Audiophiles generally agree that for many headphones, especially those in the upper price range, the price-performance ratio varies widely across different models. The timbre and sound signature, which characterize a certain audiophile headphone, are even more varied. As such, to make the right choice, audiophiles usually look for specific characteristics and parameters.
This article presents 5 characteristics that most audiophiles look for when purchasing high-fidelity headphones: clarity and tone, soundstage, imaging, proper transitioning, and instrumental separation. As such, audiophile headphones have a sound that evokes emotion and the ability to bring you closer to the talent with clear and incredibly detailed sound.
- What to look for in an audiophile headphone
- Other factors to consider when buying an audiophile headphone (Technical specifications)
- Should you buy high-fidelity headphones the audiophile way?
- FAQ about audiophile headphones characteristics
What to look for in an audiophile headphone
Audiophile headphones go beyond what your average pair of cans can provide by providing an exceptionally natural sound, with a wide frequency response and low distortion. Compared to regular headphones, common features are dynamic drivers that create a balanced audio range and solid materials for durability and long-lasting performance.
In addition to the technical specifications you should look for in a headphone, some characteristics specific to audiophile headphones distinguish them from regular headphones.
An audiophile headphone should deliver enjoyable sound quality
Not all audiophiles are the same; therefore, not all audiophiles will prefer the same headphones, so finding headphones that sound good may seem like vague advice. Some prefer bass-heavy audiophile headphones like the Fostex TH900 and Sony Z1R, while others like the detailed-oriented Sennheiser HD 800 S audiophile headphones.
Sound quality is indeed a subjective matter. However, while some people like to listen to their music loud and clear, others prefer to listen at a lower volume. Either way, the best headphones should give you clear, natural sound quality that matches your preferences, with minimal distortion.
Most audiophiles prefer music and sound to be enjoyable. It’s not about price, value, or technology. It’s all about the sound you hear and feel. That’s why you must know your preferences for headphone sound quality before you decide which product to buy.
If you don’t know what you like, you can experiment with different audiophile headphones or choose a product with a frequency response curve close to the Harman Curve.
Spacious sound stage and accurate imaging
A large, spacious, well-developed soundstage and accurate imaging are essential aspects of audiophile headphones. The soundstage gives the perception of the space between the source and the listener and allows for precise rendering of distance, volume, and other spatial cues.
Meanwhile, good imaging is a specialty of high-quality audiophile headphones – the ability to separate each instrument in a recording, as well as to locate precisely where they are. In order to achieve this effect, headphones employ all the technical advantages available to ensure good imaging: sound stage with enough depth, drivers angle and positioning, distance from drivers to ears, recording quality, etc.
Sound dynamics – Reaction and transience of sound
Sound dynamics add emotion to the music and can make or break a piece of music. They are the notes that create and define a song; they’re what give it its richness, depth, resonance, and texture. The dynamics of high-fidelity headphones usually have a good reaction and ensure faithful reproduction of the music, bringing out the best and worst qualities of the music.
Dynamics are what gives the music a texture. They are the difference between the delicate, soft, well-articulated, and clear vocals that make up a piece of music and the deep, bass, and blaring over-the-top drums that destroy it. Music has a lot of nuance and expression, and headphone drivers must put all that into proper perspective.
For what it’s worth, good dynamics are what make the difference between a good and a great headphone. Regular headphones with slow attack sound muddy, blurry, blended, or too slow, while a pair of high-fidelity with fast transience sounds very clear, sharp, well-defined, and analytical.
If the audiophile headphones have enough dynamics, they can emphasize the feeling of speed and rhythm in music, even when listening to acoustic recordings. Proper dynamics (Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release) is crucial for convincing music reproduction.
- Attack – The time it takes to go from silence to the peak amplitude in a recording.
- Decay – The time in which the sound intensity decays from peak amplitude to sustain level
- Sustain – The time in which the sound level is maintained at a constant level.
