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. One thing is for certain – we've put all of these through their paces in a thorough review, and each has come out with flying colours, so you can be sure they all sound fantastic.
How to choose the best audiophile headphones for you
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If you want to focus on music, you may be best served by a pair of over-ear wired headphones 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 the best 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.
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 What Hi-Fi? Award in both 2021 and 2022.
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.
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.
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 What Hi-Fi Award in both 2021 and 2022.
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.
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 and 2022 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.
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 $179 / £175 / 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
It can be tricky for a manufacturer to push the sound performance of a product consistently from generation to generation, but that is what Sony has managed to do with the WH-1000XM5 wireless headphones, our new Bluetooth ANC favourites (and 2022 Award winners).
When we saw the official pictures of the Sony WH-1000XM5, we were more than a bit surprised. We wondered whether it was a wise move to give one of Sony’s biggest success stories in recent memory a major redesign. But it's paid off.
The Sony XM5 headphones might feel a little less premium than before, but the jump in sound quality from the previous generation is a big one, and rivals could once again have their work cut out. If you are looking for a new pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones, your auditioning should start here. The older XM4 (below) were already the best around, but the XM5 are undoubtedly better for those who can afford to pay the premium.
Read the full Sony WH-1000XM5 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 2021/2022 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
These over-ears are the closed-back cousins to the open-backed Beyerdynamic DT 900 Pro X further up this list. Like the 900, they're aimed at content creators (being labelled as 'studio' headphones). But they have plenty to offer content consumers too.
At their heart is Beyerdynamic’s new Stellar.45 drive unit. It’s designed and manufactured in-house and uses a layered Peek polymer diaphragm, with a damping material sandwiched in between, and a Neodymium motor system. The aim? To deliver a detailed sound with an easy load which will allow the headphones to be driven by laptops and smartphones without any problems.
And it works. The 700 sound effortlessly composed – the order and precision with which instruments are presented gives music a solid foundation which the headphones can build on. It's not the most exciting presentation we’ve ever heard, but the honesty in the execution is second to none at this price and the headphones still communicate dynamic shifts of percussion, strings and wind instruments extremely effectively.
Add to that the lack of sound leakage inherent to their closed-back design, and you're onto a winner for creators and consumers alike.
Read the full Beyerdynamic DT 700 Pro X review
More than 30 years after the first wooden Grado creation, the fourth generation of that very model has arrived. The RS1x are the Brooklyn-based brand's first ‘tri-wood’ pair, meaning that they use three different wood species: maple sleeve, hemp core and cocobolo.
Build quality is among the very best at this money– it retains that hand-made feel – while the plumper-than-average foam earpads and neatly-stitched leather headband provide decent levels of comfort.
As you might expect, the RS1x are characterised by their distinctly open, entertainingly lean and agile sound. Compared to the first-generation Grado RS1, the RS1x presentation is not only clearer and notably more transparent but also faster and livelier.
Their open-backed design isn't for everyone, but the RS1x are a classy addition to the company's Reference Series and a strong contender for best audiophile headphones.
Read the full Grado RS1x 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
The design of these high-end wireless noise-cancelling headphones might not be to everyone's taste, but their build quality and performance are nothing short of remarkable.
The Mark Levinson No. 5909 perform substantially better than the class-leading crop of cheaper competition – think the Apple AirPods Max – and wow us with their crisply detailed renderings.
A laptop feeding a Chord Mojo 2 DAC connected to Grado SR325x wired headphones (above) offers greater all-round sonic sophistication, but there's no doubt that the No. 5909 are some of the best wireless headphones we've ever heard.
For anyone who is after the convenience of wireless without sacrificing too much sound quality, the Mark Levinsons are highly recommendable.
Read the full Mark Levinson No. 5909 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
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 2020/2021/2022 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
It's not just food, petrol and energy prices that are on the rise – hi-fi is too. This model is a staggering 20 per cent pricier than its predecessor. Ouch.
So what do you get for your money? This is a gentle revamp rather than a full-scale overhaul, but that's no bad thing – there was nothing wrong with the originals. The most obvious changes are cosmetic. The grilles that cover the ear cups now have a hexagonal pattern (in keeping with the brand's design language) to help create a more spacious, dynamic sound.
The ear pads still use perforated lambskin and memory foam, but now have a slightly different material on the inside edge to fine-tune the acoustics around the ear. The grille that protects the 40mm Beryllium driver is reshaped too, in this case to reduce distortion at high frequencies.
The drive unit has also been tweaked to deliver a more neutral and refined presentation.
They certainly feel every bit as premium as their price tag suggests. And when partnered with a system of suitable quality there really is no denying that these Focal Utopia are truly exceptional performers. They are wonderfully transparent and ruthlessly explicit about the differences in recording and production quality between our various test tracks. Even recordings that we know well surprise us with previously undiscovered nuances that, on occasion, make us appreciate the music in a slightly different way. Which is what audiophile headphones are all about.
Read the full Focal Utopia (2022) review
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 above, or on any other Best Buy page, you can be assured you're getting a What Hi-Fi? approved product.
When I purchased my LCD 2, I was initially allowed to try various headphones including Focal and Grado at a similar price. I am a musician and I found the LCDs to be more natural reflecting how I would hear instruments live and I also felt they had a more spacious sound-stage so that each instrument could be picked out easily. The bass also sounded more realistic. So it surprised me when I did not see them listed. Is there a reason?
If anyone is interested, I also own a Chord Mojo and that is so good with the LCDs.
BTW, the Shure SRH1540s are great for the money, especially if you take the trouble to find a good price.
They get my vote too. Supremely comfortable and fabulous sound.