Where’s the sweet spot for headphones?

The headphone market is littered with an incredible range of options, from the throwaway garbage bundled with cheap MP3 players to audiophile earmuffs that would give Princess Leia a run for her money. So where’s the sweet spot? Seriously. Where is it?

I’m looking for some high-quality headphones that deliver the best blend of impeccable sound quality and solid value. Something for a serious audio enthusiast rather than a diehard audiophile. I don’t need anything wireless, nor will I be attempting to drive these with a pint-sized MP3 player. Any recommendations?

Comments closed
    • JoshMST
    • 11 years ago

    Its been over 2 weeks… what did you end up picking up Geoff?

    • JoshMST
    • 11 years ago

    Speakers and headphones do “break in”, but that is primarily due to the materials used in the cones/woofers/diaphragms. Out of the factory the parts are usually fairly stiff from being new, and after use the parts do loosen up a bit. So, for example, a pair of headphones when new just don’t sound right, but after some use the sound likely will mellow out as the internal moving components wear a bit and get to the stiffness that they will retain for 90% of their life.

    • jonybiskit
    • 11 years ago

    Oh yea, I forgot. Make sure you test them with Passion Pit before you buy, if it doesn’t blast your ears off with invigorating sound waves that will forever eudaimonisize you, then they aren’t any good.

    • swaaye
    • 11 years ago

    ~$100 for me.

    I have 2 sets of Sony MDR-V6 phones that are just super. One pair at work, one pair at home. They really can pound your skull if you want them to, and also have about the best overall sound I’ve heard from phones. Got these over HD280s because of people saying the MDR-V6s are better for bassy music. Go for around $70. Been made since the ’80s.

    Also recently got the open air Audio Technica AD700 set. They are great for my giant head. They don’t have the bass of the MDR-V6 set but the open air aspect is refreshing for when you are stuck in phones for a long period of time. They are just wonderfully comfortable, unless you have a small noggin, in which case they are probably too big.

    I’m not willing to go much over $100 because I don’t believe in the cost up higher being worth it regardless of the quality. I’d much rather listen to speakers if I can.

      • Pete
      • 11 years ago

      A few years ago I was looking for ~$100 closed headphones and I also saw the Sony V6 and Senn 280 Pro come up a lot, so I read all I could about them. I’m pretty sure the (original) Sony MDR-V6 that’s so often recommended is now (or was then) called the MDR-7506, and the (then) current V6 is something else. I ended up going with the 7506 b/c they’re supposed to sound good, be tough, and be pretty easy to drive (for portable use).

      I don’t have any experience with nicer or more expensive headphones or really any great receivers/amps, but to my ears they’re just OK. Yeah, they have decent bass, but they don’t sound exceptional with, say, classical or jazz. Plus, depending on your ears and glasses, they may not be the most comfortable for extended listening, but that can probably be said for any closed, barely circumaural cans (they’re close to supra-aural for me b/c their padding isn’t that thick). That might be solved by swapping out the stock pads with a velour set for some (IIRC) Beyer Dynamics ‘phones, an option I read about at the time.

      • Ubik
      • 11 years ago

      I prefer the MDR-7506 to the V6, personally. Great sound, and you can pretty much run them over with a tank without hurting them.

    • desertfox84
    • 11 years ago

    I use Sennheiser HD280s at work (noise isolation) and Sennheiser HD555s at home (comfort).

    Both highly recommended. Anything much more expensive than that and you’ll need an amp to drive your cans properly.

    • cynan
    • 11 years ago


    • GreatGooglyMoogly
    • 11 years ago

    AKG K 601 if you are looking for a pair of open headphones.

    • Skrying
    • 11 years ago

    Denon AH-D1001 for about $70 used. Shop right, you can always find a good pair of headphones on HeadFi. Someone is almost certainly going to be selling the pair you want within a reasonable amount of time. The D1001 represent that fine line where any further past you’d need a better source but it doesn’t make the sacrifices some other headphones do. This phone sounds good for everything.

    For rock it’s the Grado SR60. Cheaper then the D1001 even new, ALWAYS available used as well and chances are that you might need to investment only in some pads and you’ve got what amounts to a 100% like new experience in most cases.

    AKG K81DJ for those in the SR60 price range but need a closed can. It’s portable, it sounds good (but is easily worse than the other two) by itself and great compared to any other closed phone in this range.

