Over the past several years, growing numbers of serious music lovers have turned to top-tier headphones either as their primary listening devices or as complements to more traditional in-room high-end audio systems. There are more complex factors driving this movement than can be summarized here, but among them are a desire to enjoy high-end sound on a 24/7 basis without disturbing neighbors or family members, and a craving for the powerful, intimate, and profoundly revealing musical presentations that today’s best headphone-based systems afford.
High-end headphones are also attractive from the standpoint of value. Many audiophiles appreciate (indeed covet) top-tier loudspeaker-based systems, but simply cannot afford them. For those enthusiasts, headphone-based systems offer viable alternate paths to the sonic mountaintop at far more manageable prices.
While top-tier headphones aren’t necessarily for everyone, they offer so many compelling benefits that we thought it would make sense to introduce the wider TAS audience to the headphones that in our view represent today’s crème de la crème.
In this survey, we will discuss three types of high-end headphones: dynamic-driver, planar magnetic-driver, and electrostatic headphones. We will review the basic technologies used in each type and then offer mini-reviews of representative top-tier models.
Headphones in this category use piston-type dynamic drivers conceptually similar to the drivers used in many loudspeakers. One huge difference, though, is that headphones typically use single full-range drivers in lieu of dedicated woofers, midrange drivers, and tweeters. Single full-range drivers solve myriad problems in that they are inherently phase coherent and require no crossover networks—differentiators that yield significant sonic benefits.
As in the loudspeaker world, designers of high-end dynamic driver headphones are doing extensive development work to explore exotic diaphragm materials; rigid, low-reflectivity driver frames; and highly advanced and responsive driver motor mechanisms—motor mechanisms that often use incredibly powerful magnet assemblies.
There are two preferred dynamic-driver headphone configurations: closed-back designs, which are favored in studio application owing to their superior noise isolation, and open-back designs, which are prized for audiophile applications owing to their typically high levels of transparency, openness, and free-flowing dynamics. While there are certainly some very good closed-back models available, the majority of today’s best-sounding high- end headphones are open-back (or quasi-open-back) designs.