((This post will constantly be in a work in progress, the headphone world is constantly changing with new competitors and my goal is to keep this up to date with as much detail as possible. This will be no easy goal and I'm asking your help to correct any information, or add any as needed! A PM will yield best results when looking to change anything here.))
Before reading this thread I want everyone to realize that sound is subjective. Something that one person may find to be a great headphone may in-fact sound terrible to the next person. With that said I'd like to keep the discussion of headphones civilized. I realize opinions can cause someone to get heated possibly, but we're all here for the same purpose! That being the most important thing to note, there are other important things to consider when buying a new set of headphones and this information will be highly helpful to provide when asking for advice:
1: Location: This is simply described as location where you're intending on using your headphones. This is important because some headphones are better for portable use than others, while others you wouldn't want to bring outside for a number of reasons. When purchasing your headphones this should be the first question you ask, a pair of Audio Technica Ad900 certainly wouldn't be a good choice for commuting on a subway, for instance.
2: Budget: Your budget encompasses your headphones and any accessories you intend to use with them such as DACs and Amps. Some headphones sound fantastic from anything starting with an iPod to a vintage stereo system, while some headphones need a dedicated headphone amp in order to sound their best. When considering your headphones be sure to note the notation for the headphones you would like, any that indicate needing a headphone amp (3) I strongly urge purchasing an amp with them, anything that improves with an amp (2) I highly suggest picking up one with it.
3: Music: Lastly you want to consider the type of music you listen to, not all headphones are created equal! Every headphone is designed to cater to a certain sound type and a headphone that may be excellent for classical music might lack in many areas for those who listen to drum and bass. If you have an eclectic music taste then it's best to find something that will suit what you listen to most.
Types of Headphones
Before I get into the guide, I would like to give a quick explanation of the types of headphones.
Earbuds: These are the headphones that you'll see come with an iPod and other music players. They sit in the outside of the ear, and don't provide much isolation. These aren't very popular in the audiophile world and generally you won't find many higher end ones.
IEMs: Otherwise known as in-ear monitors. These are headphones that go into your ear similar to ear buds, but they go a step further by nesting into your ear canal. They generally provide a higher level of isolation than earbuds
Full-Sized, Circumaural: These can be open or closed headphones, it doesn't matter. The defining characteristic of these is that they will completely cover your ear inside the pad. The pad of the headphone generally won't touch the ear, rather make a seal around the outside of the ear. These headphones tend to be large and are generally not ideal for portable use.
Full-Sized, Supra-aural: These can be open or closed headphones, it doesn't matter. The defining characteristic of these is that they sit on the ear, rather than cover your ear.
Open vs. Closed
This question comes up often and it's actually very simply put. Open headphones will generally have a wider sound stage, giving the music more room to breath and usually more realistic presentation. It can be thought of as seeing a concert outdoors where the music has an air to it. This isn't always true, but it's one way to look at it. The downfall to open headphones is that they leak sound and let sound in. This makes them poor solutions for traveling or if you're sharing a dorm room.
Closed headphones generally have a more narrow and direct sound presentation, similar to going to a club or an intimate venue. This isn't always true either, but it's one way to think of it. Closed headphones usually isolate well, this means that tend to keep the sound between the headphones and the listener with not much sound leaking and not much sound in. There are exceptions though so it's not always so cut and dry.
Open headphones tend to be great choices when you have no worries of annoying others with sound leakage due to overall better sound quality per dollar than closed headphones. Closed headphones tend to be best when you are sharing close living quarters or are travelling.
When considering your headphone purchase it's always best to attempt to find a place to demo them yourself to try your own music on them and see if they suit your ears. Remember sound is subjective and one headphone I enjoy the next person may not. This is meant to help guide you into the more popular and well received models available to further research. Prices are based on info from Amazon through price info gathering sites, or authorized sellers. The pricing and tier is not indicative of quality relative to another headphone, the headphones are sorted solely based upon price, price is not an indicator of whether you're going to like something more or less.
Things to avoid
In general it's best to avoid products made by Skullcandy, Bose, Beats, or Monster unless otherwise specified in this thread. These companies spend a lot of money on advertising and looks rather than quality. That isn't to say these companies haven't put out headphones worth buying, the Monster Turbine Coppers are actually fantastic IEMs, it's just that a lot of the time you're paying a premium for the name.
