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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Over-Ear Headphones)

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Type:   Full-size, open-back, around-the-ear headphones


Price:   $999 and 3,999 USD, respectively


URL:   http://www.focal.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Though many high-end loudspeaker manufacturers have entered the premium headphone market, few if any of them have made headphones with the same level of technology, innovation, materials and craftsmanship that they've applied to their premium speakers. Often, a loudspeaker company's headphones bear no apparent relation whatsoever to the company's heritage or any of its loudspeaker products. Even those companies making cost-no-object speakers have, up until now, focused on headphones that are more affordable, more reasonably priced.

Back in 2011, high-end French loudspeaker manufacturer Focal entered the headphone market this way, with their Spirit line of headphones, with the Spirit One S, the Spirit Classic, and the Spirit Professional being the current models in the line. These headphones actually all sound quite nice, are relatively affordable, and are owned by many people in this community. As nice as these Spirit models are, though, they've never screamed Focal to me. I enjoy Focal's affordable headphones and can recommend them at their price points, but they've never reminded me of Focal's cost-no-object loudspeakers, or Focal's heritage.

Earlier this year, though, Focal rocked the premium headphone world with two new ultra-premium headphones--the Focal Elear, priced at $999, and their new flagship Focal Utopia, priced at $3999. Both headphones, in my opinion--based on sound quality at their prices, their designs, ergonomics, and based on technical performance/measured performance--make a strong case for being among the finest moving coil dynamic headphones ever crafted. And to develop and manufacture these two new headphones, Focal dedicated the kind of resources and know-how that they've used to develop magnificent hand-built speakers like their flagship $8000-per-pair Focal SM9 studio monitors, and their price-no-object flagship audiophile loudspeaker, the over-$200,000-per-pair Focal Grand Utopia EM.

To develop these headphones Focal turned to the engineers they already had on staff at their St. Etienne, France headquarters--engineers with decades of experience designing and crafting top-flight loudspeakers, and who approached the Elear and Utopia headphones as if they were designing ultra-near-field, full-range single-driver loudspeakers. Research and development of these two top Focal models started soon after they launched their Spirit line, and continued for several years, until they were launched in 2016. The end results are headphone drivers that are so clearly informed and influenced by the Focal team's long history developing and making loudspeakers, that I can't think of any other moving coil dynamic headphone drivers that are more loudspeaker-like in terms of design than those in the Elear and Utopia. And given that Focal's engineers weren't headphone specialists going into it, their approach to headphone driver design was fresh and unconventional, and the results remarkable. And, as they do with their premium loudspeakers, Focal manufacturers the Elear and Utopia using their most skilled employees, building them largely by hand, with rigorous testing throughout the manufacturing process, and even using machinery that Focal literally designs and builds in an in-house machine shop.

How fresh and unconventional? While most headphone companies are moving toward larger diameter electrodynamic drivers--with 50mm, 53mm, and even 70mm diameters being employed--Focal decided to go a completely different route. Their engineers instead went with what they're calling a 40mm driver, but that is actually a bit smaller than most 40mm drivers (in terms of cone diameter) due to the huge surrounds Focal employed (which I'll get to momentarily).

To make up for the smaller diameter diaphragms, Focal made another strange call, and that was to design for a huge X-max, which is the maximum distance a diaphragm or cone can move linearly from rest. Encircling the cones, then, are the largest surrounds you're likely to ever see on a headphone driver, to allow for very long-throw cone excursion--the longest X-max I've ever seen relative to the driver's diameter. Those surrounds are also extremely thin, allowing the cones to flutter with the slightest input, as if floating on air.

Further, their "cones" aren't so much cones as they are inverted domes that Focal calls "M-Shaped Domes" (due to their cross section), a design they also use in their flagship loudspeaker tweeters. These inverted domes are made of solid metal--an aluminum-magnesium alloy in the Elear, and solid beryllium in the Utopia--which, in concert with their shape and small diameter, are incredibly rigid (especially the beryllium one).

Each driver's voice coil is also the widest voice coil I've ever seen relative to dome diameter, going almost all the way to the dome's edge. These voice coils incorporate another first, which is that they're formerless--that is, they are not wrapped around a base material (a tube of material called a former), which shaves a heap of moving mass from the motor.

Finally, the magnet structure is entirely unique, with the most open design I've yet seen in any driver of this type. The opening is so big and unobstructed that you can see the back of the dome clearly through the center of the magnet.

Rigidity. Control. Speed. Excursion. Very unconventional design for a headphone, and clearly informed by their loudspeaker engineering expertise. Gimmicky? No, not at all. It's genius engineering. Does it all work? The measured results certainly confirm it. We have never measured an electrodynamic headphone with better overall measured performance than either the Focal Elear or Utopia.

It's not just their drivers that are well designed, but the entire headphone, in both cases. In my opinion, the Elear and Utopia are among the most beautiful headphones on the market today. They are gorgeous. The bits and pieces of both headphones all seem to flow into one another, without any abrupt or out-of-place lines or breaks in their overall flowing forms. They're beautiful to look at, and look fantastic both off and on the head. I also want to make a comment about build quality, as both headphones feel like ultra luxury cars. Shake them and things don't wiggle or rattle. Handling them reveals very solid feeling builds. Aesthetically, and in terms of build quality, the Focal Elear and Utopia are at the top of the heap.

Both headphones are also extremely comfortable. I've very happily listened to both for many hours straight, many times, and I can wear either for long hours without fatigue. As Nicolas stated, no matter your head shape or size, the headbands of both headphones seem to maximize head contact surface area for better, more comfortable weight distribution. I find the comfort of both of these headphones at about the same level as something like the Sennheiser HD800 and HD800S, which I personally find exceedingly comfortable headphones, too.

The Elear and Utopia both come with a nicely built four-meter cable terminated with a 1/4" stereo plug. It's a heavier-grade cable, so, at four meters, it's a heavy cable. As nice as the included cables are, they're for too long for me, so I don't use them. Instead, I ordered a much shorter Moon Audio Silver Dragon cable for the Elear, and a short Black Dragon cable for the Utopia. By the way on the earpiece sides, the connectors do differ between the two models. The Elear uses one 3.5mm mono plug into each earpiece, and the Utopia uses one 9.5mm LEMO plug into each earpiece.

Of course, the most important thing is how these headphones sound, and both are phenomenal entries at their respective price points. Let's start at the top, with the $4000 Focal Utopia. To my ears, the Utopia is one of the most resolving headphones on the market today. In terms of resolution, the Utopia's ability to reveal the most delicate, gauzy, wispy details puts it in rarefied air. Mind you, there are substantially less expensive headphones that I'd call its competitors, but, as a package, the Utopia's entire delivery is very well put together, and very cohesive.

For example, the HiFiMAN HE-1000--still my standard-setter for bass--can better convey the giant waves of a charged acoustic more convincingly than perhaps any other headphone I've heard, regardless of type, regardless of price--I do think its gigantic diaphragms help make the HE-1000 what it is, and its bass performance is among the things I find most mesmerizing about the huge HiFiMAN. However, in terms of refinement from the mids to the highs, the Utopia edges out the HE-1000 to me.

Versus the far less expensive Sennheiser HD800S, I also give the Utopia the edge, in terms of its deep bass presence, and the sense that, overall, I'm hearing a little deeper into the recording with the Focal than the big Sennheiser--it's uncovering more of the diaphanous stuff than the HD800S does, and, given how remarkable the HD800S is in that regard, that's high praise for the new flagship Focal. Versus the original Sennheiser HD800, again, the Focal, for me, is the better headphone, conveying all the detail, but without that occasional bite that I hear on the original HD800.

In terms of the Utopia's tonal balance, it's largely neutral, very linear, which is why I know HD800 and HD800S owners will probably be among the first to want to audition the Utopia, to see if it's a worthwhile upgrade, considering the giant price leap. While I'd describe its spectral balance as being on the more neutral side, the Utopia has a liveliness across the entire audioband--from its deep, extended bass, through to as high into the treble that I can hear--that gives it an energy of realism and presence that's rather addictive. Despite its flatter tonal balance, the Utopia is not flat sounding in the boring sense--not at all. 

In terms of measured performance, the Utopia is among the best electrodynamic headphones we've yet measured here at Head-Fi. Its bass is nearly flat down to 10Hz, and its total harmonic distortion is the lowest we've yet measured from a moving coil dynamic headphone. I'll be surprised if any other electrodynamic headphones we have here are able to top the Utopia, especially in terms of its distortion performance.

The Utopia is an incredible headphone, period. Incredible. Do I recommend it? If you've got the budget and you're shopping for top-flight headphones, then, yes, without hesitation, the Focal Utopia has to be included on your audition list.

As impressed as I am by the Utopia, there's a part of me that's even more excited about the Elear. No, the Elear can't quite match its flagship sibling in terms of overall performance, but it's also only a quarter the price at $999. Like the Utopia, the Elear is a very revealing, very resolving headphone--just not quite at the level of the Utopia. But you know what? I still consider the Elear one of the Utopia's competitors, and that's a remarkable thing. While it can't out-resolve its sibling, it is at a level of resolution that, to my ears, puts it squarely with the best of what's available anywhere near its price, regardless of driver type. The Elear also offers a different sonic flavor than the Utopia, and I think it's a flavor a lot of people in this community will like--A LOT.

