Major update in 2015. Minor updates in 2018. You should expect this page will become dated over time. I am not closely following the headphone marketplace now that I have a system that is working well for me. In 10 years it might be time to update my equipment, at which point this page will get a major overhead.This used to be part of my opinions on stereo equipment.
Sections: Headphones / Headphone Amps / DACs and other sources / Portable Players / About Mark / Related Links
The best source of information is your EARS. Form your own opinions, don't just accept what other people say. Believe what your ears tell you when listen to music! Remember that many people who write about audio or who are caught up in head-fi mania are biased in one way or another. Beyond that, There is often a lot of hype to justify very expensive equipment and the perpetual upgrade switch around game. You might want to use some of the information from the community to help you narrow down what you would like to take a first listen, but you need to listen for yourself.
Purchase what sounds good to you. There is no reason to spend $15,000 on a high end system if you don't notice significant difference between it and a $2000 system, or for some people, a $200 system.
I would suggest doing blind A-B testing whenever possible. Blind A-B is were you do back-to-back comparisons of two (or more) pieces of equipment, but have no knowledge which is which. When doing blind testing it is important to vary only one thing. For example, when you switch amplifiers, you need to make sure the output levels are equivalent. This is possible if someone is willing to switch equipment around, not telling you what they are doing, while keeping a record of the sequence used. This said, 30 minutes of blind AB testing in a showroom is not a sufficient. You really need numerous hours to fully evaluate a piece of equipment. Also remember that you get used to a particular sound signature so you need to have enough time to get use to something that sounding different.
I have found that knowing what equipment I was listening always tainted my evaluation of the equipment. In particular, I tended to favor well regarded equipment (e.g. more expensive) even when I couldn't tell a difference in blind testing. There is a nice write up about blind vs sighted testing and the bias when people know what they are listening to.
Make sure whatever you are comparing have been volume matched. Higher volume is almost always favored. There are very fancy way to attempt to volume match to components, but a good starter method is to play pink sound through the system while placing the microphone section of the ear buds that likely shipped with your smartphone inside the the headphones and use a sound level meter application to measure the volume of the pink noise. Adjust until volumes match.
When evaluating new equipment you should listen to music you know well. Ideally music that you have heard live. I have found that female vocalist, percussion, piano, violin, and cello solos are particularly helpful in evaluating equipment for good timbre. Choirs with a large orchestral backing can help you determine how the system renders very complex sounds. There are a number of audiophile recording companies like Chetsky have samplers which can be quite useful and companies like hdtracks which specialize in high fidelity records. Audicheck.net also has some useful audio tracks. I would suggest though, that the music you test with is primarily the music you listen to. I would also suggest have at least a couple of tracks which aren't well recorded because you will likely have some music that you love but is poorly recorded. You will want a system that doesn't render this music painful to listen to.
I encourage people to consider that what sounds good at first might not be a sound you want to live with. A powerful bass may seem rockin for a few minutes but but very well may sound boomy if you have to listen to it for hours. Better quality audio equipment is neutral, allowing each piece of music to sound as it was recorded without adding or subtracting anything.
While you need to form your own opinions, it can be helpful to learn from others, both to prioritize what equipment to listen to, and to discover equipment which you might not have known about. A technique that I have found to be useful is to read reviews about equipment I have listened to myself. My goal is to find reviewers whose opinions are well correlated against mine. When I find a reviewer that seems to have similar opinions, I prioritize the list of equipment I want to listen to based on their opinions. The reviewers have listened to a lot more equipment than me, so why not use their experience to prioritize my list. For example, if I have listened to a particular headphone I thought was really good, I will look for reviewers who agree with me. Then I will see what other components they liked. The components they liked (which are in my price range :-) would go to the top of my "try it" list.
BTW: Something that might be useful as you read reviews is know that is the audio community there are a variety of descriptive words that have specific meanigs to that community. There is a brief sound description glossary which was assembled at head-fi.
