If I wanted to buy over-ear headphones for $400 or less, I’d get the Oppo PM-3 headphones. After considering a total of 56 pairs and testing 20 with a panel of audio professionals, the Oppo PM-3s are the best sounding, most versatile closed-backed headphones for less than $1,000 we’ve ever heard. They blew away our entire listening panel. Closed-backed, with planar magnetic drivers (we’ll get into what that means later), the Oppo PM-3s have a level of detail and clarity that none of the other headphones in this range were able to match.
I came to this conclusion after researching every new pair of headphones in this price range released since our last test, in March 2015, reading through countless professional and Amazon reviews, then running a listening panel that pitted our old favorites against the latest additions.
Overall, they sound the closest to hearing the instruments live or in the recording studio that we’ve come across in this price level. The PM-3s are highly responsive with quick attack and decay on sounds. They’re very natural sounding, with a flat response across all frequency ranges—no one aspect of the sound overpowers another. There is a sense of depth to the sound as well. Plus they’re lightweight, comfortable, and stylish (in black or white), and they won’t look out of place if you’re walking down the street in them.
They’re available with Apple and Android remote and mic options, so not only can you enjoy great sound on an expensive home sound system, but you can also use them easily with your portable device.
What we found after all our extensive listening tests, however, is that among our top picks, there really is no wrong choice. When you get into this price range, the difference between number one and number five is the tiniest of deviations that most people won’t mind. So if you find yourself drawn to one of our other choices more than our main pick, go for it! You’ll still be getting a great set of headphones.
If our main pick is unavailable, the $300 PSB M4U 1s were our top pick for the past two years and still have a fantastic overall sound. Every one of our panelists ranked them in the top three, and they comfortably fit a variety of head and ear shapes. Additionally, these headphones have a universal single-button remote and mic on a detachable (and therefore replaceable) cable. They also come in three colors: black, red, and gray.
These bring a sense of depth to the sound that creates the feeling of space, rather than a flat wall of sound—clean treble sits lightly over clear mids, complemented by full, rich lows that don’t boom or thud. In other words, consonants in words are clear without sounding harsh, and strings have a full, rich sound rather than a tinny one. And when the bass drops in your favorite party anthem, these won’t rattle, sound sloppy, or lose the detail in the other instruments.
The PSB headphones sound like a great speaker in a great listening room, which is wonderful. The main difference is that the Oppo headphones sound even closer to the real thing. It’s a small distinction, but we feel worth the extra money if you can afford it.
The $350 Blue Mo-Fi headphones are the first ever from the renowned microphone maker and not only are they impressive for a first attempt, but also impressive, full-stop. They really shine with all kinds of music, but especially when you listen to live and acoustic instruments that you know well: They and the PM-3s by Oppo come as close to real life as we’ve heard in this price range.
What makes the Mo-Fis unique is the built-in headphone amp. This not only makes for more responsive sound, but also saves your music device’s battery life. 1 In fact, our panel preferred the sound of the Mo-Fis over PSB’s headphones.
The only problem is that they’re heavy—they’re 46 percent heavier than PSB’s already-bulky set. They also cost $50 more. If you think you’re willing to deal with the weight and cost premium (or if you need a dedicated iOS remote with volume control), your ears are in for a real treat—even with the possibility that your neck doth protest).
The $170 Sennheiser Momentums were $280 when we first reviewed them, but since the release of the 2.0 version, the originals have significantly dropped in price (we’ll get to the 2.0 later). They represent a solid, more affordable option, especially if you like smaller ear cups, or if you prefer more intensity in the bass.
These tied in our panel test with Master & Dynamic MH40s, but the Momentums cost about $200 less than the MH40s, so they got the extra edge. Still, it’s important to note that while they have a cool, compact styling, the ear cups may be a bit small for folks with larger outer ears.
The Momentums were our second-place pick at one point, but have fallen in the rankings over time. Why? The fit and the bass. The oomph in the bass sounds pleasingly warm to some, but others may find that it lacks a certain definition. Songs with an already emphasized bass line can lack a little clarity in the other instruments when compared with the offerings from Oppo and PSB. It’s not a massive shift, but a subtle one that could make the difference between being in love versus being in like for picky listeners.
Well, not only did I do extensive research and consult with some of the other top professional reviewers (you can read more about that below), but I also hold a bachelor’s in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College. I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles, a job I continue to do and love. (In other words, I’ve spent more than a decade in and out of top recording studios).
Around the same time, I started reviewing high-end home audio equipment for magazines like Home Theater Magazine, Home Entertainment, and Sound & Vision. Since landing at The Wirecutter, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and reviewing hundreds (yes, hundreds) of headphones, and my articles have been featured in Forbes, Time, Electronic House, and Fast Company. I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s out there and what’s worth your time and hard-earned money.
And then there’s our panel of experts: Brent Butterworth, a Wirecutter A/V writer with decades of experience in the audio field for publications such as About.com, Sound & Vision, Home Theater, and many others; Geoff Morrison, writer for Forbes and CNET and A/V editor here at The Wirecutter; John Higgins, a session musician (with a music master’s degree from USC) and music and audio teacher at The Windward School, a private high school in Los Angeles; and me, Lauren Dragan, As for outside advice, I consulted a number of experts, including Tyll Hertsens of InnerFidelity and Steve Guttenberg of CNET. I read reviews on PCMag, Engadget, Sound & Vision, Forbes, and other professional sites.
Headphones in the $300 to $400 range are made for the person who wants to shut out the world and get some meaningful listening done. When I listen to a track I’ve heard hundreds of times with headphones of this caliber, I find small details I’d never noticed (or perhaps was unable to hear) before. But be warned: Once you fall in love with a pair in this range, it’s tough to go back.
For this guide, we focused on what we believe to be the most common use case for an everyday pair of high-end headphones: listening at home or at work while plugged into your smartphone, tablet, computer, and/or sound system. That means they had to be able to sound good when powered by a mobile device alone. That said, we still tested the contenders with two different headphone amps as well because chances are, if you’re spending this kind of money on headphones, you’d like to know how they’ll sound if you do decide to get an amp. In most cases, they sounded very similar, if slightly better and louder, with an amp.
