Entertainment Best audiophile headphones 2021

22:51  06 january  2022
22:51  06 january  2022 Source:   whathifi.com

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Best audiophile headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best audiophile headphones you can buy in 2022.

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There's a vast choice of high-end headphones on the market and many are fitted with myriad high-tech bells and whistles. But what if you just want the purest listening experience possible?

With the emphasis firmly on sound quality, the best audiophile headphones are an ode to outstanding sonics – rather than sensors or streaming tech.

We've assembled our favorite pairs below. And they don't have to be prohibitively expensive – great value sound quality does exist, so don't discount more affordable options.

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If you want to focus on music, you may be best with a pair of wired over-ears that offer the perfect balance of musicality and precision. If you want to add technology – not to mention clearer sound – to the mix, you could opt for audiophile headphones that combine state-of-the-art noise-cancelling tech with state-of-the-art sound.

So what else do you need to consider when choosing the best audiophile headphones? To extract the best performance, some models will benefit from a high-quality source or a headphone amplifier or DAC with a headphone amp built-in. Also, keep in mind that many of the best audiophile headphones are made for home listening; neither a 3m cable nor an open-back design is ideal for the train or office.

Ready to rediscover your favorite track or inject new life into a carefully-curated playlist? Our pick of the best audiophile headphones will level-up your love of music.

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How we choose the best audiophile headphones

Here at What Hi-Fi? we review hundreds of products every year, from TVs to speakers, headphones to streamers.

We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in the UK where our team of expert reviewers does all our testing. This gives us complete control, ensuring consistency.

All products are tested in comparison with rival products in the same price category, and all review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole rather than an individual reviewer, again helping to ensure consistency and avoid any personal preference.

The What Hi-Fi? team has more than 100 years experience of reviewing, testing and writing about consumer electronics.

From all of our reviews, we choose the products to feature in our Best Buys. That's why if you take the plunge and buy one of the products recommended below, or on any other Best Buy page, you can be assured you're getting a What Hi-Fi? approved product.

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These are a small improvement over the SR325e, but considering those previously topped this list of best audiophile headphones, any improvement is an achievement in itself. What's also an achievement is that these picked up a 2021 What Hi-Fi? Award.

So what's new? On the surface, not much. There are flatter foam earpads, an updated cable and lighter coloured stitching on the firmly padded headband. But the real work has gone on under the hood.

The 44mm drive unit has a revised motor system, new diaphragm and upgraded coil, all to improve efficiency and reduce distortion. And the new 8-conductor cable uses 'super' annealed copper to deliver a purer sound.

The result is a smoother listen and more authoritative bass, and an overall more cleaner, clearer sound. They take precision and insight to another level, while delivering rhythms with enthusiasm and plenty of punch. The best audiophile headphones just got that bit better.

Read the full Grado SR325x review

Closed-back headphones can suffer from distortion issues, but that's not the case with the brilliant Sennheiser HD 820. Sennheiser has cunningly fixed that problem by using a combination of Gorilla Glass and sound-absorbing chambers to prevent sound waves bouncing back into the drivers.

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The result is a stunning level of agility and precision, impressive authority in the low frequencies and expertly-controlled bass. Of course, these audiophile headphones are a serious investment. But if you're serious about music, they will transform your home listening experience.

Read the full Sennheiser HD 820 review

Sennheiser’s IE 900 will appeal to audiophiles who want to get the best audio possible from a high-quality source. The package is fittingly premium with six eartip options and three cables with a choice of normal 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm connectors. The only thing they don't have is an in-line remote.

Sennheiser's engineers have chosen to go with a single driver, rather than the more fashionable multiple unit approach that many rivals take, and it's made with rigidity and low resonance in mind. The results are fantastic. They’re impressively clear and open sounding, able to dig deep into the production of a recording. They sound confident and insightful too, revealing layers of low-level information and organising every track they're faced with into a structured and cohesive whole.

Partner these audiophile headphones with a high-quality outboard DAC, such as the Chord Mojo and use good quality files and you'll hear just why the IE 900 justify their jumbo price tag.

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Read the full Sennheiser IE 900 review

Beyerdynamic refers to the DT 900 Pro X as premium studio headphones. That had us scratching our collective heads. After spending some considerable time with them we still can’t figure out what makes these over-ear headphones less suitable for home use. They’re well made, comfortable and sound great, so whether they are intended for the studio or not, we really like them.

