Finally a piece of headphone writing for this blog! The build up to Christmas is well and truly in full swing now, so I figured this would be as good a time as any to start doing buyer’s guides. There’s never been a better time to buy headphones, the industry has boomed in the last few years and there’s usually a healthy selection in any high street store with any sort of electronics section. However with such large range of choices comes the potential for confusion, and with headphone quality being far harder to determine than just looking at a spec sheet, not to mention the less than honest marketing some brands put out there (no more Beats bashing, honest), it can be difficult to know what the best options out there are. These guides will be my personal recommendations at different price points and for different usage scenarios, with the selections coming from a mix of pairs I have heard myself and the most popular pairs among audiophile circles. I’ve tried to track down the best prices and all prices are correct at the time of writing. There’s plenty of deserving pairs that have not been included, however in writing this guide I’ve tried to create as little overlap between usage scenarios and pricing as possible.
Up to £30
Monoprice 9927 In Ear Headphones
These unassuming IEMs are up at the top of the pile when it comes to the best bang-for-buck in-ears regardless of price point. Build quality is plain and they ain’t much to look at, and as far as accessories go you get a single set of silicone tips so buying spares (or different sizes) is recommended. However when you get them into your ears you realise you’re more than getting what you pay for. The clarity they produce for such a small price tag is completely unheard of (excuse the pun) in any other pair of headphones, relatively balanced and well extended in both directions with nice punchy bass. A sure-fire winner for anyone currently burdened with their phone’s earbuds.
Monoprice 8323 DJ Headphones
Monoprice also get a mention for their full sized headphones, which add great build quality and features to equally impressive sound. They’re a really durable design with swivelling and folding earcups and a removeable cable (the included cable is 3m long, so it’s worth picking up a spare for portable use. Any 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable will work), so they’re great for anyone who works their way through pairs of cheap headphones every few weeks. With an overall balanced sound with a slight warm tilt, they can work well with any genre of music.
An enduringly popular in ear headphone from Soundmagic, the E10s are a people pleaser with an attractive design and a bassy sound. Especially well suited for rap, hip hop and EDM, the E10s are no slouch when it comes to other genres either, with a smooth midrange and treble which the low end does not overpower. The E10s come in a variety of colours and an iOS compatible version can also be bought for around £45.
Philips Citiscape Downtown
Philips made waves at CES 2012 when they launched two seriously successful lines of headphones that were a far cry from the crappy earbuds they were previously associated with. One of these lines was the Citiscape line, and the standout member of that line was the Downtown. These headphones married a simple attractive look with great sound quality for a $99 headphone. What’s better is that since their release prices have been getting lower and lower for them, and these days you can easily find one or two colours on Amazon for under £30.
A seriously great basshead headphone that has been getting increasingly cheaper since Denon’s popular D2000/5000/7000 series was discontinued in 2012, with gobs of bass impact and a relatively dark sound signature. However unlike most headphones in this price range which get marketed as basshead cans, the D1100s deliver a well executed and controlled bass hit without falling into muddiness. Coupled with the slightly sparkly treble they have a V-shaped sound signature which makes for an exciting listen, but not one for the purists.
For the purists mentioned above, who want to hear the truest representation of their music possible, there’s the Etymotic MC5. While phrases like “exactly as the artist intended” have been thrown around so often they’re almost meaningless these days, Etymotic are one of the few brands that live up to that goal, with their entire line of IEMs aiming squarely at a flat, neutral tonality. The result with the MC5s are an accurate and detailed listen with no obvious emphasis at any frequency. Like all Etys, they also provide excellent isolation and come with a huge variety of different shapes, sizes and material tips.
Creative Aurvana Live
Creative are probably best known for their speaker systems, however they also posess a hidden gen in their Aurvana line of headphones. The Aurvana Live started life as a very popular Denon headphone, but were brought back as a Creative product after Denon replaced them in their lineup. Another warm sounding headphone that plays well with a wide variety of genres, they’re a versatile headphone equally suited to home listening and for use on the go.
Philiups Fidelio S1
Earlier I mentioned Philips launched two well received headphone lines. One was the lifestyle Citiscape, the other was the audiophile-focused Fidelio. The S1s are Philips’ entry level IEM in the Fidelio line, and live up to their audiophile aspirations reasonably well. Despite having hints of warmth characteristic of of a lot of recent headphones, they are otherwise fairly neutral and offer exceptional clarity for a headphone of this price, and also have a one button remote for playback control with smartphones.
I wasn’t initially planning on including a category with such a narrow price range, but as it turns out there’s an unusual number of fantastic deals right now (well priced headphones are a rare thing in the UK when compared to US prices) that I’ve squeezed in a £75-£100 bracket in. Case in point, this is the first time I’ve seen the popular Hifiman RE400 ever dip below their £100 RRP, and for under £80 there’s nothing I could recommend more strongly.
Logitech have recently dropped the prices on their entire line of Ultimate Ears headphones, which has made the UE6000s an even easier product for me to recommend than they were already. Even when they were around the £160 mark, the UE6000 impressed me with their fun bassy signature while still remaining high enough fidelity to compete with other options at this price point, whilst also looking fantastic. They’ve also got active noise cancelling, but this is more of an added perk in my opinion rather than a reason to buy them. The noise cancelling is relatively effective but also reduces the audio quality. Thankfully it can be turned off, leaving the headphones sounding great.