- Release – The time in which it takes for the sound pressure to fall from sustain amplitude to 0 dB.
The tonal balance of audiophile headphones is a critical aspect. Most people enjoy a good bassline and mellow treble, but there are different preferences between individuals. Audiophiles believe that higher quality headphones should sound natural and have a balanced sound signature, including good low-end. What most music lovers listen to nowadays has a very heavy bass content, so it is important to have balanced and full-bodied bass.
“Tonal balance” refers to the overall balance between soft and loud frequencies, which allows a certain type of music to sound balanced and natural. Tonal balance is a characteristic most audiophiles look for in a pair of headphones, so the vast majority of high-fidelity headphones are balanced or have slight coloring in some frequencies.
Implications of tonal imbalance:
- Loud bass accentuates the low frequencies and takes over the characteristic sound of a certain piece of music.
- A lack of bass means the absence of the frequencies that enrich the main melody line, making the music smaller and flat but also colder and more clinical.
- A lack of bass can also reveal weaknesses in the recordings and make a headphone unpleasant to listen to.
- The same can be said about trebles, in which case too much makes a headphone harsh to listen to and accentuates treble sibilance, while too little is a sort of neutralization which leads to a lack of dynamics and musicality and air.
Lasting physical comfort
With audiophiles listening to music for hours on end, comfort is key. A comfortable headphone must be well crafted, but it must also offer lasting comfort. You’ll find that audiophile headphones have an ergonomic design and are wonderful to wear for extended periods. If a pair of headphones weighs a little more than the average pair, the durability and materials used contribute to that extra weight.
Sometimes audiophiles trade comfort for durability, which is why some people buy headphones that weigh 1.1 pounds or more (~500 grams). It’s simply a matter of preference. Nevertheless, even heavy audiophile headphones offer great short-term comfort thanks to well-thought-out ergonomics. In addition to the material used, you should also consider how the headphones rest on your head. A soft, adjustable leather headband or a double-winged design provides a comfortable and secure fit.
Some high-fidelity audiophile headphones, such as the ZMF Vérité, go even further to reduce weight by using a lightweight magnesium chassis and designing a unique headband for better weight distribution. In addition, beryllium drivers, voice coils, and very light magnets are used to keep weight to a minimum. The beryllium drivers reproduce sound more efficiently and deliver music with better dynamics, as beryllium is five times lighter than titanium.
All five characteristics of audiophile headphones are important. But if you can’t find a headphone that has them all, then choose one that has the most you can from these five characteristics. Also, consider what types of headphones are your favorite. For example, if you prefer earbuds, then earbuds should be your top priority in searching for a pair of headphones that suit your music taste.
Other factors to consider when buying an audiophile headphone (Technical specifications)
Unlike the first set of characteristics of audiophile headphones, these headphone characteristics are technical and can be measured to some extent. They make audiophile headphones enjoyable to listen to.
Well-developed frequency range
Most audiophiles prefer headphones that cover all music’s frequency ranges and can reproduce them accurately. Plenty of sounds go unheard due to headphones’ limited frequency range. For example, very few audiophiles pay attention to the lower frequencies in music, not caring so much about the bass but also missing some of the more intricate details.
Even though humans cannot hear frequencies beyond 20 kHz or below 20 Hz, better frequency range extensions make the frequencies near these extremes sound more transparent and more realistic. For this reason, most high-fidelity headphones are equipped with drivers that can cover a wider spectrum of frequencies. On top of that, some deep bass notes can be felt more than they are heard by the human ear.
A wide frequency response range between 5 Hz and 40 kHz is considered excellent (found only in headphones designed for audiophiles and professional studio headphones). Headphones with a frequency response between 10 Hz and 25 kHz are also regarded as good (where most of the music is), and you should not hesitate to buy them.
