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“Best” Headphones Compete at 2023 Headphone Shootout. Here are the Winners.

18 different headphone models from seven manufacturers competed for the title of the “2023 King of Headphones”.

A sampling of headphones competing in the 2023 Headphone Shootout.

A day after this year’s CanJam show in New York City, electronics retailer Value Electronics and Dealerscope magazine held a headphone event of their own just a few blocks away in midtown Manhattan. It was a Battle Royal of in-ear monitors, wired and wireless over-ear headphones competing to be crowned the “King of Headphones.” The event was called the “Headphone Shootout” and the hosts plan for this to become a regular occurrence.

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In all, eighteen of the top performing headphones from seven different companies, priced from $149 to $1,799, competed. The hosts of the event picked which models would compete and while the list is by no means comprehensive, there was a pretty good sampling of different brands, types and technologies at the various price points. To judge the event, several golden-eared judges, including professional audio engineers, audiophile headphone experts and audio equipment reviewers were invited to attend, making the trek to the Company building near Grand Central Station to participate. Our own Editor-in-Chief Ian White was invited to be on the panel of judges.

Robert Zohn, Host of the Value Electronics Shootout 2023
Headphone Shootout host Robert Zohn, from Value Electronics poses with some of the models competing in this year’s event.

Value Electronics is already well known for their Shootout Events, starting with the first TV Shootout in 2004, which has been held annually ever since. The TV shootout proved so popular that the hosts decided to branch out to a Projector Shootout in 2021 and 2022, and now the Headphone Shootout in 2023.

Because of the wide price range of the headphones and the inclusion of both in-ear and over-ear models, the event was broken into five categories, organized by type and price range.

Judges rated each model on different aspects of sound quality as well as overall comfort. The specific elements of sound quality considered were tonal balance, dynamic range, clarity/detail and soundstage/imaging. The convenience element (wired vs. wireless) was not considered in the scoring, nor were any advanced features like ANC (Active Noise Cancellation), transparency mode or custom EQ curves. If you’re shopping for in-ear-monitors or over-ear headphones, you can use these results as a starting point, then do some additional research to see whether each model has the features and form factor that you need.

The event hosts used the QoBuz streaming service for the competition, due to its high resolution and lossless CD quality streaming options. A Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition acted as the streaming source, while the new Technics SL-G700M2 SACD/CD player was used for physical media playback. Judges also used their own phones as sources for parts of the competition.

Part I: In-Ear Monitors, a.k.a. “Earbuds”

$149-$199 In-Ear Headphones:

  • Sennheiser IE 200 ($149) – wired IEM
  • Technics EAH-AZ60 ($199) – wireless Bluetooth IEM

For the first category, in-ear headphones ranging from $149 to $199, only two models competed (a third pair was considered but ruled out on event day). The competitors in the entry-level category were Sennheiser’s IE 200 ($149), and Technics’ EAH-AZ60 ($199). These are list prices. Actual street prices may (and usually do) vary. In fact at the time of publication, the Technics EAH-AZ60 were just $105 after a $40 instant coupon on Amazon).

Technics EAH-AZ60 True Wireless Earphones
Technics EAH-AZ60 True Wireless in-ear monitors.

Though the street prices of these in-ear ‘phones are similar, the headphones themselves are quite different. The Sennheisers are traditional wired earphones while the Technics AZ60 is a Bluetooth wireless model with noise cancellation. The Technics earbuds support multipoint Bluetooth for connection to multiple devices and even have Alexa voice control built-in. So while you can compare the sound quality and comfort directly, other factors like the ability to connect wirelessly or the requirement that your phone or playback device has a headphone jack should be considered.

Also, since the Sennheiser IE 200 in-ear headphones use a hard-wired connection to the source, this gives them an upper hand in sound quality as the music doesn’t have to go through the digital compression inherent in Bluetooth wireless communication.

