So, you want to get in to headphones? Well, I can help! Listening to music on headphones has been one of my hobbies for a couple decades now. Here’s the advice I have for newcomers.
Good headphones don’t have to cost lots
The first thing you should know is that while headphones can get very expensive, and a lot of the “audiophile” discussion focuses on the more expensive end, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get great sound. The law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quick with audiophile gear, and with headphones in particular.
Here’s what headphone awesomeness vs. price looks like.
That is, the difference between a $150 headphone and a $1,500 headphone is less than the difference between a $20 headphone and that $150 headphone. Audiophiles who spend lots of money on headphones (like me) are chasing increasingly-elusive marginal gains. The really expensive stuff does sound better, but… not very much better.
So, if you just want good sound, you can buy a $90 Sony MDR-7506 or $130 Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, plug it directly into your iPod, and skip the rest of this post. You’ll have good sound and you’ll be happy.
Getting into the game
If you want to start seriously getting in to headphones, the first thing you should do is buy a Sony MDR-7506. (Not any of the similar Sony models; it has to be exactly an MDR-7506.) This is a classic model that’s been in production for at least twenty years now, and is a marvel of modern engineering.
This is one of their “Pro” models, so you won’t find it in a lot of places. An easy way to get one is to just buy it off Amazon. It’s $90. Not bad.
The Sony MDR-7506 is the best all-around headphone under $100, competes with headphones up to $500, and is the best closed-back headphone under $1,000. It’s high-sensitivity so it can be driven from any amp or audio source. And it’s a high-quality, neutral, all-around performer, and a good reference to compare any other headphone against. You should have one in your arsenal.
There are different scenarios in which you might want to use headphones, and these come with different requirements, and might imply getting different headphones for them. For each situation, you need to consider a) where you’re listening, b) who else is around, c) how you’re deploying your equipment, and d) how much you care about sound quality.
In my experience, headphone use cases break down into three groups:
You listening to stuff in your home, at a desk or on a couch or whatever, with nobody else around.
Listening to stuff at a stationary spot, but with other people around.
Roaming around, in the car, on the subway, walking around town, etc.
These different cases have very different requirements.
For home listening, you can just listen to whatever sounds best, without restriction.
For office use, you don’t want to bother your coworkers, which rules out open-back headphones.
For mobile use, you (usually) don’t want to carry around an amplifier and battery pack, so you want something light and simple that plugs right into your phone or iPod. Maybe you want closed ‘phones to block out environmental and subway noise. Or maybe you want open ‘phones to let you hear your environment and be alert to danger.
Where to spend your money
A serious headphone setup has multiple components, arranged in a stack:
- Headphone amplifier
- Audio source
A DAC is a “Digital-Analog Converter”; it’s the thing that converts digital data like MP3s or your computer sound card output’s digital bit stream into an analog signal that other analog components can understand.
The audio source is the recorded material you’re listening to: MP3s, CDs, YouTube videos, or whatever.
These components are not equal! In my opinion, quality differences in headphones are much more important than quality differences in amps, which are much more important than quality differences in DACs. And audio sources are weird.
My theory is, the more analog, and closer to a physical machine something is, the more of a difference you can tell between good and bad instances of it. Because headphones are transducers – machines that convert electrical impulses to mechanical motion – they’re the most sensitive to quality differences. Amps come next. And DACs after that.
You shouldn’t split your budget equally between all the layers of the stack. Instead, I’d recommend something like:
- Spend 60% on the headphones
- Spend 25% on the amplifier
- Spend 15% on the DAC
Except: DACs that are $50 and under are crap. DACs that are $100 and up are all fine.
Some setups won’t require a separate DAC, because some headphone amps come with an integrated DAC. These are all fine, so if you get one of these, don’t worry about a separate DAC.
If your setup has a separate DAC, I wouldn’t spend much money on it. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between any decent DAC. (And I’ve listened to a lot of them.) My personal approach is just to use amp-integrated DACs, or to get the $100 Schiitt Modi or the $150 Musical Fidelity V-DAC, and not worry about it after that.
Do not get cheap $30 Chinese DACs that are the size of a pack of gum. These are lousy and will affect your listening experience.
Buy used equipment! Headphones and headphone amps rarely break. And they lose value after the initial from-new purchase, but hold it afterwards. So prefer to buy used: you’ll get good equipment, and you’ll often be able to sell it back into the market for about what you paid for it.
