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. We all experience sound differently and our choice in music greatly effects the sort of sound we will want in a headphone. I realize opinions can cause someone to get heated possibly, but we're all here for the same purpose! Now you may be wondering what determines what headphones you should consider? Here are some basic things to consider when looking into a new headphone:
1: Location: Where will you be using this headphone? This is the first and most important thing to consider. Why? Well if you plan to use the headphones for travelling purposes then you wouldn't want to bother others with your music leaking and you certainly wouldn't want outside noises to impose on your music. If you plan to use them in an environment where you won't possibly bother others then open headphones will likely be your choice as they tend to offer the best bang for your buck.
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 as 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.
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 provide little isolation much isolation. There aren't many high-end options in this style and IEMs are considered by many to be superior.
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 will provide a higher level of isolation due to the deeper fit and a proper seal.
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. Some users find the design to be uncomfortable due to the pressure applied on the ears.
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. 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
Active Noise Canceling is something else you'll want to avoid in most cases. In-general the average person will get the isolation needed from IEMs or other high isolation headphones. With active noise canceling you're going to pay a premium on the noise canceling technology, rather than the sound quality. Only buy these, or even consider them, if you absolutely need them. As for how the technology works, it has a microphone that listens to the noises around you. It will generate a tone that cancels out constant hums like a jet engine. It does nothing for talking or sporadic noises. Realistically, there's no need for it with how well headphones isolate when considering headphones with excellent passive isolation. Generally the technology hurts the sound quality and requires batteries to operate, making them very inconvenient.
(N) Indicates that the headphone is overall balanced or neutral in sound.
(T) Indicates that the headphone is considered bright.
(B) Indicates that the headphone is considered bass heavy.
(V) Indicates that the headphones has a V shaped sound.
(m) Indicates that the headphone has an inline microphone.
(W) Indicates that the headphone is considered warm.
(M) Indicates that the headphone is focuses on the mids.
Please note that these notes are not meant to be and end-all guide to the sound. These are to give starting points for those looking for these qualities in headphones.
(V) Philips SHE3590, $8-$15. Strong bass, v-shape, good extension on both ends. #1, #2
(B) JVC HA-FX101b, $12-$20. Budget basshead IEM with harsh treble. A bit unrefined, but a great basshead buy. #1,
(Vm) Meelectronics M6, $13-$23. Fit might be a pain, v-shaped somewhat sibilant sound. Design feels cheap, available in many colors. #1, #2, #3
(Vm) Xiaomi Piston 2, $25. Slightly boomy mid-bass, slight brightness in the treble, and decent sound stage. Mediocre isolation, fit could be an issue. #1
(W) DUNU Trident, $30-$40 Good price/quality ratio. Warm pleasing sound with decent balance. Built well, microphonics could be an issue. #1, #2, #3
(N) SoundMagic E30, $30-$40. Rather balanced clean sound. Strong bass in impact and quantity, clear mids, treble has nice extension and clarity. #1, #2, #3
(B) RHA MA350, $40. Deep impactful bass with decent mids and highs, a step up from the JVC FX101. Great warranty. #1, #2, #3
(Wm) SteelSeries Flux, $50. Warm all-rounder IEM with inline mic, good isolation and comfort. #1, #2, #3
(B) Zero Audio Carbo Tenore, $50. Strong bass, clean mids and highs. Built well. #1
(M) Ostry KC06, $60. Average build quality, comfort and isolation. Mid forward IEM with a slight treble emphasis. #1
(T) Koss KSC75, $10-$20. Mid-bass heavy, sub-bass roll-off and sparkly highs. *These are clip-ons*. #1, #2, #3
(B) Sony MA-300, $30-$40. Warm, bassy, good soundstage, decent comfort.
(N) Superlux HD681 Evo, $30-$40. Leans bright without sacrificing mids or lows. Great price ratio. #1, #2
(N) Samson SR850, $50. Neutral, slight emphasis on treble. Removable cable. #1, #2
(B) Koss PortaPro, $30-$40. Strong but slightly muddy bass, recessed mids, slightly rolled off highs. #1, #2, #3
(W) Monoprice 8323, $23. Removable cable, good portability, comfort, folds up for travel, and isolation. Good sound to price ratio, good balance. #1
(B) JVC HAS400B, $24-$28. Very bassy and moddable though uncomfortable with stock pads. #1
(N) Tascam TH-02, $30. Slightly cheapish build. Highly moddable. Clean, extended bass, slightly elevated top octave, but is a tad recessed from 2-5kHz . No amp needed, but sounds different from high-impedance outputs. #1
(W) Panasonic RP-HTF600-S, $30-$45. Deep punchy lows with a good soundstage. Durability is a concern. #1, #2, #3
(B) Philips Downtown, $30-$50. Isolate well, great bass quality and quantity, refined for the sound. On-ear. #1, #2
(NM) Koss PRODJ 100, $40-60. Solid build quality, coiled cable, and folds for portability. Natural, clean, sound. #1, #2, #3
(N) Sony MDR-V6/7506, $60-$90. Folds for portability. Clear sound with a rather flat response. #1, #2
(B) JVC HA-MR77x, $70. Budget basshead headphones.
