Welcome to another official guide here at GND-Tech. This one is about audio products ranging from headphones to speakers, sound cards, amplifiers, and more. This is primarily a buying guide, sorting highly recommended audio products by category and price range. But of course, we will provide you with some basic information on different kinds of audio products and their function.
Although most of us are gamers, gaming headsets (headphone and microphone combinations from companies like Logitech, Razer, Steelseries, and Corsair) are really not the way to go. Especially $100+ ones, not only are they not worth the money, they’re complete ripoffs: inferior, dirt cheap products with gimmicks and a name slapped on and a ridiculous price. Much like the old gaming keyboards that used to exist, like the Logitech G15 and Logitech G19.
Gaming headsets are really cheap headphones with a microphone attached. You’re paying for the brand name more than anything. Headphone users should always look for audiophile grade headphones. Don’t let that scare you, you can get some for under $150. These aren’t meant to sound like headphones; their purpose is to make it sound like the wearer is actually hearing the music live, perhaps even on-stage with the musicians. However, audiophile grade headphones aren’t designed just for people who spend their life listening to music, they’re better for every single purpose including gaming.
On a related note, avoid “gaming” speakers from gaming companies too. They’re just cheaply built, inferior, and you’re paying for the brand name.
Let’s start with perhaps the more common choice for PC gamers, headphones. When shopping for headphones, you’ll come across Open Back and Closed Back headphones, and sometimes mixed “semi-open.” These are easily recognizable by their appearance too: closed back headphones have fully sealed ear cups on the outside, like most gaming headsets. Open back headphones have open ear cups with mesh or a grill covering it. See the images below.
Pictured below is the Audio Technica ATH-A2000X, which are closed versions of the above headphones.
Semi-open will have some openings and some sealed spots. Designs here may vary, for example:
But the ZMF Ori on the left is mostly closed (according to them about 85% closed). The ZMF Blackwood on the right is fully closed for reference.
Closed back provides one key benefit: isolation. Since the ear cups are sealed, sound barely leaks out and outside noise barely leaks into the headphones. They isolate the wearer from the environment, and they isolate the environment from the wearer. The downside to closed back headphones are related to aerodynamics; without air to move behind the driver (backblast so to speak), there is less mid-bass presence than if it was at least semi-open, treble reverberations inside the cup become audible (hard to describe but treble will sound more “airy” in an open back headphone, you don’t hear the reverbs), decay can become faster, sound stage and imaging can be better (the ability for the headphone to present sounds in three dimensional space, and imaging refers to precision). You cannot have a closed back electrostatic headphone FYI, the tech wouldn’t work.
So it boils down to personal preference and your personal needs when it comes to open back vs closed back headphones. If you live in a busy, somewhat noisy household, you’ll probably want closed back headphones to drown out the outside noise. If you want headphones for travel, you’ll also want closed back for the same reason. Open back is best for quiet, isolated environments.
Another thing to pay attention to when it comes to headphone (and to a lesser extent speaker) shopping is the impedance value for both the headphones in question, as well as the output impedance value for any amplifier you might be looking at (or whatever the headphone is being connected to, so this applies to standard line level audio outputs too). This is given in ohms. The rule of thumb is, headphone/speaker impedance should be at least 8x the output impedance of the amplifier. Most over-ear headphones are 32-50 ohms, so you would want the amplifier’s output impedance to be no more than 8 – 6.25ohms. Amplifiers with opamps in the output stage (which includes all sound cards with amplifiers) typically have high output impedance, and more distorted objectively inferior sound, but more on this later. I prefer to go with amplifiers with under 1 ohms output impedance.
Most headphone out devices are not designed for high impedance (100ohms and above) headphones. So these headphones, such as those from Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser, usually require more expensive amplifiers. Another pro tip: vacuum tubes have naturally high output impedance, so all tube amps are usually best for high impedance headphones and sensitive 8 ohms speakers.
But, when it comes to driving headphones and speakers, efficiency also known as sensitivity is a major factor. This is measured in dB/mW. The higher the efficiency, the easier it is for the headphone/speaker to get loud. This is why the 50 Ohm HiFiMan HE-6 and SUSVARA are so hard to drive. 50 Ohm isn’t high, but they have a very low efficiency of 83.5 dB/mW, so they need more power (milliwatts/watts) to achieve a certain listening level (decibels/dB).
If you listen to many different music genres, then you may or may not find one headphone that’s right for you. Different headphones have different sound signatures. You may find yourself in need of more than one.
When it comes to speakers, you’ll find both active and passive speakers. Passive speakers need an amplifier, while active speakers have one built-in. Passive speakers are generally recommended, since you can upgrade them with any amplifying source you want. If you have the money, go for passive speakers since they lead to improved sound quality if you use a good amplifier (not class D) and further customization down the road. You’ll want to get quality passive speakers, a good subwoofer, and a good amplifying source (be it an amplifier or receiver). Receivers are speaker amplifiers with other functions; in this day and age they usually offer multichannel surround support.
But obviously, the best quality sound is limited to two channels. All the best DACs and amps are two channels. Multichannel surround is for gaming and movies and TV, but music should only be played on two channels.
