I’m fully committed to those Denons, I love them and I’m more convinced than ever they’re the best sealed headphones under $500 (to my ears, at least). I even made the relationship official by throwing the box away.
However, after reading all your “favorite headphone” answers I noticed a couple names kept coming up and I couldn’t resist trying just two more pairs.
Beats Pro by Dr. Dre
These have gotten incredibly popular over the last couple years. I’ve always written them off because it seemed like a marketing gimmick (which it is—a brilliant one) but I wanted to be absolutely sure they weren’t secretly amazing.
By the way, all you kids telling me I should try them, do you realize how old you’ve made me feel? I’m surprised you even know who Dr. Dre is; judging by your profiles none of you were even alive when The Chronic came out.
Anyway, the “Pro” model actually wasn’t bad. As you’d expect, they’re heavily tilted towards the low end and sound best for beat-heavy music. For quieter stuff and almost anything not-electronic they’re just okay, if there’s any definition in the mids or highs it’s being drowned in bass. Of the ones I tried a couple days ago they were closest in experience to the Sony MDR-Z1000, but without the crystal detail. If you only listen to hip hop you’ll probably love them. Lots of punch. Ridiculously good build quality.
Sennheiser HD 650
Oh my god. These are the best headphones I’ve ever heard. I don’t know how else to say it. Everything sounds amazing. Essentially perfect. The only problem is that they’re open-backed, so they’re basically speakers strapped to your head and everyone around you will hate you. Zero sealing. When I fired them up here in the office earlier I got icy glares from all the way across the room.
I never listen to headphones at home so if I can’t use them at work I can’t use them all, which is a goddamned tragedy. I can’t imagine headphones sounding much better. If you’re in the market and you’ll be using them somewhere where you won’t bother anyone (or just don’t care) these are definitely the ones to get. The build quality wasn’t quite as amazing as the Beats, but it couldn’t be a more different set of headphones.
Even my beloved Denons, which sound downright airy compared to other sealed-backs, seemed like slogging through mud after trying the Sennheisers for a while.
Headphones are extremely subjective, if you’re spending more than $100 I highly recommend trying several pairs before you decide on one (by the way, if you’re in New York, J&R has an excellent selection and unusually lenient return policy.) Also, just because one brand has an amazing model doesn’t mean their other models are necessarily any good. I’ve yawned at other Sennheisers in the past, but the 650 is out of this world.
If you’re spending less than $100: Sony MDR-V6, hands down. They sound three times as expensive and the design has gone unchanged for almost 30 years. Classic, excellent headphones.
Closed back: Denon AH-D2000 or B&W P5, depending on your preference. The Denons sound more like standing in a room with great speakers, the B&Ws sound a lot “closer” with a slightly flatter response. Both excellent.
Open back: Sennheiser HD 650. They’ll change your perception of what’s possible with headphones (and sound reproduction in general). I still have yet to hear the high end Grados, but it’s hard to imagine they’d be much better than this. From here on up it’s diminishing returns.