Investing in high quality audiophile headphones will serve you for many years to come. More often than not, gear targeted towards the audiophile community offer a higher sound fidelity than those aimed at the mass market. Below is a comprehensive guide on the current high-end options available from $300 to $6000 +.
Note this is a dynamic and evolving list reflecting the best headphones at present.
Driver Type: Planar
Impedance: 60 Ω
Sensitivity: 83 dB
The HiFiMAN Susvara incorporates flagship planar technology to deliver outstanding transients, detailing and separation like no other. The reason why this is the crème de la crème is because of its electrostatic-like speed with the added weight of notes to deliver an ethereal sound rich with both micro and macro-dynamic prowess. The precise and expansive soundstage also offer an immersive and engaging listening experience. In addition, the use of high resistance 24K gold voice-coils lowers the weight of the thin diaphragm as well as the sensitivity of the device. Build quality and design raise the benchmark with an exotic and refined aesthetic. For those seeking the best then, the Susvara should be a no-brainer consideration.
Driver Type: Planar
Impedance: 35 Ω
Sensitivity: 96 dB
Fang Bian’s mantra to not settle has culminated in the release of the HiFiMAN HE-1000se. These headphones employ trickle-down technology from the Susvara model to deliver a high-quality sound at a relatively more affordable price. The pitch here is that the HE1000se are easier to drive from any source compared to Susvaras. The overall sound here is excellent with abundant extension of bass, clean and detailed mids and extensive highs. Soundstage is spectacular and music sound rich with detail and micro-dynamics. Though the ear-cups are slightly larger than those of the Susvara, the headphones are very comfortable and can be worn for extended listening. For a lower budget, the HE1000se offer stellar performance with top-to-bottom transparency and texturing.
Driver Type: Dynamic
Impedance: 300 Ω
Sensitivity: 99 dB
The ZMF Verité Open headphones represent Zach Mehrbach’s most complex acoustic design to date. Featuring a beryllium-coated dynamic driver, the Verité are surprisingly fast and punchy while delivering a vocal-oriented affable signature. For these reasons, the Verité offer a very compelling listen with detail combined with musicality in a multi-layered soundstage. The ability to change pads to change the tuning to slightly livelier or slightly more relaxed is a very welcomed addition for users who love options. For these reasons, along with the fantastic build and use of beautiful exotic woods, the ZMF Verité ranks highly amongst the arena of high-end headphones.
Driver Type: Isodynamic Planar
Impedance: 31.6 Ω
Sensitivity: 100 dB
The Meze Empyrean is an incredibly accomplished set of headphones especially as it is the company’s first stab into the high-end headphone market. It is evident to see Antonio Meze’s years of experience as a product designer come into fruition with a unique and truly stand-out design. This, married with its comfort, puts the Empyrean into the category of best aesthetic and ergonomic headphones to date. With an isodynamic hybrid array driver, the overall sound is incredibly balanced and musical while still retaining plentiful level of detail and clarity. The craftsmanship combined with the engaging, versatile sound signature and pleasant tuning earn it a place in summit-fi territory.
Driver Type: Dynamic
Impedance: 300 Ω
Sensitivity: 99 dB
The ZMF Verité Closed headphones are the closed-back alternative to Zach Mehrbach’s flagship dynamic headphones. Like the open-back, the Verité Closed captures the ZMF house sound of a tonally rich signature with incredibly fast transients and detailing. The soundstage is remarkably close to the open-back version which is pleasantly surprisingly given the inherent limitations of closed-back designs. There are slight differences between the versions however, with the closed version offering a slightly more forward midrange and livelier sound. For these reasons, these headphones are a highly recommended purchase.
Driver Type: Dynamic
Impedance: 35 Ω
Sensitivity: 106 dB
The Focal Stellias are a high class offering from the French audio brand originally versed in loudspeaker technology. Combining luxury build and top-quality sound, the Stellia are amongst the best in closed-back designs. Like the Verité, they offer a surprisingly good soundstage for its design. The sound can be described best as linearly balanced with some tonal warmth and outstanding resolving ability. Taking inspirations from their Utopia, the French brand offer unparalleled sound and build.
Driver Type: Planar
Impedance: 32 Ω
Master & Dynamic hail from New York and offer premium headphones with an interest in wireless technologies. The Master & Dynamic MW65 incorporates 4.2 Bluetooth technology (with AptX and SBC support) as well as Active Noise Technology (ANC). Sound wise, the MW65 render a rich and natural house sound with plentiful air and clarity. The tuning leans towards warmth with good levels of separation and detailing. For a wireless offering, the MW65 offer a remarkably good sound on the move with an abundance of user options all in an elegant form factor.
