Most Comfortable Audiophile Headphones

Written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)

Introduction

One of my biggest concerns with high end headphones is that while they may sound great, this is often at the expense of comfort and long-term usability. The typical audiophile may only listen to their favorite headphones for a few hours per day, but many of us use headphones all day long, whether it’s because we’re working from home, studying for an exam, or maybe enjoying longer competitive gaming sessions. For those of us who wear headphones in excess of six or seven hours in a day, weight and comfort become a huge factor when it comes to purchase decisions, and this is why I’m so picky when it comes to what I personally am comfortable with. Yes we want them to sound great, but it doesn’t matter if you end up switching to something more comfortable on a regular basis.

The following is my current list of highly comfortable ‘audiophile’ headphones. This ranking is not based on sound quality, frequency response or overall sound preference, but rather what I find easiest to wear for the full work day or longer gaming sessions. Keep in mind that we all have different head shapes (and neck strength), so you may find something works great for you that doesn’t work as well for me, and vice versa. With each of these, I find there are some quirks and things to consider when buying them, so while they may be great for comfort, there could also be some other dealbreakers in there.

Considerations:

  1. To qualify for this list, the headphones have to be considered reasonably ‘high-end’ headphones, meaning that there has to be at least a sufficient amount of detail and technical performance to them. In other words, out of the ‘high end headphones’ category, the following are my comfort priority picks.
  2. This list only considers over-ear headphones. Both on-ear headphones and in-ear monitors or earbuds are excluded. For whatever reason, I can’t seem to get any on-ear headphones to be comfortable, and there will of course be listeners who prefer IEMs in general specifically for comfort issues with headphones regardless. So that would have to be a different list.
  3. The weight limit for this list is 500g. While it’s possible for heavier headphones to be decently comfortable due to good weight distribution, in my experience there’s still a weight limit for the long-term useability. For most people, 500g is probably okay for common listening durations, but at the moment we’re here to look exclusively at headphones for long sessions.
  4. Lastly, there may be other headphones worth considering that are not on this list simply because I haven’t had a chance to evaluate them yet. So for this list, the headphones have to be something I’ve either reviewed or personally own.

The list:

1. Dan Clark Audio Ether 2 - $2199

  • Style - Open-back
  • Driver - Planar magnetic
  • Weight - 290g

I put the DCA Ether 2 at the top of this list both due to its lightweight nature and overall design. It’s common to see descriptions like “disappears on my head” in a lot of reviews, but for me this really is the case with the Ether 2.

How does it sound? I think a lot of this will depend on the pads being used, but the one I evaluated was quite dark sounding with a recession in the upper mids. With that said, I found the technical performance to have decent detail and stage, even if it lacked some dynamic impact. While the overall sound signature isn’t my kind of thing, I do think it’s suitable for anyone wanting a laid back kind of sound and really wants to wear headphones all day.

Nitpicks: Unfortunately I got the common ‘planar crinkle’ issue with these so severely that I couldn’t use them. This may be due to the contour of my jawline or the face to ear ratio - something that breaks the seal and therefore creates variable pressure for the headphone coupling. This is probably just an issue for me, as nobody else has had a problem with this that I’m aware of.

2. Meze Empyrean - $2999

  • Style - Open-Back
  • Driver - Isodynamic Hybrid Array (Planar)
  • Weight - 430g

In my opinion the Empyrean is a strong candidate for best comfort-to-performance ratio. It also has an impressive build and design. When initially reviewing this headphone, I kept saying that it feels more comfortable to wear the empyrean all day than nothing at all, and while that may have been a bit of a joke, it’s truly impressive what Meze was able to do both with pad design and weight distribution.

How does it sound? I find the overall tonal balance to be generally agreeable, with the exception of the bass response. It has a tendency to bleed a bit into the mids making everything sound a bit ‘thick’ and ‘soupy’. To my ear, the detail retrieval isn’t on the level of other $3000 flagship planar magnetic headphones - except for the treble, which is really quite good. These are all within the acceptable range for comfort tradeoffs in my opinion, and if I had to choose one headphone on this list for all-day use, the Empyrean would warrant strong consideration.

