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There are basically two ways to look at headphones when buying them.
You can take/use them as they are OR you can buy one(s) with the most potential and improve/modify them so they will sound even better.

There isn’t a SINGLE ‘perfect’ headphone on this planet. Not even the most expensive ones.
However, there are plenty of excellent sounding headphones that may suit your taste perfectly while other headphones on the list may not sound as good to your ears.
The list of headphones below (divided in price-classifications) are in alphabetical order.
They range from light-ish to darkish-sounding headphones (also random order !) and guarantee ALL listed headphone DO sound different but at least have good sonic qualities about them.
There are plenty headphones around that may be even better sounding to YOUR ears that are NOT listed here. This, most likely, has to do with taste.
When you can’t find the headphone you really wanted to buy amongst the recommended ones below, then I suggest you audition them anyway and if you like the sound simply buy them.
They may very well be excellent sounding but could have a treble peak, bass peak, or lack of bass or midrange I find to be ‘off’ and thus it did not end up in the lists below. The listed headphones are all ‘HiFi’ sounding in MY opinion.
If you are looking for maximum bass, very dark or bright sounding headphones or are looking for wireless or in-ear headphones you will not find these listed below, only wired on- and over-ears. They can be optimal for portable and/or home usage or both.

The listed headphones, even the best headphones around, are still not ‘perfect’.
All the listed headphones sound good/pleasant by themselves, some may be on the ‘darker’ side, some are ‘brighter’, some are fairly neutral.
The headphones listed aren’t suited for bassheads though but all sound good and ‘believable’ with little ‘annoyances’.
Only on direct comparison (side by side) differences in sonic signature will be evident. The difficult part here is a difference in efficiency (loudness).
To accurately compare headphones you need 2 amps and loudness matched headphones !
Some may have a better fit and others may not. This depends on the shape and size of the head and ears (Pinnae). What sits perfectly fine on your head may be awful to someone else or may not fit at all.
TRY to audition the headphone you are after.
It is best not to buy on someone else’s recommendation only.

Some of the better headphones can get CLOSER to perfection though, with some proper EQ.
Another way to improve the sound of headphones is by using the Kameleon amplifier.

Something to be aware off….
Some people trying out / owning headphones may find their evaluation of their headphone(s) differs considerably from those of other users.
Before blaming it on the headphone(s) or other owners/reviewers find out if you aren’t plagued by fit/seal issues.
In and On-ear headphones have the biggest chance of having a bad seal as well as over-ears with large diameter earpads or stiff earpads.
The shape of your head, amount / type of hair and ear-shape may be causing a bad seal in combination with some headphones.
If this is the case TEST if you are getting a good SEAL with your headphone(s), especially when there is less bass than ‘expected’ or the sound is nasal or otherwise ‘coloured’ in a way that isn’t usually associated with these headphones.
To test if you have a good seal simply press the earcups more firmly onto your ears/head. When the sound changes dramatically (most obvious in the bass) then experiment with other pads and or clamping force to address that issue, or find another headphone that doesn’t have sealing issues.

When you are unsure a headphone may suit your taste (this is VERY personal to say the least !) try to audition them.
If this is not possible you can try to find one second-hand or if one is on sale somewhere.
IF you did not like the sound, or perhaps equally important, the comfort, then send it back to the seller (if possible).
Inform upfront with the seller IF this is possible, not all on-line shops offer this service or exclude headphones.

 

 

post separation

Recommended headphones

For those that do not want to open up nor modify headphones and simply buy and use stock headphones there are quite a few good ‘hi-fi’ sounding headphones around.
Below a selection of the better hi-fi headphones in 3 price classes in alphabetical order so NOT in order of preference or sound quality.
ONLY on-ear and over-ear headphones are listed. No earbuds or IEM’s.

You can buy seriously better headphones at lower prices when buying second-hand. In some cases all that needs to be done is replace the pads.
DO check for proper operation and wiggle the headphone wires/plug when testing.

