2017 Buyer's Guide: Headphones

Equipment report
Audeze LCD-4,
Audeze LCD-X,
Grado Laboratories SR60e,
HiFiMAN HE-400S,
PSB M4U 2,
Sennheiser HD800,
Stax SR-009,
Stax SR-L700
2017 Buyer's Guide: Headphones

Grado SR60e
One of the great audio bargains, the SR60e delivers music in such an engaging and revealing way that it might make you wonder why anyone would spend more than its modest price. The SR60e has the signature Grado midrange excellence, avoiding the upper-midrange dropouts and treble grunge so often found in headphones. It also delivers just enough midbass warmth to satisfy, though for bandwidth, low-level detail, and neutrality, you can do better if you pay more. gradolabs.com

HiFiMan HE400S
If you’re into planar-magnetic cans but thought power requirements and price limitations might put the damper on a purchase, think again. The smart hi-fi men at HiFiMan of Hong Kong have figured out how to deliver the sonic benefits of planar technology in a high-sensitivity (98dB), low-impedance (22 ohms) headphone that isn’t power-hungry. Guess what else? This means the HE400S can even be driven by your smartphone—a rarity among planar headphones. No amp required. The HE400s delivered a degree of detail and spaciousness that blew JM away when she listened to vinyl via the petite but powerful PS Audio Sprout integrated. The HE400S’ performance was quite literally startling in its imaging and staging: JM actually jumped when she heard a voice (on a recording) that sounded as if it were coming from behind her. How’s that for presence and realism? What’s more, these lightweight, comfy cans are also realistically priced at $399—among the least expensive planar ’phones on the market. Great sounding, and a great value. hifiman.us, head-direct.com

Oppo PM-3
The Oppo PM-3 uses the same basic technology as the Oppo PM-1 and PM-2 with its sound emanating from a seven-layer planar diaphragm made from double-sided spiraling coils of flat aluminum conductors. Via a double-sided diaphragm, the magnetic field is populated with twice as many conductors as a single-sided diaphragm. This, in turn, dramatically increases the headphone’s sensitivity and ability to withstand higher drive forces. Combined with Oppo’s FEM optimized magnet system, which employs high-energy neodymium magnets, the Oppo PM-3 achieves a 102dB sensitivity figure. If you need a pair of headphones for situations where you want to hear some outside sounds yet also want a headphone that prevents others from hearing your music, the PM-3 would be a savvy option. It’s comfortable, extremely well made, and cleverly designed. Couple it with one of the new generation of portable players such as the Astell&Kern AK Jr, and for under $900 ($500 for the AK Jr and $399 for the PM-3) you have a portable rig that will keep you enthralled for as long as the batteries last. oppodigital.com

PSB Speakers M4U 2
The M4U 2 was designed and developed by PSB’s illustrious founder Paul Barton and words can scarcely convey what a magnificent first effort it represents. In all seriousness, the M4U 2 is arguably one of the cleverest, most well-thought-out, and best-executed headphones on the market—a true “headphone for all seasons.” For starters, the M4U 2 exhibits wonderfully extended and neutral tonal balance with a voicing curve that deliberately adds a touch of bass lift designed to precisely emulate the low-frequency “room gain” most speakers enjoy. Next the M4U 2 offers very good, though perhaps not quite class-leading, levels of clarity and dynamic swagger. And to top things off, the M4U 2 is an active noise-cancelling headphone that has three operating modes: a high-sensitivity Passive mode (that actually sounds very good), an Active mode without noise-cancellation (for purists), and an Active Noise Cancellation mode that works very well to suppress background noise. If you only plan on owning one headphone for all possible listening contexts, strongly consider this one. psbspeakers.com

