Choices for sub-$1,000 all-rounder headphone?

I like to just pick up my headphone and listen. I’m not after perfection or to have a collection of headphones for different moods or types of music.

I listen to mostly classical, rock and various electronic.

Currently I have the K702 which meets the goals of comfort (I wear glasses) and minimizing the “3 blob” effect. Detail is fine. I can hear the different stroke directions on a guiro / rhythm stick, what more do I need?

While I don’t have anything to compare it to it seems like the K702 might be missing something with vocals, being maybe thin rather than rich? I’m not a bass-freak but it does seem light there also.

If the consensus is that my perception of the K702 is off then I can spend more time with it and see where I land.

I have the Element II and CTH. Tubes just make me happy, bringing me back to my youth I think. It would be a plus if the headphones were not picky about amp/dac but I don’t know it that is possible. I may end up with an all-tube amp.

The trickiest thing so far has been the different presentation of headphones vs speakers. The “inside the head” thing is taking a while to adjust to. I have tried some crossfeed VST’s which help with the imaging but may not be worth mangling the rest of the sound.

I’m not opposed to closed-back but it seems they might be more dependent on a perfect seal, which won’t be there with glasses.

Hopefully this makes sense, let me know if I missed anything else you need. Thanks!


Hi Nick - a few observations for you and three potential recommendations. TL;DR: go with an open-box or used pair of Focal Clear! I’ll explain below.

The observations first: typically, closed-back headphones offer inferior sound quality to their open-back counterparts because of things like internal cup reverberations and reflections as well as a sense of congestion, sometimes. The “inside the head” thing is worse with closed backs. Some folks, like me, also find them fatiguing because of the pressure that builds up inside the cup. Unless you really need the isolation or thicker bass response, I’d avoid closed backs.

I’d recommend some kind of open-back headphone instead, then, especially as you like classical music. Open-back headphones will give you the sense of air and space that you seem to prefer (at least as far as headphones can). There aren’t that many headphones in the $500-$1000 range. There are the Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 headphones but I’m not sure how well they’d suit classical music. While I’ve not heard these latest ones, I wasn’t keen on the previous version as I found it to be too thick, congested, and muffled (which might be a function of being underpowered). See what others say. There are also HiFiMAN offerings but I’m unwilling to recommend them because of quality control issues. I have a pair of Audeze LCD2-C and am again reluctant to recommend them; I’m not sure I truly like them and, regardless, they’re not an all-rounder by any stretch of the imagination (they’re said to be better served as a rock headphone). The LCD-X might work, if it goes on sale or you could get an open box pair (see the reviews and impressions first, though!). The Drop Koss ESP/95X might also be a decent option, but its probably better for classical than rock (again, see what others say; I’ve not heard it).

Now for some recommendations. First, you might consider the Focal Elex. It is highly praised and might be just what you’re looking for - I’ve not heard it myself, though.

Second, you could go with the Drop x Sennheiser HD 6XX. Usually you’d want to spend the most on the transducer, then the amp, and then the DAC. But the HD 6XX is famous for scaling well with a better setup (so much so that some people drive this $220 headphone with $2,000+ amps). So, you could allocated the $220 for the headphones and with the rest of your grand get a nice tube amp - since this is something you’ve mentioned as a preference - and a complementary DAC.

One option would be the Schiit Audio Valhalla 2 ($350) with a rich-sounding DAC, like the Modi Multibit. That setup would set you back $820 before taxes and shipping. Another option from Schiit would be the slightly more expensive Lyr 3 ($500), which is a tube hybrid like your CTH (I assume you’re referring to the Massrop/Drop CTH here) with the same Modi Multibit DAC, either as a standalone unit or as an internal DAC card within the amp (the separate DAC is said to be better).

Alternatively, you could get a warmer amp, such as the ZDT Jr., and a more neutral DAC for the HD 6XX, like the Modius (I’ve not heard this DAC, it’s only just come out). The ZDT Jr used would be my recommendation for a warmer amp; if you go this route, make sure to get one with the hum issue fixed (it was an issue with the first batch but Drop resolved those that were sent back in, in which case the unit will have a white dot on the back, next to the serial number). I love mine. It’s great with the HD 6XX. But it needs a neutral or bright DAC (warm headphone + warm amp and warm or dark DAC would be too much!).

