2020 Editors' Choice: Headphones Under $700

Equipment report
2020 Editors' Choice: Headphones Under $700

The Paul Barton-designed M4U 8 is an upgrade in features, technology, and performance from PSB’s M4U 2. The M4U 8 retains the M4U 2’s extended and neutral tonal balance, ease, and non-fatiguing treble, but adds more dynamic and extended bass response, plus an even more relaxed midrange and treble without giving up any air or resolution. The inclusion of Bluetooth connectivity adds to the value. What is more, the M4U 8 is an active noise-cancelling headphone with three operating modes: a good-sounding Passive mode, an Active mode sans noise-cancellation (for purists), and an Active Noise Cancellation mode that works very well to suppress background noise. 

HiFiMAN Sundara
HiFiMAN’s Sundara has replaced the firm’s popular and well-respected HE400 series headphones. Accordingly, Sundara features all-new frame, earcup, and driver designs. Specifically, the Sundara driver diaphragm is 80% thinner than the HE400 diaphragms, for wider frequency response, faster transient speeds, and improved resolution. The Sundara needs 150–200 hours of run-in time to sound its best, but then, says CM, “it sounds like a roughly $1000 headphone, but one you can buy for $499.” 

Cleer NEXT
Many Cleer products are targeted toward a highly price-sensitive mass-market audience, but the firm’s NEXT headphone is geared specifically for audiophiles. The NEXT sport a handsome industrial design created by Designworks (a BMW group company) and features 40mm dynamic drivers with magnesium-alloy diaphragms and a patented ironless motor design. The upshot, says CM, is “a fine first audiophile-grade headphone—one blessed with ample clarity, expressiveness, and control.” 

Focal Elear
Focal’s first two high-end headphone offerings were the $4k Utopia and the $1K Elear. Press reaction to the Utopia was so overwhelming that the Elear often got overlooked, which is regrettable given that its design is similar to the Utopia, with small differences in driver diaphragm, magnet materials, and earpads. In practice, the Elear sounds much like a “Utopia Jr.,” offering neutral voicing and a detailed, expressive sound. At its now-reduced price of $699 it is an exceptional value.