For millions of music listeners, the smartphone has become their primary source component; digital music streaming services now represent close to 80% of the market with more than 50 million subscribers in the United States alone. Consumers put greater value on convenience vs sound quality and that shift has been a rude wake-up call for the high-end audio industry that has marketed expensive separates, loudspeakers, cables, and accessories for decades.
The reality is that consumers no longer see a need for so many expensive boxes; wireless active loudspeakers and one-box integrated amplifiers which include both wired and wireless digital streaming connectivity have made them unnecessary. The good news for consumers is that while prices at the top end have escalated beyond the cost of a luxury automobile for some audio components, there have never been as many affordable high-end components than what is available right now and that makes it a great time to assemble a system.
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1MORE Triple Driver Over-Ear ($199.99)
For under $200, it would be very difficult to find a more balanced sounding dynamic pair of headphones. 1More established itself as a brand capable of producing affordable audiophile in-ear monitors and closed-back headphones that really deliver tight bass, clear and open highs, and remarkable levels of resolution for the price. The Triple Driver Over-Ear offer solid construction and are an easy-to-fold pair of headphones for the plane, or commuter train that can be driven by any smartphone. Drive these with something like a dedicated headphone amp, and you will quickly understand why they are so popular. BUY NOW
Sony WF-100XM3 ($228.00)
Wireless in-ear headphones are the hottest category in personal audio, and there is no better value than the award-winning WF-100XM3 which offer noise cancelling that doesn’t degrade the sound and deliver impressive battery life. Without noise cancelling, the WF-100XM3 will offer high-end sound quality for almost 8 hours making them a lifesaver on long flights. The Sony adapt to the level of external noise and support Bluetooth 5.0 making them compatible with a wide range of smartphones and laptops. Sony has opted for a more balanced sounding pair of earphones that don’t tilt the presentation too far forward. BUY NOW
HiFiMan Sundara ($349.00)
Planar magnetic headphones have been the backbone of the renaissance of audiophile-grade headphones for almost 8 years, and HiFIMan have been a unique player in this category. The Sundara are one of the most affordable planar magnetic headphones available, and while there are better sounding models in the category for more money, this one might be our favorite for its punchy bass response, midrange resolution, transparency, and overall level of comfort. The open design means that everyone else can hear what you’re listening to; something to keep in mind if you plan on using these if you commute or travel for work. BUY NOW
Sennheiser HD800S ($1,599.95)
The original HD800 were considered to be the best consumer headphones for many years. They were revered for their studio reference-level neutrality and transparency that let you hear everything on a recording. For a new generation of headphone listeners, that level of accuracy was too much; planar magnetic headphones offer a warmer sound and deeper bass response. Fearing the avalanche of audiophile headphones that were about to drop, Sennheiser developed the over-the-ear open-back HD800S with new driver technology, even better construction quality, and a much warmer sounding tonal balance this is world-class in every respect. BUY NOW
Meze Audio Empyrean ($3,000.00)
The collapse of the Iron Curtain opened the floodgates in Eastern Europe to a new generation of talented industrial designers and engineers. Based in Romania, Meze Audio took their time introducing the affordable Classic 99 headphones, and after that headphone established them in the head-fi community, they refocused their creative energy on developing the planar magnetic Empyrean which take a backseat to very few headphones at any price level. Only limited by the quality of the amplifier that you connect them to, the Empyrean may be one of a handful of headphones that give loudspeakers their first serious replacement. BUY NOW