2015 Recommended Components Headphones

Headphones & Headphone Accessories

Editor's Note: We strongly recommend those interested in headphone listening visit our sister website, www.InnerFidelity.com, which is edited by Tyll Hertsens.

A

Antelope Zodiac Gold: $3595
Voltikus PSU adds $995 when purchased separately. Bundle price is $4495. See Digital Processors. (Vol.34 No.10 WWW)

Audeze LCD-X: $1699
These large, luxurious, circumaural headphones have planar-magnetic drive-units with a thin-film diaphragm energized by arrays of powerful neodymium magnets on both sides. They employ Audeze-patented Fazor elements, said to guide and manage the flow of sound in the headphone. The circular drivers are housed in polished, black-anodized aluminum earpieces, with generously sized pads, of either lambskin or leather-free microsuede, filled with foam. Adjustment is via notched, chromed metal rods attached to each earpiece, which fit into the sprung, leather-covered headband. The LCD-Xes produced a seductive, compelling overall sound, with precise imaging, rich mids, smooth highs, and clean bass, said JA. Compared to his longtime reference Sennheiser HD650s, the LCD-Xes resolved more detail, produced the more convincing sense of recorded ambience, and provided deeper bass. "Highly recommended!" JA concluded. (Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

Benchmark Media Systems DAC2: $1995
See "Digital Processors" (Vol.37 No.2 WWW)

Benchmark DAC1 HDR: $1595 ✩
Two headphone jacks. See "Digital Processors." (Vol.26 No.7, Vol.27 No.5, Vol.31 Nos.1, 7, & 10, Vol.32 No.3, Vol.33 Nos.6 &11 WWW; Vol.34 No.6 WWW)

HiFi Man HE 400i headphones: $499 $$$
The least-expensive planar-magnetic headphones ST knows of, the HE-400i offers a 32 ohms impedance and 93dB sensitivity, and performs at its best with a dedicated headphone amplifier. The sound is "crisp, clean, clear, and lightning fast, as music is in real life. This is true of the bass, too. Indeed, the sound is seamless from the top down or the bottom up," summed up Sam. (Vol.37 No.12)

JH Audio JH16 Pro: $1149 (plus custom earmold fee)
Designed by Jerry Harvey (ex–Ultimate Ears), the top-of-the-line JH Audio in-ear monitor uses eight precision-balanced armatures (two dual-armature woofers, one dual-armature midrange, and one dual-armature tweeter) and a three-way crossover. It delivered clean transient attacks, a smooth midrange, big-hearted bass, and a detailed soundstage, said JA. The JH16 Pro exhibited excellent overall performance when driven directly by JA's iPod Classic, but offered more low-bass energy and greater articulation when driven by the Ray Samuels Emmeline The Tomahawk headphone amplifier. Price includes plastic Otterbox carrying case, felt drawstring bag, and cleaning tool. (Vol.34 No.8 WWW)

Meridian Prime D/A headphone amplifier: $2000
Notable as much for its praiseworthy headphone amplifier and analog inputs—which, when driven by the output of an Auralic Vega DAC, sounded "rich and warm" through JA's Audeze headphones—the Meridian Prime's asynchronous USB DAC handles incoming datastreams at 16 and 24 bits with sampling rates up to 192kHz, and applies to all incoming data an "apodizing" reconstruction filter. While noting that the Prime's weight and body are less than the Vega's, JA praised the Meridian's "clearer balance." He singled out for praise "the palpable way [the Prime DAC] had with imaging"—which, he mused, might be attributable to that reconstruction filter. Use of Meridian's optional Prime power supply ($1295) in place of the stock wall wart added "a touch more body, a tad more authority." In his measurements, JA found discrepancies in the Prime's 24-bit performance, which turned out to be due to the optional power supply, but praised the well-engineered analog section. The verdict: "A cautious recommendation . . . for this beautifully finished, excellent-sounding headphone amplifier." (Vol.37 No.10 WWW)

Sennheiser HD 800: $1499.95 ✩
Sennheiser's attack on the state of the headphone art uses a 56mm ring-radiator transducer, the largest dynamic driver currently in use in any headphone. The HD800's large earpieces are made from a combination of absorbing composites and functional metal accents, and though the 'phones' weight is 11.5 oz without cable, its clever damping and padding made it comfortable for extended listening. The HD800's Y-cable harness uses braided, Kevlar-reinforced OFC copper wire; the cable is terminated with a very substantial 1/4" phono plug at one end, and two proprietary Sennheiser connectors at the earpieces. WP: "I was stunned by the Sennheisers' ability to project scale, to reveal dynamic nuance, to present timbre with realism." Compared to the Audeze LCD-Xes, the HD800s were equally revealing of low-level detail and recorded ambience, but sounded brighter, less laid-back, and lacked some bass extension and weight, said JA. (Vol.32 No.7, Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