In general the sound quality goes up with the price range but some of the cheaper ones may sound much better than the more expensive ones.
All headphones have different sonic signatures which may or may not be your personal preference.
Never buy a headphone based on recommendations of others. Always try to audition headphones. The headphones listed below are the more realistic sounding ones and may range from ‘dark sounding’ (bass more prominent and or treble rolled off, a bit speaker like) to ‘clear’ or ‘bright’ sounding (some may think bass-light or bright)

Cheap price point  €15 – €50 (in alphabetical order):

Beyerdynamic DT235 (lacks treble finesse)
Koss KSC35 / KSC75 / PortaPro (top pick in the portable on-ear class)
Presonus HD7 (somewhat bright)
Samson SR850 (slightly boring)
Sennheiser PX100 / PX100-II (lacks subbass)
Superlux Superlux HD681-EVO with Chinese pads, HD662-EVO
Takstar Pro-80 (somewhat bassy)

NOTE: When buying Koss PortaPro headphones beware there are fakes out there that do not remotely sound anything like the original and are very bassy and lack highs. How to distinguish them can be found HERE.

Medium price point  €50 – €200 (in alphabetical order):

AKG K181 (quite neutral) / K551 / K553 (fairly neutral slight treble peak))
Audio Technica ATH-M40X (NOT the M40fs version !), Audio Technica ATH-M50X or ATH-M50 >2012, ATH-TAD500
Beyerdynamic DT250-250 Ohm version (very neutral, some product variances, lacks treble finesse)
Creative Aurvana Live (a bit on the ‘warm’ side)
Denon DN-HP700
Fischer Audio FA-003 = NVX XPT100 = Brainwavz HM5 = Jaycar AA2065 = Studiospares M1000 = Lindy HF-100
Fostex T50RPmkIII, T40RPmkIII (lacks ‘air’ in the treble and subbass)
Goldring DR150 (only 2nd hand)
Grado SR60i/SR60e (a bit bright and lacks subbass, not very comfortable)
Philips SHP9500 (neutral, slightly lacks presence), SHL9505-uptown with SRH-940 pads
Roland RH300 (but only with Brainwavz HYBRID pads fitted)
Sennheiser HD555 / 558 / 595 / 598 / 238 / 239 / 439 / 250-II* / 580* (* only 2nd hand)
Sony MDR-1RA (with ports closed) / MDR-100AAP (on the warm/bassy side)
Skullcandy Aviator (warm/bassy)
V-Moda M80
Yuin G1A/G2
Zoro II HD

Higher price point  €200 – €500 (in alphabetical order):

AKG K550 / K551 / K267 / K712 / K7XX
Audio Technica AT-R70X / ATH-MSR7
B&O H6 (newer version)
B&W P7
Beyerdynamic DT880 / DT990-edition / Custom One Pro / DT1350 (MUST try before buy) / DT1770, Amiron (most of these have a bit of a peak in the upper treble)
PSB M4U-2 (noise cancelling)
Denon D2000 (only 2nd hand)
Focal Spirit Professional (mechanical not the best)
Fostex TH-X00 (Massdrop only)
HifiMan HE400i / HE400s
Klipsch Image One
Master & Dynamic MH40
Meze 99 Classics
Mr Speakers Maddog (modified T50RP)
NAD VISO HP50
Philips Fidelio L2, X2
Sennheiser HD600 / HD650 (> 2013) / HD630VB / PXC550
Sony MDR-100ABN / MDR-1000X
Shure SRH840 / SRH1540
Thinksound ON-1

Those looking for a ‘flat as possible’ headphone; the Sennheiser HD600 is the best possible option but does lack a bit in subbass.
It can also be found in the second hand market. With a set of new pads they sound like new again. The HD580 (second hand only) is almost the same headphone.
A truly ‘flat’ headphone is not liked by everyone and may even sound boring to some.
Flat measuring headphones in general only sound excellent on well made recordings. In general TOP40 songs aren’t amongst those (with a few exceptions).
To many it will not be considered THE best sounding headphone, but it is one of the most ‘honest’ ones. It does lack sub-bass though.
An even better option is to get the Sennheiser HD650 and the Kameleon amplifier with HD650 filter module.

