Headphone sweet spot?

Mulling over getting myself some nice headphones for Christmas.

I guess the question is “what’s the sweet spot?” with respect to cost… Spending $4000 is out of the question, but I could see spending $1500. But maybe there’s something really great for less.

I have a pair of open-back Massdrop/Sennheiser HD6XX, which were around $200. They are good for work, as I can hear through them if someone’s trying to get my attention. But I’m thinking I want to find some nice closed-back units. Something I could lose myself in.

I’d be running it through my Audiolab 8000A integrated amp.

Any recommendations?

Focal Clear.

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Like everything else it depends on what you like; treble, bass, detailed/clinical or smoother, relaxed or high energy, etc.

Shure SE 846, or better still the Shure KSE-1200.
I own both and the one I love the most is whichever one I am listening to at the moment.
(The 1200 is better though)

Focal Clear or Elear

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Sennheiser HD800 have a balanced frequency response (to my ears) and are very transparent.

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Thanks for the replies!

OK, Focal Clear gets lots of love. $1500. But they’re open-back, right?

I don’t have a moral opposition to open-back headphones, but just thought I’d look for closed (since the Sennheiser HD6XX units I have were open-back).

I guess this is really important, yes.

I listen to lots of jazz (mostly hard bop, but i like modern stuff too as long as there’s a melody and it’s not freakishly discordant), guitar stuff (everything from Steve Tibbetts to Tony Rice); acoustically excellent rock/jazz/folk (Grisman, Garcia, Wood Brothers, Cockburn, Steely Dan, Little Feat, Dire Straits, Norman Blake); .

Suffice it to say I’m not going to be listening to rap or country pop or dance music.

I don’t need bass to go boom. To feel it is fine, but I want it to be tight.

I like good presence and an engaging soundstage.

I dislike the word “clinical” in this setting. Makes me think that the audio equipment and test results are more important than the music. But, I do want the equipment to make the music come alive and sound so good that I’m surprised and delighted when I listen.

Given your music tastes the Focal Clear’s might indeed be a good fit but they’re open backed. You could probably pick up a used or open box pair of Sennheiser HD 820s in your price range. Closed back and maybe even more aligned with your tastes.

Here’s a short bit on open vs closed from theverge.com… So, maybe open is fine. Sound quality is key. This is for home, and I’m not trying to shut out outside noise. There isn’t much. I have some decent Sony bluetooth noise-canceling headphones for plane travel.


The general rule with headphones is that open-back designs get you the purest possible sound, while closed-back ones keep your music insulated from external noise. The vast majority of headphones on the market today are closed-back, including almost all earphones. They are what people think of when they think headphones: a way to take your music on the move, keep it private, and isolate yourself from a noisy surrounding.

Open-back headphones, on the other hand, are for people who are willing to compromise on versatility and noise isolation for the sake of the best sound. Without a closed enclosure that creates unwanted reverberations inside the ear cup, an open-back headphone design can be focused on improving the acoustics pointed at the ear instead of fixing the problems created by the shell around it.

Personally I would never go with closed but you said you wanted them so…

well your first mistake was assuming I know what i’m talking about :crazy_face:

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No worries, people make the same mistake about me all the time. :smile:

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It depends on what you’re trying to get out of the headphones. For at-home use in a quiet room, sure, open back are great. But if you’re on the go in a noisy environment closed backs are essential.

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Interesting that you are all mentioning the Focal Clears. I own a pair… got them on sale at Upscale for about $1K… I really like them too. They have a really comfortable sound… I was listening to some high-rez John Coltrane last night through my DS Senior to my PrimaLuna HP integrated headphone jack… wow… really nice. Really nice.

I find the sound detailed and comfortable. A really good phone. I moved from Grado RS2 (had a loss of volume in one channel)… and while I was always as Grado fan (owned many over the years), the Clears are a cut above. BTW, they have the drivers a bit away from your head and forward… this creates a wider sound field… still a headphone-field, but a bit more wide. They are also pretty heavy but very comfortable.

