The Best Headphones
[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2021! This year we decided to mix it up a little by breaking up the Buyers Guide into sections, which makes it a far more manageable read. And oh, we know what you’re thinking–the best headphones and headphone amps? Hard no! Everyone’s ears are different, and headphones are a very personal thing! Let’s clear this up: these are the best headphones and headphone amps that we, the PTA team, have heard.]
In-Ear Monitors (IEM)
The TD offers incredible sound and comfort at this low, low price point. “Bass response is tempered, juicy and very fun to listen to,” we decided after realizing the $79 IEM market has come a very long way in the last few years.
Cardas A8 30th Anniversary IEMs ($349 USD)
The latest version of these “ear speakers” have improved on the already excellent originals by changing the cable connections. Completely satisfying in the bass, the A8s have a remarkable clarity that is complemented with just a bit of warmth. The airy, open sound of these earbuds make them ideal for people who may otherwise feel a little claustrophobic with devices jammed in their ear canals.
RHA CL2 Planar Bluetooth ($899 USD)
This Scottish IEM comes with a full complement of accessories—a balanced silver-coated BT neckband, a wide choice of cabling, a USB charging cable, a stainless-steel ear tip holder, a flight case and a pouch. It also features a zirconium dioxide material embedded in the enclosure. A very luxurious bud with a planar magnetic driver that offers incredible sound.
Campfire Audio Andromeda (from $1,099 USD)
Another expensive yet beautifully made IEM, this Oregon-built product has almost no sonic flaws according to many of its fans. You should expect a mind-blowing amount of detail from an IEM at this price point, but you’ll be utterly gob-smacked at the big soundstage bouncing around inside your head.
Audeze LCDi4 ($2,495 USD)
When a company like Audeze says it’s designing a product that will deliver “the absolute best sounding in-ear experience,” it’s probably a good idea to sit down and take a listen. These in-ear gems offer a flat bass response from 5 Hz on thanks to a new super-thin diaphragm in the planar magnetic drivers. Each one is hand-made in California and carefully matched so that it will deliver incredible performance.
Audeze Mobius ($399 USD)
What an amazing deal—for four hundred bucks you get a pair of Audeze cans with planar drivers, wireless capabilities and head tracking technology! As you can imagine, the Mobius is aimed squarely at the gaming community, and it’s a genuine breakthrough product that will completely change the gaming landscape.
Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition ($399 USD)
These are wireless, noise-cancelling headphones, but we also found them comfortable, lightweight, well-made and filled with tech. The powerful, forward bass is lots of fun, and the sound quality is quite high for Bluetooth headphones. “They are also for anyone who wants class-leading sonic performance and noise cancellation, which also includes a really nice app for tailoring the levels of intrusion from the outside world.” A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
Audeze LCD-1 ($399 USD)
Throughout our usage, the LCD-1 “more accurately represented an unfiltered view, bringing me closer to the real color, smells, and textures of what the recording artist approved and signed-off on.” A solid performer, and one priced so fairly that you should buy two, just in case. “The LCD-1 is true flat, done truly right.” An Editor’s Choice winner.
AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon ($400 USD)
We found that the NightOwl Carbon headphones, when matched with any of the Audioquest DragonFly models, provided an exceptional listening experience when streaming from a laptop or mobile device—and for an extremely reasonable amount of money. This turned out to be an ideal solution for well-traveled audiophiles (aka the PTA staff).
Dali IO 6 ($499 USD)
Another pair of wireless, noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones that manage to provide solid sound quality along with all that cool technology. The IO 6 has an essentially flat frequency response, and a midrange that is remarkably clean and transparent. We’ve actually never heard a Bluetooth or wireless headphone “that has the level of clarity and frequency response correctness of the Dali.”
HiFiMAN Sundara ($499 USD)
A “fun, fun product that people can actually get their hands on,” the affordable Sundara comes off as an incredible overachiever at its modest price point. It’s comfortable, and so easy to drive that you can plug it right into your iPhone and enjoy some pretty decent sound. With a good amp, however, it really struts its stuff.
LSA HP-2 Ultra ($799 USD)
This headphone is sourced from the Russian-based manufacturer Kennerton under the ambitious LSA moniker, and sold by Underwood Hi-Fi. The fit and finish of these wooden-cupped cans is remarkable, and the low frequency performance is superb. We found “the looks, bass and wearability very refreshing among the many choices for high fidelity in this range of personal audio.”
Audeze LCD-2C ($799 USD)
The “C” stands for “classic,” meaning that this is a re-release of Audeze’s first commercial pair of cans ever. What’s surprising is that they’re still very listenable, and a welcome product “for those looking to catch up on the company’s take of fine resolution and rich tonal flavors.”
Dan Clark Audio Aeon Closed ($799 USD)
Small, light and easy to drive, the Aeon is a closed pair of headphones that doesn’t sound one bit constrained or hemmed-in. Its performance comes surprisingly close to the company’s Ether C Flow, which is $1799 and considered one of the best closed cans on the market.
HiFiMan Edition X V2 ($1,295 USD)
Not only is this planar headphone incredibly warm and detailed, it’s also one of the most comfortable set of cans in the universe. Find a nice tubed headphone amplifier, plug these in, and indulge yourself with the most efficient sleep-inducing machine ever invented.
Focal Clear ($1,499 USD)
When matched with the Moon Audio Dragon Inspire IHA-1 headphone amplifier, the Clear offered a warm, embraceable sound that added up to hours and hours of fatigue-free listening. Extremely comfortable as well.
