Looking for the best sound quality possible? The best audiophile headphones produce the highest and truest fidelity of audio production. They should reproduce all aspects of the sound quality, as well as create a spacious and open soundstage.
Good headphones for critical listening will be comfortable over long listening periods and should have a good frequency response, good imaging and excellent harmonic distortion performance. Below are our recommendations for the best high-fidelity headphones we have tested so far.
Best Critical Listening Headphones
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. They're usually very comfortable.
The Sennheiser HD 800 S are one of the best headphones for music we've tested. If they’re within your budget and you have a good amp, then they are an excellent recommendation for pure critical listening. They’re comfortable enough to wear for extended listening sessions, and their build quality feels durable and very high-end. They have the same sensitivity to noisy environments as all open headphones but deliver a spacious and immersive soundstage that will surely satisfy the audiophile in you.
If you want a much cheaper option than the Sennheiser HD 800 S that still offers an excellent sound quality, then consider the Sennheiser HD 599. They're not as well built and do not sound as good as the HD 800s, but they deliver a comfortable listening experience, a well-balanced audio reproduction, and a spacious soundstage. They're also a bit cheaper than the HiFiMan HE-400i and the AKG K702 for an on par sound quality.
Best Mid-Range Critical Listening Headphones
The critical listening headphones in this price range are not as well-built or have the premium materials of higher-end models. They have a good audio reproduction, good soundstage, and above-average imaging but do not have as precisely matched drivers.
For a mid-range option, we recommend the Beyerdynamic DT 990. If you’re looking for a sturdy pair of headphones to use with your amp set up, but do not have the budget for some of the more expensive critical listening headphones, then they are an excellent option. They are great open headphones with an outstanding sound quality but at a much more affordable cost. They deliver an audio reproduction as good, if not better, than the pricier model in this use case. However, they’re not as comfortable (they feel a bit too tight out of the box).
If you want a closed back option that’s a bit more versatile for other use cases, then the Audio-Technica M50x are a good alternative to the Beyerdynamic DT990. They deliver an excellent sound, and their closed-back design means they won’t leak as much. They will also block a bit of ambient noise so you can use them in more varied environments than some of the open models on this list. Due to their closed design, you loose a bit of soundstage, but these headphones are sturdy, durable and have a comfortable fit. At their price, they’re a solid recommendation for most casual or critical listeners.
Best Budget Critical Listening Headphones
Audiophile headphones below 100$ 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.
If you’re looking for a budget pair of headphones, we recommend the Philips SHP9500. They are an excellent option under $100 and for their price, they easily outperform some of the more expensive audiophile headphones we’ve reviewed. They’re comfortable for long critical listening sessions, but like all open headphones, they are best used in quiet environments, which makes them less versatile for other use cases. They're also not as well-built or as sturdy, as some of the pricier open headphones on this list
The Superlux HD 668B are even cheaper than the Philips SHP 9500, yet they deliver an audio reproduction almost as good. It's an amazing sound quality for this price range and one that we would strongly recommend for any critical listeners on a budget. They have a good bass, treble and detailed high tones that sound good with instruments and vocals yet still packs enough kick for fans of bass. However, like the SHP9500, their budget price means their build quality is not as premium or as tough as the pricier headphones on this list
Our recommendations above are what we think are currently the best sounding 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 650. Good, open sound and a spacious soundstage. They're a viable and cheaper alternative to the HD 800S, but they're not as well designed. See our review
- AKG K702. Good and balanced sound. Incredibly comfortable design but slightly bulky a bit flimsy for their price. See our review
- Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000. Great sound but poor soundstage. A good substitute for the ATH-M50x. See our review
- HiFIMan HE-400i. Great sound and soundstage. Comfortable design and planar magnetic drivers but a bit pricey compared to the competition. 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 are no perfect headphones. Personal taste, preference and where you use the headphones will matter more in your selection.