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Audiophile Headphones for Beginners

Trade Your Consumer Headphones for Something Better

A fancy coffee drink

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Remember when coffee was a cup of brown liquid at a diner, not a gourmet drink you buy in an experiential cafe? The diner coffee got the job done, but more enticing options came along. It's like that with headphones. Back in the day, headphones were cheap plastic things you could buy at the drugstore. They were convenient, a means to an end, but the sound quality was not stellar. Over time, consumers were introduced to better options, with technology, audio quality, and comfort having evolved over the years. Maybe you listen to more premium consumer headphones like Bose or Beats, but you're wondering if you're ready for the next step. The next step is audiophile headphones.

Audiophile headphones are designed for discerning listeners. More than just a means to listening to music, audiophile headphones are designed to provide a hi-fi experience - an experience with the highest fidelity, or accuracy, against an original recording. Generally speaking, audiophile headphones will maximize the amount of detail that you hear when using them while minimizing the amount of listening fatigue that can occur with lesser-quality headphones. Audiophile headphones also tend to feature more advanced technology and be made with more premium materials and with better build quality than consumer-oriented headphones. If you're used to listening to consumer headphones, you may think they sound just fine. It's only after people try audiophile headphones that they realize what they have been missing.


Do I Have to Spend a Lot for Audiophile Headphones?

You can spend thousands of dollars on a pair of high-end audiophile headphones, but there are many high-fidelity options with under-$1,000 and under-$500 price tags.

Think about wine. You can spend $200 for an amazing bottle, but you can also get a darn good bottle for $15. Is the $15 bottle going to be as good as the $200 bottle? Most people will say no, but that's honestly in the taste buds of the beholder. You might try both and decide you like the $15 bottle. When it comes to audiophile headphones, you're going to find more advanced technology and features the higher up the price ladder you go, but that doesn't mean that every more expensive audiophile headphone will be better than every less expensive one. The writer of this article, for example, considers an $899 headphone among her favorites. That means she likes the $899 headphone as much as some $3,000 and $4,000 headphones. Objectively, those $3,000 and $4,000 headphones may have more to offer, but again, preferences are so subjective.

So the answer is you're going to spend at minimum a couple hundred dollars for audiophile headphones, but you don't have to spend thousands. Here, we present several great options below $999. This represents a good entry point for audiophile headphones. Then, after a while, you might decide to go higher up in the audiophile headphone chain. Maybe you will eventually want a reference headphone. Reference headphones are usually the flagship of a particular brand, such as the Focal Utopia, which is Focal's flagship open-back headphone, or the Focal Stellia, which is Focal's flagship closed-back headphone. These are so-called "cream of the crop" headphones. Check out our Headphones 101 guide and our Best Headphones annual guide to learn about audiophile headphones at a range of price points.


Audiophile Headphones: Do They Sound Better?

The short answer is yes, audiophile headphones generally sound better than consumer headphones. The more nuanced answer is that this depends in part on your listening style. You may ask, "Don't we all listen the same way?" Yes, we do, in that we put the headphones on our ears and turn up the volume. But we have varying expectations when we listen. Some of us just want to hear our music. Others won't be satisfied with just "hearing"; we want to hear our music sound as close to the original recording as possible. Some of us naturally (or through self-training) enjoy dissecting every aspect of a piece of music, and so we want a headphone that will maximize instrument separation and clarity in a way that allows us to hone in on individual elements. If you are wanting more than just "hearing" your music, you will find that audiophile headphones will be the right choice for you.

Factors to consider when choosing audiophile headphones:

Clarity/Transparency: Does the headphone sound pristine, or is there some muddiness to the sound? Can you easily pick out and hone in on individual instruments? Does the bass "stay in its lane," so to speak, or does it sound like it spills into the low midrange?

Comfort: Long, leisurely listening sessions demand a headphone that won't be a distraction on your head. Now, comfort is mostly subjective - what fits one person well might feel too "clampy" on another person. Headphone earcups (and earpieces on IEMs) vary in size and shape to accommodate a range of ear shapes and head sizes.

Drivability: In other words, how much power will your headphones require? You will see these two figures when you look at headphone specs: impedance and sensitivity. Generally, the lower the impedance and the higher the sensitivity, the easier your headphones will be to drive. You may even be able to drive them from your phone. However, we recommend using a DAC/headphone amp to get the maximum sound from your audiophile headphones.