Sennheiser HD 650: $499.95 ✩
The HD 650s are an evolution of Sennheiser's very successful HD 600 open-back dynamic headphones, claimed to provide superior results due to hand-selected parts with closer tolerances and the use of a specially developed acoustic silk for the driver diaphragms. Compared to the Grado SR325i, the Sennheisers sounded richer but slightly darker. JM found that their very effective seal created a resonant cavity that produced "bass that is both quite deep and a trifle indistinct." JA's new reference cans. Compared to the Audeze LCD-Xes, the HD650s had a similar overall sound, but lacked bass control, detail resolution, and ambience retrieval, said JA. (Vol.28 No.6, Vol.31 No.9, Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

Sennheiser HD 600: $399.95 ✩
WP, KR, and ST were unanimous in calling these the best dynamic headphones they've ever heard. "The only ones with which I have ever been physically or sonically comfortable," says KR. "Sennheiser has kept all of the qualities that made the HD 580 among the best of its breed, and in several areas has even managed to better it impressively," according to WP. Says ST, "The magic of the HD 600s is their midrange—a purity of tone, especially when driven by tubes, that is quite special." Astonishingly transparent when driven in balanced mode by a HeadRoom BlockHead, found J-10 in July 2002. (Vol.21 No.2 WWW)

Smyth Research Realiser A8 system: $2910 ✩
Based on the Smyth Virtual Surround algorithm, the Realiser A8 subjects an audio signal to a DSP simulation of the hearing mechanisms needed for full spatial perception and then reproduces that signal through headphones, allowing users to effectively take the sounds of up to 64 different listening rooms wherever they go. The package includes the Realiser A8 processor box and power supply, the RC-1 remote control, a TU-1 Head Tracker, a TR-1 Head Tracker Reference, and two HTM-1 miniature in-ear microphones. (A set of Stax SRS-2050 II headphones adds $790 to price.) The Realiser A8 provided the same balance and soundstaging as KR's main system, and allowed him to hear subtle differences between his Manhattan and Connecticut systems. "For the first time in my life, headphone listening was not only convincing but enjoyable," Kal marveled, adding "Class A all the way. Not only does the Realizer sound transparent as a headphone amplifier, it transforms headphone listening both in stereo and in multichannel." (Vol.33 No.11 WWW)

Thinksound On1: $249
ST, who hates in-ear headphones and noise-canceling headphones of any sort, liked the closed-back On1 'phones from ThinkSound, a new US company whose products are made in China. The On1's over-ear enclosures are machined from the mahogany-like wood sapele, sport earpads made from memory foam (the modern pillow stuff), and are covered with faux leather. Two cords are supplied—one with a smartphone-friendly microphone, one without—along with a carry pouch of unbleached cotton. ST described the On1s as "Bass-rich, full-bodied, nonfatiguing, comfortable to wear, [and] reasonably well isolating" in their passive, closed-back manner. (Vol.37 No.7)

Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Custom in-ear monitors: $1350 (plus custom earmold fee)
The 18 Pro is a three-way, in-ear, custom-mold design with six balanced armatures: two each for the bass, midrange, and treble, the latter allowing the 18 Pro to have the most extended top end of any UE model. It combined clean, airy highs with a smooth, detailed midrange and deep, well-defined bass. "Its ability to play low frequencies at high levels with minimal distortion is unmatched by other in-ear 'phones, and the clarity and smoothness of its midrange is Class A," said JA. Its mid-treble might sound a little laid-back with headphone amplifiers having a high output impedance, however. Price includes personalized aluminum carrying case and cleaning tool, but does not include the custom earmold fee; optional Ambient feature allows some leakage of exterior sounds and adds $50. (Vol.33 No.12 WWW)