HEDD (Heinz Electrodynamic Designs) HEDDphone ($1,899 USD)
HEDD is a relatively new company, run by a father and son team in Berlin–son Frederik is a Doctor of Musicology and father Klaus is a physicist who worked with Oskar Heil and founded the speaker company ADAM Audio. The passion of those backgrounds reflects in the sound of the HEDDphone, which is “rich, deep and translucent.”
Rosson Audio Design RAD-0 ($2,600 USD)
Surprisingly bespoke for a pair of headphones, the Rosson is sturdy, heavy and “audiophile to the core.” (Each pair is a unique work of art, too.) Perfect for the headphone listener who wants to stand apart from the mainstream yet still has high standards when it comes to ultimate sound quality. “If it’s your only top tier headphone, you probably wouldn’t need another to fill the space.”
Focal Stellia ($2,990 USD)
Of the high-end luxe styled headphones, one need not look any further up-market than the Focal Stellia. With their lush frequency response and exacting detail, they make a strong case for being the best headphones in the closed-back category. Fit and finish are immaculate, the hi-fi pedigree is strong, and the personal sense of exclusivity when worn in public is second to none.
Focal Utopia ($4,000 USD)
We balked at calling the Focal Utopia headphones the best ever made simply because there may be some electrostatic or planar cans that surpass it in one area or the other. So we’re satisfied in calling this remarkable pair of headphones one of the best dynamic set of cans ever. It’s also remarkable that the Utopia is fairly heavy for a pair of headphones, and yet it is extremely comfortable over long periods of time.
Amplifiers and Portable Audio Accessories
SonarWorks Sound ID ($4.99 pr month)
This mobile and desktop app delivers on a big promise—it can tailor the sound of your music to match your personal taste and make fine-tuned adjustments for your hearing with a quick in-app test. The only personalized sound technology that’s based on sound that artists heard in the studio.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Black/Red/Cobalt ($99/199/299)
You get a headphone amp, preamp and DAC in a unit the size of a thumb drive—which makes the entire Dragonfly series perfect for streaming from a laptop or any other device with a USB connection. The new Red has improved performance (thanks to a 32-bit ESS Sabre chip) over previous generations and can be used with a wider variety of devices, but the new Cobalt is simply awesome in every way.
Chord Mojo ($499 USD)
Portable, quirky, powerful. An easier recommendation today than yesterday with the recent price drop. The Mojo was released in 2015, but remains one of our mainstay picks for pint-sized high-end sound when on the move. With dual headphone outputs, it’s a product made for friends and lovers who want to share the music and create their own annoying atmosphere wherever they go.
Rupert Neve Designs RNHP ($500 USD)
“Effortless at passing along whatever signal you feed it,” this amp does a great job driving even the most inefficient cans out there. We felt it had “sublime clarity from top to bottom,” and that there was “dead quiet between the notes.”
iFi micro iDSD Signature ($649 USD)
A portable DAC with an ultra-capable headphone amplifier that will chew through all possible digital formats, the micro iDSD Signature is built around fantastic Burr-Brown converters known for their natural timbre. The latest Signature version adds extra detail to the mix, making the overall performance crispier. While still not the transportable Chord Hugo 2, the iFi micro iDSD Signature makes a strong case for itself when on the move.
Moon Audio Dragon Inspire IHA-1 ($1,699 USD)
This gorgeous little tube amplifier was designed by Dennis Had and Drew Baird, and it can be customized for any pair of headphones you want. The Inspire can also be used with a wide range of output tubes, which can be purchased from Moon Audio, so you can tailor the sound to your tastes.
Astell & Kern AK SP1000 (from $2,599 USD)
We think this is one of the most impressible portable players you can buy—it proves that listening to high-resolution digital files on the go is not an impossible dream. The ergonomics are fantastic, the build-quality beyond reproach, and even the HD5 video display offers a stunning view.
Pass Labs HPA1 ($3,500 USD)
It’s a headphone amp, and it comes from Nelson Pass, so it has to be awesome. The HPA1 was designed with low feedback, wide bandwidth and a direct-coupled MOSFET output stage. You can also use it as a line-level preamplifier—a Pass Labs line-level preamplifier that is.
Chord Hugo TT 2 ($5,495 USD)
Living with the Chord Hugo TT 2 can be a downright religious experience. It may be the best example on the market of a “complete package” with the overall performance of its DAC and headphone amp. With 768kHz PCM and DSD 512 playback, it really doesn’t get any more hi-fi than this.
Woo Audio WA33 (from $7,999 USD)
This balanced headphone amp is mighty—it weighs over 50 pounds and it’s built like a tank. It features a push-pull Class-A topology that creates 10 watts per channel, which means it can drive even the most stubborn cans. The WA33 may be the most expensive headphone amp we’ve tested, but it might just be the best.
The Buyers Guides of 2021
- The Best Bookshelf Speakers
- The Best Floorstanding Speakers
- The Best Turntables
- The Best Phono Preamplifiers
- The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges
- The Best Reel-to-Reel and Cassette
- The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
- The Best Preamplifiers
- The Best Amplifiers
- The Best Integrated Amplifiers
- The Best Headphones, IEMs, and Headphone Amplifiers
- The Best Cable, Power, and Racks
- The Best Audio Accessories, Tweaks, and Voodoo
Looking for even more? Check out our product of the year, and “Best Of” awards in our year-end roundup on The Occasional Podcast. Now streaming on iTunes and all podcast platforms. We also offer educational and informative breakdowns for digital audio, getting into turntables and mastering in this year’s episodes.