2013 Recommended Components Headphones

Headphones & Headphone Accessories

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

Class A

Antelope Zodiac Bundle: $4495
Price includes Voltikus PSU. See Digital Processors. (Vol. 34 No.10 Read Review Online)
Benchmark Media Systems DAC1: $995 $$$ ✩
Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 USB: $1195 ✩
Benchmark DAC1 HDR: $1595
Two headphone jacks but only digital inputs rather than analog. 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 Read Review Online; Vol.34 No.6 Read Review Online)
Etymotic Research ER-4S: $299 ✩
Compared to Etymotic's newer hf2/hf5, the ER-4S sounded "a tad less bright, while also extracting the slightest bit more microdynamic detail," said WP. His long-term reference in-ear monitors. (Vol.18 No.7, Vol.33 No.8 Read Review Online)
Grace m903: $1995
Headphone amplifier with an onboard DAC handling sampling rates up to 192kHz. See "Digital Processors." (Vol.34 No.12 Read Review Online)
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 Read Review Online)
Musical Fidelity HPA-P: $799
The HPA-P headphone amplifier (originally called M1HPA, which had one less analog input) replaces Musical Fidelity's X-CanV8, and has a built-in power supply, a single pair of RCA analog inputs, and a USB DAC, which ST considers "just fine for Internet Radio and podcasts." Though it had a somewhat austere, dry overall presentation, the HPA sounded "exquisitely and addictively detailed," with "grab-ass bass and astonishing purity of tone," said ST. "Makes an excellent line stage. Consider using this with your computer to drive—and I mean drive—a pair of powered loudspeakers." Sam's reference. (Vol.34 No.3)
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." (Vol.32 No.7 Read Review Online)
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. (Vol.28 No.6, Vol.31 No.9 Read Review Online)
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 Read Review Online)
Smyth Research Realiser A8 system: $3760
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, two HTM-1 miniature in-ear microphones, and a set of Stax SRS-2050 II headphones. (Price without Stax headphones is $2910.) 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 Read Review Online)
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 Read Review Online)

Class 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 Read Review Online)
CEntrance DACport: $299.99 $$$
Built in the US, the bus-powered DACport is a small, well-finished, tubular device 4.5" long, with a 1/4" stereo headphone jack and a USB port. Although the USB interface operates in adaptive isochronous mode, CEntrance employs their proprietary, two-stage JitterGuard clock-management system. The DACport's D/A section will decode 24-bit data at sample rates up to 96kHz, and its direct-coupled output stage is claimed to run in class-A. Setup was simple; no driver is required, and the DACport is compatible with Mac, Windows, and Linux operating systems. Though it lacked the bass extension and control of the Benchmark DAC1, the DACport offered a clean, grain-free sound, with airy highs and natural transients. "A great-sounding product at a great price," exclaimed JA. (Vol.33 Nos.6 & 10, Vol.35 No.10 Read Review Online)
Harman/Kardon CL: $249.95
Harman/Kardon's CL (Classic) on-ear headphones have a simple, purposeful look, with largish, rectangular earcups and soft, comfortable leather earpads. The earcups securely lock into the CLs’ outer headband of sandblasted steel, which, while durable and rigid, easily expands to accommodate the user's head; a leather inner band provides additional comfort. The sound was big, full-bodied, and well-balanced, with good impact and immediacy and a wonderful sense of space, said SM. Compared to the B&W P3s, the CLs lacked some delicacy but were more forceful, authoritative, and fun. (Vol.36 No.3 Read Review Online)
Little Dot Mk.III: $209 $$$
Made in China, this little headphone amp measures 6.9" W by 4.8" H by 10.6" D and weighs just 6.6 lbs. The casework is beautifully finished, and high-quality parts, including an ALPS-16 volume pot and WIMA capacitors, are used throughout. Two GE5654 driver tubes and two 6N6PI tubes come as standard, but tube rolling is encouraged. The amp has a single headphone jack on its front panel and two high-quality RCA jacks at the rear. Used with headphones or as a line stage, the Little Dot Mk.III provided a rich, warm, spacious sound with ripe bass, a glorious midrange, and unaggressive treble, said ST. Needed about 100 hours of break-in to sound its best. (Vol.33 No.5)
Music Hall ph25.2: $399
Made by Shanling in China, the Music Hall ph25.2 measures 8.5" W by 3.75" H by 13.5" D and weighs about 7 lbs. It provides two headphone outputs, a pair of analog outs, and two sets of analog inputs, selectable by a front-panel switch. Miniature 6N1B tubes, that look like Christmas tree lights, are partnered with a pair of Texas Instruments TPA6120 op-amps; build quality is high throughout. Compared to the Little Dot Mk.III, the Music Hall had an open, airy sound with tighter, more authoritative bass, a less prominent midrange, and sweetly extended treble, said ST. (Vol.33 No.5)
Pioneer SE-MJ591: $299
The closed-back SE-MJ591s have an adjustable headband, folding earcups, and a semihard carrying case for convenient travel use. The detachable cord has a 3.5mm miniplug at one end and a special connector that plugs into the left earcup. Fit and finish were superb. The Pioneers had a natural, spacious sound, with outstanding resolution, a sweet treble, a smooth midrange, and well-defined bass, said ST. "The SE-MJ591s come close to the sound of the best full-size headphones I've tried." Sam's favorite over-the-ear fold-up phones. Delicacy, detail, definition. (Vol.35 No.9)