The Grado SR60i and SR80i are extremely popular introductory products for people looking for their first pair of “audiophile grade”, open back headphones. Normally the SR60is are my £100 recommendation with the SR80is hanging around the £120 mark, but it appears that both have taken a £20 dip recently (the SR60is can be found for £80 and are also fantastic at this price, but the SR80is are more refined) so the SR80is make it into the sub-£100 recommendation slot this month. A balanced but lively sounding pair of headphones with a retro design (quite literally, the SR line of headphones was actually started in the 80s), the detail and soundstage benefits of an open headphone are highlighted very well here.
Phonak Audeo PFE 121
A great sounding IEM in their own right, the Audeo Phonak PFE line also have a unique selling point in the form of an interchangeable filter system. There are three sets of filters available which each change the way the headphone sounds drastically, from the neutral grey filter to the extra bassy green filter. Between the different filters and tips the PFEs can be a wildly customisable headphone in terms of sound signature. They’re also exceptionally light headphones with small driver housings, making them very comfortable- they are the only headphones I have owned to date that I can sleep on my side wearing.
Audio Technica ATH M50
It just wouldn’t be a headphone buyers guide without the Audio Technica ATH M50s. Possibly the most frequently recommended headphone for under £200, this headphone made its name as a capable studio monitoring solution with great sound quality, balanced with a bit of extra bass kick. In recent years there have been other excellent entries at this price point, so the M50s aren’t quite the undisputed king they used to be now that they have share the limelight, but they remain a solid purchase for professionals and enthusiasts alike.
Cosmic Ears BA1
Just as the Grado SR60/80 make a great introduction to high quality open back headphones, newcomers Cosmic Ears have been making a name for themselves as an entry point to another audiophile institution- custom moulded IEMs. Using impressions taken of the wearer’s ear canal, headphones are created to exactly match the contours of the ear, providing unparalleled isolation and comfort for an IEM. Normally the reserve of deep pocketed audio buffs, Cosmic Ears have been able to offer high quality shells and headphone drivers at a low enough price to make them accessible to anyone.
Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro
Another headphone with customisable sound, this time a full size headphone, the Custom One Pros feature an adjustable bass port on each ear cup. This allows users to take their headphones from a flat signature to absolute bass monsters in a couple of seconds, making them extremely versatile. The customisability extends into the look of the headphone too, with a variety of replaceable parts with new and custom designs available from Beyerdynamic.
Sennheiser HD25-1 II
Possibly the most iconic headphone on the list, the Sennheiser HD25 line have remained the top choice for professional DJs for well over 20 years now. One of the most durable and repairable headphones on the market today, rugged build quality is matched with equally fantastic sound quality that serves musicians and audio enthusiasts equally well with their forward midrange and sparkly treble. Clamping force is pretty strong, but if you’re willing to overlook that then you’re left with one of the best portable headphones that money can buy.
The Shure SE425s stand out as a great option at this price point, which seems to be neglected by headphone companies when it comes to IEMs in favour of the more consumer-oriented sub-£150 category and the £300+ range of high grade monitors with upwards of three drivers per ear or more. The SE425s quite literally bridge that gap, with a dual driver configuration delivering an audiophile take on the warm sound signature with mass appeal. The cables are also removeable, which is nice in a pair of expensive IEMs as this is where most headphone faults tend to originate from.
Beyerdynamic DT880 (250ohm)
These are the first headphones in the list that really benefit from having a system built around them (the majority of the headphones listed here costing £100+ can definitely see benefit from an amplifier, but it’s not a necessity), but it is definitely worth it! A slightly bright headphone (in other words it has an accentuated treble) but otherwise balanced, with a decent amplifier behind them they become really great. A 32ohm version is also sold and a lot easier to drive, but given their open back design they are far better suited to indoor listening.
Another veteran headphone line, the Etymotic ER4 and its variants are regarded by many as being one of the foremost authorities when it comes to absolute neutrality. They’re definitely not for everyone, the bass can feel a bit thin with genres that enjoy a powerful low end, but for buyers looking for the most accurate and balanced sound signature they can find then you can’t really do much better than the ER4PTs at any price point.
NAD VISO HP50
These are the headphones at the top of my wish list. Like a lot of speaker companies, NAD have recently tried their hand at the headphone game. However unlike a lot of brands, founder Paul Barton’s early efforts under the PSB brand were met with wide acclaim. His latest product has been equally well received particularly for its soundstage, intending to emulate the feel of a pair of well positioned loud speakers. Coupled with class leading audio quality, the HP50s stand out as one of the best choices in this class of premium and portable full sized headphones, which has become increasingly competitive over the last year.
V Moda M100
A holy grail for bassheads, the V Moda M100s deliver gobs of deep impactful bass and audio fidelity in equal measure. The low end weight and high end sparkle make these a great choice of headphone for anyone looking for a fun sound signature, throw in the unique design flair of V Moda’s products and the extreme portability when folded and you have a great example of a “lifestyle headphone” done in a way that even an audiophile could love. The faceplates on each earcup also come in a variety of colours and can even be engraved, for those looking for customisable headphones.
Sennheiser HD600 and HD650
Two giants of the audiophile world, both requiring amplification but with the right amplification they scale up to world class audio- these might be the last headphones you ever need to buy. There are other great reference-class headphones in this price range from the likes of Hifiman and AKG, but it could be argued that none have the pedigree of the HD600 or 650. Both are phenomenal headphones that are for the most part balanced in sound, with the newer HD650 being more refined whilst also being slightly warmer. The HD600s maintain an avid following however, with many people preferring the slightly brighter sound (myself included, it’s the 600s perched on my head as I write this). As good a choice as you can make if you’re looking to invest in long lasting enjoyment of your music.