Best Headphone system under $1000???


Hi all,
I've been a 2 channel audiophile for 30+ years, and I'm ready to liquidate the big system and simplify.
I'm interested in finding a really nice set of headphones and a headphone amp, to pair with my DAC and MacBook based Tidal streaming source.

Interested in staying within the $1000 range (or under) for headphones and a dedicated headphone amp/preamp.
As far as tastes go, I prefer a "musical sound" to the more hyper detailed hifi/neutral sound. I enjoy jazz, funk and R&B, classic rock, and some classical, so I'm hoping for a headphone system that is slightly warm and has good soundstaging.

For reference, my big system has Vandersteen 2CE Sig 2s, Odyssey Kismet amp, and a nice 6SN7 tube preamp from JE Labs. I like the full, colorful, dynamic sound of this rig and hope I can replicate it in a headphone set up. 

Any recommendations would be very much appreciated!
Thanks!
Lincoln
lincnabby
I really like my old Stax Electrostatic headphones and their amp to drive them.    I'll admit I am biased toward them, but it wouldn't hurt you to start your listening / shopping experience with them and move on from there.  

Do check out headphone systems at twice your budget so you know what you are missing out, if anything.   At least, if you do discover the difference, you can make an honest judgement. 

Be careful though, it is very common  to do permanent hearing damage with headphones as pumping too much SPL in the tiny ear canal is easy to do.
For open back headphones, in general if you can't carry on a conversation with someone in a normal voice at 3 to 4 feet, the phone volume is too loud.  Turn it down!
I'm not sure if it's reasonable to expect to "replicate" what you have in a headphone system, the experience of listening to music through speakers and headphones is very different.  Your budget allows for some decent components. 

If you're willing to buy used, consider the Audeze LCD-2.  They are detailed, but on the warm side and have good bass and will sound great with the types of music you enjoy.  You can get some new earpads for a set of used of headphones if you're squeamish about buying used.  The Audeze ones are about $100, there are some nice aftermarket ones out there for less.

If you prefer new, check out the Hifiman HE-560.  They are similar to the LCD-2, but are harder to drive and will require a more powerful headphone amp.  Another great set of headphones is the Focal Elear (or Elex from Massdrop).  These are more "neutral" than the other two I've mentioned, but are very detailed and easy to listen to.

An outstanding headphone value that I recommend looking at is the Massdrop Sennheiser HD-6XX headphones.  These are super comfortable and sound great and are only $200.

Like speakers, the headphone is going to impart more to the sound signature than the amp, but proper amplification is important.  I don't have any suggestions in your budget range, most of my amps cost more than that.  If you can find a used  Musical Fidelity M1-HPA or M1-HPAP, that's an inexpensive amp that I have owned that has a lot of power and sounds good.
The system I use and can therefore recommend is Focal Elears and Schiit Jotunheim.
The system I use and can therefore recommend is Focal Elears and Schiit Jotunheim.


I was going to mention Schiit, but I'm not familiar with the models that would fit in the OP's budget.  I have a Mjolnir 1 and it's a great amp.  If the Jotunheim is close in terms of sound quality and performance, that's definitely a good option to consider.
Grado RS-1 or RS-1i or RS-1e Reference headphones plus Grado headphone amp, either battery powered or not.
A little over $1k new but it should do it.
Get the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pros, with a  Monolith by Monoprice Desktop Headphone Amplifier and DAC with THX AAA Technology (Dual AKM 4493 DACs & Dual AAA-788 Modules)

These 2 come in at $1100 total, but you CANNOT do better than this combo at that price
Beyer Dynamics T1
Sennheiser HD 800
If you have an old receiver or integrated with a headphone jack, use that until you save another $800-$1000 for an amp.
I believe there are some trickle-down technology benefits from some of the companies that offer megabuck phones, i.e. Focal, Hifiman, Sennheiser and others, in their lesser-priced models. I would start with used phones in my price range and move up from there. Try to hear as many as possible before buying the pair you will probably use for many years. In my experience, I started with Stax Lambda, moved up to Lambda Pros years later, and now use Stax 009s w/T1S tube driver unit. Again, try to buy phones you believe you can live with for many years. You can always upgrade later by adding a dedicated tube amplifier when your budget expands.
JDS Labs Atom as the amp: $100 (almost as good as the THX 789).  
Topping D10 as the DAC: $90 (or Schiit Modi 3 for $100).  
  
Leaving $900: 
Well, at $1000 the HiFiMan Ananda are good, or if you don’t mind used, see what others are selling. The Focal Elsar are $650 and supposed to be awesome.
I can help you. I have owned a ton of headphones. 