I have found reviews written by serious audiophiles to be helpful because they have a good feel for what is possible. They don't rank the high end of mass market components 5 out of 5. The down side is that they tend to nit-pick some of the best sounding gear in the world because some of them need to find some way to justify spending an order of magnitude more money on some exotic piece of gear. A good starting point would be Inner Fidelity's Wall of Fame or Head-Fi's Buyer Guide. It's dangerous to spend too much time in the enthusiate community because you can end up in the never ending chase / upgrade game. There is always the new and improved components, most of which offer at best, as small incremental improvement and several of which are arguably a step backwards from some of the older, cheaper classics. Below I list a number of headphone centric web communities and review sites you might find useful. The danger in any public forum is that anyone can express an opinion, even if they are complete idiots.
I have found there are numerous information sources which are completely useless. I am consistently disappointed in reviews found in Consumer Guide and Consumer Review. and generic technology/gadget sites like Wired, Gizmodo, Engadget which seem to get over excited by products which really aren't that exceptional compared to over priced / over-hyped mass market consumer electronics.
Basic Options: Less than US$100
Sennheiser PX 100-IIi ($89) is my current recommendation for an modestly priced on the ear headphone. They are slightly more comfortable and better sounding that The Grado SR60 which is the headphone I had recommended for the last 20 years. There are a number of headphones which retail at nearly 2x the cost which can often be found on sale include: the Sennheiser HD 558 ($180 retail, $100 on sale), The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (lists for $180, street for around $100), or Sennheiser HD25. If you prefer in-the-ear monitor (IEM) I would suggest the HIFIMAN RE-400 or a pair of Etymotic. I haven't listened to a lots of low cost IEMs. For a fairly comprehensive set of reviews check out Earphone Buyer's Guide or the original head-fi post 315 IEM compared.
There are a wide variety of moderate to mid priced headphones and IEM that are quite good. My favorite by a significant margin was the HIFIMAN HE-400. If you need a closed headphone, then the the Audeze SINE would be a good runner-up. There are lots of other mid-range headphones. I can't say I have listened to a fully representive sample of them, but people who have, often recommend the HE-400. The other mid-range headphones I often hear recommended be people who I respect are the Sennheise HD-600/650, especially the versions sold by MassDrop which are a true bargin when considering sound quality -vs- cost. Personally I like the HE-400 better. A general observation is that headphones made by companies with a reputation for audio quality rather than big marketting budgets sounded better, so stay away from Dr Beats and Bose, and focus on companies like Shure, Grado, Sennheiser, AKG, and HiFiMan. There are a wide variety of IEM in the mid-range, I am partial to the Etymotic ER4 and Shure SE 535, but there are a number of excellent options.
The Sennheiser HE1060/HEV106 which is an intergrated DAC, headphone might be the very best headphones in the world... and one would hope so at $55K!! I haven't personally heard this system nor do I expect to... it too expensive for me to consider.
The best headphones I have personally listened to were Stax SR-009 ear speakers. They were best driven by a Blue Hawaii (BH) amplifier. I thought using a Kevin Gilmore Solid State High Voltage (KGSSHV) amplifier was almost as good, and the Stax SRM-727 was just a bit less than the KGSSHV. Given headphones and amplifier is at least $7k can can easily climb to $10k with the BHSE I would hope this sounded very good. Stax are distributed by Yamas through the staxusa website, and through a unfortunately limited number of local dealers. There are several companies that have a good reputation selling Stax headphones onlines including elusivedisc, ttvj audio, woo audio, and headamp.com.
There are a number of top end headphones that I think come close to the SR-009. Some people might prefer them to the SR-009 depending on the type of music they listen to or general audio preferences.
There are a number of companies like Bose which are making more traditional headphones which make use of active noise cancellation to eliminate environmental noise. While I am not fond of the audio quality of Boss headphones, I will quickly note that they do see to be the best at noise reduction. I don't using active noise cancelling headphones. I have found noise blocking in-the-ear monitors to be the more transportable, have better acoustics, and better sounds isolation.
In the 1980s, dedicated headphone amplifiers basically didn't exist, but many of the recievers and integrated amplifiers of the day had fairly good quality headphone jacks. In the early 1990s the only "headphone" amp that I was particularly impressed by was the Melos SHA-1 (both as a pre-amp and a headphone amp). Other than the Melos, I didn't listen to any headphone amps that sounded significantly better than the standard headphone out of mid-fi audio gear, though some of the headphone amplifiers did improve sound quality from say the headphone out of battery powered cd players / walkman.
