Can headphones ever be as good as high end stereo?

I am absolutely satisfied with the sounds of my current setup but I feel like I'm unable to listen at the volumes I prefer on a regular basis due to the ole spouse. I've been considering switching over to headphones. By selling my current speakers and amps I could easily finance stax 009 phones and a suitable amp, which seem to be regarded as the pinnacle of headphones.

My question is, what would I be losing or gaining in the switch? Right now my setup emits a beautiful wall of sound and I would hate to give that up. Understand that I have never owned a pair of headphones worth more than 80 bucks so I have no idea what good ones sounds like. Almost all source material would come from a pyon ultima table. Thanks
I've had good experience with stax! The biggest difference is imaging inside of your head as opposed to in front of you...the clarity is really out of this world with stax!
Talk to your spouse about your listening habits. Try to reach an compromise about when you can listen and how loud (an SPL meter would help).

I don't know what you system is, but based upon your description of its sound I don't think headphones will make you happy. If you want to give headphones a try, you can get an excellent sounding setup for well under $1k.
Headphones are way easier to try and audition than a home system.

The beautiful wall of sound will be different, more encompassing and less in front of you. Some pricey audiophile phones and/or phone amps may attempt to simulate a soundstage and imaging like a good speaker setup.

You might like it better or worse. Speaker soundstage and imaging are the aspects of sound that will most likely be impacted. All the rest could well be better for much less. It all depends on what you value.

I tend to still prefer my speaker setups when I can listen to them but headphone listening time is on an uptrend for me for practical reasons.

I listen a lot away from the house via Plex Media server, which is a very nice very low cost, high quality option for listening via computer audio and mobile devices.

PLEX mEdia server and web site enables listening via any web browser for free and there are mobile apps for Google Android and Apple mobile devices for only $5 per platform. Its a no brainer to try this alongside ones big buck home system these days and see how it goes.

Yet another reason why the future of audiophiledom as we know it looks to include a lot of change and/or expansion from the old, proven, and often quite expensive tried and true ways.

BEing able to listen at volume you want without disturbing others alone is a great reason to add headphone listening to ones arsenal, and hten just let things play out from there as need be.
The upside of your situation is the recent incease in options of high-end headphones and amps; Stax has more competition. I tried a few at axpona and was really impressed with Audeze LCD-3. The downside is the presentation of headphones is in one's head and does not change as you move your neck. I do not think quality is going to be the issue so much as presentation. That is up to you.
You can, indeed, get great sound from a set of headphones. The experience is quite different, and I personally don't think it is worthwhile trying to chase similar imaging with phones--I accept that phones will present sound as coming from inside my head rather than imaging like speakers (crossfeed circuits, binaural recordings, headphones with drivers that are placed to mimic speakers, etc. really aren't convincing).

I have Stax 007 (Omega II, Mk.1) phones and a Blue Hawaii Special Edition amplifier/energizer. I like this premium combination a lot. I have also heard the 009 phones with this setup. The 009s have better bass, better dynamics, and a more extended top end. But, this comes at the price of sounding brighter and somewhat thinner in the midrange than the 007. Hence, there are tradeoffs and I would not declare one better than the other sonically. Both are reasonably comfortable (the 009 is heavier). The Blue Hawaii amp driving Sennheiser HE60 phones (discontinued) also sounds quite good--smoother and more natural tonal balance, but slightly duller in dynamics than the Stax phones.

For a quite different sound--much warmer, but lacking in the clarity of the Stax phones--I like the Audeze LCD-XC. This closed-back version of the Audeze planar magnetic phones is very nice sounding to me. Audeze phones with a really good amp, such as the Viva headphone amp, would make a killer system. The Abyss planar magnetics sound good too, but, I did not think they warranted the really high price and they are somewhat uncomfortable to me.

For a much cheaper alternative, I liked the top-of-the-line Mad Dog headphones (closed back).

To me, Stax phones border on being too thin and bright and are quite demanding of upstream components. But, apparently, many other listeners demand even brighter sounding phones. If you are one of them, the Sennheiser HD800 headphones will deliver a brighter sound. I personally don't like these phones at all, but, like everything else in audio, this is a matter of taste. You should at least audition these phones and their sonic opposites (Audeze) to get a measure of the range of choices.

