The best stuff is never cheap, but even top-tier headphones sell for a tiny fraction of the cost of the world's best speakers. I will follow up with a top 10 affordable headphone list later this year.
I've limited my selections to just one model from each brand, and I have spent many hours listening to each of these headphones. They're listed in alphabetical order.
Abyss offers just one model, the AB-1266, and it's the best-sounding, most dynamic headphone in the world. Bass is shockingly deep, and definition is, again, without peer. It's a heavy headphone, but I find it comfortable because the AB-1266's ear pads are designed to barely make contact with your ears or head, and that makes a huge difference. The Abyss AB-1266 are the most expensive headphones on this list; they sell for $5,495 in the US, and £4,254 in the UK.
This headphone is capable of unleashing a huge soundstage that extends wider and deeper than any other headphone. Originally sold only in the pro market, the K812 is an unusually accurate device, buyers seeking boisterous bass or a sumptuous midrange will be disappointed, the AKG K812 tells it like it is. It's now sold to audiophiles for $1,500 in the US and £1,149 in the UK.
Oh my, the Audeze LCD-4's sound borders on deliriously decadent -- it's lovely and uber-detailed. Then there's that delicious midrange that's simply more lifelike than what I've heard from Audeze's other 'phones, and that's saying a lot. It's $3,995 in the US and £3,299 in the UK.
The AudioQuest NightHawk is a standout on a number of counts. First, it's richer and more fully balanced than the other headphones on this list, so it takes some of the edge off overly harsh recordings. I love its sweet tonal balance, but some listeners might find it lacking in crispness. The NightHawk is also the least expensive and most comfortable headphone on this list. It runs $599 in the US and £499 in the UK.
Beyerdynamic T1 (2nd Generation)
The new Beyerdynamic T1 (2nd Generation) looks almost exactly like the original T1 that debuted in 2009, but the new one sounds very different. First, there's a lot more bass -- and it's really tight, fast, well-defined bass -- and the new model's treble is sweeter and clearer. The New T1 was designed and made in Germany and sells for $1,099 in the US and £732 in the UK.
EnigmAcoustic Dharma D1000
The recently introduced EnigmAcoustic Dharma D1000 is a "hybrid" design with two in each ear cup -- one electrostatic, one dynamic -- so this headphone delivers high levels of transparency and lots of low bass slam. It runs $1,195 in the US; UK pricing isn't yet available.
The Hifiman HE1000's extraordinary clarity is matched with a harmonically rich tonal balance and breathtakingly wide stereo imaging. This large, but comfortable headphone looks like nothing else. When I played Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," the intimacy of the soundstage and the sense of hearing the music direct from the microphones raised the hairs on the back of my neck! The music sounded like it was live, like it was happening right now as I listened. The HE1000 sells for $2,999 in the US and £2,199 in the UK.
The KingSound KS-H3 is a beautiful, comfortable electrostatic headphone, and it's lovely to listen to. For audiophiles craving ultimate transparency, the KS-H3 will be a mindblowing experience. The KS-H3 is sold bundled with the matching KingSound M-10 solid-state headphone amp for $1,250 in the US; UK pricing is not available.
The MrSpeakers Ether headphone liberates the sound, opens it up, and allows the music to breathe. It's also lighter and more comfortable than most other world-class contenders. Ether sells for $1,500 in the US and £1,150 in the UK.
Sony MDR Z7
Theis the only fully closed-back headphone on this list, so it offers superior isolation from external noise than do the others. The sound is very linear and transparent. You hear more of the recording -- for good or bad -- which is exactly what audiophiles want; you get the feeling the MDR Z7 isn't adding or taking anything from the sound of your music. It sells for $700 in the US; £550 in the UK.