B

Bowers & Wilkins P3: $199.99
Available in black or white, the sleek, elegant, on-ear P3s are designed specifically for portable use. They fold up neatly to fit inside a sturdy, hard clamshell case, and their iPod-compatible, tangle-free cord has built-in mike and volume controls. ST and SM agreed that the fabric earpads and thin headband were very comfortable. ST found the sound "slightly warm, surprisingly rich and full, without a tipped-up treble." Compared to the Beats Audio Solo HDs, the B&Ws were cleaner, clearer, more detailed, and altogether more enjoyable; compared to the Harman/Kardon CLs, the B&Ws had more delicate highs and a fine sense of space, but lacked some drama, impact, and scale, sounding a bit too polite, said SM. (Vol.35 No.12, Vol.36 Nos. 2 & 3 WWW)

CEntrance DACport: $249.99 $$$ ✩
Built in the US, the bus-powered DACport is a small, well-finished, tubular device 4.5" long, with a 1/4" stereo headphone jack and a USB port. Although the USB interface operates in adaptive isochronous mode, CEntrance employs their proprietary, two-stage JitterGuard clock-management system. The DACport's D/A section will decode 24-bit data at sample rates up to 96kHz, and its direct-coupled output stage is claimed to run in class-A. Setup was simple; no driver is required, and the DACport is compatible with Mac, Windows, and Linux operating systems. Though it lacked the bass extension and control of the Benchmark DAC1, the DACport offered a clean, grain-free sound, with airy highs and natural transients. "A great-sounding product at a great price," exclaimed JA. (Vol.33 Nos.6 & 10, Vol.35 No.10 WWW)

Musical Fidelity MF-100: $199
The MF-100 headphones are among Musical Fidelity's first earspeakers—and are, in fact, their first over-the-ear model. Designed in the UK and made in Taiwan, the foldable MF-100s come with both leather earpads and a pair of soft pads made of Alcantara, the rare animal from which artificial suede is harvested. Impedance is 64 ohms, sensitivity is 98dB, frequency range is 20Hz–20kHz, and plug size is 3.5mm. Slightly larger—and thus less easy to pack—than the Bowers & Wilkins P3s or the Pioneer SE MJ591s with which ST is acquainted, the Musical Fidelity 'phones nonetheless astonished him with "the fullness, the richness, the overall sweetness of [their] sound." (Vol.37 No.4)

Musical Fidelity V90-HPA: $199 $$$
Like Musical Fidelity's V-CANII, which ST admired, the new V90-HPA has two front-mounted headphone jacks: an old-style 1/4" jack and a newfangled 3.5mm mini-jack. Yet the V90-HPA goes a step further, adding an asynchronous USB digital-to-analog converter capable of 24-bit/96kHz performance. The V90-HPA measures 6.6" by 4" by 1.8" and gets its power from a wall wart (supplied), although ST would like to have seen options for battery and/or USB (5V) power. Still, he says, Musical Fidelity's new headphone amp delivers "fuller, stronger bass and more dynamic drive" than the old one. (Vol.37 No.4)

PSB M4U 2: $399
The M4U 2s are closed-back, circumaural, noise-canceling headphones with a 40mm dynamic driver in each earcup. They use PSB's Room Feel equalization technology to produce an open, three-dimensional sound similar to what one might experience when listening to high-end loudspeakers in a typical listening room. Physically resembling Beats' ubiquitous Studio model, with an expandable headband and foldable polycarbonate frame (available in white, black, or red), the M4U 2s are large and bulky, but were extremely comfortable on SM's head. Unlike many active noise-canceling headphones, the M4U 2s also work in passive mode (without batteries). Though high frequencies sometimes sounded too aggressive, the overall sound was thrilling and physical, with an outstanding sense of space, excellent transient speed, and stunning dynamics, said SM. "The M4U 2s provided the most consistently thrilling headphone-listening experiences I've ever enjoyed," he summed up. (Vol.36 No.12 WWW)

Sennheiser Momentum: $349.95 (over-ear version)
$229.95 (on-ear version)
Sennheiser's fashion-forward Momentum models use a compact, closed-back design with a clean and sophisticated look equal parts modern and classic. The over-the-ear model is slightly larger and heavier than the on-ear, but the two have a similar overall look and feel. The oval earpieces slide up and down on the same stainless-steel headband, but while the over-the-ear design uses leather, the on-ear's earpads are covered in a synthetic material called Alcantara, which looks and feels practically identical to suede. Similarly, where the ridge of the larger version's headband is cushioned and covered in more leather, the on-ear version's cushioned headband is covered in more Alcantara. Though he loved the look and feel of both models, SM had a difficult time achieving a consistently secure and comfortable fit on his head with either, though he found the smaller on-ear version slightly more comfortable. And while both models combined true high-fidelity sound with great looks and durability, the over-the-ear design produced a bigger, more spacious overall sound, with sweeter highs, cleaner attack transients, a richer and more present midrange, and tighter bass, said SM. (Vol.36 No.12, over-the-ear version WWW; Vol.37 No.3, on-ear version WWW)

