Headphones are everywhere. Consumers have spent billions of dollars in the past 10 years on better quality headphones; possibly the only good thing about the Beats revolution. People became accustomed to spending $250-$300 on mediocre ones, so it wasn’t that huge of a stretch to get them to spend $300-$500 on better ones. But with so many options (we’ll cover wireless and wireless ANC headphones next week) available right now, consumers are not sure what to buy. Here are some of the best headphones for 2021 that we’ve put some miles on.
Portable high-end headphone rigs are showing up on office desktops; something that I was allowed to do in the office prior to the pandemic. Portable Dongle DACs made that possible and allowed me to enjoy lunch with my music.
I commute enough to notice that I’m not alone in this practice. Headphones are not only the gateway drug for some into our little hobby – they are the drug of choice for millions of people.
Many of them will never invest in a high-end two-channel system and there is nothing wrong with that. Audiophiles who judge them harshly are missing the point.
Headphone shows like the CanJam events draw big crowds on a global level with a demographic that skews much younger than traditional hi-fi shows. Growth is never a bad thing and neither is attracting a new non-audiophile audience (both male and female) who clearly care about music and better sound quality
One brand that understands that there has been a quantum shift in listening habits is Audeze. Not only have they continued to develop state-of-the-art products, but they have focused heavily on the gaming segment and that was clearly the way to go considering how many millions of people play daily. I’ve raised 3 avid gamers, so I know the drill. So does my bank account.
I remember trying some of the earliest Audeze models and loving the sonics but really having an issue with the industrial design and weight of the products; I’m a large guy (6’3”) with a big head and I couldn’t deal with the sensation of wearing a suitcase on my head for more than 10 minutes.
Audeze has made huge strides in that department but it made me rethink the idea of dropping $3,000 on a pair of headphones unless they were very lightweight – and super comfortable to wear for much longer stretches of time.
The LCD-1 are nowhere near $3,000; their $399 price tag makes them very competitive in the open-back planar magnetic category. These are some of the best headphones for 2021 if you want a planar design that are lightweight and portable.
They are also very easy to drive and the most comfortable pair of headphones from the brand that I’ve ever worn. Not only is the midrange resolution and detail superb – but these headphones recreate a huge soundstage. Impressive for the money. $399 at Amazon.
The Sundara (review) were one of the first planar magnetic headphones to be sold below $400 and the clearly inspired Audeze to introduce the LCD-1 which are natural rivals. Both headphones are excellent but the Sundara has a warmer tonal balance and delivers greater layers of texture. The LCD-1 sound more spacious and detailed.
Planar magnetic headphones have driven a lot of the newfound interest in the audiophile personal audio category, and HiFiMan has been at the tip of that spear for many years with models ranging from $499 to…$50,000. There is a lot to admire in the sound quality and uniqueness of the more expensive HiFiMan headphones, but the $349 Sundara might be our favorite for its transparency, punchy bass response, midrange resolution, and overall comfort.
You can wear these for hours without feeling fatigued, but keep in mind that they are open-back headphones that will allow everyone to hear what you’re listening to. $349 at Amazon.
Meze Audio 99 Classics
This very entrepreneurial company based in Romania has been manufacturing some of the best headphones in the world for almost five years. Their flagship Empyrean ($3,000 at Crutchfield) planar magnetic headphones are on a very short list of headphones considered to be the “best” available.
The 99 Classics are not in the same league as their more sophisticated sibling, but they are one of our favorite closed back headphones because they sound great, are incredibly comfortable on your head, and are strikingly better looking than a lot of the headphones below $1,000. I’ve used these as my daily headphone for almost two years and I see no reason to change. $309 at Amazon.
Focal Clear Mg
Focal are one the world’s leading manufacturers of loudspeakers, and their proprietary beryllium drivers are used in some of the most expensive loudspeakers money can buy. Focal have unveiled a new reference open-back headphone named the Clear Mg. They replace the original Clear headphones from 2017, while keeping the same high-end $1,490 price tag. Mg is the chemical symbol for Magnesium, which has been used in the construction of a new ‘M’-shaped magnesium dome covering its full-range driver.
The newly constructed driver is lighter, more rigid, and better damped. The sound is even more transparent and detailed than that of their Clear predecessor; although their specifications are identical. Except a more detailed review soon. $1490 at Amazon.