Today there seems to be an ever growing list of companies that produce dedicated headphone amps. My preference is for amplifiers which are nuetral when it comes to tone, low distortion and very responsive which typically means class A amplification with very little use of feedback circuits. I also tend toward solid state amplifiers because I don't like the hassles of tubes and the temptation to constantly tinker by tube rolling. My favorite is the expensive Headamp GS-X mk2. The amplifier uses and updated version of the DynaLo curcuit designed by Kevin Gilmore which I think is excellent. People are free to build a Gilmore amplifier, hire a professional builder, or purchase amplfiers based on his designs. Headamp is the premium source of amplfiers related to Gilmore's designs. Some people are shocked at the prices of Justin's amplfiers, but from what I can tell these prices really reflect the cost of manufacter (primarily driven by the cost of high quality components). There isn't a huge profit being made like with some high end audio gear. Headamp also sells the more reasonably priced Gilmore Lite Mk2 You could also watch head-fi.org for a used Gilmore Lite or GS-1 (GS-1 review) to come up for sale. They seem to be listed every few weeks. There are also a fair number of people who like the DIY (or professionally built) headphone amplifiers from amb.org which includes the M^3 which is a competitor to the GS Lite (dynalo), and the beta22 which is a competitor to the higher end/power Gilmore amplfiers. Generally people seem to think the Gilmore designs are a bit more transparent and fast, while the AMB designs are a bit more forgiving and "fun".
Commercially produced solid state amplifiers I would recommend checking out which generally increase in cost and sound quality: JDS Labs Objective2 amplifier which can sometimes be found on MassDrop for less than $100, Schiit Magni, Matrix M-Stage, Schiit Asgard 2, Headamp GS-1 (used), Headamp Gilmore Lite Mk2, a variety of amplifiers made by Audio-GF, Bryston, Auralic, and my favoritem the Headamp GS-X mk2. I have heard good things from people I trust about amplifiers from ECP Audio and but have no personal experience with them. The new Schiit Ragnarok is quite good. I liked my GS-X mk2 more, but it was close. If the Ragnarok was able to drive my Martin Logan Aerius speakers I would have made the switch to simplify my electronic rack, but I found it wasn't up to that job. I have read mixed reviews of the Questyle CMA800R, some people think it's a very good value, and others like the Schiit Magni better. Cavalli Audio made a number of well regarded amplifiers, but the company has stopped making headphone amplifiers for consumers.
There are many people who like to use tube based amplifiers, especially with brighter or more forward headphones to tame the sound. Fairly inexpensive tube amplifiers which are a good value are made by Bottlehead, Little Dot, and Schiit. The top end tube amplifiers I would recommend are made by Eddie Current. I really enjoyed both the Super 7 and Balancing Act driving HD800. The amplifier I would love to hear is the discontinued ECP L-2 which has gone rave reviews from people who tend not to rave. Other manufacturers that have gotten good reviews, though I haven't listened to them enough to have a strong opinion include Donald North Audio, Apex. Cavalli, and Woo Audio.It's worth noting that many of the DACs listed below have built in headphone amplifiers. Some are exceptional, and the rest would be an improvement over the headphone jack on computers, ipods, or other portable audio device.
There are a number of good quality battery powered headphone amplifiers which let you use full size headphones with portable players. My favorite for sound quality is the Headamp Pico Power. Meier and Ray Samuels Audio make several good sounding portable amplifiers. FiiO and iBasso seems to make some of the best lower priced amplifiers. There are a number of portable DAC/amplifiers combos which might also be worth looking at which I will discuss below.
All devices which play digital music contain a DAC. In many products, like the headphone jack on most laptops, the DAC is very low quality, or just ok in the case of inexpensive disk players. In these cases, using an external DAC can significantly improve the sound quality of your digital music. The most common ways digital values are passed from storage to the DAC are:
Nearly all DACs provide line-level analog outputs designed to be fed to audio amplifiers. Many also have built in amplifiers designed to let the DAC directly drive headphones.
