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The 7 Best Audiophile Headphones - September 2018
Reviews

Best Critical Listening Headphones
266 Headphones Tested
  • Store-bought headphones; no cherry-picked units
  • Retest after major updates
  • Easily comparable results
  • No ads; unbiased reviews
Learn more about our approach to product reviews here.

Looking for the best sounding headphones? 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.

We've tested 232 headsets and below are our recommendations for the best high-fidelity headphones you can buy in 2018.

  1. Best Critical Listening Headphones: Sennheiser HD 800 S

    Usage Ratings - Version 1.2

    Test Benches: test

    • 1.2: Winter 2018
    • 1.1: Summer 2017
    • 1.0: Winter 2017
    • 0.9: Winter 2016
    8.5
    Critical Listening
    What it is The level of audio fidelity a headphone can reproduce. Therefore a balanced and true representation of bass, mids, treble, soundstage and imaging, as well as a comfortable listening experience, is essential for critical listening.
    Score components:
    Type : Over-ear
    Enclosure : Open-Back
    Wireless : No
    Noise-Cancelling : No
    Mic : No
    Transducer : Dynamic

    The best audiophile headphones that we've measured so far are the Sennheiser HD 800 S. If they’re within your budget and you have a good amp, 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.

    However, like most open-back headphones, they are sensitive to noisy environments and leak a lot so by design, they won't be the most versatile headphones. They also do not pack as much bass compared to closed back critical listening headphones or some of the planar magnetic models by Hifiman. 

    Overall, the HD800s are the best choice for critical listening if you have the budget.

    See our review

  2. Planar Magnetic Alternative: HiFiMan Ananda

    Type : Over-ear
    Enclosure : Open-Back
    Wireless : No
    Noise-Cancelling : No
    Mic : No
    Transducer : Dynamic

    If you want a critical listening headphone that sounds as good as the Sennheiser HD 800 S but for less, then go for the HiFiMan Ananda. They may not have the build quality of the 800S and despite their planar magnetic drivers and very open ear cups, they do not quite sound as spacious as the Sennheisers. However, this may be due to the HD800 S being slightly brighter overall so the difference in soundstage is not very noticeable.

    Also, the HiFiMan pack a bit more bass, and overall they deliver a balanced audio reproduction that sounds great with any track you throw at them. Their build quality is also better than the similarly designed Edition X, making them the best HiFiMan model for critical listening that we've tested so far. As long as their build quality holds up, and they do not develop any major defects or quality control issues, then they're a great choice for any audiophile and a slightly better value for your money than the Sennheiser.

    See our review

  3. Cheaper Alternative: HiFiMan Sundara

    Type : Over-ear
    Enclosure : Open-Back
    Wireless : No
    Noise-Cancelling : No
    Mic : No
    Transducer : Planar Magnetic

    If you want a much cheaper audiophile headphone than the Sennheiser HD 800 S or the HiFiMan Ananda that still offers an exceptional sound quality, then get the HiFiMan Sundara. They do not have the quality control of a brand like Sennheiser so they are more prone to manufacturing defects. They also do not come with as many accessories and aren't as well-built or as durable as the often compared Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro.

    However, the Sundara deliver a sound quality that's better balanced than the Beyerdynamic and pack a bit more bass than the Sennheiser while still providing a spacious soundstage and comfortable fit. The Sundara have a great price to sound quality ratio and are a solid recommendation for most critical listeners.

    See our review

  4. Best Mid-Range Critical Listening Headphones: Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO

    Usage Ratings - Version 1.2

    Test Benches: test

    • 1.2: Winter 2018
    • 1.1: Summer 2017
    • 1.0: Winter 2017
    • 0.9: Winter 2016
    8.0
    Critical Listening
    What it is The level of audio fidelity a headphone can reproduce. Therefore a balanced and true representation of bass, mids, treble, soundstage and imaging, as well as a comfortable listening experience, is essential for critical listening.
    Score components:
    Type : Over-ear
    Enclosure : Open-Back
    Wireless : No
    Noise-Cancelling : No
    Mic : No
    Transducer : Dynamic

    If you want a good-sounding and durable critical listening headphone that's a lot more affordable than the Sennheiser HD 800 S or the HiFiMan Sundara, then get Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro. They do not have the soundstage and ambiance of the more premium recommendations on this list, and they tend to sound a bit sharp on already bright tracks. They also do not have a removable cable or as many accessories as the higher-end DT 1990 Pro .

    On the upside, they deliver a sound and build quality that's practically unmatched at their price range. They're also durable enough to last you a very long time and they're decently comfortable after wearing them for a while and allowing the headband to stretch.