You don’t need to go with CDs or lossless codecs to appreciate good headphone hardware. Good headphones make audio from any source sound better. And MP3s at 256 kbps or higher are just fine. (Most commercially-purchased MP3s from the last 10 years will meet this standard.)
If you’ve got 256 kbps or better MP3s as your source, think about upgrading to lossless only after you’ve got all your hardware sorted out.
And watching music videos on YouTube is fine, too! Video takes up so much bandwidth that YouTube includes high-quality audio tracks with them just because they can. I spend a lot of my listening time on YouTube videos, and I think having good headphone hardware really pays off there.
Just tell me what to buy to get something awesome
If your budget is $100, buy a Sony MDR-7506 and plug it directly into your computer or iPod. And enjoy!
If your budget is $500, you’re in a weird spot: there aren’t that many headphones in this price range that justify their price. I’d go for a Beyerdynamic DT-990 or Sennheiser HD-600 as your headphone. Either plug it directly into your iPhone/iPod, or get a Schitt Modi/Magni or Modi/Asgard setup. (The Sennheiser HD-600s will require an amp.) Or maybe search eBay for a used Creek or HeadRoom amp.
If your budget is $2,000, buy a Denon/Fostex headphone and a used HeadRoom Desktop Ultra amp.
“Denon/Fostex” means one of a small cluster of high-end $1,000-or-so headphones produced by either Denon or Fostex. These are amazing headphones, and sort of the standard for mid-level audiophile headphones. They’re two different brands but the same headphones. Denon AH-D5000 or Fostex TH-9000 are the main models. They can frequently be found used on eBay for about $800.
The HeadRoom amps are out of production, but occasionally show up on eBay and Audiogon. They are great amps and great values. Have some patience and see if one shows up for you.
Can’t find a HeadRoom? Get a Schiitt Asgard ($250) or MassDrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon X ($300). If you get the Cavalli, go for one with the integrated DAC.
Get a $100 Schiit Modi or any other decent DAC if you need one.
If your budget is $5,000, well… you should be experimenting and developing your own taste in headphones and amps by this point. That’s part of the hobby, and the fun of it all. Don’t let me tell you what to get. :)
What’s the weird upshot of this? There’s a big gulf between $150 and $1,000 for headphones.
In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) are really cool. They’re typically custom-made (“poured”) based on molds of the user’s ears. They produce extraordinary fidelity, and are favored by professional musicians.
They’re really expensive ($1,000-$2,000). And they don’t have good bass. You can hear the bass they produce, and it has amazing fidelity. But you don’t feel the bass. And that makes a big difference for people who are listening to music for enjoyment, as opposed to performing it professionally.
I would not recommend you buy IEMs. You can get more-enjoyable-sounding headphones for much less, for a home-listening situation. And for a mobile situation, there’s no need for the extreme fidelity that IEMs give; you can go with a $200 Etymotic earbud instead.
What about tube amps?
Tube amps are awesome! But not as your first amp.
Tube amps make things sound “natural”, “organic”, “juicy”, and “engaging”. Personally, I love them. But, they’re also finicky, their results vary a lot with the specific headphone you’re plugging in to them, they can’t drive low-sensitivity headphones, and they’re not great for all types of music.
I wouldn’t recommend buying a tube amp as your first or primary amp. Once you have a home-listening solid-state setup that you like, then consider branching out into tube amps as a second amp.
I can heartily endorse the Schiitt Valhalla 2 ($350) as a great tube amp, and is the one I’d recommend to anyone first getting in to tube amps. It is beautiful, sonically and physically, and better than anything else I’ve seen in its price range. I owned one before, sold it off when I was cleaning up my desktop, and missed it so much I just went and bought another.
“Auditioning” is the process of listening to audio gear before deciding whether you want to buy it.
I highly recommend that you assemble your own headphone-audition playlist of music that you like and are familiar with, and use this for trying out any new headphone stuff. Don’t go with what the dealer has for you.
I like to have a playlist that covers all of:
- Both male and female vocals, since they hit different registers
- Lots of instruments going on at once, so you can assess voice separation
- Big-ass bass
- Techno, for assessing synthetic textures and high-energy beats
- Some rock involving complex percussions
- Songs that you love and send a tingle up your spine when done right
- String quartets
- Big-ass classical orchestras
You can find one of my headphone audition playlists here.
Where to get hardware
- Amazon, obviously
- eBay, obviously
- Audiogon, an audiophile/hi-fi resale site