Best Value for Money Headphones
Driver Type: Dynamic
Impedance: 300 Ω
Sensitivity: 102 dB
The Sennheiser HD600 still stands the test of time as an outstanding choice for both the budding or hardcore audiophile. While not as modern as some other offerings, the HD600 produces an extremely natural sound, fantastic comfort and exceptional scalability. In terms of their sound signature, they offer a neutral and balanced tone with well-reasoned bass and detail. Their ability to scale with top-of-the-line headphones is a welcoming feature for those seeking high-end from a small price. Hence, at $349, the HD600s represent excellent value for money and are a must in any audiophile’s inventory.
Driver Type: Dynamic
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 103 dB
Meze have earned another entry on this guide with their spectacular 99 Classic offerings. The great wood grained outer earcups paired with their robust headband and metallic accents exude the definings of a luxury product. However, this does not stop there as the sound is equally impressive. Meze have crafted a musical presentation which evades any harshness and glare in a relaxed listening style. For $309, the 99 Classic represent outstanding value and harmonious dynamics worthwhile of a listen.
Driver Type: Magnetostatic
Impedance: 80 Ω
Sensitivity: 104 dB
The release from speaker veterans T + A took the world by storm with their expensive $6400 headphones. The magnetostatic headphones take a leaf out of Sennheiser’s book with a design resembling the HE-1 and a sound philosophy to match. Overall, the incredibly cohesive and nuanced tonal profile offers something different in the high-end scene. While some headphones such as the HiFiMAN Susvara and HE1000se offer more air and soundstage, the Solitaire P masters spatial localization and cohesion. Combined with the HA 200 headphone Amp/DAC, they are a powerful combination provided you have deep wallets.
Audiophile Headphone Comparison Table
|HIFIMAN Susvara||$6000||Planar||60Ω||83 dB|
|HIFIMAN HE1000se||$3499||Planar||35Ω||96 dB|
|ZMF Verite Open||$2499||Dynamic||300Ω||99 dB|
|Meze Audio Empyrean||$2999||Isodynamic|
|ZMF Verite Closed||$2499||Dynamic||300Ω||99 dB|
|Focal Stellia||$2999||Dynamic||35Ω||106 dB|
|Master & Dynamic MW65||$499||Dynamic||32Ω||N/A|
|Sennheiser HD600||$349||Dynamic||300Ω||102 dB|
|Meze Audio 99 Classics||$309||Dynamic||32Ω||103 dB|
|T+A Solitaire P||$6400||Planar||80Ω||104 dB|
Audiophile Headphones Buying Guide
Headphone Design: Over-Ear vs. On-Ear vs. In-Ear
If you like enjoying quality music all day long, then you need some quality headphones. But when it comes to choosing headphones, the different sizes and shapes may be overwhelming, especially if you’re new to headphones. Let’s help you differentiate the three main headphone designs: over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear headphones.
Over-ear headphones are the largest, and they fully enclose the ears. The earmuffs make them very comfortable to use over long periods and minimize outside noise interference. Their size allows for sizeable sound drivers for best quality, and dynamic sounds. If you’re an audiophile, then grab some over-ear headphones. But they aren’t the best for active trail runs due to their bulkiness and weight.
On-ear headphones are slightly smaller than over-ears and sit right on the ears. They occupy the middle ground between over-ears and in-ears, with the advantage of larger drivers than in-ears but missing the noise seal of over-ears. On-ear headphones produce lower quality sound than over-ears but are lighter and less bulky. They suffice people who want the best of the extreme types for office use or public transit.
In-ears headphones, also called earbuds, are the smallest in size and drivers. They are sleek and subtle for high portability, and they sit perfectly in the ear canal. With some flexible “buds,” they are comfortable to use all day long. They are the best for active workouts, as they tightly sit, almost unnoticed in your ears.
So what is the best type for you? It depends on your preference on sound quality, portability, and comfort. The three types fit different occasions, and it won’t hurt to have all of them for easy switching in their right moments.
Closed-Back vs. Open-Back Headphones
Over-the-ear headphones fall under two major categories based on the cans’ back designs: the closed-backs and the open-backs. So, what’s the difference between the two, and which one is better where?
