Headphones serve a surprising number of different purposes. For most, they are just a way to enjoy more detailed and accurate listening without having to fill the room with sound.
For others, however, headphones are an analytical tool. Cans of a certain quality level can be used to study the mix of a track or even dissect the arrangement of instruments in a room recording.
Headphones that achieve this level of studio accuracy are called reference headphones, and they represent the top tier of audiophile-grade listening.
Reference headphones are generally designed to deliver the most flat and accurate sound, so that the cans don’t discolor the audio from the way it was originally designed to sound.
So while there are certainly pairs of headphones that are more “fun” to listen to because of a nice bass bump or a cool signal processing effect, these bad boys are exactly what one would need for a dedicated listening session.
So if you are ready to put sound first, you can check our picks for the best reference headphones that are within a reasonable price range for home enthusiasts. Trust me, if I didn’t set a price cap somewhere, you could be looking at headphones that cost as much as a car.
These headphones might be a cumbersome workout accessory, nor are they likely to offer wireless convenience, but sound-first headsets like the ones we’ve selected are the best choice for those who want a pristine, focused listening experience.
1. Sennheiser HD 650
Sennheiser is a top audio company that produces numerous high end headphone lines in a variety of price ranges. While the Sennheiser signature sound is great across price points, their midrange open back Sennheiser HD 650s are a particularly great value.
These fairly large headphones have an elegant titanium-silver finish that is further complemented by solid build material and a weighty feel. The headband can be a little tight for some, but the plush velour ear cups make them plenty comfortable. The HD 650s include a detachable cable with a 1/4-inch connector, but can easily be converted to fit media devices with an 1/8-inch adapter.
The HD 650’s open-back design crucially shapes the sound of the cans, offering more natural sounding audio at the expense of listening privacy.
The back of its drivers are exposed to the open air, which means headphone audio leaks out and environmental sounds leak in. But in a quiet listening environment, open-back headphones like the HD 650 deliver unparalleled dynamic playback that makes it all worth it.
These cans also excel at spatial imaging, staging the you within the recording to the point where you can tell where individual instruments are within the room. With its wide frequency range of 10 – 39,500 Hz, the lowest lows and highest highs are crisply preserved in playback.
In terms of frequency response, the HD 650 delivers neutral and balanced sound. The bass doesn’t boom. It is driven with a warm precision, and the treble is crystal clear. The midrange is the stable center that balances it all, sandwiched perfectly between the low and high bands with astonishing accuracy.
For all of the incredible detail these headphones deliver, they have a relatively high impedance rating of 300 Ω. This means that that these headphones will require a capable amplifier to power their sound.
Though adding one to your setup is always a nice touch, it is not a must-have for good portable sound. In any case, the Sennheiser HD 598, which offers a competitive edge against the HD 650 at half its price, are equally hard to drive.
If you need to factor in the price of an amp into your budget, go for the HD 598 and get a nice amp to match, but if you have a quality amp or the budget for one, the HD 650 is an absolutely wonderful pair of headphones.
Price: $367.99 (26 percent off MSRP)
- Balanced and natural sound
- High dynamic range
- Lifelike spatial imaging
- Open-ear design does not contain the sound
- Headband can be a little tight
- Requires a capable amplifier to drive
2. Grado Prestige Series SR125e Headphones
Brooklyn-made Grado headphones offer some of the best value in midrange headphones, offering a light and powerful design at a fair price. Their open-ear designs opt for a more open and natural sound, but this will come at the cost of sound leakage that can be heard as far as 10 feet away.
If you are looking for headphones to use in the workplace or on a commute, this will be your last pick, but if you just want a pure and spacious sound, this is a great option.
While the vintage style of Grado’s Prestige Series is unquestionable, the ergonomics of the headphone are an issue of contention among owners. The flat headband lacks cushioning, and the Y-shaped cable connector can tangle more easily.
In their defense, Grado builds their headphones with UHPLC (Ultra-high purity, long crystal) copper voice coil wire, which delivers an incredibly clean signal to the transistors. The open cell foam over-ear pads are breathable, but aren’t the most comfortable for all ear types either.
One of the great benefits of Grado headphones, however, is that they are heavily customizable, and these ear pads can be easily swapped out with aftermarket models like these. Some owners have even reported that soaking the pads in fabric softener will make them more wearable, and for most, all you need to do is wear them in.