The probelm with going over to forums like head-fi is a lot of the people do not have any good two channel experiance for reference and get used to the colored sound of headphone and make questionable recommendations, Imo of course...

Your Vandersteen 2CE Sig will be far more neutral than a musical set of headphones. A lot of the popular headphones now are crazy dark so you might need a more neutral headphone than you think. 

Anyway I would without hesitation recommend the Focal Elex for $700. It is from a company called mass drop that does bulk buys and adds some of their own design changes. It basically sounds the same as the $1500 focal clear but with a hint less sub bass. 

It has the technicalities to hang or better headphones in the $1000-$2000 range. I also own the HD800S $1700, LCD-X $1200), Grado PS500e $600 and I would choose the Elex as my only headphone if I had to. 

The tonal balance of the Elex is that the bass from 30-150 has about a 3 dB boost and the highs are very detailed but a little shelved down. Some would call them neutral in the highs but I would not. The mids have a slight rise at 1-2k so vocals pop out a bit which is nice. They are easy to drive and can run off an iPhone but still scale well with good electronics. 

The Elex have more bass and softer highs than my Thiel 2.4 for reference, and tonally I would say is close to the sonus faber Olympica iii. A little round and a little soft with leading edge impact in the sub base but very very good at the same time everywhere else. 

https://www.massdrop.com/buy/massdrop-x-focal-elex-headphones?mode=shop_open&utm_source=shopping...

Some quick comments below. 

HD800S (used in your price range), weak bass and recessed mids can make these sound thin and bright. Crazy good soundstage. Almost as good as a near field speaker setup. But I would pass based on your comments for musical tates. 

LCD-2C. Very rolled off highs but ruler flat from 20hz-1k. Crazy good sub bass with great leading edge sub bass impact. Pretty soft everywhere else though. Think magnepan softness...  the vocals sounded wonky to me and I could not get passed it. The LCD-X sounds about the same with more balanced highs (still shelved down) and about twice the price. They also have odd mids and I can’t realy recommend them unless you value bass detail/impact above all else. 

Grados, a hard pass for your tates. Very aggressive sound with forward mids and highs. Bass rolls off early. I really like the PS500e (darkest of the grados, still bright) but is easily outclassed on technicalities by these other headphones. 

Sennhieser HD650/HD660s. The long running reference headphone any only $300ish. Mass drop sells a version for $200 I think. They are good but a little boring and lack impact/dynamics. The Elex is turned about the same and much punchier and fleshed our across the entire frequency range. With a VERY good amp you can get dynamics out of the HD650 but not worth the effort. The Elex is already dynamic...

So all in all I would choose the Focal Elex for a good balanced yet warm sound with good sound stage only bettered by the HD800S sound stage. The LcD-2C or X if you value great sub bass and bass definition above other technicalities, HD650 if you want something cheep and already own a good amp.
Wow guys! I truly value all of your feedback! 
I’m definitely checking out all of the possibilities that are available on Massdrop. It seems like a great place for dipping my toe in the headfi pool. 
The Focal cans and the Sennheisers were two that I was looking at closely. 
James63- I especially appreciate your way of comparing different cans to speakers I’m familiar with. My initial impulse was to get Massdrop HD6xx and pair them with the Massdrop Cavalli CTH headphone tube amp. Has anyone heard this combo?
Net cost for above would be $550. 
However, the Elear and Elex has piqued my interest. Especially if I could drive them with my iPhone X when I want to be portable. 
I have a decent DAC already- MHDT Stockholm 2. 
Any further advice or suggestions is most welcome. 
I owned the HD650 and ran them off of a Benchmark DAC2 HDR which has a pretty high power class A amp in it. The combination was pretty boring and lacked dynamics. The lack of dynamics is the biggest issue for a speaker guy. No headphone gets it right. Just something that comes with the territory. I have not heard the mass drop amp. 

For me me personally I would take the Focals Elex on a mid priced amp over the HD650s (same as the HD6XX I believe). Some people run the hd650s on crazy expensive amps and they say it helps but it is just not for me. The focals get up and go even out of a phone (but need a better amp to pull out all the details and soundstage).

 I just use a chord mojo and phone these days for my headphones. Desk top stuff sounds better I guess but not as much as you would think. Just depends on if you listen to the details or the music...

Do NOT buy the focal Elear. It is terrible! Worst headphone I have ever owned. It has a 25db dip in the upper mids and is super bassy. I hated it when I owned it. Oddly the Focal Elex is just the Elear with pads from the focal clear more or less and it sounds totally different. It is like putting your speakers in a very bad room then moving to a very good room. 