Soundstage: This refers to the sense of space that you perceive when listening to your headphone. Does the sound feel compressed in your head, or is there a sense of depth, width, and airiness? When you close your eyes, can you easily envision the various instruments and vocalists spread out on a stage in your mind's eye? Generally speaking, open-back headphones (where the earcups are ventilated) will offer a wider soundstage than closed-back headphones, but there can be variation here as well as exceptions. One thing to note is that open-back headphones will have sound leakage, meaning that the people around you will be able to hear some of what you are listening to.

Sound signature: Think of this as the sound "flavor" of your headphone. Just like foods can be described as sweet, savory, sour, etc., headphones can be described according to various "signatures." Many audiophiles prefer a neutral or balanced sound signature, where no frequency is emphasized above any other. Other listeners may prefer some coloration to the sound; this is very much a personal preference. A warm sound signature, for example, will sound bassy and smooth; in the extreme, the sound may be muffled or muddy. A bright signature happens when the treble is emphasized to a point where the sound is sharp; in the extreme, this will lead to listening fatigue. An analytical signature will have a lot of detail; in the extreme, it may be perceived as sterile. See Audio Sound Signatures for more.

Tuning: Tuning has to do with how audio frequencies are emphasized. This is related to sound signature, as the way a headphone is tuned will contribute to its sound. On a headphone with neutral tuning, no frequency will be emphasized. Other headphones are tuned for a boost in the bass, or the bass and treble, or the midrange.


I Want Features Like Noise Cancellation or Boosted Bass

Wireless noise cancelling headphones have been a boon for people who want to enjoy their music without outside distractions. Originally designed to reduce noise for airplane pilots in the cockpit area, noise cancelling headphones hit the mainstream after Dr. Amar Bose designed the first pair for consumers. The technology has come a long way, with noise canceling headphones now targeted toward consumers who both need and want to block outside sounds. From the airplane passenger who wants to get some shut-eye on a loud flight to the home office worker who needs to block household sounds to the frazzled apartment dweller who wants to enjoy music without hearing their neighbors arguing, noise canceling headphones have numerous consumer applications.

Bose headphones have a relatively balanced and neutral sound that makes them suited for a variety of genres. To this day, Bose headphones are synonymous with noise cancellation. Still, Bose headphones leave many listeners wanting more. Yours truly is actually listening to a pair of Bose headphones right now. They're absolutely decent, but my ears are used to a higher quality of sound. Fortunately, manufacturers of audiophile headphones have come out with options to satisfy listeners who want the ease of wireless noise cancellation with better sound quality. Audeze, for example, has a couple of wireless noise cancelling gaming headphones (the Mobius and the Penrose) that elevate the listening experience. They're gaming headphones because they have a microphone, but they can be used and enjoyed by non-gamers.

Bose headphones

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Beats headphones

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If you're a fan of big bass, you've probably heard of Beats headphones. Beats was founded in 2006 by rapper Dr. Dre and record executive Jimmy Iovine. Apple acquired the company in 2014. Beats makes wireless headphones and earphones. You may recognize Beats headphones by their bright colors and "blingy" designs. Beats have gained notoriety by being worn by many celebrities. Beats headphones have a "fun" sound with lots of bass, which makes them good for rap, hip-hop, pop, and similar genres. However, they aren't going to appease the listener who wants a more natural sound with lots of detail and articulation. The good news is that there are audiophile headphones with rich, robust bass that don't sacrifice detail and clarity in the process. Of course, big bass isn't everyone's cup of tea. But if it's yours, you don't have to settle for something with muddy bass or bass that overpowers other frequencies.


