Best audiophile headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best audiophile headphones you can buy in 2020.
There's a vast choice of high-end headphones on the market and many are fitted with a myriad high-tech bells and whistles. But what if you just want the purest listening experience possible?
With the emphasis firmly on sound quality, audiophile headphones are an ode to outstanding sonics – rather than sensors or streaming tech.
We've assembled our favourite audiophile headphones below. And they're not necessarily prohibitively expensive – great value sound quality can exist, even with more affordable headphones.
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 to mix, you could opt for audiophile cans that combine state-of-the-art noise-cancelling tech with state-of-the-art sound.
So what else do you need to consider when buying audiophile headphones? To extract the best performance some models will benefit from a high-quality source or a headphone amplifier. Also, keep in mind that audiophile over-ears tend to be made for home listening; neither a 3m cable nor an open-back design is ideal for the train or office.
Ready to rediscover your favourite track or inject new life into a carefully-curated playlist? Our pick of the top high-end, audiophile headphones will level-up your love of music.
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 London and Bath, where our team of expert reviewers do all our testing. This gives us complete control over how the products, 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.
Put simply, these Grado over-ear headphones are a masterpiece. Even if their retro shell doesn't appeal, their gloriously-musical output almost certainly will. The open-backed design creates a clear, light sound with well-organised layers that deliver an energetic, rhythmical sound. And while those 360-degree rotating ear-cups might look a little old fashioned, they're a delight to wear. They're not cheap but these outstanding cans are worth every penny. There's really only one downside: the open back cups do leak sound, so they're not ideal for use in the office.
Read the full review: Grado SR325e
Closed back headphones can suffer with distortion issues, but that's not the case with the brilliant Sennheiser HD 820 headphones. 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. The result? A stunning level of agility and precision, impressive authority in the low frequencies and expertly-controlled bass. Of course, these over-ears are a serious investment. But if you're serious about music they'll transform your home listening experience.
Read the full review: Sennheiser HD 820
Beyerdynamic's Amirons aren't the kind of headphones that grab your attention on a short listen, but give them a bit of time and their impressive transparency and resolution is sure to please.
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.
With everything in place, Beyerdynamic’s Amiron headphones provide an impressive sound that takes the whole frequency range in its stride. We like their clear midrange vocals, their tight timing, and the impressive way that they can handle challengingly messy songs. They're hard to beat at this price.
Read the full review: Beyerdynamic Amiron
If you're looking for affordable audiophile headphones, you're in luck. There's no fancy electronics here, since Grado is a company that's all about the music. Oozing with detail and clarity, they offer a dynamic sound that's hard to beat at this price point. Natural without sounding raw, they elevate almost any genre of music, from electro to easy listening. One thing to note: that open-backed design is here again, which means they aren't best-suited to commutes and the foam ear cups aren't the plushest. Still, while the SR80es look a little retro, they deliver cutting-edge performance.
Read the full review: Grado SR80e
Want audiophile sound quality and noise-cancelling? Look no further. Their open, spacious delivery provides plenty of room for vocals and instruments to soar. They're rich in detail as well as tech, though, with all manner of bells and whistles including access to your chosen voice assistant and a fast-charging battery (a ten-minute charges provides five hours' use). Worried the noise-cancelling technology might interfere with the authenticity of your favourite analogue recording? You can switch it off, or tweak the level of noise-cancelling via the app. A fantastic, wire-free audiophile experience.
Read the full review: Sony WH-1000XM3
Klipsch knows how to make a decent pair of affordable in-ear headphones. In 2018 it was the R6i IIs (below) that stole all the headlines, but for 2020 it's the T5M Wired causing a stir. Not only are they extremely comfortable (which helps), they're also some of the most musical buds we've heard at the money.
The Klipschs sound detailed and dynamic with an even tonal balance and excellent sense of timing. The only slight negatives are they can generate cable noise if you don't use the supplied clothing clip and you can't change volume via the one-button control/mic.
Read the full review: Klipsch T5M Wired
These are essentially a closed-back version of the Focal Utopias down at number 11 on this list. 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 absorb 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 Utopias, but the more practical closed-back design gives them a bit more appeal. They're a little cheaper, too.
