Any idea which headphones I’d like?


I’ve sold all of my 2-channel gear, and am stepping into the headphone realm.  Unfortunately, there is no place around me that sells high end headphone gear.  I loved Dynaudio and Harbeth speakers.  I ran the Confidence C4’s, and Harbeth Super HL5+ on Pass Labs XA amps.  I’m open to input as to which headphones would encapsulate the qualities of those speakers.  Any input is greatly appreciated.
toddcowles
As with speakers, the headphone and amp pairing is critical. As much as folks will try to help, choose a starting point (headphone amp + headphones) and figure it out for yourself.

Attend a can jam if possible.

I personally find "professional" reviews of headphones to be far better done than those of speakers. Comparisons with different amplification are included as are comparative notes to other headphones.

Stating your sound signature preferences / goals as well as your budget for the chain will help.
Putting together a headphone system is every much as challenging as a two channel system although it can be less expensive. You can see my main system and headphone system by clicking on my ID.

Major players include Focal, Sennheiser, Hifiman, Audeze, Beyerdynamic, Abyss, Denon… but there are dozens of brands..


What they sound like is strongly dependent on what electronics you use to feed them. All components matter: streamer, DAC, and amp (let me repeat… streamer… my system didn’t get good until I got a dedicated high end streamer). Focal are great sounding and pretty easy to drive. I would start there. Beyerdynamic may be the most musical.. I love my T1’s. But can be hard to drive to get full dynamics. The Sennheiser flagship 820s are outstanding but need really good natural sounding electronics or they can sound trebly. The electrostatics usually sound best using an amp made for them. If you are into rock  high end Denon can be good but need massive current to get bass under control.

If I were starting again I would start with something Focal… Clear. Then build your system around them. Almost all of us have several sets of headphones so these would remain relevant in any collection. You asked given your preference for speakers… my guess would be high end Beyerdynamic.


I actually listen to my Sennheiser 820s the most, but not until I bought a $5K 300B amp to power them, with the equipment I have behind them they sound remarkably similar to my Focal Utopias… my feeling is when feed a really high current natural signal, really high end headphones start sounding similar because the are converging on the best possible quality reproduction. My preference for the Sennheiser, I think is that they are full open back compared with the Focal… more open sound stag.


Welcome to a brave new world.  What’s your budget, assuming with decent ‘phones you’ll need an amp/DAC as well?
All, thank you for your input.

I do have a budget, $12k.  I could slide it to $13k.  I have owned the Focal Clear’s and ran them on a Moon product.  I only really used it when I was sitting at my desk working, never for serious listening.  If there were a Can Jam coming soon, I would.  But, I’m trying to make some ill-advised spending decisions…#dadlife.  I can’t let this money sit, it’ll get re-budgeted to a Disney trip.  So yeah, I’m looking to ya’ll to help me make some poor financial choices.

This is what I’ve researched and am sort of sitting at:
Violectric V280
HiFiman HE1000 v2
DenaFips Pontus

I kept my Shunyata power cabling and my Nordost QX4/Qbase setup.  I still need a USB cable, was thinking the Curious cable and I also need a set of interconnects…open to suggestions on those as well.

As a dedicated music streamer, I’m using an Aurender.

Also, do any of you use power conditioning for your rigs?  I did research, heavily, the Woo Audio stuff, I just can’t commit to a tube system.  I’ve got kids, and lets face it, I’m here because I will justify spending $1200 on tubes, just as easily as spending $50 on them.
@ghdprentice is that a Woo Audio tube setup, by chance?  I was looking at the WA22, and WA5LE.  I’ve owned tube pres, and it takes some time and coin to get the right tubes.  Those 300B’s, everyone says you really need to have the WE’s as a baseline and reference, because they’re the gold standard.

How have you approached getting your tubes dialed into your preferences?
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What sound characteristics are most important to you in headphone listening, and what do you dislike?  This info would help narrow things down considerably. 
Everything focal makes right now is pretty good. The Focal Elex on mass drop is only $600 and is every bit as good as the others. The Clear MG is pretty great at $1500. Don’t buy sennhieser HD800s, you will hate them…. Ear tweeters.
I have had many of the highend headphones and only keep around the focals (and Grados) at the moment.
Audeze headphones have some odd coloration in the mids as do most planer but wow the bass is special. Try to demo them.
You could buy a few off Amazon and crutchfield and just send back the ones you don’t like.
The nice thing about headphones is you can own a few pairs with different sounds.

edit:

I see you have owned the Focal Clear. Honestly this is 95% as good as it gets with headphones. If they did not do it for you, headphones might not. 
Some brand generalizations below. 

