5 Headphones That You Should Check Out Before Buying Beats
High quality audio is essential to the life of any true music lover. We all love hearing our favorite acts on incredible sound systems at clubs and festivals, but going to a show shouldn’t be the only place you hear good quality sound.
I see way too many EDM fans listening to music on laptop speakers, or in the crappy earbuds that came with their phone. And perhaps even worse, those who do make the effort to spend some cash on proper headphones get caught up in the slick marketing and celebrity endorsements and end up buying Beat by Dre.
By any standard, Beats are overpriced for their mediocre sound - and there are many vastly superior options out there for around the same price. So I decided to do a little roundup of 5 headphones that sound immeasurably better than Beats, in approximately the same price range ($100-$450, depending on the model of Beats, based on prices listed on the Apple Store website).
[Though any pair of headphones will benefit from pairing with a good headphone amp, all the cans on this list are reasonably low impedance, and should work acceptably well without an amp, plugged directly into a phone, iPod or laptop’s headphone jack - with the possible exception of the K702]
The HE400S is an over-ear, open backed studio headphone with planar magnetic drivers. They have incredibly detailed and accurate frequency response, to the extent that they can be used as a primary monitoring source for producers who can’t use studio monitor speakers. I use them in my studio as a reference against my main studio monitors, though I would be comfortable mixing and mastering in them alone if I didn’t have access to an acoustically treated studio with monitors. The only place I find the HE400S lacking for electronic music is in the very low bass, below 60hz or so. They do reproduce the sub bass accurately, but it’s somewhat muted compared the rest of the spectrum.
Unlike many higher end open backed studio headphones, the impedance on the HE400S is quite low at 22 ohms, making them very easy to power and able to produce very loud playback without a separate headphone amp. They are quite large (but light and comfortable), and because they are an open design they aren’t suited for use in noisy environments or places where bleed from the headphones will bother other people - so they aren’t the most versatile. But for the $299 price tag, they are an incredible value that I would recommend to any aspiring producer, or anyone who wants incredibly accurate, detailed sound for home listening.
HE400S on HiFiMAN website
The K702 is another open back studio reference headphone. They are most known for their incredibly large, spacious soundstage, and detailed midrange. They don’t have the bass extension of the HE400S or the closed-back headphones on this list, so they come up a bit short for electronic music and other bass heavy styles, but they are excellent for pop, rock, or classical.
As with the HE400S, they are large, open back cans so they don’t have the versatility of a closed design, but they are very light and comfortable, and provide probably the most impressively 3 dimensional listening experience you’ll find in this price range. They are the highest impedance of any of the cans on this list, so they require more power to drive and might not give adequate volume for use with a phone or iPod if you like listening very loud. The price on these varies, but they and their very similar sister the K701 can be found for around $200-$250 if you shop around a bit.
K702 on AKG website
Audio Technica ATH-M50x
The M50x is an incredibly versatile closed back studio headphone, that can be found in professional studios all over the world. They won’t have quite the open sound stage or detail of the K702 or HE400S, but they still have very accurate frequency response and overall well balanced sound.
Because they are closed they are quite versatile, allowing for use as DJ headphones, for vocal tracking, or generally in noisy environments where isolation is wanted. Plus they are more portable, and the least expensive pair of cans on this list ($125 on Amazon currently). If you’re looking for your first pair of professional quality headphones, the M50x is an excellent choice.
ATH-M50x on Audio Technica website
Ultrasone PRO 900
The PRO 900 from Ultrasone is another closed headphone, but unlike the M50x, it’s more specialized and less of an all purpose reference headphone. That’s not to say it’s bad in any way, and in fact might be preferable to EDM fans specifically for one major reason: bass. The PRO 900 has some of the best bass you will find in this price range ($290), with deep, powerful, and accurate bass response down to the very lowest notes. Unlike the messy, boomy, overemphasized bass you’ll get with Beats, these cans give you tight, punchy, musical bass like what you’d hear from a high end club sound system. They also have a very clear, sharp high end, and the combination makes them particularly appealing for EDM listening.
They aren’t as suited to studio reference use as the other cans on this list, as they are a bit lacking in the crucial midrange and overall neutral frequency response - but they make amazing DJ headphones, and will satisfy even the most avid of bass lovers. With an impedance of 40 ohms they should work passably when plugged directly into a phone or iPod, but because the cable terminates in a 1/4” jack and requires an (included) adaptor to plug into an 1/8” jack, they are probably not the best choice if your primary concern is portable listening.
PRO 900 on Ultrasone website
These are the only cans on this list that I haven’t personally used, but I felt it was appropriate to include them because they have received so many glowing reviews. Hopefully I’ll get my hands on a pair of these soon and be able to update this article with firsthand impressions. (And I have used Audeze’s incredible LCD-3, but those are ridiculously outside the price range of this list.) Audeze has quickly become a leading name in high end headphones, thanks to the incredible success of their earlier models, but the Sine represents their first foray into the sub-$500 price range - and from all the reviews I’ve seen, they appear to be a smash hit. They are a planar magnetic, closed back, on-ear design that allows for versatility and portability, while still preserving much of the legendary Audeze sound.
Reviews indicate that they aren’t really aimed at studio reference use but rather at general listening, favoring a lush and pleasing sound over the neutral, clinical accuracy of more studio-focused cans. Audeze is known for their amazing bass extension, and apparently the Sine carries that legacy. If my experience with the LCD-3 holds true on the Sine, they will give you all the bass you could ever want. They aren’t cheap, coming in quite a bit above anything else on this list at $449 (or $499 with Apple Lightning connector with built in 24-bit DAC), but they are the most luxurious in terms of build quality and design. If you’ve got the cash to spend, and you’re looking for a portable headphone with world-class, gorgeous sound, the Sine should probably be at the top of your list.
Sine on Audeze website
[Disclaimer: Perception of sound is subjective. There are as many opinions about headphones as there are people with headphones. This list is in no way intended to be comprehensive or authoritative. It's recommendations and suggestions based on my own experience and perspectives - YMMV.
Also, regarding burn-in: some manufacturers and many audiophiles recommend letting new pairs of headphones "burn-in" to reach their full sonic potential, by playing music or noise through them for many hours, anywhere from 50 to several hundred. When I get a new pair of headphones I usually leave them playing Noisia and Tipper albums on repeat for a week or so at moderate volume. I've never seen convincing scientific evidence that it makes a difference, but in some cases my perception has been that it does.
Regardless, I'd recommend not dismissing a pair of headphones immediately just because your initial impression of them is less than you were expecting. It might be that your ears need to get used to them, or it might be that some physical changes need to happen to the drivers - but either way, it's often the case that spending a bit of time with a good pair of headphones will make you like them more.]