Any audiophile can tell you that the method by which music is delivered from a record, cd, tape, 8-track – whatever – to one’s ears is of the utmost importance. While you can’t control the quality and clarity with which your favorite artists record their music, the best way to ensure that you are hearing the end product the way it was intended to be is if you have top notch equipment. And one of the most essential pieces of gear you’ll need – unless you don’t mind blasting music out of a pair of speakers all the time – is a pair of high fidelity headphones.
As a clarification, wireless audio technology – while it has truly improved to an impressive level far beyond its humble beginnings – still simply cannot compete with old-fashion wired sound in relation to quality. While we are not saying that wireless technology isn’t worth investing in, we suggest going for a wired option when searching for high-fidelity headphones. As a reflection of that opinion, we’d like to note that the intended format for all our choices is the wired version – whether or not any come in both configurations.
What Is High Fidelity?
In relation to audio, fidelity is a term which refers to the faithfulness by which sound is delivered from one point to another – namely, from a record to your ears – and, when compared to all other factors, it is king. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that high fidelity equals high quality of sound. There are a number of unavoidable factors which reduce the quality of sound from the moment it is recorded until it reaches your ear, like the means by which it is transferred into your possession (vinyl, digital, etc.) and there are merits and drawbacks to each, but there isn’t much you can do about that most of the time. What you can do is get yourself a headset that will not further diminish the quality of whatever it is to which you are trying to listen.
But it isn’t as simple as going to your local electronics shop and picking up the most expensive gear they’ve got displayed. A price tag is not necessarily an indication of quality. Even the most trustworthy of brands have a wide variety of offerings, some of which might not be right for you due to your circumstances. For example, you’ll want a different set of headphones for use out in public than you would for the comfort of your own home and there are appropriate technologies for both instances. What you need to look for, in fact, is a cross-section of price and technological specifications that suits your budgetary, quality, and circumstantial demands. For your listening pleasure, the following are 10 of the best high-fi headphones in a wide range of price points and styles available on the market right now.
Grado SR80e Prestige Series
Just as a high price does not necessarily mean a great product, a low price point doesn’t mean something is going to be of poor quality. Such is the case with these headphones from Grado. Featuring copper voice wiring and a 4-conductor copper connector – the best connectivity option for the price – these closed-back (meaning sound-isolating) headphones offer excellent bass resonance, which you will not find in many other similarly priced options. They also feature a vented diaphragm, no resonant air chamber, large ear cushions for increased comfort, and an adjustable vinyl headband. And, though these headphones come with a mini plug, they also come with a 1/4″ adapter in case your record player requires it. You simply will not find a better option at the same cost.
Audio Technica ATH-M50x
Based on Audio Technica’s critically acclaimed line of M-Series headphones, this version of the brand’s widely favored monitor headsets offers the same wide range of frequencies and high-quality audio, but also offers the addition of detachable cables for easier and safer transport and storage. These phones are equipped with Audio Technica’s proprietary 45mm large-aperture drivers fitted with rare-earth magnets and copper-clad aluminum wire voice coils for top-notch fidelity of sound that has been praised by both recording professionals and audio equipment critics. The large ear cups offer excellent comfort and sound-isolation and each can be swiveled 90 degrees for single-ear monitoring, if the need arises.
V-MODA Crossfade M-100
Offering far more than just a tough construction and the looks to match, these headphones – whose materials are tested to military standards – were created by crowdsourcing the opinions and preferences of over 200 “audiophiles, professionals, and music legends.” And the results are nothing shy of amazing. Featuring the brand’s patented 50mm Dual Diaphragm Drivers, these phones offer clarity across the entire range of audible frequencies, from the deepest bass to ultra-extended highs and everything in-between. And their superior noise isolation can cut out any distracting exterior sounds, like screeching toddlers or the roar of jet turbines. And, if you fancy yourself a DJ, they even come equipped with dual inputs for real-time mixing of multiple sources. And the CLIQFOLD design ensures that, once you’re done rocking out, these headphones fold down for compact storage.
Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wired
One of the most lauded brands in high fidelity home audio, Bowers & Wilkins has consistently offered up impressive headphone options and their P7s are no exception. These over-ear closed-back headphones offer up an impressive sense of space, balance, and clarity across the entirety of the frequency spectrum. Want to enjoy this great sound while listening to your iPod or iPhone? No worries. Their excellent sound isolation can be enjoyed through the use of the included iPhone or generic cable. For easy travel, the sheepskin leather ear pads – which are held on to the durable aluminum frame by magnets – are easily removed for cable detachment or replacement while the folding design makes it easy to store these phones away safely whenever they are not in use.
One of the things that these Oppo headphones have to offer that is missing from some of the others on this list is something called planar magnetism. In short, planar magnetism is a more lightweight and technologically advanced speaker system which uses a diaphragm, circuit and magnet array that increases responsiveness, reduces distortion, is more durable than traditional headphone tech, and is amplifier friendly (rather than resistant). Beyond that, these phones also feature a bonus cable that is compatible with iPhones, a closed-back sound isolating design, and weigh in at just 10 ounces – making them the world’s lightest closed-back planar magnetic headphones.
