Headphones Under $500
The Sennheiser HD560S is this year’s newest best bang for the buck open-back dynamic driver headphone under $200. For the longest time this segment has been dominated by the HD6XX - and while the HD6XX has excellent performance, it has two notable drawbacks that the HD560S addresses. The first is that the HD560S is the more reference style tuning, with a more well-extended yet linear bass response along with a bit more treble energy. The second improvement is when it comes to soundstage and sense of space. The HD560S fills in the ‘three blob’ stage effect that is commonly reported with the Sennheiser’s HD6 line.
Lastly, the HD560S is also easier to drive, meaning you don’t need to get a crazy headphone amplifier to get the most out of it.
Check out the HD560S Review here.
The Meze 99 Classic is a commonly recommended closed-back headphone with a warm yet balanced tuning. I find it to be quite comfortable, yielding a laid-back and relaxed listening experience. Additionally, the Meze 99 Classic has a surprisingly spacious presentation for a closed-back headphone. One thing that many listeners report is the ability to change pads and affect the bass tuning. There are a number of pad options from third party vendors like Dekoni that are compatible with the 99 Classic and this allows for some flexibility for the tuning as well.
The HiFiMAN Sundara is in my opinion the best value headphone under $700. This is an open-back planar magnetic headphone that is possibly the most straightforward upgrade over the HD6XX. It simply does everything right - from frequency response to technical performance, this is the easiest headphone to recommend for anyone looking to get into the next level of audio performance from headphones.
It has linear well-extended bass, a well-balanced and detailed midrange with smooth yet present highs. One additional thing to note is that as of right now, the HiFiMAN Sundara is the best-measuring headphone I’ve yet come across. The only caveat is that it does require a headphone amplifier to get going.
Check out my HiFiMAN Sundara review here.
The Momentum 3 is the audiophile’s on-the-go wireless noise cancelling solution. Full of useful features, Chrono has described the Momentum 3 Wireless as a well-balanced, slightly bass emphasized well performing headphone. To quote Chrono’s review, “it easily has one of the best tunings I’ve heard, not just for ANC headphones but headphones in general”. So for those of us wanting to take high end sound quality on the go, the Sennheiser Momentum 3 is our pick.
Check out Chrono’s review here.
The Moondrop Blessing 2 is this year’s most exciting new value IEM to come out. It’s been regarded in many communities as the best price-to-performance IEM available. This is in part due to its remarkably neutral tonal balance, coupled with exceptional detail, layering, stage and depth for the price.
Making use of a hybrid driver configuration of 4 balanced armatures and a dynamic driver to handle bass frequencies, the Blessing 2 sets the bar for IEM performance, easily competing with IEMs in much higher price tags, often being touted as the ‘flagship killer’. Normally I find some fault with these statements, but for the Blessing 2 it’s certainly changed the landscape for what to expect when it comes to in-ear headphones.
Check out my Blessing 2 Review here.
Headphone Amplifiers & DACs under $500
Topping E30 / Topping L30 - $129, $139
This entry-level Topping stack is all you need for a DAC and headphone amp solution - especially if you’re just getting into high end headphones that require some power. The HiFiMAN Sundara and the L30 / E30 is an excellent pairing that easily competes with systems at far higher price tags. In particular, those who are looking for a clean, reference sound should strongly consider this setup. Moreover, the L30 is one of the amps I use when conducting headphone measurements, in part because I can be confident that the amp is transparent.
Additionally, I find the L30 to be quite versatile with three different gain settings. So really, this is all you’ll need for 90% of the headphones out there. Highly recommended.
The iFi Hip DAC is the perfect companion DAC/Amp combo for any headphones you want to take with you on the go. It’s small, remarkably slim, with the kind of shape that works for fitting into a pocket. Using iFi’s usual Burr Brown DAC chip for a smooth and relaxed sound output, the Hip DAC also has a bass boost function that’s all analog. For many, this could be the perfect all-in-one setup, and if you see yourself using your headphones on the go, or you’re looking for a small and simple footprint, this is one to consider.
Check out my Hip DAC impressions here.
The Topping A90 was released this year to massive critical acclaim. Seen by many as this year’s premiere transparent balanced headphone amplifier, it brings flagship level performance to a more modest price tag.
SPL Phonitor One / One-D - $499, $629
SPL is world-famous for their masterclass headphone amplifiers and mixing and mastering setups that they make and manufacture in Germany. However, their gear has always been priced in the $2k+ range, making them unaffordable for most. So they decided to bring everything they’ve learned from their flagship amps and put them in a smaller, more affordable package that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of their flagships.
If you’re looking for silent, transparent sound, the SPL Phonitor One Headphone Amp or SPL Phonitor One-D Headphone Amp/DAC are very difficult to beat.
