Buying headphones isn’t an easy task. There’s a raft of manufacturers out there all gagging for your attention – from big brands such as Philips, to the lesser-known, but still excellent, Grado Labs and Audeze.
Let’s first categorise what we mean by ‘premium headphones’.
These aren’t studio-quality headphones, but they aren’t your throwaway earbuds either. They’re over- or on-ear cans that will undoubtedly enhance your listening pleasure, whether you’re playing music through a phone, a high-res audio player, a dedicated DAC or your home hi-fi. The majority of these headphones fall within the £200-£700 price range – we’d actually call that ‘affordable premium’.
So, what should you consider? Well, of course, the major factor is sound quality. We’ll be honest – all of the headphones here sound good. You won’t be disappointed with any of them, we promise. But they do have very different listening qualities – and even different connections in the case of the Philips M2/L and the Musical Fidelity MF200 – and your preference will determine your purchase.
Let’s start with the most important thing: sound. Headphones have different frequency responses – the range of bass, mids and treble. So before you buy anything, have a think about what you’re after. Do you want heavy bass or a more neutral listening experience?
If it’s bass you’re after, there are manufacturers – notably Beats – that emphasise the lower frequencies (ie bass) to give a signature sound. But while headphones like these can be enjoyable to listen to, they often lack the separation and delivery of music that the artist intended (no matter what the manufacturers say). Also be aware that you’re never going to get the kind of bass in headphones that you would from a good subwoofer. If you want to check out the frequency response of your intended cans, the best bet is to go to headphones.com, where you can plot out a graph of the bass, mid tones and treble. But to help you along, we’ll outline what all of the headphones featured here sound like, along with a brief explanation of their individual responses.
Over or on?
There are two different types of headphones featured here – over-ear and on-ear. Let’s think about what those terms mean for a minute as, although it may seem obvious, there are a few nuances you need to be aware of. Over-ear headphones are, as the name suggests, cans that fit entirely over your ear, engulfing you in sound. Two examples here are the B&O Play H6 and the Audeze EL-8.
The bigger ear cups seal your music in, blocking out everyday noises. But over-ear headphones can be cumbersome – the Audeze EL-8 are big and relatively heavy, meaning they aren’t so great for portable use and are more suited to listening in the home.
On-ear cans sit, unsurprisingly, on your ears. For some people, this can be a little uncomfortable for extended listening sessions, but for optimum listening on the move, and maximum versatility, on-ears make sense.
Closed or open?
Within the over-ear and on-ear categories, there’s also the choice of closed-back or open-back headphones. What does this mean? Well, speaker drivers in headphones emit sound in both directions, so with a closed-back pair – which feature a hard casing on the outside of the headphones – the music is blocked to the outside world. This is obviously much better for travelling, as it means the old woman on the bus can’t hear your impeccable taste in 90s hip-hop.
So why would you want an open-back pair, which don’t block your music from being heard by all and sundry? Well, with open-backed cans, you can get a much wider, larger sound – almost like you’re in a room listening to music (a good example of an open-backed on-ear is Grado’s PS500e, which we’ll get onto a bit later). If you have a listening room or similar, open-back may be the way to go, but for a more versatile set of headphones that you can use anywhere, closed-back is the best option. But again, it’s a matter of personal taste and circumstance.
B&O’s Play H6s are excellent and surprisingly inexpensive over-ear headphones. As we’ve come to expect from the Danish audio company, design and sound are perfectly paired – the cans are characterised by an über-stylish leather headband and memory-foam-topped lambskin ear cups, which are seriously comfortable for extended listening. And, even though they’re an over-ear design, they’re sufficiently compact, making them an option for both home and on-the-go listening. Frequency responses are fairly neutral, though bass is punchy and the 40mm drivers deliver clear detail.
The Play H6s also have a 3.5mm jack on both ear cups, meaning you can daisy-chain them to another pair of headphones (or simply switch the cable from one ear to another). Like many modern headphones, they come with an inline mic for controlling your music on your smartphone. You may need a headphone amp to get the very best out of them, though. We’ll get onto headphone amps later.
The other over-ear cans featured here are Audeze’s EL-8s – the closed-back version, to be precise. The EL-8s are certainly on the chunky side and, with their wooden-veneer edges and brushed ear cups, are an acquired taste. But they sound incredible: deep bass is paired with smooth mid tones and exceptional reproduction at high frequencies.
To put it in simple terms, they have a large sound. The thing that separates the EL-8s from the other cans here is that they use planar-magnetic technology rather than electrostatic drivers (you’ll find an excellent explanation of the technology here). Because of this, they can be driven easily by mobile devices without any kind of headphone amp.
Let’s move on to the on-ear headphones featured here, starting with the Grado PS500e. As we’ve mentioned, these are open-backed – and they’re the epitome of open-backed cans. If you’re listening to your music at loud volumes, those around you will be able to hear it clearly. But the benefits of the wider soundstage are clear: these Grados are subtle yet bright, have great instrument and vocal separation, and deliver an incredibly rich sound. The fact that they’re handmade (you’ll find a serial number scratched into the plastic) makes them even more appealing.
But they certainly aren’t the ideal choice for commuting, even if they can easily be driven by your iPhone, iPad or mobile device.
Noise-cancelling headphones are always popular with travellers and commuters, as are Bluetooth models – thanks to the complete lack of wires to get tangled up in. If you’re on the bus or train a lot, one model you might want to consider is Bowers & Wilkins’ P5 Wireless. While these aren’t noise-cancelling cans in the truest sense of the word (ie they don’t have a battery and mics to drown out the outside world), they isolate noise brilliantly and the sound quality is, as you’d expect from B&W, utterly superb.
These are almost certainly the best Bluetooth headphones on the market at the moment. Their rectangular cups and pads are extremely comfortable, materials are premium and they deliver excellent bass – without crossing over into Beats territory. If these don’t take your fancy, B&O’s H8s are another excellent option. These offer active noise cancellation, as well as Bluetooth connectivity.
The Philips Fidelio M2L headphones offer something unique – a built-in DAC (digital to analogue converter) that bypasses the crummy DAC on your iPhone. The one limitation is that these ’phones connect via the Lightning port, meaning you’ll only be able to use them with a compatible Apple device. If Apple is your brand of choice, though, you can’t go far wrong with these headphones. They deliver excellent sound – especially if you’re listening to high-res audio files (through Onkyo’s HF Player app or similar, as the Apple Music app can’t play FLAC) or streaming from Tidal.
Something we haven’t spoken about in detail is headphone amplifiers. These essentially enable you to drive your cans louder, but can also add clarity and neutrality to your music when played on a computer or mobile device – and are aimed at a pretty niche, audiophile market. Some headphones/amplifier combinations are designed to work together, such as the Musical Fidelity MF-200B cans and the V90-BHA balanced amp. The bottom line is that choosing a pair of headphones depends on your listening requirements, but the models here should cover all bases – from extended listening sessions in your lounge to blasting out tunes on the train.
Our advice? Get down to your local retailer and try out as many pairs as you can with your own music.