Its tonal balance, versus the Utopia, is richer. Richer bass, richer midrange. Switching from the Utopia immediately to the Elear, you'll notice you're giving up a bit of resolution--and, at first blush, the Elear almost sounds thick. Then you realize that richness--which I do not find overpowering in the least, and is perhaps more like where my tonal tastes have been swinging the past couple of years anyway--that richness does not, to my ears, come at the expense of flabbiness. It's still taut, still fast, still detailed. Its tonal balance reminds me of the Utopia's, but with room gain figured in, or what PSB calls "ROOM FEEL." The Utopia is an incredible option to consider if you're shopping for headphones in the $1000 range, or even higher.

Even in terms of its measured performance, we found the Elear to be nipping at the heels of the $4000 Utopia. Yes, you can see its frequency response isn't quite as linear, owing to the richer than neutral tonal balance Focal obviously opted for with the Elear. But its distortion performance is almost as strong as the Utopia's! For its richer tonal balance, for its price of only $1000, for how well it keeps up with its far more expensive sibling in so many ways, I have to say the Focal Elear is in some ways the more exciting headphone of the two for me. I've been carrying it everywhere I go, driving it with my iPhone and an AudioQuest Dragonfly Red amp/DAC, with an Onkyo DP-X1 digital audio player, and also with the Astell&Kern AK380. All of these portable options are great for driving the Utopia, too, but I'm just not as likely to tote a $4000 headphone around for obvious reasons.

Both the Elear and Utopia have nominal impedance of 80 ohms. Both have rated sensitivity of 104 decibels at a milliwatt at 1 kilohertz. In other words, both of these headphones are very versatile, and quite easy to drive. The Elear's tonal balance perhaps makes it a bit more forgiving, and so can make it an easier match. What's great, though, is that both scale in performance, depending on what kind of system you put in front of it.

I've found the Utopia to be particularly well-paired with a few tube amps we have on hand. The Woo Audio WA8 gives the Utopia a wonderfully lush tone--I find this combo pretty captivating, but it's a bit of departure from the Utopia's standard character. When I've wanted some of the added richness and warmth of tubes, but with a little less imparted thickness, I've turned to the Dragon Inspire IHA-1 Tube Headphone Amp from Moon Audio. Some solid state offerings that I've had great success with both of these headphones with include the Simaudio 430HA and the Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon, either of those usually driven by the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC; and the Meridian Prime has also been a good match as a desktop DAC/amp combo for both, and it'll support MQA when that becomes more widely available.

As far as my top choices go? The French totaldac d1-integral-headphone, which is a discrete R2R DAC made with a hundred high-precision naked resistors, is among my top choices. This particular totaldac model is so named because it incorporates a built-in headphone amp, as well as a Roon-Ready music server. The totaldac d1-integral-headphone is beautifully smooth sounding, has beautiful airy imaging, and makes for one heck of an all-French ultra-high-end system with either or both of the new Focal flagships.

In terms of ultimate fidelity with these headphones so far, though, I'd have to give the edge to Chord Electronics' DAVE. It's great with both Focals--and just about any other headphone you plug into it. When paired with the Utopia, the sheer resolution and amount of detail and information being hurled at me are otherworldly. Spectacular stuff. The Chord DAVE seems to extract more information from my best recordings than any other DAC I've ever used, and when you're feeding one of the most resolving headphones on earth, it's potent.

In my opinion, the Focal Elear and Focal Utopia are among the most important, and certainly among the best, headphones in the world--for their innovation, performance, sound. I hope more high-end loudspeaker manufacturers follow suit, making headphones that are true reflections of the very best that their engineers can develop and deliver. Congratulations to the team at Focal for the effort and the results with both of these magnificent headphones.



"It is really is an excellent headphone! Superbly transparent without any artificial analytical character. The tonality, dynamic, transparency are awesome and really in good balance! Superb headphone! Simply one of the best!"

- earfonia



(Of the Focal Elear) "It’s a little warm, has ample bass, a clean midrange that allows for impressive instrument separation in well-recorded, mixed and mastered music (modern production methods particularly) and has a comfortable treble extension that allows for the resolve and slam to happen. It’s easy to drive, has good weight distribution and is comfortable to wear – all while looking like a premium product."

- Aamer Qureshi (Aornic)

Type:   Open, full-size, around-the-ear, ring-radiator driver headphones


Price:   $1,399.95 USD


URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


The Sennheiser HD 800 is one of the most significant headphones of the last decade. It elevated the state of the art in electrodynamic headphones, by a wide margin, when it was first announced at the beginning of 2009; and it encouraged others in the industry to also push the envelope.
Handcrafted in Germany, the HD 800 was the first headphone to use low-mass, low-distortion ring-radiator drivers. These ultra-fast drivers, coupled with the HD 800's extremely non-reverberant chassis, result in a ruthlessly revealing headphone.
To wring the best sound out of it, the HD 800 absolutely needs to be matched well with a good headphone amplifier (with this headphone, I've personally had my best results with tube amps). Match it up poorly, and it can be overly bright. Drive it well, and it'll reward you with what will probably be the best sound quality you've ever heard from headphones. Yes, the HD 800 is picky, but, in my opinion, it's worth the effort once you get it right.
The HD 800 is also thought by many (myself included) to be among the most comfortable full-sized headphones ever made. The HD 800's headband radius and flexibility (its headband being as close to perfect as I've worn), softly-sprung pivots, large-footprint earpads, and luxurious pad materials make the HD 800 feel feather-light on the head.
In addition to its technical merits, the Sennheiser HD 800 also had epochal industry impact in another way: It began a strong upward shift in flagship dynamic headphone pricing, arriving with a firmly-enforced minimum price that was around three times the price of Sennheiser's previous dynamic flagship (the HD 650).
Because this price increase was met with what most considered a commensurate performance elevation, demand for the HD 800 was extremely strong at its launch, and remains so. In my opinion, this encouraged other companies to similarly go all-out, developing high-performance headphones with greater attention to pushing the performance envelope, in the wake of a market that revealed itself more than willing to pay a high premium for ultra-high-performance headphones.
For all of the above things, the HD 800 is a fantastic, important headphone, and one of my all-time favorites. However, now there's also this (see below):



"There is also no doubt in my mind that the HD800 are the imaging champs of the dynamic headphone world. I have owned or heard almost every significant dynamic headphone there is - Sony R10, At W5000 and L3000, Senn HD650/600, Grado RS1 and GS1000, all the ones I currently own, and many, many more I have owned and sold. And I have never heard a headphone image like the HD800"

- SkyLab

Type:   Open, full-size, around-the-ear, ring-radiator driver headphone


Price:   $1,699.95 USD


URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


At last year's Fall 2015 Fujiya Avic Tokyo Headphone Festival, Sennheiser quietly unveiled a new model based on the Sennheiser HD800 called the Sennheiser HD800S. It's more of a line extension, as the original Sennheiser HD800 will remain a current model.

The Sennheiser HD 800S comes packaged a bit differently from the original HD 800. Most noticeably, the HD 800S is a gorgeous matte black, versus the HD800's silver. It's important to note that the HD 800S's matte black finish isn't just a layer of paint--both the outer coating and the base material are black. Also, it comes packaged with two cables--the standard cable, terminated with a 1/4" stereo plug, and a balanced cable, terminated with a full-size four-pin XLR balanced plug.

Most important, of course, are the sonic changes that come with the Sennheiser HD 800S--changes I find entirely positive, and that largely address the caveats you'll see in my Sennheiser HD 800 Guide entry above this one. First, let's quote Sennheiser's explanation of the technology that sets the HD 800S apart from the first-generation HD 800:

"Absorber technology of the HD 800 S: The enhanced sound reproduction of the HD 800 S is achieved through the addition of the innovative absorber technology that was pioneered in the Sennheiser IE 800 – a breakthrough that preserved the audibility of very high frequency sounds by eliminating a phenomenon known as the “masking effect”, where the human hear struggles to hear frequencies of sound when lower frequencies of a higher volume occur at the same time. By absorbing the energy of the resonance, Sennheiser’s patented absorber technology prevents any unwanted peaks and allows all frequency components – even the finest nuances – in the music material to become audible. This innovation was a key element in making the IE 800 the world’s best sounding in ear headphone, and in the HD 800 S it helps to bring even greater purity and precision."

Accompanying that explanation is an explanation Sennheiser's Axel Grell gave me in Japan: "The HD800S is an improved version of the HD800. It has an acoustical absorber like the IE 800, and as a result the frequency response that is more extended, but smoother--fewer peaks. Also, the low-bass is also more extended--not necessarily more bass, but deeper extension."

For me, the HD 800S is a substantial subjective improvement over its predecessor. Whereas the Sennheiser HD 800 has been inordinately picky about pairings (as described in the HD 800 Guide entry above), the HD 800S has been a far more versatile match with a much wider variety of amps. Keep in mind this is still a high-impedance headphone of moderate sensitivity, so a good headphone amp is still of critical importance. However, the breadth of amp types that synergies with the HD800S is a far more open field than with the HD 800.

The improvements are mostly in the treble region, where it has been made more linear, smoother than its predecessor. Also, the HD 800S's bass sounds more full, giving the HD800S, these two key differences giving the HD800S a richer, more musical tone. To my ears, this is done without sacrificing resolution, making it a clear win for the newer model, for me.