Focal=good all around 

Sennhizer HD800=best soundstage (bright needs tubes). 

audeze=amazing bass but odd mids and rolled off highs. 

highfi man=weaker bass than the audeze but a bit more soundstage. 

Grado=the horns of headphones, love them or hate them. The PS500e is pretty great with flat pads

Fostech= subwoofer type bass. 
Mrspeakers=somewhere between audeze and hifi man. 
Focal Clear MG Professional.
@soix I’ve generally leaned towards “warm.”  I don’t prefer bass heavy vs. detail.  I’d say the one thing I’ve always really liked is a large soundstage.  I prefer a warmer midrange, with accurate bass vs analytical with some bass bloat.  I do not like mushy, I sold all my McIntosh gear because I felt it sounded “mushy.”  

I’ve always really liked Dynaudio speakers.  I hear a neutrality in them, that I didn’t really hear anywhere, until I heard the Harbeth’s.  I just prefer that the gear not color anything, that’s all.  The Pass Labs + Harbeth was a winning combo to my ears.  
@james633 Thank you for the info!  Ahhhh, the beautiful last 5% that makes us spend our discretionary income…and sometimes then some on audio gear!  

Don’t get me wrong, I really did like the sound.  But I have the opportunity to focus on that last 5%.

Per the Sennheisers, I’ve read that they really need tubes and become almost magical with the Western Electric 300B tubes.  And I actually may have listened to a set, being driven by one of the McIntosh HA’s.  I didn’t come away thinking anything other than, “jeesh, McIntosh is ripping people off with this thing.”  

I’ve read some very positive reviews on them, out of curiosity, what is that you do not like about them?  

So, Clear MG’s over Utopia’s?
@master92, do you use them for Mastering?  
With your budget, you should consider the Focal Utopia.  I have the Focal Elex from Massdrop and they will give you the kind of sound signature you're looking for.  The Utopia will give you more of what the Elex does.  I listened to some Utopias, and they are beguiling.  I have Harbeth Super HL5 Plus and P3ESR, and of the dozen headphones I have, I would say that Focal headphones come closest to the Harbeth sound.

I wouldn't dismiss Sennheiser.  I have the HD800 and like them very much.  The HD800s is supposed to have tamed some of the "brightness" that some complain about with the HD800.  I have not heard the HD800s.  The $200 Massdrop Sennheiser 6XX are probably my favorite headphones, but more for reasons of comfort.

I have not gone up the Hifiman line, but I have the HE560.  They have a similar, but more neutral sound signature than Audeze.  My Audeze headphones are more detailed, and they do more than just bass well.  The LCD-4 are pretty amazing and have a great midrange.

Lastly, the Sony MDR-Z1R deserve consideration.  They sound very similar to the LCD-4, at about half the price and are a lot more comfortable.  The LCD-4 is probably the heaviest set of headphones I own.

For amplification, I have a Simaudio 430HA.  If you do get the Hifiman headphones, consider their EF-6 amp.  It's discontinued, but you might be able to find one at a reasonable price.  Sony's headphone amp is really good also.

Forget about "soundstaging".  You have two speakers on the side of your head.  You simply can't get the same kind of imaging or soundstage that you get with speakers.  Some headphones will do a better job than others of not making this apparent, but headphones by their nature will give you a completely different listening experience than speakers.  I rarely use my headphones anymore, in large part because my two channel systems have gotten so good.  
“ is that a Woo Audio tube setup, by chance?”

Yes, my system has a Woo WA5-LE. I have had several Woo amps WA6… and WA6se. Each in turn sounded better and had more power. I wanted to go a couple steps further. And it was well worth it. The WA5 has enormous power and beautiful midrange bloom. They are just magical to listen to… but not in any artificial way… incredibly musical. I get hooked on listening because I am enjoying it so much. It took control of all of my headphones and pretty much told them it was in charge. So, the peculiarities of the headphone disappeared and they all started sounding like the electronics I had chosen.

For the tubes. After receiving the amp I was enchanted and loved the power and realism it brought to all my headphones. So I got the upgraded tubes that Woo recommended.. the Takatsuki 300B. I upgraded the others as well. The Takatsuki are glorious.

The change in my headphone system was so profound and fundamental that it caused my to completely revamp my main system… going to all ARC tubed gear. I think doubling the investment in that system. While all of this was expensive, my systems sound much better than I ever thought they could.

https://systems.audiogon.com/users/ghdprentice
Since you have a healthy budget and are juggling #dadlife (I fully relate)...

Consider Abyss. Their flagship AB-1266 Phi TC which starts at ~5K. 

