2018 has been an outstanding year for headphones. From budget to insanely expensive models, there's a great set for every head and every budget. I've chosen my favorites and humbly present them to you in no particular order. Let's dive in.
Pictured above, from left to right, we have the ZMF Auteur, 1More Triple Driver On Ear, Hifiman Susvara, and the Koss Porta Pro Wireless.
First up: a bold, dramatic design, the Heritage HP-3 ($1,199) is a reference-quality headphone, which is a first for Klipsch! It's the sort of headphone you fall in love with from the second you hear it.
These in-ear headphones really hush external noise without electronics or batteries, and the sound falls in line with Etymotic's house sound -- very clean, clear, with a smooth frequency response -- the MK5 is an accurate sounding headphone. They sell for $65 in the US, £60 in the UK and AU$100 in Australia.
The Shure KSE1200 electrostatic in-ear headphones' sound will thrill well-heeled audiophiles seeking ultimate transparency and naturalness. If that describes you, the KSE1200 deserves a serious audition. The KSE1200 sells for $1,999 in the US, £1,769 in the UK and AU$2,999 in Australia.
1More quickly established itself as the budget audiophile headphone maker of choice. The Triple Driver receives consistent praise for its clarity and sweet tone for $100, £99 or AU$139.
The Sundara feels like a clean break from Hifiman's HE Series of headphones. First, the new aluminum-and-leather headband makes for a more comfortable fit, and materials are upgraded for improved durability. Sound quality is top-notch, clarity is high, bass isn't just deep, it's precise, and the soundstage is broad and open. Sundara sells for $499 in the US, £449 in the UK and AU$699 in Australia.
It would be all too easy to overlook the Final Audio Design E3000 in-ear headphones ($55, £49 or AU$99), but that would be a mistake. The brand makes a lot of great headphones. It may not have the name recognition of Sennheiser or Beats, but if it keeps making headphones this good, it'll cross over to the big leagues soon. The E3000 is the best budget in-ear headphone I've heard in ages.
Focal is best known as France's leading high-end speaker brand, but starting last year it introduced two spectacular headphones, the Elear and the Utopia. The new Clear's sound has an unforced quality that just seems to let music through without imposing any change on it. I associate that sort of sound with vanishingly low distortion, and maybe that's why the Clear ($1,499, £1,399) makes music sound so realistic.
The EP's bass was pleasantly plump, with acceptable definition -- it's a Beats headphone after all. The EP was a very listenable headphone, and acoustic instruments fared best. The price is right, too; just $130, £90 and AU$140.
All other ZMF headphones before the Auteur were all closed-back designs; the big news here is that the Auteur is open-back, and right away the sound grew more spacious. This made in the US headphone prices start at $1,599 with solid teak ear cups. Review to come.
The Audeze LCDi4 ($2,495, £2,399) is one of the most transparent and open sounding in-ear headphones on the planet. The clarity is downright addictive, and the bass is super deep, with nimble definition. The headphone comes with both Apple Lightning and standard cables. One catch: it's an open design, so it doesn't hush external noise from planes, trains, buses and so on.
This new Bluetooth model of the iconic Porta Pro on-ear headphone goes for not quite double the price of the wired model, is it worth it? The Porta Pro Wireless retails for $80 in the US, £90 in the UK, and AU$130 in Australia So how does the Bluetooth 'Pro stand up to comparison, the sound had a familiar flavor, but they're not identical. The 'Wireless Pro's bass had better punch and definition firmed up, and the sound was brighter overall.
Koss makes a bunch of headphones over a wide price range, but the company has a special affinity for making outstanding budget 'phones. The KPH30i ($30) actually feels more solidly constructed and upscale than the more-expensive Koss Porta Pro. The KPH30i is less transparent and clear than the Porta Pro, with a more prominent mid-bass and fatter midrange. Still, it's a sweet and nonfatiguing sound; very easy on the ears.
The 1More Triple Driver's aluminum ear cups each house a 42mm graphene dynamic driver, a separate 10mm piezo-ceramic tweeter, and a passive bass reflector. The closed-back design does a good job keeping external noise at bay. The Triple Driver is a refined and easy-to-listen-to headphone, nothing irritates over long listening sessions. The Triple Driver sells for $250 in the US, £212 in the UK and AU$349 in Australia.