The Sennheiser HD800S more readily gives up the magic of this line's remarkable ring-driver platform than its predecessor. When the original HD 800 is matched up in a system well, it's truly remarkable. It just happens now in a greater variety of system setups with the HD 800S. Simply put, one of the best headphones ever made was made better, and the HD 800 platform's legacy is the stronger for it.

Type:   Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone


Price:   Around $65 USD


URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


If you're wondering why this headphone is included in the guide, call it a bit of sentimentality from me--the Sony MDR-V6 was the headphone that got me started on this long, winding headphone hi-fi journey back in the 1980's.


Is it the best at the price?  No, and hasn't been in a long time. You can find headphones that isolate more, sound more refined, have better detail retrieval, etc.


Yeah, it's old, but it's still a rugged, well-isolating, fun, bright, lively sounding headphone with good bass extension and impact. The MDR-V6 (and its pro-audio twin, the Sony MDR-7506) is still widely used in studios and on-location as a pro monitoring piece.
This many years later, I still like the classic ol' V6, and still feel comfortable recommending it from time to time.



"Despite its age, the MDR-V6 really is a headphone that does very little wrong for the asking price. It is well-built, comfortable, and isolating enough to compete with the best ‘modern’ studio and DJ headphones."

- ljokerl

Type:   Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone


Price:   $299 USD


URL:   http://www.nadelectronics.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


After his success with his own PSB headphones, Paul Barton turned his attention to a headphone for NAD Electronics. The resulting headphone--the NAD VISO HP50--is, in my opinion, his best headphone yet. To my ears, there's a familial sonic resemblance to the PSB M4U 1, both of which use Barton's "RoomFeel" technology, which is intended to provide the rich and natural experience of listening to a set of high-end loudspeakers in a room.
Like its PSB siblings (I call them siblings since they have the same father in Barton), the NAD VISO HP50 sounds outstanding, with impactful bass that is very taut and well controlled. The overall balance of the VISO HP50 is, to my ears, just slightly on the warmer side, but still very resolving. Again, listening to it reminds me at times of its PSB sibs, but with greater refinement and a smoother presentation. Like the Sony MDR-1R and the Sennheiser MOMENTUM--two of my other favorite portable over-ears--the VISO HP50 is mellow enough to make for fatigue-free long-term listening, yet detailed enough to get the audiophile in me deep into the music.
Additionally, in designing the NAD VISO HP50, Barton addressed two of my biggest quibbles about its largish PSB siblings, with the HP50 being more compact, and able to fold flat for greater portability. However, the NAD, like its PSB relatives, is still rather large and awkward on the head (especially when viewed from the front).
Without a doubt, though, the NAD VISO HP50 is one of the easiest to recommend headphones at its price, and can very capably serve as both a portable over-ear or one's main headphone at the desk.




















Type:   Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone


Price:   Around $400 USD


URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


If, as I said in its entry, the Sony MDR-ZX700 is a sort of modern spin on the circa-1980's MDR-V6, then the MDR-7520 is still a further evolution and refinement of the monitor sound the MDR-V6 represented in its heyday.


Let's get one thing straight before I continue: The MDR-7520 is not the same headphone as the now-discontinued (in the U.S.) MDR-Z1000. That was something I always assumed, but a belief I had banished for me in a head-to-head comparison of the two with Sony's Naotaka "Nao" Tsunoda (Nao was the lead engineer for these products). They do look similar, but they definitely sound different, with the MDR-7520's signature the one I preferred, its bass more impactful, and its image more spacious.


The pro audio market MDR-7520 has grown into one of my top choices for a sub-$500 closed headphone. While the newer Sony MDR-1R is also one of my favorites with its smooth-yet-detailed presentation, the MDR-7520 is often what I turn to when I want a closed around-the-ear that's more even-keeled (the MDR-7520's bass, though impactful, sounds less bumped-up to me than the MDR-1R's), and less polite, more revealing. I tend to prefer the MDR-1R when I know the music I'll be listening to is going to be all over the map, and the MDR-7520 when I'm queuing up my highest fidelity recordings, most of which are jazz and classical recordings. I'd have to give a slight edge to the MDR-7520 in imaging, too--image placement just seems a bit more precise with it.


Yes, its sibling, the MDR-1R, with its comfort advantage, fold-flat design, and smoother presentation, may see more general use from me; but the MDR-7520 has become an important, key member of my closed headphone stable. The MDR-7520 is now one of my primary go-to cans for reference sound in closed cans under $500.


Type:   Open-back, over-ear headphone


Price:   $200 USD


URL:   http://www.massdrop.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


There are at least a couple of long-time Head-Fi'ers working at Massdrop, and it certainly shows, as many of Massdrop's famed "Drops" are headphone audio products. They decided to use a Drop to rekindle a very well-regarded headphone from the recent pages of AKG's history book. That headphone? The quite-beloved AKG K702 65th Anniversary Edition. 


Here's the thing, though: Massdrop's version is called the AKG K7XX, and it's available exclusively through them. Gone are the "65th Anniversary" markings, the blue stitching and other blue highlights, replaced by K7XX badges and a stealthier blacked-out treatment. There's also a very subtle, tasteful "Massdrop" logo on one side (of the inside) of the headband, to remind you who brought you this gem of a headphone for only 200 bucks. From what I can tell, colors and badges aside, the K7XX is the K702 65th Anniversary Edition, bump-free comfort strap headband and all.  


I really like AKG's K550, but its lean-ish signature--much as I enjoy it when I'm in the mood--is not one with particularly wide appeal. The AKG K812, which I love, is AKG's current flagship, and priced accordingly. Without delving into discontinued models, then, I have to say the AKG K7XX is, for me, the most desirable current-production AKG, unless you're willing to jump up to $1500 for the K812 (and if you're an AKG fan with that kind of budget, definitely audition the K812). 


What's to love about the AKG/Massdrop K7XX? Well, if you've tended to find many of AKG's headphone likable but too lean or a touch brash, then the K7XX's definitely-smooth-for-an-AKG-but-still-an-AKG sound will almost certainly have you grinning big. An AKG with some nice presence and body down low? Yes. But what about the AKG top end? Yes, it's there, but tamer to my ears than the K701 I have here. The tradeoff is losing a bit of air and shimmer to its more common AKG siblings, but, for my tastes, it's a positive tradeoff. 


If you're an AKG aficionado, the AKG/Massdrop K7XX is a must-own, and, at only $200, is an outrageously strong value. Yes, you can still find the K702 65th Anniversary Edition out there, but you will almost certainly be paying substantially more for what is essentially the exact same headphone.




"For aspiring audiophiles trying to find their first pair of ‘audiophile-oriented’ headphones with a clean uncolored sound signature as well as veteran audiophiles searching for a pair of reference-quality headphones with a high performance/price ratio to complement their existing collection, I would highly recommend the AKG K7xx."

- money4me247

Type:   Full-size, around-the-ear headphones (SRH1540 is closed, SRH1840 is open)


Price:   $499.99 USD (both)


URL:   http://www.shure.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


In 2013, Shure contacted me to ask if I wanted to have an advance listen to a new closed, over-ear flagship headphone to be released later in the year. The answer was an obvious "yes," but there were some admitted reservations about what to expect, as a couple of their previous over-ears--the Shure SRH940 and SRH1440--were definitely not my cup of tea, being, to my ears, too bright, too reedy, too lean. (The veteran Shure SRH840 and their flagship open SRH1840--which I'm getting to in a minute--I definitely do like.)


Fortunately, in terms of sonic performance, Shure absolutely stuck their landing with the SRH1540, making what I feel is their best over-ear headphone so far. With fantastic, full, controlled bass (though emphasized), and excellent, evenhanded, monitor-like detail and balance from the mids on up. It's a safe tuning that I think sounds awesome with every music genre I listen to (and I listen to just about everything).


The Shure SRH1540 is also insanely comfortable--one of the most comfortable large, full-size over-ear headphones I've got. Weighing just over 10 ounces, it's very light for its size. Perhaps the single biggest contributors to the SRH1540's comfort are its Alcantara earpads. Alcantara might be my favorite synthetic earpad material, with its ultra-soft, sueded hand, and perforated on the SRH1540 which makes it very breathable. Filled with what feels to me like memory foam, these are among the most plush, most comfortable earpads of any headphone.


The SRH1540 isolates well, too. Along with the pads, which are plush enough to quickly create a good seal, the closed earcups do a fine job of keeping your music in, and the world around you muted. The outside of the earcups are clad in genuine carbon fiber, which I believe was chosen in part for its resistance to resonance--and those carbon fiber outside plates look gorgeous, too.


Again, in my opinion, the SRH1540 is Shure's best over-ear headphone so far, and an easy recommendation at its $499 price. If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a big fan of this latest Shure over-ear. Make sure to check out our Head-Fi TV episode about the Shure SRH1540.


Now you may have noticed that the Shure SRH1840, which certainly isn't new (released back in late 2011), has made it into this update of the Buying Guide (though wasn't in the guide previously). Why? Though I really do like the SRH1840, I felt its original price of around $700 put it in a tough spot, given what else is out there at the price. Some time since its release, however, the SRH1840's street price has fallen to around $499, and, at that price, I think it definitely is a candidate for anyone looking for a good, open, full-sized headphone.


