Best audiophile headphones for 2022
These modern-day classics deliver top-shelf performance
In this article: We showcase some of the absolute best headphones available today. I'll break down what makes them so special and how you can hear them at their best.
- Largest soundstage — Sennheiser HD 800 S
- Most comfortable — Meze Audio Elite
- Best closed-back — Denon AH-D9200
- Best-looking design — Focal Clear Mg
- Best for vocals — Audeze LCD-5
- Best closed-system — Warwick Acoustics Bravura
- Best wireless Bluetooth — Mark Levinson No. 5909
- Best in-ear monitors — Sony IER-Z1R
As Crutchfield’s headphone guy, I’m not afraid to say it: I actually prefer the focused, intimate listening experience of a super high-end headphone setup over stereo speakers. That’s not the contrarian “hot take” it would’ve been years ago. In the last decade, headphone design has taken a major leap in sophistication.
A prime example — this collection. I’ve chosen some of my current favorite ultra-premium Audiophile headphones. These are indeed the crème de la crème, so it becomes hard to choose one over the other. I often find myself bouncing back and forth, declaring whichever headphone I tried last, “the best.”
So I’ve broken them up based on their different features, attributes, or how you might use them.
Audiophile headphones create a personal bubble of potent sound that often begs me to pause my work, recline, and let the music take over.
I should point out here that we have picked our best wired headphones in another article. There, I capped the options to headphones under $1,000 (before tax) — that’s why you won’t find any of these headphones in that article.
And if you find the headphones on this list are outside of your budget, don’t fret. There are excellent audiophile headphones out there at lower prices, including the gems on our “Best wired” list. In fact, you’ll find many of the same brands on both lists.
This exploded view of Focal's patented "M-shaped" driver system illustrates how premium materials gel with brilliant engineering for peak performance.
That’s because a lot of the research and discovery, tuning techniques, or driver designs developed for this class of headphones can inform a brand’s entire line of headphones. It’s that so-called trickle-down technology — but it also works the other way. Sometimes the limitations of cost and materials for lower-priced gear can lead to creative breakthroughs. And headphone engineers can apply those new principles here — when the brakes are off, materials are top-notch, and cost is no object.
The high-end headphone boom
Audiophile headphones (and their creators) have long had a fervent fanbase, best illustrated by the crowds packed around booths at headphone conventions like “CanJam Global.” But recently, a perfect storm of factors and innovations have catapulted this phenomenon even further.
First, the obvious. When people spent more time at home the last few years, they rediscovered tried-and-true home audio fundamentals like turntables and stereo speakers — along with a renewed interest in vintage gear. And we saw a major resurgence in old-fashioned wired headphones in general. And if you’re splurging on a nice audio system, even headphones in this price range give you more bang for your buck than a super-high-end speaker system.
Headphone enthusiasts check out the latest and greatest wares at CanJam NYC in Time Square.
Meanwhile, advances in technology have given us easier access to better-sounding music. Home networks keep getting stronger and faster, with more music services like Qobuz, Apple Music, TIDAL, and Amazon Music HD offering lossless high-res and CD-quality streaming.
So, it’s this interesting mix of old-school and new. Now with a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), headphone amp and a set of “end-game” headphones like the ones shown here, you can get lost in your own personal super-premium listening experience.
Headphone amps: Premium 'phones need proper power
Aside from one notable exception, these headphones aren’t the grab-and-go type, designed for use with your phone. Instead, their high-grade drivers perform best when properly powered. For a set of wired headphones like these, it's worth investing in a dedicated headphone amp.
The top-selling jack-of-all-trades Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M fits neatly on a desk or shelf and can gracefully drive all of the high-performance models shown here.
Most of our headphone amps happen to also be a combination DAC . A DAC is ever-important these days, since most of us listen to digital music.
Check out my list of the best headphone amps for 2022.
Here are the best picks for different categories — and why I’ve chosen them. I’ve briefly captured some of some of what makes these headphones special, but you’ll find a deeper dive with detailed impressions of each model on their product page.
Largest soundstage — Sennheiser HD 800S
Sennheiser arguably started the high-end headphone boom over 10 years ago with the HD 800 lineage. I keep this latest version, the HD 800 S, in heavy rotation for its unmatched — and uncanny — soundstage that extends well outside the head.
Imaging is also on-point for accurate sound with a realistic sense of space and instrument separation. It’s why Sennheiser’s flagship remains a top pick for fans of jazz, orchestral, and rock music. But the HD 800 S also has a rep among professional gamers, who rely on the roomy sound and directional cues when they're in competition.
Just be advised: at 300 ohms impedance, these headphones really crave a lot of power. But they also play well with others. So while iFi Audio's flagship Pro iCAN Signature headphone amp lifted them to incredible heights, I also had excellent results with iFi's more compact, yet robust ZEN CAN amp.
