For a lot of people, listening to music is a private experience. Instead of filling a room or a home with music from loudspeakers, they prefer to have it ported straight to their ears by a set of headphones. This is especially popular among audiophiles who want as little alteration to the sound as possible. When you play music through a speaker housed in a cabinet, the reverberation of that cabinet can color the sound. The same goes for the actual room that the speakers are housed in, where things like hard tiles and bare walls echo and otherwise mess with the sound.
In other cases you simply don’t have the option to listen to your music loudly. Apartments, shared family homes, and small rooms are all unsuitable for loud music. So a good pair of headphones lets you listen to your music in its full glory without bothering anyone else.
When trying to find the best headphones for the purpose of listening to vintage audio sources, I had a few rules out of the gate. I didn’t care about portability, since this is for home listening. Also, no wireless headphones, since the digital compression renders the whole thing pointless.
I also only looked at over-the-ear headphones and one or two on-ear headphones. Since this is for a home listening context there’s no point in considering in-ear buds, which generally sound terrible anyway.
In order to make the most of your headphones it’s also a good idea to buy a decent headphone amplifier, which will let it reach its full design potential, whatever that may be.
So here are my reviews of some popular choices in the headphone world. I have put my top picks at the beginning of the list and the rest of the products are not ranked.
Best Overall Pick:
Sennheiser HD 598 Special Edition
If the HD 202 headphones are too basic for your needs but you still don’t want to spend a fortune on a full headphone set, then perhaps it’s time to slide just a little farther up the scale to something like these HD 280 Pro cans.
You can immediately tell that there is much more substance to the 280s than the 202s. That’s because these headphones were built with studio use in mind, as monitoring headphones in radio stations or even in recording contexts. Note that I say “monitoring” and not “mixing”, since these are not meant to be reference units that pros can use to mix and master tracks. For live listening, however, they will be fine.
For us home users you don’t have to worry much about the implications of the “pro” bit in the name. All it means is that you can expect something that’s not designed mainly around looks, but will perform better when it comes to durability and actual audio specs.
It also means that this unit has been built to be repaired and not replaced. That means that things are not as compact as they could otherwise have been, but when something breaks you can just swap out the part. It’s rare for electronics to be built for user-serviceability, but in a pro environment things have to work now, rather than waiting for a lengthy returns process.
This has slightly higher impedance than most consumer headphones, but still counts as low impedance at 64 Ohm. There’s 500 mW on tap and it can knock out 103dB. With a good headphone amp these will go higher than you can comfortably listen to.
The sound quality does not have any major criticism except perhaps for slightly less bass than some would like, but the build-quality and durability are exceptional. It keeps out the noise; it delivers clear and powerful sound while being a bit on the heavy side, but you see plenty of stories where people have owned these for years with no issue. For $100 I can’t see anyone doing much better, and these come highly recommended.
Best Mid-range Pick:
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro
I’ve always made it pretty clear that I am quite a fan of the Sennheiser brand, but right off the bat I have a problem with these HD 598s. It has to do with that weird-looking grille on the outside of the speaker cups. What’s with that? I think it looks pretty ugly, but that’s an opinion you might not share. And, it’s not what really matters.
Sennheiser describes these as “audiophile grade”, and at this price that would be a pretty good thing. The pads are velour and the headband is that bonded leatherette stuff. Not exactly top-tier, but pretty good for the money.
It comes with a detachable cable and has two different lengths included in the box, which I thought was a very nice touch. Although I am always afraid I’ll lose the cable, on balance detachable is probably always a better choice.
The open-backed design is actually one this company invented and is supposed to provide a more natural sound than closed headphones. At the cost of not keeping any sound in, of course.
Interestingly, this comes with a quarter-inch plug, so it won’t go in an iPod or other similar device without the included adapter. These headphones are designed for home listening. In the office or on a plane they would drive other people crazy.
The sound seems to be Sennheiser at its best. Bass is not overemphasized and the sound is clear and consistent across the range.
If you can live with the noise-isolation sacrifice and are serious about sound quality, I think these are the perfect headphones for listening to vinyls, or any home listening experience actually. Pair them with a good headphone amp and you are in for an absolutely wonderful time.