Active Noise Canceling is also something else you'll want to avoid. In-general the average person will get the isolation needed from IEMs or other full-sized headphones. With active noise canceling you're going to pay a premium on the noise canceling tech, rather than the sound quality. Only buy these, or even consider them, if you absolutely need them.
(1) Denotes amp is not required and the headphone will probably not see any change with one.
(2) Denotes amp is not required, but one is recommended.
(3) Denotes amp is required. Using these without an amp will leave much to be desired.
Any headphone with a B next to the number, IE:
(2-B) indicates that it's a bass heavy headphone.
Each link will be noted as such up to three reviews per headphone. I'm working on a system to find trusted reviews, but as for now Inner Fidelity will be listed when possible since Tyll is well respected for his fair opinions. Other big names will be considered as well.
Budget Headphones: $0-$75
Looking for a pair of headphones for travel, something cheap to throw around? Or perhaps you can't justify spending much on a pair of headphones but want something of decent value? Look here!
Budget Headphones! (Click to show)
(1-B) Philips SHE3590, $12. Strong bass, v-shape, good extension on both ends.
(1) Brainwavz Beta, $13-$29. Punchy bass, lively mids, slightly grainy highs, excellent sound imaging. Available with in-line remote/mic version.
(1) Meelectronics M6, $17-$23. Somewhat bloated bass, slightly recessed mids, slightly bright highs that have minor sibilance. Rather energetic sound. Good build quality.
(1) JVC HA-FX40, $20. Clear, bright and aggressive sound with good bass response.
(1) DUNU Trident, $30-$40 Good price/quality ratio. Warm pleasing sound with decent balance.
(1) SoundMagic E30, $35-$40. Rather balanced clean sound. Strong bass in impact and quantity, clear mids, treble has nice extension and clarity.
(1) Meelectronics A151, $45-$50. Full warm sound. Full bass, clean smooth mids, clean highs. Build quality is great, no microphonics.
(1) Dunu Ares, $50-$75. Decent overall balanced sound, leans slightly to the warm sound. Bass is decent, mids and highs are lush, but slightly grainy. Excellent build quality and packaging.
(1) Koss KSC75, $10-$20. Bloated bass, decent mids, clear highs. *These are clip-ons*.
(1) Superlux HD681, $30-$40. Good Bass, mids, and highs.
(2) Superlux HD668b, $30-$50. Neutral, slight emphasis on treble. Removable cable.
(1-B) Koss PortaPro, $30-$40. Strong but slightly muddy bass, recessed mids, slightly rolled off highs.
(2) Monoprice 8323, $21.59. Removable cable, good portability, comfort, folds up for travel, and isolation. Excellent sound to price ratio, good balance.
(1) Panasonic RP-HTF600-S, $30-$45. Deep punchy lows, slightly recessed mids, bright highs.
(1) JVC HARX700, $30-$65. "A poor mans A700." Thumpy/muddy bass, decent mids, decent highs.
(1-B) Sony MDR XB500, $45-$75. Comfortable. Strong bass, recessed mids, decent highs.
(1) Sennheiser PX 200-II, $55-$90. Comfortable, well built, folds compactly, and great for travel. Good natural sound here, nothing amazing but decent.
(1) JVC HARX900, $55-$100. "A poor mans A900." Decent soundstage. Tight/deep bass, recessed mids, bright/fatiguing highs.
(1) Sony MDR-V6, $60-$80. Folds for portability. Clear sound with a rather flat response.
Entry Level Headphones: $75-$150
These headphones are for people who want to take the next step up and possibly enter the audiophile world. The low price-tag does not mean these headphones aren't serious about sound!
Entry Level Headphones (Click to show)
(1) Spider Realvoice, $70-$90. Balanced. Lows are controlled and punchy, clear, prominent, neutral mids, highs sparkle with good extension. Good all-rounder with good build quality.
(2) HiFi Man RE0, $80. Clear and analytical with fantastic highs and mids, low end is lacking. Build quality is sub-par.