Best Audiophile Headphones up to $399

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The Audeze Penrose is a great wireless headphone option whether or not you're into gaming. It's the addition of a detachable microphone that makes them suitable for gaming, but the Penrose is a great pair of headphones regardless. Audeze's planar magnetic headphones that are highly regarded by audiophiles. Planar magnetic headphones are known for their smooth sound, fast transient response, and great bass that is neither bloated nor overbearing. The wider soundstage on these headphones as mentioned previously really opens up the game world through details and dynamics. The fact that you can detach the microphone, have individualized volume controls on the ear cup, and switch between wireless, auxiliary, or Bluetooth audio transmission makes this headphone a proverbial Swiss-army knife for any situation. The Penrose sounds like a headphone twice its price. Read our Penrose review.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Neutral
  • Headphone type: Open back, planar magnetic drivers
  • Frequency response: 10Hz - 50kHz
  • Wireless connections: Lossless 2.4Ghz (over USB dongle), Bluetooth 5.0
  • Wired connections: 3.5mm analog, USB A-to-C charging
  • Microphone: Detachable
  • Battery type: Lithium-polymer
  • Battery life: Up to 10 hours on Bluetooth
  • Charge time: 3 hours
  • Weight: 320g
 

Meze 99 Classics Headphones

Meze Audio makes premium products, and they do a great job bringing that premium quality and sound to all price points. The 99 Classics provide a good amount of warmth and smoothness your music while also giving you detail and clarity. Bottom-end weight plus energy in the upper midrange makes them a great choice for rock 'n' roll and guitar-driven music. The price point is just right to make these a daily driver or pair of travel cans that will provide much more fidelity than your typical consumer-oriented headphone.  Read our 99 Classics review.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Warm and smooth
  • Headphone type: Closed back, dynamic drivers
  • Frequency response: 15Hz - 25KHz
  • Sensitivity: 103dB at 1KHz, 1mW
  • Impedance: 32 Ohms
  • Cable: Detachable Kevlar OFC cable
  • Plug: 3.5mm gold-plated
  • Weight: 260g (9.2 oz) without cables
 
 
 

$309.00


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Like the Penrose, the Audeze Mobius can be enjoyed by gamers and music lovers alike. Unlike the Penrose, the earcups on the Mobius are closed, or sealed, meaning sound will not bleed from your headphones and you'll enjoy a slightly better bass experience. Smooth highs, clarity in the mids and tight bass make these a true pleasure to use in any scenario, gaming or not. The soundstage is surprisingly wide for a pair of closed-back headphones but combined with planar magnetic drivers, you have an audiophile-grade gaming headset capable of accurate sound reproduction. The versatility is a strong selling point of the headphone. Being able to use it connected to USB, Aux or Bluetooth offer more options than most headphones on the market today. One area where the Mobius earns points over the Penrose is that it can transmit audio via USB-C, giving you the option to charge it during gaming sessions. If you are interested in upgrading your audio experience in the same way you upgrade your gaming system specs, then the Audeze Mobius is absolutely worth it. Read our Mobius Review.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Neutral
  • Headphone type: Closed back, planar magnetic drivers
  • Frequency response: 10Hz – 50kHz
  • Amplifier: Built-in balanced amplifier (output 1W)
  • Wireless connection: Bluetooth (SBC, AAC, LDAC)
  • Wired connection: USB-C, USB-A, 3.5mm analog audio
  • DSP: Audeze Cipher DSP
  • Microphone: Detachable with separate volume control
  • Battery type: Lithium-polymer
  • Battery life: 10 hours
  • Charge time: 3 hours
  • Weight: 350g (including battery)
 

Best Audiophile Headphones up to $699

Fostex TH-610 Stereo Headphones

The Fostex TH-610 shares sonic similarities with the flagship Fostex TH-9000 MkII, but at a more affordable price. The TH-610 delivers rich lows, a natural midrange, and smooth highs. It's not as detailed or nuanced as its more expensive siblings, but it's got a smooth sound with low distortion and a wide dynamic range. The closed earcups showcase a beautiful black walnut wood grain against a matte black finish, and the low-repulsion cushioned ear pads are covered in faux leather. The TH-610 comes with a 3m cable that has a gold rhodium 6.3cm jack on one end and a pair of detachable 2-pin connectors at the other. The substantial low end on the TH-610 makes it a good choice for EDM, rap, hip-hop, R&B, and other bass-centric genres.