    Overall, if you're looking for a good entry level headphone into the audiophile world, the DT 990 are a great choice.

    See our review

  5. Closed-Back Alternative: Audio-Technica ATH-M50x

    Type : Over-ear
    Enclosure : Closed-Back
    Wireless : No
    Noise-Cancelling : No
    Mic : No
    Transducer : Dynamic

    If you want a pair of critical listening headphones that you can also use outdoors, then the closed back Audio-Technica M50x are a good alternative to the Beyerdynamic DT990. They won't have the soundstage of the open-back models on this list and they will make your ears fairly warm after a couple hours of listening but on the upside, their closed back design gives them a more powerful bass than the Beyerdynamic and they provide better isolation and less leakage so you can use them outdoors while commuting. Overall, the ATH-M50x are one of the best closed-back headphones for critical listening.

    See our review

  6. Best Budget Critical Listening Headphones: Superlux HD 681

    Usage Ratings - Version 1.2

    Test Benches: test

    • 1.2: Winter 2018
    • 1.1: Summer 2017
    • 1.0: Winter 2017
    • 0.9: Winter 2016
    7.7
    Critical Listening
    What it is The level of audio fidelity a headphone can reproduce. Therefore a balanced and true representation of bass, mids, treble, soundstage and imaging, as well as a comfortable listening experience, is essential for critical listening.
    Score components:
    Type : Over-ear
    Enclosure : Semi-Open
    Wireless : No
    Noise-Cancelling : No
    Mic : No
    Transducer : Dynamic

    If you find the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro too expensive, then the best budget critical listening alternative are the Superlux HD 681. Their build quality is not as good as the Beyerdynamic and the Philips SHP9500 are a better option overall but they are often out of stock.

    On the upside, the Superlux are a budget option that for their price, deliver a well balanced and decently open sound that sounds good with most genres and packs a decent amount of bass. Their mid-range is fairly well balanced and they do not sound sharp but unfortunately, they aren't the most comfortable critical listening headphones around and their build quality may be a deal breaker for some.

    Overall, the Superlux HD 681 are a good option for critical listening if you're looking to spend a little less than $50 for a critical listening headphone.

    See our review

  7. Closed-Back Alternative: Logitech G433

    Type : Over-ear
    Enclosure : Closed-Back
    Wireless : No
    Noise-Cancelling : No
    Mic : Yes
    Transducer : Dynamic

    If you're looking for a closed-back alternative that's still in the budget range, get the Logitech G433. Like most closed-back headphones, they will not have the ambiance and soundstage of the open back headphones on this list. They will also sound fairly neural so their bass range won't be as exciting as the Audio Technica ATH-M50X. However, for their price, they deliver a well-balanced frequency response and decent build quality. They also have a casual gaming design with a detachable mic and a regular audio cable so you can use them outdoors with your phone while commuting. This makes the G433 a decently versatile headphone for music, gaming, and most casual use cases.

    See our review

Notable Mentions

  • Sennheiser HD 700. Great audio reproduction, comfortable and sturdy design. A good alternative to the HiFiMan Sundara. See our review
  • Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro. A well built critical listening headphones with lots of accessories. Sounds a bit sharp and not that much different from the DT 990 Pro. See our review
  • Beyerdynamic DT 770. A closed-back alternative to the DT 990 for more versatility. However, they do not sound as good due to the reduced soundstage. See our review
  • Sony MDR-1A. A more comfortable design than the Audio Technica ATH-M50x with good audio reproduction. Slightly too pricey for what they offer. See our review
  • 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 599. Great sound and soundstage. Comfortable design but slightly outperformed by the HiFiMan Sundara. See our review
  • Sennheiser HD 650. Good audiophile headphones, open sound and a spacious soundstage. They're a viable and cheaper alternative to the Sennheiser HD 800 S, but they're not as well designed. See our review
  • AKG K702. Good and balanced sound. Incredibly comfortable design but slightly bulky and 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
  • SteelSeries Arctis 7. A versatile and customizable headset that's good for gaming and even casual use. A good alternative to the Astro A50 but do not have the convenience of a dock. See our review
  • Sennheiser Game One. An open gaming headphone that sounds as good as the Sennheiser HD 599 or HD 600 but also has a great microphone. See our review
  • Philips SHP9500. A great budget and open-back critical listening headphone with a surprisingly good sound and build quality for their price. Unfortunately, they are discontinued on Amazon and most retailers. See our review

All Reviews

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).

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.

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