Grado Labs RS2e
Grado Labs invented the stereo moving coil phono cartridge, but this Brooklyn-based family business has become a lot more famous for its affordable open-back headphones with a very distinct look. Grado toughed it out during the dark days of digital and the unexpected boom in both vinyl playback and personal audio has allowed them to invest heavily in new driver technology to compete with all of the new brands.
The RS2e are the embodiment of the Grado house sound that certainly favors rock and detail freaks. The gorgeous wood earphone cups add some necessary warmth to the tonal presentation and there is a visceral feel to the music that can be quite intoxicating. The $495 RS2e has an upgraded driver and the new 8 conductor cable design. The characteristics of the RS2e remain the same as its distinguished big brother, with the new species of hand-crafted mahogany, but with a smaller wooden air chamber.
The 32 ohms impedance and 98 dB sensitivity rating make them very easy to drive and perfect for your smartphone or laptop. Pair them with a Dongle DAC like the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt or Helm BOLT and you may not get a lot of work done. $495 at Amazon.
For many years, the original HD800 sat on the iron throne in the world of headphones. They were revered for their reference-level neutrality and transparency. For some people, they were too much of a good thing; hence the interest in the warmer sounding planar magnetic headphones that ripped off its crown.
The HD800S are a revised version of the over-the-ear open-back Teutonic classics with new driver technology, even better construction quality, and a much smoother presentation that is world class on a lot of levels. The HD800S require a comparable headphone amplifier to justify their asking price but get the combination right and these are sonic nirvana. $1699 at Amazon.
Beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro
Beyerdynamic has a long and distinguished track record building some of the best studio headphones in the world and the DT-1990 Pro might be the best value in open-back headphones if you prefer their tuning. Their greatest strength is the overall balance of their presentation which makes them easy to listen to for hours.
The open design sounds incredibly spacious and you can modify their tonal balance by switching out the 2 sets of provided ear pads and decide for yourself which one sounds best. Built in Germany, the DT-1990 Pro can handle the abuse of day-to-day use and are inexpensive for what they offer. One of the best headphones of 2021 if you want a studio-level pair of cans that will last forever. $649 at Amazon.
Dan Clark Audio Ether 2
Dan Clark Audio was one of the first planar magnetic headphone manufacturers to emerge from the Head-Fi community, with its modified versions of Japanese Fostex headphones, but after a decade of innovative design and perseverance demonstrating it wares at audio shows around the globe, this brand has earned the right to call itself ‘A’ list. The Ether 2 utilize their proprietary planar magnetic drivers and deliver layers of resolution, detail, and transparency that is category leading by any standard.
Built entirely of titanium, aluminum, and carbon fiber it weighs in at only 290 grams, making it the lightest top-of-the-line planar on the market (and one of the lightest headphones in its class) and suitable for hours on-end of comfortable listening. Drive them with a great sounding headphone amplifier to truly appreciate their sonic magic. Dan Clark has come a long way and pounded the pavement across the globe building this brand. One of the best headphones of 2021 if you desire a true audiophile experience that will blow your mind with its transparency. $2,199 at Amazon.
Meze Audio Empyrean
Meze Audio is a small headphone manufacturer based in Romania, but they have become a household name in the audiophile category. Having established their credibility with their affordable and award-winning Classic 99 headphones, Meze spent the past few years developing their planar magnetic Empyrean which take a backseat to very few headphones at any price level. Offering almost hypnotic imaging and midrange resolution, the Empyrean are only limited by the quality of the amplifier that you connect them to.
Meze Audio knew that their $3,000 statement had to look the part as well and this is industrial design at its finest. Meze are now offering a custom “Phoenix” version of the Empyrean that are $1,000 more but jaw-dropping on a visual level. Possibly the best sounding headphone in the world right now. $2,999 at Crutchfield.
Audeze were at the forefront of the planar magnetic revolution and have been subjected to more praise and abuse than any other brand in the category; something that happens when you push the envelope with radical driver technology but also charge $4,000 for a pair of over-ear, open-back headphones. Audeze headphones energize the music like few other products, but often feel like you’re wearing a suitcase on your head and require a lot of power. The LCD-4z sound better with a higher quality headphone amplifier but sound just fine with a smartphone or DAP and we approve of the lighter design. Did we mention that they are $4,000? Gulp. $3,995 at Audeze.com.