2022 Headphones under $200 Shootout

This past Christmas was a rare event in that me, my parents, and my siblings and their families would all be together for a few days. Long story short I decided to purchase a selection of headphones between $100 and $200 that could be powered from a mobile phone, and allowed everyone to select whatever pair they liked the most as their gift from me.

The contenders were:

  • Sennheiser HD560S
  • Sennheiser HD599
  • AKG K701
  • AKG K371
  • Grado SR125x
  • Beyerdynamic DT880 (32 ohm)
  • Hifiman HE400se
  • Philips Fidelio X2HR

Of course I couldn’t resist auditioning them before taking them over to the house on Dec 23rd, but only briefly. I just listened to a few songs I use for evaluation, all of which were studio recordings and either rock or electronic. A few notes:

The Sennheiser headphones were the two I figured to be the best overall for my parents, even before receiving them. Both have very similar sound and comfort as expected. I did feel the HD599 has a bit more mid-bass which is generally welcome but can make them a tad boomy on certain tracks. The HD560S does not have this problem but for my taste neither has enough low-bass punch. The soundstage of the HD560S has a bit more depth but doesn’t seem any wider than the HD599. This was pretty disappointing since it has angled drivers like my HD800S that are advertised to increase spaciousness. Both are slightly shouty compared to most of the others. After EQ using oratory1990 Harman presets, the shout is gone, punch is good, and tonally they are so similar it was a toss-up. The HD599 is somewhat more comfortable with plusher padding. And I think it looks cooler too. Winner: HD599

Since my daily driver is an AKG K712 Pro I was curious about the AKG K701. I really enjoy the comfort of the K712 and after EQ the sound is superb for non-focused listening: spacious, plenty of punch, and smooth treble. Unfortunately while the K701 is almost as comfortable, the sound is… really bad. Even after EQ I couldn’t stand these headphones. No bass (so much for EQ making all headphones sound alike) and overall lifeless sound. Looking at the FR measurements, these should not sound this bad. No wonder the AKG 7 series doesn’t get a lot of love on this forum.

I chose the AKG K371 both for the influence of Harman target research and as the one closed back. I generally don’t prefer closed backs but to my surprise these are quite good. Still sound a bit lifeless compared to open backs, but at least you don’t need EQ to get bass punch. That’s very important if you are an iPhone user. These were also the only headphones in the contest that seemed designed with mobile use in mind. They fold up and come with a short cord and carry bag. Well done, AKG!

The Grado SR125x were selected based on a suggestion from @pennstac . My understanding is that Grado’s are generally pretty bright, which might help compensate for my parents’ high frequency hearing loss. Also I thought it was good to have one on-ear design. I quite like listening to the SR125x although I didn’t expect to. There is no oratory1990 preset for them, but they respond well to adding a simple bass shelf at about 100hz. Unique sounding but quite pleasurable. The low weight and low clamp is somewhat offset by a stiff, thick cable (seriously is this some kind of Grado inside joke?). The highs are clear without being sibilant. They can be fatiguing after a long listening session though.

I don’t find the Beyerdynamic DT880 to be particularly comfortable or exciting to listen to. Even after EQ there is no punch and the mids aren’t very natural either. Supposedly they reveal a lot of detail, but I didn’t perceive it. I suspect that’s just from having to turn up the volume to reasonable bass. Good thing they are light because the headband padding is way too stiff. Overall they were ok, but fatiguing in both sound and fit after just a few songs.

The Hifiman HE400se was yet another surprise (guess you really DO have to put ears on amirite :sunglasses:). I was expecting them to be relatively heavy since I sold my Sundara because of their weight. But while they are planars and have a simple headband design, I found them to be very comfortable. And the sound was even better. Very laid back and easy to listen to. Not a lot of bass out of the box but they respond very well to EQ. At only $109 at the time of this writing, these are a steal IMHO.

I’d auditioned the Philps Fidelio X2HR before so I pretty much knew what to expect. No surprises here! Clamp is too high for me but they can be stretched and otherwise the comfort is excellent with thick memory foam ear pads and a padded suspended headband. Like the AKG K371 these don’t need EQ to have good bass punch but they have a more open sound. I have recommended these to several friends who listen to rock or electronic music but don’t want to mess with EQ or an amp.