Best Premium Pick:
AKG Pro Audio K812PRO Superior Reference Headphone
I will avoid reviewing the “big money” headphones only, but in a world where you can drop $5000 on a turntable there has to be at least some representation from the really expensive stuff.
That being said, this $1500 set from AKG is still nowhere near the top of the headphone market when it comes to price. You can pay three times as much if you wanted to, but unless you were blessed (or cursed) with exceptionally good ears the returns would diminish quickly.
I have a lot of respect for AKG and have used their products for many years, but what exactly can a set of headphones at this price offer that the $200 headphones can’t?
First of all, the drivers are very big at 53mm; that’s the biggest I have yet seen here. The frequency range goes all the way to 54 Khz, which is literally ultrasonic. Yet, audiophiles hold that the extra range, though inaudible, has some sort of effect on the sound and gives more room for all sorts of processing errors to be smoothed out. Either way, it is insane overkill for listening to music at home, even on very high-end equipment.
The sound is, as you’d expect, absolutely phenomenal, and classical music in particular benefits the most from it. If you consider the price to be affordable then these are likely the best headphones on this page. If you look at value-per-dollar, they’re probably the worst. If I got a set for free I wouldn’t say no, though.
Best Budget Pick:
Sennheiser HD 202 II
I have to be upfront with my bias when it comes to the HD202 headphones. I’ve owned several pairs of these cans over the years and only replaced them when they got destroyed or stolen, both of which happened more often than you’d think and for reasons that are in no way the fault of the headphones.
These days I’ve upgraded to higher-end Sennheisers, but I will always remember the incredible sound these 202s provided for many years.
These are the Mk. II models which improve on the popular original 202s. They look almost exactly the same as the first version, which is to say basic, but attractive. This is a very plasticky pair of phones, but the parts that matter – the earcups and head cushion – are very nice for the money.
Sennheiser has cut costs in lots of different places to keep the focus on audio quality and it shows in the thinness of the cable and perceived flimsiness of the whole package. Those misgivings will disappear when the consumer is actually using the product. The cups are just big enough for most ears and are detachable. They are also replaceable, which is a great design feature at this price. It has a very long cord, which is why it needs to come with a clip to roll it up to the right length.
The frequency response only goes up to 18kHz, but goes as low as 18Hz. I think that’s a great sacrifice, especially for older listeners. It makes the low- and mid- range warmer and fatter.
Although these are marketed as “DJ” headphones, they are more versatile than that. They sound really good and play with more than enough power for most ears.
The main weakness of these headphones is the tendency for the thin wires to the earcups to develop problems, causing one or the other speaker to die. The good news is that they come with a two-year warranty, so that’s not a huge issue.
Personally I think these are the best entry-level headphones worth owning. They are suitable for listening to almost anything and simply can’t be beat for the price.
Sony MDRZX110NC Noise-Canceling Headphones
The name Sony still turns a lot of heads in the audio world. Although the company has shrunk its once massive business, it still brings out some products that try to live up to the Sony legacy.
Here we have a pair of noise-canceling headphones priced at a very reasonable level. Personally, I am not a fan of flashy fashion-oriented headphones so this slick, black pair looks great to me. They certainly look way more expensive than they are, and the Sony logo goes a long way to cementing the premium appearance.
These headphones are actively noise-canceling. That means they measure the ambient sound and then create a white-noise signal inverse to the noise, which creates silence. So even if there is no music playing, you should not hear the outside world. Whether you want this or not is really a personal preference, but if you want nothing messing with the sound of the music and don’t mind missing the doorbell or phone, it’s a great feature, especially on headphones this cheap.
The downside is that this needs battery power, but a full set will give you 80 hours of listening, according to Sony, which is fair. They also claim 95% noise-cancellation, which is also a good figure.
The speakers are sizable 30mm neodymium units that have a claimed frequency range of 12hz to 22 kHz. It’s not in the upper echelons, but for most normal people with a normal hearing range there will be no issues here.
It seems that Sony may be overselling these a bit, based on user feedback. The noise canceling is noticeable, but not super aggressive. It does seem good enough to deal with general quiet ambient noises, but if you live next to an airport they won’t be much help. Also, maybe move to another house?