The Clears also give you short and long cables. These snap into the phone shells… so I soldered up another cable and have that wired to my Roland RD 2000 keyboard (keyboard connected to a Grado headphone amp). This dual cable system allows me to have my cables all connected to the equipment and ready at my listening positions. I can move to each location and quickly setup without snaking cables.

Regarding the “sweet spot” for price… I will throw out a number: $1K or therabouts. Honestly, I still am surprised at how all of the phones sound so different.


Bruce in Philly

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Well you’ve gotten me very interested in the Clears at this point. I’ll see if I can find them for that $1000 sweet spot like Bruce did!

My headphone setup, for what it’s worth…

The Audiolab 8000A is overkill, but I have it and it sounds wonderful. I could use my Sprout100, or a NAD D7050 digital amp, but the Audiolab sounds way better to my ears. Source is Roon (streaming and local) from the iPad mini into a Topping D50 DAC.

Those phones are the Massdrop/Sennheiser HD6XX that I normally keep at the office. Need to mount a holder on the wall, I reckon.

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If I were in the market for a closed can, I would look at the new Dan Clark Audio (formerly MrSpeakers) AEON 2:

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My experience with headphones this century is rather limited–used to use them a lot to monitor and evaluate and mix recordings in the 'eighties and then didn’t want to wear them at all after that until about four years ago I found I could get in more listening time if I had some.

I think the amplifier plays a really big role in sound of headphones. I have two sets now, Oppo PM-1 and Sennheiser HD800S. Both are different and both sound excellent with the amplifiers I have (Decware CSP3 and Decware CSP2+ – both with 25th Anniversary mods, and Decware Taboo Mk III and Mk IV). The Sennheiser are probably the most neutral–but not sterile and the Oppo are easier to drive and warmer. I like them both. . . . The Sennheiser are more comfortable to wear for a long time.

I’ve used both with my Oppo UDP-205 and they sound good, but the sound is clearly better with any of the other amplifiers. A dedicated headphone amplifier is a wonderful thing.

This is an interesting notion.

Would you say that a dedicated headphone amp is generally BETTER than an integrated amp that also can drive headphones? As above… neither the NAD nor the Sprout is nearly as satisfying as the Audiolab 8000A. All have headphone jacks, but the Audiolab sounds MUCH better.

I know nothing about the amplifier that powers the headphone jacks. (Is it separate from the amp section that powers the speakers? I have no idea.)

I could certainly pick up a reasonably priced headphone amp (Schiit’s products come to mind), but would that really be better than the headphone stage of a good British integrated amp? (I do like the size of a headphone amp. As you can see, the Audiolab is monstrous for that purpose. And it’s only powering headphones at this point.

I don’t have specific answers for you as I haven’t used an integrated amp with a headphone jack for decades, and my readings about this lead me to believe that there are so many different topologies at work with amplifiers with headphone jacks that a blanket statement would be ill advised. Some amps have a headphone jack as an afterthought, some have dedicated op-amps or circuitry well thought out for headphones. All my reading tells me that the Oppo UDP-205 has a very well-designed and well-regarded headphone section, but to be honest it is outshined by the Decware amps in the case of sound stage, dynamics and depth of tone. . . .The BHK offered by PS Audio is said to have a great headphone section, but I have not heard these.

I had toyed with the idea of selling two of my Decware amps and just using the Oppo for my principal headphone listening. I listened only to the Oppo for a few weeks and really liked it. Then I stuck in my Decware CSP3 to use, fed by the Oppo, and there was no contest. I didn’t want to listen to the Oppo via headphones any longer. It’s a source, not an integrated amplifier, so I can’t say what that would be like. I’ve been using tubed preamps and amplifiers since the late 'nineties. I did briefly use a Peachtree Grand Integrated for a spell and that had a headphone section designed by BHK that is well-regarded. Sounded good, but I have been spoiled with the Decware tubed amplification, it was no contest compared to that.

I have no experience at all with British integrated amps.

Ok that is gorgeous.