Without EQ, the Philips Fidelio X2HR still wins for me. After EQ the Hifiman HE400se sound edges out the Sennheisers and is more comfortable due to softer padding. For true portable use you can’t go wrong with the AKG K371, especially if you have an iPhone. They sound almost good enough to win outright.

Several of the headphones use an adapter on the 6.5mm plug to reduce the diameter to 3.5mm. Why I don’t know as going the other way around is much more compact and clean looking without any drawbacks. Between that and some very long and/or thick cables, several of these headphones are not friendly to using without an amp even though their sensitivity does not require one. No wonder everyone wants to go wireless.

So much for my thoughts. Here’s the results of the shootout with the rest of my family. First of all there was only one headphone that did not get adopted: the Beyerdynamic DT880.

My mom chose the Sennheiser HD599 and my dad the Sennheiser HD560S. Those were the two I would have gotten them, so apparently I’m pretty good at this and the shootout was completely unnecessary. :joy: My mom liked both but wanted the HD599 so that they knew who’s was who’s. She also appreciated the styling. My dad found it difficult to pick between the HD560S and the Hifiman HE400se. His iPhone didn’t power the HE400se sufficiently until he turned off Sound Check. I think that is what tipped him to the HD560S in the end.

My nephew decided on the AKG K371 pretty quickly. As a college student who doesn’t live on campus, he appreciates the isolation and mobility. He is a pretty prolific music lover listening to everything from metal, to world music, to jazz. I’m kinda jealous as I wish I had the ability to hear music from all over the world when I was his age.

My niece chose the Hifiman HE400se because “everything sounds good”. I pressed her a bit to describe how it sounds different while trying not to prompt her. She described the HE400se as always relaxed and easy to listen to while the other headphones could be in your face or shouty on certain music.

My other niece chose the Philips Fidelio X2HR saying she appreciated the comfort and bass response. My brother also chose the Fidelio exclusively for the sound. Once he had them at home, he compared them to his Sennheiser HD58X Jubilee running off of his Yamaha receiver. Here are his thoughts:

Overall Impressions:
I was impressed with the selections you provided at Christmas, to the point that I had a tough time making a final decision. It boiled down to the more “brilliant” treble from the Fidelios, vs the “softer” highs from the others. Once I made my decision and spent some extended listening time to music streamed on my phone using the Fidelios, I expected they would be obviously superior to the Sennheiser Jubilees. On a side note, I can definitely understand why Mom and Dad selected the two Sennheiser models you provided. I think their softer, more “natural” sound is ideal for the style of music Mom and Dad listen to, primarily acoustic, vocal, classical, symphony, etc. It’s not that they sounded bad, I just preferred the Fidelios “brighter” high treble for the music I enjoy. I could hear more snap from the snare drums, and the cymbals were sharper without the harshness that seems like a common side effect of speakers and headphones with strong high frequencies. What I did NOT expect was how tough it would be for me to choose between the Fidelios and the Jubilees! In the end, the Fidelios were ever so slightly consistent with my listening preferences.

Audio Comparison:
After hours of going back and forth, sometimes multiple times listening to the same section of the same track, I think the Fidelios have the edge in the highest frequencies, a bit more bass punch, and noticeably better sound dimension, with sufficient low bass frequency to provide a full sound. As I observed during the comparison at Christmas, the very high frequencies just sound more “live” to me. I can hear more sibilance in the vocals. Hard consonants like “s” and “t” are more clear without being harsh or “hissy”. The snare drums “snap” and the cymbals and cowbells are more “brilliant”, again without any harshness. This is all very subtle, but discernible. The Jubilees sound great by themselves, but just a shade “muffled” in comparison to the Fidelios. The Jubliees had stronger deep bass, which is particularly noticeable during bass heavy electronic pop/rock tracks. That said, the Fidelios have a bit more punch from the bass, so the difference didn’t seem like a clear win for the Jubiliees in the bass department.

