great set of headphones for an incredible price. If you want audiophile sound on a budget, these are a top pick.
Audeze EL-8 Over Ear, Open Back Headphones
When you pick up a pair of Audeze EL-8s, the first thing you notice is their striking visual appeal. Put them on, however, and all you can concentrate on is the beautiful sound surrounding you.
Planar magnetic technology gives you incredibly clear and accurate sound. The dynamic and clear sound is a result of diagraphs that are thinner than human hair. I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s true. The size and near weightlessness of the diaphragms allows for fast response times, quick attack, and a highly accurate transient response. All of this translates into highly detailed, clear, high-resolution audio, and an unbelievably accurate stereo image.
Patented Uniforce voice-coil technology is designed to deliver a highly uniform force across the diaphragm, resulting in almost no distortion. This, plus patented Fluxor Magnet Arrays allows for nearly double the power driving the diaphragm. This results in even lower distortion and greater accuracy.
While I can’t measure the distortion specs, I can say that these are some of the clearest and cleanest headphones I’ve ever tried. The stereo image is massive and accurate, and they give you an amazing sense of depth in the music you listen to. If clear, clean, and highly dynamic audio is what you’re looking for, EL-8s are an excellent choice.
Audio-Technica ATH-R70x Open-back Dynamic Reference Headphones
While not the first name many thinks of when audiophile headphones come up, Audio-Technica has consistently done a great job of putting high-quality audio in the hands of those on a budget.
In terms of bang for the buck, you simply can’t go wrong with Audio-Technica. The ATH-R70X is a fantastic set of headphones.
They feature 45mm large-aperture drives that accurately reproduce extreme lows and highs. In fact, their frequency response goes from 5Hz to 40kHz (keep in mind we only hear from 20Hz to 20kHz) and delivers a flat response across all frequencies. This makes them a great choice when accuracy is of the utmost importance.
They’re great for mixing, mastering, post-production, and editing, but they’re also perfect for audiophile listening. They are well built, ruggedly designed, and offer lots of bang for the buck. The cable is also easily removable and replaceable if something goes wrong. This is also an extremely comfortable headphone to wear and comes highly recommended to professionals who wear their headphones for hours at a time.
Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro Open-back Studio Reference Headphones
The Beyerdynamic DT 1990 perfectly illustrates why Beyerdynamic is a top choice in audiophile headphone technology.
They feature an open-backed design and specialized Tesla drivers which result in an open sound that feels as though the band is all around you. They have a flat and accurate frequency response that lets you hear the music just as the artist intended. Nothing is hyped or boosted. This doesn’t mean, however, that the sound isn’t powerful.
The DT 1990 reproduces sub lows and high, highs so well that the sound comes through naturally but is also powerful and dynamic. Two sets of earpads, one analytical and one balanced, are included and give you different sonic characteristics. Analytical is a great choice for editors, post-production professionals, and audio restoration specialists. Balanced seems to work better for mixing, mastering, studio production, and everyday listening.
Beyerdynamic headphones are known for their comfort and rugged design, and this set is no different. They come with two cables, one coiled and one straight, and a premium hardshell case. If I had to choose a set of headphones for mixing, I think it would be these. They sound amazing, have a flat accurate response, and are comfortable enough to wear all day long. This is just a fantastic pair of headphones.
Focal Listen Headphones
I have been in many recording studios which featured Focal’s high-end studio monitor speakers. However, only recently was I introduced to their incredible headphones.
Listens are feature-packed, with effective passive noise isolation and the option to use a regular cable or a cable with remote and microphone built-in. Both of these cables are included. Focal Listens come with low distortion 40mm Mylar and titanium drivers for an extended frequency range. I found these to be powerful and clear, with full accurate bass, distinctive mids, and plenty of high-end articulation.
Much like their studio monitors, Listen headphones are flat and accurate, especially for a closed-back design. For those who require closed-back headphones but still want high-resolution audiophile quality, this set is highly recommended.
The closed-back design keeps sound in while isolating you from outside noise. This is a plus for recording studios where it is essential to keep the headphone audio from bleeding into microphones. Not just for studio professionals, this is a great set for everyday listening.
They are comfortable to wear, with memory foam ear cushions that adapt to your ears. Microfiber lining breathes and helps keep you cool. I especially love the included hardshell case and the fact that you can have a microphone and remote when you need it.
This makes these a great pick for on-the-go use as well. If you haven’t experienced Focal headphones you really should give them a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Grado Prestige Series SR325e Headphones
When you pick up the Grado SR325e, the first thing you notice is the powder-coated aluminum housing and cool retro 60’s style design.
Far from a retro throwback, this is a state-of-the-art headphone featuring Grado’s signature sound. Grado headphones are famous for their midrange which is warm, colorful, and rich, without ever being anything other than clear and distinct. The top end is smooth, never brittle, and a joy to my ears. They sort of remind me of the sound of a fine tube amplifier.