    Or more expensively; I’m in love with the Denon sound and since I need a closed phone it works out great. I also personally really enjoy the Sennheiser sound as well, though more HD580 then HD600/650. I enjoy the Grado sound but not for constant listening (wish I could justify it for those occasional times, but can’t). I’ve also heard Beyerdynamic, high end Sony’s, Audio-Technica, etc. All great experiences and at the higher price points it’s key to learn what your taste is.

    You want to know the secret to finding the perfect headphone? *[

    • dearharlequin
    • 11 years ago

    Sennheiser hd 555 is a great foot in the door at $99. Terrific cans for home. You’ll look like a nerd out in public… but you’ll get over it, lol.

      • travbrad
      • 11 years ago

      I think a lot of us already look like nerds out in public, so it should be less of an issue 😉

    • travbrad
    • 11 years ago

    I absolutely love my Sennheiser HD-280s. They aren’t very portable, but are great for home listening and producing. What really impresses me about them is the extremely accurate sound, there isn’t too much bass like many headphones, nor is there too much treble. When I first got them it was almost like hearing my music for the first time again, I could hear all sorts of little subtleties that I had never noticed before.

    They are about $75-80 online, and I’ve used $150+ headphones that sound worse. One thing I should note however, is that high quality headphones usually take some time to fully “break in”, so you may want to leave them playing music overnight before testing.

    P.S. They are also awesome for gaming, it’s almost like using wallhacks.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 11 years ago

    I use Sony MDR-7509HD’s for home use and Shure E3c for portability. Toss in some Koss Porta-Pro’s as well. Goofy looking but sure sound great.

    • ihira
    • 11 years ago

    You forgot to include your budget.
    As PC parts there are lots of options for the price range you’re willing to pay.

    I used to hang out at head-fi forums for a while and its quite scary in a way; you start to grow this temptation of wanting better equapment (HPs amps, DACs, wires…) and become desensetized of money spending on them. Next thing I noticed I bought 2 headphones , a low-end amp, a external DAC within a few months and still wanted to try new HPs.

    Anyway I’m glad I don’t want higher end audio stuff anymore. PC parts market is way more sane in comparison imo.

    * I’ve had Sennheiser HD 595 here for about 3 years and never looked back.

    • funko
    • 11 years ago

    Sweet spot = in the $100-$200 range!!!!

    Westone UM1’s or UM2’s depending on your budget

    they are very comfortable IEM’s that you can even sleep in if you wanted to because of their low profile, they are very musical sounding, and blow away >95% of the suggestions in the comments so far in comparable prices ranges. i also love them because the cabling is very sturdy and durable, and the CS is very good. i like durable products that i can abuse in my pockets.

    Phonak Audeo PFE’s are excellent as well! they sound rich and clear and compare to phones in the $200+ range

    Future Sonic – Atrio M5 – these have long been in this price range as a highly recommended ‘phone for those who require a bit more bass than the usual high quality phone. however they still have great resolution and clarity

    Other excellent choices in the $100-$200 range:

    JAYS q-jays – these are very fun to listen to, extremely portable, easily compare to the pricier Shure E4/E4c/SCL4/SE420’s (which are great as well) (notable JAYS mention for s-jays which are cheaper)

    Ultimate Ears Super.fi 4’s are solid newcomers (stay away from the 3 series!)


    you can go sub $100 with ‘phones like Sennheiser CX300’s, and Sony EX85’s and over $200 and even over $400 with phones like UE Triple-fi’s, Klispch X10, Shure 530’s, UE 10’s, etc etc etc, but i really think the sweet spot is in the $100-$200 range with the models i’ve mentioned.

    full sized cans in this price range do not compare in quality in my experience, and they are a pain to commute with, when you are trying to pack light.


    EDIT 3/26/09: SIGH i’m reading all these recomendations for Sony V6’s, Grado SR 80’s, Senn 280 Pro’s, and Senn 555’s …… and honestly, for circumaural and supraaural cans these are the better ones, but IEMs sound so much better, with a huge jump in clarity with voices especially. you can hear teh type of reverb studio engineers are putting on each voice.

      • glacius555
      • 11 years ago

      I think Dissonance mentioned that he probably wants over-ear phones;) Great choices BTW! Shure e4 is very good indeed, but a waste of money..