Good regional audio shows present great opportunities to hear a wide range of gear. Most shows have a big gathering area dedicated to headphones. This is usually one of the highlights of the show--everyone is friendly and helpful, everything is available for personal trial and the whole scene is enjoyable.
I have older Stax and newer Sennheiser, Audio Technica and Klipsch phones/buds. Each is different and has its charms. If you like the sound of Electrostat speakers or Maagnepan, you will like the Stax and/or other newer ES or planar magnetic headphone options out there as well. Sennheiser tends towards a warmer less bright non-fatiguing kind of sound overall. Klipsch and Audio Technica are both good as well but sound more like most other good phones.
In some ways....better
When choosing phones, don't forget to give how and where you will use them and overall comfort ample consideration in addition to the sound. Like shoes, different styles/designs may be more confortable to wear and work best case by case for different people. That's one big reason among others that there are so many different kinds/styles of phones out there today.
Neither losing nor gaining, just different.

I went through that phase years ago too. The wife complained about the volume levels that I listened at, she prefers quiet, background music levels, so that she can talk with me. So I went the headphone route, she didn't like that either, because she still couldn't talk with me. I suggested a seperate listening room, she didn't like that idea either. LOL! So I asked her which she found to be the least objectionable, and it turned out to be the old way, stereo in the living room.

We have kind of comprimised on the volume levels. I still turn it up a bit more when she's not around, but it is louder than she wants when she is around. As I've told her, we can't all be happy at once, so we take turns. Her choices of TV programs is terrible too, but she has her times holding the remote. I just find other things to do.
That's life being married, it's all about comprimises.
If you haven't already seen it, I think you'll find this review by Chris Martens in "The Absolute Sound" to be informative and helpful.

My Stax experience is limited to an older model, but based on that experience, and consistent with the author's comments, I suspect that the most notable upsides to the current higher end Stax models relative to most speaker-based systems are likely to be cleaner, faster, more accurate transient response, and increased detail and resolution. And putting aside the obvious differences in imaging and soundstaging, I suspect that the most notable downside (depending on your present system) may be some reduction in the "weightiness" of the bass.

And of course there will undoubtedly be differences in tonality relative to your present system, which you may or may not prefer. As others have noted, subjective reaction to any headphone model will tend to vary widely among different listeners, so an audition is essential.

Personally, I find having electrostatic headphones and dynamic speakers to be nicely complementary, and I wouldn't want to be without either.

-- Al
I've always had a much better sound quality experience from headphones than any home or car audio system. I don't have the best gear available. But I can spend a fraction of as much $$$ on headphones and get a better sound than home audio at any price point.

BTW - I have the same problem you do from my spouse and headphones was / still is my solution. After a while I got used to it. I recommend you get something that allows you physical freedom - be able to move around and do stuff with your hands while you're listening - otherwise you may resent it as much as you enjoy it.
I could probably live with the TOTL Stax and call it a day. Even my older lowly smaller STAX Electret design phones are hard to beat, save perhaps in bass extension.

Probably TOTL Sennheiser as well. Maybe others....but not quite as sure. SO many good ones for even just a few hundred $$$s. Can't beat the sound/$$$ value of phones.
Can be, just depends on whether you enjoy sitting listening to headphones or not.
Another good thing about phones is they are likely to sound much like they did in the store when you get them home, with no room acoustics in the equation. That's assuming similar quality headphone amplification in both cases, to the extent needed.

The sound quality of "Audiophile" type phones like those in TAS review Al cited above will tend to be more dependent on amp than say portable phones designed to require less robust mobile amplification.

Plus the cost threshold of top notch headphone amplification for most any phones also tends to be much lower than similar quality speaker amplification due to teh much smaller scale involved.

Its not hard to imagine it a much easier task to drive very small transducers (ie headphones) located up against or even in your ears optimally than it is much larger ones (speakers) at a distance.