Class C

Etymotic Research hf2: $159
Etymotic Research hf5: $149
Dynamic, diffuse-field–response, in-ear headphones with integral microphone for use with Apple's iPhone (hf2) or without (hf5). Each model has a single balanced-armature driver, a nominal impedance of 16 ohms, and uses user-replaceable filters to achieve its final response curve. A carrying case, two replacement filters, a filter-replacement tool, and an assortment of eartips are included. The hf2/hf5 provided fine ambience retrieval and reproduced voices and instruments with impressive weight and impact. "I have heard no other in-ear headphones that remotely approach the cost of the hf2 or hf5 while offering better performance," said WP. (Vol.33 No.8 Read Review Online)
Grado SR60i: $79 $$$ ✩
The original SR60 offered a rather dark-toned balance, with a full bass and excellent resolution of detail. A more forward midrange, however. Uncomfortable. Upgrades from the original SR60 include a new driver and improved cables. While maintaining the original's freedom from obvious colorations and resonances, the SR60i went a bit deeper in the bass and had a slightly more vivid midrange for a more involving overall sound. "The SR60i is modestly better than the original, and remains one of audio's great bargains," said Jim Austin. (Vol.17 Nos.6 & 10 Read Review Online, original, Vol.33 No.4 Read Review Online)
Koss PortaPro Stereophones: $49.99 $$$
These small, open-backed, collapsible headphones come with a lifetime guarantee and delivered "rich, full, ear-filling sound," said ST. Surprisingly sweet sound and better bass than you might expect. (Vol.34 No.4)
Musical Fidelity V-CAN II: $199
This is essentially the same component as the original V-CAN (reviewed in Vol.32 No.5), but in a much nicer-looking case of brushed aluminum. ST heard little difference between the Mk.II and the earlier model. Adding the Pangea P-100 power supply resulted in a sound that was cleaner, more dynamic, more sweetly extended, and less electronic. "This is a headphone amp for those who do not want to get silly with thousand dollar cans and the like," sez Sam, who has one on his nightstand. High Class C. (Vol.35 No.2)
Thinksound ms01: $119.99
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 Read Review Online)

Class D

Beats Audio Solo HD: $199.95
Beats Audio's ubiquitous on-ear Solo HDs are available in eight bright colors and come with a soft carrying pouch and tangle-free cable with built-in mike and volume controls. Though they were comfortable, attractive, and produced powerful bass, the Beats Solo HDs sounded soft, distant, and congested, said SM. “They’re attractive and reasonably well-built, but overpriced for the performance,” he sums up. (Vol.36 No.2 Read Review Online)
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 Read Review Online)

Class No Class Distinction

Etymotic Research Custom-Fit earmolds: $100/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 $100/pair. (Custom-fit Network Audiologists may charge more for an impression appointment, handling & shipping so the total price may exceed the $100 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 Read Review Online)
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 Read Review Online)

Class K

SkullCandy Aviator & Navigator, Sony MDR-7506, Denon AH-D7000, Sennheiser Momentum headphones, Ultimate Ears Custom Monitors.

Class Deletions

Audio-Technica ATH-AD900, ATH-AD700, & ATH-W3000ANV no longer available; Audio-Technica ATH-M50s, Westone 3, Ultimate Ears 5 Pro Custom & Ultimate Ears 11 Pro Custom, HeadRoom/Cardas headphone cable modifications not auditioned in too long a time.

guitarist9273's picture

The Beats Solo HD is now a Stereophile reccomended component... That sounds like a (funny) joke. They're certainly attractive looking & very stylish, but they sound very...well, bad. They're Class D...but I'm genuinely curious as to why they'd be included at all.