I agree with the comparison between the Elex and the HD-6XX, but would not call the HD-6XX boring.  I guess one man's smooth and easy to listen to is another man's boring. The Elex is definitely better, but the HD-6XX is a lot of headphone for the money. What I like most about the HD-6XX is how light and comfortable they are.
Stax L300 Limited Edition would be my vote for under 1k with an energizer.
Big_greg

Agreed and good point. I think a lot of classical guys would appreciate the HD650/HD6XX and they are a steel. They were $350 10 years ago and they might even be cheaper now. I wish the same could be said about the speaker market prices...
@james63 The HD-6XX are $199.
Update. 
I found a pair of Senn 6xx on my local craigslist for $160. I think I’ll give them a try. Also will probably try out the Cavalli CTH from Massdrop for $299. 
I’m a tweaker by nature so this will probably end up being just the beginning of experimentation. 
I wish I could find the Focal Elex somewhere used. Gotta sell some other stuff before i start dropping larger amounts of cash. 
I’ll update you all on this thread as to my impressions on this first combo. 
Thanks again to all!
@lincnabby

That Massdrop tube amp is decent, but the JDS Labs Atom is better and cheaper. It may or may not be audible, but that Massdrop tube amp leaks power supply noise (multiples of 60Hz), so a power conditioner with noise filtration may be warrented, whereas the JDS Labs Atom does not have this issue.
Lincnabby,

You will like the HD6XX.They may not wow you at first but they are excellent with no major issues that so many other headphones have.

I am always interested to hear the perspective of headphones from someone into speakers.

I started with headphones in college and moved to speakers for about 15 years. I tried to go back to headphones after owning a good speaker system... I almost pulled it off but in the end I miss the impact/slam of the speakers. Most people miss the sound-stage.

I had a good two year stretch where I just used headphones (by choice) 90% of the time but now I am back to speakers most of the time and only use headphones if the kiddo is sitting with me (she often does) in my audio room.

Headphones will show you what is wrong with your speaker system and your speaker system will show you what you are missing with the headphones.
I am using a pair Grado RS2e with a Rupert Neve RNHP headphone amp and it is a great sounding combo.
One of the great things about the HD-6XX is that since the HD-600/650 have been around forever there are a lot of aftermarket accessories for them - cables, earpads, etc.  Putting some nice earpads on mine made them a lot more comfortable.  I didn't notice a huge difference in sound quality as some claim, but the comfort level went up.  You may need to purchase a plate, depending on which earpads you get.  Check out modhouseaudio.com for those.  I don't remember which earpads I bought, but there are a number of choices out there including Dekoni, ZMF, Brainwavs, and more.
+1 for the JDS Labs Atom for $99
Thanks again guys!
My impulse control failed miserably as I just bought a pair of the 6xx’s and also saw a decent deal today for the Focal Elex’s, so I made an offer. It will be fun to compare both. 

Regarding amps, I’m planning on checking out the JDS Labs recommendation. Is this just a good match with the Sennheisers or would it mate well with the Focals too?
I understand that the Focals are more efficient. 
Also- any opinions on the Bottlehead Crack with Speedball mod kit? 
Going DIY to save on a possibly good amp sounds like fun. But not sure about impedance matching. So much to learn. 
Hopefully with all of your help I will avoid potentially expensive mistakes. 
I hear the Bottlehead’s are awesome, but you are talking about much more $$ and you’ll have to build it from the kit.
For $99 nothing is better than JDS Labs Atom (well, the monoprice Liquid Spark is nearly identical to the Atom sound quality wise, so they say) so you can’t go wrong either way. I know the Schiit Magni for $99 is also a tremendous deal, but I hear the sound quality may not quite be up to par with the Atom or the liquid spark. I love Schiit Audio overall though, great products.
I’m now in a bit of a conundrum. I’ll be getting the Focal Elex cans soon, and also have the Senn HD6XX. Wondering if I should just be frugal and get the JDS Labs Atom amp for starters to listen to both?
Since I don’t have the Elex yet, I’m not certain, but imagine they’ll be the ones I keep. I like the liquid sound of tubes and have a tube based DAC. Do you think the Atom and Elex with tube DAC will suffice?
Ultimatley, I know my ears will be the final judge. Still more opinions are welcomed. 
Also- it sounds like the BH Crack might not match well with the more efficient Elex. Does that sound correct? 
I’m such a newbie to head-fi...
I would get the JDS labs first and call it good unless you can think of a reason to get something different. It should drive both headphones fantastically.
You can get more ideas from reddit
https://www.reddit.com/r/headphones

If you want to try more headphones I recommend Beyer Dynamics. Dt1990 is said to be very good and details. I have the Amiron Home which are a bit softer. They are both probably better than your HD6xx but not as good as the Elex.
I was able to buy Cary HH-1 and Sennheiser HD 700 for less than $1,000 in total, each new from manufacturer just by keeping an eye out and jumping when the opportunity arose. Cary had a flash sale on the HH-1 for Christmas 2017...