I’d say the one thing I’ve always really liked is a large soundstage.  I prefer a warmer midrange, with accurate bass vs analytical

The 1266 will deliver on soundstage (unlike most headphones) and on accurate bass. Midrange is neutral and can be nudged warmer with the amplification you choose. As I mentioned in my previous post, pairing with high quality amplification is a requirement.

If you want to step back (somewhat) in spend, then the Abyss Diana Phi. There is a current Agon listing for an unopened Diana Phi in the Bronze finish.

The Focal Utopia is my current reference, so I am partial to Focal (as well).

Flagship IEMs are another option, in case you haven't considered.

However --- I'll restate: you need to figure out the right combination of headphone and amplification for yourself.
@ghdprentice Thank you.  Did you do the audiophile-grade upgrade?
@toddcowles

I choose the premium parts upgrade and upgraded all tubes… Takatsuki 300B, Sophia 274B (I love the look and have used them before) and upgraded driver tubes (their offering for driver tubes are a bit different now.
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@toddcowles
If I wanted a headphone-only system, this Linear Tube Audio MZ3 might be my choice (I think I want to use it as a preamp too). I know the Violectric is a fine one. The Pass Labs headphone amp is said to be superb too.

“I can say without hyperbole that in my experience this is a headphone amplifier with few peers at this price point... Highly recommended.”
— Rafe Arnott | Inner Fidelity

LTA: https://www.lineartubeaudio.com/products/microzotl-mz3

Review: https://www.themasterswitch.com/best-headphone-amps
I own Harbeth  speakers, thought McIntosh equipment I owned also sounded mushy (just my opinion folks!) I own Audeze but end up always listening to my Grados. Hope this helps a bit. 
@toddcowles I had the Focal Clear and while It did many things very well, I took a chance on the HiFiman Arya and sold the Clears. During ownership of the Arya, I auditioned at home, with the intention of buying, the Focal Stellia. After about 1 month of going back and forth, I returned the Stellia.
You say you want a headphone with soundstage and more midrange but don’t want analytical and to me the Arya fits that nicely.

I’m driving it with the Pass Labs HPA-1 with Silver Dragon headphone cable and I’m very, very pleased.

Something to consider is The Cable Company. They have a two-week rental period for headphones and amplifiers they have in stock at 5% of the retail price. You can rent multiple products from them and then I believe all of the money you spend on rentals will be put in a pot to be applied to a future purchase.

Not a bad deal.
If soundstage is important the Raal SR1a should be on your list, and pairing those with a nice Class A amp I’d think might be the ultimate given what you’re looking for. It’s also sold paired with a special version of the Schiit Jotunheim so that could be an excellent setup as well and likely much more economical.

“Lower” down the ladder I think you’re definitely on the right track with the Hifiman HE1000se (or Susvara) and the Pontus ll, but for an amp I think the Pass Labs HPA-1 or the Luxman P 750u might give you a little more of the warmth you like while not sacrificing detail. Frankly, I’d also be tempted to try the Singxer SA-1 amp as it may be all you need and save you $$$ you could put elsewhere. While also excellent I’d be a little concerned the Violectric might leave you a little cold and missing a little of that warmth, but that’s just a semi-educated guess so take that for what it’s worth.  Anyway, hope this helps in some way, and best of luck in building a very rewarding and satisfying headphone rig. 
I had a Meze Empy ($3K) + Benchmark HPA4 preamp/headphone amp. I then got a RAAL SR1a and sold the Meze because it was no contest. The RAAL are like 2 channel speakers on your ears. They do not sound like headphones to me. Read the Head-fi thread on the RAAL SR1a for user perspectives on these phones (mostly compared to other headphones).

I have had the RAAL SR1a headphone amp in the house for a few weeks. It is an easy way to get up and running to some sonic bliss. I think they are a combined $7K. They have a new tube based amp being introduced next month.

However, there are other ways to get to the promised land with these headphones. I have not read this whole thread so I do not know if the OP is a ROON user but if he/she is then this is what I recommend.

1) Get the CONVOLUTION filler for ROON (or JRiver) specify made for the RAAL SR1a by Accurate Sound’s Mitch Barnett. It costs $250. Mitch actually did the same for my Thiel CS3.7’s in a small room (my office). Genius level skills on this sound engineer. I spoke with RAAL management on this CONVOLUTION filter and they were very impressed by the description of how it was created. That is the measurements taken and used.

2) I found out that the associated gear is less important after the CONVOLUTION filter was used. However, before the filter I found that the excellent and warmish Gustard X26 Pro ($1500) was the very best DAC I had used with the RAAL SR1a. The SR1a is bright.