Sennheiser IE 200 in-ear monitors
Sennheiser IE 200 In-ear Headphones

When judged for sound quality and comfort, the Sennheiser model was ranked higher than the Technics in all categories. This earned the Sennheiser the win. With such a limited selection, and so many other great choices available in this price range, I’d hardly rate this win as “definitive,” but the fact that the judges scored both of these two different models generally favorably suggests that either would make a decent choice for the budget-conscious music lover.

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In-ear headphones $149 to $199 Scorecard from 2023 Value Electronics Shootout
Composite judges’ scorecard from the 2023 Headphone Shootout.

$279 – $299 In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) – “Wireless Earbuds”

  • Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II ($299) – wireless ANC Bluetooth IEM
  • Bowers & Wilkins Pi5 S2 ($299) – wireless ANC Bluetooth IEM
  • Sony WF-1000XM4 ($279) – wireless ANC Bluetooth IEM

In the higher price category ($279 to $299 in-ear ‘phones), the playing field was a bit more level as all three competitors were wireless Bluetooth models with Active Noise Cancellation. In this category, the Sony WF-1000XM4 brought home the win, outscoring the Bowers and Wilkins and Bose IEMs in all four of the sound quality categories.

Sony WF-1000XM4 Wireless Earphones with Charging Case
Like most wireless earbuds, the Sony WF-1000XM4 comes with a charging case.

The Sony placed last for comfort, however, with the Bose Quiet Comfort II Earbuds judged the most comfortable of the three pairs. As with the entry-level in-ear category, there are many other true wireless earphones out there that could be contenders, including the Grado GT220 and Apple’s AirPods Pro (second gen), to name two. The Sony WF-1000XM4 is generating some buzz lately though, so it’s interesting to see how it performed against two of the top performing IEMs in the price range.

In-ear headphones $279 to $299 Scorecard from 2023 Value Electronics Shootout
The Sony WF-1000XM4 took the honors as “King of Headphones” in the $279-$299 price range for in-ear monitors.
Judges at the 2023 Value Electronics Headphone Shootout
Judges compare the sound and comfort of over-ear headphones at the 2023 inaugural Headphone Shootout on February 27, 2023 at the Company Building in midtown Manhattan.

Part II: Over-Ear Headphones

For the second part of the day, the competition moved on to over-the-ear headphones with thirteen models from seven manufacturers included. The Over-Ear competition was broken into three price categories: entry level ($349-$399), mid-range ($699-$799) and high performance ($1499-$1799). The entry level category was made up entirely of Bluetooth wireless models, the mid-range category included a mix of wired and wireless models; the high performance category included four wired models.

If you choose to buy a wired pair of headphones, keep in mind that many phones today do not include headphone jacks, so you may need an adapter or dongle if you’re going to be listening from a phone or tablet. Also, some of these models are less efficient than others and may require a dongle DAC or headphone amp of some kind in order to drive them to reasonable levels. Here’s how the scoring went for all three categories.

Entry Level: $349 – $399 Over-Ear Wireless ANC Headphones:

In the entry-level price category of the Over-Ear competition, all five contenders featured wireless Bluetooth connectivity with Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). All models also included built-in microphones so you can use them to take and make phone calls or to participate in video conferencing such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Bowers & Wilkins Px7 s2 Wireless Headphones
The Px7 S2 wireless headphones from Bowers and Wilkins can give you 7 hours of music playback after a 15-minute quick charge.

Two of models in this price range dominated the competition: the Sennheiser Momentum 4 and the Bowers and Wilkins Px7 S2. The Bowers and Wilkins model was also deemed the most comfortable by the judges. This combination of great sound and comfortable fit gave the Bowers and Wilkins Px7 S2 the win in the $349-$399 category with the Sennheiser Momentum 4 bringing up second place. Sony’s WH-1000XM5 put up a strong showing in third place, just 0.5 points behind the winner and 0.2 points behind second place.