After extensive listening, a clear winner developed. What really impressed me about the Fidelios was the realistic 3D sound dimension. The Jubilees’ sound seemed to be at the back of my head, while the Fidelios came from the front of my head and I could sense more separation in the locations of the individual components, such as vocals, drums, guitar, synth, etc. It made the music sound more realistic, as if I was standing in the studio, rather than listening to a recording. In addition, the individual instruments, vocals, etc sounded more discrete and easier to distinguish using the Fidelios, making the Jubilees sound a bit “muddy”. If I had not spent the time to compare the two back-to-back, I would have been perfectly happy with the Jubilees. But I realized that the Fidelios just have better “separation”. It’s hard to explain and I don’t know the terms of the trade, but the music was cleaner and easier to listen to without increasing the volume.

Other Considerations:
If the two headphones had sounded identical, there are a couple of physical characteristics that would still have made the Fidelios the winner. For one thing, the cable is about 3 feet longer than the Jubilee cable. As you know, my seating is several feet away from the stereo, which required me to buy an extension cable from Amazon for the Jubilees. This is not necessary with the Fidelios. Also, the Fidelios connect the cable only on the left ear piece, where the Jubilees split and connect to both. A minor detail, but I think it makes it easier to distinguish left from right at a glance and improves wearing comfort. The cable on the Fidelios is a carbon fiber material, which seems higher quality and more durable than the Jubilee’s traditional vinyl cable. They both use a snap on stereo plug, rather than screw on, which is a bit disappointing. But at least the mini-plug is the main plug, with the full size snapping over it, rather than the other way around like a couple of the samples you brought.

Speaking of comfort, while it seemed a bit strange at first, once I got used to it I really liked the Fidelio self-adjusting head strap. Also, while I’m sure the clamping force is too strong for your round shaped head, they fit my oval shaped head much better than the Jubilees, which feel a bit loose for me. I also prefer the round ear pad of the Fidelio over the oval shape of the Jubilee pads. The only downside is that I can just barely feel the tops of my ears against the inside of the ear pads. Not a big deal and I didn’t notice it after wearing them for a while.

My sister chose the Sennheiser HD599 mostly for the design and comfort. Her husband took the AKG K701 to use while playing his guitar. Apparently they sound fine for practicing electric guitar and he really liked how light and comfortable they are.

That just leaves the Grados. They went home with me. They won’t be my go-to but I like them as a change-up. They sound good with tubes and with a bit of low shelf EQ are quite punchy. I didn’t expect that from an on-ear as seal is usually so important. Since taking them home I have also done a bit of EQ based off of Crinacle’s measurement of the SR125e. That takes some of the honk I hear away while still retaining their unique sound. I’ve also upgraded the pads with purple Yaxi pads. I was hoping that they would add a bit more comfort but they feel and sound like the stock pads to me. Worth it just for the color though. :smirk:

Whew! If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading! I hope this helps you make a purchase decision, but I really think the takeaway is that you can’t tell much from other people’s experiences with headphones. Between our unique HRTF, head shapes, and music preferences, headphones are a very personal choice. But then that’s one of the biggest reasons this hobby continues to interest me. I like surprises. :smiley:

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It’s notorious. Grado recently “upgraded” the cable on the X model to a better looking material, the old Grado cable is heavy plastic instead of heavy material. There are those who like Grados that do corrective surgery on the cables… James at Hart Audio Cables did that with his personal pair, but does not offer it to others.

I do like the Yaxi Purple, which I have on my entry-level Grados, but for really better comfort and sound, you need to pad roll to Beautiful Audio pads. HERE is a head-fi thread that reviews, shows pic and gives the Beautiful Audio website. I have these pads (the hybrid) on my RS-1e, and they are a total keeper.

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Thanks! I’d already checked out the Beautiful Audio pads (and they are beautiful) when you linked to them before. Right now I’m not willing to spend that level of money on these headphones and I kinda like keeping them on-ear. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Any suggestions on a straight upgrade to these? I know you mentioned the SR225x but what about the other models? The Hemps looks interesting. Maybe I should just start haunting the Grado threads here.

@Lothar_Wolf is probably the man to ask. I went to the RS-1e used from @MCM here. People who should know put the hemp between the two.