Read the full review: Focal Stellia
These plush, closed-back over-ears are nicely crafted from premium materials such as aluminium 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 review: Shure SRH1540
The ultimate true wireless in-ear headphones? These are certainly the best we've tested so far: they sound awesome and function beautifully. To please audiophiles, Sony has added an all-new Bluetooth chip that sharpens up music synchronisation. Sound is clear, rhythmic and emotive – perfect qualities to bring well-worn playlists back to life. More importantly, the improved noise-cancelling technology is effective rather than intrusive and the tips offer good in-ear grip. If you want a wireless audiophile experience on-the-go or in even the gym, these are a brilliant buy.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM3 review
In our experience, Grado rarely disappoints, and it's for true audiophile headphones like the GS3000es that the company is really known. Grado claims these are the finest wooden-cased headphones it has ever made, and it's difficult to argue against.
We're talking no-compromise audio quality. There's distinctive, unique styling, and and Grado's traditional open-back design. They do leak sound, though, so we'd recommend using these headphones in the privacy of a listening room.
Sonically, they're agile, involving and just great fun to listen to. Use them with a suitably capable source and headphone amplifier, and they deliver a controlled sound, which is organised but far from routine - far-reaching dynamics and a fine sense of rhythm ensure that. They're more forgiving of bright highs than some Grado designs, yet still deliver fine levels of detail. If you can deal with the style and open-back design, then these audiophile headphones will reward you every time you put theme on.
Read the full review: Grado GS3000e
These are some of the best headphones we've ever heard, full stop. And as such, 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 to that is a wonderfully airy, spacious soundscape that really lets the music do its thing. This is a refined and wonderfully smooth 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 the Utopias work well across a wide range of recordings.
If money is no object, then the Utopias definitely deserve your attention.
Read the full review: Focal Utopia
We've first reviewed these over-ears in 2013, but they're now (even more) worthy of the price - and your attention. They have plenty to offer the dedicated music fan, including a rich sound and refined dynamics. Jaw-dropping detail and precision means they're capable of teasing out details that you might never have heard – even in your favourite recordings. The design won't appeal to all but when it comes to performance, we can't recommend them enough.
Read the full review: Shure SE425
Plush, stylish and exquisitely well-balanced, the B&W P9 Signatures will add a touch of luxury to your listening sessions. The 40mm drivers are angled for a more natural listening experience, which is enhanced by comfy memory foam ear cups wrapped in premium Saffiano leather. They sound as good as they look, offering a satisfying balance of pace and attack that opens up plenty of space for instruments and vocals to shine. With a talent for handling pacy rhythms, the P9 Signatures are a fun, vibrant way to upgrade your favourite playlist.
Read the full review: B&W P9 Signature
If you want to bring a little intimacy to your favourite recordings, Shure's high-end in-ear headphones 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 review: Shure KSE1200
The word 'audiophile' might sound a little grand to some, but the AKG K72s are proof that anyone can get their hands on a pair of awesome, audiophile-quality headphones for less than the price of a restaurant meal. These bargain closed-back headphones are almost unbeatable given the price, offering solid build quality, comfortable padding and a 3m-long cable. From the neutral presentation to the well-controlled bass, they sound far more expensive than they are. If you're looking to upgrade the pair of earbuds that came bundled with your phone these are just the ticket.
Read the full review: AKG K72
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'll shine when given dynamic, challenging recordings, but also perform superbly with subtle, simple songs. A master-of-all-trades.
Read the full review: Sony MDRZ1R
Don't be fooled by the plain, functional exterior – these in-ear headphones offer a sophisticated audiophile experience. Pair them with a DAC headphone amplifier or a hi-res music player and they'll really shine. Four balanced armature drive units per side deliver a natural, musical sound augmented by an impressive low-end response. And if you're as serious about tonal balance as you are about your favourite band, you can play around with three interchangeable filters to tweak the treble to your liking. They might be pricey, but the SE846s certainly justify it.
Read the full review: Shure SE846
If you’re willing to spend five thousand pounds on a pair of headphones it suggests a serious (and perhaps worrying) obsession for personal listening. While we don’t know a cure for this particular ailment, we can aid your habit by suggesting you have a good long listen to the Sonoma One package from Warwick Acoustics. It’s easily one of the best-sounding options we’ve heard.
Pay that hefty sum of money and you not only get a pair of open-backed electrostatic headphones but also a dedicated energizer amplifier. These headphones won’t work with conventional amplification, because electrostatic drivers require high voltages.
Once warmed up, this headphone system sounds so stunningly clear and informative that we can’t help but get involved with the music. We’ve heard hundreds of pairs over the years but struggle to think of anything equivalently priced that comes close to the resolution and agility of this set-up. We had some niggles with the build and reliability, but there's certainly no arguing with the sound.
Read the full review: Warwick Acoustics Sonoma Model One