The “T” in Beyerdynamic’s T90 stands for Tesla – yes, like the inventor – which is the brand’s mechanically robust neodymium rare-earth magnetic coil system that offers highly faithful sound reproduction. These are also the first phones on our list that offer an open-back design. The drawback of an open-back design is that the sound within the headphones is not completely isolated – as it is with closed-backs – and therefore excessive sound from inside or outside the headphones can “leak” through. That is, of course, the trade-off for the superior quality of sound and exceedingly accurate audio reproduction. If you plan to listen to headphones in the comfort of your home, where there are no loud distractions, this kind of headphone is probably the best for you. These ones also offer superb comfort with super soft velvet headband and ear pad accents.
With a frame construction from an aerospace grade aluminum alloy and stainless steel grills, these flagship headphones from Shure might be the most durable on our list. And, because of their dual frame construction and soft padding, they’re also very lightweight and comfortable. But their merits don’t stop there – not by a long shot. This phones also feature individually matched 40 millimeter neodymium rare-earth magnetic drivers that deliver some of the highest quality in both sound reproduction and range of frequencies, from the extended high-end to the lowest audible ranges of bass. The steel frames with a vented center pole piece on the drivers also help to increase linearity and reduce internal resonance, so they perform well at all listening levels.
Sony built a huge part of their business reputation on audio equipment. They are, after all, the creators of the Walkman. And these open-back headphones are a perfect example of why they’ve held onto that reputation. These phones offer the kind of audio quality that wouldn’t seem out of place in a legendary recording studio. Their ergonomic aluminum padding ensures that you can wear them for hours, which you’ll want to do once you hear the sound they can produce. Uniquely wired with four silver-coated, oxygen-free copper cables, these phones offer some of the best pure audio available with minimal signal degradation. And the massive 70mm ALCP film driver units deliver the kind of sound that will make you feel like the artists are in the room with you. And their insane range (4 Hz to 100 kHz) and wide-band frequency response covers everything in crystal clarity from sub-harmonics to ultra-sonic highs.
But wait, there’s more. These phones also include the ability to connect them to dedicated left and right channel output for the ultimate reproductive accuracy. When combined with the extremely comfortable over-ear 3D-sewn cushions and silicon rings around every moving access, these headphones offer a truly unparalleled immersive experience. And they come with both a conventional connector cable and a balanced audio cable for both listening options.
Sennheiser HD 800
Sennheiser’s HD 800 open-back headphones were created with a very specific intention: to pursue perfect sound. And they’ve come pretty damn close. These German-manufactured dynamic phones offer nigh-unparalleled audio reproduction, thanks in part to their 56mm dynamic drivers, 40 mm aluminum voice coils, and 42 mm magnet structures. What sets these transducers apart is that their diaphragms have two contact points on both the inside and outside of the ring, as opposed to a single point like traditional drivers. The combination of the driver’s large surface area and dual contact points creates the kind of audio landscape reproduction nearly untouched by their competition.
And the structure, comprised of a multi-layered polymer “resonance dampening” headband that eliminates any risk of unwanted vibrations and ergonomic Leona – a non-resonant material with titanium-like strength – ear cup frames with stainless steel mesh cages, ensures further acoustic performance and the microfiber ear cups impart incredible comfort to the wearer. And the insulated twin-core connector cables are shielded from all ambient frequency disturbances. These are the Enzo Ferrari of headphones.
If Sennheiser’s HD 800s are the Enzo Ferrari of headphones, then the LCD-3s are the Bugatti Chiron – both for their quality of craftsmanship and their inherent flashiness. Called “the epitome of the high-end” by Forbes magazine, these headphones are advertised not as audio reproduction devices, but as time machines that put you “in the room with your favorite musicians.” A bold claim, to be sure, but they boast the tech to back it up. Using exclusive planar magnetic technology, these devices are equipped with diaphragms that are slimmer than human hair and are made from space-age materials and are four times larger than traditional dynamic resonators. That means that they reduce distortion to an extreme and offer perhaps the most faithful sound reproduction presently available. To top that off, the quality is further increased by the inclusion of the brand’s patented Fluxor Magnet Array technology (that doubles the power driving the diaphragms) and Fazor Elements (which reduces resonance for a more balanced waveform).
If the onboard technology isn’t enough for you, they’re also designed, engineered, and handmade right her in the United States of America. Everything is carefully matches, from the transducers to the tropical West African Zebrano hardwood accents on the earpieces. On the headband and ear cups, you have your choice of either microsuede or lambskin leather for the kind of premium comfort that will make wearing these headphones seem more like resting your head on a pillow – albeit an extremely expensive pillow. With clientele like Neil Young, Seal, Stevie Wonder, and Graham Nash, it’s clear to see that Audeze isn’t just blowing smoke with these headphones.