If your pads are not the “comfy” S pads try the tape mod with any tape to see if you like it. Can be startling. Grados are fun. And they are not what people expect.

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Thanks for sharing your $200 headphone shootout. I love to hear what different people are hearing with each headphone. Throughout your story I was edge of my seat predicting that they all would have chosen the Sennheiser HD560S. So, quite the twist to find that many chose other headphones.

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I expected more to choose the HD560S as well, including myself. The HD560S was runner up for several of us though. Maybe if I’d had the time to explore its soundstage with a tube amp I’d change my mind.

I thought the Hifiman would be fought over. @AudioTool, that was a great post.

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If you are looking for headphones in the $200 class that are genre independent, relatively easy to drive, comfortable and sonically balanced, my recommendations would be:

The sennheiser HD560s, the Beyerdynamik Tygr 300 and the (no joke) Koss KSC75 with Yaxi pads and headband.

If these are on special offer, the AKG 712pro and of course the Sennheiser 6xx would also be added (both occasionally available for under $200), for which an amplifier would be required.

Everything else, such as the Grado models, sound outstanding in various Geres, but are not really all-rounders in other respects.

On the other hand, there is, for example, the DT 880 from Beyerdynamic, which, in my opinion, only really demonstrates its qualities in the 600 ohm version, which would require a qualified amplifier.

Have fun with your decision-making :wink:

—————————————————

PS.:
If you ask me about my favorite Grado, the answer would unfortunately not be in the $200 range,

although I have to say that it is certainly not worth the officially quoted price these days.

It’s more of a “collector’s thing” for me.

image

:rofl:

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No I was asking about straight upgrades to the SR125x. As in similar tonality with improved presentation. The $200 restriction was just for the shootout in the first post.

I’m now considering the SR325x and eventually upgrading with Beautiful Audio pads to replace my AKG K712 Pro as my daily drivers.

Yes @Lothar_Wolf, I’m less versed on the middle of the line. 325x. Vs Hemp vs RS2.

Never heard any of those. I love the RS1, but it has larger drivers, and the Statement series, but as you point out the $$$ on those are too high relative to competitors.

Beautiful Audio pads are a major improvement and some cable swap is aesthetically desirable.

:star_struck:

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You are a tease.
What are your thoughts about those mid range options?

Tonally, the 325x is Grado’s safest mid-range choice.

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Keep in mind that pad changes with the Grado Prestige line (125x, 325x, etc.) are not always subtle.

Changing the distance from the driver to the ear, changing the front volume from unsealed to sealed, putting foam in front of the driver vs leaving the driver exposed - all can completelty change the sound balance.

The 325x comes with a new pad they call the F cushion (the 125x has the S cushion). I wear glasses and the F pad puts too much pressure on the outer edges of my ear.

I use Geekria Comfort Foam (sr125) pads instead which don’t change things drastically for me.

Whether it’s worth an upgrade from 125x I can’t say, but in the past they have changed the tonality within the Prestige line, so the 325x may not be “a better 125x”, it could have have a different character.

As you have probably discovered the Grado’s don’t get much attention so it’s hard/impossible to find FR charts from one source that lists all the models for comparison.

If the Grado tonality works as “something different” for you I think you won’t know if the 325x is worth it unless you can hear one.

I find the L cushion comfortable, even with a tape mod. All the foam cushions are inexpensive. Factory ones us two densities of foam on the L cushion – not all aftermarket ones do.

Ha! I already ordered a pair of the Dekoni velour pads to try out! :sunglasses:

Which ones? I was looking at these before ordering the Dekoni velour pads and there’s at least 5 models. Even Geekria’s website doesn’t describe what the differences in construction are, let alone sound.

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I seem to remember reading somewhere that the SR325x was a bit of a departure from the SR125x and SR225x. But it’s all relative, right?

Agreed. Unless someone somewhere has heard both. I’m not buying any new headphones any time soon anyway. When I do I make sure there’s a good return policy.

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In general they seem to have more bass extension as you go up the line, but that’s in the context of the Grado’s rather than Senn or Focal.

Here’s the one I use:
Grado Pads

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