If you’re not sure if you’re ready to commit to this price range, there are a few things to consider. First, the obvious: How hard are you on your headphones? Do you tend to lose them a lot? If you’re worried that you’ll have a tough time keeping tabs on them, or you’re working in an environment where drinks get dumped on gear regularly (say, a nightclub or a communal office worktable), it might be better to get a pair that will make less of a dent in your wallet to replace. That’s not to say these headphones aren’t sturdy, you just don’t want to dropkick or submerge your investment on a regular basis.
Second, are you primarily streaming music, which is usually encoded at a lower bitrate than other formats? Or, more important, can you hear the difference between a file that you play off of Spotify versus the same track played on a CD? No? Then save your money. Streaming music is also often heavily compressed (the more premium services less so), which means it can lose a lot of detail, and occasionally adds noise (think hiss, hum) to music. When you have really good headphones, those blemishes can become much more apparent. And not everyone can hear the difference, or cares. And that’s okay. Why spend the money on a $30 truffle-laden potato mousse when you’re totally happy with $3 fresh french fries?
And last, how often are you going to use these $300 to $400 over-ear headphones? Over-ears aren’t everyone’s cup of tea when on the go. And you can’t use any of our picks in this category for sports.
So if you won’t take these with you on the plane and you need something else sweatproof when you hit the gym, is the $300 still justifiable? Yes? Then get our recommendation. You’ll be thrilled. But if you only have a few hundred to spend and you need to consider many aspects of your music-consuming life, maybe get a few pairs of different, less-expensive headphones. Get our budget choice for the gym, our in-ear under $100 for travel, and our $150 over-ear for your desk. It sounds counterintuitive, but if it means you enjoy the songs you love in more places, it’s a better investment.
For about $150, you’ll still get great detail that sounds like a really good recording, or listening to a performance through good speakers. This range will lack some of the extra detail, depth of sound, and dexterity in the dynamics that headphones in the $300 to $400 range will have, but for most people, it’s really good enough to make them happy.
What do you get if you spend more? Generally you’ll see more expensive drivers and often open-backed headphones with luxury build materials. Many often require an amp to power them. Once you get past $500, you’re getting into the hobbyist/enthusiast realm of headphones. Many high-end audio fans will say that the expense is worth it, as the headphones that require an amp often have greater dynamic range and are even clearer, more delicate sounding.
But mostly those are headphones made for listening at home. They’re often large and heavy, and don’t work with portable devices. They’re made for sitting and enjoying in a stationary place, and often have quarter-inch jacks to be plugged into an amp. Many truly are great, but most are made for fans of the home hi-fi setup. They aren’t going with you on the subway, and probably not to work either (unless you have an amp for at work, and your own office or forgiving cube-mates)
Still not sure? Check out our Which Headphones Should I Get? to figure out what range (and style) is right for you.
First, I spent almost 20 hours researching what new headphones had been released since our last guide, from every major headphone brand and the smaller boutique outfits as well. I came up with a list of eight new models, and then looked through other professional reviews to see what they had to say and to see if any headphones had fallen through the cracks. I looked through what people like Steve Guttenberg of CNET and Tyll Hertsens of InnerFidelity had to say, as well as consumer sites like Amazon, Crutchfield, and other stores, plus enthusiast sites like Head-Fi. Last, I looked through our reader comments to see if there were any headphones you wanted addressed.
Anything on the new list that had good reviews or was too new to have any reviews yet, we brought in to be tested. This gave us 14 new picks to test against our top three from last year, or 17 headphones total that faced our panel. Then, after CES 2015, we brought in three more models to compare to our winners.
The idea behind our panel is this: listen to all of these headphones back-to-back to get a sense of sound, build quality, comfort, and features as compared with each other. That last part is especially important, as headphone reviews are often conducted one by one as they are released. Often, it’s impossible for reviewers, professional or amateur, to evaluate multiple headphones back-to back, which is vital for accurate comparisons.
In fact, to our knowledge, this is the first time any publication has directly compared some of these products in the same test session. Because these headphones fall into a higher price range, we tested using an iPhone, Android phone, and iPod in addition to the Sony PHA-2 Hi-Res DAC, the Dared HPA-55L, and in our most recent update the Oppo HA-2 headphone amp to see if there were varying results in sound quality.
Panelists selected their own music, with which they were intimately familiar, and therefore could better judge what each headphone brought to the table. Finally, the panelists were asked to give me their top four picks and discuss their findings on each set of headphones individually. I then factored in price point, if needed, to choose a final victor.
By now, you may find yourself wondering, Wasn’t this guide originally about headphones under $300? Why the sudden cost increase? Here’s why: The Oppo PM-3s are the best sounding, most versatile closed-backed headphones for less than $1,000 we’ve ever heard. We know, that’s a bold statement. And we mean it. The PM-3s sound good enough that all of our panelists agreed that if they were already willing to spend $300 for over-ears, and heard the difference between the other options and Oppo’s offering, they’d shell out the extra extra money for the PM-3s. That, combined with the fit, is what put them in our top spot.
Why the PM-3s are so great
1. The sound. The PM-3s have a clear, clean, and realistic sound that truly is worth every penny. Every kind of music sounds equally amazing. No one frequency overpowers another. The highs are crisp and dexterous without blaring, sizzling, piercing, or hissing. Consonants are audible, but they don’t smack you in the face with sibilance. Strings don’t twang or sound tinny and metallic.
The mids are rich and full and have a sense of placement and depth to the sound. You can especially hear this in an orchestral sound, in recordings that have utilized microphones in the midst of the orchestra.
And the bass is lush, full, and never woofs, thuds, or verges into muddy territory. Hip Hop and EDM low notes can still kick ass, but not at the expense of vocals or anything else. There’s no blurry echo to a bass line.