C

Grado SR60i: $79 $$$ ✩
The original SR60 offered a rather dark-toned balance, with a full bass and excellent resolution of detail. A more forward midrange, however. Uncomfortable. Upgrades from the original SR60 include a new driver and improved cables. While maintaining the original's freedom from obvious colorations and resonances, the SR60i went a bit deeper in the bass and had a slightly more vivid midrange for a more involving overall sound. "The SR60i is modestly better than the original, and remains one of audio's great bargains," said Jim Austin. (Vol.17 Nos.6 & 10 WWW, original, Vol.33 No.4 WWW)

Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator: $149.95
Designed to evoke Ray-Ban's classic sunglasses and available in a wide range of colors, the Skullcandy Aviators are medium-size, over-the-ear headphones with 40mm Mylar drive-units, each with a neodymium magnet. Published specs include a frequency range of 20Hz–20kHz, an impedance of 33 ohms, and a total harmonic distortion of less than 0.1%. The 1.3m-long, nylon-braided detachable cable has a 3.5mm gold-plated plug and a three-button control for selecting tracks, adjusting volume, and taking phone calls. Fit and finish were excellent. Though the Aviators lacked the Harmon/Kardon CLs' wide and deep soundstage, they produced a well-balanced overall sound with sparkling highs, clean mids, and slightly loose lows, said SM. "These 'phones sound great and are comfortable, durable, and attractive," he summed up. (Vol.36 No.5 WWW)

Thinksound ms01: $99
The handsome, understated ms01 in-ear headphone is the first product in Thinksound's Monitor Series. It uses a single 8mm driver, has a body of pear wood and aluminum, and comes neatly packed with earhooks, a cord clip, four sizes of silicone eartips, and an attractive carrying pouch. The Thinksounds fit lightly and comfortably in SM's ears and offered a smooth, easy sound with well-extended highs, a clean midrange, and warm, full bass. "One of the few in-ear designs that I can actually stand to have in my ears," he adds. (Vol.35 No.8 WWW)

D

Howard Leight Sync Stereo Earmuff: $36 $$$
These passive noise-isolating headphones held their own against JM's reference Audio-Technica ATH-M50s and provided good isolation against outside noise. "Neat!" (Vol.34 No.12 WWW)

Skullcandy Navigator: $99.95
The Navigator is a smaller, on-ear version of Skullcandy's popular over-the-ear Aviator. Similarly styled but slightly more discreet, its plastic earcups (available in gloss white and translucent blue, black, or pink) are shaped to even more closely resemble the lenses of Ray-Ban's famed eyewear. SM found the Navigators to be just as well built, durable, and comfortable as the Aviators, but with better isolation from external noise. They traded the Aviators' brilliant highs and open mids for a softer, darker, more bottom-heavy overall sound. Compared with the Grado SR60is, the Navigators produced a heavier, more robust and exciting sound, but lacked the Grados' refined highs and wide, open soundstage, concluded SM. (Vol.36 No.8 WWW)

Vinyl Flat Can Opener: $79.95
Made in the US, the Vinyl Flat Can Opener is a small (5.1" D by 4.75" W by 1.75" H) passive headphone adapter with a simple steel enclosure, a single front-panel Neutrik locking headphone jack, and two pairs of five-way binding posts. Standard speaker cable must be used to connect the outputs of an amplifier or receiver to the Can Opener's binding posts; inside, a tidy printed-circuit board uses heavy-duty resistors to create a voltage-divider network, reducing the level of the signal delivered from the amp to the user's headphones. Compared to the headphone jack of NAD's C316 BEE integrated amp, the Can Opener produced greater overall control, improved detail retrieval, and a more accomplished sense of space and image delineation, said SM. (Vol.36 No.7 WWW)

No Class Distinction

Etymotic Research Custom-Fit earmolds: around $150/pair ✩ ,"Through the nationwide network of audiologists in its Custom-Fit program, Etymotic Research produces custom eartips for its headphones for a cost of about $150/pair. (Custom-fit Network Audiologists may charge more for an impression appointment, handling & shipping so the total price may exceed the $150 base price. It is always a good idea to verify the exact price when making an appointment with a Custom-fit Network Audiologist.) Custom-Fit earmolds are made of soft silicone, can be formed to fit all Etymotic models, and improve on the stock Etymotic eartips' reduction of ambient noise. WP: "With the Custom-Fit earmolds, the bass is better, the midrange is clearer, and the highs are crisper—but most important, they're comfortable." Once the master molds are made, additional pairs of earmolds are available at a discount. (Vol.33 No.12 WWW)

