Welcome to the Best Headphones and Gear section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2022.
The Guide is more than “We heartily endorse this [fill in the blank].” This collection represents our enthusiasm. Every product listed in this guide is beloved by at least one team member. These products have elicited responses such as “I was gobsmacked every minute I spent with this” or “The shipping box was wet with the tears of my lost innocence” or, too often, just “Take my money!” In other words, this isn’t about high-end audio products that we merely like. These are the products we love — and we think you will, too.
No list like this can ever be complete since we’re bound to forget something that has duly impressed the heck out of us. We’ve attempted to capture a moment in time — one year — and collect together, in one place, all of those products that we want to have and hold and use in our own systems right now.
If you’re looking for our list of “the best stuff to check out right now” — the best loudspeakers, CD players, amplifiers, turntables, cartridges, preamplifiers, DACs and more — this is it.
The Best Headphones, Headphone Amplifiers, and Portable DACs
We’ve broken down the best headphones and gear category into three subcategories, such as In-Ear Monitors, On-Ear and Over-Ear Headphones, and Amplifiers, DACs and Portable Audio Devices. If you’re wondering where the ‘headphone cables’ section of this buyers guide is located, the truth of the matter is we haven’t asked to review any in a long time, but we’ll return to that segment one day. Maybe we just need another staff writer who wants to tackle some really high-end headphone reviews for PTA? Hint, hint.
The Best Headphones: In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)
1MORE Triple Driver Bluetooth ($69.99 USD)
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. Even better, the price is now $10 less than it was last year.
Periodic Audio Magnesium ($99 USD)
The Mg IEM utilizes a high magnesium content alloy (96% Mg) for the diaphragm material–magnesium is the least dense of all stable metals. Magnesium is also very high on the stiffness-to-weight ratio, and that is why it’s used in automotive and aerospace applications. These two properties result in a highly efficient, low distortion transducer foundation, making it one of the best headphones at this price point.
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 Cardas 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 ($799 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. The RHA CL2 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 (starting at $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 from Campfire’s Andromeda bouncing around inside your head. Recently updated with a new solid body.
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.
The Best Headphones: On-Ear and Over-Ear
Koss PortaPro ($49.99)
Originally built as a field monitoring and portable broadcast headphone, the Koss PortaPro has become a darling amongst the entry level head-fi geekdom, and those in seek of a budget platform for DIY modding. Outlandishly thick bass, smooth mids and polite highs. Virtually unchanged since its initial release in the 1980s, the PortaPro has cemented its place in head-fi circles as a perennial icon.
Grado SR60x ($99 USD)
Handmade in Brooklyn, New York, USA, this enduring classic receives updated materials throughout. New headband, new cables, new 44mm fourth generation drivers, and still does it all for under a hundred bucks. What’s more, the SR60x represents the most accessible entry point to Grado’s signature sound. If you’re looking for a pair of headphones with real head-fi history behind them, look no further. Grado Labs and their Prestige series headphones were holding-it-down several decades before head-fi was even a thing.
Sennheiser HD 560S ($199 USD)
Headphones in this price class are not supposed to be this close to flawless. True monitoring sound and comfort, with a flat yet detailed tuning, and extended dynamics, fidelity abounds in the HD 650S from Sennheiser. One could, in essence, buy the HD 650S and call it quits. No one would complain, no one would argue your giving up the search. The HD 560S do benefit from more upscale sources and amplification, but will astound even the most casual of listeners when paired with the most basic of sources (e.g. phones and DAPs).
Emotiva Airmotiv GR1 ($299 USD)
Crowd pleasing tuning with great comfort and build are all here, and should be part of the package at this price. What sets this headphone apart from the pack is how well it works with everyday devices like smart phones, lap tops, and media players. Normally we’re on the hunt for great amplification to pair with over the ear headphones, and in this case it’s not always necessary. Great action right out of the box.
HiFiMAN Sundara ($349 USD)
A “fun, fun product that people can actually get their hands on,” the affordable HiFiMAN 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.
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.” Bowers & Wilkins have 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 Audeze LCD-1 is true flat, done truly right.” An Editor’s Choice winner.
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.”
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.”
Focal Clear MG ($1,490 USD)
As you’ll see further down the list, a trio of Focal high-end luxury headphones adorn this list with our highest praise. Of the three headphone entries however we might tell you behind closed doors that the Clear MG is our favorite recommendation, baring you don’t have Utopia money on hand. Reasons we love the Clear MG are it’s luxurious build and finish, its open-back design, its borrowing of upstream design, its easy to drive nature, and lastly its sound quality. Clear is the right name for this headphone, but now in MG status with improved bass it is a surefire winner at an affordable price.
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 ($4,400 USD)
We balked at calling the Focal Utopia headphones the best headphones 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.
Audeze LCD-5 ($4,500 USD)
All-new from top-to-bottom, the LCD-5 sits atop the throne as Audeze’s flagship offering. Coming in at less than 2/3rds the weight of the preceding LCD-4 in a new, more comfortable form factor, the LCD-5 breaks free of Audeze’s traditional house sound and reaches even greater levels of transparency and resolution with an elevated sense of midrange clarity. Whether you’re using it for studio work plugged straight into a console or listening casually with something quirky from the DHT camp, you’ll surely find more magic beyond the detail. The new LCD-5 is currently under review by our own Jameson Mourafetis.
The Best Headphones: Amplifiers, DACs and Portable Audio Devices
Periodic Audio Rhodium ($49 USD)
It’s a DAC, it’s a preamp, it’s a headphone amp. Incredibly clean, and with more power than one might expect, the Rhodium is made for IEMs however we’ve had surprising success with moderately resistant on-ear and over-ear headphones. Power is clean and smooth, with a tuning for neutral mids, and a slight departure for more sugar and spice near the dynamic ends. A must have mobile device.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Black/Red/Cobalt ($129.95/229.95/$349.95 USD)
You get a headphone amp, preamp and DAC in a unit the size of a thumb drive—which makes the entire AudioQuest Dragonfly series perfect for streaming from a laptop or any other device with a USB connection. The 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 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 Chord 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 ($499 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.” The folks at RND know what they’re doing.
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. A stunning combo with Focal Clear headphones.
Astell & Kern AK SP1000 (starting at $2,599 USD)
We think this is one of the most impressive portable players you can buy—it proves that listening to high-resolution digital files on the go is not an impossible dream. The Astell & Kern way of designing ergonomics are fantastic, the build-quality beyond reproach, and even the HD5 video display offers a stunning view.
Ferrum Audio OOR and HYPSOS ($3,190 USD for both)
The Ferrum Audio OOR headphone amplifier is a perfect cosmetic match with the HYPSOS power supply, which allows you to adjust the voltage output according to the device. You can use the OOR as a stand-alone headphone amplifier, or you can connect to the HYPSOS with Ferrum Audio’s proprietary FPL cable. “The OOR sounds fantastic on its own, presenting a sound that’s utterly focused on transparency, on clean, on deep deep deep into the recording, ” we concluded, noting that the HYPSOS improves performance across the board. The OOR and HYPSOS can be purchased for $1,995 and $1,195 respectively. A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
Pass Labs HPA1 ($3,500 USD)
It’s a headphone amp, and it comes from Nelson Pass, so it has to be awesome. The Pass Labs 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 (starting at $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 Woo Audio WA33 may be the most expensive headphone amp we’ve tested, but it might just be the best.