ALso full range type drivers are common in phones and no electronic crossover which gives phones a clear advantage in general in terms of phase coherency.
For me, it's not either/or but both/and.

I enjoy listening to my Spendor speakers, and I also enjoy music through my Sennheiser HD800 headphones.

The HD800s were game-changers for me. Like you, I had mainly owned modest headphones before, some basic Grados, and a more expensive pair of AKG 702 (the 65th Anniversary edition). The AKGs made me realize that headphones can be better than I had thought. And now that I have the HD800s, I thoroughly enjoy listening through headphones.

The HD800s have an actual sense of soundstage, unlike headphones that put everything between your ears. They are comfortable, at least on my head. And they sound superb driven by OTL tubes amps, including a modest little Bottlehead Crack and a Woo WA2.

I mainly listen to classical and jazz, and I do like to turn it up when the music demands. The HD800s remain clean at high volumes. (Not ear-damaging levels, of course.) And I don't find them to be bright, at least not when driven by the tube amps I use.

One caveat -- I don't do vinyl. So, I can't say whether record surface noise or turntable mechanical noise would be exacerbated through headphones.

I haven't tried Stax electrostatics--and am in no rush to do so, given how much I like the HD800s.

I might sound like a salesman for Sennheiser but I have no affiliation -- just an audiophile and music lover happy with a purchase.
My solution to the wife volume problem was to buy a ranch-style house. She goes to the bedroom at one end of the house, my listening room is all the way at the other end.

Sometimes the best way to keep it together is to keep yourselves apart!
My first pair of good headphones were Sennheiser HD424s back in the early 1980's. My most recent pair is the larger Sennheiser Momentum. I've listened to them all over the years. The Sennheiser line always place consistently strongly, at most any price point. Audio Technica as well. I have always wanted to like AKGs, and they can be very good, but I have had many poor auditions of those over the years. My sampling of STAX phones is much smaller, but that is the other long time gold standard line I know of, though marketing of these to US has changed considerably over the years. Hard to find in the US to audition these days.

I've listened to a lot of phones in last few years and have heard most of the leading contenders. Lots of useful headphone reviews availble to sort through. You'll find many well liked ones and little agreement on what is best. There are some nice newer lines out there as well, but I have not heard anything there that clearly knocks out the long term leaders. Just more good stuff to sort through and choose from.

I am NOT a Beats fan. Stay away from trendy new lines for the most part, but some are still quite nice.
A rancher is a good solution.

I had my downstairs office insulated when our curent home was built so I can go in there and play as loud as I want anytime in our 3 story modern Victorian style home, but I have given thooght about what to do when the time comes to downsize. A nice rancher just might be the ticket for this and other reasons in retirement.
This component is designed to be used with headphones. When properly calibrated the soundstage will be in front of you as if you were listening to music through speakers. I had the experience of hearing it myself a few years ago and came away quite impressed. At the time I believe the cost was about $3500. They also sell the component in combination with Stax kits. If you are willing to pay $4500 for a set of headphones plus an appropriate amp to drive them which could run you at least a couple thousand more, then this may be an interesting alternative:
Schubert nailed it. You either like headphones or you don't. I don't. I bought a pair of Grado GS1000s, which give me a better sense of space than other that may have better "audiophile" sound. But remember, if you get good phones, you need a good amp and then you're into some $$$.
08-28-14: David_l
I recommend you get something that allows you physical freedom - be able to move around and do stuff with your hands while you're listening.
Good point. I'll mention that on my older Stax Lambda Pro phones the cord is about 8 feet long, and I use it together with an earlier version of this 5 meter Stax extension cable, resulting in an overall length of 24 feet.

-- Al
Different; advantages to each. Your choice of 009 is excellent; they are the best headphones. I don't find as much satisfaction in many other top headphones, but the stax 007 and lambda pros are also excellent. Note that you'll be selling the 009 short by driving them with anything less than a maxed out KGSShv.