One of the first things people look at when buying headphones or speakers is the frequency response, which is the sound range of the headphones measured in Hz. This is the most basic measurement. Lower means deeper sound, with the lowest range being bass. The highest, shrieking range is referred to as treble. Speakers generally don’t produce very low frequency sounds, which is what subwoofers are for.
Looking at a frequency response graph will help you get an idea of how the headphone or speaker in question will sound. Let’s look at some examples. Frequency response will typically be a line graph, with the X axis being the sound frequency in Hz while the Y axis is the amplitude in decibels. You will often hear people mention “linear sound” and indeed this refers to frequency response, but it is not literal usage of the word ‘linear.’ You see, humans hear higher pitched frequencies much more than they hear lower pitched ones. So a truly linear frequency response would sound intolerably high pitched to a person, so no listening device (headphones/speakers) have such a frequency response.
So, “linear” frequency response is relative to human hearing, which varies per person. Hence the subjective aspect of audio. But, there is a de facto standard target frequency response, called the Harman response curve, which takes into consideration typical human hearing.
So technically, the most “linear” or “even” sound to a person will be something like that. Let’s look at some real world frequency graphs for different headphones now.
That graph shows three headphones: the Fostex T50RP MK2, Fostex T50RP MK3, and MrSpeakers Alpha Prime which is a heavily modified Fostex T50RP. Notice the big nose dive in the lower frequencies for the T50RP MK2 and MK3 (green/blue lines respectively, left side of the graph). What does this mean? It means no sub-bass. The response in the lower frequencies (sub-bass region, under 100 Hz) is so low that it won’t be audible. This is what affordable headphones and speakers are like, people. This is also what higher priced dynamic headphones/speakers are like (typical cone driver tech), since this tech is just inferior, but more on that later.
Notice the orange line, the MrSpeakers Alpha Prime. Not only does it have actual sub-bass, but overall it is a more linear frequency response. Straighter line. Linear is used in conjunction with the term ‘neutral’ in this sense, so a neutral headphone or speaker has a more linear frequency response, more closely adhering to the Harman response curve.
Let’s look at one more example below:
This is the Fostex TH900. Notice how the entire bass region (200 Hz and below) is above the mid-range region? Also look at how the treble response is nearly as strong as the mid-range response: remember, humans hear high frequencies (treble) far more than they hear everything else, so this means that treble will completely overpower the mids. The bass also completely overpowers the mids, so when listening to these headphones, the mids (vocals, most instruments and sounds in general) will sound as if they are behind and snuffed out by the bass (percussion) and treble. See how this all translates into what we hear? This is how Beats headphones are too. This is known as a V-shaped frequency response; not literally V-shaped, but to us it sounds like it, since the bass and treble (left and right spectrums) are far more prominent sounding to us than the mids (middle). Get it?
When shopping for high end audio products, you’ll want to replace your motherboard’s onboard audio solution. Why? Because it’s cheap and it sucks. Scientific reasoning? Even the fancy motherboards that isolate the audio components on the PCB, they are still using digital to analog conversion that is imprecise and full of all kinds of errors and higher distortion than elite solutions, and terrible amplifiers with sound distorting components in the signal path, for starters. Certain high end audio equipment, namely very high impedance headphones, may not work at all with onboard audio.
If replacing onboard audio, chances are you’ll be looking at sound cards which can be great for gaming. Another solution which is best for audiophiles is a combination of an external headphone amplifier and digital to analog converter (DAC). Or for active speakers, just an external DAC with line level outputs, or perhaps a DAC and a line preamplifier. And for passive speakers, a DAC, a line preamplifier, and a power amplifier (or an integrated amplifier, which is a line amplifier and power amplifier in one, sometimes with a DAC and other features too). After all, a sound card is a DAC with other features for virtual surround and the like, and sometimes with a headphone amp as well. If you’re getting a sound card, it should be for a gaming/home theater setup where music isn’t the priority.
If music is your top priority and you don’t care for surround effects (which has no business in a music setup really, due to the way most music is recorded and mastered), then:
– For headphones, get an external DAC and headphone amplifier. But not just any, we will help you decide later.
– For active speakers, get an external DAC at least. A line preamplifier might be a good idea too.
– For passive speakers, get an external DAC and either an integrated amplifier or separate line preamplifier and power amplifier.
It is possible to use a sound card, an external DAC, and an external amp to get the best of both worlds. Pairing a sound card with an external amp is straightforward; just plug the amp into the sound card, usually using two RCA plugs. Using an external DAC with a sound card is more tricky though; since you have to bypass the sound card’s DAC while still retaining the sound card’s gaming features like virtual surround. You’ll need a sound card that supports either optical TOSLINK output or S/PDIF coaxial output, and a DAC that supports the same input. So connecting the DAC to the sound card via optical, and then an amp to the DAC, will give you the sound card’s virtual surround/gaming features, the quality of the external DAC, and the quality of the external amplifier. This is ideal for people who seriously game and listen to music on the same PC.
True 3D sound is a dying breed in modern gaming. Its downfall began with Windows Vista, thanks to patents by Creative. Prior to Vista, many PC exclusive games offered true 3D sound (binaural) thanks to the advanced DirectSound3D API coupled with X-Fi’s hardware 3D sound processing (a technology exclusive to Creative’s X-Fi DSP, found on X-Fi sound cards). DirectSound and DirectSound3D are no longer included with Windows, ever since Vista, due to patents from Creative. EAX died along with it since that was also hardware processed by Creative sound cards. So now, we have very little 3D sound processing in games, and the games that do try it without OpenAL are nowhere near as good. Environmental audio took a big step back as well without EAX/EFX, but some studios are catching up with their own implementations.
