Best audiophile headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best audiophile headphones you can buy in 2019.
There's a vast choice of 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 audiophile headphones will level-up your love of music. And with Black Friday around the corner, it's a good time to be keeping an eye out for bargains.
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
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
The AKG N40s are pitched squarely at audiophiles. To get the best out of them you'll need a suitable source such as a premium portable music player or a smartphone and accompanying portable DAC/headphone amplifier. Without the right set up, it's likely you won't achieve the best sound quality. Make the effort, though, and you'll be rewarded with an immersive soundstage blessed with impressive range, sensational balance and punchy low frequencies. They may be a little demanding, but if you prefer earbuds over headphones the N40s are perfect for the most discerning listeners.
Read the full review: AKG N40
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
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