What makes the difference? The PM-3s use planar magnetic drivers. Most headphones use dynamic drivers. Planar magnetic use a thin piece of plastic that’s able to vibrate very rapidly, and can be very precisely controlled. They’re lauded for their ability to reproduce many sounds very accurately, but are expensive (which is why they’re rare at this price) yet common among really high-end headphones). (Also see the Flaws but not dealbreakers section below.)
Dynamic drivers, by comparison, look (and act) like a tiny speaker driver.
If you want a detailed explanation of how planar magnetic headphones work, check out Tyll Hertsens’s illustrated explanation here.
2. The fit. Everyone on the panel found that the PM-3s fit them well. This isn’t a given with any headphone. They don’t have massively huge ear cups that are embarrassing or impractical to wear out of the house. They don’t weigh so much that they’re uncomfortable for long-term listening sessions (at 320 grams, they weigh less than the PSB M4U 1s). The foam ear cups are supple and seal against your face without pinching.
Every panelist was able to get a good seal, which means they’re likely to fit most people easily and comfortably. Very large hat sizes might find the clamping force a bit much, but the ear cups are soft enough that it’s snug but not headache-inducing. Most folks will find that the PM-3s just feel secure on your head. You can move around and not feel concerned that they’ll fly off on your commute.
3. The extras. The PM-3s not only sound great when used with a headphone amp (which give them a bit more dynamic range), or through a home theater receiver, but they also work well with a portable device. The set’s diaphragm is efficient enough that the output of your mobile phone is enough to power them.
And as they’re available with either Android or iPhone cables (in addition to a longer straight standard cable), you can take calls and control your music on the go, too.
The PM-3s fold flat into their selvedge denim case, so they take up about as much room as a hardcover book in your bag. And they’re available in a very simple, elegantly designed white or black chassis.
The price. With so much going for them, we think that someone who is already considering $300 headphones will be more than willing to spend $400 for an upgrade in sound, fit, and versatility. All of our panelists said they would be. With that in mind, we know it’s a lot of cash, and as we said above, there are other headphones in this range that are also great, and cost less. Those others just aren’t quite as fantastic as the PM-3s.
Another possible consideration/flaw is the fact that planar magnetic drivers are delicate, so these aren’t headphones that are made to be dropped and kicked around a lot. One of the reasons dynamic drivers are used so frequently is that they are pretty durable; you can punt the Sony MDR-7506 headphones and they’ll keep working. You’ll need to be a bit more cautious with the PM-3s. That thin diaphragm that we discussed earlier is literally suspended in a field between the magnets. If it gets knocked loose, the PM-3s won’t work.
This isn’t to say they’re overly fragile, but you’ll need to treat them like you would your mobile phone. A four-foot drop to a carpeted floor is no big deal. But snag them on something so they slam into the cement at speed, and you may be in trouble. So if you’re really hard on your headphones, you may want to consider another option. However, we like to think at this price range, you’d already be taking good care of any of these options.
The Oppos are my current reference headphones, so they’ve been used more than any other headphones in my library over the last 10 months. They continue to perform very well. Despite the white color, the headband and cables still look really good too–new, in fact. I’ve taken the Oppos with me in a bag, and they have made trips well. Bear in mind, however, I take good care of my stuff and don’t make a point of testing these for durability.
The $300 PSB M4U 1s were our top pick for two years because they were one of the most-liked headphones on a long list of really great competition. All of the panelists still ranked these in their top three choices, remarking on their top-notch sound quality, long-term listening comfort, and solid build quality.
What’s all the fuss about? First, and most important, the sound is fantastic. As Brent said in a review for Sound & Vision of the PSB M4U 2s (identical to the M4U 1s but with added noise-canceling),“Not only does the [PSB M4U 2] sound like a really great speaker, it sounds like a great speaker in a great listening room.”
Instruments sound authentic, and there is a sense of depth of space in the sound, as though you’re in a room. What this means is that consonants in vocals come out clear without popping in your ear, and voices sound as though you’re right by the microphone. Instruments sound authentic, rather than recorded, and there is a sense of depth of space in the sound, as though you’re in a room with the musicians hearing their amps, rather than hearing a one-dimensional recording.
In other words, the highs are clear and sparkling, the lows, full and resonant without overpowering or muddying up the mids, which are even and crisp, enabling you to hear your music in rich, vivid detail.
Throwing an amp into the equation gave the PSB headphones a bit larger dynamic range at a given volume setting, but it didn’t change the overall sound profile or clarity (at least with the amps that we used).
While some headphones sound better with specific types of music, the PSB offering excels at just about everything. Acoustic guitar sparkles with gentle fret noise and a warm resonant sound, piano is given a sense of depth to its case, and percussion instruments have actual pitch beyond the hits on the skin. Hi-hats and other cymbal strikes ring cleanly with no tizzy aspect to the sound. And if electronic music or hip-hop is your thing, the M4U 1s are clear and strong all the way down to 30 Hz then taper off gently with no weird driver flapping or rattling. (To give you an idea, the low end of human hearing is around 20 Hz.) The bass is a touch more forward in the M4U 1s than in Oppo’s PM-3s, but in a pleasant way.
Second, the M4U 1s fit each panelist’s head well, despite our diverse head sizes. As such, we’re certain that they’ll settle in snugly and comfortably over almost any head or ears. I’ve worn them in my home studio for hours at a time, as well as on a flight across North America, and had no discomfort whatsoever. If you’ve been plagued with ill-fitting headphones, the M4U 1s will be a great choice.
This sounds like it should be a given, but it should not be taken for granted. The NAD, by comparison, had gaps on John’s and my faces where the earcups extended beyond our jawline and didn’t seal. Similarly, the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pros are massively huge whereas the Sennheiser Momentums have tiny ear cups that might pinch larger ears.
The seal if the M4U 1s provides decent external noise isolation, so if you want to wander from work to the subway to home, they’ll will adapt with you. But if you often find yourself on planes, trains, and in the back of automobiles, you might consider paying an extra $100 for the noise-cancelling M4U 2s, which are the same headphone with a built-in noise-canceling circuit that’s quite effective. These are also the step up in our guide to the best noise-canceling over-ear headphones.
