2015 AVS Forum Holiday Gift Guide: Headphones

There are plenty of reasons to own a great pair of headphones, and the good news is there are countless models to choose from to suit just about every imaginable need. Here are a few good headphones that focus on fidelity—not just fashion.

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Value: Grado Prestige SR60e ($80)

The SR60e is the third generation of Grado’s entry-level headphones, and it’s a compelling value. I never fail to find some hidden detail or nuance when I listen to a pair of Grados. These headphones are made in Brooklyn, and they have not changed in appearance in decades.

The SR60e has a rated frequency response of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (an honest spec), sensitivity is 100 dB, and impedance is 32Ω. Furthermore, drivers are matched to within 0.1 dB of each other. You can drive them with a smartphone, and they are quite rugged. Few headphones can offer the value of the Grado SR60e.

Performance: Grado Prestige SR325e ($300)

Whereas the SR60e is the entry point to Grado’s Prestige series, the SR325e sits at the top of it. For the asking price of $300, you won’t find many headphones that offer a more exciting listening experience. Detail rendition is a strong suite, the SR325i can uncover incredibly fine nuance, yet also convey power and majesty with dynamic ease—these headphones will give you goose bumps.

The look of Grado cans may not appeal to everyone, but the same design has served the company well for many decades—it ain’t broke, so Grado ain’t fixing it. The rated frequency response of the SR325e is 18 Hz to 24,000 Hz, and impedance is an amplifier-friendly 32Ω. The SR325e’s drivers are matched to within 0.05 dB of each other. If you crave performance above style, check out the Grado 325e—you can’t beat ’em.

Cost No Object: Sennheiser Orpheus HE1060 ($55,000)

There’s a new “cost no object” champion of headphones in town, and it costs as much as a very nice car. No other personal audio system comes close to the new Sennheiser Orpheus HE1060 when it comes to overkill and exclusivity.

For 55 grand, you get a complete system—preamp, amp, and headphones. The ears-on reviews I’ve read are amusing, evidently quality time with the Orpheus is being rationed out to various audio writers (I have not had my chance), who inevitably describe themselves as lucky to be exposed to such a revelatory listening experience, even if it was for only 20 minutes.

The Orpheus HE1060’s specs include a frequency response of 8 Hz to 100,000 Hz, and distortion is listed as 0.01% at 1 kHz, 100 dB SPL—Sennheiser says that’s the lowest distortion ever measured for a sound reproduction system—whoa! Class A amps that are built into the earcups get some of the credit for performance that apparently is out-of-this-world.

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Value: Monoprice 8323 ($18-24)

If you seek a headphone that is almost impossibly inexpensive relative to what you get quality and performance-wise, then Monoprice has your number: 8323. That’s the item number for the Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone.

You likely won’t find better quality full-sized headphones for less. You get 50mm drivers that offer a 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz frequency response, 100 dB sensitivity, and 40Ω impedance—plus the cord is detachable.

Performance: Oppo PM-3 ($400)

I heard Oppo’s surprisingly affordable PM-3 planar-magnetic Headphones a few weeks ago at the TAVES 2015 audio show in Toronto. The Oppos are light, comfortable, stylish, and easy to drive with just a cell phone. Oppo says the PM-3s are the world’s lightest planar magnetic headphones, weighing in at only 11 ounces—you can wear them in public. Indeed, because these are sealed cans you can use them when you travel.

Oppo lists a frequency response of 10 Hz to 50,000 Hz, 102 dB sensitivity, and 26Ω impedance. I listened to to a pair through a Galaxy Note 5, as well as with an Emotiva Big Ego connected to a Windows laptop streaming Tidal—the quality of the sound was spot-on. The comfy earpads offered good isolation from the crowd noise at TAVES. The most notable qualities of the PM-3s were clarity and accuracy—nothing was exaggerated or diminished. These headphones are easily worth the $400 asking price.

Cost No Object: Audeze LCD-XC ($1800)

Luxury headphone specialists Audeze offer the planar-magnetic LCD-XC, a closed-back variant of its well-reviewed LCD-X. These are truly full-sized headphones and are twice the weight of the Oppos above. While their 100 dB sensitivity and 20Ω impedance mean you could power them with a portable device and wear them outside the house, these headphones can handle up to 15 watts of power, so you’ll probably want to pair them with a decent amp for critical listening.

The wooden earcups with lambskin earpads scream luxury, while the frequency response spec—5Hz to 20,000 Hz, with extension up to 50,000 Hz—puts the LCD-XC into rarefied territory as far as performance goes. I listen to LCD-XC headphones whenever I get the chance, and the quality of the sound they produce has never let me down.

In-Ear

Value: Sony MDR-XB50AP ($34 street, $50 list)

The MDR-XB50AP is Sony at its best, making great sound accessible to the masses. These earphones are comfortable and sound great, with deep bass extension and clarity at all frequencies—they even look snazzy. These are probably the least-expensive in-ears that allow me to get lost in the music, and therefore they serve as my go-to suggestion for use with smartphones. MSRP is $50, but they are frequently on sale.

Sony claims a frequency response of 4Hz to 24,000 Hz, and even if that’s a stretch, there’s no denying the MDR-XB50AP can play the lowest notes with subwoofer-like authority—without muddying up the mix.

Performance: Klipsch XR8i ($280)

Here’s the deal, a few weeks ago I visited Klipsch in Indianapolis, and the company let me audition the new Reference X Series of earphones. I had my own amp/DAC and my own tunes with me, so I was able to judge the earphones while I was there. I listened to the X6i, XR8i, X12i, and the X20i. Of the four, the XR8i stood out for its high performance relative to its price.

The XR8i “hybrid” model combines a full-range armature with a dynamic driver. Essentially, it contains a tiny subwoofer. I found the XR8i’s mix of deep, punchy bass with clear midrange and highs to be very agreeable. Klipsch says the XR8i is well suited for watching movies as well as listening to music, thanks to how well it handles bass.

Frequency response is listed as 10 Hz to 20,000 Hz, w ith 110 dB sensitivity, 50Ω impedance, and 26 dB of noise isolation. In addition to sounding fantastic, the new Klipsch XR8i earphones are very comfortable, thanks to the company’s use of oval eartips.

Cost No Object: AKG K3003i ($1000)

These earphones are AKG’s flagship, and they offer a fairly unique feature—swappable physical sound tuning filters. Unlike other earphones that have only one sound profile, with the K3003i you can choose between reference sound, bass boost, and treble boost.

With a frequency response of 10 Hz to 30,000 Hz, these earphones are sure to make the most of your music. The K3003i is a three-way design—the world’s smallest according to AKG—that features dedicated balanced armatures for bass, midrange, and treble. Finally, the K3003i offer controls for use with Apple iPhone, iPod, and iPad.