I may have gone a little overboard.
Last updated on September 9, 2014 to add Bose QuietComfort 25 (QC25).
The mass-market headphone business has changed dramatically in recent years from two huge influences:
- Portable use is now a primary concern for many, and it’s hard to justify a nice pair of headphones that doesn’t work well with a smartphone.
- Beats did to headphones what Starbucks did to coffee: while they’re not the best, they’re a huge upgrade from what most people were using before, and they’ve dramatically increased the market and mainstream acceptability of spending $200–400 on full-sized headphones and wearing them in public.
For years, geeks like me would recommend that most people get inexpensive studio-monitor headphones like the 280 Pro, ATH-M50, and MDR-7506 for listening at their computer desks. These offer good isolation, reasonable sound, and long-term comfort for around $100, but aren’t practical for portable use: they’re large and don’t fold much, and they usually have long, coiled cables that are unwieldy at best when away from a desk. Fortunately, the $200-and-up portable category has boomed in the last few years with amazing improvements in comfort and sound quality, dramatically outclassing the old studio monitors. Those were great recommendations for years and are still excellent values, but they’re no longer a good default recommendation.
My criteria for this review is what someone seeking good headphones today probably wants:
- Semi-portable, over-ear headphones — not pocketable, but should fit comfortably in a small bag; suitable for listening at your desk and bringing on an airplane, or maybe wearing outside
- Closed-back design with at least moderate isolation
- A straight, short cable with a 3-button clicker
The hard price cap is $400, but ideally, these should be under $300.
Headphones not included
- Open headphones, since they’re irresponsible to recommend without a huge asterisk1 and usually aren’t very portable.
- Earbuds and in-ear monitors (IEMs), since I can’t wear them without pain and therefore can’t adequately review them,2 except Apple’s EarPods for sound-quality reference.
- Most on-ear models, since sound and comfort usually suck.
- Wireless models, since they have different priorities, are annoying to keep charged, and haven’t been good historically.
- Anything that requires a separate amp.
- Some rare, high-end models that I couldn’t try in person anywhere and that I didn’t think were worth the risk of buying myself due to too little information, too few positive reviews, or too many reports of severe defects: Focal Spirit One/Classic, Phonon SMB-02, Martin Logan MIKROS 90, Aedle VK-1, and Master & Dynamic MH30/MH40.
I’ve bought or been loaned most of the headphones in this review and spent significant time with them at home. I tried a few others in Apple stores by plugging each pair into my iPhone, playing the same test tracks that I used at home, spending at least 10 minutes on each one taking notes and sketching an estimated response curve, and comparing them back-to-back to the nearby models and my AKG K545 that I wore into each store.
I tested each headphone with my iPhone by itself as the source. For the home-tested models, I also tested them with a larger desk setup: three headphone amps (Asgard 2, UCA202, Icon-2) simultaneously connected to a Gungnir DAC. I didn’t detect any noticeable differences between amps and DACs for the headphones in this review, but they provided an easy way to plug in 3 headphones at a time to compare them back-to-back.3
I listened to what you probably think is terrible music, but it’s well-recorded, it spans a wide range of tones and recording types, and I know the details extremely well.
I then had my wife listen to the same headphones without telling her my thoughts, and she came to almost all of the same conclusions, so I know that either I’m not nuts or both of us are.
Without further ado, here are my rankings, followed by condensed reviews of each model:
Sound quality ranking
Many people prefer a warm, “laid-back” tone that lacks some midrange presence, most upper treble response, and the fine detail that good treble response brings. This avoids the harshness that unrefined midrange and treble can bring on inexpensive headphones, so the sound is less fatiguing after long periods. But it’s like adding milk to coffee: the lost vocal strength and treble detail also make good recordings more dull and forgettable.
The other end of the preference spectrum is detail, clarity, and an “airy” feel that great treble can bring, and more energy in vocals that a strong midrange can bring. Great treble is my preferred style, and it’s what makes people say, “Wow! That’s so clear!” The downside is that it’s hard to get that right without sounding harsh or tinny.
If you prefer a laid-back tone, you should probably get the NAD VISO HP50 or PSB M4U 1, as they’re the best-sounding examples of that tone. If you like treble detail, you should probably get the AKG K551.