Over-ear Headphones from $349 to $399 Scorecard from 2023 Value Electronics Shootout

Mid-range: $699 – $799 Over-Ear:

  • Bowers & Wilkins Px8 Wireless ($699)
  • Denon AH-D5200 Wired ($699)
  • Focal Bathys Wireless ($799)
  • Sony MDR-Z7M2 Wired ($799)

In the “mid-range” category, we saw (and heard) two wired models – the Denon AH-D5200 and the Sony MDR-Z7M2 – and two Bluetooth wireless models – the Focal Bathys (pronounced “Bat-EESS”) and Bowers and Wilkins Px8. One might have expected the wired headphones to run away with the sound quality part of the competition, but this wasn’t the case. In fact, it was the two wireless models that took first and second place.

Focal Bathys Wireless Headphones
Focal’s Bathys headphones are the company’s first wireless over-ear model.

Focal’s new Bathys won the category with the top overall score, as well as the top individual scores for each element of sound quality. The Focal model tied the Sony headphones for second place for comfort while the Bowers and Wilkins Px8 was judged most comfortable overall. This was a very tight race, with only 0.3 points between first and second, and a tie for third place with both the Sony and Denon models a tenth of a point below the Bowers and Wilkins.

Over-ear headphones from $699 to $799 Scorecard from 2023 Value Electronics Shootout
Composite judges’ scorecard from the $699-$799 price range category at the 2023 Headphone Shootout.

The judges all noted that there was a noticeable step up in sound quality from the lower price range wireless over-ear models, with more even balance and clarity, as well as aesthetics and design improvements. I personally listened to The Focal and Bowers and Wilkins models at the event and concur that the sound quality on both was superb. Judges were surprised that the wired and wireless headphones were extremely close and commented that the bar has been raised for wireless headphones.

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Bowers & Wilkins Px8 Wireless ANC Headphones Black
The Px8 from Bowers and Wilkins took first place for comfort and second place overall in the $699-$799 price range.

High Performance: $1,499 – $1,799 Over-Ear:

  • Denon AH-D9200 ($1,599)
  • Focal Clear Mg ($1,499)
  • Sennheiser HD 800 S ($1,799)
  • Sony MDR-Z1R ($1,799)

In the Grand Finale, the big guns came out, with high-end wired headphone models from Denon, Focal, Sennheiser and Sony priced from $1499 to $1799. Although each includes a standard 1/8″ (3.5mm) headphone plug, so you can use them with phones or tablets, you will get the best results from a headphone amp. There are many headphone amps available at all different price points. Some are made for portable use and some are made for home. Check out our latest headphone amp recommendations and news.

Focal Clear Mg Headphones
The Focal Clear Mg had the highest overall rating for sound quality at the 2023 Headphone Shootout.

In this category, the highest scores for sound quality were split between the Focal Clear Mg and the Sony MDR-Z1R. If sound quality were the only factor, the Focal would have won, but the Sony MDR-Z1R was rated much more comfortable to wear – 9.0 compared to the Focal at 8.3. This pushed the Sony’s score up enough to tie the Focal for first place with an 8.6 out of 10 overall score.

Sony MDR-Z1R Headphones
Sony’s MDR-Z1R took top scores for Soundstage/Imaging and for comfort. It tied the Focal Clear-MG for first place in the high performance headphone category.

The Focal Clear Mg took the top scores for dynamic range, tonal balance, and clarity/detail, while the Sony won for soundstage/imaging and comfort. As with the mid-priced category, the top tier competition was extremely tight. The winning models each scored 8.6 out of 10 while the other two models were just below the winners at 8.3 out of 10. Judges remarked that they enjoyed all the headphones in this price tier. For $1500+, what’s not to like?

Over-ear Headphones $1499 to $1799 Scorecard from 2023 Value Electronics Shootout
Judges’ composite scorecard from the high performance ($1499-$1799) category at the 2023 Headphone Shootout.

