Headphones are becoming the dominant way people listen to music as people shift from using records and CDs played through a stereo to streaming services played through a smart phone. Unfortunately, many people are using the earbuds provided with their smart phone, tablet, or laptop which has a significantly lower sound quality than most of the starter stereos from past years.
Using earbuds or headphones doesn’t need to be a sonic step backwards. There are numerous, high quality headphones that can provide superior sound quality at a fraction of the cost of a high-end stereo while preserving convenience and portability.
Updated in 2022
I generally prefer using speakers (currently KEF LS50wireless) but have gone through several seasons of life went the majority of my listening was with headphones. I am currently using three different sets of headphones, actually IEM in addition to our speakers:
- Apple AirPod Pros for their convenience. Mostly used when exercising to listen to podcasts and take phone calls.
- Westone ES5 IEM with custom ear-molds. Used when I want sound isolation, often when on airplanes or trains. Provide ~36db passive noise blocking while being comfortable enough to wear non-stop on 14 hours flights. More sound blocking any of the active noise cancelation headphones I have tried. The only EIM which provided better sound isolation were Etymotic that blocked 40db but were uncomfortable after more than a couple of hours. The ES5 had a slightly warm, but mostly neutral tonal balance and seemed pretty accurate.
- HiFiman RE800 Silver. Purchased on sales for $100. Only moderately sound isolating with a fairly neutral and open sound. Use when around home so my music doesn’t bother others but I have some awareness of what’s going on around me.
You can see the headphones I have used / owned in the past on head-fi profile. I would end up with a pair of Stax headphones and using them for several years. Then life circumstances would change and I would be primarily using speakers. I would sell the Stax because I wasn’t using them only to repeat the cycle in the future. I sometimes wonder if I should just store my Stax away because they will come out sometime in the future. The last time I was primarily using headphones I briefly had three summit headphone systems:
- Stax SR-009 + BH amplifier. Favorite but couldn’t justify the cost.
- Sennheiser HD800 driven by a Headamp GS-X mk2
- Stax SR-007mk1 driven by a KGSSHV amplifier.
I could only justify holding on to one. I decided to sell the Stax for two reasons. First, I could get more money for the Stax. Second, I could drive the Sennheiser HD800 using portable electronic while the Stax required me to be tethered to a wall outlet and large amplifier. After I got married I mostly switched from headphones to speakers to share the listening experience with my wife. I sold the GS-X and continued to occasionally use the HD800 driven by a Chord Mojo. In 2020 I realized I hadn’t used the headphones for more than a year, so I sold them and the Mojo DAC.
Most people aren’t audiophiles. They don’t want to spend a bunch of time comparing different headphones to find the one that is “best”. For people looking to upgrade their earbuds to something with decent sound quality I typically recommend the following:
- Sennheiser HD 2.30, $54 are fairly comfortable, on the ear headphones with decent sound quality
- HIFIMAN RE-400, $79 are the most neutral (accurate) in-the-ear monitors for less than $100.
- Etymotic HF3, $79 are in-the-ear monitors which provide excellent sound isolation, excellent sound quality other than slightly weak bass, with microphone if your cell phone still has a headphone jack. The ES2SE is another good option if you don’t need the microphone.
Massdrop is a great place to purchase excellent headphones for budget prices. They might have the headphones listen above for less money. For a set above the headphones listed above I would suggest versions HIFIMAN HE4xx. These headphones are typically around $150 and compare favorably to anything less than $400.
It always best to evaluate audio equipment with the goal to select equipment that you will enjoy. Don’t worry about what other people think.
I think the HIFIMAN HE400S which can often be found for less than $200 might be the best headphone made when considering price / performance. There are certainly better sounding headphones, but you will paying increasingly larger amounts for smaller and smaller sound improvements.
The Sennheiser HE1060/HEV106 is arguably the best headphone system in the world. $55K!? gets you an integrated DAC, amplifier, and a pair of headphones. It’s too pricy for me, so I haven’t bothered to listen to it.
