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The 8 Best Audiophile Headphones - November 2018
Reviews

Best Critical Listening Headphones
280 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 sound quality 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. See also our recommendations for the best headphones for music, the best bass headphones, and the best studio headphones.

We've tested 238 headsets and below are our recommendations for the best sounding headphones you can buy in 2018.

  1. Best Audiophile Headphones: Sennheiser HD 800 S

    Usage Ratings - Version 1.2

    Test Benches:

    • 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 sounding 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 HD 800 S 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 : Planar Magnetic

    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. Overall, they're one of the best sounding headphones we've tested.

    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 Audiophile Headphones: Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO

    Usage Ratings - Version 1.2

    Test Benches:

    • 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 our top picks, then get Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro. They do not have the soundstage or 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 but can be a little tight on some heads.

    Overall, if you're looking for a good entry level headphone into the audiophile world, the DT 990 are a great choice and one of the best mixing headphones we've tested.

    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 ATH-M50x are a good alternative to the Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO. They won't have the soundstage of the open-back models on this list. They also make your ears a bit warmer 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 noise isolation and less leakage. 

    This makes them sound a bit more exciting overall and the better noise isolation performance means you can also use the M50x while commuting and still get the same great sound while on the go, even if they will let a bit of ambient noise seep into the ear cups. Overall, the ATH-M50x are one of the best closed-back headphones for critical listening.

    See our review

  6. Wired in-ear alternative: 1More Triple Driver In-Ear

    Type : In-ear
    Enclosure : Closed-Back
    Wireless : No
    Noise-Cancelling : No
    Mic : Yes
    Transducer : Hybrid

    if you prefer the compact design of in-ears and want a great sounding headset that you can use on the go while commuting and traveling, get the 1More Triple Driver In-Ear. As expected, their closed back and small in-ear design does not offer the soundstage of the open over-ear headphones on this list. The in-ear fit also won't be as comfortable for all listeners.

    On the upside, they come with 9 tip sizes to help you find the right fit. They also have a sturdy and durable build quality with metal earbuds capable of handling quite a few drops and a coated cable that should last you a while. They have a well-balanced sound that delivers a good amount of bass and they have an above average reproduction of instruments and vocals.

    The Bose SoundTrue Ultra In-Ear are a bit more comfortable with their earbud like fit, however, if you're looking for a durable in-ear for critical listening that you can easily carry around in your pocket, the 1More Triple Driver are a great choice.

    See our review

  7. Best Budget Audiophile Headphones: Superlux HD 681

    Usage Ratings - Version 1.2

    Test Benches:

    • 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, the best audiophile headphones in the budget category 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, for their price, they 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 an audiophile headphone.

    See our review

  8. Closed-Back Alternative: Corsair HS60

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

    If you use your headphone for gaming as well as critical listening, then one of the best budget headset you can purchase are the Corsair HS60. They do not have the open sound of some of the other critical listening recommendations. They also sound a bit less balanced than the Logitech G433, which is also a good sounding gaming headset.

    However, the HS60 have a more consistent audio reproduction that does not depend as much on positioning and whether you wear glasses or not. They also have a much sturdier and premium-looking build quality when compared to most gaming headsets in this price range. They have a good, well-balanced sound that packs enough bass and still reproduces instruments and vocals with good enough fidelity to please most critical listeners.

    They have an excellent boom mic for gamers and it's detachable so you can use them like casual headphones, unlike the similarly priced HyperX Stingers. The Logitech are a good alternative to these headphones but the Corsair offer a slightly better value at their current price point.

    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
  • Audeze LCD2-Classic. A great sounding and well built critical listening over-ear with a warmer sound for those sensitive to higher frequencies. A good alternative to the Ananda but slightly worse sound overall. 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
  • 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
  • KZ ZS-10. A budget wired in-ear with a cool design, a replaceable cable, and decently balanced sound. Their slightly bulky and won't be as comfortable for all listeners. 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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