Best Audiophile Headphones for 2020
- Damped headband reduces vibration
- Soft and comfortable microfiber pads
- Large, rich, and lush 56 mm drivers
- Made from the best materials
- Chunky design fits any head
- Strong but nuanced bass
There’s been a move in more recent years towards convenience as far as headphones are concerned. Smaller, cheaper earbuds that pack in as many convenience of life features as possible dominate the market, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t options available for people who want the best sound quality. If you want the best audiophile headphones, there are plenty of options available, but you need to know where to look to ensure you get a decent deal.
That’s what HotRate is here for. We’ve put together a list of the 10 best audiophile headphones of 2020, so you have a lot of models to choose from. We’ve also put together a comprehensive guide to the features and specs you should pay attention to when shopping for the best headphones.
- 10 Best Audiophile Headphones
- 1. Sennheiser HD 800 S Reference Headphone System
- 2. Final Audio Design SONOROUS X Headphones
- 3. GRADO SR80e Prestige Open Back Stereo Headphones
- 4. HIFIMAN HE-400I Over Ear Headphones
- 5. Shure SRH1540 Premium Closed-Back Headphones
- 6. Sony MDRZ1R Signature, Hi-Res Headphone
- 7. Audeze LCD-4 Over Ear Headphone
- 8. AKG Pro Audio AKG K72 CLOSED-BACK STUDIO HEADPHONES
- 9. Superlux HD 681 Dynamic Semi-Open Headphones
- 10. STAX SR-007A MK2 Electrostatic Earspeakers
- Audiophile Headphones Buyer’s Guide
10 Best Audiophile Headphones
1. Sennheiser HD 800 S Reference Headphone System
If you're looking for the best audiophile headphones, Sennheiser is a name you need to know. They produce some of the best headphones around, but perfection doesn't come cheap. And while you can expect to pay over $1500 for these audiophile headphones, you'll get your money's worth. The 56 millimeter drivers are the biggest to ever be used in headphones of this type. These are studio headphones through and through, so audiophiles can expect a level of raw and high definition accuracy that's rarely seen.
Another standout feature is the soundstage in these headphones. Sennheiser has created a real sense of place and some of the best imaging around with these headphones, and that only becomes more apparent as you listen to more densely sophisticated music. That sense of space - along with the general quality of the sound reproduction - result in a listening experience that's not quite like anything else on the market today.
- Damped headband reduces vibration
- Soft and comfortable microfiber pads
- Large, rich, and lush 56 mm drivers
- Some of the best staging around
2. Final Audio Design SONOROUS X Headphones
The Sonorous X by Final Audio is a pair of headphones that look like they should cost $5000. With their elegant design and gold finish, this is a flashy pair of headphones, but there's some solid build quality going on beneath all the glamour. Big and chunky ear cups provide for a spacious sound stage, and they're designed well enough to suit basically any head comfortably, although they can get a bit heavy as a result. With a construction of stainless steel, aluminum, and top shelf leather, these are some headphones designed to last.
As soon as you put these headphones on, you'll realize that they're not used for reference use. The bass quality is deep, thrumming, and satisfying, while there's a precision to the highs and a steadiness to the mids that are practically unmatched. But most satisfying is the sense of texture and depth that extends across the entire frequency range.
- Made from the best materials
- Chunky design fits any head
- Strong but nuanced bass
- Great balance across frequencies
3. GRADO SR80e Prestige Open Back Stereo Headphones
A good pair of audiophile headphones doesn't <i>have</i> to cost you thousands of dollars. Grado is a small brand based out of New York known for creating nicely crafted and bespoke headphones for audiophile customers, and their SR80e offers a meticulous level of performance for only a hundred bucks. The bass may not hit the level of depth that the best $5000 headphones can muster, but there's a great bit of detail in the mid and upper ranges. All in all, there's a playful sense of buoyancy to the sound you get from these audiophile headphones.
The one thing to keep in mind is that these are open backed headphones. And while that means there's practically no noise isolation to talk about here, they do offer a richer and more lush sound stage, making these some of the best heaphones for listening to music from a record player or dedicated in home sound system.
- Well crafted open back structure
- One of a kind vintage design
- Great mids and treble performance
- Bass is strong but not overwhelming
4. HIFIMAN HE-400I Over Ear Headphones
Quality open back headphones aren't especially common, which is why it's so exciting to see another pair of open back audiophile headphones available for less than $200. The Hifiman HE-400 is one of the most ergonomic headphones on the market. Not only does to open back design support a more breathable sense of space, but it's constructed from universally lightweight materials that find the best balance between comfort and portability. The band fits well regardless of the shape of your head and doesn't weigh you down during extended listening sessions.