As an added bonus, the M4U 1s have a single-button remote and mic, meaning you can take calls and bring the them out into the wild away from your listening room. While we prioritized sound quality above all else, it was nice that this was an option.
So if the M4U 1s are so great, why aren’t they our top pick this time? The PSB have a slightly more colored bass than the Oppo and lack the exceptional dexterity that the PM-3 have. While the PSB do have a sense-of-space-in-a-room feel, they aren’t quite as natural-sounding as the PM-3. Where the PSB sound like a great speaker in a great room, the Oppo sound a step closer to actual instruments in a room. The PSB are also are bulkier than the Oppo, and don’t have the option of a 3 button remote and mic, but sound and fit took priority over any extra features.
Subtle differences like that not worth the extra $100 to you? Then get the M4U 1. Seriously. You’ll be happy. They’re still really great.
We’d love an iPhone three-button remote option, but when headphones sound this good, at this price, we’re willing to put up with the single-button universal remote. And although the shiny plastic overlay on the PSBs has held up for us so far, we would like a design that feels as though it could take a bit more abuse.
Overall, those are minor quibbles with an otherwise great product. As we said, in this range, there are a lot of fantastic options.
We first got to test the Blue Mo-Fis as part of a super-secret preview at Blue, the microphone company that makes our pick for best USB microphone. This is Blue’s first ever headphone offering, and the company spent two years developing them. Those years in development show—the Mo-Fis are unique in just about every way and sound absolutely amazing.
One of the main reasons the Mo-Fis are so different is that they include a built-in, rechargeable headphone amp. This means that high-end audio enthusiasts don’t need to carry around a separate headphone amp with the Mo-Fis. Or, for those pragmatists among us, it also means that the headphones won’t draw as much power from your device when the amp is in use, thereby saving your device’s battery life.*
Additionally, the amp also has an On+ setting that adds a small bass bump for those who like a little more power in the low end. (The bump is not heavy-handed, it’s only a few dB at 60 Hz specifically, right in the key bass line range). The amp’s battery is rechargeable via an included micro USB cable and has a claimed 12 hours of active use time. The key word there is “active,” as the Mo-Fis automatically power down when you take them off, so you don’t need to stress about forgetting to flip the switch when you step away from the music. And even if the amp does run out of battery, the headphones don’t turn into a paperweight as the non-powered passive mode still sounds wonderful.
The headband has a very unique customizable design. There is a dial on the top that allows for adjustment of the tension of the side arms, and the ear cups pivot forward and back as well as side to side. This means that every one of our reviewers got a great seal and comfortable fit.
The Mo-Fis are also extremely sturdy. You don’t get the sense that dropping them will mean their demise. Another aspect worth noting is the removable cables, one of which includes an Apple remote with volume control. Generally speaking, you get the sense that Blue really looked at every detail and cared about the design process.
Ah, but how do they sound? Four of our reviewers actually slightly preferred the sound of the Mo-Fis over the PSB M4U 1s. They’re more neutral-sounding when compared with the PSB headphones, with a little less sibilance to the consonants in words and a little less intensity in the bass (unless you select the On+ mode).
But this isn’t to say the Mo-Fis are treble heavy or only for audiophiles. It’s simply that instruments you’re familiar with sound more like they do in real life, as opposed to just a great recording. In the regular On mode, the Mo-Fis are delicate and detailed, and can get really loud if you want them to. When in the On+ mode, the bass isn’t overwhelming, it more feels as though songs have a tad more deep low end, sounding fuller and richer. Off, they are still beautifully clear and even across all sonic ranges. There’s a wow factor when you listen. As we mentioned in the intro, they’re only a small shift from the PSB M4U 1s, and Brent perhaps put it best: “Among the top three, it really becomes a matter of preference rather than quality.” And in the end, we preferred Blue’s sound over PSB’s.
So why aren’t they our pick? The short answer: At more than 1 pound, they’re kinda heavy. All that solid build material, internal amp, and rechargeable battery create a headphone that weighs more than an iPad Mini. To put this into perspective, we weighed a few of our top contenders, plus some familiar objects, for reference:
|iPhone||135 g (4.76 oz.)|
|Sennheiser Momentum||200 g (7.06 oz.)|
|NAD||255 g (9 oz.)|
|Oppo PM-3||320 g (11.29 oz)|
|PSB M4U 1||335 g (11.82 oz.)|
|Beats by Dre Pro||400 g (14.11 oz.)|
|Can of Beans||425 g (14.99 oz.)|
|iPad Mini||430 g (15.17 oz.)|
|Blue Mo-Fi||490 g (17.28 oz.)|
For folks who wear headphones all day long, this could possibly become a literal pain in the neck. I wore them for more than two hours and had no problem, but I have healthy neck muscles and work out.
The Blue Mo-Fis led us to agonize over this decision for days, debating the merits of sound, cost, weight, features, etc. In the end, when it came to deciding between second and third place, though our ears preferred the Blue, the PSB sound equally amazing, cost $50 less, and we’d rather have someone decide to try the Mo-Fis and say we were crazy for questioning the weight than have someone buy them and be miserable because they couldn’t wear them all day. It was a tough call, but we know you’ll be very happy with the Oppo PM-3s, or with the pair from PSB, while you could be very happy with the Mo-Fis. When we considered “know” versus “could”? Know wins. All of that said, if you think you can handle the weight and you want the benefits of a built-in amp with brilliant sound, the Blue Mo-Fis are an equally great choice.
The (original) Sennheiser Momentums placed in our top picks for the second year, just like the PSB offering. All of our panelists liked their sound. A little bass-heavier than the PSB headphones, the Momentums have an appealing sound profile that bass lovers are sure to enjoy. They also have a fetching look and several colors to choose from (ivory, brown, and black).
The original Sennheiser Momentums have been replaced by the Momentum 2.0s, which we’ll talk about in greater detail below. Why do we say to get the original instead of the 2.0? In a nutshell: the price. After listening to the 2.0s, we think the upgrades are nice, but not an additional $180 nice.