Observations on the 2023 Headphone Shootout

All in all, this year’s Headphone Shootout was an interesting event. It was a bit slow getting started as the hosts and organizers were working out issues with the playback devices and the venue’s wireless networking. The event would likely have gone a bit smoother with an emcee to keep judges and attendees informed and keep things moving along, but the scheduled emcee Caleb Dennison (from Digital Trends) had to bow out at the last minute.

It’s not often you can get all these great headphones in one place for instant comparisons, nor can you get a half dozen professional judges together to rate and compare their overall quality and comfort. And even though I opted not to participate as a judge, I did sneak a listen to most of the over-ear models.

Denon AH-D9200 headphones
The Denon AH-D9200 is seen here hanging out with its peers at the 2023 Headphone Shootout.

I concur with the judges that Focal’s Bathys wireless and Clear-MG wired ‘phones sounded superb, as did the Bowers and Wilkins Px7 S2 and Px8 wireless headphones. The excellent (but expensive) Sony MDR-Z1R not only sounded great but felt really nice on the head – snug and secure without excessive pressure on the ears. I had previously used Sony’s now discontinued (and much more affordable) MDR-V6 ‘phones back in the 1990s for on-location recordings and studio playback, so I admit I have a soft spot for Sony ‘phones. But headphone design and sound quality has come a long way since then.

As the judges noted, wireless Bluetooth headphones, which were previously only a choice for convenience and portability, now rival even the best wired headphones for sound quality. With Bluetooth aptX HD and aptX Adaptive technologies, that wireless link between source and headphone has been improved to the point that even the most discerning audiophiles would likely be happy with many of the wireless models included in the competition.

Focal Bathys in case
The Focal Bathys comes with a fairly compact padded case for travel.

In our Editor-in-Chief Ian White’s own words, “What’s becoming very clear is that high-end wireless headphones have reached the point where their performance is comparable to their wired counterparts in the $400 to $700 range. Products like the Focal Bathys and Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2 are going to make a lot of mainstream listeners consider high-end products for the first time and the importance of that can’t be ignored.”

If the hosts repeat the event next year (which I hope they will), I’d suggest expanding to more brands (perhaps Apple, HiFiMan, Grado, Audeze), though I do understand that adding more models will draw things out a bit. Also, it might help to have a few extra pairs to go around for attendees. Unlike the TV and projector shootouts, headphone reviewing is definitely not a spectator sport.

Thanks go out to Value Electronics and Dealerscope for the invitation to participate and cover the event and I’m looking forward to the next Shootout.

Headphones included in the competition are available in store and online at Value Electronics in addition to online retailers such as Amazon.com. Links to purchase at Amazon (where available) are included below. If you purchase any of these items using our links, we may earn a commission.

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Final Rankings in Each Category (with links):

$149-$199 In-Ear Headphones:

  1. Sennheiser IE 200 ($149) – wired IEM – final score: 6.8 – winner
  2. Technics EAH-AZ60 ($199) – wireless Bluetooth IEM – final score: 6.1

$279 – $299 In-Ear Headphones (Wireless):

  1. Sony WF-1000XM4 ($279) – wireless ANC Bluetooth IEM – final score: 6.6 – winner
  2. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II ($299) – wireless ANC Bluetooth IEM – final score: 5.9
  3. Bowers & Wilkins Pi5 S2 ($299) – wireless ANC Bluetooth IEM – final score: 5.9

Entry Level: $349 – $399 Over-Ear Wireless ANC:

  1. Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2 ($399) – Overall Score: 8.0 – winner
  2. Sennheiser Momentum 4 ($349) – Overall Score: 7.7 – second place
  3. Sony WH-1000XM5 ($399) – Overall Score: 7.5
  4. Technics EAH-A800 ($349) – Overall Score: 7.1
  5. Bose 700 ($379) – Overall Score: 6.8