The planar magnetic headphones drivers create an excellent, clean listening experience and an above average sound stage only further reinforced by the open back design. The bass here is especially expansive, and there's a nice sense of clarity to the highs, but the mids are where this model really excels. Special attention has been made with the driver placement to deliver top shelf imaging.
- Premium cable made of crystalline metal
- Headband uses improved pressure pattern
- Ear cups made from velour and leatherette
- Doesn't require a powerful source
5. Shure SRH1540 Premium Closed-Back Headphones
The Shure SRH1540 may not come with a lot of features, but that shouldn't scare off audiophiles. These headphones have it where it counts: in terms of overall sound reproduction. In fact, these headphones offer what's arguably the best level of balance in audio quality for under a grand. Despite the fact that these are closed back headphones, the quality of the mid range is very clear and not crowded out as is often the case. But the extremes of bass and treble similarly emphasize a clarity of sound that really brings out the intent of musical recordings.
The build quality offers a similar focus on workmanlike quality without being ostentatious. The fact that the frame itself is built from aircraft grade aluminum ensures a level of sturdiness while still being incredibly lightweight, and the combination of padding and leatherette in the cup promises comfortable design even in extended listening sessions.
- Ergonomic, comfortable design quality
- Mid performance is truly excellent
- Warm and expressive sound stage
- Works with a simple 3.5 mm cable
6. Sony MDRZ1R Signature, Hi-Res Headphone
In terms of consumer electronics, Sony has their fingers in every little pie. But if the MDRZ1R Signature is any indication, they aren't yet at the point of spreading themselves too thin. The specs here are incredible. Not only does it offer a max range of frequency six times the human hearing range, but this model also pack in some 70 mm drivers for powerful performance. Combine that with the fact that these are closed-back over-ear headphones and you're left with some of the best bass audio performance we've encountered.
Fortunately, these audiophile headphones manage to feel comfortable in addition to offering excellent performance. They may be big, but the ergonomic shape of the cans accommodates both a comfortable fit and delivers a sound stage, and the leather that's used to wrap them are both stylish and comfortable. The headband is equally as well padded and uses a titanium build for a longer lasting life.
- Some of the best sound quality around
- Incredibly powerful bass performance
- Band constructed from pure titanium
- Strong sense of tonal balance
7. Audeze LCD-4 Over Ear Headphone
If you're new to the world of audiophile headphones, chances are that you haven't heard the name Audeze. But despite their high price point their planar magnetic headphones have become renowned throughout the audiophile community. The LCD-4 is based off of four decades of experimentation with planar magnetic headphones design, and it shows. The sound stage is something Audeze is particularly excellent at, and the LCD-4 builds off the company's already strong fundamentals in that regard. The bass performance here is beyond excellent, and while the treble and mids are a little weaker, they're still crisp enough for the price.
And the use of incredibly powerful magnets makes sure that you get a better resolution no matter what you're listening to. Just keep in mind that the sheer power packed into this pair of headphones means that you're going to need a pretty beefy amplifier to justify that price.
- Tremendous magnetic driving force
- Truly excellent bass performance
- Sports an elegant chrome finish
- Nano-scale diaphragm is lightweight
8. AKG Pro Audio AKG K72 CLOSED-BACK STUDIO HEADPHONES
The AKG K72 comes in at a price tag of about $50, and while it won't compete with audiophile headphones priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it does manage to deliver sound performance that goes well beyond what you could expect for the price assigned. The 40 mm drivers may be a little small, but they're built with the needs of professionals in mind, and the offer the sort of flat balance best suited to monitoring and producing.
This mode also comfortable to wear thanks to the inclusion of a self adjusting headband and a lightweight design that minimizes the pressure on your head while listening. These aren't going to be the ideal headphones for audiophiles, in part due to the mid-range frequencies being a little too forward facing, but they go well beyond what to expect for the price, and they're great for travel.
- Lightweight and compact design
- Some of the best price value around
- Built with reference monitoring in mind
- Headband is self adjusting
9. Superlux HD 681 Dynamic Semi-Open Headphones
The fact that Superlux has managed to deliver some truly neutral sound on headphones priced right around $25 in its own right is pretty incredible, but you should temper your expectations a little bit. If you need a budget priced option that can serve hobbyist music producers or audio geeks looking for a solid listening experience, these will fit the bill, but they still can't deliver the quality you need on a more professional level.
The sound stage here is a little thin, but mid-range frequencies come in almost completely flat. Just bear in mind that there's a bit of a spike when extending between the mids and the lower or higher frequencies. The comfort level here is strong as well. The cups are spacious in a way that should fit most heads well, and the band is designed to fit snugly without being uncomfortably tight.
