The wireless headphone and TWS earphone categories are expected to grow to almost $27 billion by 2027 and that’s exciting news for manufacturers who have already established themselves within those two categories. They are excellent for commuters, business travelers, students, and those looking to listen to music while they exercise or take phone calls as they move around town. The sound quality offered by wireless headphone and TWS earbuds took a rather substantial step forward in 2022. So what does that mean for the future of wired audiophile over-ear headphones?
The best wired audiophile headphones still dominate the segment as they provide the listener with the highest possible sound quality. Open-back headphones are the most popular in this segment because of their imaging and soundstage capabilities, but the gap is certainly closing with closed-back headphones that offer state-of-the-art performance in some cases with almost no leakage that can disturb others.
The Head-Fi revolution has created a new generation of headphone listeners that demand the best possible sound quality experience, but that has also come with a huge uptick in price.
One can easily spend anywhere from $250 to $5,000 on a pair of audiophile quality headphones in 2022 and there is no question that there are some great options in–between those two very different price points.
Best Budget Open-Back Headphones
Some will argue that Drop has lost some of its shine and that prices are now closer to retail than they were at the very beginning of its launch. We would still argue that the HD58x and HD6xx still offer substantial value for the money and for those looking to find an audiophile quality headphone without breaking the bank — look no further than the HD58x at $179 (current price). The performance and build quality for the money makes them a very easy recommendation.
Pros: Build quality, open and spacious presentation, very easy to listen to for long listening sessions, excellent value for the money
Cons: Too much plastic, slightly aggressive presentation
Where to buy: $179 at drop.com
Best Budget Closed-Back Headphones
Audiophiles began noticing Sivga’s high-end models a few years ago and the $199 Oriole offer a surprising high level of performance and industrial design; the craftsmanship of these headphones is unusually high considering the price.
We found a high level of comfort and more than a few people asked us while traveling with them if they were one of those really expensive “audiophile” headphones they had seen online.
The Oriole offer a warmer tonal balance than other models in the Sivga lineup, but there is more than enough top end energy to keep one very interested and not feel a sense of fatigue during long listening sessions.
The midrange performance offers both excellent resolution and transparency with female vocals and a surprising amount of detail. The low end can be rather robust depending on the source device and these just work remarkably well with most genres of music and deliver excellent value for the money.
Pros: Impressive industrial design, build quality, robust and impactful bass, high level of midrange resolution
Cons: Not as well known as other audiophile brands, need more power to really show what they can do
Where to buy: $199 at Amazon
Best Value Open-Back Headphones
HiFiMAN Edition XS
Affordable. Good build quality. Sound that is well refined, without any hardness in the top end. These are some of the words we both used to describe the sonic signature of the HiFiMAN Edition XS. Where HiFiMAN has struggled somewhat over the past few years has been in the quality of the construction. Some models offer superb sound quality, but rather questionable overall construction and durability. It’s hard to find a balance between sound quality and long-term durability with some of their products.
The HiFiMAN Edition XS go a long way to change that perception and we hope it’s the beginning of a trend for them in this particular price range.
The HiFiMAN Edition XS are a descendent of the HE1000 branch on the HiFiMAN tree, but there are a few steps in-between the HE1000 and the Edition XS. The first step were the original Edition X model that was a step down from the HE1000; it didn’t use premium materials and was better suited for portable use.
What’s most fascinating about the Edition XS with all of its new technology and improved ergonomics is the price difference between the previous version which retailed for $1,200 USD and new model that retails for $500.
It is entirely possible that this is the new benchmark for headphones below $500 and that may create two large problems for HiFiMAN. Keeping this headphone in stock and convincing consumers that they need to spend more for the Ananda or Arya.
Pros: Excellent overall sound quality, comfort level, build quality
Cons: Not the most forgiving of bad recordings, slightly bright presentation
Runner Up (Open-Back): Sivga SV023
Is it true that every headphone brand offers a “house” sound or can the same manufacturer offer headphones that sound nothing alike? The use of different technology and drivers will obviously impact how a headphone is ultimately tuned but most brands tend to follow a familiar playbook. Sendy/Sivga apparently tossed that binder into the trashcan and have released a mix of headphone products with varied results.