Open-back headphones have perforated or grilled can-backs that allow air and sound to pass freely in and out. You can see the inner workings through the openings, and it adds to the headphone’s aesthetics. These perforations prevent air-pressure build-up within the cans, and hence the sound is more precise and more natural. They are also lighter and more comfortable to wear for long. On the other hand, open-back headphones have the worst noise isolation. They also need more care as they are very fragile. Open-back headphones work best for home solo listening and high-quality audio files.
Closed-back headphones have completely sealed can-backs. They offer the best outside noise sealing, and barely any sound can leak in and out. In addition, closed-back headphones are prone to pressure build-up that affects their sound quality, and you may feel your ears getting warm over extended use. They are the best for studio use, casual public listening, and listening to music while commuting.
Impedance is a measure of the total opposition to electric current flow in a circuit. It shows the relationship between current, resistance, and voltage. Impedance is measured in ohms and denoted with a Z. It’s a basic specification for all audio equipment, including headphones. But why should you care about the impedance ratings of headphones?
Well, the impedance affects more than the sound output of the headphones. It tells you how much power the headphones need for optimal performance and determines the sound accuracy. And unless you match the impedance between the headphones and your music player, you won’t get the best sound.
Headphones have an impedance range of 8 to 600 ohms. And the power requirement for headphones has a direct relation to the impedance. Simply put, the higher the impedance, the more the power needed for quality output. If you intend to run your cans off your smartphone, go for headphones with 32 ohms and below impedance rating. 32-100 ohms will also work just fine but not at efficient levels with your phone, but anything above 100 ohms require a separate amp.
Why then opt for higher impedance? It’s simple, the higher the impedance, the better and more accurate the sound output. Generally, 20-40 ohms impedance is enough for casual listening, but we are talking of upwards of 64 ohms for real audiophiles. Most high impedance headphones are designed for use in recording studios. However, companies such as HiFiMAN have been pushing the boundaries with higher-quality world-class sound from more efficient designs with lower impedance such as the HiFiMAN HE1000se & HiFiMAN Ananda.
Technically, sensitivity is a measure of the efficiency of the headphone’s drivers to turn electrical audio signal into sound pressure per unit of source power (1 milliwatt) at a frequency of 1 kHz. Simply meaning the measure of how loud your headphones can get under a given signal strength. Headphones’ sensitivity is usually in the range of 80 to 125 dB, with anything below 86 considered low, while upwards of 110dB being on the higher end.
Generally, holding everything else constant, headphones with higher sensitivity (measured in decibels) will be louder than low sensitive headphones but cannot run for long at high volumes. Higher sensitivity headphones work well with most audio players and amplifiers, while low sensitive ones require more power to run at high volumes. In other words, to get the loudest sound from your headphones, you have to match the sensitivity with the output power of your audio source. If your system has a low output level, use higher-sensitivity headphones. However, higher sensitivity headphones are prone to make plenty of noise when played in high volumes.
Headphone Driver Types Explained: Dynamic vs. Planar vs. Electrostatic
Headphone driver types refer to the methods your headphones’ use to deliver sound to your ears. They aren’t as crucial as impedance and sensitivity ratings, but it doesn’t hurt to understand them. Let’s briefly look at the three major driver types below.
Dynamic drivers, also called moving coil drivers, are the most common among the three. This driver type is a smaller version of what is in hi-fi and portable speakers. The popularity comes from their inexpensiveness and simplicity of operation. In physics terms, dynamic drivers use the electromagnetic relationship between the coil and the magnet to produce sound. The signal passes through the coil, which creates a magnetic field that reacts with the permanent magnet, causing the coil to move, which in turn moves the diaphragm attached to the coil. However, the sound quality isn’t as good as from other driver types.
Planar magnetic drivers are less common but produce excellent sound quality. They need more power to run and may be more expensive than dynamic headphones. But they have a similar working principle, though instead of focusing the force on the voice coil, its spread across the diaphragm. The diaphragm is usually a thin and flat film sandwiched between two powerful magnets. However, the two magnets result in more weight and bulkiness in planar magnetic headphones.
Electrostatic drivers are the most difficult to implement of headphone drivers. They usually possess the fastest transient responses with notes sounding very much ethereal. However, they are expensive and complicated to make and use. They will mainly require a specialized amplifier to produce their sound. And their functionality is different from the planar magnetic and dynamic drivers. Instead of passing a current through the coil to move the diaphragm, here, the diaphragm moves directly. The diaphragm is a thin electrically charged sheet, usually made from mylar and sandwiched between two oppositely charged conductive plates. The whole diaphragm moves towards either of the plates to produce the sound.