You should note that these are on-ear headphones and so may not be comfortable for extended listening sessions, or keep sound in all that well.
These are foldable, so they’re easy to stow away or take with you if you needed to. In terms of the actual sound quality they are just middle of the road. If you have a very fine ear then perhaps these are not the best choice, but the bass is strong and it’s not as if they sound bad. These get my pick as the best noise-canceling headphones because you simply can’t get that feature at this price, and for certain people who live in moderately noise places it can be a killer feature.
Bose SoundTrue Around-Ear Headphones II
I’m almost tempted to stay away from Bose on this review page simply because of how divisive the company is to a lot of people who take audio quality perhaps a little too seriously to be healthy.
The thing is that “true” audiophiles often show quite a bit of disdain for the brand, which markets itself as high-end audio. Of course. Compared to specialized limited-run $3000 headphones, nothing from Bose is going to come close, but for most people these are some of the best sounding audio products they’ll ever hear.
These SoundTrue headphones are not cheap, but not expensive either. At somewhere around the $200 mark, this is not an entry-level product anymore.
The design is stylish, simple, and not in your face, which I approve of. I think the shape of the cups is very pretty and the whole thing just oozes class.
You’ll notice that this product comes in two versions, depending on which smart devices you use. That only applies to the inline control, which lets you skip tracks and adjust the system volume. For vintage audio sources such as vinyls this feature is irrelevant, but you may as well pick the version that matches your phone, just in case you want to use it there too.
One feature I like and am wary of at the same time is the detachable cord. These are not wireless phones, otherwise I would not review them here, but the cord comes off completely for storage purposes. This is cool because it means you can easily replace the cable and avoid tangles, but it also makes it possible to just lose it in the first place. It comes with a carry case though, so that should help you keep tabs on the cord.
So let’s get to the main issue, which is the sound quality. This is a new version of an older set that was praised for its excellent clarity and frequency separation. While the new version still sounds good, I’m seeing feedback that says Bose has upped the bass on this pair and this has made the rest of the range a little muddier than before. That’s not the same as saying that the sound is now muddy, just that Bose seems to have taken a step back.
Still, for the price this is an excellent pair of headphones that will blow most people away. Those who aren’t impressed by them should be spending way more money than this.
Skullcandy Hesh 2
I am not the biggest fan of Skullcandy. These are headphones you’d mostly find in physical music shops and airports. I have owned a few Skullcandy products over the years and have to say that the sound quality has left me unsatisfied. They have proven to be pretty durable, though, which has made them a good fit for going to the gym.
The sound is usually brash and powerful, but without much detail. I have never had a pair of these Hesh 2s, though. The first warning sign to me is the fact that this comes in a gazillion designs. I count at least 29 different colors on offer. That’s great if you care about how you’ll look on the bus, but it is also time spent on aesthetics that could have been spend on functional design.
That being said, the Hesh looks pretty good in the pictures. The cups look comfortable and the whole shape and design looks pretty professional. The ear cups are made from memory foam, which might actually be a great idea if it works in practice. This set is tuned to accommodate more modern music tastes and is hard on the bass, but with clearly-separated mids and highs. At least that’s what Skullcandy says.
The drivers are huge at a full 50mm; that’s about as large as I’ve seen. The frequency response is similarly decent, sitting between 18 hz and 20 kHz.
The good news is that the sound quality is well balanced and full according to most listeners. The bad news is that the volume is relatively low, so a headphone amp may be a must.
There are also quite a few complaints about the build quality. So what do we make of these headphones? Well, they are specced above their price, but it seems that in doing so Skullcandy may have cut a bit too much on the build-quality front. That being said, if you don’t take them with you all the time and stuff them into a bag every day, those quality issues may never arise.
It’s ironic that these headphones are basically the opposite of my own experience with the brand. While I found them to be mediocre sound-wise but built well, these sound really good but are apparently a bit on the flimsy side. Unless you must have one of the various designs it’s probably better to just skip this one.