The one saving grace is OpenAL, a new sound API that has basically taken on the roles of DirectSound3D. It started off as open source DirectSound3D, but Creative acquired it. An open source implementation of it still exists called OpenAL Soft. Every game should really use OpenAL, it is flat out objectively the best.
If you don’t have a Creative sound card, you can still get true 3D sound from OpenAL games by using OpenAL Soft. Follow this guide:
[PSA] For games using OpenAL (including Minecraft and anything that runs on Linux) turn on HRTF audio processing! : oculus
However, those steps aren’t really necessary for those with X-Fi sound cards, since X-Fi CMSS-3D automatically does advanced hardware based OpenAL 3D sound processing. This feature seems to be absent from modern Creative sound cards, which revert to software processing like OpenAL Soft which I can confirm is considerably worse. I have tried Creative Sound Core3D sound cards, OpenAL Soft, and Rapture3D. X-Fi hardware processing decimates everything in existence.
For all the games that supported 3D sound through DirectSound3D, you can still get 3D sound in these games with Creative X-Fi sound cards. To do so, you need to download Creative ALchemy. Add DirectSound3D games to it (though many are added by default) by searching for their directory (the one with the game executable). Once added, ALchemy will add a “dsound.dll” file to the directory you or ALchemy chose, which converts the game from DirectSound3D to OpenAL, thus enabling 3D sound processing.
This 3D sound processing benefits surround sound systems the most of course. But it benefits stereo/2.1 systems too, it is superior to virtual surround (downmixing multichannel surround to stereo) as it is downmixing far more data than what 7.1 channel surround data provides. Compared to virtual surround, 3D binaural sound using the methods mentioned above is far more effective at providing positional audio cues and immersive sound. This is because the binaural sound effect it achieves is meant to replicate how human ears work. For a demonstration of binaural sound, watch this video.
Binaural sound recordings like that are recorded with two microphones, just like a normal person has two ears. Two microphones, picking up all sounds in a 360 degree arc, like you have two ears hearing everything in a 360 degree arc all around you. The directional audio you hear in that video is not created by special software processing, it’s your ears doing all the processing. This is as realistic as it gets, more realistic than virtualized surround which just downmixes multichannel surround to stereo. 3D sound processing through OpenAL and the late DirectSound3D replicates this sound very well.
Virtual surround also harms sound quality more than X-Fi CMSS-3D’s binaural 3D sound processing, so it’s worse in every way. So if you play pre-WinVista PC exclusive games, and/or any OpenAL game (OpenAL is still used today), you’re going to want to enable 3D sound processing.
Hardware accelerated sound is dead now, due to the death of DirectSound3D and X-Fi sound cards combined with games not using OpenAL. So sound cards are no longer necessary for modern PC gaming, because hardware accelerated sound is dead.
Anyway, I think that’s enough talk. Let’s take a look at some of the highest recommended audio products, first by brand and then by price range. Note that a high end speaker setup will cost a lot more money than a high end headphone setup (if not, then the headphones are overpriced as hell, which is often the case), which is obvious given the size and amount of components needed for speakers.
- Audio Technica
- Modhouse (although they only really have one headphone but it is of great value)
- Stax (electrostatic headphones)
Note about Denon: they had some great headphones in the past that are now discontinued. Their newer models haven’t been as well received. So below is a listing of recommended headphones by price range. To narrow down your search even farther, find out which ones are best suited to your needs (e.g., closed vs open, genre of music) as you will not find a headphone that’s perfect in every regard (except maybe the < $4,000 Stax SR-009 which is still bested in certain areas by other headphones). Some headphones are certain for better music genres than others, it really boils down to personal preference.
There are three commonly discussed types of headphones (and speakers) in the audiophile world; dynamic, planar magnetic (aka orthodynamic or the trademarked Magneplanar name from Magnepan), and electrostatic. Almost all speakers and headphones are dynamic… unfortunately. Below is a brief breakdown of each.
Dynamic (the most common) – Typical cone driver tech. The cable is connected to a voice coil, which is installed inside a diaphragm (preferably towards the center). The voice coil is driven by a magnet which causes it to vibrate within the diaphragm. These vibrations create the sound waves that we hear. Because of how the voice coil is simply installed (glued) into the diaphragm, sound resonates outward from the driver. So we have uneven distribution of vibrations across the diaphragm. This is the baseline driver technology for speakers and headphones, the cheapest to produce, and the worst sounding. Notorious for massive sub-bass rolloff below 100 Hz, in other words weak to no response below 100 Hz so weak or no sub-bass.
Planar Magnetic – Like dynamic, although the voice coil is attached to the diaphragm with super flat wires stripped across the diaphragm so to speak, in such a way that thinner, less resonant diaphragm materials can be used (e.g., the nanometer-thick diaphragms in the HiFiMan HE1000 and Audeze LCD-4). In addition, magnets are installed on either side of the diaphragm (some headphones have just one magnet on one side, others have one on each side) which the voice coil’s magnetic field reacts to. The diaphragm is thus suspended between a magnetic field. This means vibrations across the diaphragm are even and uniform, resulting in potentially less distortion and more transparent sound than dynamic drivers.