Headphones Under $1000
The next step up in planar magnetic headphones from the HiFiMAN Sundara is their highly regarded Ananda, which has a similar sound signature to the Sundara, emphasizing detail, clarity, and soundstage. Imagine if the Sundara has even better bass extension, better detail, and a better sense of space - that’s what you get with the Ananda.
Surprisingly, the Ananda is also quite easy to drive, so while it can benefit from a good source, it doesn’t necessarily need one. The Ananda uses HiFiMAN’s egg-shaped cup design, inspired by their higher end line of headphones like the Arya and HE1000 series. The Ananda is thankfully also lightweight, making it comfortable for long listening sessions.
Watch the HiFiMAN Ananda review here.
The Audeze LCD-2 made it onto my list of favorite headphones at the end of 2020 in part because of its massive potential. The full-sized Audeze LCD planar magnetic headphones often have some of the best technical performance within their price ranges, and that’s no exception with the LCD-2. The only downside is that to get the most out of this headphone it does require diving into EQ a bit - or making use of Audeze’s Reveal+ digital signal processing. Thankfully, because this is a high performance planar, it can easily handle any adjustments you make. And, for its technical performance, this is the headphone I would personally buy under $1000.
There may also be a certain stigma associated with Audeze headphones that points to them being heavy and uncomfortable, and while they certainly are still on the heavy side, Audeze have massively improved their comfort with the use of a wide headband strap. This helps with weight distribution, and I find I can wear the LCD-2 all day without issue.
Check out my Audeze LCD-2 Review here.
Dunu SA6 - $550
The Dunu SA6 has been making waves in a number of core IEM communities. In a world full of hybrid IEM designs, the SA6 emphatically demonstrates that there’s life left in strictly multi-balanced armature designs. Simply put, the SA6 has the best bass response of any multi-BA IEM I’ve heard other than the 64 Audio U12t, which is $2000. In fact, if someone had told me the SA6 used a dynamic driver in the bass I would have believed them. The SA6 uses a 6 balanced armature configuration, but the use of unique Sonion BAs for bass frequencies makes it really stand out in this regard. The SA6 also has a toggle switch on the back that lets the listener adjust the bass level.
Overall, the SA6 has a remarkably well-balanced tuning, and is seen by many, myself included, as the next logical step up from the highly regarded Blessing 2.
Buy the Dunu SA6 here for the best available price
Headphone Amps / DACs & DAPs under $1000
Following the success of their extremely popular SR15, Astell&Kern have updated this model with the new SR25. The SR15 was a popular option for digital audio players in part because it had a very well-integrated multi-band EQ function, and the SR25 also has this. The SR25 uses the same dual Cirrus Logic 43198 but is slightly larger than the SR15, with a more appropriate screen size, along with a faster and better performing interface. Importantly, the SR25 also has bluetooth functionality with LDAC. Lastly, the SR25 also has much better battery life than the SR15 did, with a published spec of around 21 hours.
In short, the SR25 takes all the good things about the SR15, and upgrades a number of key features. Check out this video discussing the differences between the SR15 and the SR25.
Topping DX7 Pro - $599
The TOPPING DX7 Pro DAC/Amp is an upgrade on their critically acclaimed DX7s. The DX7 Pro is an upgrade in every way over the DX7s with the addition of the ESS flagship ES9038PRO DAC chip, an IIS input, and a 4.4mm balanced output. It also comes with Bluetooth 5.0 functionality and supports LDAC HD audio, aptX, and aptX HD audio among others.
With a wide range of outputs, the DX7 Pro can be used as a pure DAC, a DAC and Pre Amp combo, a Bluetooth headphone amp or DAC, and can even be connected to media players, mobile phones, or tablets. It comes with remote control for ease of use but at the same time allows DIYers to roll Op-Amps to tweak the sound.
It’s a futureproof DAC/Amp for any headphone enthusiast looking for amazing sound and a desktop setup that will work with most headphones.
Headphones Under $2000
The Audeze LCD-X is a headphone that has the potential to be one of the best sounding headphones in its price range, by a long shot. I say potential here because with most Audeze headphones, they really shine when you start to get into doing a bit of EQ. Now, before this throws you off if you’re not comfortable doing EQ, let me be clear that the planar magnetic transducers in the LCD-X are extremely impressive - to the point where they can handle almost any adjustment you make without distortion. Moreover, the stated goal from the company is to make their headphones as good sounding as possible without EQ, but they welcome the notion that all headphones can be improved in some way with digital signal processing, and forward-thinking idea has permeated a number of their products.
In particular, Audeze have also released their own digital signal processing presets for their headphones with Reveal+, so you know that when you buy an Audeze product, you also get the company’s support in this area too. However, I found that I was able to get the tuning for the LCD-X to be exactly how I wanted it to be just on my own. After doing this, the LCD-X was one of the best sounding headphones under $2000, and even beat a number of headphones at higher price tags.