The best headphones I have personally listened to were Stax SR-009 ear speakers driven by Headamp Blue Hawaii (BHSE) amplifier. This is almost $10K, so I would hope it sounded good. I thought using a Kevin Gilmore Solid State High Voltage (KGSSHV) amplifier was almost as good. The sound quality of the Stax SRM-727 trailed the KGSSHV by a bit but doesn’t require assembly.
I think the Stax SR-007 mk1 driven by either a BHSE or KGSSHV is also excellent. The SR-007 is a bit more laid back than the SR-009 or HD800, though still very detailed, with a warmer, more intimate tone. I know several people who think the SR-007 mk1 is the best headphone on the planet and was not surpassed by the SR-009, except in cost. I don’t share this view, but I can understand it for people who want a different tonal balance.
Sennheiser HD800 (and the updated version the HD800S) are the very best dynamic headphones made today, and my second favorite headphones after the SR-009. The HD800 are the most comfortable headphones I have used. The HD800 midranges are as good as I have heard from any headphones except the SR-009. The HD800 has the best soundstage I have heard in a pair of headphones, and is more detailed, neutral, and transparent to my ears than any headphone other than the SR-009. Their bass is not “powerful”, but it’s tight and well controlled. They have a bit of artifical “air” / “seperation” which can take away a sense of integration in complex music but makes it easier to analyze what you are listening if that is a desire.
Sometimes the HD800 can be slightly too energetic in the treble, but this is normally more due to a bright DAC and/or amplifier though they do have a spike around 6k. People often suggest using a tube amp. I don’t find tube based amplifier necessary, and my experience a number of tube amplifers round off the HD800 too much. Likewise, some people try to tone down what they perceive as excessive brightness using equalization. In my experience this results in the HD800 sounding flat. Doing EQ is challenging. Some people think the HD800 is too analytical… I don’t think so, but different people have different preferences. I think the come of the best amplifier for them is the Headamp GS-X mk2.
People often talk about how “picky” the HD800 is with the upstream electronics. Often people ask, can HD800 be enjoyed without spending huge amounts of money? My experience is that the HD800 scales well. That is to say that even with $300 electronics (low end Schiit, Matrix m-stage HPA-2, etc) the HD800 can be quite enjoyable. Higher end gear is required to get maximum performance from the HD800.
There are a number of CIEM which provide audiophile quality sound including Heir Audio 8.A, Ultimate Ears Custom Reference, or one of the other CIEM covered in Inner Fidelity’s CIEM Hall of Fame. A fairly comprehensive list of IEM can be found at In-Ear Fidelity.
Other Top Tier Headphones
Focus Utopia. I haven’t listened to these expensive headphones myself, but several people I know and trust rank them as some of the very best headphones on the market today. While I am sure they are excellent, nothing makes me believe that I would like them more that the HD800 or Stax -007/009.
Dan Clarke Audio (used to be called Mr. Speakers Headphones). They have a number of headphones at a variety price-point. If I was looking for new headphones they would be on my short list.
Audeze makes a number of headphones. I think they are a bit heavy: in they way they feel on my head and in their tonal balance. I found the models I tried were uncomfortable after extended listening. When it comes to sound quality, I found Audeze headphones had great bass, but I they are missing crystal clear midrange, and open treble, and speed / detail I desire. There are many people who love these headphones.
For someone elses take of the very best, check out the Big Sound 2015 hosted by Innerfidelity, David Mahler’s Battle of the Flagship Headphones, Inner Fidelity Comparing World Class Headphones and their interaction with Sanji Watsuki on the State of Flagship Headphones.
Next Tier / Collector Headphones
There are a number of other excellent headphones that I have tried that I don’t recommend because the headphones listed above provide superior sound quality at an equal or cheaper price point. For example: Abys, Beyerdynamics T1, Fostex TH-900, Grado xx-1000, Koss ESP-950, Oppo PM-1, less expensive Stax. The pricy Shure KSE1500 Electrostatic Earphone System would be interesting to someone with $3k who is looking for a highly portable headphone system.