So to sum up the pros and cons of planar magnetic technology:
- (+) Potentially more transparent, less distorted sound than dynamic drivers.
- (+) Potentially deeper, harder hitting bass, since the magnetic force driving the diaphragm is far more powerful than electrostatic driver tech. The ultimate basshead tech.
- (–) Needs well designed damping materials to clean up frequency response. The planar magnetic assembly involves materials that alter the frequency response.
- (–) Costs more to produce than dynamic (and electrostatic?) drivers.
I wish all “subwoofers” were planar magnetic. The only one I know of isn’t even a subwoofer technically, it’s a full range stereo speaker – the Magnepan bass panel, but I’d limit it to 200 Hz and below.
Planar magnetic tech when done right clearly surpasses any dynamic driver tech, but complicated engineering makes it a less efficient technology than electrostatic. For example, the $3,000 HiFiMan HE1000v2 is the cheapest planar magnetic headphone that approaches the transparency of a good electrostatic headphone like the Stax SR-007 and SR-009. Then again, Magnepan speakers are quite affordable.
Electrostatic – Electrostatic drivers consist of the thinnest diaphragms (an inherent benefit, which is why Audeze and HiFiMan are going for the thinnest diaphragms possible with their flagships) which are also electrically charged. This diaphragm is suspended between two metal plates (electrodes). The analog sound signal received from the cable is applied to these electrodes creating an electrical field. The diaphragm is drawn to one of the plates depending on the polarity of this electrical field.
No voice coils, no uneven vibrations across the diaphragm. Because of the lack of moving parts, the even distribution of vibrations from the diaphragm, and because vibrations are created and stopped much faster, electrostatic drivers can produce better sound in numerous ways detailed below. Unlike planar magnetic drivers, it accomplishes this with no materials that interfere with sound!
- (+) Much more transparent (clear) sound than all other types, thus far more realistic sound.
- (+) Much better at resolving details.
- (+) More even, linear frequency response, leading to better detail retrieval and more realistic tonality.
- (+) Much better, more linear, more realistic treble performance than any other type of driver.
- (+) Much faster, more realistic decay, which improves transparency and also detail retrieval.
- (+) Does not have the sub-bass rolloff of dynamic driver tech, meaning a full range electrostatic transducer can actually produce sub-bass.
- (–) Less driving force than planar magnetic, leading to less possible bass slam.
- (–) More costly to make than dynamic drivers, not sure about planars.
- (–) Electrostatic headphones require special electrostatic amplifiers, although electrostatic loudspeakers do not require specialized amplifiers. Due to the niche market of electrostatic equipment, electrostatic headphone amplifiers cost more (also referred to as “Stax tax”). Electrostatic amplifiers are also generally more expensive to produce, which of course also contributes to them having higher prices.
Electrostatic technology is much closer to what professional grade microphones use. They don’t use moving voice coils. Actually, said microphones are much closer to electret technology, which is essentially the little brother to electrostatic.
I’m only going to recommend over-ear (circumaural) headphones. On-ear headphones are just too uncomfortable and become painful after a short while, I can never recommend them.
- Audio Techncia ATH-M20X (closed)
- Audio Techncia ATH-M30X (closed)
- Audio Techncia ATH-M40X (closed)
- Audio Technica ATH-AD500X (open)
- Audio Technica ATH-A500X (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DTX 710 (mostly open)
- Beyerdynamic DTX 910 (open)
- Philips SHP-9500/SHP-9500S (open) – If you can find them, by far the best for this price. These days these usually go for more though.
- Samson SR850 (mostly closed)
- Samson SR950 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 419 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 429 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 439 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 449 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 518 (open)
$100-140 -> You don’t really need anything more than $100-200 headphones for gaming, as diminishing returns for this purpose set in quickly.
- Audio Technica ATH-AD700X (open) -> This is the cheapest awesome gaming headphone
- Audio Technica ATH-A700Z (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DT 440 (open)
- Sennheiser HD 559 (open)
- AKG Q701 (open)
- AKG K612 PRO (open)
- Audio Technica ATH-M50X (closed, very popular for the average youngster, better version of Beats)
- Audio Technica ATH-AD900X (open)
- Audio Technica ATH-A900Z (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DT 660 Premium (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro (open)
- Fostex T20RP MK3 (open) -> Best bass below $200 along with the T50RP MK3
- Fostex T40RP MK3 (closed) -> One of the best sub $200 closed headphones
- Fostex T50RP MK3 (semi open) -> One of the best sub $200 headphones, best bass below $200 along with the T20RP MK3
- Sennheiser HD 598 Cs (closed) -> One of the best neutral sub $200 closed headphones
- Sennheiser HD 599 (open) -> One of the best neutral sub $200 open headphones
- AKG K550 (closed)
- AKG K551 (closed)
- AKG K7xx (open, very similar to the K712 Pro but made in China and with different pads) – My most recommended gaming headphone and $200 and below open back headphone
- Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro (mostly open) – Neutral sound
- Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium 32 Ohm (best DT 880 for portability, although it’s not a closed headphone so I see little reason to get it)
- Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium 250 Ohm (same as the Pro but different grill, headband, and cable, so only get it if you prefer its cable and if the price is about the same as the Pro)
- Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium 600 Ohm (mostly open)
- Beyerdynamic DT 990 Premium 32 Ohm (open, best DT 990 for portability, although it’s not a closed headphone so I see little reason to get it)
- Beyerdynamic DT 990 Premium 600 Ohm (open)
- Mod House Audio Argon MK3 – Modified Fostex T50RP MK3, probably the most affordable headphone with actual sub-bass along with the ZMF Classic
- Philips Fidelio X2 (open)
- Sennheiser HD 6XX (open) – It’s a Sennheiser HD 600 but with slightly worse build quality. Same sound. The HD 600 isn’t worth its price, but this one is for people who like acoustic music that isn’t heavy (this headphone is ideal for chamber music).
