In a perfect world, we'd have no use for headphones. We'd all have speakers that were able to reproduce any sound level we desired and neighbours that were sufficiently understanding, deaf or non existent to be happy for us to do so. Sadly, back in reality, many of us need a solution that allows us to keep on listening late at night or at levels that simply aren't achievable with the realities of modern life.
The good news for anyone looking for a set of cans for their setup is that the headphone industry has been enjoying an incredible boom over the last few years and the range of models available at almost any price point is enormous. As vinyl is a home format, the models selected here are home headphones designed first and foremost for use sat in one place rather than on the move as well but there are of course plenty of designs that are designed to be happy doing both.
Grado SR60e - $80
Right now, retro design is all the rage and you might be tempted on first seeing any pair of Grado headphones that the company is tapping into this trend. The truth however is that Grado headphones have always looked like this. As a maker of some truly world class phono cartridges, Grado already has a terrific reputation in analogue circles but if you are looking for a pair of great headphones that won't break the bank, they are a fine place to start looking for this too.
The Grado headphone lineup changes only very slowly but the recent change to the 'e' series models has seen the basic design of the headphones thoroughly reviewed and a number of small but detail improvements. The when compared to the older SR60i, the SR60e has new drivers with a revised surround and housing. These are designed to improve on the frequency response without harming the midrange where the brand has traditionally excelled.
In practise, this means the SR60e is able to pick up every last detail on a recording and reproduce it in a way that is accurate, believable and more importantly, fun. Give the SR60e a bassline and it doesn't matter how complex it is, the sense of drive and timing are absolutely pinpoint. At the same time, the presentation is forgiving enough that when you are listening to parts of your collection that are musically great but are a bit rough and ready- and we all have them- the Grado keeps things sounding good.
Put simply, the Grado might be the cheapest new product in any audio category that gives a little taste of the high end. There are no unnecessary bells and whistles, no gimmicks and no cost options. For the price of a good night out, the SR60e will give you years of great nights in.
Audio Technica ATH-700x - $200
How symmetrical is your head? Unless Sloth from the Goonies is reading this, I'm going to hope that most of you answer "pretty much" or at least "fairly." None of you should answer "completely" however and this is a bit of an issue for most headphones on sale today. With a conventional headband, the assumption is that your head is an even shape to take the weight of the headphone and this can mean over time that they can become uncomfortable.
The Audio Technica ATH-700x has a rather neat solution to this in the form of a pair of individually sprung and pivoting pads that work completely independently of one another to ensure the best fit possible. The earpads themselves are then connected to a separate band that keeps the whole headphone light and rigid. The result is supremely comfortable and easy to wear for long periods as it exerts very little pressure on the head while managing to say put even when you are rocking out.
You'll want to keep wearing them for long periods too. With a pair of hefty 53mm drivers and Audio Technica's trademark CCAW (Copper Clad Aluminium Wire) technology, this is a headphone that manages to sound big and involving even though the closed back design means you leak very little noise to the outside world even when you are really going for it. With a long history in pro audio, the Audio Technica sound is tonally honest and extremely accurate. Like the Grado though, the ATH-700x stays smooth and forgiving even with the levels right up. This is an extremely capable home headphone that is ideally suited for anyone having to do most of their listening in rooms shared with other people.
Hifiman HE400i - $500
The vast majority of headphones on sale today use dynamic drivers. These are essentially compact versions of the drivers used in full size speakers and while they can be made to work extremely well, there are companies that feel that more suitable solutions are available. Hifiman has made a name for themselves by using planar magnetic drivers in many of their headphone designs. A planar magnetic driver takes the form of a membrane onto which a voice coil is printed. The result is a very light driver that has an extremely linear movement backwards and forwards.
