For most of us, headphones are just another piece of tech junk that happens to emit sound. But for true sound nuts, headphones are less devices, and more of a religious calling. These people will spend thousands on audio gear, upgrading again and again, looking for tiny sometimes subjective (or even imaginary) improvements to the quality of their music. I long ago slipped into this most deadly of gadget holes.
But this guide is for those of you on the outside looking in. My years of audio gadget insanity have taught me where to spend to get the most bang for your buck. I’ve got recommendations on headphones and their “accessories,” ranging from the total audio novice, to truly high-end sound lovers who just want to know where to draw the line on “good enough.” I’ve even outlined what I believe to be the perfect “spare no expense” setup. Jump to the bottom for thoughts on sound file quality, external processing boxes, and an answer to the endlessly asked question: “Do cables matter?”
You’ll also notice that I’m only addressing headphones here. I might do speakers in another post, but they are a VERY different beast. The conventional wisdom among those in the know, is that a $400 headphone will always beat the pure audio quality of a $400 speaker set, even if that’s a bit of a simplification.
For the Apple earbud user yearning for something better: Sony MDR-7506.
These cans are a fantastic bang for their buck. Legendary within the sound sects of the entertainment industry, you’ll spot these headphones in use on many film sets (and even featured in movies and tv shows about audio production) . They’re not a fortune, they’ll last FOREVER, and they have what’s called a “flat” sound signature, meaning that unlike the infamous Beats by Dre line, the 7506 doesn’t overdrive the bass frequencies, so the mids and treble in your music will sound clearer, less muddy, and you’ll actually hear your music as the artist originally intended. They’re also closed back, meaning that no one sitting next to you will hear the sound that you’re hearing, so they’re a practical headphone for most situations. These guys got me through college, and my wife still swears by them.
For the music lover who wants to keep it simple: Sennheiser HD1,
Sennheiser is a respected audio company for both microphones and headphones, and these replacements for the popular Momentum line are a strong example of their talents. Lightweight, detailed, with more oomph in the bass for a warmer signature, I used these for some time as my preferred travel headphone. Still closed back, they’re great on a plane, but also a solid step up from the 7506, with improved all around sound, build quality and looks to match. Critically, these also have a replaceable cable, so they’re easily repaired when your cat decides to lay waste to your gadget collection. Never again.
For the entry level audiophile: AKG K702
This is the first open-back headphone on the list. Open ‘phones are a weird concept for some. Unlike traditional cans, they don’t isolate sound at all, so the wearer can hear the environment around them, and your neighbor can clearly hear that you’re rocking out to Beyonce at your desk.
Why would you possibly want that? Because, due to the laws of physics, open headphones allow hardware designers to open up the sound stage of your music. Those of you with crappy headphones may have noticed that all your favorite tracks sound closed in, like the band was performing while spooning in a closet, inches apart. For you, the K702s will be a breath of fresh air. You’ll close your eyes and be able to picture the drummer to your right, the lead vocals in front, and that eccentric guitarist to her side. The dynamic range (transition between the softest to loudest sounds) are improved. You’ll begin to notice details in your favorite songs that you’ve never caught before. You’ll also get supreme comfort on most noggins, as these headphones are light and large, giving your ears ample room in the ear cups. These were my first set of “nice” headphones, and they ruined all “average” listening devices from there on out. Apologies in advance. Now, be warned that the K702s are a high caliber headphone that requires special gear to maximize their sound. They’ll sound good plugged into a smartphone, maybe marginally better connected to a desktop computer. But to really make the most out of them, you need some new, fancy gadgets (see additional gadgets, later on).
The Next Step: HIFIMAN Sundara
As the successor to the phenominal He400i, Sundara has many benefits, but chief among them is a dramatic improvement in the clarity or “transparency” of your music. HIFIMAN has focused their design efforts on a resurgent sound technology known as Planar-Magnetic drivers. Traditional headphones, like the previous models mentioned, are Dynamic designs, which use a single magnet to tug on a diaphragm, causing it to vibrate and make sound. The upside is, ease of manufacturing, light weight, and power efficiency. The downside is a potential lack of absolute control over the movement of the diaphragm. Enter Planar-Magnetic, which puts a second magnet on the other side of the diaphragm, allowing for much greater precision in sound reproduction. Unlike manry planar cans, the Sundara are not especially heavy, relatively easy to drive, and by audiophile price standards, they’re a bargain. In short, you’ll hear detail that rivals much more expensive headphones, and a balanced sound signature with a wide soundstage that will deeply immerse you in your favorite music. My current headphone of choice is the He560, a close cousin to the Sundara. I’m recommending the Sundara based on several reviews which have pegged the Sundara’s newer design as comparable to the He-560 at a lower cost. Some respected reviewers have even preferred it over HIFIMAN’s He1000, a headphone which retails for . For the vast majority of audiophiles, I think the Sundara, he-560, or equivalent planar-magnetic headphone paired with a quality DAC and amplifier is a great place to draw the line.
While hi-fi geeks generally scoff at expensive closed-back headphones, those of us with a life (not speaking from experience) may be yearning for a killer headphone for listening on the go, or just something that won’t disturb the family. Unfortunately, my personal favorite, the Oppo Pm-3, is in the process of being discontinued, so it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find at its MSRP of $399. My research suggests that an appropriate alternative is the Audeze Sine. Audeze is a respected headphone maker, also specializing in Planar-Magnetics, and the Sine is reported to have a similarly clean sound to the Oppos, with solid bass to boot. Apple users can also buy a special lighting to headphone cable made by Audeze, that will improve their sound when plugged into an iPhone or iPad.
This is where things get crazy. I should preface this by saying that I’ve listened to Stax headphones before, but I’ve only read about this particular mythical setup. Why Stax? They’ve been making headphones forever, using the fantastic Electrostatic driver technology. Just like you’d think, electrostatic forces are used to introduce vibration across the entire surface of an incredibly thin diaphragm, creating the most precise sound wave imaginable. Although other high end manufacturers are getting in the game, Stax are the great-granddaddy of the field, and the first stop for the educated audiophile. The Stax SR 009 is the top of the Stax line. Now, the secret of the electrostatic game is that amplifiers made by Stax have some major design limitations, which prevent them from pushing these heavenly cans to anywhere near their potential. To get the best of the best, you want to go with a more modern electrostatic amp. The KGSSHV, designed by Kevin Gilmore (the Satoshi Nakamoto of headphone amp designers), is a complex modern design that will put Stax branded amps to shame. Mjolnir audio is a quality custom builder, well regarded by the electrostatic community. A setup of this caliber will push your sound as far as it can possibly go, with mean, tight bass, powerful detailed midrange, and treble descended from the heavens. I offer no advice on how to explain this extravagant purchase to your non-audiophile spouse, and no recommendations on how to avoid being deeply patronizing to your uninitiated friends and family. This is a purchase that will change you.
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As an aside, I only endorse products that I’ve personally used and loved, or thoroughly researched and genuinely recommend.
Continued in Part Two