Lately I've been splitting time between my 2ch system and 009/007/KGSShv.
Oh, and the Sennheiser hd800 sucks compared to the 009. Stick with Stax.
Unfortunately my speakers rattling the house is too much and I can't win arguments anyway haha. New house seems like an extreme solution lol but if I'm ever in the market I'll be on the lookout for something spread out! I think I'll definitely go stax if I take the plunge. Looking at either the woo wes or the blue hawaii amps to match. Whatever I do I want it to either be great speakers or great headphone setup. I can't comfortably afford both and I don't want to split funds to have only decent speakers and decent headphones. Whatever I do I'm going all in.
Yes it can,but in this case headphone amp or headhpone output in stereo amp matters the most.For example grado ps1000 can have similar visceral impact on ears the way speakers do,but only if amp do that .
Bfin3, your problem with your spouse is not unique. For that reason I have been listening to Stax phones for more than twenty years, starting with Lambda Pros driven by an SRM1/Mk2, and now the Lambda Signatures/SRMT1S tube driver. At a recent audio show, I had the opportunity to hear both the Stax 007 and 009 models. Both of my previous phones have sounded great but the higher Stax models were a revelation. I was struck by how comfortable both models were, how refined the sound and they have a more conventional look than my Lambdas. I have no doubt that I'll be listening to either the 007 or 009s in the future, driven by my SRMT1S.
Charyo, I only listen to phones in bed , a lttle Bach or Mozart to clear my brain before sleep.
That said, the Rega Ear phone amp I got on here for about $100 makes my AKG 701's sound fine to me.
@Bfin3 - Just remember that many of the best phones are open-back and virtually non-isolating. You will hear every outside noise and you have to listen in a quiet environment, just as you would with speakers. Take that into account before you plunge into an expensive headphone setup. There are some good closed-back phones, but just be aware of what you're getting into.

So that this thread doesn't end on a negative note, just try a few high quality phones and you'll learn what many of us already know, i.e. that headphones can give you state of the art sound at a fraction of the price of speakers. A pair of Stax 009s (with driver unit) will cost in the $4-5K range but sound like the best speakers you have ever heard. Remind me again, how much are those high end Wilsons or Magicos?
I had Grado 60s that died after many years, replaced them last year with new SR80is that are amazing...not closed back, not exotic, simply amazing once broken in (that takes a while). I've used countless "cans" for live mixing for years (closed back) as well as for recording, and the inexpensive Grados for when I want to just listen to music on phones, so I say don't be frightened by the low cost...speaking of which, I also have one of those inexpensive little Chinese tube headphone amps (Bravo?) as my preamp doesn't have a headphone I a cheapskate? Yes indeed. I prefer speakers of course...but love them Grados...
In my opinion, I would advise against selling off your speaker system to buy a state of the art headphone system. I have some of the best headphones made today (Stax SR009, Audeze LCD X, HiFiMan HE6, LA7000 and a modified AKG 340) and I enjoy them for late night listening so that I don't disturb my daughter's college studies. I've been into high end headphones for the last 16 years and I've owned just about all of the top cans and some of the top tube and SS headphone amps (Eddie Current Zana Deux SE, Ray Samuels DarkStar, Cavalli Liquid Fire, Luxman SQ-N100). That said, I still rather listen to my speakers by far.

My speakers create a soundstage that even the best headphones can't match. The SR009 are great but depending on the recording, they may not be my first choice. You need to listen to them and some Audeze orthodynamic cans like the LCD X or 3F. The Stax and Audeze sound quite different and which you prefer depends on your preferences. Also, like a previous poster stated most of the top headphones are open so they will leak sound. There are some really good closed cans such as the Audeze LCD XC and the Fostex TH900. You may need closed cans if family members will be in the same room while you're listening.

I recommend that you try to integrate a headphone system into your speaker system like I have done. My A10 preamp also serves as my electrostatic headphone amp for the SR009s. If you decide to go with dynamic headphones instead of electrostatic, you'll have more preamps and integrated amps to choose from. There are many headphone amps that are excellent preamps. A few that come to mind are: Apex Teton, Manley 300B, Ray Samuels B52, and some of the Woo preamps. Also there are many integrated amps that are great headphone amps such as the Cary SLI 80. If you're able to integrate the headphone and speaker system into one system, then you can have the best of both worlds.
Yes, they can. You can contact me if you wish to get more ideas or impressions.