    • JoshMST
    • 11 years ago

    I bought a set of Grado SR-125s some years ago, and have never heard anything better so far. The SR-125s are more expensive than the SR-60 and SR-80 models, but have enough features over those other two to merit the money. I am still drooling over the SR-325i model, and would love to have one, but at that price my wife would kill me. So until I win that lottery, I’m stickin with my SR-125s.

    Grados take some getting used to though. They are not the most comfortable cans, but damn they sound good. Really good. Sound best with a headphone amp, but I have found them to work perfectly fine with most audio devices without a dedicated amp.

    • willyolio
    • 11 years ago

    i’m really into in-ear phones nowadays, from both a sound quality and health perspective.

    a quality in-ear phone that blocks out noise will let you play at a much lower volume and still hear clearly.

    currently i’m using the Crossroads Bijou3 (you probably haven’t heard of them). fantastic entry-level stuff.

    i’m also saving up for etymotic HF5’s. at around $150, it’s probably the best value at that price range.

      • titan
      • 11 years ago

      Yup, this is what impressed me about my Shure e3c IEM. I was able to have the volume at half of what I would normally, and I was able to hear all the details in the music. Some of which I never knew I was missing.

      I miss those things. Now, to convince the GF that I need a couple hundred dollars to get a new pair.

    • Ricardo Dawkins
    • 11 years ago

    Those IEM included with my Zune 80 for *FREE*. I got 2 pairs.

    Own a JVC HA-FX33 “Marshmallows” not too good.
    Just got a JVC HA-FX66 “Air Cushion”. quite good. enough bass. but too small for my ear canal and gets dirty with my ears serum….

    I got a AKG k26p (k414) excellent sound, good soundstage, roomy bass, closed… 😀

    I’m shooting for some Denon later when I get enough money or the woman allows for it.

    • FubbHead
    • 11 years ago

    Bought a couple of AKG buds for ~€28. Very nice and well-rounded sound.

    On the flip side, I bought a couple of those Koss Plug thingies a year or two back. Tried them once and never again.

    • kvndoom
    • 11 years ago

    I got my Senn HD600’s for 250, which was a hell of a price. If sound reproduction were fabric, those things would be pouring silk into your ears.

    I have a couple pairs of Koss Pro-4/AA that I used to listen to long ago when I loved it loud and harsh. You can drive the hell out of them in ways you wouldn’t believe. I used to wire them directly to the speaker terminals of my 130 wpc receiver I had back in the day (when I was young and stupid, as compared to old and stupid). Man, talk about bass, and you could not blow the damn things. But I wouldn’t do that again, or even recommend anyone try.

    I’ve always had a gripe with amps or receivers over-attenuating the headphone jacks. One day I may get a good amp for my cans, but it’s not high on my list right now. If I had been rich back in the day, I could have gotten that Sennheiser Orpheus that I always dreamed of…

    Open-air circumaural will get you the best sound quality but not the isolation. Since I’m a hermit I have the luxury of not worrying about bothering anyone.

    • mbutrovich
    • 11 years ago

    I’ve had my Sennheiser HD-595 cans for over 3 years now, and they’re great. Open-ear design works for me since I’m never wearing them in situations where other people can be distracted by what I’m listening to. As previously mentioned, just try to get your hands on a better 3.5mm adapter because the included one is terrible and I fear puts too much strain on the headphone jack.

    A solid, less expensive option are Sennheiser HD-555 headphones.

    • Wakka
    • 11 years ago

    Get the koss porta pro, amazing quality and tiny size for thirty eight bucks on Amazon, plus a unlimted warrenty.

      • CampinCarl
      • 11 years ago

      Are the Porta Pros over-the-head or “street style” (wraps around the back of your head)? I ask because I’ve been looking at buying some but I can’t figure that out–some places suggest that they are (are listed under “Street Style” on Headroom, but they LOOK like over-the-head).

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    I assume sweet spot is meant to imply a price range. I’d say for $100-150 you can get some great headphones that shouldn’t leave you wanting for more. Going much above $200 quickly gets in to diminishing returns although some people would prefer to ‘buy it once.’

    You need to figure out a few things to narrow down the choices:

    Closed or open? Open phones tend to sound better but obviously don’t provide much if any isolation.

    Over the ear or in-ear? Personally I can’t stand in-ear or earbud type but IEMs are the best for sound isolation.

