Design
Where form meets function

Perhaps more than any other technology sector on Earth, the audio industry can be divided into those who are “serious” about the products they buy, and those who are not — and in case you weren’t sure, “serious” roughly translates to “willing to spend an eye-watering amount of money on.”

Nowhere has this become more apparent than in the headphone industry. In recent times there’s been a huge influx of new brands flooding the bottom end of the market, all catering to a customer who cares less about their frequency range than the range of outfits they can wear them with. With that in mind, there’s never been a more important time for the world’s soundwave snobs to set themselves apart from the crowd with a ludicrously extravagant pair of cans.

So, take a moment to put aside such boring practicalities as household budget, food and paying the rent, and join us as we plunge headfirst into the stuff of audiophiles’ wet dreams. For added realism, let’s ignore the fact that most of these headphones require an equally pricey amplifier to get the most out of, and just marvel at the fact you can buy a pair for more money than a new car…

10. UE PRM ($1,999)

While there are many more expensive headphones than Ultimate Ears’ Personal Reference Monitors, if you’re the type who prefers sonic subtlety while on the move and don’t want to advertise inviting price-tags to the world, these are a good starting point.

Technically the PRMs are monitor earphones, spec’d and decked for live performance scenarios. That said, they’ll still bode well on the road and allow you to brag to your friends — not least because each purchase requires a trip to an audiologist so that UE can custom-shape and calibrate your PRMs to your unique ear shape and hearing profile!

The 3D-printed mold of the headphones ensures they have the snuggest fit possible, while the personalized hearing profile will balance any deficiencies between your ears. This snug fit isolates a great deal of ambient and environmental noises,  and UE claim their patented triple-bore channels can keep the high, mid and low frequencies separate until the point of eardrum impact. Not too shabby.

9. HiFiMan HE-1000 ($2,999)

As the new kid on the audio block, New York company HiFiMan rolled out its first headphones only five years ago. Since then they’ve managed to cater right across the audio board, releasing the cheapest planar magnetic headphones on the market (the $300 HE-400S) this summer, then following that up with their prestige model at 10x the price…

HiFiMan boast that the HE-1000 are the first headphones to incorporate nanometer thickness to their diaphragm. It took seven years of R&D to develop and is less than 0.001mm thick. This almost invisible component is moved by an asymmetrical magnet circuit and protected behind a patented “shutter shades” style grill that’s specifically designed to minimize sonic refraction.

Meanwhile, they’re as luxuriously presented as they are high spec, with perforated leather, wooden veneer and brushed metal all combining in a slightly steampunk-ish design — one that comes shipped in its own tan leather, latched suitcase complete with personalized nameplate!

8. Shure KSE1500 ($3,749)

The most expensive bud-style earphones (also known as IEMs) on the market, Shure’s KSE1500 are one of the first earphones to incorporate electrostatic technology, which means the diaphragm in the headphone is virtually weightless and manipulated using a highly accurate electrostatic field, which produces incredible audio clarity. All of this is complemented by a fatigue-snubbing earbud that’s capable of blocking out 37 dB of ambient noise.

While the buds themselves are super lightweight (the diaphragm would look dwarfed by your little finger), they’re powered by a heavyweight audio controller/amplifier. Connected by a 6-pin LEMO connector cable, the amplifier boasts a four-band parametric EQ to customize your sound precisely, while the digital to analogue converter uses a high resolution 24-bit sample rate for richness and clarity.

With seven hours battery power (and the ability to listen while charging), even though the whole package isn’t quite as portable as a standard set of earphones, they’re still clearly optimized for luxury listening on the move.

7. Audeze LCD-4 ($3,995)

Audeze’s flagship LCD-3s have been the go-to earspeakers for the most fastidious audio addicts since they launched in 2011. Until last month, that is, when they announced the LCD-4.

Topping the LCD-3’s legacy has taken four years of development, but with sub-micron diaphragm thickness and substantially increased power thanks to its double fluxor magnets, they’ve achieved it; the LCD-4s are one of the most powerful planar magnetic headphones available.

Sonically, the soundstage is balanced and fine-tuned to a dynamic sound and the plump suspension headband has piqued a lot of interest. For a more lightweight effect, throw another $200 at the problem and get yourself a carbon fiber band. After all, when you’re dropping this kind of cash on a pair of cans, you might as well go all in…

Still interested? Get to the back of the queue; the LCD-4 are built to order and there’s already a bit of a wait.

6. Stax SR-009 ($4,450)

High polymer ultra-thin super engineered plastics, multi-layer electrodes, metal plates etched to create heat diffusion at an atomic level…The spec of Stax’s flagship SR-009 headphones reads like a bomb recipe. And, with the amount of attention to detail during manufacture, the sonic experience should be just as explosive.

Beneath the understated, open-back design, the electrostatic headphones boast that all-important ultra-thin diaphragm. This one is powered by electrodes that respond to the entire peak and trough of any soundwaves, adapting to low resonance and high transmissivity with no fear of distortion (audiophile geek alert).

Naturally this high-tech array isn’t drip-fed sound by any old standard wiring; Stax have incorporated six-strand silver-coated pure copper wiring that produces clearer sound than an Alpine lake. What’s more, even the most egg-headed audio fanboys have been catered for with a headband optimized to fit 10 different head shapes.

5. Ultrasone Edition 5 – Limited ($4,999)

Ultrasone’s Edition 5 are something of an anomaly; on the one hand, they say their headphones are like “having your own private concert hall on your head,” yet their closed-backs don’t exactly suggest a roomy, spacious listening experience.