My strongest recommendation, though, is this: if you don’t mind buying open-box or second-hand you could get the Focal Clear. I got mine for well under a grand. (Make sure, if you go with used, that the pads and the underside of the headband aren’t discolored, which can happen all to easily; insist on seeing good pics first!). It’s an excellent headphone. I prefer it to my HD 6XX with my setup as it’s livelier, clearer, has better, tighter and deeper bass, and better treble extension. It’s more fatiguing than the HD 6XX, which isn’t saying much - it’s not a particularly fatiguing headphone, I can listen to mine for hours on end. It also has wonderful resolution and macrodynamics. In short, it’s got a lovely balanced, fairly neutral, well-extended, energetic and fast, clean sound. It’s ideal as an all-rounder, for me. It doesn’t have a particularly wide or spacious soundstage, but the imagining and layering are good enough not to make this as significant an issue for me (and I say this as someone who loves his HD 800 for its excellent soundstage).

Best of all for the Clear: it sounds wonderful out of your Drop CTH amp. That’s what I use. I’m toying with the idea of upgrading to the Lyr 3 with it. See what @lost33 has to say about the pairing, he’s likewise very fond of the Clear - as are a good many others on this forum. But the CTH and Clear pairing is widely praised as being synergistic (see here, for instance).

(Mods may wish to move this discussion to the general advice thread; these two threads here and here may also be of interest.)


ZMF Aeolus is a pretty popular headphone around that price. I would include some perforated suede pads as well for a pretty different experience. Good luck shopping.


Yes, that’s a great recommendation - I should have included it for @NickZ. I’d suggest the Clear for a brighter sound, the Aeolus for something warmer and richer.

Edit: if $1000 is a hard price limit, you could inquire after any b-stock Aeolus from ZMF.

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The hd6xx from does scale very well and they present nicely with tubes, although I have not heard the clear I must agree with Tchoupitoulas, seeing that the Clear is a big brother to the Elex. The LCDx go for the creator’s package $1199 or a used /open box (one side note the LCDX are heavy on the head they sound great they are just heavy (weight wise).


Thanks for your detailed replies!

It’ll take a while to digest it all.

It does seem there is a big gap between the solid $200-$300 choices and then you get to $1,200-$1,500. It starts a whole other mental tug-of-war over whether the extra $1,000 leads to an equal increase in enjoyment.

I took a quick look at Drop and it seems some of these are in the pre-order state. It’s not like I’m in a blazing hurry but they don’t have an estimated date either. If I go with specific units for synergy and they never wind up getting produced on Drop it’s an extra complication.

So many moving parts! But it’s part of the fun of setting up a headphone sanctuary.

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Yep. My second most used headphones are Sennheiser HD-600s ($300 street), and my most used are Focal Clears (around $900 if open box; maybe $1,200 street new). I’ve been unhappy with and sold middle-range products. I’d skip the $700 Focal Elex, I’d skip the Audeze 2 series ($500 B Stock or maybe $700 A Stock). HiFiMan…reliability issues…

The main differences between the HD-600s and Clears involve dynamics, details, and nuance. The overall tone is pretty similar.


It’s interesting you say this.

Earlier today on a whim I listened to headphones on the iPad built-in headphone jack (no external dac/amp).

Even being new to headphones I could hear a difference but it’s not like I had to rip the headphones off my head and run for the Tylenol and vodka.

I could easily sit in the park and take in the scenery and listen to the iPad.

Regarding the HD-600. There seems to be similar terms but I’m not sure if I’ve got it right.

HD-6xx refers to the Drop model which is equivalent to the original HD-650?

And then there are number of others in the HD-6?? line but HD-600 refers to that exact model, yes? I think HD-600s is being used as plural of HD-600, but apparently there is HD-800 and HD-800s which are different models. Yikes!


I would vote for Focal Clears…hand down. Tyll at Innerfidelity stated its one of the best dynamic driver headphons, with almost perfect tonality…and one of the first $1K cans he would fork out his hard earned dollars on…

I have the HD 600 and had the 800 and many more…in your case the Clears would be my goto recommendation…

Good luck!



The HD-600 was the first in the 600 family (circa 1997) and is considered extremely neutral. Given the relatively weak and expensive headphone amps of the era, the 650 was released a while later. It’s got a mid bass hump to please many people, and was used for the 6XX. The 660 is a much later and more polarizing product that’s never caught on like the 600 and 650. The 660 is a cousin to the also not popular HD-700.

Both the 600 and 650 scale well with better/newer amps. The 600 gets more bass back with a good amp, but is still leaner than the 650/6XX.