I am quite impressed with the combination. When they died, I replaced the stock Electro-Harmonix 6922EH with Genalex -Gold Lion E88CC/6922 for marginal improvement in tonal qualities.

Most people find these Sennheisers too bright, but this amp curbs that in just the right way. The sound is lively, tight bass, revealing and seemingly neutral while still having that tubey je ne sais quoi. 
The Elex will be effected by the amps output impedance more than the HD6XX (80 ohms vs 300)

As the output impedance goes up the bass will get louder (also effects damping) and this is probably not what you want with the Elex as it is already a little warm. Typically tube amps have higher output impedances than solid state amps but there are no absolutes.

I have never tried mine on a tube amp and honestly I am not to up and up on my tube amp knowledge.

Here is a detailed article on amp impedance’s effect on headphones.

https://www.innerfidelity.com/content/musings-headphone-amplifier-output-impedance
Grado RS-1s with their battery powered pre-amp.
Enjoy a great hobby, here’s my two cents...

I currently have the HiFiman Anandas, they are right at the 1k price point.  They are huge, but light weight.  Sound is amazing, best I’ve owned.  They can run easily off a phone but as with most, sound better with better DACs/Amps.

I’ve had Audeze LCD-X (way too heavy, ok sound), the Massdrop HD-6xx (ok but un-dynamic sound, no-go with a phone), and still own as a back-up Audioquest Nightowls, which sound great but have been discontinued as Audioquest got out of the headphone business.  They are a great used bargain if you can find them, usually $150.00 to $200.00.

Just for info, I use a Mytek Brooklyn DAC+, which is a DAC/Amp combo, and listen through a balanced set-up.  Source is a Dell Desktop Windows 10 with Tidal, and more recently Qobuz, as my music sources, both at the highest quality available.  I have a LG V30+ Android phone and an Audioquest Dragonfly DAC/Amp that I sometimes use for late night listening, often wirelessly with Bowers and Wilkens PX noise cancelling headphones.  The phone transmits the high quality Apt-X HD version of Bluetooth, which the B&W headphones accept.  Very happy with the SQ of the headphones, but they could use a bit bigger earpieces for my big ears!
The amp in the previous post would be a good buy. I have the M1 HPAP and it's a solid performer. It's only good for connecting source components though, the USB is not very good. 
Horses for courses, Beyer for classical, Grado for rock and Senn for everything .

THE oldest model still sold by anyone is Beyer DT990, was great on
acoustic music decades ago and still is !Also cheap as these things go .

A pair with  Beyer A 20 head amp puts me to sleep most nights ,both together cost me less than 500$ on here and don't even think I want something else .
@bstatmeister or @mzkmxcv-
does the JDS Labs Atom Amp require a separate preamp for me to run it with my MHDT DAC? I’m hoping not, as it seems like many of the HP products combine components, such as amp/pre/dac. 

Im also wondering if there’s an amp/pre combo I should consider since I could easily unload my non-head-fi DAC for $600 or $700. As per usual, so many variables to consider...
If you want dac built in to amp (all in one), likely nothing better for the money than the massdrop THX AAA 789. I think it's right around 500 bucks, but from what I understand it is a lightning quick amp that makes for superb Dynamics.

Otherwise, I would probably get a Schiit modi (DAC) 99 bucks, to go with the JDS Atom (amp) also 99 bucks. No preamp needed since we are talking about headphones not normal 2 channel stereo.
I have older 2CEs and an Odyssey Khartago. PM me if you're putting your system up for sale! (" For reference, my big system has Vandersteen 2CE Sig 2s, Odyssey Kismet amp"). The Kismet intrigues me!