Mid-range: $699 – $799 Over-Ear

  1. Focal Bathys Wireless ($799) – Overall Score: 8.4 – winner
  2. Bowers & Wilkins Px8 Wireless ($699) – Overall Score: 8.1 – second place
  3. Denon AH-D5200 Wired ($699) – Overall Score: 8.0
  4. Sony MDR-Z7M2 Wired ($799) – Overall Score: 8.0

High Performance: $1,499 – $1,799 Over-Ear:

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Jonas

    March 11, 2023 at 4:19 am

    Who decided on these? Only competition between some of them are price range, they’re not in same categories. Also, missing any hifiman, audeze, sure, grado, etc… Worst “top list” I have seen.

    • Ian White

      March 11, 2023 at 11:51 am

      Jonas,

      We didn’t pick them. We suggested all of the brands that you mentioned and more. The event sponsor picked the brands and those were the options that we were presented with. We had zero control over it.

      I don’t agree though that it is the “worst” top list. At least not on the wireless over-ear side of it.

      You also understand that we had 6 hours to listen to all of these.

      Best,

      Ian White

  2. Castor

    March 11, 2023 at 3:27 pm

    Everything Bose makes is garbage. That brand shouldn’t be in contention.

    No Audeze, Meze, Hifiman? Focal is the most overrated brand in HiFi existence. Worst Timbre in the game. Lots of MidFi Sennheisers on sale e g. 6XX series stuff that’s WAY better in that price bracket.

    Man… internet “best of” lists are always a good laugh. It took a team of people to come up with this list? And I thought the guy who installed BMW blinkers had a slack job.

    • Ian White

      March 11, 2023 at 4:06 pm

      Castor,

      We didn’t pick them. We suggested all of the brands that you mentioned and more. I specifically suggested Audeze, HiFiMAN, Grado, Beyerdynamic, and Meze to round out the list. The event sponsor picked the brands and those were the options that we were presented with. We had zero control over it.

      I don’t agree though that it is the “worst” top list. At least not on the wireless over-ear side of it.

      You also understand that we had 6 hours to listen to all of these.

      Completely disagree with you in regard to Focal. Especially the Bathys. Which every single judge picked as their favorite.

      In the wireless category below $400, Bose sells a disproportionate number of headphones and it made sense to see how they compared to other headphones.

      I rather liked the B&W Px7 S2, Sony flagship, and the Meze 109 Pro (my personal pair) that I wore on the train to the event (but was not one of the brands).

      Headphones (like speakers) are a personal choice, and just because you don’t like something — doesn’t mean that others share your opinion.

      Best,

      Ian White

  3. Steven Horne

    March 11, 2023 at 4:31 pm

    Why did you even embark on this if you had no say in which models were selected? This is almost worthless.

    • Ian White

      March 11, 2023 at 6:10 pm

      Steven,

      One could argue that I could not pick the models that I already know and like — which would totally skew the results.

      I had to approach this objectively. The other judges did not have a lot of experience with the high-end headphone market (outside of Carlo) and that made the results more interesting.

      Why are you all so obsessed with the results? Is it because something you personally like, wasn’t included and are therefore offended?

      Best,

      Ian White

      • Al

        March 12, 2023 at 5:44 am

        Why are we obsessed with the results?
        The whole point of the exercise and the article is the results – which gear came out on top and why. Still subjective, which I think we generally accept, but that’s ok.

        This is a bit like making a meal for someone and then asking “why are you so obsessed with the taste?”

        Why are people unhappy at the lack of inclusion of other brands (the reason for which you’ve explained very clearly)?

        To use a food analogy again, the list is quite similar to “In order to find the best pizza in new York, we went to Pizza hut, papa John’s and olive garden”

        There’s so much going on with specialized companies, away from high street brands, that the resulting test seems somewhat pointless. If you were suggesting hifiman, audeze, grado et al, you know this.