The sound is no less high-fi, but at the same time is warm, rich, and pleasing to the ears. There is so much harmonic detail in these headphones. Nothing about them is surgical or antiseptic. They are natural, warm, and detailed.
These audiophile headphones are certainly not cheap. But compared to some of Grado’s higher-end models, they are much lower in price. It’s amazing then that they can somehow pack the famous Grado sound into a headphone in this price range. If you’ve never tried Grado headphones you definitely have to experience them to understand them.
The Prestige Series SR325e brings Grado’s superior quality within the reach of budget-conscious audiophiles.
Sennheiser HD650 Headphones
Sennheiser is known for making some of the finest headphones and audio equipment in the world. The HD 650 brings that quality to a mid-level audiophile price point.
Their sound is best described as natural, clean, and clear. With a flat frequency response and frequency range from 10Hz to 39.5kHz, they respond far beyond the range of human hearing. This ensures that the sub-low and high-end frequencies are accurately reproduced.
With their special elliptical design ear cups, they are especially comfortable to wear, even for hours on end. They’re also ruggedly designed and will stand up to years of use.
This set has been out for a long time now and has become a benchmark other companies aspire too. I’ve had a pair for at least ten years and they still hold up perfectly. I recently got a chance to compare them to a new HD650 and they sound exactly the same. This just goes to show that when you’ve got it right, you’ve got it right. It also shows how ahead of its time Sennheiser really is. Other companies are just now catching up. For the price, this set is worth every penny.
Check them out and see why Sennheiser is one of the top names in audiophile headphones.
Shure SE846 Sound Isolating In-Ear Headphones
Since some users require audiophile-level in-ear headphones, I thought it necessary to include at least one pair. But don’t think of these as a compromise which is the closest an in-ear can get to audiophile over-ear headphones—no, not at all.
In fact, these can go toe to toe with the best audiophile headphones out there. If you’re looking for a premier set of audiophile earbuds, these are a perfect choice.
Their bass is phenomenal with the richest, clearest, and lowest bass I’ve ever heard in an earbud. They are flat, accurate, and allow you to hear the sound just as the mix engineer and artist intended.
Not just great for bass, this model has clear, shimmering highs and vivid, detailed mids. A three-way distribution design processes the highs, mids, and lows separately, while dedicated low filter processes the sub-bass frequencies. They also do a great job of attenuating outside noise and offer 37dB of attenuation.
Ultrasone Performance 860 S-Logic Plus Surround Sound Professional Closed-back Headphones
Ultrasone is known for its S-Logic Plus ‘Natural Surround Sound’.
This isn’t surround sound in the sense of a 5.1 or 7.1 system. It is surround sound in the sense that the stereo sound seems to engulf you. That’s exactly what these headphones do.
Ultrasone headphones feature a decentralized arrangement of the transducers. In other words, the transducers aren’t aimed directly at your ears. This allows for a more spatial sound that is closer to the sound of speakers than most headphones you will try.
The S Logic design reflects sound around your outer ear before it reaches your inner ear. This gives the music more depth and more of a sense of spaciousness than ever possible with direct transducer designs. All of this results in a sound that is rich, pure, spacious, and enjoyable.
Your ears don’t fatigue with these headphones. It’s also worth noting that they feature a closed-back design without the “band in your head” effects of many closed-back designs. Studio engineers and others who require closed-backed headphones should definitely consider this model.
They are also comfortable to wear with memory foam cushions and a breathable design. The memory foam is covered with ultra-soft and highly durable leather. Most Ultrasone headphones are expensive and the fact that they have designed a model that features their proprietary sound at this price point is truly amazing.
They have a sound that is like no other. Be sure to check them out.
B&O PLAY H6 Over-Ear Wired Headphones
B and O headphones are known for the B & O sound signature. It’s hard to explain but it’s something you recognize consistently across their headphones.
The sound is well balanced and natural, while also sounding “real”. By this I mean they don’t sound surgical or too perfect. They sound natural and honest, the way a great pair of headphones should. Craftsmanship is top-notch on this pair.
Made from genuine leather and aluminum, they look as good as they sound. The headband is leather and the earpads are made of ultra-soft lambskin with self-adapting memory foam. They are also comfortable and lightweight.
This pair is a great choice for those who want the best audiophile quality with a few more features.
For example, this set has a built-in microphone that you can use for taking calls or giving voice commands to a cell phone, as well as an inline remote which lets you control your music on the go. There is also a daisy chain feature that allows another headphone user to plug into the H6’s 3.5mm input and share your music.
What’s most impressive about this headphone is how it captures the incredible B & O signature sound at a price point far below B & O’s more expensive models.