Lastly, the LCD-X is very easy to drive as it’s intended for use in studios where you often have a wide range of equipment to run it from.
Focal’s newest closed-back dynamic driver headphone is a collaboration with Bently Motors, and it improves upon the Focal’s older closed-back Elegia in a number of important ways. First, the Radiance has a much better bass response. Not only is it stronger and more impactful, it also doesn’t have any issues with seal and fit. It does this by ensuring that the bass response isn’t as dependent on the pads to get perfect extension. Additionally, the pads have also been improved in that they’re a more comfortable leather material, resulting in a headphone that can be worn all day without issue.
For the rest of the tuning, the Radiance is also Focal’s warmest headphone, meaning that it retains the rest of the tonal balance that we’ve come to expect from their expertly tuned headphones, but it’s a bit more relaxed in the lower treble region. This makes it a non-fatiguing listen that fits with the added comfort for laid-back listening for long sessions.
Check out Chrono’s review of the Focal Radiance.
The HD 800 S may not be a new headphone but it’s still competitive in today’s market. This is a testament to how well the HD 800 S has held up over the years. It’s versatility also allows it to scale in meaningful ways when run from a wide variety of different sources, ranging from solid state amps like the SPL Phonitor X, or popular tube amps. Now, the HD 800 S is still competitive for detail and technical performance in 2020, however it also still hasn’t been beaten when it comes to soundstage and overall sense of space. In short, the HD 800 S is still the best headphone for soundstage in 2020, and likely will be for years to come.
To quote Chrono’s review:
“The HD 800 S is, without a doubt, a spectacular headphone that makes for an almost-revelatory listening experience; and I truly believe it achieves a very good blend of top-tier acoustic performance, day-long-listening comfort, and a enjoyable, agreeable tonality now that the absorber has been added to the driver.”
Check out Chrono’s review of the HD 800 S.
If the Sennheiser HD 800 S is the soundstage king for dynamic driver headphones, the HiFiMAN Arya is that equivalent for planar magnetic headphones. With a similar tonal balance to that of the Ananda, the Arya takes another step forward when it comes to image separation and distinction, depth, layering and texture. Add to that a perfectly well-extended bass response that reaches all the way down to the limits of human hearing and it’s no wonder why the HiFiMAN Arya is one of the most popular headphones in many headphone communities, including the HEADPHONE Community forum.
As a personal note, the HiFiMAN Arya is one of my absolute favorite headphones at this price point, and I highly recommend it for both its technical qualities and its overall tuning - in particular I find it to do exceptionally well for Jazz, acoustic, classical and music with instruments, as it does such a good job of being able to represent the different layers and depth to the music. Moreover, it does all of this while still managing to be quite comfortable for long listening sessions, and much lighter than competing planar magnetic headphones.
Check out the HiFiMAN Arya review here.
The Andromeda 2020 is Campfire Audio’s update to their legendary 5 balanced armature IEM. The main difference between the 2020 version and the original is that the new one has a slightly more well-balanced treble, along with an improved midrange response. So, while the original was much loved by all, the new version is even better, and for those looking at high end IEMs, the Andromeda 2020 should definitely be on the list. The overall tuning is a well-balanced, slightly relaxed presentation with a bit of a bass bump depending on the output impedance of the source, and its technical performance emphasizes detail, soundstage and layering.
To quote Precogvision’s review of the Andromeda 2020:
“The Andromeda 2020 seems to hit a sweet spot: A more laidback tuning with broad, listener appeal that doesn’t sacrifice an engagement factor. It’s imaging capabilities are a force to be reckoned with, and I’ve had to re-evaluate my expectations of what’s possible from an IEM in this regard.”
The 64 Audio U12t is considered by many to be the best IEM currently available. For me it’s a bit of a toss up between the U12t and the Empire Ears Odin, which came out this year, however I still think the U12t is the one with the more generally agreeable tuning. To that end, 64 Audio have pushed the boundaries of what’s possible with balanced armature designs with their famous ‘tia’ driver, and you really hear the benefits of this in the treble frequencies.
But beyond that, the U12t is also the gold standard for what’s possible with bass from a strictly balanced armature configuration. Before hearing the U12t, I always thought there was a limit to what BAs could do for bass frequencies - at least when it comes to technical performance, and in that sense the U12t was an absolute game changer for me. It’s tight, well controlled, but still impactful and satisfying. And, even with all of these new hybrid and tribrid design IEMs coming out in the past year, the U12t is the IEM I would personally take if I had my choice of any of them.
Check out Precogvision’s review of the 64 Audio U12t.