How about Speaker vs IEM vs headphones?

All are high-end models.

btw, jmcgrogan, hope your wife doesn't read your post.

btw, jmcgrogan, hope your wife doesn't read your post.

Why? We've been married for over 32 years now.
Nothing I wrote hasn't been talked about between us.
She is well aware that I do most of my listening when she is not around, and she appreciates that.

I should emphasize the fact that top earphones need a top dedicated earphone amp...the results are stunning.  Plugging earphones into jacks with afterthought headphone circuits just don't work nearly as well.
I liked my headphone (HD800) much more than my previous speakers until I got my current speakers. I don't think the best headphone can't beat really good speakers in terms of the whole listening experience, but headphone can probably be more enjoyable than mediocre speakers.
I believe that high quality sound can be achieved at lower cost with headphones mated to a quality amp, however this experience is no substitute for the 'speaker' experience. I have no need for headphones in my dedicated audio room. At my bedside my headphone system prevails.
This is a no brainer.Do NOT sell a thing if your happy with the sound of your 2 channel system because it can NOT be duplicated by a can based rig!Work out a schedule with the "ole spouse"to get her out of the house long enough for you to enjoy your system the way you want to.
Also invest a small amount in a separate,dedicated headhone system for use when you want to listen & not bother her.There are some fantastic headphones & amps available today that don't cost much $.
Have a look at my little headphone system just for starters & spend time over at going through the buyers guides & user reviews.Good luck & keep us up to date with that new headphone rig!
Keep the stereo you would miss it but add some headphones. 

Good headphones can hang with the best stereos in resolution, tone, dynamic range etc (I do mean the best) but you will lose all of the soundstage. 

A another option to the stax would be the new Focal Utopia headphones that are coming out this month. The only issue with Stax is the amp and amp selection. A more traditional headphones will give you more options.

I'd keep the stereo and try some good modest phones and a decent amp.  After a while you'll know.  I have Senn 600 and AKG Q701 and like them both (although the AKG's really need the tube amp to shine).  My starter amp is a Bravo Ocean which sounds fine.  My wife is out of the house enough lately that I'm listening to my speakers more than the phones.  I would not give up either the phones or the bigger rig.  Other phones to check out in that price range would be Phillips X2/X27 and Beyer 880.
For what it's worth, I just put up a post on my audio blog that's relevant to your original question! It's part of a series I've been writing on my experiences getting back into the world of portable/headphone-based high end. Here it is: 

Good headphones with the right DAC/amp are pretty magical.

Set your standards by listening to a Pono. It’s got one of the best output stages around. Second to this is the UFO DSD DAC’s if you can find them, Blue Coast may still sell them.

At the last California Audio Show I went to, the best and worst sound at the show (speaker or headphone) was from headphone stands. Pono and Blue Coast among the best of them. The absolute best headphone setup was a $5k setup by Audio Visions of SF but I can’t remember the brand. It was a rather wide tube headphone amp on top of an equally large DAC.


Design a vest with transducers built into it to allow you to feel bass while using headphones, and virtual reality 3D glasses with a view of a band or orchestra. You can also use your speakers as headphones by putting them on either side of your head…try lying of the floor between them and covering yourself with blankets so nobody else can hear it…at least until they come to take you away.
Why? We've been married for over 32 years now.

You've said she has bad taste on tv....

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and no speaker will sound like totl headphone. 

headphone do stuff that no speaker/room can do: more resolution, more linear bass.

I echo the thoughts of others...keep your speaker based system if you love it that much. You will really regret selling/trading it and it may build some unhealthy undercurrent of resentment between you and the spouse. My wife is an audiophile too...lucky guy am I to be sure. She DOES go to bed early most nights so....  
- Work out listening times with the wife
- Get a good / excellent headphone rig for when you need the fix and she's up and awake or asleep. A used set of Sennheiser HD600 or HD800 and a tube Woo Audio or Musical Fidelity amp should do the trick for well under $2,000 including quality cables. You can have your proverbial cake and listen/eat it too....

Best regards,