(B) Takstar Pro80, $75. These offer big bass, a solid build quality, and a respectable sounding mid and treble range.
(B) Shure SE215, $90-$100. Removable cables, good build quality and great isolation. Strong punchy bass, warm powerful mids, rather weak highs. #1, #2, #3
(N) 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, #2, #3
(NW) thinksound ms-01, $100. Environmentally conscious, sturdy build quality, wood housing, strong and punchy bass, clean and balanced lively sound. #1, #2
(Bm) JAYS a-JAYS Five, $100. Sturdy build, easy to position, in-line mic. Strong bass, clean mids, forward highs and great detail for the sound signature. #1
(N) HiFiMan RE-400, $100. The new iteration of the much loved RE0. Dry bass, but excellent mids and detailed highs. Great budget buy for those who want clear and detailed IEMs. #1, #2, #3
(Nm) Rock-It R-50, $120. Comfortable with a detailed and clear sound. Sub-bass lacks though. Guitars and fast paced music excel here.
(NW) AKG K240, $70-$100. Good build quality, detachable cable. Tight natural highs, slightly forward mids and highs. #1, #2, #3
(TM) Grado SR-60e, $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, #2, #3
(MT) Audio Technica ATH-AD700x, $120-$160. 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. #1
(M) Alessandro MS-1i, $99. Decent natural sounding bass, good warm mids, good detail in the highs with decent extension. #1, #2, #3
(MT) Grado SR80e, $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. #1, #2
(B) Creative Aurvana Live!, $55-$99. Better Denon D1001. Average build quality, decent comfort. Strong bass, lively highs, and overall good balance. #1, #2, #3
(N) 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, #2
(WN) NVX XPT100, $80. 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, #2
(B) Denon D1100, $100. Good build quality, comfort, and isolation. Strong, punchy and powerful bass with decent mids and highs. #1, #2
(WN) OnkyoES-FC300, $100. Removable cable, good comfort and build quality. Slightly warm leaning neutral and spacious sound. #1
(Bm) Creative Aurvana Live 2!, $105-$130. Decent build quality, sub-optimal isolation, removable cable and comfy. Bass heavy sound with clean mids and highs. #1, #2, #3
(N) KAM HP-1, $150. Great balance, bright leaning neutral. Good isolation, detachable cable, good comfort. Excellent imaging and good soundstage. #1
(WN) Shure SRH840, $140-$200. Isolates well, folds for portability, and good build quality. Accurate/punchy bass, great mids, highs are somewhat lacking. #1, #2, #3
(VN) Audio Technica M50x, $130-$180.
(V) Dunu DN-1000, $200. Great build, decent isolation and comfort. Bass heavy with good clarity, treble can be a bit peaky. #1
(N) ACS T15, $230.Top notch comfort, good build and isolation. Bass is lean but has good presence, neutral mids, natural sounding. #1
(Nm) Etymotic ER4S, $250-$300. 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. #1, #2
(WN) Custom Art Music One, $260. Custom Fit. Perhaps the cheapest customs available. Bass can distract from the overall balance with a warm leaning signature, full and rich sounding. Great isolation and comfort. Hard to remove from ear. #1
(WN) Sennheiser HD558, $125-$180. Warm bass, though not much impact, slightly recessed mids, and rolled off highs. Very relaxed sounding. #1, #2
(V) Beyerdynamic Dt990, $150-$340. 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.