With its bass sounding shy of neutral to me, neutrality through the mids, and treble that is a bit hotter than neutral, the Shure SRH1840's tonal balance is on the leaner side to me. It's a revealing headphone, though, and images nice and big. Again, I really like this headphone, and, at its new lower price, it's easy for me to recommend, which is why it's now in this guide. (You can click here to read my more detailed impressions of the Shure SRH1840.)



"Let me say that for a closed back, these are superb. I don't know how Shure does this, but they manage to make their closed back have one of the best soundstage for a closed back."

- kimvictor


























Type:   Full-size, closed headphone (with built-in headphone amplifier)


Price:   $349.99 USD


URL:   http://www.mofiheadphones.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Blue Microphones unveiled advertising and PR teaser campaigns leading up to CES 2014 that were very provocative, and they certainly worked on me. Their ads said things like "Move over headphones. Mo-Fi is coming," and, "Headphone is lo-fi. Mo-Fi is coming." Those provocative ads, combined with Blue's reputation for quality in the microphone world, had me scheduling Blue as one of our very first stops at CES, so their campaign worked as intended on me anyway.


I paid a visit to Blue's offices after CES, and was thrilled to see how much effort, research, and development they were devoting to their first headphone. Blue's intention to join the premium microphone/headphone manufacturers club--with members like Sennheiser, Sony, beyerdynamic, Shure, Audio-Technica, and AKG--was certainly something they hadn't taken lightly.


For those of you not familiar with Blue Microphones, they've been making high-quality microphones for nearly 20 years, and became popular with mainstream consumers when they released their line of USB microphones, which are now wildly popular with podcasters and home recording enthusiasts. Look up Blue Yeti and Blue Snowball, and you'll probably say, "Oh, yeah, I've seen those!" Pro audio folks have known Blue for a long time now, with Blue's top mics being highly coveted in the pro world, with prices as high as $6000 for their flagship Blue Bottle microphone. In addition to sound quality, one thing all of Blue's microphones have in common is visually striking design, and they wanted their first headphone to carry the Blue's DNA into the headphone market, in terms of sound and sight. By now you've probably seen the Mo-Fi, but, until you did, I'm quite sure you'd never seen anything like it. (If you haven't seen it yet, click here to watch our Head-Fi TV episode about it.)


At first sight, what immediately sets the Mo-Fi apart from every other headphone in the world (and perhaps ever made) is its headband. The Mo-Fi headband is a multi-link, multi-jointed assembly, and it was designed this way to do a lot more than just provide shock value at first sight, which it never fails to do. The first time I handled Mo-Fi, its headband movement and feel reminded me a bit of the well-damped suspensions of high-end remote controlled cars. The multi-link design keeps the earpads angled flat against your head, regardless of width. Because of this design, I find the headband applies force very evenly, making for a very comfortable fit over my ears and against my head. I don't feel any pressure hotspots from the earpads, or any sense that the force applied across the earpads is anything but even.


The headband also has adjustable tension, using a recessed dial atop the headband. Because of the width of my head, my Mo-Fi is adjusted close to its loosest setting. I really like that Blue recognized that their multi-link headband design opened up the possibility of providing adjustable clamping force, and that they chose to go with it.


Just as unique as the Mo-Fi's physical design was Blue's approach to its sound. The Mo-Fi has a built-in amp that is more akin to a dedicated high-quality portable amplifier than it is to a typical active headphone circuit. Blue's engineers co-designed the amp with a well-known portable amp developer/manufacturer (whom they haven't publicly revealed), and the result is impressive--the Mo-Fi's amp is powerful (240mW), with no self-noise that I can hear, and with output impedance of less than an ohm! It was designed to authoritatively drive the headphone when in use, but to do so as transparently as possible (there is a setting to optionally boost bass if desired).


I really enjoy the sound of the Mo-Fi in its passive mode from my high-quality amplifiers. And I do feel the amp circuit largely meets the goal of being transparent when compared to the Mo-Fi in passive mode, driven by a high-quality external amp. What is its sound signature? Blue's engineers wanted a headphone that was flat enough for professional use, but not clinical, and I think they succeeded in doing this with the Mo-Fi. I use this headphone a lot, and like it enough to carry it regularly, despite its large size.


Now this brings me to my only caveats where this headphone is concerned. The Blue Mo-Fi is a large headphone. It is large on the head, and striking ripped-from-a-cyborg styling does nothing to de-emphasize that. I have no problem wearing it in public (and do), but you should know that going in. It is also a rather heavy headphone, with extensive use of metal in its construction, weighing 466 grams (or 16.44 ounces). On my head, the weight is distributed well, and I have no problem wearing the Mo-Fi for hours; but if you're very sensitive to heavy headphones, the Mo-Fi is definitely no lightweight.


2014 isn't over yet, but I feel comfortable calling the Blue Microphones Mo-Fi one of the most innovative, interesting products of the year in the world of Head-Fi.



"I think the Mo-Fi’s are perfect for a work setup or someone looking for an all-in-one headphone solution in a non-mobile setting, especially if you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on a dedicated headphone amplifier."

- MacedonianHero

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphones


Price:   $349 and 399 USD, respectively


URL:   http://www.masterdynamic.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


I've been seeing ads for these gorgeous headphones all over the web, and frequently on Head-Fi. Too good to be true, I thought. They won't look nearly as nice in person, or feel nearly as nice in the hand as in the ads, I thought. Then last month at Munich High End, I ran into Scott Byrer of Master & Dynamic at a social function. He had one of Master & Dynamic's MH40's around his neck. I asked him if I could see it, he handed it to me, and my first thought was that the headphone looked and felt every bit as good in the hand as it did in the ads. The leather was at least as soft and supple as it looked in the ads. The metal parts were as solid, and the knurling as sharp and defined, as it all looked in the ads. There was a satisfying heft. There are very few headphones I can say this about, but anywhere I touched the MH40 (excepting the cable), I was touching either metal or leather. It was loud there, so I didn't give the MH40 a listen right then, but arranged with Scott to try the MH30 and MH40 after we returned to the States.


When it comes to construction and materials, both the Master & Dynamic MH30 and MH40 have a lot in common. Both have forged aluminum ear cup bodies. Yes, forged aluminum; no, this is most certainly not typical. Also, the aluminum on both the MH30 and MH40 is anodized or PVD (physical vapor deposition) coated, not painted. The other metal parts are stainless steel. All skin-touching hides are an ultra-soft grade of lambskin, and the outside is covered with heavy grain premium cowhide. There are screws, too--a lot of them--in lieu of glues. What's also amazing is what you see when you pull the ear pads off, each of which, by the way, is held on with three guide posts and very strong magnets.


On almost every other headphone, pulling the ear pads off reveals roughly hewn bits and bobs, finished like they were never meant to be seen. On the MH30 and MH40, Master & Dynamic finishes what's underneath the ear pads to the same degree they do the rest of the headphone. The first time I saw this, I was reminded of a childhood memory of when my brother and I took apart our dad's old Omega wristwatch. We were both in awe of the fact that locked inside the hermetically sealed watch case, the watch movement's bridges and rotor were beautifully finished. We marveled at the care given to something so unlikely ever to be seen by the person who pays for it. Again, that’s the feeling I had when I lifted the Master & Dynamic ear pads from their mounts.


The Master & Dynamic MH30 is Master & Dynamic's supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone. Its round ear cups house 40mm neodymium drivers. The MH40 is their flagship, and is a circumaural (around-the-ear) design, with its oval-shaped ear cups containing 45mm neodymium drivers. Nominal impedance for both models is 32Ω. It's important to note that both headphones are closed, which the MH40's grille (there only for styling) might visually otherwise suggest.


Unfortunately, I ran into a major problem with the MH30 right away. Even with its headband pulled to maximum size, the MH30 is too small for my large noggin. Pulled down very hard--the headband straining against the top of my head--I can get the ear cups over my ears, but they angle unnaturally in doing so. The MH30 uses shorter pieces on the MH30's headband (relative to the MH40). I'm not sure why Master & Dynamic didn't use, for example, the longer yoke pieces of the MH40. Perhaps it was in some way related to accommodating the MH30's folding mechanism--which, by the way, I never use, as the earpieces tend to bang and rub against each other when I fold the MH30. It's a shame, too, because the MH30 (from what I can tell when forcing it over my ears) may actually have a slight sound advantage over its larger sibling, its mid-treble seeming a bit livelier to me in comparison. The MH30 does fit on @joe's head, and he prefers it to the MH40. If your head is small to medium sized, I imagine the MH30 will fit you fine--anyone whose head approaches large, however, should approach the MH30 with some caution. If Master & Dynamic ever revises the MH30's headband to accommodate a wider range of head sizes (which I strongly suggest they do), I'll be first in line to order one.


Thankfully, the MH40 makes it fully over my ears, and my average-sized ears ears fit comfortably inside the ear cups, but only just. Larger ears may touch the insides more, but I imagine all but the largest ears will find the ear pads of the MH40 comfortable. The coziness is helped by the softness of the foam padding, and the suppleness of the lambskin covering. Though the headband's padding is on the thinner side, there's enough cushioning there--combined with a radius that works very well atop my head--to make the headband very comfortable for me. In terms of clamping force, I also find it moderate and comfortable. Keep in mind, this is a headphone crafted of a lot of metal and leather, so it's not a featherweight at 360 grams (12.7 ounces). So, no, it won't feel as air-light on your head as (for example) a Sennheiser HD 598, but the MH40 wears its weight well, and I can wear it for hours without problem.