As for headphones, I love my Sennheiser 650s, and the Schitt headphone amps are wonderful. To do a lot better I think you'd have to spend at least 2X as much.
I made the switch to headphones a year ago and haven't looked back. The musical signature of a good headphone system is that you enveloped by sound. Traditional speaker systems are characterized as the listener is sitting in the first rows, or the orchestra seats, etc. With a a good headphone set-up you are is sitting in the middle of the performers themselves. I listen to jazz and classical. My headphones are Massdrop HD-6xx. ($200) My amp is Woo Audio WA6 1st gen. I use Sylvania VT231 (6SN7) as driver tubes. Lots of air and prat. Good 
Continued...
Expect to pay around $500 for a used WA6 1st gen. (The newer 2nd gen. will not accept 6SN7's even with the necessary adapters. But you may be fine anyway.) You will need around $200 plus, for the adapters and tube upgrades. One nice thing about the well reviewed WA6 is that it will work with both low & high impedance headphones.
Thank you for the info @umn 
I will find it hard to not live with that 6sn7 sound. 
I’m enjoying the Focal Elex right now with my tube based MHDT DAC, and a temporary solution with an old Yamaha receiver as I await a JDS Labs Atom HP amp. I also have Senn HD6xx cans. 

I prefer the Elex on this non-ideal system, but still would like more of the warmth and soundstage of tubes. I’ll update once the Atom arrives. 
@lincnabby

The $770 Monoprice Liquid Platinum is a hybrid amp, the $100 Monoprice Liquid Spark is solid-state.

Also, the tube really does nothing, the frequency response is flat and the output impedance is “normal”, so it will not add any warmth (bass boost due to high output impedance, and possibly an engineered treble roll-off) compared to a true tube amp.

____

As for a preamp for the Atom, the Atom already is one, it has a volume knob and can gain th incoming signal if needed (the output of your DAC shouldn’t need gaining).
Very interesting discussion. I’m rather new to phones (speaker guy) and just bought the Beyer DT 990 Pro with the Topping DX3 Pro dac and amp. After googling and for a start. I like it but would be fine to have your opinions. I also have the AKG (Quincy) 701 which have no warm at all. Just a precise working tool maybe. I find the DT 990 a little smaller in soundstage and a little less emphasis on the mids than the AKG 701. The AKG can easily be a bit too much for long-time listening. The DT990 for me non-fatiguing but still very clear and well-balanced. And very very comfortable. However, based on this short experience headphones will never ever be instead of speakers :-) But is a fine reference for evaluating your speaker sound.
@gosta

https://www.rtings.com/headphones/tools/compare/akg-k701-vs-beyerdynamic-dt-990-pro/326/329?usage=49...

They indeed show less outout at around 1kHz and a wider “soundstage” for the AKG. Take note that their definition of imaging and soundstage are not like the definitions for speakers, they use “imaging” in regards to reproducing what’s in the track and “soundstage” in regards to emulating listening to stereo loudspeakers in a room. They rate the AKG as more comfortable (less clamping force), but do also show the Beyerdynamic as being more breathable, which also factors into comfort. 
@ mzkmxcv 
thanks a lot!
Actually I got the Q701 so they have the same rating as the Dt990 but I can assure you they are very different! Didn't know there's so much fuzz with the upper registers in phones.
Headphones just like speakers all sound very different from each other. 

IMO I would tell you headphones are better than speakers for all things other than visceral impact and sound stage. Do I enjoy headphones more? No I value sound stage too and impact too much. 

But some of these new headphones really are special. Keep in mind that a pair of headphones is pretty much a microphone in revirse. One drive, no crossover, controlled environment, crazy efficient, less box/housing noise, etc. 

some headphones are a total mess though (very colored) and I think just now in the last few years with all the portable music craze we are starting to see real improvements in the highend headphone market. I would argue high-end headphones are just now starting to be made. 

For years you bought sennhisers or grados for the most part. Now you have startups pushing limits and big power houses like Focal pushing the state of the art. 

Focal’s first try pretty much equaled or bettered (IMO) what was out in the passed. It will be interesting to see how they push forward over the next few years. 

@gosta 
 
For Rtings, never look at category ratings, look at each specific test. The AKG’s have much better soundstage, but they also have less bass, so their combined rating is similar.
I use phones for late night reading mostly, and after wearing out some very old Grado SR60s (I like the Grado "house sound") I replaced them with SR80s...improvement for sure...running an old iPhone that still connects with the net as a source. I recently bought a couple of Schiit Magni 3 amps (for bedroom and main system) and Grado SR325e aluminum body phones...amazing SQ that surprised me really, and they sounded great immediately with a world of difference over the el cheapo 60s and 80s. Found some "G" (large over-ear pads with hole in the middle, sold with top of Grado line phones, and 50 bucks from Grado) ear pad clones for around 12 bucks shipped from China...very comfy at least compared to stock ear pads.
Headphones are definitely a personal taste thing .   Hadn't used phones in years and stopped into Q Audio in Boston one day at lunch.  Tried on several Grado models from the 125s to the GS2000 and bought a pair of RS2e that day.