- over-the-ear, closed-back headphones
- two detachable 11.5-foot oxygen-free cables:
- one cable with 1/4" unbalanced headphone plug and one with 4.4mm balanced plug
- impedance: 300 ohms
- weight: 11.64 ounces
Most comfortable audiophile headphones — Meze Audio Elite
When I first unboxed the well-put-together Meze Elite open-back ‘phones, it felt like I was holding a fine sculpture. They also offer a pleasant, soft-touch fit and the hardest-hitting bass of any planar magnetic drivers I’ve heard.
Meze’s founder and lead designer Antonio Meze told me in a sit-down interview that the shape and geometry of the frame is based on their best-selling 99 Classics closed-back headphones — with the extra size and weight of the drivers considered. (The 99 Classics were voted Crutchfield’s “most comfortable overall” by our staff.)
But it required a lot of trial and error that ultimately led to the special headband suspension system, originally developed for their previous-generation Empyrean headphones.
A flexible, carbon-fiber headband acts as a spine for a leather strap that hugs the crown of your head. “That’s something that we added quite late,” said Antonio. “We knew we had this problem where it would hang on the head, but we couldn’t change the frame. So, we kept changing the headband design until we got the surface area just right on the top.”
They somehow tweaked it even further for these newer Elite headphones. This top-of-the-line model also delivers a slightly more refined sound, particularly in the highs. But the Empyreans offer a similar deluxe experience, and get you close in terms of comfort and performance.
- over-the-ear, open-back headphones
- detachable 8.25-foot oxygen-free cable with 1/4" headphone plug
- sensitivity: 130 dB
- impedance: 32 ohms
- weight: 15.2 ounces
Best Closed-back audiophile headphones — Denon AH-D9200
While most of the headphones on this list are open-back, the Denon AH-D9200 bamboo headphones are unmistakeably closed-back. Now there are other great closed-back headphones of this ilk — the Meze LIRIC, Dan Clark Audio Stealth, and Sony MDR Z1R are three I absolutely adore. But each of those headphones aim for a more airy, spacious sound within the confined closed-back design.
Delivering that "open-back disguised as a closed-back" perception is an impressive feat to pull off. Still, I gave Denon extra points for actually leaning into the “closed-back-ness” of it all.
Their team in Japan skillfully sculpts, sands, and finishes these wooden earcups by hand. Just look how much effort goes into creating these ‘phones:
Denon's hard work pays off — bamboo’s tonal characteristics make for sparkling, engaging highs, exciting mids, and swift bass punch.
- over-the-ear, closed-back headphones
- one detachable 9.84-foot oxygen-free cable with 1/4" headphone plug
- one 4.3-ft. cable terminated with 3.5mm stereo mini plug
- sensitivity: 105 dB
- impedance: 24 ohms
- weight: 13.23 ounces
Best-looking audiophile headphones — Focal Clear Mg
I think every set of headphones on this list looks attractive or striking in its own way. But when I was guest on Crutchfield LIVE with all these headphones, the Focal Clear Mg headphones caught the most eyes. They sport the familiar design of Focal’s other high-end headphones, but here they overlay the lightweight aluminum frame a gorgeous chestnut and mixed-metal finish.
Beneath that Instagram-ready exterior (that somehow looks even better in person), you’ll find fast-attack drivers that deliver Focal’s signature near-field, yet breathable sound. In this case, their patented, piston-like “M-shaped” domes are made of lightweight, rigid magnesium. And while you still got the absolute best resolution that Focal offers from their flagship, beryllium-based Utopia headphones, the Clear Mgs are closing the gap.
These headphones possess a strong simpatico relationship with the heavyweight Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition streamer/amp combo. Naim is a partner company to Focal, so they know exactly what the drivers need in terms of power and damping. The result is a delightfully revealing listening experience.
- over-the-ear, open-back headphones
- detachable 9.8-foot cable with balanced XLR4 connector
- detachable 4-foot oxygen-free cable with 3.5mm stereo plug
- 1/4" adapter
- sensitivity: 104 dB
- impedance: 80 ohms
- weight: 17.3 ounces
Best audiophile headphones for vocals — Audeze LCD-5
Meet the LCD-5 headphones — Audeze's newest, lightest flagship model yet. That’s a huge deal for headphone aficionados. The SoCal company made their name on stellar full-size planar magnetic headphones — before shrinking their drivers to fit in more traditional-shaped gaming headsets and even in-ear monitors.
Over the years, they’ve engineered ways to increase efficiency and reduce size without sacrificing sonic performance. Most notably they’ve figured out a way to almost “hack” magnetic power by strategically laying out magnets in an asymmetrical pattern. In other words: fewer magnets, yet stronger magnetic attraction.