Smart looking industrial design has always been a strength of the brand, and the headphone is one of Sivga’s most attractive looking headphones so far; the walnut cups with a central stainless grille in each cup suggest a far more expensive asking price.
The build quality is superb thanks to the steel and aluminum frame that feels very robust in your hands. The only plastic we could find was in the cable which makes the SV023 somewhat rare in the price category.
The Sennheiser HD660 and SV023 are somewhat similar overall; the German headphones feature slightly less low end extension and a treble that is not as polite sounding.
The biggest points of differentiation would be the overall comfort level of the SV023 and the soundstage performance; the latter was even more surprising considering how good Sennheiser headphones are in that regard.
What is very clear is that Sivga have taken all of the lessons learned so far and developed a very impressive headphone for $450 that can compete against anything in its price range. Avoiding these would be a mistake.
Pros: Industrial design, comfort level, huge soundstage, excellent sound quality, value for the money
Cons: Need a good source or Dongle DAC to really shine, slightly recessed sounding lower midrange
Where to buy: $449 at Amazon
Runner up (Closed-Back): Kennerton Magni
As we discovered (again) in 2022, geopolitical events can negatively impact a small company far removed from an unnecessary conflict being waged in a neighboring country. Kennerton has paid the price for Russia’s invasion and brutal war in Ukraine; the products are very hard to find and in some cases — illegal to import depending on the jurisdiction.
But none of that takes away from what it is a great sounding headphone; there is more than enough impact in the low end to please rock and hip hop listeners and the overall presentation is quite resolving and balanced. Some might find the Magni to be overly smooth but we didn’t find it to be overly polite; the upper bass and lower midrange suffer from zero bleed and the presentation really keeps your attention.
The midrange has excellent resolution and timbre; piano notes and vocals are well fleshed out and alive with texture and necessary weight. The treble has ample detail and a surprising amount of airiness that permits the Magni to offer a wide and deep sounding soundstage for a closed-back headphone.
Pros: Sound quality, build quality, comfort, very impressive soundstage performance for a closed-back
Cons: Putin’s war has made them harder to get, supply chain issues
Where to buy: $690 at kennerton.org
Best Open-Back Headphones Under $1,000
Meze Audio 109 Pro
There was a lot of speculation that the 109 Pro were nothing more than an open-back version of the 99 Classics; nothing could be further from the truth. Antonio Meze has never designed any of his headphones to be anything but statement products at their respective price points.
One significant difference between the 99 Classics and Meze Audio 109 Pro is that the 109 Pro are not as easy to drive; my since retired iPhone 6s could drive the 99 Classics and when I started using Dongle DACs — power was never an issue.
My early take on them after two weeks of listening is that they really don’t sound like an open-back version of the 99 Classics at all. Maybe a tad in the tonal balance department but they are so much more open sounding and detailed.
The top end has greater extension and energy but it never gets out of control.
In some respects, they are closer to the Empyrean in their ethereal clarity than any other headphone in the Meze Audio lineup.
The midrange is open, detailed, and a lot more impressive with vocals compared to the 99 Classics; female vocals are clearer and still very full of body and texture.
Horns have more bite and texture as well. These are excellent headphones for jazz listeners; the 99 Classics are rather good in the pacing department, but the 109 Pro’s do a better job of keeping up with the timing and speed of the music.
The build quality of the 109 Pro headphones is superb and everyone keeps asking me at Starbucks who makes them. Antonio Meze really has the industrial design element down to perfection.
The weight is definitely more than we expected but it’s not a deal breaker. It is a matter of perspective — we have become spoiled by lighter headphones over the past few years and while the headband is amazingly comfortable and strong, the 109 Pro feel heavier on the head.
