Jude Mansilla and his community of audiophiles over at the Head-Fi forums know a thing or two about audio. So when they put together a list of the best gear, you had better take heed. Below are some of the headphones Head-fi considers the best of the best.
Most of my favourite headphones can benefit tremendously from dedicated headphone amplifiers. And the ones I’ve listed below-if you’re not familiar with this class of headphones-will likely spoil you forever. These headphones have a way of challenging you to bring the best out of them, and that can get very expensive, very quickly. It’s headphones like these that make Head-Fi’s unofficial slogan “Welcome to Head-Fi. Sorry about your wallet.”
You’ve been warned.
Sennheiser HD 800
Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone, ring-radiator driver (around $1500).
The Sennheiser HD 800 is one of the most significant headphones of the last decade. It elevated the state of the art in dynamic headphones, by a wide margin, when it was first announced at the beginning of 2009; and it encouraged others in the industry to also push the envelope.
Handcrafted in Germany, the HD 800 was the first (and still is the only) headphone to use low-mass, low-distortion ring-radiator drivers. These ultra-fast drivers, coupled with the HD 800’s extremely non-reverberant chassis, result in a ruthlessly revealing headphone.
To wring the best sound out of it, the HD 800 absolutely needs to be matched well with a good headphone amplifier (with this headphone, I’ve personally had my best results with tube amps). Match it up poorly, and it can be overly bright. Drive it well, and it’ll reward you with what will probably be the best sound quality you’ve ever heard from headphones. Yes, the HD 800 is picky, but, in my opinion, it’s worth the effort once you get it right.
The HD 800 is also thought by many (myself included) to be among the most comfortable full- sized headphones ever made. The HD 800’s headband radius and flexibility (its headband being as close to perfect as I’ve worn), softly-sprung pivots, large-footprint earpads, and luxurious pad materials make the HD 800 feel feather-light on the head.
In addition to its technical merits, the Sennheiser HD 800 also had epochal industry impact in another way: It began a strong upward shift in flagship dynamic headphone pricing, arriving with a firmly-enforced minimum price that was around three times the price of Sennheiser’s previous dynamic flagship (the HD 650). Because this price increase was met with what most considered a commensurate performance elevation, demand for the
HD 800 was extremely strong at its launch, and remains so. In my opinion, this encouraged other companies to similarly go all-out, developing high-performance headphones with greater attention to pushing the performance envelope, in the wake of a market that revealed itself more than willing to pay a high premium for ultra-high-performance headphones.
For all of the above things, the HD 800 is a fantastic, important headphone, and one of my all- time favourites. [Sennheiser]
“There is also no doubt in my mind that the HD800 are the imaging champs of the dynamic headphone world. I have owned or heard almost every significant dynamic headphone there is — Sony R10, At W5000 and L3000, Senn HD650/600, Grado RS1 and GS1000, all the ones I currently own, and many, many more I have owned and sold. And I have never heard a headphone image like the HD800.
Depth is phenomenal, and somehow width is even better. I really feel like the sound is IN FRONT of me, not stuck “inside my head” like with so many headphones. The soundstaging is better with the HD800 than with the
DX1000, and that is saying something — I think the DX1000 image sensationally. But the HD800 is terrific in this regard.”
— Head-Fi member/reviewer Skylab.
Semi-open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (around $1300).
Not long after Sennheiser announced the HD 800, beyerdynamic started firing gargantuan salvos of high-end goodness of its own, beginning with the Tesla T1. The beyerdynamic T1 approaches neutrality with a slightly more forgiving nature than Sennheiser’s HD 800. I also find it easier to find a good amp match-up for the T1 than the HD 800.
If the Sennheiser HD 800 is on the cooler side of your tonal preferences-but you enjoy its detail and transparency-give serious consideration to the T1. Like few other headphones, beyerdynamic’s flagship somehow balances ultra-revealing with sense of ease. Though it’s deserving of outstanding amplification, I’ve not found it a hard headphone to coax greatness out of.