    What source? Better headphones will benefit a lot more from a better source than cheap ones although you can still enjoy good phones from a portable device or a home receiver. Having phones that ill improve even more from a headphone amp in the future is nice and headphone amps don’t have to cost a lot.

    General sound signature – do you like neutral, up front, heavier bass, highly detailed, relaxing/laid back etc?

    Personally I have Grado SR80s that I use a fair amount although I prefer speakers at home. The punchy mid-range Grado sound isn’t for everyone though. I use them with a low-cost Chinese-made (:-/) ‘Zero’ DAC/headphone amp and it does make a notable difference. I also have Sennheisser PX100s that are a good sub-$50 earphone although I don’t like the Senn sound signature as much, a little bloated in the bass imo, they are nice lightweight portable phones.

    If you really want a wide range of informed opinions register at head-fi.org. Ultimately if you really want to find a headphone you will be happy with for a long time either buy from a place that has a good return policy or buy used so that you can resell them for more or less the same price.

    • grantmeaname
    • 11 years ago

    Apple makes these state-of-the-art ones with the controls built into the cord!!!!!!

    • glacius555
    • 11 years ago

    My impression is that you want a pair for home use, isn’t it?

    app. 150-200$ territory

    Sennheiser HD 595

    Wired, quality, home use
    pros: comfortable, good sound, ok price for quality
    cons: the lowest frequencies not so powerful (really low ones, so no problem)
    uncomfortable 3.5 mm jack adapter

    AKG K271 Studio

    wired, very precise sound (maybe too much), ONLY home use,not a portable one (low effectiveness)

    pros: comfort, precise sound, serious pro model
    cons: some sounds might be too sharp for a trained ear

    Bose Circum

    wired,optimal size and weight for portability

    pros: good effectiveness, could be used with a portable player,
    non-agressive detailed sound, good bass

    cons: low freq’s may be too strong, less comfort, can’t be worn for long time, non-bendable for portability

    Sennheiser RS 130

    “big but light” comfort, wireless, will play for app. 22 hours, r[

    • barleyguy
    • 11 years ago

    My personal favorites are the Sennheiser HD 485’s. They sound great, and they are way comfortable. Since they are open ear (around the ear but allowing airflow), they don’t cause the “compressed ear” feeling you get from enclosed headphones. (I’ve tried dozens of other headphones, as I dabble in studio recording. If you’re recording vocals, the HD 280’s are the thing. But I personally think they get really uncomfortable in extended use.)

    A couple of caveats. The 485’s work best in a fairly quiet environment. They’re fine for blocking out typical office chatter, but wouldn’t work for drowning out loud noises. They aren’t much good for recording either; because of the open ear design they will leak back into microphones. But for extended music listening, they are the bomb.

    The other caveat is that they are really hard to find…

    • Crayon Shin Chan
    • 11 years ago

    Audio Technica ATH-SJ3 does the job just fine for me. They cost 100 Singaporean dollars, but unlike all the other headphones I’ve used and abused, both speakers still work after tugging at the cable in various ways. After each heart-rending accident, I would pick up the SJ3s and expect only one speaker to work, and I’m always surprised by its durability. You’d never guess by just looking at it, though. I haven’t tried many other high end headphones, but this was the first pair I tried that let me hear the noise coming from my ESS-1938 and laptop.

    The SJ3 does have an annoying design that lets the speakers swivel around, though, so you do have to take a moment to make sure you’re putting it on your head the right way.

    • MrJP
    • 11 years ago

    Sennheiser HD555s for me. Very comfortable and noticeably much better sound quality than the sub-£50 headphones I’ve tended to buy in the past. I paid around £60 in a sale, RRP is around £100.

    Whether it’s worth spending more than this probably depends on the quality of the source you’re going to be using. Much more money, and you’d probably be looking for a dedicated headphone amp, and then you’re getting into the taking-it-slightly-too-seriously audiophile territory.

      • continuum
      • 11 years ago

      Those are pretty good although I think I prefer the in-ear-canal Etymotic ER-4p’s after hearing those, the Grado SR-60, Sennheisier HD 280Pro, etc.

      Granted I haven’t heard anything higher-end, really, than the ER-4p as far as headphones goes.

      • Jon
      • 11 years ago

      I have Sennheiser HD555’s too, they’re absolutely perfect and well within any PC enthusiasts spending budget.