3) I owned and tried the following amps with the SR1a
- KRELL K300i integrated amp
- CODA CSiB integrated amp
- CODA #8 amp
- Benchmark AHB2 stereo and mono amp
- D-Sonic M3a 800s stereo amp ($1500)

4) I also bought the CODA 07x preamp which has 2 sets of XLR outputs. I use 1 for my 2 channel and the other to an amp to drive the SR1a. This preamp is magic with the SR1a. Better than the Benchmark HPA4 and the other 2 integrated amps listed above.

The KRELL was the best without the CONVOLUTION filter. I have not heard it with the filter but will do so in 2 or 3 weeks. The AHB2 was the worst without the filter, but with the filter I liked it the best. I even used Audience FrontRow speaker cable with the AHB2 and could hear the improvement over the Audience Conducter SE and Benchmark speaker cable.

I currently use the D-Sonic with the filter and either the Benchmark DAC3B or the Gustard X28 Pro DAC. Most importantly all connected to the CODA 07x preamp. This is almost as good as the other amps and the CONVOLUTION makes this even closer.

If you use the filter you can save some money to get extraordinary sound from the SR1a. A place to learn more on this is AudiophileStyle.com website where the site owner is gaga over the SR1a (like me).

Another place is to come to CanJam in Los Angeles in Sept 2021 to hear the SR1a and compare it to the other competition. They will have the CONVOLUTION filter available to demo.

BTW - I also use the silver headphone cable from RAAL. I found it was better than the good stock cable. I am surprised I like silver on these headphones.
OP, 

Regarding the Focal Clear MG Professional. 

The driver units feature magnesium (hence the MG in the name) These are highly accurate headphones for serious work, but they are bit slow compared to my Pioneer MJ591, Focal Utopia, and Sony MDR-M1ST (Studio Monitor headphone) latest iteration. I don't own the MG...yet! 

There are about 10 more headphones that I might add to my collection. Each of which purport to be studio-quality or audiophile grade/accurate for these tasks.
@mastering92  you're seriously considering adding another 10 headphones to your collection? 
Ten?...

Why on Earth would you need 10 additional headphones?
@devilboy 

Great comment and I appreciate it (no sarcasm here).

Each headphone can offer a new experience. I've become interested in more than a few headphones; mostly because of improvements in miniature transducer (or driver unit) technology. The other reason is claims from companies that I'm curious to investigate. 

It's kind of like collecting high-end watches. Yes, I have that collection too. The purpose of owning all these "things" is simply so I can enjoy them. Having variety in one's life (in any number of ways) elevates quality of life, I think.
@mastering92  Excellent response! You definitely made your case. Thanks!

I also love watches. I don't have many but those I do have, I enjoy.

For 20 years an Omega Seamaster Professional has been my everyday beater.
My father passed away last year and after that, wearing the watch made me think of his final weeks and I didn't want to wear it anymore. I switched to a Hamilton Khaki Field automatic in February of 2020 and I love it.
I also have an Orient.



I would go try and hear a grado headphone with the wood body along with a good headphone amplifier like the grado amp or a quality unit from pass labs, hi-fi man, or luxman. The sound you get will be great, but you will miss the tactile sensation of music being played, which no headphone can deliver.
@devilboy 

Thanks for your response.

Sorry to hear about your Dad. I'm sure he would be proud that you wore his watch. I use a Tissot automatic day/date as my everyday watch. 



@mastering92  Actually it was my watch but wearing it after my father's death made me think of being in the hospital with him for almost two months so I changed to the Hamilton after that.
But thanks.

@devilboy 

Well you were there for him. That's a wonderful thing.

My mother has stage 4 kidney disease, yet her GFR levels are stable. I am actively trying to help with raising those levels. Doctors are telling her to take medications which have negative side effects, so she ditched those Doctors. 

Many of my family members have serious medical conditions and/or allergies...just by the luck of the draw I don't have any. 

All the best! 
I really like Grado cans (and their headphones too) and since I rarely listen to my main system with phones (I do use a simple system with the Grados for bedtime music while reading) I'm fine with the less expensive versions, including the amazing 325e. Just got a 325X to see if they're better, and so I don't have to raid my bedroom system for the phones...run all the way to the other side of the Mansion? No way man...the 325X is a little better, and man...just a great thing...I run either pair with a Schiit Magni 3 (I have 2 of these, which adds up to a Magni 6) and that pairing sounds superb.
Audio-Technica Corporation (Kabushiki Kaisha Ōdio Tekunika) may be a Japanese company that designs and manufactures professional microphones, headphones, turntables, phonographic magnetic cartridges, and other audio equipment. it had been established in 1962 in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan, by Hideo Matsushita as a phonograph cartridge manufacturer. In 1974, the corporate developed its first headphones, the AT-700 series. Interesting modern models include the audiophile ATH-AD series and professional ATH-M/R series.
Dynaudio has always been a high-end hi-fi brand - and it's not looking to give over any of that market any time soon.
@mastering92  sorry for the late reply.  Best wishes and good health to your mother. I hope you all get through that. 




