Welcome to the Headphone Gear section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2023.
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” — this is it.
Headphone Gear, Headphone Amplifiers, and Portable DACs
We’ve broken down the best headphone gear category into three subcategories, such as In-Ear Monitors, On-Ear and Over-Ear Headphones, and Amplifiers, DACs and Portable Audio Devices.
In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)
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.
On-Ear and Over-Ear
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 gear 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.
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 headphone gear. “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 headphone gear 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 headphone gear.”
Focal Celestee ($999 USD)
The Celestee is a closed-back headphone design, which means it doesn’t quite have the warmth and the openness of its big brother Clear MG, but with the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition these cans had a direct, honest and very appealing tone. One of the few headphones we’ve tested that clearly revealed the sonic improvements from a high-quality ethernet switch in the chain.
Focal Clear MG ($1,490 USD)
As you’ll see further down the list, a trio of Focal high-end luxury products adorn this headphone gear list with our highest praise. 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 is its luxurious build and finish, its open-back design, its borrowing of upstream design, its easy to drive nature, and lastly its sound quality.
HEDD (Heinz Electrodynamic Designs) HEDDphone ($1,899 USD)
HEDD is a relatively new headphone gear 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 lux 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 among the best headphone gear 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.
Focal Utopia 2022 ($5,000 USD)
The debate is raging between those who prefer the original Utopia and those who love the new Utopia 2022, which boasts improvements such as a new voice coil, a better driver grille, upgraded cosmetics and a more neutral balance overall. “For the headphone nuts out there, this is a slam dunk,” our reviewer concluded. A Reviewers Choice award winner.
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. Must-have mobile headphone gear.
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 and is an ideal match with even the best headphone gear.
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.
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.
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.
Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition ($3,799 USD)
Basically a Naim Uniti Atom that has been optimized for headphone use (there are no speaker outputs), this Atom features a network streamer that worked flawlessly, and is the perfect headphone gear for those of you who want to curl up in a comfortable corner of your house and forget the world. “The Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition reminded me that I can have it all, and still be happy with the sonic results,” our reviewer decided. A Reviewers Choice award winner.
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 among the best headphone gear we’ve heard.