One thing to note, however, is that the original Momentums have smaller ear cups that folks with larger ears might find uncomfortable or pinching. If that’s you (and you know who you are), look elsewhere. But if you do find the ear cups comfortable, there are a lot of great features to the build. The overall design is light and the ear cups hug close to your head (as opposed to the soup-can look of the Beyerdynamics), so they are perfect for use on the go. The remote is iPhone compatible, and the cord has a nice hinged design where it attaches to the adaptor that plugs into your device, which adds a sense of sturdiness to the overall design.
Those who had complaints about the sound mentioned that the low end is slightly too resonant, which can lead to the mids feeling lacking or muddled a small amount—something that John, Brent, and I all noticed. This means that techno bass lines or even upright bass might lack a clarity to their sound, because they don’t have as clear of a starting and stopping point. It’s a very small quibble. As Brent put it, “I could get used to the sound very quickly.”
In other words, the fit and sound were just barely off from our top slot.
What also places the Momentum in our top picks? The price! At less than $170 on the street, they’re a bargain compared to other selections, and that’s what bumped them over the NAD and the Master & Dynamic you’ll read about below. As Geoff put it, “At $300 these were great, at $170 they’re a steal.”
So if the fit works for you and you like a tiny bit more bass? Save some cash and snag the original Sennheiser Momentum while you still can.
Wanna go crazy? Have two grand to spend on headphones? (If so, can we be friends?)
The single most-lauded headphones out there are the $2,000 Audeze LCD-3 Planar Magnetic Headphones, and these are some serious cans. They’re open-backed, so you’ll need to listen in a quiet room. (But, hey, if you have that much to spend on headphones, you may be able to build a soundproof listening room with an appropriate amp to accommodate them.)
Our own Geoff Morrison reviewed the LCD-3s at Forbes, and said, “I’m pretty hard to impress, especially when it comes to headphones, and these impressed me. They’re that good.”
I admit, I heard them, and they truly are lovely. They have both exceptional sound and craftsmanship, but it’s still hard to justify the price. Also they’re huge and vaguely dorky looking on your head—so make sure that listening room is private.
Alpine Headphones – We got the Alpine Headphones the day they were released and were excited to hear what the car stereo company would do with personal audio. The answer? They somehow converted that car, the one with the subwoofer audible a mile away, and put it on your head. You know the one: it rattles your windows and announces to the whole block, “I installed aftermarket subwoofers!” Well, imagine that sound on your head.
The Alpine Headphones have an intense bass in passive mode with an added bit of reverb that is admittedly pretty nice on acoustic songs, but if you play songs with electric bass, suddenly the entire frequency range is dominated by boom, boom, boom. There is a slight roll off of the high end frequencies to begin with, so playing a song with an intense bassline causes a lack of clarity in consonants in hip-hop, rock, and electronic music.
Alpine Headphones also have an active mode, or as Alpine calls it, “TKR3 Full Frequency Immersion Technology.” This amounts to adding a huge boost to the bass, tossing in some more reverb, and making the ear cups literally vibrate. While I’m a fan of a good neck massage, I don’t need my headphones doing it for me. The free Alpine Level Play app allows you to tweak the frequency response of the active mode, but this doesn’t change the added reverb, so even when I turned down the bass and turned up the treble, the low end frequencies were still muddy or muffled sounding. In the end, the entire thing feels like a gimmick. I know there is a market for these headphones, just as sure as I am that there’s a guy who owns a Honda with a huge spoiler and giant subwoofer living in my neighborhood. But unless you are that guy/gal, you can spend your $300 for headphones better elsewhere.
Audio Technica ATH MSR7 – The MSR7s debuted at CES 2015 and are nice headphones for those who like the “high res” or “audiophile” sound. What does this mean? Well, the MSR7s have an extra boost in the higher-end frequencies that, while a bit too forward for our panel, are often perceived as extra detail by some people. In addition, the MSR7s have an added bass boost to balance out that high end; on certain kinds of music (hip hop most notably) it can start to feel like the bass line is a little too intrusive.
I actually reviewed the MSR7 for Sound & Vision a while back. Generally, they really are a good purchase for the $250 price tag if you know you prefer that extra intensity in the cymbals, consonants, and strings, and a fuller, rich bass.
Audio Technica created the MSR7s to have more depth to the mids and lows, and to do this, they added some small vents to the side of the headphone ear cups. What this means is that while the sound has a little more “breathing room,” so to speak, you also may have some external noise bleed into your ears when you’re listening in noisy environments. It’s not as much as in fully open-backed headphones, but for anyone looking for isolating headphones (or headphones that can be used for recording) headphone sounds can also be heard outside the ear cups, so that sound bleed could be a dealbreaker.
Overall, while the we don’t dislike the sound of the MSR7s, we didn’t feel that they sounded as authentic as the Oppo set, as balanced as the Blue headphones, or as rich as PSB’s.
Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H6 – “Pretty good” is the overall consensus on these headphones. Everyone found them comfortable, everyone liked the design. But the sound was slightly colored with a few bumps and dips here and there across the frequency range. This caused the H6 to have less of a sense of depth and life when compared with our pick and runner-up. As we said earlier, in this range, this isn’t to say these aren’t good headphones. It’s a matter of small degrees here that can make all the difference from first to seventh place. Add the $400 price tag to the slightly lesser-than-great sound, and we had to take these out of our top picks.
The $220 Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro Plus headphones, the slightly updated version of the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pros, are so unique, they’re almost a category unto themselves. These are the Transformers of the headphone world. First, they have physical sound adjustability via sliders on the back of the earcups that enable you to customize the sound to one of four profiles, ranging from treble-heavy to holy-bass-Batman. Next, they have side panels on the ear cups that can be swapped out to suit your style preference, and the newer Plus now includes 16 sets of panels to get you started. They also have removable cables, one with a mic and remote, and the option of a removable boom mic for folks who want to make these headphones into a gaming headset or use them for VoIP calling.
