While home theater sound is usually synonymous with multichannel speaker systems, stereo headphones can provide exceptional sound quality for considerably less money.
I regularly use my, , , and Sennheiser HD 580 full-size headphones for home theater, and I recommend using the best headphones you can. If you already have decent headphones, consider buying a dedicated headphone amplifier.
For these home theater headphone listening tests, I started with my trusty Onkyo TX-SR805 receiver. It sounded fine on its own, but there were significant clarity gains with my Woo Audio WA-6SE and the truly awesome $219 Bottlehead Crack kit amps (Crack review coming soon). With the amps the sound was far more vivid; the TX-SR805 sounded softer and veiled by comparison. But before you buy a headphone amp, invest in a really good set of headphones.
With "Nowhere Boy," a new John Lennon biopic, the Bottlehead Crack amplifier and my old Sennheiser HD-580 headphones kept me totally absorbed in the film. The scenes with a teenage Lennon (Aaron Johnson) and Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) learning to play guitar together in John's living room sounded so realistic I felt like I was eavesdropping on history. When they start playing in clubs the soundstage expanded, and the Sennheisers put me in the best seat in the house.
"King Kong" was a treat, especially the jungle scenes with the giant insects and bird noises coming from all around my head. True, you're not going to get bona fide surround sound over headphones, but the Sennheiser HD 580 and Crack amp produced a remarkably open soundscape. Closed-back headphones, like Monster, confined the sound to the space between my two ears, but the Beats did a better job when Kong and the dinosaurs got physical in the jungle. I could feel the weight being thrown around with their body slams.
Long-term comfort, over the two-plus hours of a movie should be a major concern when picking headphones for home theater use. Tops in class: the Sennheiser HD 598 is super comfy, and they don't make my ears sweat.
Summing up: investing $200 or more on headphones may be the most cost-effective way to get high-quality home theater sound--for one person--from movies. Don't forget, you can also use the headphones for music!