We are totally stoked by the incredible array of audiophile headphones available to music lovers today. Here is our headphone.com staff-curated list of high end headphones we rate as the best of the best for 2016. These are all superlative headphones guaranteed to keep your ears very happy for a long time to come.
The Focal Utopia is the most accurate, dynamic and revelatory listening experience currently found in audiophile headphones. It directly competes with the Sennheiser HD800S transient quickness and vast soundstage depth while bolstering the low-end with a warmer but deeply textural and taut bass response. Like a headphone teleportation device from the future, the Focal Utopia beams you up and materializes you into the inner reality of the music. In a rare display of corporate unanimity, the Utopia is our favorite headphone this year - and maybe ever - for the entire review team at headphone.com.
The direct competitor to the Focal Utopia at the same price ($4,000), the planar magnetic LCD-4 has a low-octave authority and perfectly controlled musical horsepower like no other headphone. The LCD-4 places the listener on stage at the epicenter of the music with a dynamic explosiveness and low-level detail resolution that will make you well up with emotion. However, it’s extremely power-hungry and requires a great headphone amp to control its torque and make it truly sing out loud.
Easily the best HiFiMAN audiophile headphone yet, the HE 1000 is beautifully balanced throughout every part of the frequency range with a lovely combination of potent punch and easy airiness. It's incisive access to tiny nuances hidden deep in the music is astonishing. It’s also among the lightest of all the high-end planar magnetic headphones and very comfortable to wear for long sessions. The HE 1000 is nicely efficient too, unlike some other high-end HiFiMAN cans of yore.
The first ever electrostatic in-ear headphone system, the KSE 1500 burrows deep inside the music with an intensely energetic presentation and microscopic detail resolution power. The tone-shaping EQ in the KSE 1500 DAC/ADC/amplifier unit offers ample listening flexibility to dial in a totally personalized sound. It’s a major electrostatic design breakthrough resulting in the most expansively layered and well-imaged soundstage heard to date in the in-ear headphone category.
The little brother of the Focal Utopia, the Elear conservatively gets you about 85% to 90% (at least) of the Utopia’s world-beating transparency, clarity and lightning-fast dynamic extension at only 25% the cost. That's some pretty good math. We think its the best value in audiophile headphones priced under 1K. The Elear is beautifully engineered inside & out and an unmitigated audio delight for any discerning music lover. Highly recommended.
Unquestionably the best sounding, best-performing noise-cancelling full size headphone on the market in 2016. Daily commuters and frequent fliers who are not keen about using excellent isolating in-ear headphones should get this battery-powered (‘active’) NC headphone into their travel bag. The QC35 makes any voyage a peaceful musical respite.
Among the best sealed/closed headphones available, the LCD-XC offers a similar lushness of tone as the open-back Audeze LCD models with an engaging bass focus and relatively seamless upper treble extension. Isolation is quite good as is the wearing comfort despite the beefy heavyweight build quality. Especially for a sealed-back design, the LCD-XC delivers impressive musical clarity and spacious instrumental separation just as expected from the California kings of planar magnetic headphones.
The freshly updated version of the German-engineered dynamic headphone that originally set the high-end audiophile world on its collective ear, the HD800S improves the bass response a tad but keeps the same tremendous soundstage imaging depth and blink-of-an-eye dynamism that wowed us back in 2009. It can still sound a bit overly clinical or dry with certain sources so good synergy with your music and audio gear is critical to maximize the liquid presentation and solid acoustic presence of the HD800S.
An impressive down-the-middle neutrality and smooth, accurate tone brings this open-back planar magnetic headphone into our top audiophile contenders. A well-calibrated combination of punch and precision make this the choice for both audio professionals and music-addicted audiophiles. The 2016-updated LCD-X 'Fazor' edition is also fairly easy to power from a wide variety of sources, not something we can say about many of the other high-end headphones on this list.
Maybe the biggest audio bang-for-the-buck recently available in top-level dynamic headphones, the unassuming Fostex TH-610 competes against the flagship Fostex TH-900 MKII sister model at around ½ the cost. It’s perhaps not quite as fully resolved but also not as warmly colored or as etched in the upper mids/highs as the pricey TH-900. The TH-610 is a kick-butt deal on a great headphone with a laid-back but deeply engrossing sound.
The Mr Speaker Ether (Flow)
Our headphone.com review team really enjoyed the original 2015 Mr Speakers Ether planar magnetic open-back headphone, engineered and built by Dan Clark in San Diego CA. However, the Ether was significantly updated in late 2016 with the new Mr Speakers Ether ‘Flow’ edition, which regrettably we have not been able to hear or review as of yet due to limited Flow availability. Please look for our analysis of the newest Mr Speakers Ether Flow headphones on these pages very soon.
Sennheiser HE1 / Orpheus II
Our headphone.com team managed to get our grubby ears on one these vacuum tube, chrome and Italian marble artworks of audio overkill at a headphone show early this year and it was indeed exquisite. But as of now, it's still not available for sale here in the USA so the new Sennheiser Orpheus / HE1 remains essentially high-end headphone vaporware. Who knows, maybe David Beckham bought them all. For an expected $60,000 give or take, our champagne wishes and caviar dreams await.
We had a slightly difficult time initially justifying the price of this $5,500 headphone. Now with the advent of $4,000 dynamic and planar headphones becoming almost commonplace, maybe it’s time for a complete reevaluation of our scroogey penny-pinching ways. The Abyss is a controversial can, lusted after by some and frowned upon by others. But after all, it’s only money. Music is way more important. We hope to have our fresh headphone.com take on this oversize kingly specimen of high-end planar magnetic headphones soon in 2016.
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