Nitpicks: None when it comes to comfort, but the cups and pads are quite large.

3. Audioquest Nighthawk and Nightowl (Discontinued, but you may be able to find them at some stores)

  • Style - Open or closed-back
  • Driver - Dynamic (moving coil)
  • Weight - 350g

These are two of the most controversial headphones out there. My boss likes to call them the “cilantro of headphones”, and I think that’s appropriate. The one thing that doesn’t seem to be polarizing, however, is that the comfort is unbelievably good. These headphones use a suspension headband, with free-floating cups attached by a rubber mechanism, and importantly have ear-shaped pads that are super comfy. This makes them not have any significant pressure points anywhere on the side of the head.

How do they sound? For all of the attention put towards comfort, the sound is quite dark and muted sounding to my ear. If you look at the frequency response, there isn’t much for pinna gain here, on top of a fairly large bass and lower mid shelf. The Nightowl is a bit tighter and more well-defined in the bass, but these are both very bass and lower mid focused headphones. With all of that said, I do personally own the Nightowl specifically for its comfort.

The following measurements were taken on the GRAS 43AG standardized measurement rig. The target uses Harman 2013 bass with 2018 mids and treble.

Nitpicks: The sides where the rubber connects to the cups can occasionally creak a bit when moving your jaw (speaking). They’re both also way too dark sounding for my taste.

4. Sennheiser HD800s - $1699

  • Style - Open-back
  • Driver - Dynamic (moving coil)
  • Weight - 328g

The HD800s is a traditional favorite of many audiophiles. What I love about the HD800s is how light it is. Yes the cups are huge and maybe a bit unwieldy, but putting it on is like a breath of fresh air and I can listen to it for hours on end without any comfort issues. I normally prefer suspension style headbands, but because the HD800s is so lightweight, it’s not a problem here.

How does it sound? In short, phenomenally good. The HD800s is technically very impressive, with good detail retrieval, and the gold standard for soundstage and spaciousness. This is the headphone you get if you want an extremely wide soundstage with clear and price image placement. You often hear the term “blackness of background” to describe certain qualities in headphones, and I think this applies most strongly to the HD800s, where the images pop out of seemingly nowhere. There are, however, several drawbacks as well. The bass response on the HD800s isn’t particularly clean or engaging and in spite of some improvements over the original HD800, it still has a tendency to make certain recordings sound a bit shrill and fatiguing at times, depending on the source.

Nitpicks: The inside of the cup can be a bit shallow, and for anyone with large ears, you may find them touching the inside slightly. Connectors on this headphone are really stiff and annoying to disconnect.

4. Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 - $899

  • Style - Open or closed-back
  • Driver - Planar magnetic
  • Weight - 327gr

Dan Clark Audio have perfected the Aeon design with its successor the Aeon 2. While I found the original Aeon to be reasonably comfortable, it had a bit of clamp force that I would notice after a while, and with the Aeon 2 this has been improved. This headphone has really deep pads with teardrop shaped cups, meaning they fit perfectly around the ear. Additionally, the Aeon 2 can now be collapsed into a much smaller size and fit into a small carrying case, making it one of the most portable high end headphones out there.

How does it sound? I only got a chance to review the closed-back version of the Aeon 2, but to me this is the one that makes the most sense with the added portability. Overall the Aeon 2 Closed has a slight bass and lower mid elevation, with an upper midrange dip and then a bit of sparkle around 8.5khz. This sparkle can be tamed with some of the tuning inserts they give you, but I found that to get the best detail retrieval, it’s better to not use them. The Aeon 2 has impressive detail for such a small form factor, however its two weak points are still dynamics and soundstage. But for what it is - a closed-back, comfortable, portable planar with great detail retrieval, there’s nothing else like it. Check out Chrono's comparison video:

Nitpicks: For those of us with large heads, the clamp force may still initially be a bit strong - but it is still better than on the original Aeon, and it improves over time. Positioning can sometimes be a bit odd given how deep the pads are. I also wish the headband were a bit softer.