(WN) Sennheiser HD598, $175-$250. Looks fantastic, good comfort. Warm leaning neutral sound signature. Decent bass impact and extension, smooth mids, slightly rolled off highs. #1, #2, #3
(MT) Grado SR225e, $199. Decent build quality and okay comfort. Rolled off sub-bass with a lively bright leaning tilt. #1
(NT) Beyerdynamic Dt880, $200-$350. 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.* #1, #2, #3
(NT) Audio Technica ATH-AD900x, $200-$300. Good clarity, lush balanced mids and highs, punchy accurate bass. Very comfortable, great soundstage. #1, #2
(NT) AKG Q701, $225-$250. Slightly more bass impact than the K701, very clear detailed sound. Comes in many colors. #1, #2, #3
(B) Philips Fidelio X1, $230-$300. Non-replaceable pads, fit may be poor. Sound is bassy and fun to listen to. Slightly loose bass and slightly artificial treble. #1, #2, #3
(NT) AKG K701/702, $240-$270. Amazing detail and clarity, bass is adequate and precise. Largely considered the most detailed headphones in the price range. The K702 offers a detachable cable. #1, #2, #3
(MT) Grado SR325e, $295. Sturdy build, decent comfort. Bright and detailed sound, potentially fatiguing highs, punchy bass. #1
(B) Philips Fidelio X2, $299. Good build and comfort. Mid-bass heavy with some grain. A good choice for someone wanting bass in an open can.
(N) Sennheiser HD 25-1 II, $130-$200. Durable with good isolation. Well defined lows, neutral mids, and smooth highs. #1, #2, #3
(V) Beyerdynamic Dt770, $170-$250. Bassy with a v-shape. Very comfortable. Multiple impedance versions, all have similar characteristics. #1, #2
(N) Beyerdynamic DT1350, $175-$300. Excellent build quality. Very neutral, detailed, sound. Tight accurate bass with great clarity throughout. #1, #2, #3
(WN) 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. #1, #2, #3
(Wm) V-Moda XS, $180-$200. Folds nicely, comfortable, removable cables. Warm and smooth sounding, #1, #2
(WN) Beyerdynamic T51p, $200-$300. Great isolation with a warm leaning neutral sound. #1, #2
(NV) Audio Technica A900x, $220-$250. Great lively sound, punchy bass, engaging mids, clean highs. Fit is very loose. #1
(N) Shure SRH940, $220-$300. Removable cable and good isolation. Warm clean sound great for all sorts of music. #1, #2, #3
(W) Sennheiser Urbanite, $250. Built well with a detachable cable. Sound is warm with rolled off highs, coming off veiled. #1
(T) Audio Technica ATH-MSR7, $260. Removable cable, secure fit, good build, good for portable use. Clear and detailed, bright leaning. Near reference quality. #1
(N) thinksound On1, $250-$300. Neutral, clean, and detailed. Wooden cups, removable cable. Lightweight and good isolation. #1
(B) JVC HA-SZ2000, $280. Headphones for huge bass. #1
(WNm) NAD VISO HP50, $300. Warm to neutral with a good soundstage, Light, comfortable, and isolate well. #1
(NT) 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. #1, #2, #3
(VN) Clear Tune Monitors CTM-200, $350. Custom Fit. Balanced and neutral, neither overly detailed or lush, but spacious. Great comfort and isolation. #1,
(W) Westone UM3X, $380-$400. 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. #1, #2, #3
(WN) Alclair Reference, $399. Custom Fit. Warm, spacious and energetic with great bass and mids, treble may be too bright. #1, #2, #3
(NM) Shure SE535, $420-$500. Excellent build quality, comfort, isolation and no microphonics. Punchy well extended bass, lush full forward mids, slightly forward highs. #1, #2
(W) 1964Ears 1964-V3, $500. Custom Fit. Warm and musical sound, forward mids, highs lacking. Soundstage is layered and intimate. #1, #2
(NW) InEar StageDiver 2, $450. Balanced and natural sound with great build quality. #1, #2, #3
(?) Alessandro MS2, $299. Good balance throughout. Good clarity, rather congested sound. Easy to drive.