MrSpeakers headphones have long been Audiophiliac favorites, but they've really come up with something special with the Aeon Flow ($800). It's the company's most-comfortable, best-looking, and in some ways best-sounding headphone yet!
The AKG K872 ($1,499, £1,099) is the closed-back version of the K812 that has been one of my reference headphones for a number of years. This is a monitor-grade pro headphone a consumer can love.
I was a big fan of Sennheiser's original IE800 in-ear headphone when it debuted -- I can hardly believe it -- five years ago! It was a super-comfy, extremely open, natural-sounding 'phone. Sennheiser's newly revised model, the new flagship IE800 S looks similar, but sounds like a more refined device. It's designed and hand-made in Germany. The IE800 S retails for $1,000 in the US, £870 in the UK and AU$1,600 in Australia.
KZ is one of those companies, like FiiO before it, that really pushes the performance envelope of budget audiophile gear. Take the KZ ZSA in-ear headphone, this two-way design runs an 8mm dynamic driver for bass, and a balanced armature driver for the treble, both housed in a snazzy CNC machined aluminum ear piece. Not bad considering ZSA's rock bottom budget price, $26 in the US, £26 in the UK, and AU$28 in Australia.
I get a lot of headphones, but don't be jealous -- most aren't all that interesting. Ho-hum rules the day, so when I popped in these Creative Aurvana Trio headphones, my ears perked up -- the sound was anything but ordinary. The clarity and open quality was special, truly remarkable for a headphone that retails for $150.
When you hold this headphone in your hands you'll feel its quality, from the impeccably machined aluminum ear cups that come finished in a choice of polymer-ceramic colors, and the headband and ear pads' fine leathers, Diana is the real deal. But uber-performance and hand-crafted build quality never comes cheap; Diana can be yours for $2,995, £3,450 or AU$4,299.
I love the Audeze LCD2 Classic for its powerful dynamics and ear-massaging bass. It has a larger sense of scale than most competing headphones; the LCD2Cs' sound rich, warm, and hugely satisfying. It's an update of Audeze's original LCD2, but the Classic is much lighter and more comfortable, and it's the lowest ever price for an over-the-ear Audeze headphone. The LCD2 Classic retails for $799 in the US, £899 in the UK and AU$999 in Australia.
The iSine 10 shares a lot of tech with the flagship Audeze in-ear, the LCDi4. Both are open-back in-ear, planar-magnetic designs. The $399/£366 iSine 10 sounds remarkably clear and spacious; no other in-ear headphone at this price can touch it. Just be aware the iSine doesn't hush external noise one bit. Also available with an Apple Lightning cable.
The Periodic Audio Mg in-ear headphone ($99) features a proprietary magnesium driver. It's a lush-sounding headphone.
The first headphone to give the Abyss AB 1266 headphone a run for the money, Susvara's sound is hyper-transparent and pure. It's also more comfortable than the AB-1266 and Hifiman's very own HE1000v2 headphone. Oh, and it sounds better than any Audeze headphone I've heard to date. Yes, Susvara is really expensive -- $6,000 (£4,950, AU$7,499) a pair!
Noble in-ears have a more precise sound than most others, so you feel more connected to the music. The Sage's sculpted metal ear pieces also look really cool. Sage retails for $599 or £457.
If I had to describe this headphone's sound with one word, I'd start with "right." Voices are so natural, so full of life, so engaging. I had a hard time taking notes for the review -- I just wanted to keep listening. Each Eikon is built to order; price runs $1,299, £1,038 or AU$1,694 in cherry wood and $1,399, £1,118 or AU$1,824 in African Padauk wood.
This is Shure's top dynamic driver in-ear headphone; it's the one I grab when I'm not reviewing an in-ear. Its low distortion, high clarity sound is a respite when I'm on the NYC subway, or when I fly. It's $999 in the US, £849 in the UK and AU$1,049 in Australia.
Thanks for looking over this best-of-the-best headphone gallery -- see you next time!