Critical listening headphones are for listeners or audiophiles who demand the highest and truest fidelity of audio reproduction from their headphones. This means critical listening headphones should reproduce all aspects of the sound quality, as well as creating a spacious and open soundstage. They should have a good frequency response, good imaging, and excellent harmonic distortion performance. Below are our recommendations for the best critical listening headphones we have tested so far.
Best Critical Listening Headphones $600+
Critical listening headphones in this price range are built with premium materials and carefully engineered to have superbly matched drivers, an almost flat frequency response, superior stereo imaging and a spacious and open soundstage. Also, they're usually very comfortable.
The Sennheiser HD 800 S are excellent sounding reference headphones. They have a crisp and clear reproduction of instruments, vocals, and bass. They do a great job with stereo imaging and create a broad and spacious soundstage. They're the best critical listening headphones we've measured so far. Unfortunately, they're slightly bright and also quite expensive.
The HifiMan Edition X deliver a comfortable critical listening experience. They sound great and reproduce tracks with remarkable fidelity with a bit more bass than the HD 800 S. Additionally, the low impedance planar magnetic drivers do not require an amp and can be powered by your mobile device. However, they're one of the bulkiest headphones we've reviewed so far, so they feel a bit cumbersome.
Best Critical Listening Headphones $300 to $600
In this price range, critical listening headphones are well built but do not feel as premium as some of the higher-end models. However, they still have an excellent audio reproduction, great imaging and soundstage, and low harmonic distortion.
The Sennheiser HD 650 are great headphones for critical listening. They deliver an outstanding sound quality that accurately reproduces the stereo image, instruments, and vocals. They're not as durable or comfortable as the HD 800 S but are a lot cheaper.
The Sennheiser HD 600 are almost the same as the HD 650 but with a less comfortable and weaker headband. They perform a little worse soundwise, especially with bass, although they still have a good audio reproduction that shines with instruments and vocals. They're also cheaper than the HD 650.
Best Critical Listening Headphones $150 to $300
The critical listening headphones in this price range are not typically as well built or durable as the higher-end models. They have a good audio reproduction, good soundstage, and above-average imaging but do not have as precisely matched drivers.
The AKG K701 are comfortable headphones with an excellent and slightly better sound than the K702. Bass, instruments, and vocals are well balanced, and they have a good and spacious soundstage. However, their design is not as durable as some of the other headphones on this list. The audio cable is not detachable or replaceable like the K702's. They're also a bit bulky and unstable, even for casual listening sessions.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x deliver an exceptional audio reproduction, on par with higher-end reference headphones, at a fair price. Their sound is balanced, with the right amount of bass, mids, and treble. They're durable, sturdy and comfortable enough for long listening sessions. They don't produce a soundstage as spacious as some of the open-back headphones on this list, but they also have a bit more bass thanks to their closed design.
Best Critical Listening Headphones $75 to $150
In this price range, critical listening headphones have more flaws in their build quality and design than higher-end models. They have a good audio reproduction and decent soundstage but worse driver matching and harmonic distortion performance. They also may be a bit bass lacking.
The Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO deliver a superb audio reproduction at a great price. Their sound quality is well balanced, open and spacious. They're sturdy, durable and well-padded headphones. Sadly, they're a bit tight on your head, and the audio cable is not replaceable if it gets damaged.
The Sony MDR-7506 are a lightweight pair of critical and studio recording headphones with an accurate audio reproduction. They have a simple and straightforward design that's not the most durable or stable but offers a comfortable fit for hours of listening. They also don't leak much which makes them great headphones to use in a recording environment.
Best Critical Listening Headphones below $75
The critical listening headphones below the 75$ price range will not be as durable or comfortable as the higher-end models. They will have an above-average audio reproduction but won't sound balanced, which may be too sharp or mid-range heavy for some. They don't have well-matched drivers and have more harmonic distortion.
The Philips SHP9500 have a surprisingly good build quality and a phenomenal audio reproduction for their budget price tag. They have a wide and open soundstage and a decently, well-balanced representation of bass, instruments, and vocals. They're comfortable and lightweight but the ear pad cushions feel a little cheap. Their bass also isn't as punchy as some of the pricier headphones on this list.
The Koss Porta Pro are very simple headphones with a unique design and a surprisingly well-balanced sound. They're affordable on-ear headphones with an open fit that gives them a spacious audio reproduction that feels immersive. However, they're not very durable and due to their design, they can be quite leaky. They also don't block any ambient noise so they won't be the ideal headphones to use in loud environments or a noisy commute.
Our recommendations above are what we think are currently the best critical listening headphones to buy for most people in each price range. We factor in the price (a cheaper headphone wins over a pricier one if the difference isn't worth it), feedback from our visitors and availability (no headphones that are difficult to find or almost out of stock everywhere).
A few examples of critical listening headphones that didn't make the cut:
- OPPO PM-3. The planar magnetic drivers deliver a good sound. They're comfortable and sturdy. However, they may sound a bit too sharp for some. See our review
- Sennheiser HD 518. Good, open sound and a spacious soundstage. They're a viable and cheaper alternative to the HD 598, but they're not as well designed. See our review
- Bose SoundTrue Around-Ear II. Good and balanced sound. Incredibly comfortable design but a limited soundstage due to their closed-back ear cups. See our review
- Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000. Great sound but poor soundstage. A good substitute for the ATH-M50x. See our review
- Bowers & Wilkins P7. Great sound but poor soundstage. Good for the listener who doesn't want open-back headphones. See our review
If you would like to choose for yourself, here is the list of all our reviews for critical listening headphones. Be careful not to get caught up in the details. There is no perfect headphone for critical listening. Personal taste, preference and where you use the headphones will matter more in your selection.