- Stax SR-307 (open, by far the most transparent and detailed headphone for the price, unless you find an SR-407 for a similar price)
- ZMF Classic – Modified Fostex T50RP MK3, probably the most affordable headphone with actual sub-bass along with the Argon MK3. Sounds very similar to the Argon Mk3 but with a tad less bass (but still a lot).
Yup, I can honestly only recommend 3 headphones in this price range. The Sennheiser HD 600/650 are not worth this price unless the HD 6XX isn’t available and all you listen to is chamber music. They are outdated tech and it is audible when listening to them.
$401-500 – As a general rule of thumb, if you have headphones in this price range or higher, you should have an amplifier with a similar to much greater value to get the most out of it.
- HiFiMan HE-500 (open) – Used to be the best value headphone in the Mid-Fi price range, since it’s truly a Hi-Fi headphone that easily performs on par with $700-900 headphones, being clearly superior to the Sennheiser HD 700 in most ways, far more realistic than any Audeze. It sounds very close to neutral but with very good, impactful bass (not exaggerated or boomy though, it’s a very neutral headphone). Good sound stage and imaging, very good transparency, fantastic all around. Despite being neutral it’s still very musical and not sterile or analytical at all. It’s somewhat heavy, not the best for ridiculously long listening sessions or those with frail skulls/necks. I’ve only auditioned it with an upgraded HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 and it is a perfect match.
- HiFiMan Sundara (open) – Technically the most accurate headphone below $1,000 I’d say. Relaxing, laid back sound due to low treble energy, but doesn’t skimp on detail and the transparency can’t be beaten by any non-electrostat for under $1,000. Good for all genres.
- Stax SR-L300 (open, by far the most transparent headphone for this price along with the SR-407)
- Stax SR-407 (open, by far the most transparent headphone for the price along with the SR-L300)
- Stax SR-L500 (open) – Improved version of the SR-507 and its successor, the most transparent sub $1000 headphone
- ZMF Blackwood (closed) – I reviewed it here under the name Rhamnetin. The best closed back headphone in the world in my opinion, and my 2nd favorite sub $1,000 headphone. I like it more than most over $1,000 headphones too, more than any dynamic headphone (including the Sennheiser HD 800, HD 800 S, Focal Utopia) and some much more expensive planars like the HiFiMan Edition X, all Audezes including the LCD-4, JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266. Sounds more natural and realistic than all of those, except for classical music where it’s still good. One of the only headphones with no sonic weaknesses (considering it’s closed back) to my ears, I am mentioning the others as I go along so this is the first so far.
- MrSpeakers Aeon Flow (open)
- MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Closed (closed)
- ZMF Ori (mostly closed) – Similar to the ZMF Blackwood but partially open which gives it a tad more mid-bass presence, more airy realistic treble, makes certain details slightly easier to hear, faster/more realistic decay. My favorite sub $1,000 headphone, and I like it better than 99% of > $1,000 headphones since it sounds more natural and authentic. One of very few headphones with no sonic weaknesses to my ears.
- HiFiMan HE1000 v2 (open). Overpriced, but a supremely well rounded yet relaxed sound that anyone can enjoy. Does all genres justice, no sonic weaknesses. For anyone who wants to avoid a fatiguing sound, this is a good option though its ear pads tend to fall apart so be weary.
- MrSpeakers VOCE (open, electrostatic)
- Stax SR-L700 (open, electrostatic so needs electrostatic amp)
- Stax SR-007 (open, electrostatic so needs an electrostatic amp, preferably a very good and powerful one such as the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE, KGSSHV Carbon, or KGSSHV minimum). Extremely comfortable. The best value open back Hi-Fi headphone, and it resides within the top 5 best open back headphones in existence. There are different variations of this headphone: most noticeably the SR-007Mk1 early version (brown leather, champagne metal), SR-007Mk1 late version (brown leather, champagne metal), SR-007Mk2 early version (all black), SR-007A early version (black leather, silver metal), and the current production SR-007Mk2 (all black) and SR-007A (black leather, silver metal, same as the Mk2). There is also an SR-007BL which is a Mk1 (late edition I believe) with the black leather and silver metal finish. I’ve listened to the Mk1 which is amazing: very natural, transparent, and musical at the same time. I consider it to be a step above every headphone listed above, particularly in transparency and realism (the superior decay of electrostats is a big reason for this).
- Stax SR-009 (open, electrostatic so needs an electrostatic amp, preferably a very good and powerful one such as the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE or KGSSHV Carbon) – Far more transparent than everything except the SR-009S I’d assume, best headphone I’ve ever heard in every category.