I’ve always enjoyed some of beyerdynamic’s headphones, but the Tesla T1 (as well as the portable Tesla DT 1350) made me a beyerdynamic enthusiast. [beyerdynamic]
“While maybe just a touch lush, [the beyerdynamic T1] is possessed of an amazing transparency and neutrality.”
— Head-Fi member/reviewer Skylab.
Open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphone (around $950).
Why is the Audeze LCD-2 the most discussed $500+ headphone in Head-Fi.org’s history? Simply because it puts an ‘X’ in so many of the dream headphone checkboxes. Extremely good detail retrieval across the frequency spectrum? Check. Outstanding, visceral bass? Check. Easy to listen to, and non-fatiguing? Check, and check. Scales well, from portable systems to world-class desktop rigs? Check. Relatively easy to drive? More so than any other non-Audeze planar magnetic headphone, so check that box, too. You get the point.
The Audeze LCD-2 has become my quickest go-to recommendation when asked about high-end headphones. Why? Because it’s not a bear to find a good rig match for, it can perform well in a great variety of rigs. Also, I’ve found most people prefer strong, impactful bass, and the Audeze shines there, without giving up anything in the way of low frequency detail. The LCD-2 is extremely easy to recommend, because just about every Head-Fi’er can find a place for it-which is why it’s the most discussed $US500+ headphone in Head-Fi’dom. [Audeze]
“These are all around the best headphones I’ve ever heard. Nothing sounds bad on them, and everything feels natural, transparent and liquid.”
— Head-Fi member Dustin Chevalier (dagothur)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (around $US1300).
I occasionally get asked a question that goes something like this: If you could pick only one headphone to take with you to a deserted island, which one would you choose? Let’s break down my current answer. It’d have to be closed, and with good isolation, as I’d prefer maintaining the option of having the sounds of island nature separated from my music. It’d have to be an over-ear headphone, and, specifically an around-the-ear type for maximum comfort. It’d have to be durably built. It would have to be relatively easy to drive, as I’m assuming this hypothetical deserted island might not necessarily come with a dream rig to go with the headphone. And, in the event that I was also able to take a good rig with me — or at least have the hope that someone might send me a good rig in a care package some day — it’d have to be a model with higher-end sound quality. In other words, my current deserted island headphone choice would be the beyerdynamic T5p.
In the Head-Fi community, the T5p can be a bit polarizing; but those who love it tend to love it. Well, I’m one of the ones who loves it. Looking at the rather vast collection of headphones around me, I see no other full-size, closed, around-the- ear headphone that isolates well, and that can be driven by an iPhone, and yet scale to higher levels of performance in higher-end rigs. If you find yourself always choosing headphones with a warmer tonal balance, the T5p might not be your cup of tea. Is it bright? It can be; but, for me, it’s never harsh (unless the recording is).
Every other headphone in this Summit-Fi section can reach higher heights than the T5p. But none of them can be all of the things that the T5p can.
Now for the next question: Ginger or Mary Ann? [beyerdynamic]
“They are extremely detailed and transparent. They provide great sound stage with good positioning – especially for a closed headphone.”
— Head-Fi member/reviewer Szadzik
“This is still my favourite headphone, when something else impresses me beyond this, then I’ll upgrade.”
— Head-Fi member/reviewer kiteki
Open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphone (around $2000)
Take everything about the Audeze LCD-2 (sonically), improve on all of it, and what do you get? You get one of the very best headphones I’ve ever heard, the Audeze LCD-3.
It looks a lot like the LCD-2, yes. But it’s equipped with an entirely new driver that sports a new magnet structure and a much lighter diaphragm. There are other differences, too (like softer, more supple pads, a new earpiece cable entry design, and fancier wood), but it isn’t until you listen to the LCD-3 that you grasp that this is not the same headphone (as the LCD-2).
The LCD-3 has all the impact and boldness of the LCD-2, but with a noticeable bump up in delicacy and finesse. While this improvement spans the audioband, it’s most noticeable in the lower registers, where its combination of bass impact and bass detail is, to me, unrivalled by any other headphone.