Edifier H650 Hi-Fi On-Ear Headphones
I really only know Edifier as a company that makes affordable speakers that are still up there when it comes to sound quality. Until I saw this product I had no idea that they even made headphones. I guess it makes perfect sense, though, since so many other speaker makers also at least dabble in headphones. According to them, they are well-known in Europe and it is only in the rest of the world that the brand has not yet made a name for itself.
I’m not usually a fan of lightly-colored headphones, but the white model looks really nice. Of course, there’s also black if you want to keep it professional. The other four vibrant color choices don’t appeal to me personally, but they look very nice without being too much.
It’s worth noting that the price on the Edifiers is not much more than the noise-canceling Sony unit I look at elsewhere on this page, but it uses much larger drivers, packing hefty 40mm units.
Like the Sony, this is an on-ear design, which usually means that having them on for too long can be uncomfortable. The frequency response matches the Sony unit, despite having larger speakers. As with most headphones in this price range, this is a low-impedance model at 32 Ohm.
Despite on-ear headphones being less comfortable overall, people who have bought these headphones from Edifier say that they are surprisingly comfortable for this design.
Likewise, the sound is pretty good for the price, with the only real weakness being the bass. Even those 40mm drivers can’t seem to help the bass’ relative softness – maybe a headphone amp would help, but I can’t find an example of someone who has tried that.
Unlike the similarly-priced Sony headphones, these are noise-isolating rather than noise-canceling. This means that they get rid of outside noise by insulating you. Although this does not work quite as well as the active cancellation system, people report good result and you don’t need batteries to make it work!
I think the Edifiers are good value for money, but as a purely audio choice you could probably do better at the same price. If you care about looks and durability however, these are a great balanced package at an incredible price.
I have a real love-hate relationship with Behringer. I’ve thrown away nearly every product that I’ve bought from them over the years and yet I keep buying their equipment, because when they work they give some of the best performance per dollar you can get.
I have never had a problem with the actual audio quality of their stuff, but their products always seem to blow a component or develop other technical issues within a few months. That’s when dealing with mixing desks and PA speakers; personally I have never owned a pair of headphones from the company, so I hope the same issues don’t carry over to this product line.
We’re not off to a good start, since these are the cheapest over-the-ear full-size headphones I’ve yet seen; this does not bode well for the possible quality. In terms of the design, these look disgusting, frankly. They would have been better off going with plain black plastic for the shells, since that silver makes it look like cheap 90s computer gear.
The cups and headband do look plush and generous though, so I will give the old “ING” a few points there. Also, kudos to the use of a single-sided cord, since most cheap headphones go for the simpler and cheaper y-cord design.
To my surprise it seems that the ruggedness of these headphones is actually pretty good and there are not many complaints about things breaking. It’s very un-Behringer, to be honest.
In terms of the actual sound performance it seems that it is heavy on the mids and the bass is a bit muddy, but overall it’s OK for casual listening. For our purposes I would avoid these headphones, though, and pay just a little more for the HD 202s.
The PortaPros are a curious case. I didn’t include them in this list because they are popular, but because these headphones have been a sort of legend among audiophiles since 1984. I have never had a pair myself, but have read on various forums and sites that for the price (which is very cheap) there is simply nothing that can come close to these weird-looking cans.
Their distinct sound profile has been carefully left unchanged, since these headphones have become a standard to be measured against. Changing the way they sound would be like changing the flavor of a famous soft drink or beer. Whether objectively good or bad, it’s the sound people want.
Judging the Portapro is therefore a little hard, since they sound just like themselves. Either you like the sound, as many audiophiles attest they do, or it just isn’t for you. Luckily the company has kept the price low as well. PortaPro headphones are still cheap. They are great for when you leave the house, since they are light and designed for that purpose. However, their design is semi-open, so sound leakage is a real issue.
I wouldn’t recommend them for home listening unless the asking price is within your budget, in which case it seems like they are one of the best deals out there. Personally, they don’t appeal to me, but I would be remiss if I did not mention them here. So you can’t accuse me of keeping them a secret later on!
Vinyl Vintage Audio System Reviews
If you’re completely new to the world of vinyl and vintage audio, I’d recommend to start with the reviews on Turntables, Phone Preamps, Record Cleaners and Speakers. Once you’ve got this covered, make sure to check the menu for more of my reviews.