This fresh take on planar magnetic drivers offers clarity, pinpoint imaging, and separation. For me, the intimate vocal presentation really stood out. In fact, while these headphones offer textured depth and layering, it was the well-placed, center-of-your-face vocals that made listening to these headphones a special thrill. When singers hit that certain note or reached an emotional point, these headphones served it up vividly.
It sparked many a goosebump moment.
- over-the-ear, open-back headphones
- detachable 8.25-foot oxygen-free cable with 1/4" plug
- impedance: 18 ohms
- weight: 14.8 ounces
Best closed-system audiophile headphones — Warwick Acoustics Bravura
Unlike the other headphones on this list, the all-in-one Warwick Acoustics Bravura system features an amp/DAC and set of headphones both intended for each other — and neither will work with gear from other brands. The Bravura electrostatic headphones are fed clean and consistent power by the special Sonoma M1 amplifier/energizer.
This Bravura system offers one of the best examples of the profound transparency electrostatics are known for. Where it often feels as if the sound is simultaneously emanating from everywhere and nowhere at once. And the Bravura also thumps out deeper, more “speaker-in-the-room-like” bass than other electrostatic systems I’ve heard in the past.
And here’s what I wrote about the rewarding ritual of firing up this headphone system: “Hitting the satisfying power switch on the back, adjusting that oversized high-precision digital volume knob, and reclining with the day's first cup of coffee. It's a multi-sensory moment that often helped clear the early-morning fog from my head.”
- complete premium electrostatic headphone system for focused listening
- includes electrostatic headphones, amplifier/energizer with built-in DAC, and cables
- headphone and amp are designed to work together as a set, and not separately
- headphone weight: 14.2 ounces
Best wireless audiophile headphones — Mark Levinson No. 5909
I didn’t just pick the Mark Levinson No. 5909 noise-canceling headphones based on how they sound wirelessly over Bluetooth (fantastic, by the way). I picked them because of what I heard when I made a wired connection to my reference tube amp. Sure, most Bluetooth headphones offer wired listening options. But few perform nearly as well in "passive" mode, without the built-in amplification or sound processing and sweetening.
The No. 5909’s quick-moving dynamic drivers are made of high-grade metals, including beryllium. In the Focal section, I touched on the detail retrieval and resolution offered by this special metal. Beryllium also has strong damping characteristics, which cuts down on reverberation and sound colorization in the mids and highs.
These headphones have also been built to the exacting standards of the “Harman Curve.” This special sound profile has been honed over the years by exhaustive user testing by Harman’s team of audio experts, led by Dr. Sean Olive. Whenever anything changed in the physical design, Dr. Olive’s team ensured that it met their strict audio specifications.
They also made sure that the frequency response stayed the same, with or without the real-time active noise cancellation. That, along with the newer, more reliable Bluetooth 5.1 and their deluxe build make them a super-premium choice for work, travel, and focused at-home listening.
- over-the-ear, closed-back headphones with adaptive noise cancellation
- Bluetooth 5.1 for wireless music listening and phone calls
- two USB-C to 3.5mm miniplug cables for optional wired listening (one 13-foot and one 4-foot)
- 1/4" adapter
- sensitivity: 97 dB
- weight: 12 ounces
Best audiophile in-ear-monitor headphones — Sony IER-Z1R
One thing all of the headphones on this list have in common? Each offers a memorable unboxing experience. But you could genuinely mistake the Sony IER-Z1R in-ear monitors' (IEMs) packaging for a box made for fine jewelry. The shining, mirrorballed silver earbuds come perched in a softly padded pedestal — above three drawers packed with accessories.
That includes the largest selection of ear tips I've ever seen. And for both comfort and sound, in-ear headphones are only as good as their fit. Sony included 13 different pairs — including six sizes made of a soft, spongy material that helps created a secure, noise-isolating seal.
The Sony IER-Z1R IEMs are neatly packed with two cables and 13 sets of ear tips.
And when I had the IER-Z1Rs in place, they delivered the most spacious, wide-open sound I've heard from a set of IEMs. The soundstage extended far from my head, and I even got a sense of height.
Sony uses a combination of three drivers inside each earpiece, all dedicated to a specific range of frequencies. A dynamic driver delivers the bass and lower mids, a balanced armature driver covers the highs and upper mids. And Sony's "super-tweeter" ultra-high-frequency driver ensure that strings and cymbals shimmer with depth and realism.
- in-ear monitor headphones
- 13 pairs of ear tips (7 sizes of silicone tips and 6 sizes of Sony's "triple comfort" soft tips)
- one cable with 4.4mm balanced plug and one with unbalanced 3.5mm mini plug
- sensitivity: 103 dB
- impedance: 40 ohms
- weight: 0.92 ounces (without cable)
Still have questions?
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