Updated

The 7 Best Audiophile Headphones - July 2018
Reviews

Best Critical Listening Headphones

248 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 216 headsets and below are our recommendations for the best high-fidelity headphones you can buy in the summer of 2018.

Best Critical Listening Headphones: Sennheiser HD 800 S

Usage Ratings - Version 1.2
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Test Benches: test

  • 1.2: Winter 2018
  • 1.1: Summer 2017
  • 1.0: Winter 2017
  • 0.9: Winter 2016
6.2
Mixed Usage
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What it is This is the combination of the different use cases to evaluate how versatile the headphones are. Therefore an everyday headphone should be well-rounded enough to adapt to most situations and environments without significant losses in sound quality, design ergonomics or isolation.
Score components:
8.5
Critical Listening
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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:
4.8
Commute/Travel
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What it is How well the headphones handle the loud environments involved in commuting or traveling. Therefore your listening experience should be comfortable, hassle-free and as isolated from noise as possible.
Score components:
5.5
Sports/Fitness
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What it is How well-adapted the headphones are, to use while doing sports or strenuous exercise. Therefore the headphones should not be too cumbersome and deliver a stable and comfortable listening experience.
Score components:
5.4
Office
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What it is How well the headphones can deliver a comfortable and isolated listening experience in an office-like environment. They should not leak much and should block the noise of a busy office.
Score components:
6.2
Home Theater
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Score components:
6.1
Gaming
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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

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 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

Wireless Alternative: Astro A50

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

If you prefer the convenience of a wireless design for critical listening, then we would recommend the Astro A50. They're primarily a gaming headset so they won't have the ambiance and soundstage of the Sennheiser HD 800s or the Hifiman Sundara.  They also have a mic which might be bothersome for some critical listeners. However, they still deliver an excellent performance, with a well-balanced frequency response and a customizable sound and good imaging. Overall, the A50 are a good choice if you primarily use your headphones at home, and their low latency wired design and good sound make them suitable for gaming, movies, and music.

See our review

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

Usage Ratings - Version 1.2
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Test Benches: test

  • 1.2: Winter 2018
  • 1.1: Summer 2017
  • 1.0: Winter 2017
  • 0.9: Winter 2016
5.9
Mixed Usage
Show Help
What it is This is the combination of the different use cases to evaluate how versatile the headphones are. Therefore an everyday headphone should be well-rounded enough to adapt to most situations and environments without significant losses in sound quality, design ergonomics or isolation.
Score components:
7.9
Critical Listening
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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:
4.8
Commute/Travel
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What it is How well the headphones handle the loud environments involved in commuting or traveling. Therefore your listening experience should be comfortable, hassle-free and as isolated from noise as possible.
Score components:
5.7
Sports/Fitness
Show Help
What it is How well-adapted the headphones are, to use while doing sports or strenuous exercise. Therefore the headphones should not be too cumbersome and deliver a stable and comfortable listening experience.
Score components:
5.2
Office
Show Help
What it is How well the headphones can deliver a comfortable and isolated listening experience in an office-like environment. They should not leak much and should block the noise of a busy office.
Score components:
5.9
Home Theater
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Score components:
5.8
Gaming
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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 HD800S 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

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

Best Budget Critical Listening Headphones: Philips SHP9500

Usage Ratings - Version 1.2
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Test Benches: test

  • 1.2: Winter 2018
  • 1.1: Summer 2017
  • 1.0: Winter 2017
  • 0.9: Winter 2016
5.9
Mixed Usage
Show Help
What it is This is the combination of the different use cases to evaluate how versatile the headphones are. Therefore an everyday headphone should be well-rounded enough to adapt to most situations and environments without significant losses in sound quality, design ergonomics or isolation.
Score components:
7.8
Critical Listening
Show Help
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:
4.6
Commute/Travel
Show Help
What it is How well the headphones handle the loud environments involved in commuting or traveling. Therefore your listening experience should be comfortable, hassle-free and as isolated from noise as possible.
Score components:
5.4
Sports/Fitness
Show Help
What it is How well-adapted the headphones are, to use while doing sports or strenuous exercise. Therefore the headphones should not be too cumbersome and deliver a stable and comfortable listening experience.
Score components:
5.3
Office
Show Help
What it is How well the headphones can deliver a comfortable and isolated listening experience in an office-like environment. They should not leak much and should block the noise of a busy office.
Score components:
6.0
Home Theater
Show Help
Score components:
6.0
Gaming
Show Help
Score components:
Type : Over-ear
Enclosure : Open-Back
Wireless : No
Noise-Cancelling : No
Mic : No
Transducer : Dynamic

If you find the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro too expensive, the best budget critical listening headphones are the Philips SHP9500. Their build quality is not quite as good as the Beyerdynamic and their sound quality is a bit bass light so they won't sound as exciting on all tracks. They're also often out of stock on Amazon.

