Benchmark headphones

For the people like myself that don’t have access to a variety of high end equipment, or local stores to demo high end audio gear, at some point I know I will be able to visit a place in the city that will allow me to audition gear. What are the top benchmark headphones that everyone needs to experience? Say if I had the chance to audition 4 headphones, what would be the most educational for me to listen to? These would not necessarily be the best deal or best performers, but headphones that will give me a better perspective when reading reviews.

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Do something that have been reviewed by many, so you know what to expect when demoing them

Some recommendations:

Under $1000:

  • Sennheiser: HD 600, 650, 660s
  • Audeze: LCD 2. LCD 2C
  • Hifiman: Sundara, Ananda
  • Beyerdynamic: DT 770. 880, 1990 Pro
  • Focal: Elex, Elegia

Under $2000

  • Sennheiser: HD 800, 800s, 820
  • Hifiman: Arya
  • Focal: Clear
  • ZMF: Aeolus, Auteur
  • Audio Technica: ADX5000

Over $2000

  • Hifiman: HE 1000, Susvara
  • Focal: Stellia, Utopia
  • ZMF: Verite
  • Abyss

And a lot more.

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It’s better to choose brand over model when it comes to being able to demo headphones. I’d choose ZMF, Sennheiser, Audeze, and Focal in that order.

You may also not like some TOTL cans. I was a bigger fan of the Clear compared to the Utopia for example. And when it came to ZMF, I liked the more romantic Aeolus and Atticus over the Verite.

You also need to factor in synergy. I’m linking a very good thread of replies by Tacos here who is one of the most informative people I’ve come across on these forums. This is my inner fanboy coming out, but if you like natural, organic tunings, it is hard to go back after hearing a ZMF with any kind of tube amp. I’ve only heard hybrids, too! Take into account my bias for them is really strong. Happy shopping!

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Yes. Hardware pairings can make a big difference. I had some help last year in this department when choosing my gear.

You mentioned four companies to demo. Is there something you would point out to listen for that each manufacturer highlights well? I know for instance that Sennheiser is known for their midrange and laid back sound. That would contrast nicely with Focal.

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I remember, for a long long time (before Audeze was even a blip on anyone’s radar) that the HD800 was THE headphone, and if you didn’t adore that headphone, you weren’t an audiophile.

Now I feel old.

Edit: The HD800 worth listening to. So is the HD650. I don’t say this because I think you will (or should) like them - they both have pretty big flaws - but because they have vastly different and unique sounds, and both have been iconic in the hobby for nearly two decades.

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I just feel old :laughing:

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Not really. They each have a house sound. The most important thing is to relax enjoying the research leading up to the next addition to your collection. Try not to buy based off hype. Think about how that future headphone will spend hundreds of hours on your head. If I had to characterize them, Focal is super good at transparency, Audeze has great bass extension enveloping the listener in an immersive wall of sound, Sennheiser has addictive mids (especially with the inviting mid bass bloom of the HD 650), and ZMF is super organic in general subjectively pairing the best with tube amps. These are just my impressions that can change from person to person.

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HD 600 is a good part of any collection for a “reference”

HD 800 is another along with the ESP 95X and an Ether CX, those would be my four MUST hears

I would try and audition a pair of ridiculously priced crown jewel headphones like the Sennheiser HE-1, or the Hifiman Shangri-la just so you can experience that crap your pants incredible, life changing sound that only a few can afford to own. Not only will it teach you how truly amazing something can sound, but it will be fun.

Ok, so back to reality. I would try and listen to a pair really good electrostatics like the STAX SR-009, Mr. Speakers VOCE, Warwick Acoustics Sonoma or the Hifiman Jade II. This will at least give you some idea of what they are all about. I would also add the the RAAL SR1a Ribbon headphones to the list as well, just to experience something different at least.