 

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Linear/neutral
  • Headphone type: Closed back, dynamic drivers
  • Impedance: 25 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 98dB / mW
  • Frequency response: 5Hz – 45kHz
  • Weight: approx. 375g (excluding cable)
  • Jack: 1/4” stereo unbalanced, gold-plated
  • Connector: 2-pin (gold-plated with rhodium over-coating)
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HiFiMan Ananda Planar Magnetic Headphones

The HiFiMan Ananda is a planar magnetic headphone that delivers breathtaking levels of detail and musicality. The drivers feature HiFiMan's ultra-thin "supernano" diaphragm, which delivers a fast, detailed response. The Ananda has a more forward sound with top-end resolution, meaning the treble has some zing to it and you'll hear lots of upper-end detail. The Ananda is not difficult to drive; you can use your phone to power it. However, we always recommend pairing your audiophile headphones with an external DAC/headphone amp. This is especially true for planar magnetic headphones, which tend to perform better with added amplification, The asymmetrical earcups on the Ananda follow the natural shade of the human ear, making for a comfortable listening experience.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Neutral/forward with top-end resolution
  • Headphone type: Open back, planar magnetic drivers
  • Frequency response: 8Hz - 55kHz
  • Sensitivity: 103 dB
  • Impedance: 25 Ohms
  • Weight: 14.07oz (399g)
  • Cable: 1.5m cable with 3.5mm headphone connection to 3.5mm connector, 3m cable with 3.5mm headphone connection to 6.35mm connector, 3m cable with 3.5mm headphone connection to 6.35mm adapter

Denon AH-D5200

The Denon AH-D5200 draws on over 50 years of sonic headphone engineering and design. FreeEdge drivers and acoustically driven materials provide exceptional sound quality that is matched by elegant, craftsmanship design. Built for extended periods of use, the AH-D5200 features ergonomic construction with over-ear memory foam earpads and a comfortable fit. The 50mm FreeEdge drivers cancel out unwanted resonances and distortion in the diaphragm to produce detailed, accurate sound. Mounted on real zebrawood housing, the AH-D5200 features solid construction with appropriate inner loss to bring warmth and life to the sound. Natural acoustic properties of wood that aid in sound dampening help reduce unwanted resonances so all you hear is clear, detailed sound.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Natural
  • Headphone type: Closed back
  • Driver: 50mm, dynamic
  • Frequency response: 5-40,000Hz
  • Weight: 385g
  • Impedance: 24 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 103dB
  • Cable: 3m, detachable
  • Plug: 3.5 mm (Player), 3.5mm x2 (headphones), 6.3 mm Adapter
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Best Audiophile Headphones up to $999

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If you're looking for a great-sounding, super-comfortable headphone that's also portable, Dan Clark Audio has a solution: the AEON 2. Available in open and closed-back versions, the closed-back is going to be the winner if you want to listen to it on the go, since it won't bleed sound. Featuring a unique folding gimbal design, you can stow the AEON 2 into the small case that comes with it and take it with you wherever you go. The AEON 2 is a planar magnetic headphone. This headphone type is known for a smooth, often warm, relaxed sound with impactful bass. The AEON 2 is relatively easy to power, but like many planar magnetic headphones, it will enjoy added amplification. Read our AEON 2 Closed-Back review.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Warm side of neutral
  • Headphone type: Closed back, planar magnetic drivers
  • Impedance: 13 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 92dB SPL/1mW
  • Driver: 62mm x 34mm single-ended planar magnetic
  • Cable: ¼” with 3.5mm or 4-Pin XLR DUMMER Cable (optional upgrade to VIVO cable)
  • Weight: 328g


Focal Celestee Headphones

The Focal Celestee is a great entry point into the Focal headphone lineup. It's not as detailed and resolute as the flagship closed-back Stellia, but it's an amazing under-$1,000 headphone with a good amount of detail and distinction between frequencies and instruments. The Celestee has impactful but not overbearing bass, warm mids with engaging vocals, and smooth highs. It's pleasantly natural with a touch of warmth. It's also a super comfortable and beautifully styled headphone, showing off classic navy with soft copper accents. Focal makes some of the finest headphones in the world, infusing them with technology that draws on their decades of research into speaker drivers. Since the release of the open-back Utopia headphone in 2016, Focal has compiled a collection of amazing, high-quality, great-sounding headphones that are enjoyed the world over. Read our Celestee review.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Warm side of neutral
  • Headphone type: Closed back, dynamic drivers
  • Frequency response: 5Hz – 23kHz
  • Impedance: 35 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 105dB SPL / 1 mW @ 1kHz
  • Cable: 4ft (1.2m) OFC 24 AWG cable with ⅛" (3.5mm) unbalanced TRS Jack connector; Jack adapter, ⅛" (3.5mm) point socket ¼" (6.35mm) point plug
  • Weight: .95lb (430g)
 
