Any self-professed audiophile is obsessed with listening between the lines. Take me, for instance: in my ongoing quest to hear every last detail in music—plucks, movements, background noise and range—I’ve spent hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars on headphones and amplifiers trying to find more in my music.
What that exactly means is hard to describe without using analogies to high-end Italian suiting or luxury cars: sometimes the details are visible, other times you need to pop the hood in order to truly understand what makes something perfect. One thing is wholly true with audiophiles: we understand that music demands the best sound, and is not meant to be just heard.
A great pair of headphones will make you feel something, make you move in a different way. And what causes that effect is subtle but awe-inspiring. In food, the term “umami” is a term used by people whose palates are so refined they can pick up on a specific kind of savoriness. That sort of encapsulates the appeal of hearing the sorts of aural subtleties revealed by high-quality headphones. Only by placing them on and turning on the volume will these details present themselves—that is the ephemeral high we’re all chasing.
If you’re content with your Beats or Apple earbuds, this review may not be for you, but if you’re looking to up your game and step into a new realm of sounds and experience, consider the five headphones reviewed below, all personally used and tested by me over the last six months. All five headphones essentially remain in my rotation; some used more for travel, others in the comfort of my office. But they all share one thing in common: they will make your music sound better.
Best Wireless Headphones: Sennheiser PXC 550 Noise-Canceling Travel Headphones
Wireless, once a dirty word in headphones, has made great strides in recent years. Sennheiser has been at the forefront of the wireless tech with their MM and RS series of headphones. Now, the German audio company has a new compact headphone that marries the needs of today’s business traveler with the realizations of wireless.
The Sennheiser PXC 550 is a feature-rich, noise-canceling wireless travel headphone that elevates the category. It does so with the assistance of touch controls, effect modes, Bluetooth/NFC connectivity, and a new mobile app that customizes the headphone-listening experience for individuals.
Let’s start with the touch controls: on the right earcup, one simply taps and slides to start, pause, fast-forward and skip any track playing (these same controls work during phone calls). The touch controls are slick, smooth. CapTune, Sennheiser’s mobile app (available for iOS and Android), is an integrated music player filled with a slew of functions, the most impressive being personal EQ that can be applied to all music.
If you’re stepping into a pair of Sennheiser PXC 550 headphones, you’re likely coming in for its noise-canceling features. It’s a great set of cans if you like to drown out background noise with white noise, though, I’ll note that the headphones are well padded, so even if you decide to turn off Active Noise Cancellation via the ear cup slider, they offer a good amount of seal. Sound-wise, they’re on par with many of the classic Sennheiser headphones.
In the opinion of this writer, you should be buying the Sennheiser PXC 550 for their wireless range, compact foldable size, overall soundstage, and touch controls. I can’t think of a better headphone in the category.
Best Wired Portable Headphones: Phonon 4000 Headphones
In 2014, I introduced readers to Phonon, a Japanese audio company that developed what many consider to be the most well-tuned pair of headphones today: Phonon SMB-02. Some, like New York’s famed Stereo Exchange, consider the SMB-02 the “holy grail” of headphones, delivering pristine sound unparalleled at its $350 price point. My review agreed with their assessment, adding that low volume detail made the SMB-02 my top pick of the year and the perfect choice for studio and home/office use.
But the Phonon SMB-02 is not a portable headphone. They’re certainly usable outside the home or studio, but you’ll find that external elements of city noise will make their way into the soundstage, and they’re simply not close-fitting enough to provide a “lock” while wearing.
Their answer to portability comes in the form of the Phonon 4000, a compact version of the SMB-02 built using the same 40mm driver on a travel-friendly foldable chassis that grips well. That grip allows for a strong seal when used outdoors, providing fantastic dynamics, in a package even more durable than its older brother. The fit of the Phonon 4000 is just right. It’s worth noting that the Phonon 4000 features the same heavy-duty cabling found on the SMB-02; it’s thicker than most portable headphone cables and super durable. Highly recommended.
Best Wired Home Headphones: Grado PS500E Open-Back Headphones
Grado Labs headphones are made in Brooklyn, NY in one of the most unassuming buildings in Sunset Park. You may know them by their wildly popular Grado SR-80e headphones, which at $99, are an insane value, but I’m focusing in on a pair of audiophile-grade Grados for the purpose of this review.
Grado has an acoustic signature that favors highs and mids. And while bass is well present and defined in almost all their headphones, the real gain is in the details you’ll hear in instrumentation. No pair of headphones is doing that better for me in 2016 than the open-back Grado PS500e. They’re simply one of the most detailed and crisp sounding headphones on the market today.
The piano solo in the beginning of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” has never sounded better; Thom Yorke may as well be playing and singing in the same room I’m sitting in. The Grado PS500e comes in at $600 making them one of the more expensive headphones on this list, but you get what you pay for.
One recommendation though: run these through an amplifier for even more detail and power; I’m currently running them through the $2,000 Meridian Prime Headphone Amplifier, though any headphone amp will do.
Best In-Ear Headphones: JAYS q-Jays Reference Headphones
First mentioned in my 5 Headphones We’re Using Now story back in November, JAYS q-Jays in-ear headphones remain some of the best earbuds on the market, even if they are difficult to find. The Swedish audio maker put serious effort into creating what are arguably audiophile-grade buds using “dual balanced armature drivers” to push the fine details of sound through an in-ear system. I’m playing a Rebolledo mix through them as I write this: the presence of the soundstage is forward and well-defined between left and right channels, with controlled bass.
While all in-ear headphones are portable and meant to compliment your busy life, these do lack mic and audio controls on the cable. I don’t mind their absence one bit: the last thing I want to take is a phone call while listening to my q-Jays. These are special and comfortable, and while you can spend much more for say custom molded earbuds, we would likely still prefer these. $280 and worth every dollar.
Best Bass Headphones: Sennheiser Momentum In-Ears
Back at it with Sennheiser here: the Momentum In-Ear headphones are excellent for those who want a bit more oomph in their bass, while retaining that signature Sennheiser sound. They come equipped with a mic and line controls, unlike the q-Jays. They’re also one of the more comfortable earbuds out there, shipping with a range of plug sizes to fit every ear.
Looking for a more premium fit from your Momenum In-Ears? Consider upgrading to a fantastic pair of Comply foam tips which add more isolation and comfort to these earbuds. I’ll note: these are fantastic earbuds, but the emphasis on bass does shy them away from an audiophile stamp, but at $80, it is hard to find better for those than need “oomph.” $80 iOS and Android versions.