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I have both HD800 and HD800S and along with my Abyss Phi, RAAL SR1a and Utopia these are my benchmarks out of a dozen more I’ve auditioned and owned at length in home. I finally sold my HD600 (an excellent sounding phone for the money but a tight fit on my noggin even with careful headband stretching it really wants to return to its original shape) to make some room and traded away a pair of Oppo PM-1’s,

The HD800 and S have been getting a lot of my time recently (as I await release of the updated HSA-1 to start some extensive A/B sessions with my Jotunheim “R”) and it’s really about matching the right amp with each different brand. My Senn’s driven by a custom built class A, OTL are so much better than with any other amp I’ve tried them with and the combination of the Senn’s with that custom built amp is still half the price of any of the other 3 phones by themselves.

So I suggest be mindful of what you plan to drive your choice of phone with when auditioning / deciding.

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Another toss in for the HD600/650 (pick whichever flavour you prefer, many go for the HD650 but I lean towards the HD600 myself). They’re very resolving and normal sounding headphones, plus their high impedance allows for pairing with more amplification; low-z cans may react poorly with various upstream amplification, narrowing your choices. I speak as someone who has the HD600 specifically because their main headphones are only 25 ohm :slight_smile:

The HD800 and ADX5000 are both great benchmarks for resolving capability and all but they both have treble accentuation that may be fatiguing, as well as midrange colour that deviates from “normal” sounding (the Audio-Technica far moreso than the Sennheisers). The Senns are rightfully viewed as a microscope into music IMO, just that their presentation can be a bit too diffuse? Not my style. A-Ts on the other hand are very lively sounding albeit at the expense of extreme fatigue— they need tubes.

Between Audeze and HiFiMAN (say LCD-2C and HE-560 respectively), I find I prefer the house sound of latter save for their sounding excessively hot. May be good pairing with warmer/darker upstream save for that. Voicing for Audez’e is a bit dark for me, but they’re certainly enjoyable and technically competent headphones based on time I’ve had with them.

You may also do well with Etymōtic IEMs depending on your preferences— very clean with good balance, though they’re kinda boring sounding to me. The Koss ESP950/Drop ESP95X is reasonably affordable for an e-stat and very level-sounding, good FR reference but lacking impact and enjoyment for me.

Modern Beats are actually pretty damn good if you subscribe to Harman’s CONSUMER PREFERENCE target and want more bass. They’re easy to drive and often have QoL bits that make them a joy to play with.

Avoid Grado and Fostex like the plague.

Never gotten ears on ZMF (sad cuz I think I’d really like em), but they’re not so much voiced as a reference as they are made to be beautiful to listen to, based on measurements and anecdotal evidence. While I’m on the topic of things I’ve not heard yet, the Verum Audio One is touted as an affordable planar with good technicalities and, more interestingly, close to dead-neutral FR. Do be mindful that the latter is a small operation and there may be issues experienced.

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Great question!

I’m fairly new to the headphone side of hifi - which is so different now than what I remember from 20 years ago, which is the last time I listened to headphones regularly - grado sr80 and 125 at the time - as I’ve gotten older, these have become more fatiguing in the treble.

Though I don’t particularly or personally love the sound of the Hd6xx, it is so ubiquitous and so many reviews make comparisons to it, I’ve found it really helpful to have a set for comparing the sound I prefer to other reviewers - primarily for headphones, but also for amps and dacs.

So I think that is a great pair for everyone to have.

I also have a pair of Meze 99C, which I like very much but with quite a bit of eq to reduce the bass - that has also helped me refine and interpret the type of sound I prefer personally…

Based on this experience (plus the types of speakers I prefer) I am planning to make the jump to ZMF Verite. This is based on other reviews and listener experiences, but I THINK I know what I am getting into. :slight_smile:

I don’t think I’d like the Elears or love the Utopia - but I’d love to hear the Clears, the HD800s and the Empryean…

But I do think (hope) that I’ve been able to dial in on what I would like without spending tons of money, at least yet :slight_smile:

Though I would also like to add a planar to my collection for direct comparison at some point too… Maybe an audeze or hifi man

Now I haven’t heard the higher end phones so take my suggestion for what it is…

But I think a starter set like the following would give you the flavor of lots of different types of sound for not too much money…

Grado SR 80
Seinheiser 6XX
Meze Noir
HIFIMAN 400

Total cost about $700

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I understand the original question as being what headphones would be good to audition to get a feeling for reviewers views on other headphones, not actually purchase said headphones.

