Audiophile headphones guide

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6 of the best top-quality headphones
Listening to your favourite music on top-quality audio hardware is something everyone should try at some point. Once you have, you won’t want to go back, but few of us have the money, the space  — or the understanding neighbours — to support a serious Hi-Fi system. The answer? Headphones, and good ones, as David Bayon, Contributing Editor at PC Pro, explains.

Grado SR80i
Grado SR80i
eBay loves: Quality sound at a very low price.
Watch out for: Very leaky indeed.
Price: £100

You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good pair of open-backed headphones and the Grado SR80i headphones are exactly that. The sound won’t match the rest of the headphones on this list, but as a first step into the world of audiophile kit, they’re a great choice.
Beyerdynamic DT770
Beyerdynamic DT770
eBay loves: No leakage and good sound quality.
Watch out for: Not the most stylish of headphones.
Price: £120

If you’d prefer an affordable closed-back design, the Beyerdynamic DT770 should be top of your list. Popular with recording studios, they offer powerful bass and good positional accuracy, and are a solid all-rounder for music, movies and games.
Sennheiser HD650
Sennheiser HD650
eBay loves: A simple design and quality build.
Watch out for: Gateway headphones to even more expensive sets…
Price: £250

Old but still worth considering, the Sennheiser HD650 headphones are open-backed and offer smooth-toned listening, but at a much lower price than some of the real heavyweights. As they improve over time, you’ll enjoy the subtlety of the audio and the clean bass for years to come.
HiFiMan HE-500
HiFiMan HE-500
eBay loves: Beautifully clean and crisp sound.
Watch out for: Undeniably expensive, so get a good amp.
Price: £695

The HiFiMan HE-500 headphones use a slightly different orthodynamic speaker design that applies a more even force to the diaphragm for a more uniform and accurate sound. And that sound is superb, with deep bass and clean trebles. Get a good headphone amp and enjoy.
Sennheiser HD800
Sennheiser HD800
eBay loves: Simply astonishing audio.
Watch out for: There’s no getting round that price tag.
Price: £1,000

The Sennheiser HD800 is the king of open-backed headphone audio. The rather brash plastic design doesn’t quite match the price tag, but that it does make them incredibly light and comfortable — and the audio quality is impeccable. Pair with a good amp and you’ll never want to leave the house.
Fostex TH900
Fostex TH900
eBay loves: Luxury build and nice design.
Watch out for: Not worth £250 more than the Sennheiser HD800.
Price: £1,250

If you prefer your bank-breaking headphones with a closed back, the Fostex TH900 headphones are stylish, offer great sound and have a real luxury feel to the build. They do cost more though, so we’d only go for them if open backs just aren’t an option.
How good can headphones really be?

We’re not talking about bundled in-ear sets here, or even the small over-ear models you find in electrical stores, but technologically advanced (and sometimes very expensive) audiophile headphones. If you have enough money, it’s possible to buy headphones that reproduce every detail of top-quality audio at any volume you like.

Although they’re expensive, it’s important to compare audiophile headphones to the alternative — which for most people is a vastly more expensive Hi-Fi system. Add up the cost of a top-end amplifier and speakers, and a set of audiophile headphones suddenly looks a much more reasonable purchase.

Of course, you can also buy audiophile headphones at reasonable prices and many would argue that’s the bare minimum you should be using to listen to music. Even a £100 set will open your ears to a world that free earphone users don’t even realise exists.
 
Open or closed?

Historically, the very best headphones have tended to be open-backed designs, which allow for air to flow fully to produce a rich, natural sound. The drawback is sound leakage, both in and out, which means people around you will hear what you’re listening to — and you’ll also be able to hear your surroundings with quieter material. So avoid open-backed designs if you want headphones for use on public transport and in quiet areas where you don’t want to disturb people.

The more versatile alternative is a closed-back design, which minimises sound leakage and often gives a more bass-heavy sound. The design isn’t without its own flaws, though, and some listeners consider the sound of a closed pair of headphones to be less natural.

If you can, try both kinds to see which you prefer, but bear in mind where you’ll be using them before you buy.
 
Do I need an amplifier?

It’s not essential, but if you’re going to spend a lot on good headphones, it makes sense to put some aside for a good headphone amplifier. This will boost the audio quality and volume between the sound source and your ears, making sure you get the most out of your investment. We’ve already explained what to look for and rounded up the best headphone amplifiers. Just as important as an amp is the need for high-quality source material. You can spend your life savings on headphones and they still won’t make a poor-quality MP3s sound much better, so make sure you have high bit-rate audio files, or use a lossless format like FLAC when buying or ripping music.

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