Rich, detail-oriented sound
A richer and more detailed sound allows for better sound separation and sound definition, which is crucial for those trying to achieve an ideal of natural reproduction. Audiophile headphones with a rich sound reproduction have great fundamentals in terms of harmonics. Good depth of sound and wide presentation, with full vocals and well-extended trebles that provide an enjoyable instrumental reproduction.
In other words: good detail is the most important part of good sound. Having extremely detailed and realistic sound extends to the whole frequency range. That requires a balance between clarity, resolution, bass extension, and a fast headphone driver, like the ones found on these good-sounding audiophile headphones.
Balanced cable for better sound fidelity
High-fidelity headphones commonly come with balanced cables from the manufacturer, which allows for higher fidelity and fewer distortions by eliminating the electromagnetic interference (EMI) usually present on conventional cables. Balanced cables are an absolute necessity for good sound fidelity if you have an audio system or plenty of other electronics in your listening room.
A balanced cable isn’t an absolute necessity, especially if you don’t have a device with a balanced output, like a balanced headphone amp or some good old-fashioned amplifier.
If you have a dedicated headphone amp with unbalanced outputs, you should be fine with the stock cable from your headphone manufacturer. However, if you have a balanced headphone amp and want to take advantage of it, you should purchase a balanced cable.
Should you buy high-fidelity headphones the audiophile way?
Mainstream headphones are produced and tuned to appeal to a wider audience, while audiophile headphones cater to a smaller, more demanding, and passionate group of listeners. So should you buy headphones that cater to the mainstream consumer or invest in high-fidelity headphones like an audiophile?
Alan Parsons said: “Audiophiles don’t use their equipment to listen to your music. Audiophiles use your music to listen to their equipment.“
This tells us that sometimes audiophiles who prefer to hear and listen to music are more concerned with the plethora of details and flaws in the recording than the music itself. So the question is, of course, why buy high-fidelity headphones this way? Shouldn’t you only use them to listen to music?
Many audiophiles are obsessed with perfection and the ultimate sound neutrality, but audiophile headphones are not just that. You’re much closer to that ideal when you buy studio headphones with a flat frequency response than high-fidelity headphones. Audiophile headphones are more fun than studio headphones, but duller than mainstream headphones.
FAQ about audiophile headphones characteristics
Can audiophile headphones be cheap?
Audiophile headphones can be costly if you are looking for the best. Still, for the most part, audiophile headphones don’t have to be expensive, and they offer excellent sound quality for very reasonable prices.
There are a variety of quality headphones that cost less than $200, and in many cases, less than $100, that still provide a very good listening experience.
Aspiring audiophiles don’t need to break the bank to buy their first headphones. If you think I’m kidding, I’m not. Check out the best affordable audiophile headphones, and see what I mean.
What is the most important factor when choosing an audiophile headphone?
The ability to convey the emotion of the music to the listener in the way the musician intended it to be heard is important in choosing audiophile headphones. It must bring out the subtle nuances with great precision, clearly, and delicately and, at the same time, with energy and dynamism, without any flaws in the sound reproduction.
This is a rare type of headphone because every audiophile headphone has its flaws. As long as those flaws don’t prevent you from enjoying your music, they’re good headphones.
There are many pitfalls buyers make when choosing audiophile headphones. Often buyers make the mistake of assuming that more expensive means better, which is entirely not the case. Another is focusing on a particular quality such as bass or soundstage and neglecting other qualities.
I hope this article has given you an overview of what audiophile headphones should look and sound like. The next time you buy audiophile headphones, take this checklist with you, but also make sure you don’t fall into the trap of being pedantic and picky. Choose something you like while ensuring the right sonic characteristics are present (wide soundstage, good dynamics, balanced tone, deep bass, etc.).
Many audiophiles exaggerate or are too subjective about what makes or breaks a headset. So, knowing the qualities that audiophiles look for in headphones is not always a guaranteed way to find the headphones you like, but it gets you much closer to finding the right ones.