    • potatochobit
    • 11 years ago

    audio technica

    • AxMi-24
    • 11 years ago

    I really like my Ultrasone DJ Pros (don’t let the lame name ruin it for you). They are big but easy to drive (my EU iPod can run it real well).

    Problem for portable is that you easily hear all the compression artefacts so 128kbit or whatever is sold these days is just no go. Rip yourself and do correct compression (lame VBR newmethod quality 0).

    • Corrado
    • 11 years ago

    Sennheiser HD280’s. They can be found for ~ $80 online and are awesome for the price.

    • Dposcorp
    • 11 years ago

    How much you looking to spend? That plays a important part.
    Also, I take it you don’t want a mic on them, right?

    Headphones and audio in general appear to be one of the most subjective things, which can greatly differ from person to person. For pure listening pleasure, over the ear works best for me, as it closes out the rest of the world.

    When I invest in them, I buy local and make sure there is no re-stocking fee to return them. If the store will let you try them there, I also will take a MP3 players with me, with a few different songs, that include highs and lows, as well as spoken things like pod casts.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      g{<"over the ear works best for me, as it closes out the rest of the world"<}g So does "in-ear" - canalphones -, and it does a better job, so I'm not sure what you were going for.

      • SonicSilicon
      • 11 years ago

      I got the updated version, MDR-A35G, which has a folding headband for storage. 16 mm drivers are about as large as you can get in “ear bud” style and I agree it has a very good frequency response for the $20 price. It was a pleasant surprise of a compromise. These are a definite recommendation for travel or space saving.

      Previously I was using KOSS’ “The Plug” form-fitting buds (almost, but not quite, canal phones.) I had simply gotten sick of “installing” and removing the foam-wrapped drivers and they rarely stayed in place after minimal wear. A headband is just too much to give up for portability.

        • DrDillyBar
        • 11 years ago

        oOo. 15 years ago I had Folders. This was all I could find

    • floodo1
    • 11 years ago

    akg 240s is pretty good if you dont mind them being a bit bass heavy. if you listen to stuff with a lot of bass they’re pretty nice.

    goto head-fi forums and read up.

    • Pax-UX
    • 11 years ago

    I’ve been using Grado SR80 for about 4 years now and am happy with them haven’t needed to get anything else.

      • OneArmedScissor
      • 11 years ago

      I haven’t personally ever heard any headphones better than those Grados. You can spend an insane amount more money, but I sincerely doubt it will amount to anything significant. I’ve seen some very nice recording studios that could have had anything they wanted, but they just stick with those.

      There are undoubtedly some nice headphones from more mainstream brands in higher price ranges, but the problem is that their $100-ish models generally don’t hold a candle to the Grados, and they make you pay out the ass to get to the same level.

      He didn’t specify a price range, but that’s definitely the “sweet spot.” If you don’t spend what it takes to get into those (which really isn’t much, I think the SR60s are $70), you’re missing out. If you spend more, you’re gaining little to nothing, and in many cases, still missing out.

    • dragunkat
    • 11 years ago

    I personally like Sony’s over the ear headphones. They have a few different styles and the ones I’ve had almost always out do similarly priced ones. that said, Senheisser makes really good ones too, but they tend to lean more toward the diehard bunch in my experience.

    I don’t really like in the ear headphones because they aren’t that comfortable to me, especially for longer listening times. i find the over the ear ones also give a fuller, more well rounded sound, like something you’d hear over speakers.

    • Hance
    • 11 years ago

    My first question would be do you want in ear or over the ear ?

    For in ear stuff i really like my etymotics they make a ton of different models and different price ranges. I like in ear stuff better because they are easy to carry and block out a lot of background noise which I want.

    For over the ear stuff I have no idea. I dont like them personally.

      • Dissonance
      • 11 years ago

      Probably over. I’m not concerned with portability.

        • Meadows
        • 11 years ago

        Are you concerned with noise cancellation then? If not, get open headphones.

        You should pick a good brand (AKG, Sennheiser or Grado) and work your way from there, checking the impedance and frequency response of what you’re going to buy – you won’t need to do a lot of other checking since we’re talking about good brands anyway.

        Pay particular attention to impedance if you don’t have proper sound drivers or an amplifier box.

        • Prototyped
        • 11 years ago

        Grado SR60?

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This