- The cheapest headphones on our list
- Headband uses a self adjusting design
- Semi-open back for better soundstage
- Comes with its own carrying case
10. STAX SR-007A MK2 Electrostatic Earspeakers
Electrostatic headphones are generally regarded as some of the most natural sounding headphones in existence because their design does a great job replicating the principles of music engineering. And while the STAX SR-007A MK2, their electrostatic design makes them worthy of your attention. The treble performance is a bit more muted than traditional STAX models, and the result are headphones that are significantly more neutral, making these an ideal choice for mixing and recording.
In terms of build, these are some impressive headphones. The shell is made entirely from metal, making them some of the most durable headphones on the market while also delivering music with less distortion thanks to reduced vibrations. And the ear pads themselves are fully adjustable, so they should fit like a glove regardless of the shape or size of your head. The pads themselves are wrapped in lamb leather so they'll feel great on your ears.
- Sports an electrostatic design
- Body built from all metal components
- Reduced vibration for less interference
- Pads made from lamb leather
Audiophile Headphones Buyer’s Guide
If you’re looking for the absolute best audiophile headphones, you can expect to spend a lot of money. While we’ve highlighted some audiophile headphones in the $100 range, the best headphone models will set you back a few grand. Excellent sound is obviously one of the priorities you should keep in mind when looking for audiophile headphones, but finding the best means weighing a lot of choices.
You shouldn’t throw down hundreds or thousands of dollars without knowing what you’re getting. And that’s what our shopping guide is here to help with. We’ll help you understand what traits you should be looking for so that you can find the ideal headphones at a price you’ll be comfortable with.
Closed- or Open-Back Design
All audiophile headphones are over-ear headphones, but they can come in two separate designs: open-back headphones or closed back headphones. While the former are generally better for discriminating listening, they’re rarer and often bear a higher price tag.
The big advantage of closed back over-ear headphones is that they do a great job at noise cancelling. Since they cover your ears completely, they create a tight seal that blocks out surrounding sound. This noise cancelling features makes them a great choice if you want to listen to music or movie sound in a noisier environment, but the noise cancelling tech comes at the cost of an expansive sound stage, and they aren’t typically as light and breathable as their open-back compatriots. But by trapping in the sound, they do a great job of letting you identify particular instruments.
Open-back headphones by contrast don’t trap in the sound. Thanks to an opening in the back of the headphones, the drivers don’t deliver sound directly into your ear. This results in headphones sound that has a greater sense of space. This makes them less well suited to reference or production work, but it creates a more enjoyable experience where it feels like the musicians are right there in the room with you. That said, they’re going to get the best results when you’re in an isolated room without distractions, because their noise cancelling capabilities are practically nil.
The thing that separates audiophile headphones from more run of the mill headphones is the audio engineering, and if you want the best sound quality, there’s no more important metric to pay attention to than the frequency response. This range tells you how adequately a pair of over the ear headphones can reproduce sound quality. With any decent pair of headphones, you’ll want at least something in the range of 20 Hz to 20 KHz, as this represents the sound audible to human hearing. Frequency range isn’t the only factor in sound quality, but it’s the most quantifiable.
The response range is broken down into three types of sound. Bass audio (resembling deeper sounds like drums) is represented by the lows, while treble (reproducing shrill and high pitched noise) is represented by the highs. Mids fall right in the middle. It behooves you to seek out audio reproduction with a wider range, because even if you can’t hear the higher or lower frequencies, they add extra layers of nuance to the music that you’re listening to and can help foster a richer sound stage and better audio imaging.
We can talk all day about the depth and detailed sound that a wider frequency range brings, the importance of size and materials in driver construction, and the realism that comes from great imaging and a strong sound stage, but the simple fact is that there’s no universal “best” sound performance. Flat sound is usually the best choice for work in the studio, but hip-hop heads will generally prefer strong bass, and a more forward facing treble and mid range will work best for rock music.
If you’re planning on dropping hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for good sound quality, we suggest you take the time to figure out what sort of sound you prefer before pulling the trigger. If you have the chance to try out some headphones with your favorite music before buying, you can be a lot more confident in the sort of rich sound quality you’re looking for. That doesn’t mean you need to try out the specific headphones you’re looking for, but it’s best to figure out what qualifies as the best audio quality for you so you can shop for headphones that have their sound quality tuned appropriately.
High-end headphones aren’t much use if you hate to wear them, so you should take how comfortable they are into close consideration when shopping for over-ear headphones. There are quite a few things to consider here, but the best way to determine how comfortable headphones are is to try them on yourself.