Outside of the the Stax SR-009 or Sennheiser HE 90 (Orpheus), the Audeze LCD-3 is simply one of the best headphones I’ve ever heard. So, even at $2000, that makes the LCD-3 a solid value, in my opinion. [Audeze]
“Midrange performance was also absolutely first rate. There is a slight lushness to the mids, I feel – I’m not sure
how else to describe it… I think the LCD-3, as a whole, is the best headphone I have heard. I have never owned any electrostats, but I have had several pairs for review, and have heard quite a few others, and I prefer the meatier sound of the LCD-3 to any of those.”
— Head-Fi member/reviewer skylab
Open, around-the-ear, electrostatic headphone (around $5500).
Sennheiser’s now-discontinued, limited edition electrostatic HE-90 Orpheus had been my personal choice for best sounding headphone for so long that I assumed it would remain in that spot permanently. However, Stax’s new flagship now wears my personal best-ever crown. In Episode 008 of Head-Fi TV, I called the Stax SR-009 my choice for best sounding headphone I’ve yet heard, and nothing has changed my mind about that since.
The Stax SR-009 is the most revealing, most captivating, most neutral, most outstanding transducer of any type I’ve yet heard. With this headphone, you really will hear things, textures, air, details you hadn’t previously heard in many of your favourite recordings. The SR-009 is simply sublime. A masterpiece.
Here’s the rub, though: If you want to extract the very best from this headphone, plan on spending approximately $5000 to $6000 more for a top-flight electrostatic headphone amplifier, like the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE, Woo Audio WES or Ray Samuels Audio A-10.
Could it really be worth all that? This is Head-Fi. So, yes, for some people, it’s absolutely worth all that. (We discussed the Stax SR-009 in Episode 008 of Head-Fi TV.) [Stax]
“The pinnacle of headphone listening… The resolution of those things was so incredible I thought that they reproduced the notes of a double-bass with such amazing resolution you could hear the detail of the strings vibrating and that’s before you get an idea of what their ribbon tweeter could do! …overall [with the Stax SR-009], I believe we now have our king.”
— Head-Fi administrator/member/reviewer Amos Barnett (Currawong)
Open, suspended-in-front-of-the-ear, Heil-type polymer piezoelectric driver headphone, with built-in ribbon supertweeters (around $2000 for the H2+, plus around $1200 for its companion TAKET TR2 transformer box).
You know how your ears can discern a note struck on a piano live (in real life) versus one coming from a loudspeaker? A live drum strike? A live string pluck? No other headphone I’ve used conveys music with that live-type physicality that the TAKET H2+ does throughout the entire audible spectrum. It’s an effect that can be a bit unnerving at first, but then you come to realise that level of tactility makes for very real, very live-sounding musical reproduction (particularly with acoustic music).
Know, though, that the H2+ can also be a lot of work, definitely a more involved thing than typical headphones. To start, the H2+ requires loudspeaker outputs that are used to feed the TAKET TR2 transformer box that in turn feeds the H2+ the voltage it needs. Even after getting it hooked up, the H2+/TR2 isn’t a plug-and-play affair, as to meet my sonic preferences requires equalization of the H2+ (which I do with a parametric equaliser in Sonic Studio’s Amarra software). Most consistently, what I end up tweaking is the upper-mid-bass and upper bass range, where I’ll often hear rather pronounced peakiness from the H2+. Once I’ve got it dialed in, though, the H2+ becomes, for me, one of the world’s best headphones, and one that sounds like no other.
As I said in a Head-Fi TV episode about the H2+, I definitely do not recommend this headphone for everyone. This headphone is for the diehard, veteran, grizzled Head-Fi’er, willing to put the effort in, and already possessing many other headphones. For folks who fit that description, the H2+ will almost certainly be an absolute thrill. Stax]
Sennheiser HD 700
Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (around $1000)
After the introduction of its flagship HD 800, Sennheiser had a one-thousand-dollar-wide chasm in its product line between the $US500 HD 650 and the $US1500 HD 800. Of course, Sennheiser’s competitors were more than happy to slot into that price range with some amazing new headphones, and I knew it was only a matter of time until Sennheiser would have its own. At this year’s CES, Sennheiser unveiled the $US1000 Sennheiser HD 700. It was a long time in coming, but I think it’s another new winner from the old German mark.
