Last updated on December 17, 2019
In an ideal world, we’d be sitting in a vintage leather club chair with our Large Advents or Boston Acoustics delivering a warm, room-filling sound that washes over ourselves, providing maximum listening pleasure. Often though, life gets in the way. That listening room might not be a reality yet or the new-born baby in the crib down the hall could squelch any thoughts of nighttime listening. Or, we might not even be home but stuck on the subway. Thankfully, a quality pair of headphones can still bring life-changing sound to your ears no matter what the listening venue or situation.
When it comes to sound accuracy and clean, detailed sound, each of the five headphones reviewed here delivered in spades. The immersive experience each of these over-ear headphones provides is something earbuds just can’t match today. The best news: any of these headphones can be had for less than $500.
Open Vs. Closed & A Word On Our Preferred Soundscape
Before we get into our recommendations, there are two types of over-ear headphones on the market today: open-backed and closed-backed. Most audiophiles agree that the best sound reproduction is typically found in open-back headphones but keep in mind that “opens” are like screen doors – they let exterior sounds in and “leak” your music out. Open-back headphones literally have room to breathe. Rather than sound getting trapped inside your head with closed-backs, open-backed headphones create an airy, open atmosphere that is more lifelike and similar to sitting in front of a pair of high-end speakers or listening to live music.
When we talk about sound clarity, we’re really interested in headphones that present a full, multi-dimensional, warm sound that accentuates treble and vocals. It’s here that we reach the sweet spot with vocals given the correct amount of energy while still hearing background details like cymbal brushes or acoustic guitar strings being pulled. Open-backs deliver on all of these points, presenting a full and detailed soundstage.
In most cases, open-backs are also more comfortable than isolated closed-backs. Due to the fact that open-backs allows your music (and ears) to breathe, letting air in and out, you’ll become less fatigued over time. Isolated closed-backs typically have a tighter clamping force and can cause heat and in turn, sweat to impact listening over longer periods.
Famously, these are the “go-to” cans of mastering guru Bernie Grundman who notes in a recent Wall Street Journal roundup that the HD600’s are both the most accurate and pleasing to listen to. We certainly won’t disagree – the open-backed HD600’s are a bit like listening to a nicely balanced speaker system from an optimal distance.
The sound is realistic with a perfect midrange that accentuates vocals. Bass is satisfying and not too overpowering, providing just the right amount of punch. A common refrain can be found among countless online reviews: “I felt like I was swept away with the music and time stood still.”
Perfect test track: Rikki Don’t Lose That Number – Steely Dan
2. AKG K712
Known for their incredible, wide soundstage, classic rock, jazz, and acoustic music all sound fantastic with the AKG K712s. These are also the most comfortable of any headphones we’ve tested over longer periods of listening time. They feature a soft leather headband for a lightweight and very comfy fit.
As far as bass goes, these cans deliver a deep, well extended, weighty bass with plenty of power. Treble is natural sounding with no elements of harshness or sibilance impeding on the experience. Last but not least, these are professional-grade, reference headphones that feature a cool, design that screams I’m an audiophile.
Perfect test track: Here Comes The Sun (50th Anniversary Remastered Edition) – The Beatles
The time-tested, foldable, closed-ear Sony MDR-7506s feature crystal-clear highs, warm, present mids, and an extended low-end bass delivering fantastic, balanced sound in a very reasonably priced package. Online raves continue to pile up after its initial release over two decades ago. Case in point: Over 5,300 reviews on Amazon with a star rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars.
These are not the most stylish headphones on the market; in fact, they have a distinctly old-school look. The build quality can only be described as tank-like and plenty of reviews can be found of people still raving about them after 10 years of use. Despite the rugged build quality, they’re surprisingly comfortable with just the right amount of clamp without any irritating pressure.
Perfect test track: In A Simple Rhyme – Van Halen
Marketed as monitor headphones, the M50x headphones have been around for ages and have a solid reputation among pros as studio workhorses. They’re also well known for their “bullet-proof” build quality and long listening comfort levels; not all that common with closed-ear headphones.
Importantly, people across the online headphone community rave about their stellar sound. Note: there are some naysayers who say the M50x cans are typically the first pair of “quality” headphones people migrate to after owning earbuds or Beats. In any event, we wouldn’t be including these in our shortlist if we didn’t feel they delivered the goods.
Another plus is versatility – every pair of M50x headphones comes with three cables in the box: a coiled cable, a 3-meter straight cable, and a new mobile-friendly 1.2-meter cable. The cables are also detachable enabling you to swap modes—use the long cable when plugging into your receiver at home and the short cable for portable situations.
Perfect test track: Money For Nothing – Dire Straits
Famously known for their soundscape “neutrality”, Germany’s Beyerdynamic are one of the original high-end headphone makers. Many of their models over the years have been considered ‘state of the art’ among the headphone community. The Amiron can proudly stand in that group as well. Neutrality equates to natural-sounding, with warm, even tones across the highs, mids, and low-end. The soundstage of Amiron is very impressive, open and well-separated, with a nice amount of depth and width, placing the listener directly in the middle of the music.
The Amiron’s present the total package that any audiophile would love:
- Extreme comfort over long play periods
- Fantastic build quality
- Perfect clamping pressure
Perfect test track: Countdown – Lindsey Buckingham
Gone are the days of the $1000 headphone for audiophiles and aspiring audiophiles alike. There’s absolutely no reason for a non-pro to spend more than $500 on headphones in 2019. Our strong advice is to do your own research on our picks, visit Head-fi or Headphones for even more advice and documentation.