The MH40's sound is on the richer side, with bass that's prominent and hard-hitting, but taut and controlled enough to keep it in audio enthusiast territory, and away from boomy. In other words, the bass has enough energy to inject some fun into the equation, yet enough detail around notes to keep its low end honest, and I find that almost ideal for on-the-go use. The MH40's midrange has some richness in its presence, and is moderately detailed, but I'd definitely characterize its midband as more creamy than precise. Where the MH40 loses a few points with me, in terms of sound, is in its treble presentation, giving up more airiness than I'd find ideal, but not to a degree that takes away my ability to thoroughly enjoy this headphone. In terms of imaging, the MH40 presents a cohesive image, but it definitely sounds like the closed-back headphone that it is. It also isolates quite well. Overall, I find the MH40 to sound very fun, very versatile, and, with it, I really enjoy listening to music of all genres.


Both the MH30 and MH40 are driven easily by my iPhone 6 Plus, so they’re ideally suited for pairing with smartphones, tablets, and portable music players. Both come well equipped, each coming with a three-button mobile-friendly cable and a longer plain cable, a nicely matched 1/4" adapter, a cylindrical leather case for storage of small bits and pieces, and a nice carrying bag that includes an attached internal cable pouch and a strong magnetic closure.


I can easily recommend the Master & Dynamic MH30 for someone with no larger than a medium-sized head whose looking for a phenomenally well-built, beautiful, on-ear headphone. The MH40 is the easier recommendation, though, with equivalently fantastic build quality and materials, but with more versatile fit, greater comfort, and what I consider an even more fetching design. The Master & Dynamic MH40, for all of these reasons, is currently one of my favorite on-the-go headphones, and a remarkable first effort from such a young company.


NOTE: Master & Dynamic also makes a gorgeous boom mic that matches both the MH30 and MH40 that solidly improves outgoing voice clarity. For more information about the Master & Dynamic Boom Mic, see the review of it in the Cables & Accessories section of this guide by clicking here.


Type:   Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphones (the M4U 2 with active noise canceling)  


Price:   $200 USD


URL:   http://www.psbspeakers.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Paul Barton's company (PSB) is well known with audio enthusiasts as a loudspeaker company whose products typically perform well above their price points. When I found out Barton wanted to turn his attention to headphones (as an increasing number of loudspeaker manufacturers are doing), he had my attention.


The M4U 2 was an impressive first go at headphones for Barton. First of all, it operates passively, and in this mode the M4U 2 sounds very good, with good, solid, low bass presence, and good clarity throughout. The M4U 2 also has an amplified mode without active noise canceling, which could come in handy if all you've got on hand is a particularly anemic headphone output. This amplified mode has a lively sound, but at the expense of a little self-noise from the amp circuit, and some loss of clarity (compared to its passive mode). The M4U 2's active noise canceling circuit is good (though definitely not as effective as the Bose QC15's). And, again, like Sennheiser's active noise cancelers (and unlike Bose's), the M4U 2 also operates passively, so that when your batteries die, your music need not be cast aside.


PSB later released the M4U 1, which is essentially a passive-only version of the M4U 2. A wee bit of weight is saved (22 grams). A whole lot of money is saved ($100). And, to my ears, the M4U 1 actually sounds just a touch better than the M4U 2, perhaps because of the missing electronics, and maybe better acoustics as a result. In my opinion the M4U 1 is an even easier recommendation to make, and has blossomed into one of my favorite reasonably priced over-ears.


The biggest downsides for me with both are their size (they're large) and the fact that they don't fold flat (so their carrying cases are bulky). And, though they're generally comfortable on my huge head, they don't feel as light and gentle on the head (in terms of both weight and clamping force) as some of their peers. They also have an imposing look on the head--rather heavy and severe looking. (Though I find the Monza Red M4U 1 helps lighten the look up nicely.)


If you're in the market for a good, closed, sub-$500 around-the-ear headphone, the M4U 1 should definitely be on that list. If you absolutely want active noise canceling as a part of the package--and if the additional hundred bucks doesn't scare you off--then consider the M4U 2.


In my conversations with Paul Barton--and based on the performance of his first models--I get the impression he's not just dabbling in headphones, and so I'm looking forward to more from PSB in the future.















Type:   Closed, compact, on-the-ear headphone


Price:   $129.99 USD


URL:   http://www.koss.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Every once in a while, a gem sneaks up from behind and surprises me, and Koss' new SP330 is one of those things. Just before the 2014 Winter Gift Guide update went up, a package from Koss arrived, and included in it were two Koss full-size headphones (Pro4S and SP540) and this compact on-ear SP330. Given how little time we had, I almost completely skipped the SP330 to focus on the new Pro4S studio monitor. At the last minute, I decided to put the little SP330 on, and I am very glad I did, as it is an excellent sub-$150 closed-back option! 


The Koss SP330 is a handsome, modern-looking headphone, but its slim, matte black frame is very low-key. And though the SP330 does seem to me to be mostly built of plastic, most of its surface has a soft-touch finish that feels nicer to touch than most bare plastics. As with the new Pro4S and SP540, the SP330 has D-shaped earcups, albeit smaller. Its appearance certainly doesn't command attention, which is perhaps why I almost skipped over it.


Thankfully, the SP330's sound quality is bolder than its reserved appearance. Across the entire audio spectrum, this affordable on-ear has a relatively even-handed approach. The SP330's bass extension is good, control is excellent, and, to my ears, the low end is served up with generally neutral tendencies. The SP330's mids are similarly color-free, and possessing of very good clarity--more than I'd expect at the SP330s' very modest price point. Its treble is perhaps the one place where it steps above neutrality, only mildly, and not at all sibilantly. Treble detail and extension is good, with acceptable refinement (again, especially at this price), with just enough smoothed over to keep it from being edgy. Compared to the Pro4S, for example, the SP330's treble is a bit more mellow, less incisive around the edges, and I can see how some may prefer it (and vice-versa, of course). 


The Koss SP330's imaging is good for a super-compact, closed, supra-aural (on-the-ear) design. You won't think for one moment you're listening to an open headphone, but at least its imaging is natural and coherent.


Early on, I feel comfortable calling the SP330 a strong value, even at its MSRP. The SP330 might fall just short of the Pro4S's level of overall detail; but, again, I can see some preferring its brand of neutral to the Pro4S's. (At the time of this writing, I still haven't decided which of the two I prefer, and I haven't had the time yet to listen to the SP540.)


If you're looking for an affordable, ultra-compact headphone, the Koss SP330 is a must-audition piece, and perhaps one of the most audiophile-friendly, stronger values in the sub-$150 closed-back class.

Product Name

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   $212 USD


URL:   http://www.v-moda.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


V-MODA's M-80 earned a place as one of the top Head-Fi choices for a closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone (alongside the likes of the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II and the beyerdynamic DT 1350). With its rich, detailed mids, and smooth treble response, and full bass (but certainly not overblown, to my ears), the M-80 became one of the standards in this class of headphones. And though, technically, the M-80 is still on the market (at the time of this writing), V-MODA's XS serves is similar enough to it that we chose to replace the M-80 in this guide with it.


Starting with the low end, to my ears, the XS actually has a touch more energy in the mid-bass than the M-80. Still, though, I prefer the XS's bass presentation, which I find more precise, and more revealing of bass detail than the M-80 musters. The XS's rich, detailed mids are a nice carryover from the M-80. The newer headphone's treble, however, is more refined, and smoother than its older sib's. And, overall, that is actually how I'd describe the sound of the XS relative to the M-80--more refined. To my ears, in terms of sound, the headphone gives up nothing to its older stablemate.
Because the it more than keeps up with the M-80's sound, the biggest story with the XS, in my opinion, are the improvements that come with its physical design, and the changes and innovations there. V-MODA put considerable effort into making the XS more comfortable (and more compact) than the M-80, and it has paid off in spades.
One of the things I've always appreciated about every V-MODA over-ear headphone (both on-ear and around-the-ear) is the durable build quality that comes with their extensive use of metal and relatively straightforward swivel-less designs. While doing away with yoke swivels and joints certainly leads to greater strength, it also results in limited flexibility, especially in terms of earcup articulation. With my M-80, I've rather forceably twisted the headband to better optimize the angle at which the earcups greet my ears. With the XS, however, V-MODA has created a headband that seems to me to be more flexible, and that also seems to apply force to the earcups more evenly than with the M-80. The XS feels less clampy, and sits just as securely--but more evenly on my ears--than the M-80. For me, the XS is the a substantial comfort upgrade over the M-80.
V-MODA's Val Kolton also designed the XS to have a more form-fit appearance on the head. I've seen the XS worn by a good number of people by now, and the headband seems to have the ideal radius and flexibility to keep its lines snug up against heads of just about every shape and size. Because there's so little gap between the XS's headband and the head of the wearer, one of the marketing phrases V-MODA uses for the XS is "Mind The Gap," of course borrowed from the famous London Underground rail system warning. In my opinion, the XS is one of the best looking headphones on the head, with an understated physical presence, but with all the bold design elements of a V-MODA.
Finally, borrowing from the larger V-MODA M-100, the V-MODA XS incorporates V-MODA's awesome folding hinge design. As on the M-100, these folding hinges are things of beauty, super-sleek yet seemingly indestructible, and possessing of a detent *click* sound that reminds me of a well-made folding knife's blade snapping into its open position. And, when folded, the XS fits into its tiny carrying case, making for the smallest supra-aural (on-ear) headphone in its class. Even in a tightly packed messenger bag, when it seems there might only be room for an in-ear monitor, I can usually find a place for the XS.