The price for this all-things-to-all-people design is a slight loss in the fidelity of sound when compared to our top picks, especially when you go into the heavier bass settings. Also, the ear cups are HUGE so smaller heads can feel a little swallowed up by them (though my diminutive noggin still got a good seal). The large size might not be something shy folks would want to be seen wearing in public. That said, if you find yourself wishing you could change your headphones based on what you are listening to, you want a pair of headphones that morph seamlessly into gamer-time, or you find $300-$400 a bit out of your price range, the Custom One Pro are a great option, especially for the sub-$250 price tag.
Beyerdynamic DT990 Premium 32 Ohm – We brought back these open-backed headphones since they tied for second in our last panel. The plush inner ear cups are soft and delightful to wear. However, compared to newer offerings, they just didn’t make the cut. Everyone wanted a little more low end to add warmth, and while they have that classic open-backed sound, we all preferred other options. Plus, they don’t have removable cables, a remote, or other nice features. So our verdict: If you like a treble-forward, open-back sound, you’ll love these. (Want to know what open-backed means? Read here.) But that group is small enough that we think most people would be better off with another choice.
Bowers & Wilkins P7 – We tested these in our last panel, and while they did well, they weren’t in the top three. This was mainly due to an intense bass that not everyone favored and a $400 price tag at the time. We personally felt that the Master & Dynamic MH40s were more stylish and sounded better at the same price. The P7 does have a replaceable cable, but it isn’t cloth-wrapped, and it lacks a mute button. So if you need an intense, punchy bass option and like the looks, we think these are pretty good for the price, but the Oppo PM-3 and PSB M4U 1 are better choices for most people.
Focal Spirit Classic – Neither of the Focals we tested were suitable for larger heads. Every panelist from largest hat size to smallest felt that the squeeze created by the headband and earcups was too much for long-term use. This is unfortunate, as they sound pretty good—mostly flat, though some sonic boosts in the top and bottom frequencies either add character (as Brent thought) or leave the mids feeling a bit dull (as John found). Overall, if we could wear them without a headache, we’d probably have liked them much better.
Focal Spirit Professional – We all dug the cool spatter design that makes the Spirit Professional look as though they’ve been misted with a water bottle. But, like their sister the Classic, they pinched tightly around our heads and made us unable to fully enjoy them. Sonically, they have a slight sizzly quality to the high end that the Classics lack, so if you like tight headphones and are flip-flopping between the Professionals and Classics, know that the Pros have a high-end tizzy quality that the Classics don’t. That said, even if we could wear them for more than 15 minutes, we can’t say we’d buy either of them over our top choices.
Grado SR325e – Grado recently revamped its SR line, though there isn’t much that’s visually different. They still have the foam ear pads, chassis, and umbilical-like cord they’ve always been known for. The SR325e headphones now have a ⅛-inch jack with a ¼-inch jack adaptor (before they only offered a ¼-inch) and a sound profile that’s very heavily tilted to the treble. If that appeals to you, then you’ll love the new edition. The highs are well-made, no sizzling or hiss to be found. But Brent perhaps put it best, saying, “The tonal balance just sounds wrong. It may be what someone prefers, but if you have heard what a snare drum sounds like in person, you’ll find the balance in the SR325e unnatural. It’s a shame, because with a little balance, they could be great.” I couldn’t agree more. We all liked the SR80e headphones, which got an honorable mention in our $150 over-ear piece, which seems to be less intensely tilted to the treble, so it isn’t just a matter of disliking what Grado has to offer. Overall, we think that unless you’re a die-hard Grado fan, you’d be better suited with one of our picks. If you’d like something that has well-formed high-end frequencies and a slight low-end roll off with a traditional sealed back and more comfortable ear pads, try the NAD VISO HP 50 (more on them below.)
JBL Synchros S500 and S700 – JBL makes some good-looking headphones. The Synchros are no exception. They’re both very comfortable; all of our panelists liked how they fit. That said, you have to really like bass to like these headphones, even unpowered. Geoff loved the S500s, but the rest of the panel found the bass to be overpowering, and even admitted bass-head Geoff said he thought most people wouldn’t like the sound profile. The S700s were sadly nobody’s favorite, with a bass bump that crept too far up into the mid range and left them sounding muddy in passive mode.
Both the S500 and S700 have a powered feature that JBL calls LiveStage, which they say “recreates the sense of spatial presence that you feel when listening to loudspeakers in a room.” Unfortunately, the room they are referring to is a large and oddly shaped one, as the powered LiveStage mode adds reverb and makes what are mostly bass-heavy headphones into boom-and-sizzle echoing messes. No one, not even Geoff who liked the S500s, liked powered mode. So, if you really like bass, and don’t mind paying the extra money for the LiveStage mode that you’ll likely never use, you could give the Synchros S500s a try. (The S700s you can miss altogether) However, we’d say bass lovers should stick with the more balanced Sennheiser Momentums.
Klipsch Status – The Status were another disappointment. Originally retailing for $200, the Status had dropped in price. That, along with great Amazon reviews, made us hopeful. Sadly, these were, like the JBL Synchros S700s, one of the few headphones in this category that we couldn’t recommend to anyone. The bass is dull and bloated, and the high end sizzles. The fit pinched my head, and we all agreed it sounded as though nobody took the time to voice them (basically, adjust how the drivers reproduce sound) before they were released. Bummer.
Master & Dynamic MH40 – Okay, luxury lovers, these headphones are for you. New kids on the block Master & Dynamic are making their entry into headphones with the MH40, possibly the prettiest headphones in this entire lineup. A skeleton of stainless steel and forged aluminum, covered with cowhide and lambskin (sorry, fellow vegans, we’ll all just have to hope for a protein leather version someday) and a supple, cloth-covered cord, these are the headphones I imagine Don Draper using. They have a mute button on the side for quick conversation breaks, and the replaceable cable is iPhone compatible.