Nearly all the Portable DACs on the market accept USB input. Some also support Coax or TOSlink. Most of the portable DACs have built in headphone amplifiers. Some DACs are powered from the USB bus which keeps things simple if you are using a laptop of desktop (no batteries to charge, just a single cable between the computer and the DAC) but limits it's use with phones and tablets that don't have enough power to run the DACs unless you insert a powered USB hub. I wrote up a bit about comparing the Chord Hugo vs The HiFi-M8 vs my Desktop Lavy DA-11 + GS-X mk2 and Chord Hugo vs Geek Out V2. There is a nice table showing portable DAC with the HD800. Portable DACs I would recommend in order of sound quality:
There is an amazing price range for desktop DACs. They can range in price from less than $100, to $42k?! Like most high end audio, there is a law of diminishing returns. It's often possible to find less expensive DACs which sound better that moe expensive DACs. I would recommend the following DACs which I have generally arrange in increasing sound quality (and typically increasing price)
At the modest end, less expensive DACs made by Centrance, HRT and nuforce are a good value whose performance in somewhere between the oDac and the Bitfrost. The Musical Fidelity V90 has gotten mixed reviews, with some people claiming it's amazing, good as any $2K DAC, while others say it just ok. I have read several reviews of Questyle Q192 which suggest it might be worth a look.
Based on reviews other DACs which are worth considering, which I expect would be in the same league (maybe better, maybe worse) than the Lavy DA11 in sound quality would include Benchmark DAC2 HGC, Anedio D2, M2Tech Young DAC, yulong a18, matrix-x. In past years the original Benchmark DAC1 often got good reviews. I don't understand, I never liked the DAC1.
There are a number of DACs that others might be interested in that should be in the same league (or maybe better) as the PWD2 / M51 / GD M7. They aren't on my list because of my perceived ROI. This includes the Ayre QB9, Lampizator, Resonessence Labs Invicta, Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2, Lynx Hilo, and DACs from MSB Tech
Some reviews you might find interesting include 21 DACs compared and 20013 mid-level DAC comparison.
One other thing to mention is a sound processor system called the Realiser A8 which gives the experience of listened to speakers or 8-channel surround sound using headphones. They are very cool, but also price ($3k+), but for someone who doesn't want the music in the middle of the head sense and can't use speakers for some reason, these are worth giving a listen to.
I am not a sound engineer or music producer. I do consider myself am an audiophile because I really care about the sound qualty of the music I listen to, but unlike some audiophiles, the audio equipment is only a means to an end and not part of my audio hobby. As a result, I tend to hunt for audio equipped that delivers the sound quality I desire, and then don't think about audio equipment for years. Typically there will be some external event which triggers a re-evaluation my equipment.
I started on my headphone journey in the late 1970s. I wanted a good sounding stereo, but I didn't have a lot of money. I realized that a using headphones rather than speakers would be significantly less expensive to reach similar sound quality. I longed for a pair of Stax earspeakers, but they were out of my price range, so I went with a pair of the first generation AKG 240 driven by an NAD 3020 amplifier. Several years later I purchased Stax heaphones. Eventually I could afford electrostatic speakers. For many years I primarily used speakers, only using the headphones late at night or at work when I didn't want to bother others with my music. In 2010 some life changes had me once against using headphones for most of my listening. My dynamic rig was a Lavry Black DA11 feeding Headamp GS-X mk2 which drove a pair of Sennheiser HD800. The electrostatic system was a Schiit DAC into a Gilmore KGSSHV driving a pair of Stax SR-007 Mk1.
In 2015 I got married and started using speakers for most of my listening so my wife and I could share the listening experince. I decided that SQ from the Chord Mojo feed the HD800 was sufficently good that I sold the rest of my gear, a head-fi heresy no doubt. The Mojo is fed from either a Macintosh running Roon software or an iPhone using a variety of applications. My media is mostly CD ripped into Apple Loseless, or loseless streams via TIDAL. sometimes listen to lossy media via Spotify or Apple Music via their native applications. I list other headphone gear I used on my head-fi profile.