For its sound, and for its comfort and compactness, the V-MODA XS is easily one of the best on-the-go headphones currently on the market.


"If you want a rich, smooth, warm yet detailed, big and dynamic sound in a crazy small portable package I strongly recommend trying the XS out. V-MODA just keeps getting better and better with the quality of their products and they should really be proud of this one."

- roma101

Type:   Open, on-ear headphone


Price:  Around $50 for standard version, and around $80 for the KTC version


URL:   http://www.koss.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


There's something--a certain je ne sais quoi--that makes Koss' PortaPro timeless. It's not just its looks, as looks alone might render the mighty PortaPro dated (though there's no denying its vintage aesthetic is part of its charm).


This is a bassy headphone, and its bass defines it--heavy, just shy of sloppy by audiophile standards, but always fun. Despite its bassiness, the PortaPro still manages to sound coherent. Its mids and highs are good, but if you're looking for a mid-centric and/or bright headphone, you're going to have to look elsewhere. Also, if you're a detail freak, walk past the PortaPro.


Koss also released a version of the PortaPro called the PortaPro KTC (Koss Touch Control), which has an inline three-button remote/mic. As an iPhone/iPad/iPod user, the KTC version has become my PortaPro of choice. I was surprised to see Koss give such a concession to smartphone modernity with a headphone as old school as the PortaPro, but I'm thrilled they did. Here's the rub, though: expect to pay at least $30 to $40 more for the KTC version, which I'm guessing is probably due to licensing costs associated with using the made-for-Apple three-button mic/remote design.
Looking for fun sound on the go? And served up with retro-hip style? Put the Koss PortaPro on your list.


"...I love the PortaPros for the uncompromising retro-throwback design and sound that somehow feels like it would have been right at home in the 80s."

-  ljokerl

Type:   Open, over-the-ear headphone


Price:   $699.99 USD


URL:   http://www.fostexinternational.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


In 2013, Fostex decided to show an early prototype of their new planar magnetic headphone at CanJam at RMAF, before the headphone was even given a name. Since then, it has gone through A LOT of development, and it has also earned the name "Fostex TH500RP." The TH500RP is a sort of melding of Fostex's longstanding planar magnetic expertise with the design philosophy and flair of their flagship dynamic Fostex TH900 (and the TH600). The end result is a headphone that may confound those looking to buy their first premium Fostex headphone, as it adds one more excellent option to the top of the Fostex headphone line (accompanied by the TH600, and flagship TH900).


Built largely of aluminum and magnesium, the TH500RP's construction is outstanding, and fully in keeping with the quality that the TH600 and TH900 have spoiled us with. With the large, round earcups, and the perforated grill, the TH500RP looks like the love child of a Stax SR009 and a vintage Fostex.


The TH500RP is very comfortable on my head. I've worn it for hours at a time without any hotspots or clamping force issues. It only weighs 380 grams (13.4 ounces), so, as far as planars go, it is quite light.


Compared to its TH600 and TH900 siblings, the TH500RP is a more subtle headphone, a more even-tempered headphone. The bass emphasis isn't there--in fact, some may find the TH500RP's bass on the lean-ish side; I find its bass more neutral. To my ears, there's certainly no bass emphasis or boost. The TH500RP's midrange is very smooth, and with beautiful tone--I wouldn't describe its mids as bloomy, but, again, relative to pure neutrality, there's some sweetness in the TH500RP's midband. The same goes for its treble presentation. To my ears, it doesn't have the sense of treble extension that, for example, the HE-560 has, but, as with its mids, there's something entirely pleasant and mellifluous about the TH500RP's treble presentation. 


Sonically, the TH500RP is not a headphone that wowed me, and, strangely enough, I really mean that as a compliment. It's a revealing headphone, but it's not incisive or analytical, to my ears. It's a headphone that has enough ease about its sound that once it's on my head, it's usually on for dang long time.


I visited Fostex's highly secretive audio labs last year in Japan, and one thing I've learned is that Fostex doesn't leave anything to chance. The overriding character of the TH500RP to me is that it doesn't impose itself on me or the music, and I'm inclined to think that Fostex fully intended that.


The TH500RP is an eminently musical headphone, and if you're shopping in its price range--and if what I've described sounds appealing to you--definitely put it on your audition list.


Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   Around $100 and $160, respectively


URL:   http://www.shure.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Closed-back, pro-audio-oriented headphones, the SRH440 and SRH840 have found popularity for studio use. However, many audiophiles also appreciate them for their more neutral tonal balances (relative to many other closed headphones in this price range), the SRH440 having none of the bass bloat that many of its closed competitors have. The SRH840 adds a little more bass presence and a touch more midrange bloom. I also find the SRH840's overall presentation a bit more refined.


Though a full-size headphones, both the SRH440 and SRH840 fold into pretty compact, portable bundles.


At its street price of around $100, I think the Shure SRH440 is one of the better bargains in Head-Fi'dom, particularly because it can be challenging to find a good, affordable, neutral-ish closed headphone. If you want a touch more musicality without sacrificing the neutral-for-a-closed-headphone balance, its more refined sibling is still a great deal--and a classic--at around $160.



"These cans in my opinion are ideal for pure enjoyment of music - either straight out of your DAP, or amplified for a little extra lift. If I had to sum them up in a couple of words I would "smooth" and "balanced". I use the word balance more in an all purpose sense rather than a frequency range sense - these cans are great with most genres you throw at them."

- Brooko (Paul Brooks)

Type:   Semi-open, full-sized, around-the-ear planar magnetic headphone


Price:   $899 USD


URL:   http://www.zmfheadphones.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)


Head-Fi’s corollary to the Infinite Monkey Theorem states:  if you give enough Head-Fiers enough time with a Fostex T50RP, one of them will eventually mod you a perfect headphone.  Though it hasn’t happened just yet, ZMF Headphones’s new Omni is a very solid performer that goes a long way towards reinforcing the validity of this Infinite Modder Theorem.


Zach Mehrbach, the founder of ZMF Headphones, has been a member of Head-Fi since 2008, where he is better known as @zach915m.  If this is the first you’ve heard of him, you might be surprised to know that he’s been modding T50RP headphones for quite some time now - with several of his better efforts being held in fairly high regard, like the ZMF Vibro and ZMF Blackwood.  But it’s his Ori model that truly sets a new benchmark for ZMF Headphones in both craftsmanship and sound.


Like other Fostex mods before it, the Ori features turned-wood earcups for both aesthetic and acoustic benefits.  But true to ZMF Headphones’s vision of taking a different path, their own path, the new Ori cups are circular and semi-open, employing five ports circling the outside of the ear cup for improved bass response and wider staging.


Available wood options for the Ori include Cherry, Walnut and African Blackwood - with Blackwood being slightly more expensive due to rarity.  But choose your wood wisely!   ZMF points out that - in addition to cosmetic differences - there are subtle but noticeable sonic variances as well, depending on the type of wood that is selected.  I asked ZMF Headphones to select for me the wood option that is most representative of the Ori’s intended signature, and Walnut is what I received.


Wow.  Actually, I have something different written down in my listening notes, but that’s neither safe for work, nor family friendly.  It pretty much means the same thing as wow, so wow it shall be.  The ZMF Ori is one immensely enjoyable headphone!  Warm down low, but not dark up top, with a fluid and detailed mid-range in between, all laid out on an expansive stage.  If you’re familiar with what an Audeze LCD-3 is like, try to imagine what it would sound like if it were semi-open. and had wooden ear cups.  What you just conjured up in your mind is very close to what ZMF has achieved with the Ori.


In spending time with ZMF and their main demo rig (Theta Basic IIIa and Decware Taboo MK III with stock tubes), we were able to enjoy a lush and euphonic rendition of the Ori’s signature:  Terrific sub-bass that blooms into a rich and dynamic mid-bass; settling down into clean lower-mids that show little to no bass-bleed nor boomyness; a wonderfully elegant mid-range that is both detailed and fluid, delivering a very analog-like sound that is reminiscent of vinyl; upper mids are lively but never peaky or strident; and highs that dissipate smoothly without any sudden roll-off.  The Ori’s staging and imaging capabilities are superb for a semi-open headphone, even being reminiscent of my Denon D7000 at times.  All of that sounds pretty good doesn’t it?  It certainly did to me.


Back here at home, the Ori continued to impress with my current desktop rig - a Benchmark DAC1 feeding into a Cavalli Liquid Glass with Sylvania 6SN7-GTB tubes.  Though leaner and brighter than ZMF’s demo rig, the Ori’s signature still shines through:  Respectable sub-bass that swells into a robust mid-bass without bleeding into the lower mids; a detailed and evocative mid-range that lifts and exalts vocals without a hint of grain; nearly flawless upper mids that convey excitement without harshness; and highs that just seem to dissipate into infinity gently and without abruptness.