The first thing to consider is what materials have gone into the design of your headphones. Having proper cushioning for both the ear cups and the headphones is important, but it’s all about finding balance. Headphones with too little cushioning will obviously feel less comfortable because there’s less of a barrier between you and the hardware packed inside, but too much cushioning can cause them to clamp around your ears. We suggest that you look for models that use memory cushioning, because it contours better to the shape of your head.
The covering for your headphones are also important. Leatherette is our favorite because it mixes style with a soft sense of comfort, but not all leather is built to the same quality standards. Polyester and nylon are also good choices because they’re highly breathable, but they’re more often used in cheaper headphones that you can expect to sustain some wear and tear.
Unless you’re looking at wireless headphones, all the headphones you’ll find are going to come with a cord that has a plug on the end. There are two main options to choose from here, and each has their own advantages as well as some weaknesses.
- Chances are that you have at least one device in your life that uses a 3.5 mm plug (also known as an aux plug). They’re the most common audio input in phones or portable players and often appear in cars as well. That means that a 3.5 mm plug will work with most consumer audio devices, but the design of them means that they don’t always transmit sound as well as larger plugs.
- 1/4 inch plugs are the recognized standard in most audio equipment, so you’ll want to find headphones with these plugs if you’re looking to use your headphones in a professional capacity. They’re also sometimes referred to as “phone plugs” because they were used in the early days of telephony. A quarter inch plug is practically a necessity when working with PA, mixing, or recording equipment.
If you want access to both a quarter inch and a 3.5 mm plug, you aren’t out of luck. Many models allow you to unscrew the quarter inch plug to reveal an aux plug underneath. And even if a given set of headphones doesn’t offer that, you can always find a converter cable that can help you adapt your headphones to suit the source you want to use.
Sensitivity, measured in decibels, tells you how loud headphones can get as well as how loud they are in general. While it’s a measurement worth paying attention to, it shouldn’t make or break your buying decision unless you plan on listening to your headphones in louder environments. Generally you should look for headphones that offer a sensitivity in the range of 85 to 110 decibels. If you want louder sounding headphones, you may have to shell out a little extra money. Higher decibels require higher capacity amps if you want to minimize distortion.
It’s also worth noting that there’s no universal system for how sensitivity is tested. That means that products from two given manufacturers may offer some variance between the actual volume they deliver. That said, when looking at the top shelf manufacturers we’ve included on this list, you can generally expect a solid level of accuracy.
While all of the headphones on our list qualify by some terms as “audiophile quality”, the prices can vary pretty significantly. Despite the fact that they all earned inclusion on this list, you can’t expect a set of headphones under $100 to perform in the same way as a thousand dollar pair. You get what you pay for, and we highly suggest that you give headphones in different price ranges a spin before picking one.
Headphones that cost a thousand dollars or more are typically reserved for only the most serious audio geeks and for music professionals, while consumers should typically pay a few hundred dollars for a pair with the sound performance and build quality that will really help them listen to their music as intended. Just bear in mind that your headphones are only as good as your source device, and more expensive models will require more expensive gear to help you appreciate the difference.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Headphones Have the Best Sound Quality?
The MDRZ1R by Sony bears one of the most expensive price tags around, but it also delivers some of the most accurate sound we’ve discovered. The frequency response range creates a sound signature that’s out of this world, and that’s only bolstered by the over-sized scale of the drivers design. Just keep in mind that you’ll need a pretty powerful amp source to make the most of these audiophile headphones.
What is Audiophile Quality?
An audiophile is simply someone who enjoys the most high fidelity sound around, and the meaning of “audiophile quality” can vary from user to user. Earphones that promise audiophile quality sound often take the form of electrostatic headphones and employ some of the best sound quality around.
What are Audiophile Earphones?
There aren’t any concrete standard for what constitutes audiophile headphones, but they generally refer to headphones that are designed for discriminating listening or are tailored for reference or production work. Audiophile headphones almost always offer a frequency response range well outside the range of human hearing, excellent build quality, and an expensive price tag to match.
What are High Fidelity Headphones?
High fidelity is to sound what high definition is to video. High fidelity headphones make use of powerful drivers and an expanded frequency response range to deliver quality that goes beyond a more traditional set of speakers or headphones. Frequency response usually remains flat and neutral within the human frequency response range, and they make use of cutting edge technology and top shelf materials that eliminate distortion and noise almost entirely.
Are you looking for the top headphone model for your needsf? Our review list offers a great place to start, but that’s just scratching the surface of what the headphones market has to offer. Sound quality is only one factor to consider, and really investing in an audiophile design means coughing up a lot of money. If you’re looking for an alternative category of headphones, we recommend you read our reviews to the best high-quality wireless headphones in 2020 or our guide to the best noise over-ear headphones in 2020.