- Stax SR-009S (open, electrostatic)
- ZMF Atticus (mostly closed) – “Fun” sounding dynamic headphone (strong mid-bass hump)
- ZMF Eikon (mostly closed) – Best sub-bass of any non-basshead dynamic headphone barring the ZMF Verite
But remember, don’t just buy one of the above headphones and happily skip your merry way home. Do research.
Also don’t be surprised if you get something like a Stax headphone and see it has no way of connecting to your computer. Electrostatic headphones need electrostatic amplifiers. Don’t be surprised if you get a $500 set of headphones, plug it into your onboard audio or phone, and be disappointed in sound quality. Expensive gear needs more expensive gear; high end headphones need a good amplifier and DAC to shine.
If you want headphones just for gaming, go with the Audio Technica ATH-AD700X (or A700Z if you need isolation and are willing to sacrifice sound stage/positional audio for it) or AKG K7xx. Combine it with the AntLion ModMic (unidirectional) or a desktop mic and this will outperform any gaming headset by a landslide.
Shopping for speakers is much more tricky, especially if you’re going with passive speakers and want to build your own surround system (passive speakers are certainly recommended). So I’ll just make a list of recommended brand names.
- Adam Audio
- Ascend Acoustics
- Audio Note (they make some of the absolute best speakers and speaker amps)
- BIC America
- Bowers & Wilkins
- Cambridge Audio
- Deep Sea Sound (DSS) – Top of the line subwoofers.
- Definitive Technology – Their BP9000 series are the best home theater front/surround speakers I’ve ever heard.
- Magnepan – Planar magnetic
- MartinLogan – Electrostatic (full range or hybrid with dynamic woofer)
- Philharmonic Audio
- Polk Audio
- Power Sound Audio
- Rythmik – Elite subwoofers.
- Sanders Sound Systems – Electrostatic
- Seaton – Elite subwoofers.
- Yamaha – Their receivers are exceptionally well… received, amazing prices on decent all-in-one 5.1 surround systems too. Their budget subwoofers outperform Dayton’s from my experience.
Also look into these companies when it comes to subwoofers.
The highest fidelity A/V receivers come from Anthem, but at a price premium.
Some stand-out budget passive speakers include:
- Micca MB42X ($80, might want to try it without the grill)
- Polk Audio OWM3 ($100)
- Pioneer SP-BS22-LR ($130, don’t bother using the grills)
- Fluance SX6 ($130, supposedly the best in this price range)
- Cambridge Audio S30 ($200)
- Audioengine P4 ($250)
- Wharfedale Diamond series, if you’re in Europe. These usually aren’t worth the price outside of Europe.
- Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 SE ($350)
- Paradigm Atom Monitor ($200 each, $400 for a pair).
- KEF LS50 ($1,200)
These are all passive, so pair them with a decent speaker amp or receiver (you can get some for under $150), and an affordable subwoofer like the Dayton SUB series, Pioneer SW-8MK2, Polk Audio affordable subs, or Yamaha’s affordable ones, and you have a real winner, better than any complete active speaker setups from companies like Logitech and Corsair.
For budget active speakers, look into these:
- Behringer MS16 ($80)
- M-Audio Studiophile AV 32 ($80)
- M-Audio Studiophile AV 42 ($150)
- M-Audio BX5 D2 (should be superior to the AV 42 so get this instead if the price is right)
- Monoprice 5″ Powered Studio Monitors ($170)
- Swan D1010IV ($130)
- Swan D1080IV ($170)
- PreSonus Eris E4.5 ($200)
- Fostex PM0.4n or PM0.4d (around $220 for a pair, outstanding value)
- Audioengine A5+ ($400 for a pair)
- Vanatoo Transparent One ($500)
- Adam Audio F5 ($275 each, $550 for a pair)
These have their own amplifier built in, and the Transparent One also has a pretty good DAC built in.
We’re aware of the ever so popular Audioengine A5+, but it is hard to recommend for the price. The Audioengine P4 is the passive version of the A5+, and you can combine it with a good speaker amplifier for the same price as the A5+, which would provide superior sound quality. In addition, you can find comparisons of it to the Fostex PM0.4n and other speakers online, and despite costing nearly double, the A5+ is in the same league as the PM0.4n according to reviews/comparisons.
This list is sorted by budget, from lowest to maximum. First and foremost though, an overview of amplifier classes which refers to the biasing of the output stage. Avoid class D amps, they are objectively highly inferior. Class A is the ultimate and objectively the most superior, having the least distortion but requiring more heatsinking. If you have the budget, only go with Class A amps, for both speakers and headphones.
Note that tube amps generally have far lower output power than solid state. Most tube amps are geared towards sensitive speakers, while power hungry speakers will be paired with solid state.
Also, do not be afraid to buy used!
- Behringer KM750 – A $150 power amp with 200W RMS into 8 ohms in normal operation and class AB, amazing value.
- Amp Camp Amp – Like the Behringer KM750, unbeatable value at about double the price. Full class A monoblocks designed by Nelson Pass, one of the best amp/preamp designers of all time if not the best.
- Parasound – Some good mid-priced class AB options for those who can’t afford McIntosh or Krell much less Pass Labs, and can’t build First Watt amps.