From best to worst:
- AKG K551: Slightly boomy bass, slightly recessed midrange, otherwise excellent: a treble-rich, clear, highly detailed sound without sounding harsh or tinny. Almost as good as midrange open headphones, which I didn’t think was possible in a closed headphone under $1000, let alone this inexpensively.
- NAD VISO HP50: Slightly boomy bass, smooth midrange, somewhat weak treble, and mediocre detail. It’s the best implementation of a smooth, “laid-back” tone I’ve heard, providing the easy-listening aspects without losing as much detail as most others attempting it. It’s a very agreeable sound, as if it were designed by committee: it won’t offend anyone, but you won’t have any “Wow!” moments.
- AKG K545: Very similar to the K551 with more controlled bass, but with occasional slight harshness in upper-midrange, and a bit less treble finesse.
- PSB M4U 1: Nearly identical to HP50, but less midrange refinement and slightly boomier, muddier bass, with the same weak treble and mediocre detail. Still a very good “laid-back” tone, but the HP50 is slightly better.
- B&O H6: Weak bass, spotty midrange, otherwise a very good tone for treble fans. Almost needs an amp, though — bass becomes even weaker at high volumes without one.
- B&W P7: Slightly boomy bass, slightly harsh midrange, and lacking in treble and detail. A laid-back tone, but not done as well as the HP50 and M4U 1.
- Beats Studio: Slightly too strong mid-bass, otherwise surprisingly good tone and detail. But the ANC circuit produces a constant, annoying, low-level hiss, the ANC cannot be turned off, and the headphone doesn’t work passively. Worse, it’s not even good ANC, making no audible difference from passive isolation in my test. A passive version without ANC would have jumped a few spots up and would likely be a great value.
- V-Moda XS: Too much bass and weak treble — good for an on-ear, but doesn’t compete with over-ears.
- B&W P5: Slightly boomy bass, recessed mids, very dull treble, weak detail — OK for an on-ear, but doesn’t compete with over-ears.
- Sennheiser Momentum (Over-Ear): Too much bass, a bit boomy, and a huge lack of treble and detail. An attempt at the laid-back sound that’s dramatically inferior to the HP50 and M4U 1.
- Sennheiser HD 380 Pro: Slightly harsh midrange, and noticeably lacking the treble response and detail of more modern drivers. Does not qualify for the review — this is an inexpensive studio-monitor headphone included for reference. The 280 Pro tested slightly worse.
- Blue Mo-Fi: Good bass and midrange, but extremely lacking treble and detail so much that it sounds muffled and incomplete. Another attempt at the laid-back tone that’s dramatically outclassed by the HP50 and M4U 1, with even less detail than the Momentum. I found the built-in amp (!) to make no audible difference in quality — only volume.
- Bose QC25: Unlike most active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones, the QC25 can operate passively. With ANC off, an old-Beats-like bass boominess dominates, the midrange is very recessed, and treble detail is severely lacking, as if you’re listening through a pillow. When the ANC is turned on, an equalizer is also engaged that dramatically boosts the midrange and treble, but it goes too far especially in the midrange sounds very harsh. The ANC is excellent, though.
- Beyerdynamic T51i: Pretty much all bass, with none of the treble detail Beyerdynamic is known for. It’s just an on-ear, but it’s poor even among other on-ears.
- Apple EarPods: No bass, harsh mids, no upper treble, no detail. Included for reference.
- Beats Pro: Extremely boomy, imprecise bass so overpowering that you can barely hear the extremely recessed midrange or the pretty decent treble detail.
- Sony MDR-1R: Sloppy yet weak bass, harsh telephone-like midrange, severe lack of treble and detail that sounds extremely muffled. This is the worst sound I’ve ever heard from a headphone over $50 that wasn’t obviously defective.
From best to worst:
- AKG K551: Extremely comfortable, with featherlight pressure spread across very wide earpads. One caveat: those wide earpads get sweaty sooner than most headphones because they’re covering much more area.
- Sony MDR-1R: Excellent comfort, due mostly to its extremely light weight and very soft earpads.
- B&O H6: Very light with excellent pads.