Ultimately, these Beyerdynamics fulfill their 'studio' brief by delivering all the resolution, stability and control required to dissect a recording, but at the same time manage to convey the emotional impact of the music as well as anything we’ve heard at this level.  If you’re looking for a quality pair of headphones at this price, put these at the top of your shopping list. Once you have a listen you’ll be glad you did.

Read the full Beyerdynamic DT 900 Pro X review

Beyerdynamic's Amiron aren't the best audiophile headphones when it comes to grabbing your attention on a short listen, but give them a bit of time and their impressive transparency and resolution are sure to please.

In fact, it pleased us so much we gave them a 2021 What Hi-Fi Award.

They're comfortable too, with nicely-judged earpads and sensible weight. You'll need a good quality source and recordings to hear them at their best though, so don't be tempted to skimp.

Beyerdynamic’s Amiron headphones provide an impressive sound that takes the whole frequency range in its stride. We like their clear midrange vocals, tight timing, and the way they handle challenging or messy songs. They're hard to beat at this price.

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Read the full Beyerdynamic Amiron review

These are a modern take on the original SR80 headphones from 1991, the pair which wrote the Grado family business into the audiophile history books. They also succeed the 2014-released, multi-What Hi-Fi? Award-winning SR80e. So they have big shoes to fill.

They do so admirably. In fact, they picked up a 2021 What Hi-Fi? Award. Their open-backed design leaks sound like a sieve, but provides a gloriously open soundstage with class-leading transparency. The new, fourth-generation 44mm driver is more efficient and lowers distortion, and boy does it show: they sound clearer, cleaner and more detailed than their predecessors, and are easier to drive from portable devices.

Everything we like about their predecessors – their nimble-footedness, expressive, rolling dynamics, and insight across well-defined frequencies – has been inherited, and the punch and panache that have made the Prestige models such born entertainers are very much also part of the SR80x’s sonic signature. These are far from rich or even warm in tone, but an extra generous sprinkling of refinement this time round has made their forward, clinical presentation all the more palpable. Audiophiles on a budget, look no further.

Read the full Grado SR80x review

Focal is best known for its speakers and seeing as it only launched its own range in 2012, it's a relative newcomer to headphones. But it quickly made a name for itself by challenging some of the best audiophile headphones around. The Clear Mg is a high-end, open-backed pair that looks and feels as luxurious as that price tag would suggest.

The quality of the materials is excellent, from the leather used on the thick, cushioned headband to the microfiber cloth on the cosseting earpads. Not only does this mean a premium product, it makes them comfortable too – the headphones are nicely shaped and inward pressure is firm but well-judged. The wide, cushioned headband and well-designed earpads spread the 450g weight well.

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Sonically, they live up to their name, with a refined yet explicit sound that makes it easy to follow low-level instrumental strands in busy productions. There’s plenty of punch on offer and lows are rendered with grip and texture. Rhythms are delivered in a surefooted and controlled manner, rather than with overt exuberance, but there’s still enough in the way of drive to keep us entertained. The overall presentation retains an easy-going charm that makes longer listening sessions a breeze.

Read the full Focal Clear Mg review

The Aonic 5 are the top in-ear model in Shure’s Aonic range. On paper, their design credentials look suitably impressive. The Aonic 5 use three high-definition balanced armature drivers in a dual woofer and single tweeter configuration.

You can actually get a closer look at the inner working of the buds through the clear section of each earpiece. It acts as a window and makes a welcome change to the dull black plastic used to cover the majority of headphones that pass through our test rooms. The Aonic 5 are available in three different finishes – Matte Black, Gloss Red and Crystal Clear.

They can also work as a wireless pair, using Shure's true wireless secure fit adapter (which costs an extra £175, $179, AU$309).

While they work with a phone (providing it has a 3.5mm headphone jack), to hear them at their best you really should feed them quality audio files from a quality source. Using a laptop and streaming in lossless CD quality? We’d seriously suggest using the Shures with a dedicated external DAC/headphone amp. Trust us, a good time awaits.

Read the full Shure Aonic 5 review

It’s been over a decade since we first laid ears on the original T1 model, and they have since become something of a touchstone for us as far as the best audiophile headphones go. The main change between this third-generation model and its predecessor has been to make the new pair easier to drive for laptops and mobile devices. But be under no illusions – high-quality source material is still vital.

They're open-backed, so the usual provisos about leaking sound apply. They're intended for home listening, which is aided by the 3m-long cable. This is easily detachable, so if it ever does break or get damaged, swapping to a replacement will take a matter of seconds. And it doesn't make much mechanical noise as you move around, which is always a plus.