        Not meant as an attack. You asked a question, I hope this helps answer it.

        • Ian White

          March 12, 2023 at 11:54 am

          Al,

          All of that makes sense. Having just spent the weekend at CanJam, I was certainly hoping to see a much broader cross-section of headphones and IEMs. I own Audeze, Grado, Meze, HifiMAN, Sennheiser, 1More, 7Hz, FiiO, Periodic, Linsoul, and Beyerdynamic headphones/IEMs so it’s not like I have not been focused on this segment for the past decade.

          They sell pizza at Olive Garden? 😉

          Focal and Bowers & Wilkins certainly gave the “contest” some credibility but I concur that the organizers need to broaden the base in 2024 by about 5 or 6 models per category.

          Best,

          Ian

  4. Jason

    March 12, 2023 at 1:50 am

    I know you’re getting some flak for this but just wanted to say thanks for the coverage.

  5. Daniel

    March 13, 2023 at 12:35 am

    I also appreciate your honest responses. I have to say, I am listening to Ravel’s Daphne and Chloe on my hd 650 as I write this. They are a wonderful and super comfortable headphone. I was surprised it didn’t make the affordable list.

    • Ian White

      March 13, 2023 at 11:30 am

      Daniel,

      I happen to love that headphone myself but I think people need to read the article again.

      1. eCoustics was not the host or organizer of the event. We were invited to participate as one of the judges. Chris was there as a participant.
      2. We listened to what we had on the tables in front of us.
      3. Our “Best” were the best that we listened to that day.
      4. We gave up an entire day (after spending an entire weekend at CanJam) to participate and continue the discussion about high-end headphones and how they are getting more people interested in high-end audio.

      If readers are upset about the title of the article — they need some time away from the computer. It’s an article about an event.

      Best,

      Ian White

  6. Joey

    March 13, 2023 at 1:25 am

    Thank you for sharing the best based on what you were able to experience.

  7. David

    March 13, 2023 at 1:25 am

    The title is of the story says “Best Headphones Compete”… what you didn’t mention was that you didn’t choose these headphones they were chosen for you by someone else. So you actually didn’t test the best headphones that are available on the market. But I will say your clickbait was successful.

  8. Luis A Lopez

    March 15, 2023 at 2:47 am

    First of all thanks for the reviews. All ibam going to say is if you don’t look at Status Audio buds and headphones yall are mistaken. I own many of thier products and trust me they produce great sound. Check out thier new Between Pro 3 ANC buds. Amazing.

  9. Chris Boylan

    March 16, 2023 at 12:35 pm

    My, my, what passionate comments. I love it! As Ian mentioned, eCoustics had no input on which models were included in the competition. Ian was invited to be a judge and I was invited to cover the event results. Neither of us were compensated in any way for attending, other than a free lunch and a handshake. We both felt it would have been better with more brands and models represented. That said, there were some great-sounding headphones competing, including the Focal Bathys, the Bowers and Wilkins models and the top-end Sony. Hopefully they will take our feedback into consideration for the next one. As for the “click bait-y” headline, I added quotes around the word “Best.” There. Fixed that for you.

    • Ian White

      March 16, 2023 at 1:19 pm

      Chris,

      You got a handshake?

      Ian

      • ORT

        March 23, 2023 at 7:56 pm

        In honor of the test I just purchased a pair of Focal Elegia! I like the way they look and while I really wanted the Focal Bathy and both were going for 20% the Elegia were too tempting to ignore at $320!.

        I shall next order up the loveliest looking balanced cable that I can afford. It is all about looks for this Shallow Hal.

        But given that these are Focal not “lo-cal” I have no doubts that they are superb for music!

        I shall put on Ed Ames “Try To Remember” followed by his version of “They Call The Wind Mariah” as their first two “break-in” songs! His is the kind of talent that today’s labels fail to focus upon and instead foist AutoTune creatures on the world at large.

        ORT

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