- PSB M4U 1: Moderate size and weight, but they’re handled well by excellent earpads.
- AKG K545: Light weight, but the pads could be slightly bigger and softer. Halfway between the K545 and K551 pads would be an ideal comfort/sweat balance.
- Bose QC25: Bose’s usual light weight and soft pads, but with slightly more clamping force. The pad rims could also be slightly wider to spread the pressure across a wider area.
- NAD VISO HP50: Similar to M4U 1, but with noticeably more clamping force, slightly harder pads, and a worse headband.
- B&W P7: Not bad, but a bit too heavy and tight.
- Sennheiser HD 380 Pro: Tight fit with far too much clamping force.
- Beats Studio: Too tight, and the earcups are too small.
- B&W P5: On-ear design limits longevity, a bit heavier than most on-ears, and there’s a strong “suction cup” effect on my ears.
- V-Moda XS: On-ear design but very heavy, with weight concentrated on thin pad rims.
- Blue Mo-Fi: Very tight clamping force, mostly because these are very heavy at 482g — almost as heavy as orthodynamics,4 but without the weight-spreading designs that Audeze and HiFiMAN have figured out to make theirs moderately comfortable. Substantial force is also concentrated on the top-center pad on the headband. The complicated headband is highly adjustable, including a clamping-force knob, but I couldn’t find any settings that were comfortable.
- Beats Pro: Tight and small earcups like Beats Studio, but much heavier at 400g.
- Beyerdynamic T51i: On-ear design, but extremely heavy and tight. Again, nothing like Beyerdynamic’s bigger headphones.
- Apple EarPods: Maybe it’s just my ears? But it should mean a lot that these aren’t actually the worst…
- Sennheiser Momentum (Over-Ear): Much too tight, with earcups that are far too small for over-ears. The cups also apply uneven pressure, almost digging into my head at some points. A profoundly uncomfortable headphone — these feel even worse than the MDR-1R sounds.
My favorites, overall
From best to worst. Prices are Amazon’s first-party price at the time of writing:
- AKG K551: $200
The amazing comfort and sound come very close to open headphones, yet it’s an inexpensive portable set. It’s pretty large and isn’t anything special to look at, but I’ve never heard anything this good for this price. I had a hard time choosing between this and the K545, going back and forth a lot between them, and it’s a shame that this has sweatier earpads and a non-removable cable. But the extra comfort gives this the edge for me.
- AKG K545: $250
An excellent headphone overall, and the successor to the K551. It fixes the K551’s biggest shortcomings: it’s smaller and more attractive, with removable cables, more controlled bass, and far less sweatiness. It’s not uncomfortable by any means, but it’s not nearly as comfortable as the K551, which is a shame in an otherwise near-perfect headphone.
- PSB M4U 1: $300
This was famously The Wirecutter’s pick, but it’s far from universal: it’s a great choice for fans of laid-back sound, but if you like clarity and detail, it’s boring and flat. It also barely qualifies for this review since its (awful) clicker is only 1-button, but at least you can replace the cable.
- NAD VISO HP50: $300
Paul Barton designed the PSB M4U 1, then made the NAD HP50 as its spiritual successor, but it’s more like a 1.1 release than a 2.0. It has great enhancements in theory and is just as practical, with removable cables and a socket on either side, while adding a truly terrible 3-button clicker. It has more refined measurements and sounds slightly better than the M4U, making it the best implementation of laid-back sound I’ve heard. But comfort also got noticeably worse than the M4U, which is why I rank the M4U higher — but just barely.
- B&O H6: $400
A very comfortable, extremely stylish, and practical headphone, but the somewhat quirky sound doesn’t match its price and is outdone by more balanced alternatives.
- Bose QC25: $300
Bose’s new flagship headphones don’t sound very good, but their active noise cancellation (ANC) is the best I’ve ever heard — better than the ANC in the QC15, Parrot Zik, and Beats Studio. They retain Bose’s usual excellent comfort and light weight, and look less hideously outdated than most other Bose products — their designs have advanced from 1989 to 1999. If your primary goal is to dramatically reduce noise on planes or in a noisy office, I can recommend these, but the sound quality is poor for the price.
