With smaller equipment, more affordable pricing, and plenty of readily available information everywhere, the once-daunting barrier to entry for audiophile-quality gear has been severely lowered in recent years. As such, plenty of people find themselves developing a more discerning palate when it comes to how they experience their music.
This has led to a rise in the purchase of higher-end audio equipment. More people than ever seem willing to spend just a little more for better sound quality. Because of this, the industry has also gotten bigger, with more choices than ever battling for a place in your home audio setup.
With headphones, for instance, there’s a healthy range of options out there squarely directed at folks with more sophisticated musical palates. They vary in prices from modest three-figure models to over-the-top five-figure systems that are probably out of reach for most people. For this list, we’ll keep it to models coming in at just under $1,000, so you can enjoy studio-grade equipment at prices even more casual consumers can embrace.
It’s not the most affordable model in HiFiMan’s line of planar magnetic headphones. That would be the sub-$200 HE400i model, which we recommend if you want headphones you can use for listening to movies and watching Netflix alike. With a diaphragm that’s 80 percent thinner than that entry-level model, though, the Sundara just makes for a much more refined listening experience, with its combination of accurate sound reproduction, velvety midrange textures, and hard-hitting bass. Plus, it’s one of the most comfortable open-back headphones we’ve tried, making it viable for all-day listening marathons.
While it’s been in the market for over six years now, Shure’s closed-back headphones remain a popular option among discerning listeners. It’s a pair originally designed with studio engineers and musicians in mind, after all, so it really holds up, despite the arrival of plenty of competition in the space. What makes it so good? The sound accuracy is just topnotch, with an expansive and open sound that feels beautifully detailed and balanced with very little boosting. With materials like aluminum, carbon fiber, and Alcantara, it’s quite luxurious, too, making it a wonderful all-around pair of cans you won’t mind keeping around your ears all day.
Grado Labs RS2e
The retro looks with wooden construction will either draw you in or repel you forever. That’s a given. Regardless of where you fall in that split, however, it’s hard to deny the light and clear layered musical output that these open-back headphones deliver. The best way we can describe sound on the RS2e is authentic. That is, every detail feels faithful to the way the artists wanted to reproduce their recording. All this, along with Grado’s half-century of grinding in this once obscure space, making it quite the sentimental favorite. You can also opt for the more expensive RS1e, although we’d only recommend it if you listen to more rock music than the rest of the 21st century.
Sennheiser HD 660S
We wanted to include the HD 700 here, being one of our sub-$1000 favorites, only to find out that it’s actually been discontinued for a while. If you want a Sennheiser option in the similar price range, we feel like the HD 660S makes for a great pick. It performs spectacularly in mid-range frequencies and delivers pretty warm at the highs, although, similar to the HD 700, it doesn’t deliver that biting oomph that many people seem to demand on their bass sound. It highlights details very well, though, so the sound is outstandingly layered, making this easily the best performer in the brand’s 600 series.
Audeze LCD-2 Closed Back
The closed-back variant of Audeze’s LCD-2 Classic, these planar magnetic headphones deliver a surprisingly spacious soundstage, with a sparkling high-end, accurate mid-range, and a natural-sounding bass that’s rightfully resounding but never feels overpowered. The surprising depth and placement of the soundstage, along with the clarity and fullness of the mid-range frequency, are the true highlights here, as they lend a vibrant and soulful character to nearly every track that plays through its drivers.
B&W P9 Signature
These travel-friendly headphones fold up conveniently for cramming into tight luggage, allowing you to easily stash it in your carry-on for on-the-go musical enjoyment. While the brand is not quite as revered in the headphone category as they in loudspeakers, they do deliver the goods in this closed-back model. The main draw here is the headphone’s mid-range frequency that’s as clear and clean as you’re going to find in a pair of travel headphones, along with an expressively detailed sound that’s impressively agile. The bass is very rich and prominent, too, as has been common with B&W’s preferred tuning.
Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Generation)
The 3rd generation of Beyerdynamic’s popular open-back headphones gets tweaked to perform better with laptops, desktops, and mobile devices, all while retaining the same clean and balanced sound that defined both its previous iterations. They continue to retrieve detail really well, ensuring you get to enjoy every element present in the recording, without going too heavy with the tuning on the bass, as has been common with many more contemporary models. Suffice to say, this is a great pair of headphones for eclectic listeners who value a faithful and detailed sound.