Though it does not come equipped with the HD 800’s extraordinary ring drivers, the HD 700 does have a patent- pending ventilated magnet system to manage airflow (and minimize turbulence) around its new drivers-and careful use of sandwiched materials through the headband to damp chassis vibration-equipping the HD 700 with its own innovations. It is also one of the three most comfortable full-size headphones I’ve worn (the other two being the HD 800 and the Fostex TH-900).
Its sound is highly detailed, with a treble tilt north of neutral, reminding me more of the HD 800 than the warmer HD 650, even if it doesn’t quite reach the performance heights of its flagship sibling. One key advantage I’ve found with the HD 700 over the HD 800 is an easier time finding amp matchups for it, and greater ease of driving. As a result, I regularly find myself using the HD 700 in good portable rigs-and more affordable desktop rigs-a lot more than I’ve ever done with the HD 800 (which I find to be pickier, its use almost always reserved for my higher-end setups). It probably helps that the 150-ohm HD 700 is somewhat more sensitive than the 300-ohm HD 800. The HD 700 also images very well, but again at least a tick behind the HD 800’s standard-setting wide, open, airy soundstage.
At $US1000, the HD 700 finds itself in a growing crowd of world-class headphones, including some remarkable planar magnetic designs. However, its sonic performance, combined with its light weight and ultra-comfortable design-and relative ease of driving-will have the HD 700 finding its own fan base quickly, including yours truly. [Sennheiser]
Open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphone (around $800).
The HiFiMAN HE-500 is the everyman’s HiFiMAN world-class planar magnetic headphone. I actually prefer the HE-500 to the HE-6 (or any other planar magnetic HiFiMAN has released) in all but a few setups. Far more efficient than the HE-6, the HE-500 can pair with a great many more amps (if you’ve got a headphone amp, it can probably drive the HE-500 just fine); and its performance, when driven well, reminds me of the HE-6 at its tonal best (even if the HE-500 never does quite catch the HE-6 in terms of detail retrieval). If you’ve listened to the Audeze LCD-2 and found it a touch too bassy for your preferences, then the HE-500 should be auditioned.
Now, just because the HE-500 is easier to drive than the HE-6 does not necessarily mean it’s easy to drive. That said, I’ve found that most good desktop headphone amplifiers (and some of the stronger portable amplifiers) can drive the HE-500 well; just don’t expect your iPhone’s built-in headphone output to massage high performance from it. [Head-Direct]
“The HE500 is a well balanced and outstanding pair of headphones. It will compete and outperform many headphones that are twice its price. I know of no other headphone in the 699.00 price range that will come close to offering the performance of the HE500. Fang has brought to the marketplace a headphone of extraordinary quality in sound at a ridiculous low price. For the money you get a headphone that is remarkably lifelike.”
— Head-Fi member/reviewer Frank I
HiFiMAN HE-6 and HiFiMAN EF-6
HE-6: Open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphone (around $1300) EF-6: Class A headphone amplifier and pre-amplifier (around $1600).
The last few years has seen the fierce re-emergence of planar magnetic driver technology. And one of the two companies currently pushing the envelope in planar magnetic driver design is HiFiMAN.
Last year, the HiFiMAN HE-6 almost didn’t make it into this guide, not because it isn’t one of the best headphones in the world (to my ears, it certainly is), but because it can be so difficult to drive well. The problem is that not just any headphone amplifier will do-the HE-6 needs power, and lots of it. Last year, I recommended its use with the Ray Samuels Audio DarkStar (around $US3,500), a pairing I still highly recommend if you have the budget for it. Even if you do have the scratch, though, make sure to also give serious consideration to the new HiFiMAN EF-6 Class A headphone amp and preamp, which is less than half the price of the DarkStar.