Westone UM56 custom earmolds: $126/pair made of vinyl; $154/pair made of silicone ✩
Westone's earmolds are made from silicone material impressions taken by an audiologist. When Jim Austin used the UM56s with his Shure E4s, he noted strong bass response and excellent sound isolation. A positive, secure fit requires an open-jaw ear impression. Initial moldings, formed from a relaxed-jaw impression, resulted in poor isolation and a loose fit. "Highly recommended—but open wide," said Jim. (Vol.30 No.5 WWW)

K

B&W P7, Beyerdynamic T1, Sony MDR-7506, Denon AH-D7000, Ultimate Ears Custom Monitors.

Deletions

Beats Audio Solo HD replaced by new model; Grace m903 and Harman/Kardon CL no longer available. 

COMMENTS
dalethorn's picture

Interesting that Digital Processors and Signal Processors are separate categories, given that I encounter the term 'DSP' (Digital Signal Processor) so often. Maybe it's a hardware-software thing.

corrective_unconscious's picture

The digital processors are DACs or things to route digital sound somewhere. There is some overlap if there's a CD player with inputs to its DAC, and some overlap with preamp/DACs, some of which of those might have some additional, secondary digital EQ functions.

The signal processors are mostly about varieties of digital EQ, with again a few hybrid products having some secondary functions.

The separation seems clear enough to me. It is the whole universe of modern audio which seems complex, i.e., the products themselves.

John Atkinson's picture
dalethorn wrote:
Interesting that Digital Processors and Signal Processors are separate categories, given that I encounter the term 'DSP' (Digital Signal Processor) so often.

The Digital Processors category is almost exclusively digital/analog converters. The Signal Processors category is reserved for things that do something to the signal and includes analog-domain processors, such as the BSG Q0L.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

I'm going to profess a bit of ignorance here, so .... one of the places where DSP or some variant shows up in my world is related to music players such as built into the Pono device, or in computer software such as Foobar2000 etc. The great thing about EQ included in these players (or as plug-in software) is that the digital data gets EQ'd before it hits the DAC, so that whatever DAC or amp is used, the EQ remains constant in playback. Ignoring any negative impact on the EQ due to which peripherals are used, I've always assumed that EQ pre-applied to the digital data as described will reduce the resolution of the playback. If that's true, are there common analog EQ solutions that would provide better sound?

tdixon's picture

Does this mean there are no plans for an app being released like there were in previous years?

John Atkinson's picture
tdixon wrote:
Does this mean there are no plans for an app being released like there were in previous years?

Unfortunately, that's correct. No plans. However, this website reprint replaces the standalone free app.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Dushyant's picture

From your comments prefacing the Recommended Loudspeakers 2015, I understand that category A (Full Range) has LF extension down to 20Hz. What about B (Full Range) and C (Full Range)? Do they also need to have LF extension down to 20Hz? If not, what is the LF extension for inclusion? For the restricted LF I assume that LF extension is to 40Hz for all categories. Clarification will be helpful and appreciated.

Thanks
Dushyant

leesure's picture

Despite there being 25 Class A preamps, there are only 2 Class B preamplifiers (both from the same company) and NO class C Preamps? There are 18 Class A Power Amps and Zero Class C or D Power Amps? I thought, "Perhaps there are just no products that fit those categories any more. No more Adcom's. No more B&K's." But then I looked around and found that there ARE musically satisfying budget electronics.

So I am left to wonder...do they no longer submit their products for review or is Stereophile no longer interested in reviewing them?

I began reading Stereophile in my 20's when there was no way I could even consider a $10,000 amplifier. I aspired to a system like that, but also loved reading about gear that I could stretch to afford. I loved building a musically satisfying SYSTEM for well under $10,000. Had I only been able to read about the gear that was so far out of reach, I would likely have dropped the hobby altogether. Without the bridge, I would never have been able to get across to the ultimate destination. That bridge is being taken away from the next generation of Audiophiles.

I think that's a real shame.

Christopher Mankiewicz's picture

Kal, Please let me know. Thanks, Chris