 

 

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HiFiMan Ananda BT Headphones

The HiFiMan Ananda-BT is the wireless headphone for the audiophile. This is the headphone that made us at Moon Audio believers in the power of wireless technology. The biggest thing the Ananda-BT brings to the table is the sound quality. It’s the best-sounding wireless headphone we’ve tested. The Ananda-BT is one of the more expensive wireless headphones at Moon Audio, but the fidelity and soundstage are unmatched by the competition. HiFiMan states that the Ananda-BT gets 10 hours of battery play time, with about 2.7 hours to fully charge. Sure, it’s not going to be as good as plugging directly into a quality tube headphone amp, but it’s one of the best (if not THE best) wireless headphones on the market. Read our Ananda BT review.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Forward/neutral with top-end resolution
  • Headphone type: Open-back, planar magnetic drivers
  • Frequency response: 8Hz - 55kHz
  • Sensitivity: 103 dB
  • Impedance: 35 Ohms
  • Battery life: 10 hours
  • Charge time: 2.7 hours
  • Weight: 14.07 Oz (399g)

Best Audiophile IEMs under $999

The IE300 in-ear monitor from Sennheiser is the whole package: affordable, durable, comfortable and compact, and great sound. It's a sound signature that is easy to latch onto, as it mimics many consumer-oriented headphones and IEMs -- but it never sounds thin or inexpensive. If you're looking for an emphasis on vocals or a bass-heavy sound, this may not be for you. But if you like a fun sound that works with a variety of music, the IE300 is a great value for the price.  Read our IE300 Review.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Fun
  • Driver type: Dynamic
  • Frequency response: 6Hz-20KhZ
  • Impedance: 16 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 124dB
  • Wearing style: Wired with flexible earhooks
  • Cable: 1m with gold-plated MMCX connectors and gold-plated 3.5mm plug
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Sony WF-1000XM4 Noise Cancelling Wireless Earbuds

Bose may have originated noise cancelling consumer headphones, but Sony has perfected the art of active noise cancellation. The Sony WF-1000XM4 is the perfect solution for those looking for wireless noise-cancelling with above-average sound quality and a consumer-friendly price. Sony provides affordable, true wireless earbuds that sound great and provide more features than you'll probably use. These earbuds are so well integrated into your day-to-day life, you don't have to think about it. Read our WF-1000XM4 review.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Fun
  • Driver type: Dynamic
  • Battery life (cont. communication time): 5.5 hrs (NC On)/6 hrs (NC Off); (cont. music playback time): 8 hrs (NC On)/12 hrs (NC Off)
  • Charge time: 1.5 hours
  • Frequency Response: (Bluetooth® Communication): 20 Hz–20,000 Hz (44.1 kHz sampling) 20 Hz–40,000 Hz (LDAC 96 kHz sampling, 990 kbps) / 20 Hz–20,000 Hz (44.1 kHz sampling)
  • Waterproof: Yes (IPX4)
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The Bravado MK-II is an all-purpose IEM with a balanced signature that performs well with a variety of music. It's Empire Ears' entry-level audiophile IEM, but there's really nothing "entry level" about the way it sounds. The Bravado has a great low end, midrange energy, and upper-end detail. The overall effect is good, old-fashioned, unpretentious fun. The Bravado also features Empire Ears' proprietary EIVEC technology, which "tames" the electrostatic drivers, in addition to Empire's own anti-resonance coating for the drivers. Read our Bravado MK-II review.

Specs:

  • Sound signature: Warm side of neutral
  • Driver type: Tribrid design: dynamic, balanced armature, electrostatic
  • Frequency response: 5Hz-100kHz
  • Impedance: 4 Ohms @ 1kHz
  • Sensitivity: 99 dB SPL @ 1kHz
  • Cable: Alpha-IV Bespoke 26AWG UPOCC Copper Litz Cable with 3.5mm plug
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