Sound-wise, they're a little cleaner and clearer than their predecessors, sounding a little less bright and more rounded in the treble. It makes them a bit more forgiving of aggressive electronics and recordings, but they're still admirably even-handed and balanced. We’re pleased to report that Beyerdynamic hasn’t over-egged the bass frequencies either, with the T1 (3rd Gen) sounding as tonally convincing as ever.

Read the full Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Generation) review

Sony knows when it's onto a good thing. For proof, look no further than the WH-1000XM4, successors to the five-star-rated WH-1000XM3. If you're after the best-sounding wireless audiophile headphones, these 2020/2021 What Hi-Fi? Award-winners should be top of your list.

The XM4 improve upon the XM3 with plusher ear cups, better noise-cancelling technology and lots of new features including Speak to Chat, which allows you to talk to someone without removing the headphones from your head.

More importantly, the XM4 offer a serious hike in sound quality. The presence of Sony's new DSEE Extreme sound processor, coupled with Sony’s inspired DAC and analogue amplifier combo, delivers a sense of musicality and enthusiasm that is nothing less than addictive.

Sony’s WH range has consistently set a benchmark for timing and dynamics and the XM4 continue that trend. The dynamic shifts and low-frequency performance are particularly thrilling.

When you factor in the high degree of comfort and herculean battery life, the XM4 are a great blend of convenience and quality.

Read the full Sony WH-1000XM4 review

Despite the popularity of wireless earbuds, there are plenty of discerning listeners who prefer the ease and simplicity of wired models. After all, there's no need to worry about the battery shutting down or the Bluetooth pairing playing up.

If sound quality is a priority, the Aonic 3 in-ears will impress. These 2021 Award winners are some of Shure's smallest earbuds and offer a comfy fit. They’re lightweight, and the fact the headphone cable can be secured over the top of your ears so it doesn't hang down is useful when on the go.

Shure is a brand with an 80-year history of making pro audio, so it's no surprise that the Aonic 3 are a delight to listen to. Their sense of rhythm and timing needs to be heard to be believed and their dynamic ability left us spellbound.

Are these buds the most enthusiastic in-ears we've ever heard? No, but they're honest, transparent and true to the original recording. If those attributes appeal, you won't find any audiophile headphones better for the money.

Read the full Shure Aonic 3 review

The WF-1000XM4 produce one of the most dynamic, detailed and balanced performances we've heard from a pair of wireless in-ear audiophile headphones. These 2021 Award winners have bass notes that are crisply defined and ooze texture, while vocals sound refined and extremely natural. They deliver tunes with such a sense of musicality that it's infectious and keeps you coming back for more. And you'll have plenty of time to be entertained thanks to the class-leading eight-hour battery life.

The Sonys are comfortable to wear too and you get great noise isolation from the eartips and fantastic noise-cancelling from Sony's Integrated Processor V1.

IPX4 water resistance comes as part of the WF-1000XM4 package, as does Sony's clever Headphones Connect app for iOS and Android. Also on board are clever features such as Quick Attention and Speak-To-Chat, which both allow you to have a conversation without removing the earbuds. If you want some of the best audiophile headphones that won't tangle you up in wires, you need to try these Sonys.

Read the full Sony WF-1000XM4 review

While Austrian Audio is a new company, the people behind it are ex-AKG employees and some of the most experienced in the industry. That maturity shines through in its Hi-X50 on-ears.

They're solid, quality-built headphones, and components including the headband cushioning and memory foam earpads can be easily replaced. So you don't need to worry about wear and tear.

They're light and easy to ignore when worn, and come with a 3m cable, though a 1.2m optional extra is also available – worth considering if you're going to be using these cans on the move.

Be warned: sub-par source material has nowhere to hide, as they show up every scratch and pop. But when the source material is up to standard, these audiophile headphones truly shine, unearthing lots of detail and organising it into a musically cohesive presentation. It’s a pretty even-handed sound, without much in the way of undue emphasis on any part of the frequency range. This balanced performance perfectly matches the brand's maturity beyond its years.

And if you're happy to spend a little more for a slightly heavier, bulkier, and slightly better-sounding prospect, check out the Austrian Audio Hi-X55.

Read the full Austrian Audio Hi-X50 review

Klipsch knows how to make a decent pair of affordable in-ears. In 2018, it was the R6i II that stole the headlines, and now it's the T5M Wired causing a stir – such a stir that they picked up a 2021 What Hi-Fi? Award. Not only are they extremely comfortable (which helps), they're also some of the most musical buds we've heard at the money.