(1-B) Shure SE215, $90-$100. Removable cables, good build quality and great isolation. Strong punchy bass, warm powerful mids, rather weak highs.
(2-B) DUNU Hephaes, $90-$95. Good build quality and list of accessories. Strong bass can be overbearing at time, highs are laid back. These are for bassheads. Cheap amps recommended.
(2) thinksound ms-01, $100. Environmentally conscious, sturdy build quality, wood housing, strong and punchy bass, clean and balanced lively sound.
(2) HiFi Man RE-ZERO, $100. Slightly warm, essentially a slightly bassier more musical RE0.
(2) Meelectronics A161p, $100-$120. Well balanced, clear, and detailed sound, good musicality. Well extended frequencies with good isolation.
(1) Etymotic HF5, $90-$150. Excellent isolation with a rather neutral/natural sound. Anemic, yet punchy, bass, clear/detailed and neutral mids and sparkling highs. Very analytical and detailed.
(1) Grado SR-60i, $79. Bright forward headphones. Bass is punchy but overshadowed by the forward mids, bright, potentially fatiguing highs. Great value headphones with good potential for modding.
(1) Audio Technica ATH-AD700, $85-$150. Great comfort and decent build quality. Weak bass though it has some impact, detailed mids and highs with no fatigue. One of the best soundstages in the price range.
(2) AKG K240, $80-$100. Good build quality, detachable cable. Tight natural highs, slightly forward mids and highs.
(1) Alessandro MS-1, $99. Decent natural sounding bass, good warm mids, good detail in the highs with decent extension.
(1) Grado SR80i, $99. Decent lows, though the aggressively forward mids overshadow them. Shrill highs, very bright headphone. Highly regarded for the price. Comfort and fatigue are potential concerns.
(2-B) Fischer Audio FA-011, $118. Comfortable with a good sound stage. Deep tight bass, smooth clear mids, somewhat bright highs.
(2) Koss PRODJ 100, $50-$80. Solid build quality, coiled cable, and folds for portability. Natural, clean, sound.
(1) Creative Aurvana Live!, $55-$99. Better Denon D1001. Average build quality, decent comfort. Strong bass, lively highs, and overall good balance.
(2) Fostex t50rp, $75-$130. Great build quality and cheap orthos, huge modding community behind it and a removable cable. Neutral sound with excellent clarity.
(1) Shure SRH440, $75-$100. Great isolation, folds for portability, and detachable cable. Clean sound, somewhat neutral.
(1) KRK KNS-6400, $80-$100. Accurate, detailed and comfortable. Accurate bass, good mids and smooth treble. Great soundstage for a closed headphone. Detachable cables.
(2) KRK KNS 8400, $120-$150. Accurate and detailed. Good lows, good mids, good highs. Detachable cable and accurate.
(1-B) Ultrasone HFI-580, $120-$190. Folds for portability, good build quality, and decent isolation. Fun, clean, V shaped sound. Deep punchy clean bass, slightly recessed mids, bright, sometimes fatiguing, highs. Some sibilance.
(2) KAM HP-1, $130. Great balance, bright leaning neutral. Good isolation, detachable cable, good comfort. Excellent imaging and good soundstage.
(1) House of Marley Exodus, $135-$150. Decent isolation, easy to drive, and a nice carrying pouch. Slightly recessed highs, natural sounding mids, strong bass, warm sound.
(2) Brainwavz HM5, $140. Laid-back/neutral clean sound. Soundstage is perhaps the best in this price range for closed headphones, giving a very open feel to them. Great accessory list.
(1) Shure SRH840, $140-$200. Isolates well, folds for portability, and good build quality. Accurate/punchy bass, great mids, highs are somewhat lacking.
(2) AKG K271 MK II, $125-$180. Neutral headphones makes them good for studio monitoring. Detailed, but lacking in bass. Detachable cable.
Mid-Range Headphones: $150-$300
Don't let the title fool you, these headphones are serious about their sound quality and many users will be completely satisfied stopping here in their quest for their sound. Perhaps you're looking to upgrade, sidegrade, or enter the grade at all, these are excellent headphones that will satisfy most.