- Audio Note – Audio Note is a legendary manufacturer making some of the best tube preamps, tube amps, and tube R2R DACs of all time. Although they themselves just design the amps and make the components; other companies will build them for you, or you build them yourself. ANK Audio Kits makes Audio Note products, as well as their own designs inspired by Audio Note and using Audio Note components. KONDO is a Japanese Audio Note brand, having even higher end and more expensive designs than ANK Audio Kits which focuses on reasonably priced amps and preamps (both of which use top tier components in every area though).
- Manley Labs – Boutique tube preamps and amps. The Neo-Classic 300B preamp doubles as a top tier headphone amp.
- Benchmark – Impressively designed high end class AB amps.
- First Watt – A subsidiary and mostly DIY brand belonging to Nelson Pass, all First Watt amps are designed by him. All pure class A, all top tier but mostly low power amps for high sensitivity speakers.
- McIntosh – Awesome looking high end amps with tons of power for the price, some of the best class AB amps but still not pure class A.
- Krell – Their older amps are notoriously cold and thin sounding, but these days they are not so extreme. Lots of powerful pure class A amps with excellent build quality for relatively good prices. Their main competitor is McIntosh.
- Pass Labs – The ultimate, and some of the priciest. One of those scenarios where the ultra pricey one really is the best. Pure class A operation for their flagship lineups but also a more “affordable” class AB lineup. Their flagships bolster the cleanest circuit designs and best build quality, if you don’t need tube coloration and want true purity of sound then Pass Labs is the ultimate.
Sound cards combine a special sound processor with a DAC that’s superior to onboard solutions, and sometimes an amplifier. However, read the section above about hardware accelerated sound and 3D in gaming. There’s not much of a need for sound cards anymore, unless you play older games. (pre-Windows 7 PC exclusives).
- ASUS Xonar DG – Same as DGX but PCI instead of PCI-E
- ASUS Xonar DGX – Same as DG but PCI-E instead of PCI
$70 and above
- Used Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD -> Discontinued. If you can find this for around this price range, it’s a steal since this is the best sound card ever made since only X-Fi sound cards allow for hardware acceleration in OpenAL and DirectSound3D games, and this is the best of X-Fi. Comparable fidelity to Creative Sound Blaster ZxR and ASUS Xonar Essence ST/STX/STX II.
If you want to spend more then a sound card isn’t worth it and an external device will be better. Though if you are a gamer looking to play great games (as in not blindly just play new popular games which typically have minimal effort and content), then get a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD to get the most out of the sound of 2000s PC games.
Standalone headphone amps have gained traction lately, largely thanks to Massdrop, but be warned that >95% of what’s out there is crap. Overpriced crap with fundamental design flaws, using cheap components where component quality matters most (e.g. cheap Chinese transformers, cheap capacitors in the output stage, cheap resistors, etc.). PLEASE educate yourself before buying. Look through http://www.head-case.org/ forums, look up threads there on Cavalli, Eddie Current, Ray Samuels, and ALO Studio amps. AVOID THESE BRANDS! Poor quality and longevity for high prices!
You see, sites like Massdrop and Head-Fi typically hype up garbage inferior yet higher priced products. Flavor of the week stuff because people don’t know any better.
Vacuum Tube vs Solid State
Vacuum tubes are naturally suited for high impedance speakers/headphones, making them an easy choice for electrostatic headphone setups. But there are different types of tube amplifiers. OTL stands for output transformerless, which are only suitable for high impedance headphones like the Sennheiser HD 600/650/700 and certain Beyerdynamic models.
OTC stands for output transformer coupled which, as the name implies, means transformers control the output stage. These can work great for any headphone depending on the amp in question, but output impedance will still be too high for the likes of IEMs.
Then there are tube hybrid amps, which combine tubes with some solid state components. Some of these use tubes for voltage gain and a solid state output stages, others only use tubes for the output. For non-electrostatic headphone amps, >90% of tube hybrid amps likely do not run tubes within their recommended settings, so be weary of them.
Tube amps generally have more warm and lush sound, but this depends on the tubes and the amp in question. It’s usually just a design target to make a warmer, more lush, inviting sound. They can also have some neat “holographic” imaging tricks, creating a more convincing 3D sound, the result of distortion actually. Lovely harmonic distortion. Solid state amps can provide better measurements on paper, but our ears aren’t paper which is why some people prefer tubes in certain setups (I do too).
Balanced vs Single Ended
Amplifiers (headphone and speaker) and DACs are either single ended or balanced. Balanced is more rare and more expensive; in balanced/differential amplifiers, the positive and negative signals for both the left and right channels each have their own separate amplifier, so that’s four amplifiers in total. Then there is at least a pseudo dual power supply in place to drive all this, one for left channel and one for right (or on even more rare occasions, four power supplies). All of this creates far more power output and also a cleaner signal that measures better. Goodbye noise floor.
Most balanced amps need to be fed a balanced signal in order to operate in fully balanced mode, but some have circuitry that converts single ended signals into balanced, and there are various ways of doing this, some better than others.
Balanced equipment use XLR cables, but not everything with XLR is truly balanced!
To our ears, the biggest difference balanced configuration makes is power output (and noise reduction if you were having noise issues before). Some headphones and speakers will sound much better with more power (usually current, but sometimes voltage too), especially planar magnetic headphones. Also, balanced equipment use XLR cables which are better than RCA cables; less degradation over distance.
