The best audiophile headphones for critical listening produce the highest and truest fidelity of audio reproduction. They should reproduce all aspects of the sound quality, as well as create a spacious and open soundstage. They should have a good frequency response, good imaging, and excellent harmonic distortion performance. Below are our recommendations for the best audiophile headphones we have tested so far.
Best Critical Listening Headphones
Critical listening headphones in this price range are built with premium materials and carefully engineered to have superbly matched drivers, an almost flat frequency response, superior stereo imaging and a spacious and open Soundstage. They're usually very comfortable.
The HD 800 S are one of the best audiophile headphones we’ve measured so far. If they’re within your budget and you have a good amp, then they are an excellent recommendation for pure critical listening. They’re comfortable enough to wear for extended listening sessions, and their build quality feels durable and very high-end. They have the same sensitivity to noisy environments as all open headphones but deliver a spacious and immersive soundstage that will surely satisfy the audiophile in you.
Best Mid-Range Critical Listening Headphones
The critical listening headphones in this price range are not as well-built or have the premium materials of higher-end models. They have a good audio reproduction, good soundstage, and above-average imaging but do not have as precisely matched drivers.
If you’re looking for a sturdy pair of headphones to use with your amp set up, but do not have the budget for some of the more expensive critical listening headphones, get the Beyerdynamic DT 990. They are great open headphones with an outstanding sound quality but at a much more affordable cost. They deliver an audio reproduction as good, if not better, than the pricier model in this use case, but they’re not as comfortable (they feel a bit too tight out of the box).
If you want a closed back option that’s a bit more versatile for other use cases, then the M50x are a good alternative to the DT990. They deliver an excellent sound, and their closed-back design means they won’t leak as much. They will also block a bit of ambient noise so you can use them in more varied environments than some of the open models on this list. They’re sturdy, durable headphones with a comfortable fit. At their price, they’re a solid recommendation for most casual or critical listeners.
Best Budget Critical Listening Headphones
Audiophile headphones below 100$ will not be as durable or comfortable as the higher-end models. They will have an above-average audio reproduction but won't sound balanced, which may be too sharp or mid-range heavy for some. They don't have well-matched drivers and have more harmonic distortion.
If you’re looking for a budget pair of headphones, the Philips SHP9500 are an excellent option under $100. For their price, they easily outperform some of the more expensive audiophile headphones we’ve reviewed. They’re comfortable for long critical listening sessions, but like all open headphones, they are best used in quiet environments, which makes them less versatile for other use cases.
The Koss Porta Pro are even cheaper than the SHP9500 but still deliver a great audio reproduction. They're a great option if you care about sound quality but still want cheap headphones to use as your daily drivers. They're not as well built and they have an on-ear design that might not be ideal for more critical listeners. However, they deliver in the sound department, and unlike other on-ears, they barely put any pressure on your ears so you can have them on for hours and barely notice them.
Our recommendations above are what we think are currently the best sounding headphones to buy for most people in each price range. We factor in the price (a cheaper headphone wins over a pricier one if the difference isn't worth it), feedback from our visitors and availability (no headphones that are difficult to find or almost out of stock everywhere).
A few examples of critical listening headphones that didn't make the cut:
- OPPO PM-3. The planar magnetic drivers deliver a good sound. They're comfortable and sturdy. However, they may sound a bit too sharp for some. See our review
- Sennheiser HD 650. Good, open sound and a spacious soundstage. They're a viable and cheaper alternative to the HD 800S, but they're not as well designed. See our review
- Sony MDR 7506. Good and balanced sound. Incredibly comfortable design but a limited soundstage due to their closed-back ear cups. See our review
- Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000. Great sound but poor soundstage. A good substitute for the ATH-M50x. See our review
- Bowers & Wilkins P7. Great sound but poor soundstage. Good for the listener who doesn't want open-back headphones. See our review
If you would like to choose for yourself, here is the list of all our reviews for critical listening headphones. Be careful not to get caught up in the details. There are no perfect headphones. Personal taste, preference and where you use the headphones will matter more in your selection.