Moving finally to the sound, the benefits of the open back design ring through clearly, greatly enhancing the headphones’ spatial imaging. Each recording has an incredible sense of space, and the frequency spectrum on even the most dense tracks feels wide open despite having a modest technical range of 20 – 20,000 Hz. Highs and lows are open and ultra-smooth, and leave plenty of room in the middle band for Grado’s signature midrange warmth.
This gives vocals and lead instruments an extra bit of weight and richness, without cutting into the 125e’s clean bass sound. Listening to music on these headphones reveals a new sense of space in your favorite songs, as well as a tonal accuracy that matches hearing a sound in person. Even the most discerning ears would be hard-pressed to notice any harmonic distortion.
Fans of vocally-driven music and instrumentally-driven music alike will love the Grado signature sound, be it on the 125e, or Grado’s flagship Reference Series RS1 headphones, which takes Grado’s sound philosophy to true audiophile level performance.
That said, the SR125e offers the superior bang for your buck (even compared against SR225 and 325), and will satisfy all but the most refined aficionados.
- Open, spacious sound
- Durable UHPLC wire
- Accurate frequency response
- Ear pads aren’t particularly comfortable
- Open-ear design does not contain the sound
- Offers no outside sound isolation
3. Samson Z55 Professional Reference Headphones
Samson got their start in headphones back in 1980, when they aimed to bridge the gap between musicians and their audience with a high-quality pair of studio headphones that is affordable to everyone. Fast forward to today, and their flagship Z55s still remain as a top of the line pick for an affordable pair of studio reference headphones.
Their sturdy folding design is made from a mix of metal and plastic materials. The plastic could be of slightly higher quality, but this gripe is easily forgiven since all you notice while wearing them is the luxurious lambskin cushioning.
The lambskin ear cups can flip around and swivel 90°, as well as fold in for storage, making this a durable and flexible pair of headphones. The headphones are snug without putting too much pressure on your head, and are easy to listen to for hours on end.
These headphones also come with several locking 3.5 mm cables, including an extra-long coiled cable, and one with an inline mic and call/answer controls for mobile listening. The box also includes a 1/4-inch adapter and carrying pouch.
In the sound department, the Z55 stands apart from other brands at its price range with a tonally balanced sound that is as good for listening as it is for studiophile music monitoring. The overall frequency response across their range of 10 – 25,000 Hz is fair, giving fair emphasis to both bass and treble sounds.
The low-end feels just a bit confined by the closed-back design, but gets a small boost in the lower-mid frequencies. Mids are clear and accurate, as is the high-end, which earns an extra crisp boost from the Z55’s large 45 mm drivers.
Stereo sound staging is quite accurate on these headphones, and while you might not be able to pin down the exact location of each instrument in a mix, the sound stage is wide enough to reveal the nuances and dynamics of a high quality mixdown.
Listeners hoping for a more warm and natural sound might be interested in the slightly cheaper Samson Z45 Professional Studio Headphones, but otherwise, the Samson Z55s offer a quality sound with little downside.
- Crisp and clear sound
- Comfortable for long-term wearing
- Durable folding design
- Plastic could be higher quality
- Needs a more neutral sound for actual mixing
4. T402v by Torque Audio
Torque is an up and coming audio company that brings innovation with a purpose. The key innovation behind their t402v headphones is a modular design that aims to please any listener. The t402v comes with one pair of on-ear pads and one of around-ear cups, both of which are magnetic and can be swapped out on the fly. These plush SoftRide memory foam cushions can also be configured to modify the frequency response for more or less low-end sound.
To be more specific, the headphones are using what Torque calls Passive Acoustic Valve Technology™ (PAVT), which uses subtractive equalization to physically cut specific frequency ranges to boost others. Simply put, the headphones have different perforated filters that you switch between, and they physically augment the low-end of the sound waves.
The mofi:fi modular sound is the end result of this, and it provides four color-coded options for different levels of bass to complement the gentle U-curve of the t402v’s frequency response graph. Across all different bass response levels, highs are crisp, and the soundstaging is fairly dynamic with a semi-open back design. The different levels of low-end each characterize the audio differently, and I will cover each one individually below.
Yellow: Skull rattling bass. This setting brings 808 kicks and cello to life, but it is also where the mids are the most recessed. Sometimes vocals will be muddled, but this is overall an incredible fun listening experience.
Blue: This setting is where the bass is just starting rumble, while the mids and highs are still smooth.
Red: My personal favorite setting is very close to the blue setting, but just slightly more balanced. Low-mids have presence, and highs stay crisp.
Black: The most balanced sound, which I must emphasize, still has great bass extension for listening to electronic music and hip hop. A note to those still focused on reference use. This is the only mode you want to mix your audio with, unless you want to fool yourself into thinking you’ve mix your bass in just right. (Spoiler alert: you didn’t).
