Best audiophile headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best audiophile headphones you can buy in 2021.
There's a vast choice of high-end headphones on the market and many are fitted with a myriad of 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, so don't discount 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 – not to mention clearer sound – to the 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.
Wondering what's next? Sony is rumoured to be prepping its next audiophile-grade wireless earbuds, the Sony WF-1000XM4. Check out our guide to all the latest rumours, leaks and news.
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, 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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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 performance. 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. But then that would be overkill anyway, like using a Bentley to do the weekly shop.
Read the full Grado SR325e review
Closed-back headphones can suffer with 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. 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 Sennheiser HD 820 review
Beyerdynamic's Amiron 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 Beyerdynamic Amiron review
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 SR80e look a little retro, they deliver cutting-edge performance.
Read the full Grado SR80e review
It’s been 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 premium 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 – 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 headphones, these 2020 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 a raft 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 in-ears. After all, there's no need to worry about the battery conking out or the Bluetooth pairing playing up.
If that's you, and sound quality is a priority, the Aonic 3 in-ears will impress. They’re 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 anything better for the money.
Read the full Shure Aonic 3 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 like the headband cushioning and memory foam earpads can be easily replaced. So you don't need to worry about wear and tear.
To wear, they're light and easy to ignore, and they 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.
But be warned: they don't suffer fools gladly. Subpar source material has nowhere to hide, as every scratch and pop is exposed. But when the source material is up to standard, these 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
Want audiophile sound quality and noise-cancelling? The XM3 have been trumped by the newer XM4 (above) but their open, spacious delivery makes them worth of consideration. (They're also considerably cheaper than the XM4 these days.)
They're rich in tech as well as detail, with all manner of bells and whistles including access to your chosen voice assistant and a fast-charging battery (a 10-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 that delivers soaring vocals and seamless useability.
Read the full Sony WH-1000XM3 review
Klipsch knows how to make a decent pair of affordable in-ear headphones. In 2018 it was the R6i II 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.
They 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. 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 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 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 very eagerly anticipated indeed. Like lots of open-backed headphones, they're designed for home use, but they won't leak sound, so someone else can sit in the same room without hearing an inferior version of whatever's on your playlist.
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 into the outside world 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’d 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 being 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 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 Shure SRH1540 review
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 Sony WF-1000XM3 review
In our experience, Grado rarely disappoints, and it's for true audiophile headphones like the GS3000e 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 that claim.
We're talking no-compromise audio quality. There's distinctive, unique styling, 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 them on.
Read the full Grado GS3000e review
These are some of the best 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 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 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
We first reviewed these over-ears in 2013, but thanks to a price drop, they're now (even more) worthy of the money – 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 Shure SE425 review
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 Shure KSE1200 review
The word 'audiophile' might sound a little grand to some, but the AKG K72 are proof that anyone can get their hands on a pair of awesome, audiophile-quality headphones for less than the price of a decent 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 AKG K72 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'll 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
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 SE846 certainly justify it.
Read the full Shure SE846 review
If you’re willing to spend thousands 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 Warwick Acoustics Sonoma Model One review