The EF-6 was built and voiced with the HE-6 in mind, and, like the DarkStar, the EF-6 drives the HE-6 so adeptly that the HE-6 loses none of the detail (especially in the treble) that makes it so special, but also gains body noticeably everywhere else. When the HE-6 is driven well, it is an absolute force of nature, ultra-detailed yet smooth-utterly world class. I’ve also used the EF-6 to drive many other headphones, including ones by Sennheiser, Audeze, beyerdynamic, Denon and Fostex, and it has done wonderfully with all of those.
I haven’t yet had the chance to compare the DarkStar and EF-6 side by side, but will do so when I can. Even so, I can say with complete confidence that the HE-6/EF-6 combo is a staggeringly good combo at the combined price of around $US2,900-one of the best headphone/amp combos I’ve ever heard. [Head-Direct]
“The treble on the HE6 is very extended and sparkly. There is no hint of any harshness or peaks that I can hear.
Very extended and clean with the best presentation of any headphone I own. It is a pleasure listening to the realistic sound and shimmer of drum cymbals. The space between high hats and the glimmer of all percussion instruments is so much fun to listen too.”
— Head-Fi member/reviewer Frank I
Closed, around-the-ear headphone (around $2000).
Take many different types of sulphur-smoked silver foil pieces, and adhere them-in a manner similar to a torn-paper collage-to a black lacquered base over a precisely shaped Japanese cherry birch wood form. Finish it with an overcoat of rich Bordeaux-wine-coloured paint, until the finish looks deep, glossy, liquid. Finally, using platinum leaf, meticulously apply the emblem of the manufacturer of this exquisite thing. Am I describing the creation of something destined for the display cabinets of the Imperial House of Japan? Maybe if the Emperor of Japan is a headphone audio enthusiast. No, what I’m describing is how the traditional, painstaking art of
Japanese urushi lacquer is used in the adornment of an earcup of a flagship headphone.
When Fostex decided to craft a new flagship high-end headphone, they wanted it to be impeccable in every way, offering high-end sound quality (of course), and to do so with extraordinary beauty and comfort. Their new TH-900 headphone is the result, and it is indeed a stunner. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before the high-end connoisseurs of Head-Fi were abuzz about it, and deservedly so.
The TH-900 is one of the easiest headphones to fall in love with. Of course, there’s that love-at-first-sight thing. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the TH-900 is, in my opinion, the most beautiful headphone ever created. I’ve not seen a photo yet that fully conveys the deep beauty of the TH-900’s urushi-lacquered earcups (nor have I been able to capture it with my own photos, but not for lack of trying).
Then there’s the love-at-first-wear thing. The TH-900 is extremely comfortable-there are few headphones I’d be willing to wear for longer durations than I do the TH-900. A closed headphone, the TH-900’s earpads are made of an advanced synthetic leather derived from eggshell membrane. The result is a material that has the suppleness of the softest leather.
Fostex wouldn’t do all of this without first having sonic performance worthy of it. And in this, its sound, the TH-900 is just as accomplished as it is with its style and comfort. Very revealing, relatively neutral, never fatiguing. The TH-900 sounds velvety and organic, without ever sounding overly smoothed. I have headphones that are more technically capable in one aspect or another, some that are more neutral, and some that are ultimately more revealing, but few headphones can convey as much as the TH-900 does without tiring me at all. It is an eminently easy, yet involving, headphone to listen to.
In every way, the Fostex TH-900 is simply beautiful, and a wonderfully executed flagship by Fostex. [Fostex International]
￼”I’m quite glad I have the TH900 on rotation in my ever-evolving collection of audio gear. In the month or so I’ve spent getting to know it, the bordeaux beauty has grown on me to such an extent that I can confidently say it’s one of my all-time favourite dynamic headphones. I feel it’s a subtle but exciting masterpiece, really.”
— Head-Fi member/reviewer MuppetFace
Be sure to check out the rest of Head-Fi’s Summer Gift Guide here.