Yes, 600s is the plural not a separate model. The 800 family is a vastly more expensive and yes there is an 800 and 800s.


yes, Sennheiser has the most popular hd-600 and hd 650 now reproduced by Drop as hd 6xx. Sennheiser has released the hd 660 to fill the void of the hd 650. Sennheiser then jumps for all intend and purposes to the hd 800, hd800s and hd 820. (intentionally did not mention hd700 mostly only modders liked that version). most popular hd 600, hd650 now hd6xx.


I refrained from recommending the HD 800, which I have and love, as it’s not really an all-rounder. And it’s discontinued now. You could get a used one for $700-800, and while it has many qualities that make it one of the greatest headphones ever produced, it is bright, and many find its treble too piercing and fatiguing. For this reason, many owners have developed and adopted a wide range of modifications to tame the treble.

The HD 800S is an updated version, one in which Sennheiser essentially incorporated a modification of its own. In this it succeeded, but at a cost of some bass tightness, apparently (I’ve not heard it enough, or on a familiar rig, to be able to tell). In any case, the HD 800S is well beyond your budget. Both models are also amp-picky, and even with a nice, warm and lush amplifier, they still sound quite thin.

Both are excellent for classical music, jazz, and other genres with acoustic instruments. The HD 800 is unsurpassed for its spacious soundstage–especially its width–among traditional over-ear headphones (“earspeakers” and “earfield monitors” like the Msphere 3 or the Raal SR1a are another matter). Ultimately, they’re not the most versatile headphones, and I far prefer the Clear for rock and electronic music. The HD 800 is superior for classical music, for my preferences, but the Clear is surprisingly satisfying with this genre as well.


The HD-6xx pairs very well with the Lyr 3 amp; it’s one of my favorite and most listened-to headphones. Without adequate power, the HD-6xx will not necessarily dissapoint, but it will most certainly not be shown to best advantage.

I can’t speak to the Focal/ZMF suggestions because I’m a tightwad. Maybe someday I will feel the need.

One other possibility - I bought a used Grado RS-1e from @MCM here. It is not like most Grados. I listen to it a bit more than the HD-6xx. It has a similar sound while being lighter, having more detail, and having a better soundstage. It does not exhibit the typical Grado treble signature that annoys some. If you have a chance to audition one, it might well be in your all-rounder mix.


Based on the first quoted sentence, I’ll give you two wallet-friendly options with a neutral sound signature. You could actually get both under $1k.

  • SRH1540 – Closed: very good for listening at low levels and comfortable. I see this headphone being a little dark, even though it’s still neutral. Since you wear glasses, it may turn out to be a good thing w.r.t. bass. If you’re a treble head, forget it;
  • HD660S – Open: very detailed and valuable for the money. Since you mentioned VST, it does respond very well to that. Here’s a screenshot as I type and while listening to U2:

Actually both respond very well to VST and have dedicated threads in this community. VST is optional – of course – and I use it often to supercharge the listening experience while having piece of mind with my bank account. :stuck_out_tongue: On a daily basis, I just pick one and use it, i.e., no VST or even amp is needed – conditioned to listening levels. Key thing to remember is: your brain will normalize itself after a few minutes of listening.

At the right time – cough (Black Friday) – both can be purchased at merely 4 Benjamin Franklin bills.

A lot of good options were given above. Poor you, only having to pick one. :wink:

Good luck. :+1:

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Two more to add to the list, thanks.

Cool screenshot. What host are you using?

I’ve had the most success with JRiver. Audirvana did not work too well. Equalizer APO is supposed to support VST but I haven’t tried it yet.

The whole VST thing seems to be somewhat fragile.

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I really like the look of the RS-1e. I’ll add it to the list.

From the pics it looks like an on-ear. That can be tricky with glasses depending on how “clampy” they are.

Not clampy at all. I have glasses - albeit wire-rims. The L-pad is quite comfortable, and is big enough that it seems like it’s between an on-ear and over ear. I really think the stock L-Pad is the best, but all of the foam pads from Grado work. There are third party pads that are wool and other materials, but I never bothered.

Yes, I like the look too. Surprising amount of bass extension, the drivers are pretty large.

Ohhh, that was just the DAW I’m using today: Cockos REAPER.

If one is serious about VST, it’s all about pro tools. Pun not intended.


Used Focal Clear, or ZMF Aeolus. Have both, both are great performers.


I also agree that this is a very good product