I’ll be honest, I didn’t think that I would enjoy the Ori as much as I did, especially given my penchant for balance and neutrality.  But the Ori presented me with a finely crafted sense of warmth, that never once dominated its ability to render detail, which it did with an elegance and refinement.  The Ori plays well with a variety of gear, and is able to serve up enjoyment with almost any genre.  Taken altogether, it’s easy to see that we didn’t actually give the Ori a spot in this gift guide… It earned its place here on it’s own merit.



"It’s able to present a fantastic level of detail and texture while sounding really fun and enjoyable. Better yet, the Omni performs very well on all levels and fronts."

- Cotnijoe

Type:   Full-size, open-back, circumaural (around-the-ear) planar magnetic headphone


Price:   $2,999 USD


URL:   http://www.hifiman.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


In my opinion, in the world of Head-Fi, the HiFiMAN HE1000 is the biggest story of the year so far. Simply put, the HE1000 is the best non-electrostatic headphone I have ever heard. I don't expect there'll be unanimity about this (or anything else in high-end audio for that matter), but I know I'm not alone in this opinion.


As I've said on the forums before, if I had first listened to the HE1000 blindfolded, and was asked to guess what I was listening to, I'd have guessed it was an excellent electrostatic headphone hooked up to an excellent electrostatic amp--an electrostatic headphone that had more impactful bass response and end-to-end tonal richness than I'm used to from electrostats. But the HiFiMAN HE1000 isn't an electrostatic headphone. It's a planar magnetic headphone, and it's a masterpiece.


One of the first tracks I played through the HE1000 was the Firebird finale (Eiji Oue, Reference Recordings), and I don't think I've ever heard such power and physicality from any headphone prior. It is the closest to putting me in the charged acoustic of the performance space as I've ever experienced from a headphone. I just about fell out of my chair. I called @joe over to listen to it. His eyes were saucers, his jaw literally--literally--fell open. I called local Head-Fi friend @musicman59 to see if he was available for a visit. I asked him to start his HE-1000 demo with the same track while I stood behind him. He looked like he was imitating a startled owl responding to a threat behind it when he turned his head practically 180 degrees to greet me with the same expression Joe had on his face (and that I likely had on mine the first time).


From triangles down to the deepest bass my ears can discern (and that my head can literally feel from the diaphragms), the HE-1000 (with recordings that supply it with such information) conveys the sense of a physically energized acoustic at least as well--and probably more--than any other headphone I've heard. Of course, it can't place my body in the space, but it can place my head there. It's uncanny. The bass, for example, doesn't sound to me like it's coming from drivers, but that my head is in the acoustic, experiencing the sound's physicality as if there. musicman59 and I were struggling to put the sensation into words, but what I've said above is pretty much what we were saying.


Of course, not every recording is engineered by Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings, but the HE-1000 will be a tremendous, huge window into any recording. It's at least as revealing as any other headphone I can recall hearing, but it doesn't make me think of the word "ruthless" at all when describing it. The sound and space captured on the recording is just...there...and the rewards are of course most ample on recordings of music one loves that also happen to be high-quality recordings. Even on less-than-ideal recordings so far, though, I've still found the HE-1000 immensely gratifying.


On Hozier's "Like Real People Do," Hozier and his guitar start quietly, joined by his band a little over a minute into the song, the soft-struck drums (sounding like felt mallets to me) conveyed, again, as if your head is there in the room with the drums, with the band, with Hozier. This headphone strips away more of what separates the realization of live from the sensation of reproduced perhaps more than any other headphone currently available.

The Stax SR-009 (to my ears, the best electrostatic headphone in current production) might be able to get itself around the higher, most delicate, most gossamer higher-frequency stuff with a touch more realism; but the HE1000 does it so well across the entire spectrum--from sub-bass to as high as my ears can register a stimulus, and everything in between--that all of the things that excite the acoustic, across the spectrum, come through in great abundance.


I've been listening to this headphone for months. This isn't new-toy syndrome. I thought it might be about a week into it. But it's months later, and I can not help but to continue to be awestruck at having my head brought into the acoustic so convincingly.


What accounts for this? I don't know that there's an easy answer. The drivers are perhaps the largest I can recall seeing on any headphone--the diaphragms are huge. The base diaphragm material is less than a micron thick, making it the thinnest diaphragm material in any headphone I'm aware of, including Stax's SR-009. (Yes, I know the HE1000's conductive traces are almost certainly thicker than the SR-009's diaphragm.)


I suspect a significant part of the magic we're hearing is Dr. Fang Bian's increasing ability to successfully ply his knowledge of nano material technology (it was the focus of his PhD) in his pursuit of making better headphones. Again, with the HE-1000, the sensation of listening to the acoustic itself--versus listening to drivers recreating it--is more convincing than I can recall any other headphone in production being. I think Fang is attempting to approach the asymptotic ideal of a full-spectrum massless radiating element that disappears in the sound its reproducing, and, to my ears, he is perhaps closer than anyone else at the moment.


Have I any criticisms of this headphone? On the unit I have, the veneer strips could use more precise cutting at their ends. The hinges don't feel like butter--they kind of squeak the ear cups into proper positions. The headband sizers slide in detents that click authoritatively enough to ring the folded metal headband like a minute repeater's gongs (when you put your ears right up to it). What matters most to me about its build, though, is that the HE1000's lightweight structure holds those magical drivers comfortably over my head, and couples them to my head and ears properly, reliably. With that, it's definitely mission-accomplished, because I routinely wear these headphones sometimes for straight hours and hours. I think some will find its build too austere, perhaps not befitting a $3000 headphone, and I would completely understand why.


For me, though, these are minor quibbles for what, again, I feel is the best sounding non-electrostatic headphone I've ever heard--actually, it's one of the best headphones of any type I've ever heard, period.



"…the HE1000 simply comes closest to my idea of ‘perfection’ that I have heard in any headphone yet. I will continue to enjoy this HEK of a headphone, while playing with my setup to hear just what else the astonishingly-analytic-yet-marvelously-musical HiFiMAN HE1000 has to offer."

- conquerator2

Type:   Electrostatic headphones (with included Koss E90 electrostatic energizer/amp) 


Price:   $999 USD


URL:   http://www.koss.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


There many Head-Fi'ers who don't realize that Koss' flagship headphone is actually an electrostat that's been around since the 1990's. Electrostatic headphone aficionados all know of the Koss ESP950, where it remains almost an insiders' topic. It's a headphone that most of those familiar with it seem to hold in high regard, but that few go out of their way to promote. I'd known about the ESP950 for many years, but, until recently, never really spent much time with it. When I finally did, I felt like I'd cheated myself of one of the best bargains in high-end headphone audio for way too long.


The Koss ESP950 comes with its own energizer/amp called the Koss E90 that some seasoned electrostatic headphone enthusiasts consider a virtual write-off--something that should be immediately cast aside to make way for an amp upgrade. Then there are some who appreciate the ESP950, even with the stock E90, as a crazy bargain package, and one of the best sounding headphones a thousand bucks can buy. (If you shop around, you can occasionally find it for substantially less than its $999.99 MSRP.) I'm one of the latter.


Yes, I understand that I can squeeze more performance out of it with mods and amp upgrades. But I'm perfectly happy with the ESP950/E90 system's performance, even at its MSRP, and find it a world-class headphone, and a world-class bargain. The ESP950/E90 combo also comes with a Koss carrying case that allows the system (which is very lightweight) to travel very easily. I'll probably keep the stock pairing together for the foreseeable future.


The ESP950 is perhaps the best way to introduce someone to the enchanting world of electrostatic headphones, as its sound signature is so friendly, so easy to listen to--and yet still very resolving. Bass response, to my ears, is very good, but may come off as a bit light to some (especially those used to bassier headphones). The Koss ESP950's midrange is beautiful, forward, detailed, liquid. The treble isn't quite as impressive as the mids, but still extended and detailed enough to keep me drawn in. The airy nature of the ESP950 is unmistakably electrostat. Its generally neutral bent--but with more forward than neutral mids--is very easy to listen to, very inviting. Like I said, this little system is a great welcome to the world of electrostats.


I do have some issues with the system, though: Though I haven't had any problems at all with my ESP950, I do feel that the headphone's build feels a bit too light, almost flimsy. But perhaps the headphone's light weight is a key reason why I can wear the ESP950 for hours on end--it's super comfortable. Another issue I have is that the E90's RCA jacks are recessed into holes so narrow that the only RCA cables I've got that can fit into them are the ones that came packaged with the ESP950/E90. My biggest gripe is with the concentric volume knob on the E90, the center of it turning independent of an outer ring, each of those controlling one of the two stereo channels--it's pain to turn them both in perfect unison.


Given the ESP950's performance, though, those are minor nits to pick. Again, the Koss ESP950 is, in my opinion, absolutely one of the best sounding headphones at a thousand bucks, and a wonderful entry that gets you well into Summit-Fi.