Recommended Headphone Amplifier Brands
As I said above, most headphone amps are crap. The few brands I know of that consistently put out good ones are listed below.
- AMB Laboratories
- Apex HiFi
- Audio-GD – If you can’t afford any of the other brands listed here, get this as a last resort
- Bottlehead (DIY only)
- ECP Audio
- HeadAmp (they make Kevin Gilmore designed amps) – The Pass Labs of headphone amps.
- JDS Labs – Another budget option like Audio-GD
- Kevin Gilmore Designs – Not a brand, an individual who has designed some of the very best amps known to man. The Pass Labs of headphone amps.
- Mjolnir-Audio (they make Kevin Gilmore designed amps)
- Objective2 – This is not a brand but an actual amp that various companies sell (like JDS Labs) because it began as a DIY project. Legendary for being perhaps the cleanest measuring amp ever, and this is a low budget amp.
Don’t limit yourself to buying only new condition, popular brands. They are generally worse. Schiit and Cavalli for example, everyone blindly buys them but look for used/DIY amps and you can do much better. Sites like mjolnir-audio and other known DIY builders, some of which have ebay stores. Amps like the KG Dynalo, KG Dynahi, AMB M3, AMB Beta22 demolish pretty much every popular “in” amp.
Some ebay sellers to keep an eye on:
If you have an engineering background, DIY your stuff. That way you can make just what you want and save money at the same time. Otherwise, do your research. Be mindful of output impedance and output power ratings (RMS), avoid amps with opamps and capacitors in the signal path, be weary of tube amps from brands outside of these especially tube hybrids.
DACs are another flavor of the week subject in the audiophile community, like headphone amplifiers.
Before purchasing a DAC, it is good to know the basics of the different kinds of common DACs, namely delta sigma DACs vs resistor ladder (R2R), oversampling vs non oversampling (NOS), digital filters vs no digital filters.
R2R DACs have reduced treble extension and lower treble response, which people more sensitive to high frequencies prefer. They also produce a “smoother” sound – softened, blurred attack (leading edge of notes) and slower decay, making them a bit less transparent and technically accurate potentially. Also to get this smoother sound without losing detail, you have to spend a lot on an R2R DAC. But they always sacrifice transparency.
Ultimately R2R is not there yet. The fact that they reduce treble extension and lower treble response so much just makes them too inaccurate for my taste, so I recommend avoiding the tech.
Chord DACs are the best money can buy. I won’t even consider another DAC solution due to my recent hands on experience with different high end DACs. They use proprietary technology but seem like the most evolved take built on top of perhaps traditional delta sigma technology. Nothing comes close to them from my experience.
Now for some actual recommendations:
- Schiit Fulla 2 ($100)
- Schiit Modi 2 Uber ($150)
- Audio-GD NFB-11.28 ($330, DAC/amp/preamp, amazing value)
- Chord Mojo ($500-550, $350-400 used)
- Used Chord 2QuteM/b> ($700-1,000)
- Chord Qutest ($1,895)
- Chord Hugo 2 ($2,695)
- Chord Hugo TT 2 ($5,795) – Not available until Fall 2018
- Chord DAVE – $12,000 – $14,000
Also remember to buy used! You can save a ton of money as I indicate above.
On a related subject is the source. Most of us use a digital source these days, like a computer or phone. Phones are insufficient for top quality listening since most if not all are incapable of bit-perfect playback.
If using a computer and a lower end DAC (e.g. below the Chord Mojo), you might benefit from an improved digital interface opposed to sending out a USB or optical signal from your PC which might be noisy and full of jitter. This may cause an audible noise floor (a static or interference type of sound), or even worse you might have a ground loop that makes the system impossible to listen to (super loud buzzing/noise).
So my recommendations for a higher end digital interface are:
- Breeze DU-U8 ($94.57 – 128.16) – Provides I2S over RJ45, AES/EBU, optical TOSLINK, and coaxial RCA output
- Singxer SU-1 ($400) – Provides I2S over HDMI, AES/EBU, BNC, and coaxial RCA output
- Pink Faun PCI-E Audio Bridge (305 euros) – Choose your output when ordering from I2S over HDMI, I2S over RJ45, AES/EBU, BNC, coaxial RCA, and others I don’t understand
- Pink Faun USB Audio Bridge (305 euros) – USB output
But once you get into higher end DACs, like the Chord Mojo and above, source matters less. As long as you don’t have some sort of EMI in your computer or a dysfunctional horribly noisy USB bus, the hardware element of the source is fine with a higher end DAC, just focus on bit-perfect playback software (foobar2000 + ASIO output, totally free). Do NOT dump money into source, like dedicated “audiophile” music servers/streamers. Waste of cash, Chord lead designer Rob Watts says the same with his higher end DACs.
If investing in a really high end system, especially with a Chord DAC, it is recommended to get a Chord Hugo M Scaler which will be $4,995. It is a standalone hardware upscaler, much better than the upscaling done by any of Chord’s DACs themselves. It is currently said/believed that the Hugo TT 2 + Hugo M Scaler will outperform a DAVE, but of course a DAVE + M Scaler is the current pinnacle of digital audio.