Mid-Range Headphones (Click to show)
(2) Ultimate Ears’ Triple.fi 10 Pro, $100-$300. Balanced and airy, slightly bright. Hard hitting fast bass, recessed mids, and bright sparkly potentially fatiguing highs. Good all-rounder.
(3) HiFiMan RE262, $150. Musical and analytical. Good quality bass that extends well, slightly forward smooth mids, sibilant free highs.
(1-B) Monster Turbine Pro Gold, $155-$300. Comes with a multitude of accessories, great build quality, and good isolation. Hard hitting quality bass, smooth accurate and lush mids, good highs. Very smooth sound. Lifetime warranty.
(2) Fischer Audio DBA-02, $160. Balanced, bright and analytical with an airy soundstage. Good punchy bass, clean mids, and well extended highs.
(1) Brainwavz B2, $160-$170. Balanced leaning bright analytical. Bass is fast with good impact, mids are well textured, treble is well extended and detailed.
(1) Vsonic Gr07, $175-$180. Well built with a great soundstage. Natural sounding bass and treble is well extended. Very clear sound.
(2) HifiMan RE-252, $199. Clear balanced sound with great treble and detail, bass has decent impact, but lacks extension.
(2-B) Panasonic RP-HJE900, $250. Excellent build quality with removable cables, microphonics when worn down. Fun v-shape sound with heavy controlled and detailed bass, musical mids though recessed, slightly fatiguing highs.
(3) Etymotic ER4S, $250-280. Incredibly detailed, clear, neutral and analytical sound, if a bit bright. Bass is extended, though definitely not emphasized. Outstanding isolation, though deep insertion may not be for everyone.
(2) Sennheiser HD558, $140-$180. Warm bass, though not much impact, slightly recessed mids, and rolled off highs. Very relaxed sounding.
(2) Sennheiser HD598, $175-$250. Looks fantastic, good comfort. Warm laid back sound signature. Decent bass impact and extension, smooth mids, slightly rolled off highs.
(1) Grado SR225i, $199. Bright headphones with great mids and highs. These are considered to be the least fatiguing of the SR line while maintaining the Grado "house" sound. Potential comfort issues.
(1) Audio Technica ATH-AD900, $200-$300. Good clarity, lush balanced mids and highs, punchy accurate bass. Good soundstage, though not much bass extension. Very comfortable.
(3) AKG Q701, $240-$250. Slightly more bass impact than the K701, very clear detailed sound. Comes in many colors.
(2) HiFiMan HE-300, $250. Great all-rounder headphones. Warm clear sound.
(3) AKG K701/702, $250-$270. Amazing detail and clarity, bass is adequate and precise. Largely considered the most detailed headphones in the price range, though also considered the hardest to amp. The K702 offers a detachable cable.
(3) Beyerdynamic Dt880, $220-$300. Be wary there are 4 models of the Dt880: 32ohm, 250ohm, 600ohm. Each has it's own differences but the general sound of these are rather neutral with an emphasis on the treble, more so than the Dt770. *These are semi-open.*
(3-B) Beyerdynamic Dt990, $180-$300. Be wary there are 4 models of the Dt990: 32ohm, 250ohm, 600ohm. Each has it's own differences but the general sound of the Dt990s are rather bass heavy with a lot of treble, most recessed mids of any of the Dt series.
(2) Grado SR325i, $295. Considered the brightest and most aggressive of the SR line, but also very detailed.
(1-B) Audio Technica M50, $130-$160. Punchy deep bass, with slightly recessed mids. Good passive isolation.
(1) Sennheiser HD 25-1 II, $130-$200. Durable with good isolation. Well defined lows, neutral mids, and smooth highs.
(1-B) Audio Technica ATH-Pro700MK2, $140-$180. Dual removable cables, good build quality, strong clamp. Huge bass, mostly a fun basshead headphone.
(1-B) Ultrasone HFI-780, $155-$250. Good isolation, iffy build quality, easy to drive. Strong clear bass, slightly forward mids, bright highs.
(1) V-Moda M-80, $179-$220. Amazing build quality. Removable Cables. Decent Isolation. Deep bass with forward mids. Highs lack sparkle but extended. Very smooth sound.
(2) Beyerdynamic T50p, $200-$300. Excellent build quality. Balanced, accurate, and a good soundstage. Tight accurate lows, smooth mids, sparkly highs.
