Which headphones are the best

The best headphones

For those who want to enjoy music in the highest sound quality undisturbed, high-quality hi-fi headphones are still the first choice. Since there are more and more users who mainly store their music collection on their smartphone or other mobile player anyway, in order to play them back from there, whether at home or on the go, we have divided our test into hi-fi headphones, which are mainly used stationary and those that can be plugged into the mobile device.

Due to different requirements and technical conditions (especially the impedance), the two classes of headphones cannot be compared directly with one another in a meaningful way. Therefore we treat them separately on two pages and choose a test winner and recommendations for each group. We tested 25 for the living room and 19 for the smartphone.

Impedance, Sensitivity and Symmetry

This test is not about Bluetooth headphones or those with active noise suppression, because you have to compromise on sound with both. We therefore have separate test reports for you for these headphones.

Impedance is the name given to the alternating current resistance of headphones. In interaction with the source device, it affects the volume and the sound.

High quality studio headphones usually work with an impedance of around 300 ohms, sometimes even more. Mobile devices such as audio players or smartphones, on the other hand, harmonize best with headphones with an impedance of 30 ohms or less due to the limited amplifier power. Stationary hi-fi devices with a headphone output usually require an impedance that lies between the two extremes at around 100 ohms, but they can usually cope with higher impedances.

The sensitivity of headphones is similar: It states how much sound pressure the headphones can generate with a power of 1 milliwatt and is also a parameter for the attainable volume, but above all dynamics.

With conventional connection cables with an asymmetrical design, the lines for the left and right channels share the shielding, which is also often used for the return transport of the signal. With the symmetrical cable, each channel has its own forward and return line as well as its own shield. If the source, i.e. the amplifier, is also constructed symmetrically, this leads to better channel separation so that the left and right channels can no longer interfere with each other.

Choice of earphones

Closed, open or half-open - that is almost a question of faith when it comes to headphones. What is meant is the construction of the ear capsules, whether they are open to the outside, closed or semi-open.

Clear differences in sound depending on the design of the ear capsules

Open headphones are known for their particularly fine, balanced sound, whereas closed earphones are a prerequisite for a powerful, contoured bass, but on the other hand have to contend with sound colouration.

Enjoying music with a listener with a closed construction definitely isolates you from the outside world - conversely, the outside world is also spared from your own musical escapades, which can be conducive to peace in the house under certain circumstances.

Another differentiator has more to do with comfort. Both the open and closed models have cushions that encircle the ear and lie against the head - called around-ear or over-ear headphones.

The others support their pads directly on their ears and are accordingly called on-ear headphones. Some manufacturers offer both variants, we listened carefully to see whether there are also sound differences in addition to wearing comfort.

A question of principle - the converter

In addition to the closed, open and semi-open principle as well as the on and over ears, we have now also represented two different converter technologies.

On the one hand, there are the dynamic converters, which is probably the most widely used technology: Here, the membrane and coil for the drive form a firmly joined unit. Said coil is immersed in a magnetic gap and is moved to the beat of the music. This movement is transmitted to the membrane, which then transmits the sound to the ear.

In the magnetostatic transducer, the coil windings are vapor-deposited onto the membrane and are therefore part of the entire membrane surface. This membrane is stretched between two magnets and also moves as soon as musical electrons flow through the coil.

Magnetostatic transducers offer the best sound quality

The membrane of the magnetostatic and their relatives, the electrostatic transducers, is considerably lighter than in dynamic systems and is also driven over the entire surface. Therefore, it can follow even the finest instructions from the driving coil - and only those. It is almost free of unwanted partial vibrations that are not contained in the music.

The construction of a magnetostatic converter is, however, a challenge and usually not as cheap to implement as with dynamic converters. More about the different converter systems can be found at Wikipedia.

That's how we tested

We allow each headphone a certain break-in time before the hearing test. However, we consider the information circulating that headphones require a break-in period of several days or even weeks to be exaggerated, after a few hours the sound doesn't really change much.

On the contrary: if we assume that a device, whether headphones, loudspeakers or even electronics, would have to play in over days and weeks, we must consequently also assume that these devices are subject to an equally rapid aging process.

So we test all models after a short break-in period on a high-quality stereo system and a dedicated headphone amplifier. The listeners, who are mainly used on the move, also have to prove their potential on the mobile music player and smartphone.

Since not all hi-fi headphones can cope with the low impedance of the smartphone output, we have generally excluded headphones with an impedance of 100 ohms and above from mobile use. In our opinion, the same applies to headphones with an open design, as an undisturbed music experience is hardly possible outside. However, since the mobile player is also being used more and more at home, the transitions here are now fluid, so headphones for home systems with low impedance are increasingly being offered. In addition to the sound on a wide variety of source devices, the quality of workmanship and the equipment are also included in the assessment.

In several test rounds, we have now tested 44 headphones, 40 of which are currently still available, divided almost equally into the categories stationary and mobile. We hear all headphones in a test round in comparison and test them with all common music genres. We largely ignore personal preferences when assessing the sound. Instead, we have tried to give as precise a description of the sound characteristics as possible. We hold back with the assessment because it is inevitably subjective.

The best hi-fi headphones for at home

In the case of headphones, which are mainly designed for stationary use, it is less about excluding the environment than about uncompromising listening pleasure, ideally within your own four walls. So it doesn't matter whether the outside world shares your taste in music or you want to isolate yourself from the outside background noise.

Whether closed, open or half-open, the construction of the earpiece and the transducer is solely due to the best possible music reproduction. Impedances and sensitivities only play a role here if we may have to select the player accordingly. Nevertheless, there will also be copies here that are also passable on the smartphone or other mobile players, as is so often the case, the transition is fluid.

Brief overview: Our recommendations

Our favourite

Philips Fidelio X3