Has there ever been a purer, more intimate sonic experience than that provided by a good pair of headphones? Revealing all the detail and brilliance of the best in recorded music, great headphones deliver sound to the common man that otherwise exists only in professional listening rooms with walls of expensive electronics. And while you can get some serious bang for your buck from the cheap seats, virtually nothing compares to the transcendent experience of a top-tier pair of cans — the world’s most expensive ones, to be precise.
We’ve been lucky enough to get a front-row seat to the greatest headphones ever created by humankind, so we’ve rounded up our favorites and compiled them into this drool-worthy guided tour. The list below is bound to spark plenty of debate, but there’s no denying all of these headphones offer truly incredible sound — albeit at some truly astronomical prices. So kick up your heels, throw on some tunes, and follow us to headphone heaven.
The name for these earphones pretty much says it all. Designed by the company that helped write the blueprint for modern in-ear monitors, the UE 18+ Pro are tuned for near-linear sonic reproduction, with a soundstage meant to emulate the immaculate sound found in the control room of a pro studio. Custom crafted and 3D-printed for each and every nook and cranny of your ear canal, the UE 18+ Pro headphones offer a near-perfect fit and impressive noise isolation.
Thanks to their triple shot of advanced and balanced True Tone armature drivers, they offer a brilliantly accurate reproduction of exactly what’s been laid down in the recording studio — no artificial colors or preservatives added. Rich recordings are revealed in all their glory, with firm and punchy bass as well as exquisite clarity riding all the way into the nether regions. While these may be designed for professional use — be it stage or studio — make no mistake: UE’s 18+ Pro offer an epic ride that lets you retrace your steps and rediscover the intricacies of your favorite music like you’ve never heard it before.
Audio-Technica’s latest contribution to the highest tier of headphone nirvana, the open-backed ATH-ADX5000 are easily among the best-sounding headphones we have ever tested.
Minimalist construction and clever physics-based engineering help make the dynamic drivers inside the ADX5000 deliver some of the clearest, brightest sound on the planet, offering you a fresh listen of your favorite tunes. The lightweight design and plush earpads ensure the headphones are also some of the most comfortable we’ve ever tested, allowing us to steep in our favorite music for hours on end.
With striking dynamics, tactile transient response, and some of the finest definition we have ever heard, there’s nothing that would stop us from picking up a pair of these astonishingly good headphones except for their hefty price tag.
It took eight years of stubborn engineering for the headphone masters at Shure to shrink down the complexities of electrostatic drivers and reduce them to something that could fit perfectly inside your ear canal. Still, towing their own dedicated power supply (priced at $1,000 on its own), that makes for a bulky package, and a price point that would make even the most ardent audiophile gulp. One is tempted to ask: Why in-ears?
However, one quick flash of the buttery warmth, the starkly delineated instrumentation, and the astonishing detail afforded by the KSE1500, and that question melts away. As Shure’s engineers discovered essentially by accident, confining electrostatic drivers into a tight space — with just the right tweak of physics — creates a soundstage unlike anything else. We’re talking about detail so clean you can hear the change in tone when a vocalist moves a few inches off the mic, with delivery as smooth as a bed of satin, all in a package you can take anywhere. Now that’s something worth saving up for.
There’s a reason we called Audeze’s LCD-3 the “voice of God” headphones in our 2013 review. The decadent handcrafted headphones were less a set of headphones than a stationary listening apparatus designed to reproduce otherworldly sound. But with their mammoth size, hefty weight, and greedy power requirements, they weren’t going far from your listening room.
With the introduction of its power-efficient LCD-4z headphones, Audeze has made that incredible sound portable. With 15-ohm impedance, the LCD-4z can be powered by even a cell phone, providing listeners with fantastic sound without the requirement of a high-output headphone amp.
The sound embodies the very best qualities available from the thin membranes of planar magnetic drivers, carving out every secret, each lonesome detail, and every rushing burst of form and color from your most complex music stretched across a sprawling soundstage. Unlike many early iterations in the genre, the LCD-4z draw a full pulse of healthy bass, complemented by all the delicacies of the upper frequencies your best recordings can dish out. These are some of the most incredible headphones we’ve ever heard, and they are now even more real-world-ready than ever.
Named after the “mythic mountain paradise,” the Shangri-La cans can produce a listening environment that is, according to HiFiMan, as perfect as the utopia that gives them their name. Utilizing a barely-there, nanoparticle-coated diaphragm that measures less than a micrometer thick, these headphones deliver a robust 7Hz to 120kHz frequency response. The metallic mesh that encases the “lightning-fast” driver is ultrathin as well (0.001mm) and was built to be “acoustically transparent” so that sound waves could pass through almost entirely undistorted. This design makes the Shangri-Las particularly adept at handling high frequencies and results in an uncannily crisp, natural sound.
If you’re looking for a lower-priced (yet still absurdly expensive) option, the Shangri-La JRs, little brother to the pair outlined above, will set you back just $8,000. That said, you won’t get peak performance out of either pair unless you spring for the companion amplifiers, which are sold separately and cost more than the headphones themselves. Who needs a savings account anyway?
Short of headphones encrusted with actual diamonds (oh yeah, they’re out there), there are few higher-end options on the market, but our next entry will take that already broken bank and smash it to smithereens.
Simply put, the rebirth of Sennheiser’s original Orpheus HE 90 (which begged a $16,000 price tag back in the ’90s) has resulted in the greatest headphones ever created. Spawned from a decade’s worth of ingenuity, toil, and reinvention, Sennheiser took the mantle from the Orpheus’ predecessor, crushed every bit of engineering involved, and rebuilt the headphones from the ground up. The final product isn’t just a pair of awe-inspiring headphones, they’re a marvel of modern engineering.
Assembled from more than 6,000 components, the Orpheus system begins with a stand carved out of Carrara marble, and adds in gold vaporized ceramic electrodes, quartz-glass vacuum tubes, and dual amplification stages to create an “ultrahigh impulse” flood of pure, unadulterated velocity.
The sound is unparalleled in the headphone world — and beyond — providing awe-inspiring detail, a galaxy-sized soundstage, and a near-supernatural transient response. Ridiculously expensive? Absolutely. But hey, you don’t buy a Ferrari if you’re going to quibble about the price. If there was ever a creation that fully embodies gratuitous luxury, it’s the Orpheus.