6. Focal Clear and Stellia - $1490, $2990

  • Style - Open (Clear), closed (Stellia)
  • Driver - Dynamic (moving coil)
  • Weight - 450g (Clear), 435g (Stellia)

The Focal Clear and Stellia are on this list, but not the Elegia or Utopia. The reason for this is that out of the current line up, the Clear and Stellia are the most comfortable - at least for me. I find the Elegia to have a bit more clamp force, and the Utopia is quite a bit heavier than the rest. The Clear and Stellia are both surprisingly comfortable - I say surprisingly because I wasn’t expecting to be okay with their weight when I initially researched them (at least in the case of the Clear before the Stellia came out). It wasn’t until I got a chance to try them that my concerns completely went away. The headband is not a suspension style system, which I’m always worried about, but with the Clear and the Stellia, it’s one of the most comfortable non-suspension style headbands out there. The cups for both of these are spring-loaded so they should conform appropriately to the side of the head, and there is some swivel due to the notches at the side of where the arm attaches to the headband.

How do they sound? The Clear is in many ways a straightforward upgrade to the HD6X0 line of headphones from Sennheiser. It’s got a very agreeable frequency response, with excellent detail retrieval and really good dynamics for a punchy and engaging sound. Its only shortcoming is that it doesn’t have a particularly spacious soundstage, and the treble can come across a bit aggressively on certain recordings. The Stellia is a strong candidate for an end game closed-back headphone. While it’s not a closed-back Utopia in terms of tuning, it does use a solid beryllium M-shaped dome driver - just like the Utopia. This means its technical performance is superb for both detail and dynamic impact. The key difference is that the Stellia has quite a bit of upper bass presence, but in general the rest of its frequency response is also quite agreeable.

Check out Chrono's review of the Focal Clear here:

Nitpicks: For people with large heads, you may find that the cups pull up a bit on the bottom of your ears due to the spring-loaded cup angle mechanism. While they look great initially, the underside of the headband can discolor a bit over time with use.

7. Abyss Diana Phi (DMS Mod) - $4000

  • Style - Open-back
  • Driver - Planar magnetic
  • Weight - 350g

The original Diana Phi with the brown or grey pads was particularly uncomfortable for me, and I found that in spite of its lightweight design, the pads would press so severely into my temples that I couldn’t wear them for more than 30 minutes at a time. Since then they’ve made improvements to the pads, but I recently had a chance to evaluate them with the DMS pad mod, where he’s taken some of the material away from the top part of the black pads, where they would otherwise press into the side of the head. This has taken the Diana Phi from a particularly uncomfortable headphone to one of the most comfortable headphones out there, and it fits me perfectly now. Additionally, it has a very rugged and sturdy build to it that means it’ll likely last a long time.

How does it sound? In my opinion the Diana Phi competes in the highest category for technical performance, meaning it’s right up there with other nanoscale planars like the Audeze LCD-4, HiFiMAN HE1000se, and Final Audio D8000 Pro. It’s also one of the fastest headphones I’ve ever heard, with pretty good dynamics as well. The one issue I have with its overall tuning is that there’s a strong resonance around 10khz that in my opinion needs to be EQ’d out. This is an area where there should actually be a dip in the frequency response, because it’s where there’s often some interaction with certain parts of the ear (concha interaction), and on the Diana Phi it’s unfortunately a bit elevated in this area. This causes a somewhat odd ‘shimmering’ character to everything in the mix. But once that’s EQ’d out, this is a great sounding headphone.

Check out my Abyss Diana Phi review with the DMS pad mod:

Nitpicks: If you have big ears, there’s a chance the square shape to the inside of the cup won’t be big enough and your ear will touch the sides. Also, you may have to do a custom order with Abyss to get the DMS modded pads. I find the original pads make this headphone particularly uncomfortable and the newer default black V2 pads are only marginally better.

