If you want what audiophiles call "reference" audio quality, the open-air Sennheiser HD 650 headphones (*Est. $500) get excellent reviews and continue to outrank the competition despite years on the shelves. These are big headphones, certainly better for listening at home than for portable use. CNET says the full-size Sennheiser headphones provide a "sweetness…that flatters all sorts of music," though performance tends to be laid-back rather than front row. In his review for PCMag.com, Mike Kobrin writes, "These very comfortable cans are the best I've ever heard, bar none, and I use them extensively in both of my professional lives: as a musician and an audio reviewer." If you're looking for open hi-fi headphones, the Sennheiser HD 650 headphones are worth a look.
Also very highly regarded in this luxury headphone category are the AKG K702 headphones (*Est. $260) , which have an open-back design as well. Clarity is superb, and sound is balanced overall across high, mid and low frequencies, a plus for classical music and jazz. Most high-quality headphones need to be broken in before they sound their best -- it's called "burn-in" -- and the online retailer HeadRoom says these require a lot more than most: at least 200 hours and perhaps even 300. After that, however, the AKG K702 headphones sound "pretty darn near perfection." CNET's Steve Guttenberg says the AKG K702 headphones sound "excellent." However, one negative is that bass is lacking compared to other models.
Both the Sennheiser HD 650 and the AKG K702 headphones are relatively heavy (the HD 650 tips the scale at over 9 ounces), yet they are not considered uncomfortable by reviewers, admittedly a factor that will vary by user. Both professional reviewers and users recommend an amplifier to get the best sound, and there's some debate over whether upgrading the detachable cable that comes with the Sennheiser headphones improves sound quality.
Bowers & Wilkins, known for their speakers, also scores well with the P5 Mobile Hi-Fi (*Est. $290) . These aren't reference quality like the Sennheiser HD 650, reviewers say, but offer tremendous sound and a great listening experience. CNET calls them uniquely designed, well built and filled with rich sound. "We suggest you skip meals for a couple of weeks and divert the money you would've spent eating on a pair of Bowers & Wilkins P5s," Wired writes in an enthusiastic review, complimenting the headphones' sound and build quality.
If you don't want to spend as much on a pair of headphones, reviews identify several good buys that cost less. The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones (*Est. $160) receive the top score of any headphones from Amazon.com users. Indian review site Tech2.com gives them a strong review, and HiFi Headphones names the ATH-M50 one of its top 10 picks. "The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 have an accurate audio response, with a deep, well defined bass," HiFi Headphones writes. "While the closed back design does re-enforce bass response to some degree, there has obviously been a good deal of work put into the design to ensure that clarity is not lost."
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro (*Est. $85) headphones are less expensive and get some consideration. Most professional reviewers say bass is good, though not great. These headphones are not suitable for portable players, not just because of their bulk and weight, but also because most MP3 and CD players can't give them the power they need. Still, they're a great value for professional-quality headphones.
Audio authorities call the 4.6-ounce Grado SR80i (*Est. $100) one of the best bargains in high-performance headphones on the market. The headphones sport retro styling, which might not appeal to everyone, reviewers write. Some find it necessary to bend the headband in order to get a comfortable fit. The Grado SR80i is an open-back headphone that will not spare others from hearing much of what you hear.
Britain's Which? magazine gives the Grado SR80i their best rating in a round of 56 headphones, describing their sound as "excellent overall" and "well-defined." Some reviewers recommend using an amplifier with the Grado SR80i headphones, and others note they can give a slight feeling of pressure on the ears. But overall, their sound is described as sharp, punchy and an exceptional value.
The Grado SR60i (*Est. $80) is an even less expensive set of headphones and it, too, draws some respect from reviewers. What Hi-Fi? gives the Grado SR60i headphones 5 out of 5 stars, and says that aside from "looking like something your grandfather might keep locked in a drawer along with his waxed moustache and monocle," they are "as good as any cans in their class." Which? recommends the SR60i headphones for their "great sound quality," though they recommend the SR80i (*Est. $100) for "bass hound[s]." The SR60i headphones get a lot of positive feedback on Amazon.com, with many users giving them a perfect score. All Grado headphones except for the iGrado are made in the U.S.
So if the under-$100 Grado headphones are so great, why spend more? HeadRoom, while saying for "most folks" these Grado headphones "could be the best-sounding headphone" they've heard, explains it this way: "The only detraction is a slight discontinuity in the treble, which gives it a 'sparkly' sound rather than the ultra-smooth top end of extremely well-extended (and significantly pricier!) headphones." In other words, the Grado SR60i headphones are a great value, but their range falls a little short when compared with more expensive headphones like the AKG K702 and Sennheiser HD 650.
The Grado SR80i (*Est. $100) headphones are a bit more expensive than the SR60i, but most experts and users recommend the upgrade if you listen to bass-heavy music like hip-hop. Critics say that the more you pay with Grado headphones, the better quality you get. There's still better bass response and detail in the higher-end SR125i (*Est. $150) headphones than in the SR80i headphones, but the price difference is clearly significant. For $20 more, however, bass in the SR80i is noticeably fuller than on the SR60i headphones, and What Hi-Fi? reviewers point out that the SR80i's "slightly greater control and musical focus" justify the extra cost.
Finally, if you truly want the very best money can buy, reviewers suggest the Grado PS1000 (*Est. $1,700) headphones, which are nearly tonally perfect in their eyes -- but carry a breathtaking price tag, well beyond the average consumer's budget and the scope of this report. Trusted Reviews' Andrew Williams sums it up this way: Pros: "Jaw-dropping sound; they make you feel like a king." Cons: "Jaw-dropping price; they make you look like a bit of an idiot." Others are more willing to swallow the cost in light of these headphones' performance. "They justify their price with a simply astonishing sound," write the editors of What Hi-Fi? in their review of the Grado PS1000s. "Headphones can't get much better than this." That said, while there have been more expensive headphones in the past, the PS1000s are among the most expensive sets of consumer headphones at the moment. While reviewers agree you get what you pay for, you'll also pay heavily for what you get.