- B&W P7: $400
Like the other $400 headphones in Apple stores, these are good overall, but not worth $400. Even if you like their laid-back tone, the M4U 1 does it better, with better comfort, for $100 less. (Of course, the P7 is much more attractive. But if I wanted a $400 attractive headphone, the H6 sounds and feels better, too.) Tried only in stores.
- B&W P5: $270
If you’re looking for an attractive on-ear that sounds reasonable, this is your best option. But at this price and size, you’re better off getting a compact over-ear design that’s more comfortable and better sounding.
- Beats Studio 2 (“2013”): $250
Much better-balanced and more detailed sound than I expected, but the ANC hiss and uncomfortable fit are fatal for me.
- V-Moda XS: $200
Great sound for an over-ear, but poor comfort. My favorite thing about these headphones is the picture of my fluffy dog in my full review.
Blue Mo-Fi: $350
A unique, strange, complicated headband wraps a unique, strange, complicated headphone: while it can operate passively, it also has a built-in amp with two modes (normal or extra bass) that dramatically boosts volume, powered by a USB-charged battery.
It’s an interesting but completely unnecessary achievement: the Mo-Fi in passive mode is sensitive enough to play far past my comfortable maximum volume from an iPhone, and the amp doesn’t noticeably improve the sound quality. It just adds complexity and weight, which are the last things this headphone needs, as the existing weight and headband complexity make them extremely uncomfortable and goofy-looking. The sound quality is also very poor relative to the rest of the category regardless of which mode the amp is in, attempting a laid-back sound but simply sounding extremely muffled.
It’s an interesting attempt as Blue’s first headphones, but they’re seemingly too focused on making different headphones instead of making great headphones. Blue lent me a Mo-Fi for review.
- Beats Pro: $360
These are great if you don’t care about comfort, only want to hear bass, and would like to set a few hundred dollars on fire. Tried only in stores.
- Sony MDR-1R: $175
Shockingly great comfort as you put these on is unfortunately followed by shockingly bad sound. By far my biggest disappointment in this review.
- Beyerdynamic T51i: $270
I’m a big fan of Beyerdynamic’s great sound and amazing comfort, and the Tesla drivers have been fantastic in their higher-end headphones. The T51i is their first headphone with a 3-button clicker (they’re very late to that game), so I had high hopes. Unfortunately, these sounded awful and they’re extremely uncomfortable. I’d never believe they were from Beyerdynamic if they didn’t have the name printed on the side. I’m holding out hope for a T70p update with a clicker, which is likely to be far better, albeit far less portable.
- Sennheiser Momentum (Over-Ear): $250
These look fantastic, but feel and sound awful. The laid-back sound is much better achieved with the M4U 1 and HP50, and the style’s not of much use if I can’t bear to wear them for more than five minutes at a time.
I’ll update this article and the rankings as I try newer models in the future.
If you want the best sound quality for the buck, you usually need to go with open-backed (or simply “open”) headphones. The open (but uncomfortable) SR60 is probably the best value in the business, followed by the awesome DT-880, which is better than everything in this review in both comfort and sound quality. But open headphones are like screen doors: they let all exterior noise in, and more importantly, they let all of your music out. This will annoy anyone around you, so it’s extremely inconsiderate to use open headphones in buses, trains, airplanes, shared offices, or anywhere else near other people, and it’s irresponsible to recommend them without this huge warning. ↩
No, I haven’t tried custom-fitted IEMs molded to the shape of my ear with the help of an audiologist. The extreme expense of such an attempt doesn’t seem worth the very high risk that I’ll still find it too painful to use, given my experience with literally every other IEM I’ve tried. (I also won’t accept a promotional freebie custom-fit IEM for the same reason.) My ears just aren’t compatible with IEMs. ↩
Amps definitely make a big difference for power-hungry headphones like large open models and orthodynamics, but the differences are only obvious up to the point that they’re adequately powered. You rarely need to go fancier than the Magni unless you’re crazy like me and fall in love with the HE-6.
I’m still not entirely sure I’ve ever heard a difference in DACs except their noise floors. I think I can hear a slight improvement in dynamics between fancy DACs and my Mac’s built-in one, but I’m not confident that it’s not placebo. ↩