There are a lot of decent choices when it comes to headphones in the portable/sealed-on-ear-headphones-under-$300 category, now, that it's hard to see the B&W P3 and the Beats Solo HD making it onto the list. (Anyone interested in heaphones should check out Stereophile' sister online publication on personal-audio/headphones---InnerFidelity.)

Thanks for this awesome compilation, by the way! I sincerely enjoyed reading through such a wide sampling of great loudspeakers, amps & such. The balanced objectivity is always refreshing, considering other publication's purely subjective approach.

RobertSlavin's picture

Being able to see the photos of the components next to their descriptions, as found in this online version of recommended components, is nice.

However, Stereophile used to charge for this section online. Why is it giving it away for free now?

There's not a tremendous amount of money in magazine publishing. I'd prefer that the magazine make a reasonable amount of money from this section.

John Atkinson's picture

RobertSlavin wrote:
Stereophile used to charge for this section online. Why is it giving it away for free now?

Unless I am having a senior moment, we never used to charge for on-line access to Recommended Components. In fact, we have only been making it available in its entirety on-line since 2012, which is when we launched our free iPad app.

And regarding charging for it, my bottom-line policy is that the magazine's content should be available free on-line.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Poor Audiophile's picture

Thanks for that JA!

EU-USA Stereophile Fan's picture

Maybe some other EU makers could have been included such as Phonar (Germany) or PMC (UK)

John Atkinson's picture

Maybe some other EU makers could have been included such as Phonar (Germany) or PMC (UK)

"Recommended Components" exclusively concerns products that have been reviewed in the magazine. In turn, to be reviewed in Stereophile, a product needs to be available in the US; see  www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/307awsi/index.html.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Glotz's picture

WOW, I love it!  

I think I have memorized the entire RC over the years, and seeing each component again (some for the first time) is wonderful!  

I wonder who went through the trouble of procuring all of those photos for RC online.  

I won't even pretend there will be photos (for the next RC) in the magazine.  I imagine it would be 500 pages long... 

Ariel Bitran's picture

photos were gathered by myself and reformatted by Jon Iverson.

Downforce's picture

Has the excellent Emotiva ERC-2 been discontinued?  And for JA, the link you posted isn't working.  Thanks for the lists.

John Atkinson's picture

Downforce wrote:
Has the excellent Emotiva ERC-2 been discontinued?

Not according to Emotiva. It's there in Class C of Disc Players.

Downforce wrote:
And for JA, the link you posted isn't working.

Fixed. Thanks.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

stereomag's picture

Wow! Here they (Stereophile) go again. Still no review of any Accuphase preamps. Why is that, Stereophile?

weitn's picture

M30.1 got impressive reviews from Stereophile and Absolute Sound and recommended by both. I have auditioned it and ordered a pair the other day. Out of curiosity, what happened to the M40.1? It was listed in the 2012 recommended list.

destroysall76's picture

Great recommendations, but I'm curious in the LS50 from KEF. Is it really that much better of a speaker to be a part of the Class A (Restricted LF) over the Harbeth P3ESR and the Proac Tablette?

Also, is the Rega RP1 the better table buy this year over the Project Debut Carbon?

mkrzych's picture

I've read here that Dali Zensor 1 are in class C (Exteme Restricted LF), so according to your judge those are considered not entry level speakers, am I right?
If so, do you have any suggestions for the speaker cable matching or positioning for these little babies to sound the best? Currently I have Marantz CD5004/PM6004 connected to them over the QED Strand 79 speaker cable. They are on Soundstage Z22 stands.
Is it anything I can do to improve this gear in your opinion?

Thanks for any suggestions.

MykhailoM's picture

Good audio cables are surely essential part to any serous audiophile as they deliver a very sensitive signal between your audio gear as it has been said in this page. I have listened to quite a few well known brands such as Russ Andrews cables QED Signature etc. and more often than not the price reflects its qualities. As anything else in audio gear, cables need auditioning on your system. If possible grub 4 or 5 pares from your local dealer in a price range £300 to £600 from different brands and at your own comfort have them checked, I'm pretty sure you will get different results and the better components you have the more evident it will be. In my auditioning experience I prefer small exotic brands, to me they deliver a very good sonic result. I can change components etc. but cable will stay as they are so revealing. Keep your options open and DO audition on your system or at your local Hi-Fi dealer.

MykhailoM's picture

Everything must be auditioned either interconnects cables or audio components, your ears will be your best judge.