(1) Audio Technica A900x, $220-$250. Great lively sound, punchy bass, engaging mids, clean highs. Fit is very loose.
(1) Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9A, $220-$230. Very smooth, warm, sound. Good bass, sslightly recessed mids, decent highs.
(2) Shure SRH940, $220-$300. Removable cable and good isolation. Warm clean sound great for all sorts of music.
(3) Beyerdynamic Dt770, $175-$250. Bassy with a v-shape. Very comfortable.
(2) Ultrasone Pro 750, $240-$390. Good bass not overbearing but with plenty of slam. Good comfort. Great with trance and bass heavy music.
(2) Beyerdynamic DT1350, $285-$300. Excellent build quality. Very neutral, detailed, sound. Tight accurate bass with great clarity throughout.
(2) Denon D2000, $200-$350. Comfortable. Tight punchy bass, smooth mids, smooth clear highs.
Upper Mid-Range Headphones: $300-$500
You've perhaps have gotten a taste of some other headphones and wanted to see what the upper tiers are like, or you're a risk taker and are spending "big" on your first pair. Either way these are part of the upper echelon of headphones and are highly regarded for their sound quality.
Upper Mid-Range Headphones (Click to show)
(1-B) Monster Turbine Pro Copper, $215-$400. Warm smooth sound. Strong textured quick hitting bass, slightly forward smooth mids, good extension on the highs. Lifetime warranty.
(2-B) Sennheiser IE8, $255-$450. Great list of included accessories and great build quality including a detachable cable. No microphonics, but isolation is poor. Adjustable bass with included screwdriver, bass can be present and impactful, or bloated and pushy,
(2) Audio-Technica ATH-CK10, $260-$330. Amazing build quality, sets the bar, with good isolation. No microphonics and excellent comfort. Well balanced. Smooth, detailed, extended lows, detailed mids, highs sparkle and are very detailed. A great value even at this price.
(1) Ortofon e-Q5, $300. Warm and smooth with good detail. Great build quality, but potential fit concerns with small ears.
(2) Westone 4, $300-$450. Impressive isolation, build quality, and accessory pack; no cable noise; excellent balance & soundstaging.
(2) Sony MDR-EX1000, $325-$500. No cable noise; amazing combination of clear, detailed, open, and spacious sound. Average isolation; fit can be frustrating; wind noise can be an issue, though some of the best bass in any IEM. Mids and highs are relaxed, but clear. Huge soundstage
(2) Westone UM3X, $380. Good build quality, comfort, isolation, and nearly no microphonics. These are built extremely well. Impactful well extended bass, warm smooth forward mids, smooth detailed highs. Also includes a detachable cable.
(2) Shure SE535, $420-$500. Excellent build quality, comfort, isolation and no microphonics. Punchy well extended bass, lush full forward mids, slightly forward highs.
(3) Audio Technica CK100, $470-$500. Unrivaled build quality, great isolation, nonexistent microphonics, and fantastic comfort. Tight and fast bass, very forward detailed mids, smooth and energetic highs. Amazing imaging and instrument separation. These are picky with their source.
(2) Alessandro MS2, $299. Good balance throughout. Good clarity, rather congested sound. Easy to drive.
(3) AKG K601, $175-$350. Rather balanced with a good soundstage. Slightly bass light, excellent mids, clear detailed highs.
(3) Sennheiser HD600, $255-$400. Very neutral balanced, quick and clear headphones.
(3) Sony MDR-SA5000, $315-$420. Very detailed. Fantastic highs with excellent extension, clear analytical mids, light detailed bass. Fast headphones with excellent sound imaging.
(3) Sennheiser HD650, $330-$400. Well built and comfortable, but slight clamping. Warm relaxed sound signature. Great bass and lows, mids and highs can be veiled without proper amping.
(3) HiFiMan HE-400, $400. Dark sound signature, clean sound, and decent level of detail.
(2-B) Sony MDR-XB1000, $275-$450. Very comfortable with a decent sound stage and good isolation. Strong but slow and bloated bass, mids are recessed, smooth highs. Often said to simply be a woodied D2000.