The trick is all in the tuning, apparently. Bespoke to Ultrasone’s headphones are two titanium-coated transducers that are hand-tuned and matched to each other to create an arrangement comes at you from the peripheries and meets in the middle. Effectively that means you’re wearing a perfectly calibrated listening room on your head at all times – only this one comes made of Ethiopian long-haired sheep leather and seven-layer varnished Bavarian bog oak…No, seriously.

Only 555 of these were made last year, but stocks still remain. Failing that, the Ultrasone Edition 5 Unlimited are the same sonic spec, only without the outrageous sheep leather and bog oak and come at you for almost half the price. Making them of absolutely no interest us!

4. Abyss – AB-1266 ($5,495)

They’re blocky, they’re angular and they make your head look like a 1960s robot, but they boast a superlative spec that absolutely no one will be laughing at. In fact, the sleek rectangular look isn’t accidental or aesthetic, it’s to ensure precision adjustability so when those soft lambskin pads hit your ears, meaning there’s no pressure or discomfort whatsoever.

Sound-wise the planar magnetic drivers took over five years to develop and correctly position, reducing reflections and creating an open sound from their thin, low-mass diaphragm. The result is a broad bandwidth and widescreen spectrum that allows a spacious sound that’s designed to make you feel as if you’re right in the center of the action.

3. Final Sonorous X (No U.S. price confirmed. Approx. $6,000 – 8,000)

Here’s where the price starts to really jack up, making the previous entries in the list seem quite reasonable. Well, almost.

The brand new Sonorous X are so fresh they’ve not rolled out globally yet. Dispatched from their Japanese laboratories in traditional tomobako boxes last month, Final (formerly Final Audio Design) have literally gold-plated their flagship pair of headphones to produce the ultimate prestige model. And that’s the kind of outrageous flamboyance we like to see.

Beneath the bling the hardy aluminum and stainless steel unit houses 50mm dynamic drivers and a titanium diaphragm that ensures all unwanted vibrations and reflections are kept to a minimum. Applying the same acoustics as a brass instrument, Final reckon the rigid metal also creates a realistic vibrancy.

At 630g they’re every bit as heavy as they look, but ear-fatigue during marathon listening sessions should be kept at bay with the cummerbund-thick leather head band. Meanwhile, the pillowed ear cups are made of this same leather and, thanks to their weight, clasp on the ears securely, reducing a lot of ambient noise.

Fully aware of just how precious these cans are, Final have issued each model with regionally-sensitive product keys to prevent parallel importing. So if you can’t find a pair near you, you’re straight outta luck.

2. V-Moda Crossfade Wireless ($40,000)

Headphone tailor to OG selectors such as Paul Oakenfold and Roger Sanchez, V-Moda originally made a name for themselves in the DJ sector with their M-100, but have now created a wireless pair that wants to tick the (high) lifestyle box too.

Entry-level Crossfade models actually cost just $299. And, for that price, the spec is impressive: a well-imaged soundstage (thanks to its dual-diaphragm), robust steel-frame and wireless functionality that’s optimized for smartwatches is all yours to enjoy. But such pocket money purchases have no place in this list…until, that is, you go and create your own V-Moda Crossfade vanity cans and the price jumps up over 130 times.

A vast array of precious metals awaits those with chunkier wallets, as the enclosure shields can be 3D printed in almost any design you want using silver, gold, rose gold, white gold or platinum. “Witness the end of ubiquity,” says the marketing spiel. “Say goodbye to a crazy amount of cash,” says common sense. Then again, a lot of A-list DJs don’t have much of that to begin with…

1. Sennheiser Orpheus ($55,000)

$55,000: just take a minute and let that sink in. You could actually get on the property ladder with that. That is five grand more than the average American takes home in a whole year. Can anything justify this price tag? Potentially…

The first thing you need to shake off about the Sennheiser Orpheus is the idea of headphones being something portable. These electrostatic headphones are a machine — a space-age machine that took 10 years to develop and another 10 years to build and refine. The power amp base is crafted out of pure Italian marble and has quartz glass vacuum valves rising from it that glow on ignition. It boasts four parallel digital-to-analog DAC channels per ear, ensuring super-low audio distortion at levels that are physically inaudible to mere mortals. Even its frequency response of 8Hz to 100KHz is beyond the human range of hearing.

Apparently each Orpheus construction involves over 50 different pairs of hands, each attending to every minutiae of detail. From the brass-milled chrome plated dials to the allergen-free velour ear pads by way of the gold-vaporized ceramic transducers and silver-plated OFC cables, these guarantee the most crystalline sound you have ever heard…Or ever will.

While Sennheiser only made 300 of the original Orpheus models (each sold at $16,000 and go for more than double that today — if you can find one), the new Orpheus won’t be limited. That said, they take so much time to make that only 250 will roll out every year. Better get your order in quick, then…

Bonus Round: Lil Wayne’s Diamond-Encrusted Beats ($1,000,000)

There aren’t many people who’d be as bold (some say stupid) to drop a million bucks on a pair of Beats. But then, most people aren’t Lil Wayne. While his diamond and ruby-coated pair of the popular high-street headphones were most definitely a one-off, you can get a similar effect for a comparatively pedestrian $800 from the guys at Crystal Rocked. They do 24-karat gold versions too, if you’re feeling understated.

For more outrageously tales of wealth, check out the World’s 5 Most Valuable Art Collections .

  • Author: Dave Jenkins
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