8. HiFiMAN Arya - $1599

  • Style - Open-back
  • Driver - Planar magnetic
  • Weight - 400g

I was hesitant to put this headphone on the list because the cups are so enormous, however when I know I have a full day of work ahead of me, this is the headphone I usually end up gravitating towards. It has a particularly wide suspension style headband, and the nice thing about the cups being so huge is that you get a very wide surface area on the side of your head, and there’s no significant clamp force or pressure points - at least for the pads. Equally important, this is a headphone that I don’t have any issues getting my large elephant ears into, and for that reason it makes the cut.

How does it sound? The HiFiMAN Arya has one of the most agreeable tunings on this list, leaning slightly counterclockwise for its frequency response - meaning it’s a bit more upper mids and treble focused. No it’s not as technically impressive for detail and dynamics as the Diana Phi, but it’s very competitive at its more modest price point, and it’s also one of the most impressive headphones for soundstage, imaging, and layering. The Arya has some of the best presentation for depth layering at any price, and I’ve often said that this is kind of like a planar HD800s. The key difference is that the Arya sounds faster to me, and has a better bass response. So while it’s not quite as comfortable as others on this list, it’s comfortable enough to get me through a full day of work and it sounds amazing.

Check out my HiFiMAN Arya review here:

Nitpicks: The cups are enormous here, and this means that they extend down to your jaw, and over time this can be a bit annoying. The top part of the headband also presses in ever so slightly too much for my head, and while it’s not a problem for most of the day, I do notice it near the end.

9. Sennheiser HD600, HD650 (HD6XX), HD660s - $220 to $499

  • Style - Open-back
  • Driver - Dynamic (moving coil)
  • Weight - 255g

The only reason Sennheiser’s HD6X0 line is this far down on this list is because for anyone with a large head, the clamp force may be a bit too much. The HD 660s doesn’t have as significant of clamp force, but in general these require some stretching in order to fit me appropriately. Thankfully, when you do that, these are some of the most comfortable headphones out there, and I think for most people with more average sized heads, they will be even more comfortable than many of the other headphones I’ve mentioned. So, no suspension style headband, extra clamp force, plastic build… but somehow it just works for long periods of time.

How does it sound? My favorite of these three headphones is the HD650 (HD6XX), but that’s mostly because of how smooth the treble is. All three of these have a very agreeable frequency response, and they all measure quite closely to the Harman target - at least for upper mids and treble where ear-related gain factors show up in the frequency response. Unfortunately, all three roll off in the bass a bit, and they all have a very tight and intimate soundstage to them. The plus side is that for the price, the HD6XX in particular is easily a benchmark headphone for detail retrieval. Importantly it also scales incredibly well with higher end equipment. So for anyone looking to get into high end headphones, these are naturally a good place to start.

Check out Chrono's HD660s Review:

Nitpicks: The clamp force is particularly bothersome on the HD650 (it was better on the HD660s). This can be improved by stretching the headband out a bit, but I still find it never quite goes away for me. Most people don’t have as much of an issue with this.

Conclusion:

So which one of these is my favorite for long-term listening? While all of them are very comfortable, if someone were to say to me “you can choose two of these on this list”, for long-term comfort my answer would probably be the Meze Empyrean and the Focal Stellia. I would choose the Empyrean even though some of its sonic aspects are done better on other less expensive headphones (like its bass performance) because I think overall it still has better comfort - at least for my head. For the Stellia, this is one of the most detailed closed-back headphones out there if not the most detailed, and for all of its high quality leather and soft pads, this is also one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve had the pleasure of using.

Lastly, for anyone wanting to improve the comfort of their headphones, I highly recommend looking into the ZMF Pilot and Co-pilot pads for the top headband. This is a wide leather pad that attaches around the existing headband of most headphones out there and it can instantly take a headphone from uncomfortable to supremely comfortable.

-Andrew Park (@Resolve)

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