It's official: headphones are back. That personal sound is so popular is due to a perfect storm of factors, but the primary reason is the convergence of so many ways to communicate and consume media on the move. Although just about every phone is supplied with earphones, few offer anything more than basic sound quality. But you needn't settle for poor, get-you-by sound. Here's our best premium quality headphones group test.
Best high quality headphones
- Reviewed on: 15 July 13
- RRP: £260 inc VAT
We found the Sennheiser Momentum headphone to be a surprising step away from the classic, level Sennheiser sound, if sadly toward the muted and tuneless thump of fashion 'phones popularised by Beats. There's little treble content to cause offence, but we found them just as wearing from excessive bass boom.
- Reviewed on: 11 July 13
- RRP: £250 inc VAT
Well-balanced and versatile, the Audio-Technica headphones are revealing without becoming tiring – either sonically or in comfort terms. They deliver in sound quality but at the price we'd hope for more premium build quality and accessories.
4. KEF M500
- Reviewed on: 12 July 13
- RRP: £250 inc VAT
KEF has come up trumps with its first pair of headphones offering excellent build quality and a stylish comfortable design. After running in, the M500 headphones sound clear, punchy and balanced but won't blow you away quite as touted. They are also pricey for our liking and you can find similar or better sound quality for less.
- Reviewed on: 15 July 13
- RRP: £179 inc VAT
We found lots to like in the ES-HF300 headphones, starting with their good insight into the music mix, and low scope that didn't drown out everything above. Like many far-eastern voiced headphones, they have a crisp, trebly quality that throws the window open to detail, although that can also make them over analytical.
- Reviewed on: 16 July 13
- RRP: £270
Expensive but with so much care poured into the construction and bundled accessories, it's not hard to see these are the brainchild of a music-first company. Yes, we would have liked more insight into the details of recording, but there are other headphones for that. For these Crossfade M-100s, it's about shameless audio enjoyment.
- Reviewed on: 11 July 13
- RRP: £350 inc VAT
The AH-D600 headphones offer armchair comfort with analytical insight into the musical mix. These headphones possess comfort levels that rise above lighter street-friendly designs, but that will make them a little bulky and ostentatious for most people to use on the move. Nevertheless, if you want a great taste of high-end head sound the Denons will deliver with majestic and relaxed sound.
Best high quality headphones: Fashion statement
Some years ago Apple made earphones trendy with its iPod, daring to issue the iconic pure white earbuds when all earphones had hitherto been dark and sober.
Now, haut couture is a major driving force for aftermarket ear- and headphones. Streetwalking followers of fashion are likely to own more than one set, with which they accessorise the day's outfit.
More recently designer headphones enjoyed another boost as celebrities began adding their names to products – kickstarted by Dr Dre and the Beats Audio marketing campaign, followed by more rappers, DJs, dead reggae singers, living-legend metal bands and even motor-racing teams.
It doesn't take golden ears to appreciate that the overwhelming majority of designer headphones exist as boutique brands, only distantly related to the precepts of high fidelity. But given the unusually high profit margin in selling headphones, cheap headphones dressed up with labels are turning up on every corner.
The rise in bass-heavy headphones can be attributed to music source quality, and our environment. City living is increasingly noisy, and closed-back headphones that are tuned with extreme levels of bass, as exemplified by Beats, can help to overcome this problem. Moreover, low-resolution audio played from personal devices, more often filled with lossy compressed 16bit files, sounds tinnier and lacking in warmth compared to the original CD version, so bass-boosted earwear can give the impression of a richer, more analogue sound.
Best high quality headphones: Type of headphones
The first choice you'll need to make is whether you want earphones or headphones. Earphones are more discreet, but tend to be the least effective at reducing background noise and providing a rich sound. The notable exception are deep-in-ear canalphones, as popularised by Etymotic Research with its ER-4, which successfully conquer both issues. But their near-complete sound-isolating behaviour and intimate insertion regime is not for everyone.
Overhead headphones are easy to doff on demand and typically give a bigger, more enveloping sound. Provided you're comfortable looking like a DJ, of course.
Overhead types are further divided into on- and over-ear categories, otherwise known as supra-aural and circumaural. On-ear tend to be smaller and lighter, but need to tightly clamp to the ears, potentially making them painful when used for long sessions.
Over-ear have muffs that should entirely encircle the ear to offer long-term comfort, but they tend to be larger and heavier.
It's difficult to judge headphones by their specifications, and manufacturers are rarely consistent in their measurements. However, some can give a guide to performance.
Frequency response is the spread of sound they can reproduce. Human hearing has a nominal range of 20Hz to 20kHz.
Sensitivity gives an idea how loud headphones will be, and is measured in decibels per milliwatt.
Impedance is a form of electrical resistance to current, and indirectly affects the volume level, along with how easy it will be to drive a pair of headphones from your amp or portable device.
Best high quality headphones: How we test
New headphones can take a short while to ‘bed in' and achieve their best sound, so all the headphones in our group test were used for several days before we began our critical listening.
We listened to them through a variety of devices, from an iPhone 5 playing lossless ALAC music files to a mid-range DAC and headphone amp TEAC UD-501, and a professional D-A convertor with dual headphone outputs, the Benchmark DAC2 HGC.
Subjective assessment of music and hi-fi is personal and open to debate, but a range of music and playback hardware let us audition them under the best conditions to reveal their individual characters.
Music was a diverse mix of acoustic jazz trios and quartets, orchestral classical, dance pop and rock. The latter two DAC/headphone amps are built for high-resolution audio playback,
also able to play our selection of 24bit PCM, 96- and 192kHz, as well as 1bit DSD64 audio files.
Best high quality headphones: Conclusion
This group of six unturfed two sets of headphones with closely related characteristics, if not always with the same final result.
In the first camp are semi-open-back offerings from Onkyo and Audio-Technica. Priced £70 apart, the cheaper Onkyos are also the most affordable in this group. They offer more basic no-frills construction, and deliver full-range sound that can open up your music for chin-stroking appreciation. The Audio-Technicas are the stronger of the two, with better bass definition and depth,
plus slightly more essential comfort.
Another pairing of headphone models could be made with the Sennheiser and V-Moda. Sennheiser has taken a bass-first battle to Beats et al, but in playing them at their own game it loses out in the fidelity war. Far from audiophile, they come close to missing out on even a high-fidelity label with their style-first design. Our second sample was quite different, so we question Sennheiser's quality control of consistency.
V-Moda steers a related, but very much more musical course. Audiophiles who demand to hear every musical detail should also look elsewhere, but these headphones seem to get the time domain so right we're willing to forgive some milder tonal shift toward the low end. They have slam, too, and it's tight and controlled.
KEF's M500 deserves attention, with a mid-focused sound that loses out on the full-range experience. They are pricey, despite their good build quality, and you can get more for your money.
That leaves only the Denon full-size over-ear headphones. Thanks to some aggressive price slashing you can get a £500 set of headphones for just £199. They're also extremely tidy in presentation, and offer excellent insight even when the music gets busy. Not for everyone, nor every environment, but if you want great and, importantly, accurate sound for your receptive shell-likes, you can track down AD-D600s for far less than the £500 quoted here.