Driver Size Explained
Headphone drivers convert an electric signal into sound. Obviously, they are the most crucial part of your headphones and are a combination of magnets, voice coils, and a diaphragm. Most headphones contain a single driver on the left and right cans, though some headphones may contain more.
Headphone drivers are mostly disc-shaped, and the sizes vary across brands. The usual diameter of headphone driver units varies between 20mm to 50mm, while in-ear types range from 8mm to 15mm. Generally, larger drivers are louder and produce better bass.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they produce better quality sound than smaller drivers. And surprisingly, the reverse could be true, as so many other factors affect the sound quality of headphones. Another downside of large drivers is that they are poor at handling high frequencies. Don’t always rush for headphones with the largest drivers, but instead focus on the materials used to make the driver parts. Different materials produce varying sound quality, irrespective of the driver size.
Do I Need A Separate Headphone Amp?
The answer largely depends on the performance ceiling of your headphones. While most headphones will work fine with your audio source, they may benefit greatly performance-wise from a headphone amp. The headphone amp takes the trouble of powering the headphones from the power-limited amp in your phone or laptop, and the result is improved audio clarity, dynamics, and details. So, how do know your headphones need a separate headphone amp?
For a start, if the impedance of your headphones exceeds 100 ohms, then you are most likely to need one. But even with lower impedance, a headphone amp can top up the current needed due to the damping factor between the headphones and the audio source.
Whether you decide to go for a desktop or portable headphone amp, follow the basic impedance matching rule. Ensure the amp’s impedance is an eighth of your headphone’s impedance. For instance, if the headphones are rated 40 ohms, then the amp’s output impedance shouldn’t be more than 5 ohms. Also, a headphone amp with an inbuilt digital-to-analog converter will work best for laptops, tablets, or computers.
Generally, get a quality headphone amp if you have to use one, and if possible, from the same headphone manufacturer. Matching headphones and headphone amp qualities may be the difference between good and stratospherically better sound. However, many noise-canceling headphones and in-ear headphones do not require an amp; they are already efficient.
Headphones are meant to pipe music into your ears while blocking external noises. And the more the headphones block out the world around you for uninterrupted music time, the better. That aspect of reducing noise is called isolation, akin to blocking your ears off with the palm of your hands. Where it’s practically impossible to create headphones that are perfect in noise isolation, manufacturers will equip them with earmuffs to tightly press against your skull.
When it comes to ranking headphones in regards to noise isolation, in-ear headphones are the best. Mainly because they block the entire ear canal and can do so at a deeper level. Over-ear headphones are also good, especially if tightly fitting. However, open-back headphones have almost zero isolation due to the sound leakage in and out. On-ear headphones have the worst isolation for apparent reasons.
Another aspect that affects the noise isolation abilities of headphones is the material used to make the ear cups—the softer the material, the tighter the seal. Also, large cups are better in isolation than small ones, but this may vary based on the size of your ears and skull’s shape. Even so, the isolation aspect works both ways; the headphones should not allow sound in or out. Simply meaning you should not hear people around you talking, and they shouldn’t hear the music your headphones are playing.
Are Headphones Better Than Speakers for Critical Listening?
Critical listening is about close intimacy with sound for an immersive listening experience. Sadly, speakers can’t deliver that. So yes, headphones are better for true critical listening than your favorite hi-fi speakers.
And the reason is simple. Sound is a wave that bounces off obstacles, and your ears may actually be getting a distorted sound bouncing off the walls of your room or the room fittings. You get the impression of sound emanating from more sources than the speakers themselves, which in essence creates a big difference between the actual recordings and the sound getting to your brain.
But with headphones, there are no walls nor fittings. The sound is piped direct to your eardrums, and reflections are minimal. The sound is as close to the original recording as possible. But of course, headphones do lack the absolute soundstage and imaging that comes with speakers and two-channel setups. However, both headphones and speakers offer different sound experiences and work best in different situations.
With speakers, you can “feel” the sound as much as you listen to it due to the subwoofers and room effects, but headphones give you a more precise sound. With advancing technology, some headphones are even able to offer a ‘speaker-like’ sound with their large soundstage and open-back design. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide how you wish your music to be delivered and this article has hopefully helped to guide you to make your choices.