While gaming is often the primary motivator, people build or buy PCs because of the versatility they offer. Unlike dedicated consoles, gaming PCs also function as top notch web browsers, content creation stations, and media consumption devices. There are loads of users who spend hours each day in front of their PC for work or recreation. Since wide adoption of the MP3 codec back in the late 1990s, music playback is one of the most commonly used functions of a PC. In a previous guide, I went into depth on the use of studio monitors for desktop music listening. You can get amazing results going that route, but it may not be practical in every use case. This is where headphones come in. In the last several years, the market for enthusiast headphones has exploded (with much of the interest coming from the rise in popularity of the Beats headphone line) and PC users have a ocean of choices when it comes to great products for music playback.
For recorded music lovers, this is inarguably the greatest time to be alive. File compression and the global adoption of the internet has made finding and acquiring music easier and cheaper than it has even been in the past (much to the chagrin of some labels and artists). Streaming music platforms put massive libraries of tunes at the fingertips of the masses and even diehard audiophiles are having their needs served (via Deezer, Tidal, or Qobuz). Platforms like Bandcamp give independent acts the chance to be heard (and sell) to millions. Many users may have locally stored files that date back to the days of Napster and Kazaa. Music is everywhere and for those that are serious about their listening, a high-end set of headphones can take the experience to another level.
Choosing The Right Headphones for Music on Your PC
Open-back, Closed-back, Over-ear, or On-ear?
Before diving into the world of high-end headphones, you need to take a moment and ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience. There are many types of headphones and some types excel at certain things and fall short in others. Listeners who primarily consume EDM or pop music will value strong bass reproduction and an “in your face” presentation. While the popular Sennheiser HD600 headphones may be of excellent quality, their open-back design and relaxed sound signature will be lacking in bass impact and lack an upfront presentation. These qualities make them an excellent choice for vocals and jazz, but that won’t help you much if you aren’t consuming those types of recordings often.
Unlike CPUs or GPUs, you cannot simply spend your way to objective upgrades across the board. At a certain point, the differences in headphones boil down to differences in sound signatures rather than the quality of the music reproduction. While you can generally expect a $1000 set of headphones to sound better than a $150 set of headphones, there is no guarantee that you will get more enjoyment out of the more expensive set if its design does not compliment your listening tastes or preferences. Acoustic isolation can be another important factor. While most headphone enthusiasts prefer open-back headphone designs for music reproduction, those designs are worthless for users who want to avoid sound leakage or external ambient noise/distraction.
Most enthusiast headphones come in two flavors: on-ear and over-ear. On-ear designs were very commonly included with Walkmans or portable CD players in the 1980s and 1990s. They rest on top of your ears and typically have foam padding to give your ears a bit of extra comfort. They offer no acoustic isolation, but are still very popular for portable use due to their size and affordability. Over-ear designs have large cups that surround your ears and keep the driver from resting on your ear. They can offer sealing properties that will help block outside sounds and help prevent your music from leaking out and bothering others. The design offers the user the most comfort. For the purposes of this guide, I’ll be focusing on over-ear headphones as they offer a better experience to the critical listener.
What Are DACs and Headphone Amps and Do I Need Them?
While most headphones will work fine with the jacks you have on your motherboard or laptop, there are several reasons to consider upgrading to a dedicated DAC and amplifier (or a combination unit). Motherboard audio solutions are often made with the cheapest possible parts and are susceptible to EMI and other noise problems. They may often introduce unwanted noise or distortion into your music. Some of these solutions simply lack the power to drive high-end headphones to acceptable volume levels. Motherboard audio chips typically use low-cost parts that combine a DAC (digital to analog converter) and a mosfet amp into a small package. In the same way better amps and sources for their living room or car audio setups improve the listening experience, desktop headphone DACs and amps can offer the same improvements.
Add-in sound cards used to rule the world of gaming PCs. Once Microsoft removed sound acceleration when it introduced the Windows Vista operating system in 2005, the dedicated internal sound card began to die off. Newer games could no longer make use of the dedicated sound chips and software surround and effects processing made huge strides. While a few models are still available commercially, most PC music enthusiasts have shifted to using outboard USB devices for DAC and amplification purposes. In addition to offering improved audio quality, removing the sound device from the PC itself can help eliminate EMI and other problems that can affect your signal.