The Odin is my answer for this year’s most exciting new IEM. In particular, the Odin is finally the IEM I’ve wanted Empire Ears to make for a long time. The company has always been able to put out IEMs that have some of the most impressive technical performance for the price. But up until now they’ve often been seen more as ‘flavor’ IEMs - headphones that have a certain tuning that caters to a very specific audience, rather than the more linear reference sound I’ve personally been after. The Odin, however, is exactly that IEM. It uses a ‘tribrid’ design of 5 balanced armature drivers, 4 electrostatic drivers for the upper treble frequencies, and two dynamic drivers in the bass.
And, it’s easily one of the most impressive technical performers available - if not the best I’ve ever heard. Its bass response is phenomenally good at resolving all the finer nuances and texture that comes across in cellos and other string instruments, but also provides a satisfying punch and impact when called upon. Moreover, it’s all tastefully controlled, never bleeding into the mids. For the rest of the tuning, it has a slight bloom in the upper mids, but again only in a way that adds a bit of tonal richness to the music, and never in a way that strays too far from neutrality, and the treble is smooth and pleasant - well extended but never fatiguing.
For those looking for an end game IEM, the Odin merits strong consideration.
Check out my review of the Empire Ears Odin here.
Rosson Audio founder Alex Rosson was one of the founders of Audeze, a well-known planar magnetic headphone manufacturer. Since setting out on his own, Alex has developed a flagship, custom planar magnetic headphone that made it onto my top headphones at the end of 2020 list. The RAD-0 not only sounds great, with a warm yet balanced tuning, every RAD-0 is visually unique.
To describe the sound a bit more, the RAD-0 retains some of the Audeze heritage with impressive technical performance for detail retrieval and instrument separation, but it also has a tuning that’s more agreeable than many other flagship headphones around this price. The bass is linear all the way down to the limits of human hearing, as we might expect with a high performance planar like this, but also with a slight elevation as it gets lower down, yielding a lush yet still controlled presentation. The mids are linear with a slightly relaxed presentation for the upper midsa round 3khz, but then the energy comes back for a smooth yet well-extended treble response. Importantly, when it comes to the balance between fundamental and harmonic overtones in instruments, the RAD-0 manages to walk the line between relaxed and engaging - while not totally linear, this is a very enjoyable presentation that works well for any genre.
Check out Chrono’s RAD-0 Review here.
Some of the best deals this holiday season are from Focal’s headphone lineup as you can get them bundled with the Focal Arche DAC/Amp combo. This is the perfect headphone centerpiece for Focal headphones, and it even has presets for each of them. Now, it should be noted that these presets aren’t DSPs or functions that change the frequency response in any meaningful way, but rather it changes the way the headphone is being driven, and you can switch between ‘voltage’ and ‘hybrid’ drive modes.
Additionally, the Arche also functions as a headphone stand, so if you’re considering a Focal setup, or you’re looking to add to your Focal collection, this bundle is perfect for you.
The Focal Clear is regarded as one of the best and most detailed dynamic driver headphones in its price range. But, beyond that, the Clear’s best qualities come from its punch and slam capabilities. Yes, the Clear is incredibly detailed, with a satisfying musical and euphonic midrange presentation, however this headphone is also a benchmark when it comes to macrodynamics and the sense of physicality. In fact, all of Focal’s headphones have this quality to them, and in my opinion they lead the industry in this respect. So for anyone looking for a punchy and engaging open-back dynamic driver headphone the Clear should be near the top of that list.
The Clear’s tuning is also quite agreeable, having an even tonal balance across the whole frequency range, and I highly recommend it.
Check out Chrono’s review of the Clear.
The Stellia is Focal’s flagship closed-back headphone. For those wondering if the Stellia is a closed-back Utopia, while it does use a solid beryllium M-shaped dome driver - just like the Utopia - the Stellia has a warmer and bassier kind of tuning. But, apart from a slightly elevated bass response, the Stellia is well-balanced for the rest of its frequency response as well. What makes it stand out, is that this is the most detailed closed-back dynamic driver headphone available at the moment. So while the tuning is a bit different from the Utopia, one that will likely suit a different audience, it retains much of the Utopia’s technical performance. Additionally, just like the Clear and the rest of Focal’s lineup, the Stellia is an extremely punchy and dynamic sounding headphone.
Check out Chrono’s review of the Stellia here.
The Focal Utopia is the consummate open-back dynamic driver flagship headphone that’s still best in class in 2020. Not only is this the world’s most detailed and punchy dynamic driver headphone currently available, it’s also got an excellent reference style tonal balance for its frequency response.
While there are other headphones out there that compete in terms of technical performance, the Utopia is still the one that nails the tuning, as well as the technical aspects. Importantly, this is also the punchiest headphone I’ve ever heard - and I’m not talking about overall volume or sound pressure level for bass frequencies, but rather the excursive qualities that make a headphone physically engaging to listen to. This makes the Utopia a perfect all-rounder for anyone wanting a reference kind of sound.
Check out what's new with the Focal Utopia 2020 version.