My testing for the over-ear listening matches this description as well. The smaller pads do make the sound feel a little less open, though, plus their design contributes to external sound leakage. Both pairs of ear cushions are incredibly comfortable, and the SoftRide memory foam always returns to form, no matter how much you tweak the fit.
Even on my larger head, I find the square ear cups engulf the side of my head, but if you ever find this uncomfortable, you can easily switch to the comfortable on-ear pads without forgoing too much audio quality.
The machined metal parts are incredibly durable and have nice brushed aluminum accents, but the spring steel reinforced headband is not well cushioned and causes me discomfort during extended listening. The ear cups swivel 95° and have just enough vertical articulation to wear them around your neck.
Obviously, Torque has put great thought into their innovative headphone design, but to say that it will please anyone is not an entirely true statement. These cans are obviously not for studio use, as they color the music in a way that would muddle a mixing effort. And more importantly, their high price is an obstacle that limits their appeal to a casual listener.
Torque’s flagship t096z in-ear headphones hopes to attract an even wider audience with their portability and sound-shaping selection of silicone ear tips, but they too are over $300. Still, this adds credit to the company’s mission, as they have created a new line of audio gear that is competitive with industry giants in terms of audiophile-grade sound.
For an avid listener who only wants to own one pair of headphones, the t402vs offer an immense value, providing craftsmanship across the board. This goes right down to its detachable 1.4 m cable shielded in mylar, which also has an inline mic and controls for iOS. If you enjoy toying with your sound beyond fiddling with generic digital EQ, these headphones are a top pick.
- Custom EQ built into modular earcups and earpads
- Durable and stylish
- Fantastic bass response across all sound settings
- Sturdy design and firm headband can cause discomfort
- Midrange somewhat recessed
- High price tag
5. AKG Q 701 Quincy Jones Signature Reference-Class Headphones
AKG Acoustics is known for offering high quality audio at low prices, which is why our hunt for their best affordable audiophile headphones led us right to the high end of their QJ signature sound series.
The Q 701 and its predecessors are all endorsed by the one and only Quincy Jones for their studio-shaped sound. And despite being a top of the line model, these cans won’t run you more than $200 if you aren’t picky about color.
Comfort is a key element to these headphones, as they are designed for the dedicated listener who will spend hours at a time on focused listening. The Q 701 has deep velvet “3D-form ear pads” that are ergonomically shaped and angled for a comfortable, direct fit. These large pads sit cushioned beneath two lightweight yet sturdy metal arches that guide the cloth headband.
These headphones use high quality materials for all elements of their design, inside and out. Internally, these headphones utilize special flat-wire voice coils that create a spacious, dramatic soundstage.
AKG also boasts a custom varimotion two layer diaphragm, which allows separate production of high and low frequency sound. All of this adds up to the QJ signature sound, which takes inspiration from classic Jones productions like “Thriller”, “Billie Jean”, and “Give Me the Night.”
The Q 701’s ported design also lends many characteristics to the cans’ spacious sound, and the wide sound stage was among the first details to hit me when listening. This is not the defining feature of the Q 701, though, as the actual presence of the sound is what really jumps out at first listen.
Recordings have plenty of spread, as the Q 701s have a frequency range of 10 – 39,800 Hz. The highs are huge, airy, and three-dimensional, with the high-mids embellished by a bit of natural brightness. The bass response is tight and precise, but will not please bass heads much.
The lack of natural warmth to these headphones means that kick drums and bass lines carry less authority, but still sit nicely alongside lead guitar lines and snare hits. Ultimately, the sound on these headphones smooths out quite a bit with time.
After a fairly long burn-in period, the sounds will mellow out and become less bright in the high-end, but finding most people’s sweet spot can take longer than other headphones.
If you are looking for an incredibly comfortable pair of headphones for extended home listening, the Q 701s will be a fantastic choice, assuming your music library is electronic music that needs a heavy low-end. Your max volume might be on the lower side without an amplifier, but these cans are driven well enough by phones, mp3 players, and other common sources.
Price: $179.95 (62 percent off MSRP)
- Comfortable and ergonomic design
- Present and spacious treble
- Realistic spatial imaging
- Harder to drive
- Somewhat lacking in bass
- Long burn-in time
6. Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
The ATH-M50x is the most popular model of Audio-Technica’s M-Series headphones, offering a true studio monitor sound at under $200. The M50xs offer both durability and comfort in its design, with a mix of soft padding and rugged plastics making up its compact design. The ear cups fold, rotate, and swivel 180°, making this a highly portable option that works great for DJing. In many respects, they draw comparison the the Samson Z55s.