Oppo PM-1
Oppo’s is the only planar-magnetic headphone design that uses a double-sided diaphragm made up of seven layers of material. The diaphragm also has a spiraling pattern of flat conductors etched into both sides. Using both sides increases the headphone’s sensitivity, provides better damping, and ensures greater consistency of drive force over the entire surface of the diaphragm. Because the PM-1 has a sensitivity of 102dB/1mW and a nominal impedance of 32 ohms, the power amplifier in any smartphone, tablet, or portable music device can drive it easily without the need for an additional external dedicated headphone amplifier. This differentiates the PM-1 from the vast majority of other premium headphones. Oppo’s PM-1 take the prize as the best all-around general-purpose cans SS has ever used, even though they are not the best performers in any particular category. A great “all-arounder” that will certainly appeal to any audiophile who only wants to own a single great pair of headphones. oppodigital.com

Stax SR-L700
It would not be a stretch to call Stax “the first audiophile headphone.” When almost all other full-sized headphones were using dynamic drivers, Stax had already established itself as preeminent by using planar electrostatic technology. With its SR-007 Mk2 ($2350) and SR-009 ($4450) Stax introduced a new electrode structure that refined its original 36 year-old design and once more put the company ahead of its competition. The Stax SR-L700 ranks as the third-best earspeaker in Stax’s lineup. It is also the least expensive earspeaker that uses Stax’s latest stator technology. As such, it is the first new design from Stax that could, due to its combination of lower price and higher performance, lure many longtime Stax owners to replace their older Stax models with an SR-L700. Whether the new SR-L700 will attract first-time Stax buyers has yet to be seen. SS suspects that most beginning Stax purchases will be one of the more entry-level packages, such as the very fine SRS-2170 system ($790). But for those audiophiles who want to experience the latest Stax tech, the new SR-L700 is simply the most cost-effective way to arrive at a new level of uncolored sound. stax.co.jp

Sennheiser HD 800
The HD 800s derive their claim to excellence from good bass/treble balance and a rock-solid delivery of musical fundamentals. Bass is deep and articulate, while the lower midrange is clean, with good reproduction of power instruments. The upper midrange can seem a bit depressed, however, necessitating real attention to amplifier matching. You want to find an amp with low output impedance and the midrange glow we normally associate with tubes. Treble on the HD 800s can at times seem too revealing for its own good (or even a touch ragged), so choose source components carefully. sennheiser.com

Audeze LCD-X
If you’re looking for the state of the art in personal listening, look no further than the Audeze LCD-X’s. These planar-magnetic ‘phones have extraordinarily wide and even frequency response, which extends from below 20Hz to far beyond 20kHz, and even at very loud levels they have very low distortion. Infinity co-founder and hi-fi legend Arnie Nudell, who reviewed the LCD-X for TAS, wrote: “It is my opinion that the LCD-X can compete with all of the very best high-end loudspeakers.” That’s a startling conclusion coming from the man who designed the Infinity IRS, one of high-end audio’s most iconic loudspeakers. audeze.com

Audeze LCD-4
Audeze’s $1695 LCD-X headphones were a revelation in personal listening, bringing stunning transient speed, spacious soundstaging, and tonal realism to the category. No less an authority on music, sound, and planar-magnetic technology, Infinity co-founder Arnie Nudell, wrote in his review for TAS that he enjoyed music through the LCD-X “as much as any speaker that I have had in my listening room over the years.” As great as the LCD-X is, the new LCD-4 is in a different league. The LCD-4’s reproduction of three-dimensional space, with air between instrumental images, and a sense that those images have palpability and presence, is simply off the charts, and unthinkable for headphone sound. Add a rich density of tone color, extraordinary transient speed, very fine resolution, and tonal balance that perfectly hits the mark, and you have the state of the art in headphones. audeze.com

Stax SR-009
According to CM, at this point in time the Stax SR-009 electrostatic “earspeaker” is one of the three best headphones money can buy (the others are the Audeze LCD-X and the Abyss AB-1266). Specifically, the SR-009 offers almost perfectly neutral tonal balance, terrific extension at both ends of the audio spectrum, very good dynamics, and almost shocking levels of resolution, transient speed, and transparency. In all seriousness, this headphone can stand tall in comparison with most any high-end loudspeaker, which is pretty amazing when you consider the huge price differentials involved. staxusa.com