I would say that you spend some time checking YouTube and other popular review sites and reviewers, to see which ones appear on almost all of them.

As has been mentioned here plenty already, the HD600/HD650/HD6XX are ones that appear on almost all review sites at some point, therefore, getting to know them will certainly help.

The Sundara is another one that appears a lot lately, with the majority of reviewers giving them a review at some point.

Audeze and Hifiman seem to be present in lots of reviews, so maybe some of theirs (apart from the Sundara I mean).

Basically, see what has been reviewed the most over the last year or so and it will give you a good starting point for getting a grip on reviewers tastes.

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I agree with your advice about cans with many reviews as there is more to compare with.

For those of us that don’t have easy accessibility to listen without purchasing, it can be hard to spend enough time with demo gear to get a real feel for it - also as the listening environment is different.

While I usually like or don’t like something pretty quickly - it can take me awhile to figure out what it is that I like or don’t like - and occasionally something I don’t like initially, grows on me :slight_smile:

Also, for me, it can be hard to remember what I liked or didn’t like about a certain set of cans without a’ refresher listen’ - serious headphone scene is still a bit new for me…

It could also be argued that reading those reviews and then finally hearing said headphone will only serve one end: To expose how monumentally screwed up our audiophile language really is.

Hehehe

Experience is the best teacher.

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Soundstage/Detail: Senn 800 or 800S
Detail Retrieval: Utopia
Tonality/“Naturalness”: ZMF Auteur
Midrange: Senn 600 series, Autuer
Punch: Verite
God Tier: Susvara, Raal…

Im a ZMF guy and favour dynamics. Some of the suggestions are based on what I have heard, some are based on reviews and some are based on what I would like to hear as benchmarks myself.

What you get is dependent upon the audio chain as well.

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As a ZMF fanboy myself, I wish more people can audition ZMF headphones. It’s such a unique experience.

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I’d encouage you to attend a headphone event where multiple brands are present. Try on lots of cans. If they’re not comfortable, move to something else. Fit and comfort is key to enjoying your headphones. Be sure to understand the demands of the headphones you are buying. Some headphones require robust amplification; some do not.

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Other factors to help you hone in on what you like vs don’t:

  • listen to at least one closed-back, one open-back, and one set of IEMs
  • listen to at least one “very heavy” set to see if the weight bothers you
  • listen to at least one set with dynamic drivers and one set of planars
  • listen to at least one set reputed to be very bright vs one that’s not (e.g. HD-650)
  • listen to at least one model from the “amongst the very best that exist on the planet” TOTL models, just to know what’s possible, and whether your listening is good enough at this point to appreciate the differences.

Of course, every headphone you buy is an audition/benchmark for the headphones you are going to buy in the future. It’s a long journey, enjoy the scenery.

In that sense, I’d say that everyone should buy a Senn HD-650/6xx early in their hobby lifecycle, with the idea of keeping it forever, because it’s the closest thing we have to a universal standard, and per most accounts scales up pretty well when other parts of the system are upgraded. (One caveat: most DAPs are not going to drive it very well.)

If you already own the HD-650, then the Audition of Four doesn’t have to include it.

You said you’ll have to travel to do this. As rrwwss52 sagely notes, if you can get to a headphone event, such as a regional meet-up or even a CANJAM, you wouldn’t be limited to just 4 models to audition. (But you might not get to spend a lot of time with each model.) Damn COVID!

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