Because the headphones are on the heavier side, they can grow uncomfortable to wear after an hour or two. The locking 3.5mm cable is a nice touch not found on the original M50, but because of the unique design of the locking cable, it makes the connection semi-proprietary. But despite these ergonomic shortcomings, the M50x delivers a powerful sound with its large 45 mm drivers.
These headphones have a wide frequency range of 15 – 28,000 Hz, backed up by an incredibly accurate frequency response. The sound signature of these headphones is flat, maintaining an accuracy of sound that allows you to hear the song as the producer intended.
The M50xs are still fun to listen to, as the monitor-style sound breathes life into high quality recordings, demonstrating the full effect of different mixing styles. The sound stage does suffer some from the tightly sealed design, but ultimately, the M50x delivers a great sound with fantastic bang for your buck.
Price: $116.50 (51 percent off MSRP)
- Flat, accurate sound
- Durable folding design
- Low price tag
- Not comfortable for long-term wearing
- Somewhat heavy headset
- 3.5 mm cable is semi-proprietary
7. V-MODA Crossfade M-100
V-MODA is a company that originally aimed to merge the worlds of fashion and audio technology, but in doing so with true conviction, ended up crafting one of the most highly-rated pieces of consumer audio equipment. The M-100s catch the eye at first glance, with a striking design that merges a sort of industrial ruggedness with a mind to fashion.
If bought from the V-MODA site directly, the shields on the side can be ordered with a custom laser-printed design, or even replaced with a custom design on your choice of precious metals, which please those who love to customize their gear.
The Steelflex headband is durable and quite flexible, but the earphones don’t rotate, so wearing them around your neck can be uncomfortable. Wearing them over your ears, however, is a treat, as the headband offers just enough cushioning and clamping force to make for a perfect fit. V-MODA’s Cliqfold hinges offer some of the best folding in a compact headphone design, though, so they headphones are easy enough to carry around in their firm exoskeleton-style carrying case when not in use.
The stock earpads on the M-100 are quite comfortable but a bit shallow, so many owners recommend swapping these for theV-MODA’s XL memory cushion pads, which offer better comfort and an improved seal.
In terms of audio, the M-100 defines V-MODA’s signature M-Class “Modern Audiophile” sound, which is more interested in sounding good than sounding accurate. Ultimately, these headphones are not for the studio (not neutral enough), but their frequency response is fine-tuned, and their 50mm Dual Diaphragm Drivers give a lot of separation between bass and mids to highs. On the low end, this effect gives precise and deep bass, without muddying the tight mids.
The ported design adds to the bass extension, but the highs still sound somewhat rolled off, which makes the sound feel a little more closed in. Hi hats and alto vocals still come in sharp, but not with the same drive as chunky bass riffs and sawtooth subs.
But with a technical frequency range of 5 – 30,000 Hz, the sound spectrum is still well-represented on these cans, with the double drivers going a long way to keeping the sound balanced and fun. Sound staging is good, but not a strong point in the sound.
As a headphone whose design is the result of heavy collaboration, the V-MODA does a lot of things that will please the majority of listeners out there. While the end result is a bit pricey, the incredible sound and build quality will please most.
To add more value, the headphones have an incredible 2-year warranty backed by their 50% off immortal life program, that offers a discount of half off any pair if yours is damaged outside of warranty. Still, if it is a purely neutral sound you are after, the M-100s will not be the first choice.
Price: $249.99 (19 percent off MSRP)
- Durable and comfortable
- Precise and deep bass that doesn’t muddy sound
- Fashionable design offers custom laser-etched shields
- Treble is somewhat rolled off at high-end
- High price tag
- Not comfortable to wear around your neck
8. Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro
German company Beyerdynamic brings us the DT 770 Pro, a remake of one of their most cost-efficient pairs of classic designs. The 770 Pro is made from durable materials and offers many quality details, down to its gold-plated 3.5 mm jack. I particularly enjoyed the velour ear pads and the simple yet effective adjustable headband.
These circumaural headphones are closed-back and seal your ears off from the outside world without being too heavy. Still, the headphones do have a somewhat bulky design that doesn’t lend well to moving around.
Unlike other sealed-back models at the same price range, the DT 770 truly delivers on the bass, with or without amplification. Whether or not you enjoy a little extra mid-bass depends on personal preference, but either way, the rest of the frequency spectrum carries both rich and crisp qualities.