All, thanks for the comments and input.  Tons of info and thoughts to pour over.  
@toddcowles I too have sold off all my two channel, loudspeaker stuff and have allocated all of funds towards my headphone system.
That system now consists of a Metrum Pavane L3 DAC, Luxman p750u headphone amp and HiFiman Arya ’phones.

I chose the Arya because I like the planar magnetic sound. Some people claim the Arya is bright but I’ve never experienced that. To me, they have a velvety smoothness in the midrange that I look for in a good headphone.
The bass has tremendous weight but it’s not the lightning fast, tight, accurate and very detailed bass of the 3 Focals I had here, ( Elear, Clear and Stellia).
Those headphones, especially the Stellia, did many things amazingly well. All three were undoubtedly the most dynamic and hard-hitting headphones I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. Sometimes I really, really like that. I almost felt it in my gut.

So anyway, it’s difficult for me to think what headphone would work best for you when you describe your loudspeakers. It would be easier for me to recommend a headphone with my very limited knowledge in this subject, to ask what it is exactly you want from your headphone.

If you like amazing speed and detail, lightning fast Dynamics, and hard-hitting sound, I would recommend something like the Focals. All of those characteristics get better the further up the line you go. However their  sound stage is slightly too small for me.

If you prefer a very buttery, velvety smoothness in midrange, nicely detailed highs exceptional base response with a wider soundstage, then I would go planar magnetic.
Something like HiFi man or Audeze.

What’s your budget?
@devilboy thanks for the input.  My budget was in the $10 - $13k range.   I’m a little paralyzed over which direction to head and really want to listen to some of these setups.  Hence, I’m plopping my money in my eTrade account and waiting to attend a CanJam, or possibly RMAF.  I didn’t want to, thought I’d move forward easily with a purchase.  But, as many pointed out, you just really need to hear them as there’s not a comparison.  It’s a different listening environment, elements, space…everything is different about the hearing process vs a loudspeaker.  So, rather than forge ahead, I’m waiting.  I’ll likely wait until the 2022 CanJam in Chicago, or the RMAF…global pandemic aside.  
Good decision to wait until you can put some on your head and ears. The comfort factor is a priority, if they aren’t comfortable it won’t matter how they sound.
With your budget I’d buy an amp, a pair of open back and a pair of closed back ‘phones. And maybe some upgraded cables.
@toddcowles understood.
Another option is The Cable Company. You can audition headphones and headphone amplifiers at home for 5% of the retail price for a period of two weeks. I believe whatever you spend on "renting" that equipment will get put into a pot and applied toward your final purchase regardless of what it was you auditioned. You can try 3 headphones and decide to apply those 5% fees towards an amplifier, for example.
Check with them.


That's a nice, healthy budget.

I too am moving away from 2 channel and into a good headphone setup.

I already have the Focal Elegias for a closed back, and I'm waiting on a backordered Schiit Lyr 3.  I plan on also adding a Bifrost 2 and a pair of Meze Empyreans around bonus time.  Hopefully that will do it for me.

Good luck.
A great source of gather tons of Idea thank you so much.

I know you said you don't want a tube setup but the Woo WA6-SE V2 is killer. Only two tubes and a rectifier.  With stock tubes in, rolled the rectifier to a Sofia Princess and the Kennerton Rognir planar Headphones, this setup seriously rivals my Magnepan 3.7. All for just over 5k. Largest soundstage for phones that I've ever heard. One must love the planar sound however, I've had maggies for over 30 years now so it wasn't odd for me to have these. I still have Audeze LCD3 which I'm going to sell, (maybe) and Grado SR125 and GS3000e.  The GS3000e will always be a keeper too.  Good luck. 

@toddcowles

 

+1 on Woo

With the funds you have you can put together a truly phenomenal system.

I have Focal Utopia and Sennheiser 800s headphones, among others. When I got my Woo WA5 the big differences between these two very different headphones disappeared. They were given so much natural sounding power that their individual shortcomings were overcome. If I haven’t mentioned it, you can see my system if you click on my ID. I have had a couple dozen variants as I built the system I have today. The sound is noting short of spectacular. You could be well on your way to it with your budget. With really good electronics, very good headphones start to converge on a very realist sound. Woo can really help you get there... a good streamer and audiophile DAC required as well of course.