Type: Closed, full-size, portable, around-the-ear headphone


Price:   Around $80 USD


URL:   http://www.koss.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Based on recommendations in Head-Fi community discussions, I'm glad I finally experienced this headphone for myself, as it's not just one of the best value Koss headphones I've heard, I think it's one of the better headphone values in the sub-$100 range, regardless of manufacturer.


Was this headphone designed with DJ's in mind? Yes. There's even a switch on it that lets you sum both channels to mono, for one-ear listening. But do not let that "DJ" label trick you into thinking the PRODJ100 is a boomy, bloated headphone, as "DJ" designated headphones more typically tend to be. The bass is impactful, but in no way overdone.


The PRODJ100 is a headphone that does a lot of things very well, even if it doesn't (to my ears) do anything exceptionally well. You'll be hard pressed to find another sub-$100 headphone that is so well-rounded, and so able to easily satisfy such a wide variety of listening preferences. If the Shure SRH440 is a bit light in the bass for you, try the Koss PRODJ100. Are the entry-level Grados a little too lively up top for you? Try the PRODJ100. You know what, just try the PRODJ100 regardless of whatever other relatively affordable headphones you were already considering.

Type:   Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone


Price:   Around $90 USD


URL:   http://www.noontec.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)


It is not often that I have interest in $100 headphones, and even less so in those with a bunch of marketing speak on the box — “Surround Closed Cavity Body” (meaningless), “Votrik Speaker” (who?), “High Definition” (Ungh!). It brought back memories from decades ago of my $10 “Dyanmic Stereo Sound” speakers which were single drivers in a cheap plastic box. 


However I’d seen some positive comments about the Zoro IIs on Head-Fi and the Amazon reviews were full of praise, so I agreed to give them a go. Opening them up, I was pleased to find that the hinge is steel reinforced, which is a positive given that the headphones are understandably plastic. The outer plastic is coated in what is described as “piano crafting varnish”, though it looks more like the pearl finish on my car. Irrespective, it is very nice and fingerprint-magnet smooth. On the headphones, which are “Designed in Italy” the result is gorgeous, garnering immediate positive comments from my young daughter when she spotted them. The headband arc ends at the hinge and part of it on either end are two tiny lugs which, when you open headphones all the way, snap into place, and the cable comes with a smartphone plug and mic. I immediately worried about the durability of snapping and folding this daily a few times and reached out to Noontec to ask them about durability. They replied that they had tested the hinge and it didn’t have any problems after “5000 times test” [sic].


Noontec appears to have taken the time to make decent earpads. I’ve seen too many pairs of low-range headphones that had vinyl so thin that the earpads were destroyed in short order, so decently thick earpads with a reasonably soft and smooth but a little robust-feeling covering was a pleasant surprise. The Zoro IIs sit on your ears, rather than around them, so this is important. 


The fit and finish appears quite good, down to the cup swivels, which don’t just flop around. The headphones don’t rattle when shaken and even when folded the hinges only have a tiny amount of play, only about as much as one gets in a high-end zoom lens. Even the single-button-with-mike phone-compatible cable is decent enough — a long strip of thin rubber terminated with branded plugs.


My first impressions were a shock and not at all what I expected from a pair of cheap headphones. At a moderate listening level the music was quite detailed and crisp. My usual experience with cheap headphones is that they tend to be boomy with a poor mid-range and very rolled-off treble, which might be OK with modern brightly-mastered pop but is rubbish for just about anything else. More recent models seem to be moving away from this trend, but I found that one usually has to spend a couple of hundred dollars first. 


Yello’s latest album, Touch Yello, is a slightly more modern version of the duo’s synth pop, with tracks ranging from dance music to ballads and soft jazz and welcomes detailed headphones with a good bit of bass punch. The Zoro IIs played it with both punch and delicacy as required. Heidi Happy’s voice, while not as well-presented as with some of my headphones, still came through very well, more like what I’d expect from a more expensive pair of headphones. I think this is due to the treble being slightly muted, which can make vocals seem slightly muffled. 


That muted treble was most noticeable listening to Leigh Barker from the Kostas Metaxas Recording Samplers. While the cymbals, for example, didn't come through as strongly as with some headphones, there was nothing disagreeable about the presentation, which is, overall, a touch warm. The percussion in "I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled and Crazy" by The Derek Trucks Band was very enjoyable, the whole song delivered very well at both ends of the frequency spectrum. If anything, like with Heidi Happy on Yello’s album, I could only find fault in the vocals, which had a touch of hardness, but no more than I’d expect to find in headphones costing a few hundred dollars more.


To test the deep bass, I broke out the Amon Tobin’s Bricolage and The Silent Sound Spectrum by A Guy Called Gerald, both of which contain tracks that seem to go down close to 20 Hz. The rumble came through, not strongly, but quite sufficiently, and not lacking detail as I had expected. However, their inexpensive build doesn’t fare quite as well when the volume is turned up to louder levels, with vibrations clearly coming through the frame and a bit of harshness appearing in the presentation. A great deal of this is due to them being on-ears. Regardless, they held up remarkably well considering their price. 


Overall, for US$99 they are a steal, all of attractive, comfortable and enjoyable to listen with as long as one doesn't turn the volume up too high. I didn’t feel a desire to remove them from my head once I started listening, always an excellent sign. People looking for more pounding bass or a “club” experience might choose V-MODAs or the like, but for a pair of inexpensive and attractive all-rounders the Zoro IIs set a high bar.



Type:   Open-back, over-ear headphones


Price:   $995 and 1945 USD, respectively


URL:   http://www.audeze.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


When Audeze's LCD-X and LCD-XC were released, they were the first of Audeze's headphones to incorporate a new technology by Audeze called Fazor. To be clear, Fazor is not something obscure, something you can't see, something you can barely hear--you can very much see it (and even feel the Fazor elements with your fingers), and you can definitely hear its effects.


Simply put, Fazor technology is designed to guide the flow of sound around the magnets. In doing this--in minimizing the interference patterns around the magnets--Audeze claims: the improved acoustic impedance-matching extends high frequency response and increases efficiency; phase response is improved by the elimination of edge-diffraction of sound saves around the magnetic structures, and other effects; and impulse response is improved due to better acoustic matching, symmetrical loading and minimized edge diffraction, as well as faster settling of the diaphragm with less ringing. To see Audeze's explanation, visit their website--it's fascinating.


Because the LCD-X and LCD-XC were the first to employ the benefits of Fazor, many (myself included) found that these models (for me, it was the LCD-X specifically)--despite being priced below the flagship LCD-3--led the Audeze pack, in terms of performance. The LCD-X not only moved past its flagship non-Fazored sibling, it became perhaps my top reference non-electrostatic headphone.


Well, finally, in 2014, Audeze righted their lineup again, adding Fazor to both the LCD-2 and the LCD-3. The LCD-3, the intended Audeze flagship, has some key advantages over its siblings, with the longest voice coil and the strongest diaphragm driving force, and so should have the fastest transient response in the LCD lineup. Perhaps that was still true even before the LCD-3 finally got Fazored, but, even if it was, the LCD-X simply sounded faster, more extended and more resolving to my ears. Not anymore. With Fazor, the LCD-3 takes everything I loved about it before, stripped away a gauzy layer I didn't even realize was there (until the LCD-X stole its pre-Fazored thunder), and simply got better, faster, clearer, instantly, with Fazor.


Some of my greatest reference audio tools were gifted to me by David Chesky. I'm talking about albums with music I love, that--thanks to David's open invitation to be athis recording sessions--I was there for the performances and recordings of. The LCD-3 is easily one of the clearest windows I've got back to the actual performances through the recordings.


So ask me now which of Audeze's headphones is my favorite. Ask me now which of Audeze's headphones gives me the most transparent window to the music in the LCD lineup. Thanks for asking--the Fazored Audeze LCD-3. And now the LCD lineup makes perfect sense to me again.


"That's great," perhaps some of you are saying, "but I don't have nearly $2000 to spend on the LCD-3 or LCD-X." If your budget is $1000 and under, you can still get a substantial portion of the performance at half the price by buying the Fazored version of what I believe to be the single most posted-about >$500 headphone in the history of Head-Fi--the LCD-2. Yes, it has improved on its pre-Fazored self just the same. 



"The combination of a very neutral frequency response and an almost startling transparency are its hallmarks. The vast majority of the time I enjoyed listening to music through the LCD-3 more than I ever have with headphones."

- SkyLab

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Comments (8)

Good amp pairings with LCD-2?
What's the headphone stand used for the Utopia? :)
@daphen, that's a Bendy Head headphone stand, which you can find at www.bendyhead.com.
Another great guide, I'm sure many newcomers, as well as headfiers looking for gift purchases will find this useful.

Glad to see both the MDR-7520 and LCD2 still holding merit. 
@ZoNtO, if you look above our comments area here (at the bottom of the content of the page), you'll see the "NEXT" button to get to the next page, and you'll find a shared HD600/HD650 entry there.
@ZoNtO, your comment was an indirect suggestion to make the pagination areas clearer, easier to see, so we're working on that now. Seriously, thanks for the comment, and the heads-up.
Surprised the Meze 99 Classics didn't make the list.
Just noticed a typo in the context of the Elear: "The Utopia is an incredible option to consider if you're shopping for headphones in the $1000 range, or even higher."
Head-Fi.org › 2016 Holiday Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Over Ear Headphones