Has there ever been a purer, more intimate sonic experience than that provided by a good pair of headphones? Revealing all the detail and brilliance of the best in recorded music, great headphones deliver sound to the common man that otherwise only exists in professional listening rooms with walls of expensive electronics. And while you can get some serious bang for your buck from the cheap seats, virtually nothing compares to the transcendent experience of a top-tier pair of cans.
We’ve been lucky enough to get a front-row seat to some of the greatest headphones ever created by humankind, so we’ve rounded up some of our favorites and compiled them into this drool-worthy guided tour. The list below is bound to spark plenty of debate, but there’s no denying all of these headphones offer truly incredible sound — albeit at some truly astronomical prices. So kick up your heels, throw on some tunes, and follow us below to headphone heaven.
The name for these earphones pretty much says it all. Designed by the company that helped write the blueprint for modern in-ear monitors (alongside Capitol Studios), the RM are tuned for near-linear sonic reproduction, with a soundstage meant to emulate the immaculate sound found in the control room of a pro studio. Custom crafted and 3D-printed for each and every nook and cranny of your ear canal, the RM monitors offer a near-perfect fit, and impressive noise isolation of up to -26dBs.
Thanks to their triple shot of advanced, balanced armature drivers, the RM offer a brilliantly accurate reproduction of exactly what’s been laid down in the recording — no artificial colors or preservatives added. The result can make poorly recorded tracks sound a tad icy, but rich recordings are revealed in all their glory, with firm and punchy bass, and exquisite clarity riding all the way into the nether regions. While these may be designed for professional use — be it stage or studio — make no mistake: UE Pro’s RM offer an epic ride that lets you retrace your steps and rediscover the intricacies of your favorite music like you’ve never heard it before. Read our full review here.
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Standing as perhaps the most understated choice on our list, Oppo’s first shot at high-end headphones is a brilliant mix of elegant style, luxurious comfort, and exemplary performance. But perhaps the greatest hallmark of the PM-1 is their trendsetting planar magnetic technology that allows you to successfully drive them with even your weak-kneed smartphone. That little trick makes them one of the first of their kind that can come along virtually anywhere you go.
While sound performance is outstanding from any source, it’s especially excellent when the headphones are driven by a quality amp like Oppo’s own HA-1. Inside those leather earcups broils a powerful mixture of bawdy bass, rich and ruddy midrange frequencies, and subtle, yet accurate treble that delineates the finest details with an almost nonchalant touch. It all adds up to create one of the most comfortable contenders in their class for hours upon hours of carefree listening. Read our full review here.
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There’s a reason we called Audeze’s LCD-3 the “voice of god” headphones in our 2013 review. Handcrafted with chunks of real zebra wood, the decadent LCD-3 are less a set of headphones than a stationary listening apparatus designed to reproduce otherworldly sound. With their mammoth size, hefty weight, and greedy power requirements, these cans aren’t going far from your listening room. But one crank of your volume dial, and you won’t want to go anywhere anyway.
The sound embodies the very best qualities available from the thin membranes of planar magnetic drivers, carving out every secret, each lonesome detail, and every rushing burst of form and color from your most complex music, stretched across a sprawling soundstage. Unlike many early iterations in the genre, the LCD-3 draw a full pulse of healthy bass, complemented by all the delicacies of the upper frequencies your best recordings can dish out. While Audeze has moved on to the even pricier LCD-4, as one of the first truly great headphones we ever experienced, our heart will always belong to the LCD-3. Read our full review here.
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It took eight years of stubborn engineering for the headphone masters at Shure to shrink down the complexities of electrostatic drivers and reduce them to something that could fit perfectly inside your ear canal. Still, towing their own dedicated power supply (priced at $1,000 on its own) that makes for a bulky package, and a price point that would make even the most ardent audiophile gulp, one is tempted to ask: Why in-ears?
However, one quick flash of the buttery warmth, the starkly delineated instrumentation, and the astonishing detail afforded by the KSE1500, and that question melts away. As Shure’s engineers discovered essentially by accident, confining electrostatic drivers into a tight space — with just the right tweak of physics — creates a soundstage unlike anything else. We’re talking about detail so clean you can hear the change in tone when a vocalist moves a few inches off the mic, with delivery as smooth as a bed of satin, all in a package you can take anywhere. Now that’s something worth saving up for. Read our hands-on review here.
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Simply put, the rebirth of Sennheiser’s original Orpheus HE 90 (which begged a $16,000 price tag back in the ’90s) has resulted in the greatest headphones ever created. Spawned from a decade’s worth of ingenuity, toil, and reinvention, Sennheiser took the mantle from the Orpheus’ predecessor, crushed every bit of engineering involved, and rebuilt the headphones from the ground up. The final product isn’t just a pair of awe-inspiring headphones, they’re a marvel of modern engineering.
Assembled from more than 6,000 components, the Orpheus system begins with a stand carved out of Carrara marble, and adds in gold vaporized ceramic electrodes, quartz-glass vacuum tubes, and dual amplification stages to create an “ultrahigh impulse” flood of pure, unadulterated velocity.
The sound is unparalleled in the headphone world — and beyond — providing awe-inspiring detail, a galaxy-sized soundstage, and near supernatural transient response. Ridiculously expensive? Absolutely. But hey, you don’t buy a Ferrari if you’re going to quibble about the price. If there was ever a creation that fully embodies gratuitous luxury, it’s the Orpheus. Read our hands-on review here.
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