More important, the sound is great too, with clear highs and full lows; Brent, John, and I all put the MH40s in our top five. That said, there is a slight bump in the very high highs that leads to a slightly icy metallic tinge to the treble and a moderate bass bump that creates a unique signature. This means the consonants of words stand out a little more than you’d expect, and on well-loved recordings, you might notice the kick drum or synth bassline more forward in the mix than you recall. It was this mildly colored sound that just edged the MH40s out of the top spot. But folks who like pop, hip-hop, and electronic music will likely adore the sound, because the bass really bumps and it’s reined in by the extra details provided by that slightly boosted high end.
Unfortunately, all this luxury comes at a price: $400. For those keeping track, that’s around $200 more than the Sennheiser Momentum (our affordable, and fourth place place overall pick). However, John said that should the Master & Dynamic drop about $50 in price, he’d pick them over the Sennheisers.
Overall, the MH40s were comfortable, sounded great, and were undeniably cool and beautiful. Like a little extra sibilance to your spoken word? Crushing on the stylish, luxurious looks of the MH40s? Then take the plunge, you trendsetter, you.
NAD VISO HP50 – If you have a large head, definitely give these a go. Brent put these as his favorite because they have a beautiful high end that is basically flat right down to where they drop off at the bass frequencies. It’s that drop-off at the low end that pushed these out of our top picks. At first I thought the amount of bass was due to the fact that the rectangular-shaped ear cups didn’t seal below my ears, which possibly caused the lower frequencies to leak out. But medium-noggin’ed John had the same fit issue, so it’s not just me. Also, pressing the earcups flush to my face didn’t change the fact that around 127 Hz (think subwoofer territory) the HP50s start to roll off, and by 90 Hz, they’re pretty much silent. What does this mean? Any music that benefits from a good thumping bass feels as though it’s missing its foundation. That said, everything above that bass is really well done and about as close as neutral as you can get. Do you love a sparkling high end and sneer at anyone who uses the term “bumping bass?” Then you may love these headphones. For anyone else? We’d say stick to our other choices.
Phaz P2 – The Phaz P2s are a unique new idea in headphones: The P2s have a battery inside of them that can power a headphone amp (like the Blue) and also charge your phone while you listen. It’s novel, but after spending some time with the P2s, we felt they just weren’t quite ready for us to give them our full endorsement.
Why? Well, it’s not the sound, actually. The P2s sound really great, delicate highs and clear mids with substantial lows that are fairly balanced and impressed both Brent and I at CES. The main issues with the P2s are the fit and the cables. First, the fit is HUGE. Not only big earcups, but the headband is very wide and didn’t even fully seal on Brent’s head. As for someone like me, who has a slightly smaller skull size, the P2s gaped at the sides of my head as well as draped way below my ears and made me look like a kid wearing grownup headphones.
The cables are also cumbersome: As you can’t charge through the same cable that you listen through, if you want to charge your phone, you have two cables running from the ear cup to your phone. Phaz says they are working on a single-cable design, and we think that’s a much more palatable idea.
In the end, despite some really neat features, we think we’ll wait for the next phase of Phaz before we buy.
Polk Buckle – We were really pulling for these to be good. And when I first started listening to a song that was only acoustic guitar and voice, they were. However, once anything with lower mids and bass presence kicked in, the treble revealed itself to be far too soft in the mix. As a result, what could have been really great headphones if voiced correctly ended up sounding a little dull. All the elements were there, but their missing just a few dB in the high end took what could have been truly wonderful stylish headphones into muffled city. Are they terrible? Hardly. But with all the legitimately fantastic headphones in this category, one misstep is all it takes to lose our recommendation.
Sennheiser HD8 DJ – We all had a really tough time with these headphones. The sound was kind of bizarre. The bass was pumped at what felt like the wrong place: from upper lows into the mids. It made everything sound like you were listening through a large cardboard tube. And when you get into the low lows, the drivers start to just rumble and growl like an engine idling. The fit is a novel idea, but not everyone was on board. The HD8 DJs are marketed toward (surprise!) DJs, but from the pros I’ve spoken to, heavy bass does not necessarily make good gig ‘phones. Overall, these just left our whole panel baffled. We think there are better ways to spend nearly $400.
Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 – Sennheiser has replaced its popular Momentum headphones with the lightly upgraded 2.0s. We got to check them out at CES 2015, and the 2.0s were really great. In fact, once the original Momentums sell out, if the 2.0 price dips, there’s a good chance the 2.0s will slip right in and take their place.
What’s new? Bigger, softer ear cups, an Android mic/remote option in addition to the iPhone remote option, a non-swivel plug, what Sennheiser describes as improved sound quality.
The ear cup and padding change will come as a welcome shift to folks who felt that the original Momentum were too small for their ear size. As for the redesigned plug, we actually liked the original swivel design, so we were a little bummed about the rigid 90-degree plug on the 2.0s.
And the sound? While not losing that recognizable warm, low-ended Sennheiser Momentum profile, we didn’t notice a large enough of an improvement to warrant the $180 price increase over the still-available and heavily discounted original Momentum (nor to beat out the amazing sound offered by Oppo, PSB, or Blue).
CNET checked them out as well, and agreed.
The 2.0s still have the modern aviator style, the stitched leather that makes the Momentum special in terms of looks, and they’re still lightweight and comfortable to wear. It’s just that for $350 we aren’t impressed enough to put the 2.0 in our top picks. For now, if you want a corded, over-ear Sennheiser Momentum, snag the originals and save the $180.
Shure SRH 840 – We brought these in to test by reader request. Overall, they’re nice studio headphones. The balance is mostly flat with a little extra peak in the trumpet/female voice range. Unfortunately, that peak can be a bit too much for folks with sensitive ears. All of our panelists called the high end of the SRH 840s a bit harsh for everyday use. While the price (around $200) is affordable, you don’t get any of the bonus features that you’d find in the similarly priced Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro headphones. That said, if you are looking for headphones with no extra bells and whistles and need a little extra zip in the high end, these could be a good match. But for the average listener, we think you might prefer one of our other picks.
AKG K551 – We tested these in our last panel, and most found the sound to be rather “tinny” with “subdued bass.” Their size was also a concern for folks with a smaller head size.