However, for their price, they deliver a well balanced and open sound quality that's immersive and sound good with most genres of music. Their build quality and comfort level are also quite good for their price range.

Overall, the Philips SHP 9500 are a great option for critical listening if you're looking to spend a little less than $100 for an open-back headphone.

See our review

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 to the Philips SHP9500 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
  • Tascam TH-02. A cheap and affordable critical listening headphone with a decent sound. Unfortunately, they do not sound quite as balanced in the bass range and have a mediocre at best build quality and comfort level. 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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Questions & Answers

8 ANSWERED QUESTIONS
10
Your site is great, your reviews are fair and well structured, and your work is much appreciated. Sennheiser has recently released replacements for the 5X8 line of headphones. Any chance you guys can review the HD 599 and all-new closed back HD 569? I know there are, and will be, a TON of people interested in these new models.
We are planning on reviewing the new Sennheiser HD 5xx headphones, however, they will probably be published in 3 or 4 months since we have a lot of other headphones on our to-do list.
3
Focal Utopia is 4000$ - indeed very Top end. But Focal Elear is 1000$ and Clear 1500$. When HD800S which is reviewed is 1500$ as well.
It is true that the Elear and Clear models are within our specified price range, however, since they are not very high on the suggestions list we haven't reviewed them yet. But they haven't been ruled-out and we may review them in the future based on their popularity.
0
Somehow you guys are showing Sennheiser hd598 as closed-back, in the big chart on the critical listening page. I don't know if others are affected.
Thank you for noticing this issue. We have updated the HD598 specifications, and verified that the critical listening table is currently displaying the right data.
0
Just curious. The Beats studio wireless got a 6.9 in Critical Listening but not in the table. I don't like Beats that much as well. But since you did the review, I hope you did it equitably. First please add Beats to the table. Second either change your methodology and test all headphone again to eliminate the error or just admit that Beats studio wireless has a no-bad sound quality since SR325e has only got 7.1. I found RTINGS is a good website, at least for headphone review. Now a days not all people still doing the frequency analysis, even innerfidelity. I like your website. Also, I think Beats is not that bad. I have a Solo 2 and it happened to be very good sound quality. You are the only website that tested the Beats. I wish you could, if you can, test the coming Beats X;Beats Powerbeats 3; Bose QC30; Sony MDR-EX750BT. Since these 4 IEM are competitive and I want to buy one for my new iPhone 7. Thank you very much!

We currently have a bug in our system that checks the product availability on Amazon.com. The reason the Studio Wireless are not showing in the table is that our system mistakenly thinks they are not available on Amazon.com. We are working on a fix.

We do have some inconsistencies and errors in our measurements, and it is our current priority to fix them. However, Beats headphones in general don't score and sound as good as most other headphones in their price range. We have already been planning on reviewing most of the headphones you recommended, but it could take us 3-4 months to get to them since we have a lot of other headphones on our to-do list.

0
Good job... Please review dt880 pro and focal Elear.
We are mostly focused on low to mid priced headphones at the moment, and will review more high-end headphones in the near future.
0
I am looking for a recommendation for a great headphone to use for PC gaming. Are critical listening headphones ideal for PC gaming, or is there another type of headphone you can recommend me?
Most of our Critical Listening recommendations are open-back and don't have a microphone, so if a microphone and isolation are not a concern, then they should be a great choice for gaming. Otherwise, we would suggest a pair of wired closed-back headphones (for the lowest latency) that also come with a mic, like the Bose QuietComfort 25.
0
Any chance you'll ever review the Stax SR-009? I know it's $$$...just curious
Chances of us reviewing anything above $1500 at the moment is very very slim.
0
All the recommendations are big over-ear headphones. Which would be the best in-ear recommendation for critical listening?
The reason we recommend over-ears, is that they tend to have a better soundstage, but we may consider recommending in-ears and earbuds in the future. For now, our recommendations would be either one of the Bose headphones like the SoundSport Free (they are earbuds though), or 1More Triple Driver or the Beats BeatsX. There's also the AKG N5005 which is supposed to be based on the Harman target curve, but it's pretty expensive and we haven't measured it yet. So we can't really comment on it, but it would be another good option to explore.
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