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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.