They sound detailed and dynamic with an even tonal balance and excellent sense of timing. The only slight negatives are that they can generate cable noise if you don't use the supplied clothing clip and you can't change the volume via the one-button control/mic. Still, that's small fry in the grand scheme of things.

Read the full Klipsch T5M Wired review

These are essentially a closed-back version of the Focal Utopia. That means you get Focal's trademark awesome sound quality but with a more practical design – because they're closed-back, everyone around you won't hear what you're listening to, and – crucially – they won't let in sounds from your surroundings.

In other words, if you're feeling brave, you could take them out and about without compromising on the listening experience.

Of course, there's a lot more to it than just being closed-back. The innards have been optimised to work with portable music players and DACs, and the earpieces have built-in diffusers and EVA foam absorption to dampen the sound waves rebounding off the back of the dome. Every element has been thought of – it's just a shame the lead you'll use on the move is so microphonic, with every move making crackles that interfere with the music being played.

Sonically, they're refined and mature and handle dynamics with authority. They can't quite match the performance of the Utopia, but the more practical closed-back design gives them a bit more appeal. They're a little cheaper, too.

Read the full Focal Stellia review

Beyerdynamic makes some of the best closed-back headphones in the world, so these were eagerly anticipated. Like many open-backed headphones, they're designed for home use, and they're suitably luxurious too, with brushed, lacquered aluminium housings, complemented by matching, anodised yokes, a classy strip of Alcantara on the headband, and replaceable ear pads made from protein-coated leatherette. Very swish.

But they don't just look the part – they feel it, too. The pads clasp just right, providing decent noise isolation, while the headband is cushioned to take the relatively modest burden of the headphones’ 360g weight. If you are determined to venture outside with the T5, they are relatively compact as high-end over-ears go.

On the audio front, it's a remarkably spacious presentation for a closed-back design. While you don’t get quite the breadth of sound as you do through the T1 (3rd generation), we would still describe it as ‘expansive’, with a pleasing tonal neutrality and engagingly punchy temperament.

Music isn’t boldly shoved in your face, nor is it overly distant, instead, it is given room to evolve. The result: a comfortable and engaging listen.

Read the full Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd Generation) review

These plush, closed-back over-ears are nicely crafted from premium materials such as aluminum and carbon fibre. They're lightweight and feature ear cups swathed in soft Alcantara, making them ideal for extended late-night listening sessions.

Beneath the ear cups lie 40mm neodymium drivers, which make for impressive dynamics, nimble presentation and a stunning amount of detail. Naturally musical, they're superb value for money and a great choice for the audiophile.

Read the full Shure SRH1540 review

These are some of the best audiophile headphones we've ever heard, full stop. And they're priced appropriately. If sound quality is your priority, you should buy them without hesitation. Except there's a rather large caveat to consider...

They're open-backed. That means they leak sound to everyone around you, as well as letting in the noises from your surroundings.

But the upside is a wonderfully airy, spacious soundscape that really lets the music do its thing. This is a smooth, refined performance, but there's still enough in the way of bite to satisfy. The sound is brimming with authority, and there's a satisfying sense of weight to proceedings.

While the sound is revealing, the Utopias don’t go out of their way to highlight the harshness in a recording. It's a nicely judged balance that means they work well across a wide range of recordings.

If money is no object, then the Utopia definitely deserve your attention.

Read the full Focal Utopia review

If you want to bring a little intimacy to your favourite recordings, Shure's high-end in-ears should be high on your list. They're not cheap but they are supplied with their own analogue headphone amp (the size of a pack of cards) that drives electrostatic drivers with a wide frequency range.

Why all the unusual technology? In short, performance. They'll render every track with a breathtaking level of detail and precision – no matter how complex the recording. The emphasis is on clarity rather than bass, but if you want to hear every little nuance, these are (a lot of) money well spent.

Read the full Shure KSE1200 review

When connected to a high-quality source, these polished performers punch well above their weight. Their unusual drivers feature a two-piece 70mm diaphragm made of a magnesium dome, set in an aluminium-coated liquid crystal polymer ring.

The ingenious design delivers a wide frequency response of up to 120kHz, resulting in epic bass, impressive detail and exquisite tonal balance. They will shine when given dynamic, challenging recordings, but also perform superbly with subtle, simple songs. A master of all trades.

Read the full Sony MDRZ1R review

The best upcoming movies: Matrix Resurrections, The King's Man, more .
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