Expensive stuff  €500  to €2000 (in alphabetical order):

AKG K812
Audeze LCD2.2(Fazor > 2015) / LCD3 (Fazor > 2015)/ LCD-X (brand is known to have failing drivers and cracking wood cups in older models)
Audio Zenith PMx2
Beyerdynamic T5(P)
Denon D5000 / D7000 (only 2nd hand)
Fostex TH900
HiFiMan HE500 / HE560 / HE5 / HE6 / Edition X
Kennerton Magister
Koss ESP-950
Mr. Speakers ETHER, ETHER Flow (not the -C versions)
Sennheiser HD800S
Stax SRS-5100

Obscenely expensive > 2000 (in alphabetical order):

Abyss AB-1266
Audeze LCD4
Focal Utopia
Grado HP1000 / HP2 (only 2nd hand)
Hifiman HE1000
Kennerton Odin
Sennheiser Orpheus HE60 / HE90 (only 2nd hand) / HE1060 (Orpheus-2)
Sony MDR-R10 (bass-heavy) (only 2nd hand)
Stax SR007 / Omega 2 / SR009 + amp / SR-L700 + SRM-353X

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Comments
  1. Hamilton says:

    Beyerdynamic T90 for example?

    • Solderdude says:

      The T90 has a +8dB treble peak which is a bit too much for my taste without EQ or modifications.
      It certainly has some very decent sonic properties (and comfortable) but still isn’t one I thoroughly recommend for the money.
      For the same reason the T1 isn’t on the list.
      The T5(P) is on the list even though it is twice as expensive, but it doesn’t have the peak but may sound a little too dark to some.
      It is easier to listen to ‘warm’ headphones for longer periods at a time than too overly bright ones.
      I personally like ‘brighter’ headphones initially but after a while it starts to bug me.

      Agreed though that many may find the T90 (and T1) an excellent headphone.
      The same is true for the K701/K702, a lot of Grado’s, Audio Technica’s and some K550’s for instance.
      They just aren’t on my recommended list.

  2. Hamilton says:

    Fair enough 🙂 I’m just about to buy the T90’s after extensive reading of people’s adulation. As a man in his mid 40’s with a history on loud constuction sites, my hearing above 14khz leaves everything to be desired, so a wee treble boost is no bad thing.

    • Solderdude says:

      Some people with hearing damage may not just have a ‘roll-off’ in the treble and automatically benefit from boosted treble, they may actually be more sensitive to boosted treble in a ‘negative way’ where it may sound uncomfortable after some time and ‘listening’ fatigue could set in sooner than expected after being ‘wowed’ initially.
      Of course, it may well be beneficial to have some boost in that area.

      I would try to buy from a shop with a return policy or try to audition it and listen for quite some time on familiar music, not to the demo stuff they use in shops.
      The T90 is kind-off bathtub shaped thus having ample bass and hyper/overly done detail.
      Not unlike the DT990…

      The HD800 also shows hyper detail (treble boost in the same area but less in amplitude) and is less ‘offensive’ to some.

      There are lots of T90 fans so it certainly isn’t a bad headphone by a long shot.
      I would just not recommend it to everyone.

  3. Hamilton says:

    Thanks again, I appreciate your comments. I’m going open backed for the benefits to be found there and I am happy to use a little DSP if I need to. I use the mini dsp “nano digi” before a havana DAC and then a home made headphone adapter for my F5. I also have the Asus stx to use.

    This is my very first foray into serious cans so a bit of experimenting is to come. I have the Botlehead Crack on my shopping list also, but time and funds play a role 😦

    Give me a week or two listening and I’ll report back if you like.

  4. Solderdude says:

    Just in case the brightness is an issue I created a passive filter for it a while ago:
    http://www.mediafire.com/view/0hqg47575xtejw1/T90_passive_filter.pdf

  5. Tim says:

    I see you’ve included the HD800s. I would have expected you to list the HD800 with filter module vs. the HD800s, as the HD800 will likely be much cheaper used.

    • Solderdude says:

      The list is all about using ‘stock’ headphones without any EQ. The HD800S is better in that regard than the HD800 when you like the ‘tonal’ balance of the stock HD800.
      When filtered (EQ, Sonarworks, Kameleon) the tonal balance changes quite a bit altering the sound of the headphone as well as other aspects.

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