(1-B) Audio Technica ATH-ES10, $380-$430. Warm balanced sound overall with decent isolation. Strong hard hitting bass, neutral mids, smooth sparkling highs.
Audiophile Headphones: $500+
These headphones are the end of the line, the cream of the crop, the absolute "best" available. Chances are if you've moved on to a headphone in this price range you already know what you want, but here's some of the top picks!
Audiophile Headphones (Click to show)
(2) Westone ES3X, $850. Custom Fit. Warm, lush sounding custom IEM. Forward sound signature places you on the stage together with the instruments.
(2) JH13 Pro, $1,099. Custom Fit. Incredibly detailed reference sounding custom IEM's. Natural and open sound.
(2) JH16 Pro, $1,149. Custom Fit. Stupendous bass presentation while retaining all of the positives from the JH13 Pro's.
(2) Audio Technica Ad2000, $450-$845. Light, well built, comfortable. Tight, punchy, fast, detailed bass, not much sub-bass though. Mids are forward and slightly aggressive though said to be one of the best for any headphone, very natural sounding detailed highs. These are said to be "fast" headphones. Some even go as far as calling these the best dynamic headphone out there with the right amp/dac.
(2) Grado RS1i, $695. Incredibly detailed and smooth. More of a neutral sound signature. The lows are textured and punchy, the mids and highs have excellent resolution.
(3) HiFi Man HE-500, $699. Comfortable and beautiful. Natural sounding slightly warm sound with well articulated bass with good impact, very neutral and natural mid-range, and excellent treble that shines. Slightly slow but great imaging. These were considered fantastic at the price of $899, they've since been reduced to $699 making them and excellent value.
(2) Alessandro MS-Pro, $699. Neutral, very detailed with great clarity. Aimed at classical music listeners.
(3) Audeze LCD2, $945-$995. Amazing soundstage and imaging, Balanced highs, slightly heavy, but detailed bass, very natural mid-range.
(2) Grado GS1000i, $995. Very detailed and accurate. Deep quality bass (possibly best in Grado line), rather bright sound. Great soundstage. Very analytical.
(3) Beyerdynamic Tesla T1, $1,210-$1,300. Rather neutral with amazing clarity and detail. Very natural sounding.
(3) Sennheiser HD800, $1,499. Well defined bass with amazing clarity, fantastic mid-range, slightly artificial highs with some pronounced sibilance. Excellent soundstage and imaging.
(2) Grado PS1000, $1,695. Strong quality bass, fantastic mids and highs.
(3) Stax SR-007 "Omega II", $2,199. Requires a special electrostatic amp. Open-Back Electrostatic Earspeaker.
(3) Ultrasone Edition 10, $2,749. Neutral/airy sound. Deep/well defined bass, very natural mids, accurate highs.
(2-B) Ultrasone Pro 900, $550. Deep bass that's slightly uncontrolled without an amp, slightly recessed mids, bright highs. Recommended to have an amp and to do the Kees Mod.
(2) Audio Technica ATH-W1000X, $580-$600. Detailed slightly bright highs (sibilance), great mid separation and detail, smooth detailed punchy bass. Amazing soundstage.
(3-B) Denon D5000, $600. Rich and involving, forward signature. Boomy uncontrolled bass, smooth involving mids, rolled off highs. Some issues with build quality, but comfortable.
(3) Denon D7000, $670-$750. Great detailed bass with good extension, clear detailed, though slightly, recessed mids, very detailed and clear highs, though potentially slight sibilance. Rather natural sounding headphone.
(3) Audio Technica ATH-W5000, $680-$740. Notoriously picky with amps. Fantastic clarity and balance through the mids and highs. Lows are punchy and accurate without overextending. Spacious soundstage similar to open headphones with a lot of detail. Great for classical.
(3) Stax 4070, $1,824. Requires a special electrostatic amp. Electrostatic headphone. Designed for monitoring, very detailed and unforgiving. A bit heavy but good comfort.
These headphones are no longer produced but are still highly regarded among audio enthusiasts and have withstood the test of time.
Retired Headphones (Click to show)
There's nothing written here now, but if you check back you'll find many goodies! I was contemplating an easter egg here, but I'm out of wit!