(N) Sennheiser HD600, $255-$400. Very neutral balanced, quick and clear headphones. Removable cables. #1, #2
(W) Sennheiser HD650, $300-$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. #1, #2
(N) AKG K712 Pro, $350. Comfortable and built well. Balanced bass, neither forward or recessed mids, potentially harsh highs. Great imaging and soundstage. #1, #2
(N) Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs, $299. Comfortable, excellent detail retrieval, forgiving of poor recordings, neutral. DIY approach means consistency issues could occur. #1, #2, #3
(N) Focal Spirit Professional, $350. Good build, isolation, and comfort. A bit forward, but neutral and detailed. #1, #2
(BV) Audio Technica ATH-ES10, $380-$430. Warm balanced sound overall with decent isolation. Strong hard hitting bass, neutral mids, smooth sparkling highs. #1
(V) Bowers & Wilkins P7, $400. Warm tilt with slightly bright upper mids. Great build quality and portability. Removable cable and pads. #1, #2
(N) Focal Spirit Classic, $400. Mediocre comfort, foldable, removable cable. Neutral sound with mellow highs. #1, #2
(VN) 1964Ears V6-Stage, $699. Custom Fit. Great build quality, isolation and comfort, impressive all-around performance. Can accent sibilance. #1, #2, #3
(V) InEar StageDiver 4, $850. Great build and fit. Clean and detailed with a v-shape sound signature. #1
(N) Noble 4s, $999. Custom Fit. Great clarity, neutral and natural sounding. Excellent fit, finish and design. Superb comfort and isolation. #1
(N) Unique Melody Miracle, $1,049. Balanced and well extended, small soundstage, great instrument separation, great isolation. #1, #2
(N) JH13 Pro, $1,099. Custom Fit. Incredibly detailed reference sounding custom IEM's. Natural and open sound. #1, #2
(W) JH16 Pro, $1,149. Custom Fit. Stupendous bass presentation while retaining all of the positives from the JH13 Pro's. #1, #2
(2) Hidition NT6, $1,200. Custom Fit. Great build quality, outstanding clarity and detail. Leans slightly more bright than neutral, great soundstage. #1
(W) HiFi Man He-400i, $500. Warm to bassy sound. Mediocre build with good comfort. #1
(2) Audio Technica Ad2000 (or x), $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.
(N) HiFi Man He-500, $600. Great bass quality, natural mids, and hints of treble sparkle. Mediocre build quality. #1, #2
(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.
(2) Alessandro MS-Pro, $699. Neutral, very detailed with great clarity. Aimed at classical music listeners.
(N) HiFi Man HE-560, $900. Neutral with powerful bass and extended highs. Some grain is noticed and build quality is mediocre. Comfort is great, very open and hard to drive.
(3) Audeze LCD2, $945-$1,145. 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.
(N) Beyerdynamic Tesla T1, $1,000. Rather neutral with amazing clarity and detail. Very natural sounding. Distortion is present. #1, #2
(2) Oppo PM-1, $1,099. Easy to drive, comfortable and well built. Deep extended and textured bass, slightly recessed mid-bass, forward vocals, slightly rolled off highs. #1
(NT) HiFi Man HE-6, $1,300. Strong bass, mids overshadowed by bright treble. Detailed. #1, #2
(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.
(WN) Audeze LCD-X, $1,700. Removable cable, decent fit, good build. Warm leaning neutral, detailed, slightly relaxed. #1, #2, #3
(N) Audeze LCD-3, $1,950. Pricey, decent comfort and good build. Strong quality bass, lush mids, highly transparent. #1, #2
(3) Stax SR-007 "Omega II", $2,199. Requires a special electrostatic amp. Open-Back Electrostatic Earspeaker.
(2) Audio Technica ATH-W1000X, $430-$600. Detailed slightly bright highs (sibilance), great mid separation and detail, smooth detailed punchy bass. Amazing soundstage. Wooden cups.
(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.
(1) Mr. Speakers Alpha Dog, $600. Slightly more bassy than neutral with great imaging. Good sound quality and comfort. #1
(3) Audio Technica ATH-W5000, $680-$840. 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. Wooden cups
(VN) Fostex TH600, $750. Solid build and comfort. Near open soundstage, powerful and quality bass, slightly recessed mids. #1, #2
(VN) Fostex TH900, $1,500. Comfort and isolation are above average, build is decent. Bass is powerful, but not overbearing. Slightly recessed mids and a rather open sound. #1, #2, #3
(WN) Audeze LCD-XC, $1,800. Good isolation, but heavy. Strong bass, detailed, natural sounding. #1, #2
(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.
(WN) TDK BA-200, $120. Lacking in accessories, but performing well above its price range. Sub-bass is lacking, but mid-bass and mids are lively, natural, clean and forward. Highs are rolled off, but when by themselves they are clean and detailed. Good instrument separation. #1, #2
(NT) Brainwavz B2, $125-$170. Balanced leaning bright analytical. Bass is fast with good impact, mids are well textured, treble is well extended and detailed. #1, #2
(W) Vsonic Gr07 Bass Edition, $165-$180. Well built with a great soundstage. Natural sounding bass and treble is well extended. Very clear sound. #1, #2
(N) Ortofon e-Q5, $250-$300. Warm and smooth with good detail. Great build quality, but potential fit concerns with small ears. #1
(V) 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. #1
(2) HiFiMan HE-300, $250. Great all-rounder headphones. Warm clear sound.
(3) HiFiMan HE-400, $300-$400. Dark sound signature, clean sound, and decent level of detail.