One downside is that the 770 Pro’s sound staging is only average, and might leave some listeners wanting more depth. These headphones also have a bit longer of a break-in period than most, but once they are, the sound spectrum begins to smooth out.
Another cool feature of these beyerdynamic cans is that they come in different impedances, allowing optimized listening for different setups. For instance, someone just wanting to plug directly into an MP3 player will easily be able to get a signal on the 32 Ohm pair, whereas an amp would be needed to hear the higher-detail signal of the 80 Ohm and 250 Ohm pairs.
The added resistance options do decrease the chance of mismatching your headphones to your gear, but if you do your homework before you buy, you will come out on top with a great sounding pair of headphones.
Price: $187.35 and up
- Comfortable velour ear cups
- Bass heavy sound without imbalance
- Available in different resistance ratings
- Limited soundstaging
- Somewhat bulky design
- Longer break-in period
9. Bose SoundTrue Around-Ear headphones II
Though Bose claims to be king of many different audio technologies, headphones is not one of them. Nevertheless, Bose offers a competitive headphone model in its SoundTrue II around-ear headphones, especially if you are interested in a pair of headphones you would actually want to take outside.
The SoundTrue II is light and comfortable, with large memory foam ear cups that are easy to wear for extended periods. When not being worn, the durable flat-folding ear cups and collapsible headband allow the cans to store in a hard shell carrying case. One downside to wearing them is that your ears can get quite warm from extended listening periods.
The detachable cable has an inline microphone and control interface, making it easier to browse tracks and take phone calls. You must be wary of which version your headphones come with, though, as the SoundTrue IIs come with either an Android or iOS compatible cable, but not both.
In terms of sound, the Bose SoundTrue IIs are smooth and immersive, especially in the high-end, where vocals and hi hats are crisp. The midrange is clear and puts vocals in the spotlight, although low mids can sometimes be muddled by the boomy bass. Low-end is not insanely overpowering, but can vary from tight to a little muddy depending on the track.
These headphones are designed to be driven by cell phones and mp3 players, meaning they can easily get loud without distortion. This is a definite plus if you love to max out on volume.
Many believe that these cans should offer a better sound for their price, but seeing how they are intended for on-the-go listening on phones, they will naturally be lacking in clarity compared to models meant to be plugged into a hi-fi system. But still, the Bose signature sound will make for a great at home listening as an entry-level pair.
- Light, comfortable design
- Inline mic and controls for mobile listening
- Smooth, immersive sound
- Requires OS-specific version to utilize controls
- Ear cups can get warm with extended listening
- Lacking in clarity
10. Shure SRH840 Professional Monitoring Headphones
Shure has a longstanding reputation with professional audio engineers because of their precision and consistency. The “prosumer” class of listeners can enjoy Shure’s studio series sound as well, with the ever-popular SRH840 leading the studio series in balancing performance and affordability.
The SRH840’s closed-back circumaural design lends to its extra heft, and the collapsible headband firmly clamps the large ear cups to your head. Suffice to say they aren’t the most comfortable headphones around, but the ear cups and headband do have fantastic padding for short-term listening.
The ear cups twist swivel 180°, making them great for DJing, and their plush material provides a great sound seal without suffocating your ears. The SRH-840s also come with an extra pair of stock pads, which makes them huge in the headphone modding community.
One downside of the overall design is that a thin cable runs between each can and actually sits exposed where the headband can expand, which means you need to take an extra degree of care when handling these headphones. The other cables included are solid though, especially the detachable locking 3 m coiled cord.
In the sound department, the SRH840’s 40mm neodymium drivers deliver a naturally warm sound that works equally well with all genres of music. Despite a fairly average frequency range of 5 – 25,000 Hz, the frequency response offers great extension in the bass and treble. Slightly emphasized mids provide Shure’s signature warmth, and leave plenty of room for the high-end to sparkle.
At first listen, these headphones will seem more on the bright side, but a moderate amount of burn-in will reveal a more enjoyable and balanced sound.
High quality recordings will give each instrument plenty of room to breathe on the sound spectrum, and in terms of L-R balance, Shure offers surprisingly good sound imaging for a closed-back headphone.
All in all,
Price: $197.00 (21 percent off MSRP)
- Clear and sparkly sound signature
- Sealed yet breathable ear cups
- Good soundstaging for a closed-back design
- Heavy design and firm headband can cause discomfort
- Design quirks hurt the cans’ aesthetic
- Bass somewhat lacks presence
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