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The Best Audiophile Headphones for 2021

High-Fidelity Audio That Goes Where You Do

Audiophile. Just using the word makes some of us cringe—or think of someone who makes us cringe. It just implies an air of exclusivity or snobbery, when what it’s meant to imply is someone who takes high-fidelity audio seriously. You don’t have to be the stereotypical sound snob in order to enjoy good audio, and if you’re looking for quality headphones, what’s wrong with understanding what makes them sound good?

Let’s start with the acknowledgment that the world of high-fidelity audio gear knows no limits, and you can easily cobble together a list of the 10 best headphones available for $5,000 and up (search term: electrostatic headphones). We’re not going there. Instead, we’re looking at the most audiophile-friendly headphones and earphones we’ve reviewed here at PCMag, where most of the $5,000 price tags we see are on high-end gaming PCs. We’ve done our best to accommodate tight budgets, as well as throw in some of the top-shelf pairs if you’re looking to splurge.

Ultimately, the headphones you choose will come down to personal taste—there is no empirical ‘best headphone pair,’ thank goodness, so there are multiple styles to check out. Let’s take a look at the various concepts to consider if you’re interested in buying headphones—or earphones—that prioritize accuracy over, say, mega bass or gym-friendliness.

What Is Flat Response?

Many people associate audiophile-level sound quality with a flat response. Flat response-style headphones are equipped with sound signatures that don’t dramatically boost or cut various sub-ranges within the frequency range. This isn’t a negative by any means; flat response means accuracy, which is what most audiophiles are after.

Of course, the term is quixotic—if it were actually possible to achieve perfect flat response, we wouldn’t have so many competing headphones and earphones claiming to offer it, while sounding slightly (or sometimes, dramatically) different from each other. Think of flat response as the ideal, from which nearly every pair of headphones is going to deviate from.

Blue Ella headphones

To some, truly flat response can sound clinical. And there’s the modern dilemma that faces some mix engineers: Do you mix for flat response-style speakers, or for speakers that have more bass depth (which are much more common among consumers)? It’s always been standard for engineers to do the bulk of their work on high-quality flat response monitors, and then check their mixes on more affordable speakers and headphones. But in recent years, the affordable stuff has also become increasingly more powerful, with the relatively newfound ability to produce tremendous bass depth.

If I could point out one trend in headphones in the last decade or so, it would be the rise of bass response—even many high-fidelity, expensive headphones are offered with boosted bass variations now. Even the industry standard, almost clinically flat response Etymotic ER-series in-ears are offered in a slightly bass-boosted option. Several modern music genres also utilize digital (and some analog) instruments that can push bass to depths that were previously less common in mixes, now that more speakers and headphones can reproduce them more easily.

It’s something to keep in mind and be honest with yourself about. Do you really want flat response, or would you like something close to it, but with a little more bass depth? In 2018, you have several options, and those who thumb their noses at you if you choose to enjoy a little more bass depth are neither right nor wrong. Even with audiophile-level gear (actually, especially with audiophile gear), it ultimately comes down to personal taste.

Professional Headphones

The words “pro” or “professional” appear in the names of plenty of headphones we review, and some earphones, too. The term is somewhat misleading—headphones that are intended for studio musicians or mastering or mix engineers needn’t be exclusively enjoyed by people in these professions. And if you’re looking for the most accurate sound signature you can afford, pro-level models are often your best bet.

There’s a wide range of pro-level headphones to consider. Typical “tracking” headphones for musicians to wear in the recording studio can often be quite affordable, while reference pro-level headphones intended for engineers to check their mixes on can cost quite a bit more.

One trait in this realm that is common, though not quite a given: Most cables will lack an inline remote control and microphone for operating mobile devices and making calls. If that’s a deal breaker, you’ll want to scour the design sections of each of our reviews to ensure the cables included with the headphones you’re interested in have remotes. It’s sometimes also possible, depending on the model, to purchase a cable with an inline remote if the headphones lack one.

Audeze iSINE20 in-Ear earbuds

Audiophile In-Ears vs. Headphones

In the headphone realm, you have several styles to consider—circumaural (over-ears) or supra-aural (on-ears) for how they fit over or in your ears, and open-back (headphones that project audio outward from the enclosures, often resulting in a more natural spatial sound), semi-open, or closed (headphones that leak audio far less, typically) for how the earcups are designed.

And then, of course, there are earphones. We’re going to go ahead and say: Don’t buy earbuds, which are the flat-style earphones that sit against your ear but don’t seal off the ear canal. They offer too many variables from ear-to-ear, and this typically doesn’t lead to an excellent musical experience. Canal-sealing in-ears, however, can offer excellent audio performance, with some custom models providing exceptionally detailed sound with superb bass depth. No single style is innately superior to another, so it’s worth considering them all—they all have their advantages and disadvantages.

Drivers Make a Difference

The same can be said for different styles of drivers. Though you’ll hear arguments favoring one type of driver over another, there isn’t one that is innately superior to all others. That said, the planar magnetic driver revolution is in full effect, and these lightweight, fast response drivers deliver a level of detail that has taken audiophile headphones by storm.

This doesn’t mean dynamic drivers and balanced armatures are delivering a comparatively crappy experience. Ultimately, if the headphones sound amazing, the technology employed to get them there is a somewhat secondary concern, provided it isn’t drastically degrading the signal somehow.

Try Them on for Size

Yes, we know you’re used to buying everything online now, but there are still plenty of brick-and-mortar stores that sell headphones, and most of them understand the two key advantages they hold over any online retailer: Allowing the customer to try out a few options first, and providing the immediate gratification of walking out the door with a chosen pair.

Some stores will have listening stations set up, and you may or may not be able to choose the music or models available to test out. But if you don’t see the pair you’re looking for in the listening station, try asking a salesperson if they’ll open up a box for you—you’ll be surprised how often they do it, especially if there’s a good chance of it resulting in a sale.

That said, if you want to try on in-ear earphones in the store…for sanitary reasons, that’s not going to happen. And we’ll go one further in that regard: If you see an in-ear listening station, you should probably avoid it.

If you need a little more flexibility in budget, form factor, or gym-friendliness, check out our lists of the best headphones overallthe best earphones, and the best workout headphones.

Once you’ve found the perfect pair, head over to our guides on 5 Easy Tips to Extend the Life of Your Headphones and 6 Ways You’re Using Your Headphones Wrong.

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