Even if you’re not a self-professed audiophile, a funny thing happens when you don a pair of $1,500 headphones. You instantly turn into the world’s most ardent music lover. Old songs and albums require immediate revisiting. Those seminal works you grew up on? Definitely going to need some deeper listening. And god help your co-workers if you’re auditioning them in an office. You’ll be wanting to share all this enthusiasm and new-found musical nuance with them, too.
Indeed, there’s a certain magic inherent to premium headphones. While they all have their own unique strengths and musical biases, they also tend to impart a universal sense of immediacy and visceral impact to well-recorded music. All of a sudden, every squeak of the kick pedal is apparent, and you can perfectly visualize each instrument in space as it’s being plucked, strummed, or hit. In short, great headphones bring you into the recording studio or onstage during a performance.
It’s only after this high wears off (which, honestly, can take a few days) that your mind turns to the lavish construction and finer engineering details that have allowed for such a revelatory experience — things like large planar magnetic drivers and an open- or semi-open back design. And while you can quibble all day about sound quality, when it comes to materials, there’s no mistaking the line between a great-sounding $300 pair of headphones and a $1,500 flagship pair. Flimsy vinyl and cloth travel pouches give way to elaborate, hand-painted wood and metal briefcases; plastic yields to aged bog oak and laser-etched aluminum; and many of these sonic trophies even come with their own display stands.
What we’ve collected here is by no means the definitive list of world-class headphones. There are omissions like the legendary Sennheiser Orpheus, which comes with its own dedicated tube amplifier and today can go for as much as $30,000. We also left out acclaimed “earspeakers” from Stax — like the $4,450 SR-009, also widely considered to be one of the world’s best. Still, these nine kinds of headphones represent some of the biggest triumphs in audio engineering over the past 50 years, and they have the price tags to prove it. So without further ado, here’s more than $20K worth of pure audio wizardry.
1. AKG’s new $1,990 open-backed flagship, the K812s, marry premium materials with precise sonic engineering.
2. Proudly made in Brooklyn, the $1,700 PS1000s are the tippy-top of the Grado line, and thus the finest expression of the company’s signature airy, roomy sound.
3. Like many of the headphones in this gallery, the $1,299 HiFiMAN HE-6s use planar magnetic drivers that are supremely thirsty. To showcase their true potential, you’ll need to plunk down an extra $500 to $2,000 for a quality amp to supply that voltage. NBD.
4. Like all of Beyerdynamic’s premium Tesla headphones, the $1,400 T1’s drivers are made with lightweight, and thus highly efficient, neodymium magnets.
5. Ask any audiophile to name the best sounding headphone she has ever listened to, and the alphanumeric answer is likely to be the HD 800s.
6. At a mere $5,000, the Edition 5 from Ultrasone are not the priciest headphones on our list. But these Bavarian beauty queens are certainly the most rare — only 555 have been manufactured for sale.
7. If the M50s are Audio-Technica’s $140 Crown Victoria, the W5000s are the company’s $1,200 Bentley.
8. Another fixture in audiophile listening rooms around the world, the $1,945 Audeze LCD-3s are renowned for their tight, impactful bass and lush sound.
9. The Abyss AB-1266 holds two distinctions. First, at a wallet-wilting $5,495, they are the most expensive pair of headphones in this gallery. They’re also the only headphones that look like they could have been used as a Medieval torture device.
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