So for giggles I finally have gathered three of the most recommended closed cans under $200 ($150 street prices). The Shure SRH840, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 and the Denon AH-D1001. I wanted to hear what they all sound like and see if there is a definitive answer to the question "What closed headphones should I get under $150?".
Wouldn't it be nice if there was a simple answer? The thing is, there isn't a stock one-phone-fits-all answer. The three don't strictly need to be used solely for portable use. Of course they can be used out of a DAP for exercising, commuting and airplanes. Either is a good alternative to IEMs for those who have an aversion to sticking objects into their ear canals. The three, however, are also good enough that they can be used at home for those who need a closed headphone.
Each headphone has it's strengths and weaknesses though. Making each of them useful for slightly different tasks. Also, each are also not as good at other tasks. What I'll try to do is show what each does better and what each does not as well. I'll try to help illuminate which one to pick for differing needs.
I won't mention how they do with an amp as all three improve when an amp is used. Truthfully, the trio do almost as equally well from each other out of a DAP and are easily enough to be driven.
I've also decided to not talk about soundstage because these are closed headphones and to be honest, they sound like closed headphones. So the soundstage isn't really that expansive. The Shure is the best of the three but only by a small degree and it must be taken into perspective.
All three are really are actually quite nice. There isn't a dud in the group. So here's my take on them:
Shure $199.99 new (under $150 street prices):
These are billed as monitor headphones. Of the three I think they sound the best overall. They are the most balanced and clear sounding. The do have a Shure family sound with nice mids and slightly, to me, rolled off highs. The highs, even if somewhat rolled are the most refined of the group. They have the most controlled bass even if they aren't as impactful as the Denon and especially the AT.
They are the heaviest and by a slight margin over the M50, the bulkiest. They get the warmest on your ears and can get a little sweaty. Especially in hot weather. If I had to pick, the Shure is the least comfortable to me.
Even though looks are subjective, the Shure and the M50 have a similar Aesthetic. Strangely though the 840 has the left and right wires sticking out where the gimbals and height adjuster are. I don't care for that myself.
They fold up very similar to the M50. Neither one, though, is exactly the most portable. The 840 is the most isolating of the trio. By a noticeable margin. The next best M50 lets in more noise.
If I had to pick one for strictly home use I'd pick the Shure 840. It's the best of the lot in terms of sound quality, balance and neutrality. They just sound better than the other two. If sound isolation is the most important than these are the pick also.
They are the most expensive street priced between the three though. If portability, comfort or bulk is more important than the sound than these also might not be the first choice.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50 $199.99 (well under $150 street prices):
If you're a basshead stop here, look no further, you've found your headphone. I could probably just end there and move on but the M50 is more than just a simple bass monster. The bass isn't as controlled or as textures as the Shure but the bass is very powerful and can be felt. For me personally, the bass is too much.
Although the mids aren't as sweet nor as clear as the 840, they're still impressive at this price level for a closed headphone. The highs don't have the refinement of the 840 but they are pretty good and don't have any harshness at moderate and somewhat higher volume levels.
They have a similar look to the Shure so I don't see this as being a deal breaker or maker. The M50 is a bit on the bulky side. They're also not the ultimate in comfort. They don't get as hot as the 840 but still can get warm and might need to be taken off from time to time for some relief. They aren't the most comfortable.
Isolation may fall short of the Shure, but is still isolates nicely. This can be an advantage if totally isolation can't be used or would be dangerous.
If you're into bass and you wear a T-Shirt that says "I'm a proud basshead" then the M50 is the easy choice. They're typically found a little cheaper than the Shure so if budget issues are a concern then these are worth a look. The sound quality is pretty close in the mids and highs. The M50 is not, by any stretch a balanced headphone and if you want a balanced closed 'phone move to the Shure.
Denon AH-D1001 $149.00 new (under $100 street prices)
If there are budget needs and still want bass this Denon might be the one to look at. The bass on the Denon is more bloated. It has that mid bass hump the is evident more so than the other two.
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