In the case of the HE400i- the most affordable headphone that Hifiman makes with these drivers, this means that you have an headphone of incredible transparency. Until you experience a driver with so little inertia to it, the effect is hard to convey but many people find it hard to go back to more conventional headphones. This speed isn't bought at the expense of bass depth either and the HE400i can generate serious bass impact. The performance is vivid and the scale and space that the HE400i can generate is truly immense and the Hifiman is an excellent choice for people who find the sound of normal headphones a little constraining.
It is only fair to point out that the HE400i also represents a point where the quality of the supporting equipment needed to get the best out of them starts to increase. The sensitivity of planar headphones is generally lower than dynamic driver models and to get the best out of them you may find a dedicated headphone amp works best. If you put the effort in though, there is very little at the price that can live with the Hifiman.
Final Audio Pandora Hope VI - $600
When you find yourself confronted with the Pandora Hope VI for the first time, you may find yourself asking a few legitimate questions. Questions like "Are these Ron Burgundy's headphones?" and "Why does the name sound like a failed Star Wars film?" Be under no illusion that the Final makes a very distinctive style statement (and this is without mentioning the fur lined -yes, you heard me- storage box) but it doesn't make this list because it looks a little bit funky.
There was a time when Final was one of the most renowned Japanese high end brands. They produced a wide range of equipment that was over engineered to the point of obsession. A few years ago, they took the decision to move into headphones and portable audio and since then have been delighting us with a range of crazily named but exceptionally good headphones. The most interesting design feature of the Final is that it combines a conventional dynamic driver with an armature- a type of driver normally found in high end earphones- to provide the high frequencies.
This means that the Pandora Hope VI has truly awesome treble performance with the ability to find detail on records that you simply won't have heard before. The crossover between these two very different driver types is perfectly handled and this means that the Final is exceptionally refined and stays that way even when driven hard. As the Pandora Hope VI is extremely sensitive for a headphone of this size it can go fearsomely loud on the end of portable device, let alone a good headphone amp. To finish off a very enticing package, the Final is extremely comfortable to wear even though the all up weight is a little on the high side because considerable care has been taken to spread that weight evenly. Throw in the Swiss watch levels of build and you have a pair of headphones that would be something to talk about even if they didn't look so fabulous.
Oppo PM-2 - $700
If you have heard of Oppo, it is likely to be as a maker of exceptional DVD and Blu Ray players rather than as a company involved in the production of headphones. All this is likely to change over the next few years as the company has been getting into headphones and headphone amps in a big way. The PM-1 was the first product launched by the company in the category and as a statement of intent it takes some beating.
Like the Hifiman, the Oppo is a planar magnetic design but Oppo prints the voice coil in a unique spiral arrangement to ensure the most even transmission of energy possible. These drivers are encased in an open backed enclosure made of machined aluminium with generous helpings of leather at the various contact points. When you throw in the large and extremely shiny wooden presentation box and hosepipe sized cable, you have a headphone that manages to look and feel like they are worth the asking price.
If you are in any doubt about that $1k cost, a few minutes of listening to them should solve most doubts. The Oppo is capable of sufficient depth, scale and sheer realism that after an impressively short space of time, you simply forget that there are headphones present at all. Everything on the recording is presented faithfully, with perfect scale and a completely believable relationship to one another. The same incredible speed and transparency that planar designs are famous for is present with the added bonus that the Oppo is also a genuinely fun headphone to listen to with a real desire to groove if you want to. More than any other headphone on the list, the Oppo is the one where you'd listen to them in preference to a pair of speakers because they deliver an experience that you simply can't replicate any other way. They certainly aren't cheap but there headphones a multiples of this price that can't match what the Oppo does.
So there you have it- our pick of the crop under a thousand dollars. We feel that these five models won't steer you too far wrong in delivering a superb- and considerate vinyl experience. Of course, the good news is that even if you vehemently disagree with us, the choices open to you are considerable and pretty much regardless of your budget or preferences, there is something to suit. Just because everyone else is being quiet doesn't mean you need to be too.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.