AKG Q701 – We had wanted to test these out, as they recently dropped to around $300 from a starting price of $500. But AKG informed us that they have been backordered at the plant for a long time, and not only did AKG not have any available to send us, but that it’s possible that it could be a long wait before retailers are stocked up fully again. That said, they’ve been out a long time and they weren’t among the top headphones suggested by the experts that we consulted.
Beats Studio (2.0) – Brent reviewed these for Sound & Vision back when they were first released, and came to the same conclusion as our original panel. They are a far cry better than the original Beats Studio headphones, but worlds away from the sound quality that you can find in all the other offerings in this price range. It seems Amazon reviewers agree as well. If these cost $150, we might be having a different conversation. They are built well, but the bass is bloated and muddy, and the high end is sibilant. Or, as Geoff put it: “Unless you’re looking for a fashion accessory, these are still to be avoided, but they are certainly a marked improvement compared to the originals … as much of a compliment as that is.”
Frends Taylor – A teenager I know asked me about these admittedly stunning-looking headphones. Here’s the deal: Only buy these if looks are all that matter to you. They look great. They sound majorly blah. Even the four-star reviews on Amazon admit they wouldn’t have bought them if they didn’t get them on sale for $80. Folks who paid the full $280 were really disappointed. My advice? Spend the $260 on some really great jewelry, and get some cheaper earbuds. You’ll thank me later.
Monster 24K – When I saw these unveiled at CES 2014 in the Monster press conference, the company’s CEO talked about how gold things are “aspirational for the kids.” I don’t know if that’s true, but nobody has ever talked about the sound of these golden headphones. But if you need something that costs $300 and is colored gold … honestly, why are you even reading this?
Monster DNA Pro – There are complaints about the fit of these headphones on Head-Fi, and reviews in PCMag saying the bass distorts. Based on all the amazing headphones we’ve got in this panel, we’re convinced there are better ways to spend your money.
Munitio PRO40 – From our last roundup in this range: The Munitio PROs are a little overpriced for their design and sound quality. The bass doesn’t sound tight or well-defined and thus doesn’t have the punch and precision we’d like.
Phiaton Bridge MS 500 Series – Remember what I said about small quibbles being the difference between first and fifth in this range? Our last panel commented on the “pinched fit” of the earcups, but found the “MS 500′s pumped-up but tight-and-punchy bass gave extra kick to the tune’s solid groove without obscuring the mids and treble as a lot of hip-hop-oriented headphones do.” However, they lack the richness and depth that some of our other options had, so ultimately, they didn’t make the cut. C’est la vie.
Sennheiser HD7 DJ – According to our contact at Sennheiser, these are the same drivers and design as the HD8s DJs but in a plastic chassis. So scroll up and read what we thought about the HD8s, and you’ll understand why we didn’t feel the need to test these.
Shure SRH1540 – These are nearly $500 headphones that Tyll Hertsens has on his Wall of Fame, but adds, “They tend to fall apart a bit at higher volumes—bass can get bloated and loose; treble can become a little over-emphatic.” For $500, we want better than that, and figured our readers would as well.
SMS STREET by 50 Cent – PCMag didn’t love them, Digital Trends said they lacked the level of detail and refinement that they would expect from headphones in this range, and besides, they’re discontinued.
V-MODA Crossfade LP/LP2 – I’m not counting these as part of the panel as technically we didn’t bring them in; Geoff just had a pair sitting around. I tossed them in the mix to see what happened despite some lackluster reviews. They sound muddy and woofy, and they boom and sizzle, ending up sounding like you’re listening through a paper towel tube. It’s not a good scene. If you must have V-MODAs, try the Crossfade M-100s.
V-MODA Crossfade M-100 – These $400 beauties sound much better than their sister headphones, the LPs, and they have some good reviews. And it makes sense—the durable design is so well-built that you have a tough time noticing anything else. But upon closer reading, What Hi-Fi called them “punchy and inconsistent” and “needing some finesse and detail to compete.” Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity loved them for their attractive design, but once he composed himself said, “I would have preferred the bass boost to happen about 100 Hz lower” and found the mid range lacking. But perhaps the reason we never brought these in to test was because when both Tyll and Steve Guttenberg were interviewed for our original piece, despite their positive reviews, neither put the M-100s in their top recommended picks. Like I said, it’s a competitive price range.
Velodyne vTrue – They’re pretty, but they’re also bulky, expensive, and sonically just don’t offer quite enough for a $400 price tag. Sound & Vision and PCMag agree. Our panelist Brent was involved with the Sound & Vision article, so I asked him whether he thought the vTrue were worth bringing in. His verdict: pass. There’s just too much other great competition.
Focal’s Listen is a closed-back over-ear pair designed for mobile use. It has a plastic body and a 4.6-foot cord with a mic and a one-button remote on it. We’ve liked the sound of Focals past, but both of the models we tested previously (the Spirit Classic and the Spirit Professional) pinched tightly around our heads and made us uncomfortable. Even so, soon we’ll take a listen to see if these new headphones fit us better while offering the same sound quality.
During our last round of testing, we loved the Blue Mo-Fi headphones, but decided to only make them an alternate pick because of the heft of their built-in amp. Now Blue has announced the Lola, a less expensive version of the Mo-Fi (closer in price to the PSB M4U 1s) with the same basic design and 50mm drivers, but without the amplifier and added weight. They’re listed for sale on Amazon now, and we are waiting on our test pair to arrive.
Blue also announced the Sadie at CES 2017, which features a similar design to its predecessor, the Mo-Fi. The Sadie has a built-in amplifier, three-way controls for turning the amp on and off, and a reported 12 hours of playback. It will be available for pre-order in late January for $400.
The ROC Sport Black Platinum by Monster Over-Ear Headphones have the same look as the Monster 24k mentioned above in a new color scheme, but have a different tuning, so we’ll test them out when we have a chance.
In a category flush with amazing headphones, the Oppo PM-3 may cost a bit more, but you get so much more too. Better sound, sleek styling, three-button remote, and portable audio that will knock your dang socks off. We love everything about them, and we know you will too.