In recent years it’s become harder and harder to find headphones that allow you to listen to music the way it’s meant to be heard, as more and more audio gear is made with heavy bias. The iPod explosion contributed to a saturated market for headphones, and so many companies felt the need to differentiate their products based on creating a unique sound. Unfortunately, this trend has made it much more difficult for purists to enjoy music in the best way possible - the way the artist originally intended for it to be heard.
Headphones that are unbiased may not sound very impressive when you first try them on in a shop. However, just like a good wine, you will notice that they provide more subtle details to every single track in your library in time, and that they aren’t horrible for listening to certain genres or more complex tracks, as biased equipment can often be. If there is bass or treble in the actual track, you will hear it in all its genuine texture and crispness, and if there is NOT, then you won’t have it added to the music in a bombastic, bloated manner, distracting you from the essence of the music. If you’re coming from sub-par headphones, it can be an unusual experience, but it will grow on you.
There are still headphones in every price range that were made with the goal of achieving this transparency, and we have reviewed and sorted them below by price range and in-ear v. over-the-head categories.
VSonic VSD1S ($49)
VSonic came into the audio world with a splash, and provides a wide range of headphones, from the cheap yet quite clean sounding VSD1S to the more expensive products like the GR07. This particular model is the best you can do for an in-ear headphone at this price. For those on a budget, this will handle everything you throw at them.
Sony MDR ZX100 ($32)
If you’re looking for strong headphones for this price range, Sony has your back. They make the most well balanced and clean sounding headphones that won’t break the bank.
Sure SE 215 ($99)
Ah, Sure. They’ve done an amazing job with their in-ear monitors, and the SE215 is the first place you start to see a good dual driver earbud. These are also the first balanced armature headphones on the list. Balanced Armature drivers are smaller, and produce a more accurate sound, but across less pitch. Sure got around that by sticking two balanced armatures in each earpiece. One for the highs, and one for the lows, contributing to a nice clean sound, with plenty of detail to boot.
AKG ATH M50X ($150)
If you search around online it's not hard to find a lot of people who really love the ATH M50X. They are an improved model of the ATH M50, and are most people’s
gateway drug into audiophilia. Comfortable and noise cancelling, they also have excellent sound quality. If you're the type to close your eyes and imagine your favorite band playing in front of you, this is the way to do it.
Westone UM2 ($250)
Like Sure, Westone has done some wonderful things for in-ear lovers. Again, using a dual balanced armature system, but with better tuning and more detail, Westone creates a winner at this price point for those who want every detail in their music, from their morning commute, to their daily run.
Sony MDR1R ($223)
Big brother to the other MDR mentioned earlier, these headphones have some of the clearest, crispest sounding instrumentals and vocals you can find for
this price. The are also one of the first headphones in this list where you start to get some real soundstaging. The music feels 3D, and the sounds of an orchestra
will envelop you.
Logitech Ultimate Ears 900 ($349)
Ultimate Ears was its own company until Logitech bought them a few years back. While their lower end models aren’t really anything special, the UE 900
stands out as one of the best sounding in ear headphones I’ve heard at this price. Sporting an impressive four balanced armature drivers per ear they have separate drivers for the mids, highs, and bass. The soundstaging on these is beautiful, and when you walk around, it feels like the band is following you through
space. It’s a wonderful feeling. Oh, and as an added bonus, the cables are removable.
Sennheiser HD 600 ($340)
Sennheiser has long been regarded as the king of headphones, until they were usurped by Audeze a few years ago. Even then, at this price range, you simply
cannot get anything better than the HD600. This is the stage where the sound you get out of MP3 files starts to feel like it’s not quite enough, so switching to some lossless audio, or more detailed sources, such as CD or Vinyl is suggested for maximum enjoyment. Keep in mind that these are open back headphones, though.
People will be able to hear what you’re listening to. But don’t worry too much - everyone will appreciate some Tchaikovsky.
InEar StageDiver 2 ($450)
There’s a lot that could be said about German engineering, but the only thing I will say is that these are the first In Ear headphones I've heard that match the
soundstage of over-the-head headphones in their price category. There are two things that balanced armatures tend to struggle with. First, they have trouble doing
bass, and second, they have trouble with the 3D nature of sound, simply because they’re so close to your ears. The StageDiver 2 is not held back by either of these, and has two precision tuned balanced armature drivers. It
presents a beautiful sound that’s perfect for portable users, with some of the most perfectly balanced bass, mids, and highs in a 3D setting. These are the holy grail of in ear monitors.
Oppo PM3 ($399)
Now we’re getting into some interesting stuff. with the Oppo PM3, for the first time, we see a planar magnetic headphone under $500. Planar magnetic headphones are the “next level” of speaker technology, too big to be placed into tiny in ear units, but perfect for large headphones. The Oppos are comfortable, and
impeccably detailed. They leave nothing to chance, and just present clean, beautiful, smooth, and perfect sound. The bass is not overpowering, but it reveals texture as it goes low... so, so low. It doesn’t feel like someone is playing in your head, it feels like they’re in the room, revolving around you.