Pros: Superb industrial design, spaciousness, detailed, midrange resolution is far superior to 99 Classics
Cons: Weight, clamping force could be stronger
Where to buy: $799 at Crutchfield
Best High-End Audiophile Open-Back Headphones
This was tough. We went back and forth between several models reviewed this year and depending on personal preferences this spot could have just as easily been taken by the Meze Elite, the Focal Utopia 2022, or the HiFiMAN Susvara, but ultimately, we kept coming back to comparing all of those to the Audeze LCD-5.
Audeze have created a lighter and more comfortable headphone than the award-winning LCD-4 which offers even higher levels of resolution, detail, and transparency.
Once you spend some time with the LCD-5, you will discover that neutrality and speed are its strengths, and while it may not draw you into the music as much as an Empyrean or Rognir, it does a more faithful job of presenting the recording exactly as intended and has better resolution than either one of those exceptional headphones.
The Audeze LCD-5 comes on the heels of its first electrostatic headphone, the CRBN which we detailed earlier this summer. The CRBN delivers unbelievable speed and clarity and is one of the best of its kind.
What’s amazing about the LCD-5 is how close it performs in regard to the CRBN and that’s a rather amazing feat for a planar magnetic headphone.
You can’t shortchange the LCD-5 when it comes to power and that needs to be part of the equation for sure. If you’re looking to build a state-of-the-art headphone system, the LCD-5 is a mandatory audition for sure.
Pros: Much lighter and more comfortable than LCD-4, world class resolution, detail, transparency and speed
Cons: Very expensive, requires sources and headphone amplifiers that can show off its sonic prowess
Best High-End Audiophile Closed-Back Headphones
There is a lot of competition in the closed-back category but the Rognir really took us by surprise in 2022; the overall sonic performance is competitive with anything from Audeze or Dan Clark Audio and these really need to be driven with some of the best DAPs or desktop headphone amplifiers available to experience what they can do.
Every once in a while a new product comes along that seems to break all the rules. We think we know how the world works, then something comes along that makes us rethink everything.
What’s fascinating about the headphone space is that small teams of engineers have proven to be extremely capable when it comes to developing driver solutions that most consumers wouldn’t even think about.
Kennerton decided to upset the apple cart and go and ruin everything.
Everything you think you know about planar magnetic headphones, especially closed back models – has been flipped on its head by the Kennerton Rognir. It could easily be mistaken for an electrostatic headphone; the best ones like the Stax 007 and that’s very high praise.
In some ways, the Rognir is like the wonderful Meze Audio Empyrean; they both offer reference quality resolution and transparency and almost effortless delivery.
Pros: Reference level sound quality, suspension system, industrial design, breathtaking transparency in a closed-back headphone
Cons: Weight, supply chain and geopolitical issues make them hard to get
Where to buy: $3,250 at kennerton.org
One Headphone for 2023 That Has Us Excited:
Auribus Acoustics Mt. Everest
When we setup at T.H.E Headphonium area of T.H.E Show back in June, we noticed a headphone, which we did not recognize. Wandering over to the Beach HiFi booth, sitting at one end was the Mt. Everest; a new model created by Juan, the proprietor of Auribus Acoustics.
Still in the prototype phase, we were lucky enough to get a sample from him to review. We came away very impressed with the tuning and the overall fit. While still in the development phase at the time, it is now for sale.
Based on our attempt to order a pair through the website, the first series of headphones have already sold out.
The Mt. Everest utilizes a number of custom-designed components created by Audeze and Dekoni (the ear cups are superb) but the engineering and tuning were done by the folks at Auribus Acoustics and there is a lot to recommend here.
The Mt. Everest are rather large so the design might not be ideal for smaller heads but the resolution and immediacy are outstanding and the low end impact and control is impressive for a pair of headphones in the price category.
Pros: Comfort, resolution, parts quality, spacious sound, a genuine challenger to other high-end headphones in the same price range.
Cons: Wait times, small vendor, headphone is a tad large for smaller heads
Where to buy: $685 at auribusacoustics.com