Headphone impedance is another consideration that must factor into your purchasing decision. Low-impedance headphones are designed to work well with low-power sources like mobile phones, motherboards/laptops, or handheld gaming devices. High-impedance headphones are designed to be used with dedicated amplifiers or high-end home audio receivers. While you can use either type of headphone with any source, you will get the best results when you properly match headphone impedance with the capability of your source device. For slightly more in-depth explanation about why headphones use varying impedances, I highly recommend you check out this guide from CNET’s Steve Guttenberg. The short guide explains why using smaller wires on the voice coil of the headphone driver can result in better sound quality, but requires a high-impedance. Generally, headphones with an impedance of 25-70 ohms can be used with portable devices and low-power sources. When dealing with headphones using 100 ohms or higher impedances, you are going to want a dedicated amplifier (though lower impedance designs can still benefit from a quality amp).
The Best Headphones for Music Listening
If you want to dip your toes into the world of enthusiast headphones, there is no cheaper way to do it than with the Samson SR850 or Superlux HD668B. Both of these semi-open models are designs that could accurately be considered a knockoff of the more expensive AKG studio headphones. China don’t care, and in this case, is giving you an exceptional product at an unbeatable price. These headphones offer a similar level of performance and have low impedance, so they play well with all sources. The main difference between the two sets is that the Samson uses a velour padded ear cup while the Superlux uses a pleather covering. The pleather pad will offer better sealing and slightly more impactful bass, at the cost of comfort and increased heat retention on your ears. While these headphones are relatively dirt cheap, they are still good enough that you can clearly hear the advantages of upgrading your DAC and/or amplifier down the road.
Sennheiser is one of the most trusted names in high-end headphones for good reason. They have been offering high-quality designs for years and their products have stood the test of time. The HD280 Pro is a closed-back set that offers good isolation and clear, even music reproduction. These qualities have made the HD280 Pro a mainstay in recording studios for years. The pleather ear cups offer good isolation and impactful bass. The HD 579 is one of Sennheiser’s newest open-back sets. For around $100, this is the set to choose if you want to get the “Sennheiser sound” at a good price. While they are not the best option for bass fanatics, their open-back design and laid-back sound signature make them perfect for vocals, stringed instruments, and live music. The velour ear pads are very comfortable and the set just looks luxurious compared to virtually any other set you’ll find in its price range. The HD 579 will give you performance similar to what you’d get from the much more expensive Sennheiser G4ME headsets (without the mic, of course).
If I was asked to recommend a set of headphones to someone that wasn’t exactly sure what they wanted, but was excited to enter the world of high-end headphones, I would choose the SHP9500S every time. These are simply one of the best headphones you can buy at any price, so the fact that you can often find then for well under $100 is pretty awesome. They do everything pretty well and manage to be comfortable at the same time. With only 32 ohms of impedance, they can be plugged in to anything and sound great, but can also be improved with a nice DAC/amp. The user-replaceable cable is a huge plus, though the non-replaceable ear pads is kind of a bummer.
Sony’s MDR 7506 is a headphone that’s been around forever. Similar to the legendary MDR V6, this closed-back set can be found in virtually every studio on earth because of its sound quality and sturdiness. While some may not be fond of its flat EQ, you can’t argue that it will let you hear exactly what is in the recording. The coiled cord could be a plus or minus depending on the user, but most find the foldable design to be ideal for portability.
The Audio Technica ATH-AD700X is the current generation follow up tp the company’s legendary ATH-AD700 headphones. This set offers the best comfort of any headphone design (unless you have a small head) and its large, open-back drivers deliver a massive soundstage. The AD700X make it effortless to pinpoint where the individual instruments are in a recording (and this accuracy made them incredibly popular with competitive gamers). These are perfect for acoustic guitars and female vocals, though they lack bottom-end impact that EDM fans might be hoping for.
The Audio Technica ATH-AD900X is very similar to its cheaper sibling the AD700X. They share the same basic design and construction, meaning they are some of the most comfortable headphones you can buy at any price. The AD900X is simply better by any measure than the AD700X while still retaining a similar sound signature. Fans of acoustic rock, alternative, or folk will be absolutely smitten with the AD900X (and they make for an outstanding gaming experience as well thanks to the massive soundstage).
Users looking for a closed-back set of headphones that bring an incredibly lively sound signature should consider the Audio Technica ATH-M50X as a primary option. This stylish option has swiveling cups and can be folded for portability. The successor to the wildly popular ATH-M50, these headphones can make pop, hip-hop, EDM, and metal come alive. They also respond very well to amplification, particularly the lower registers. If you consider yourself a basshead, the ATH-M50X can literally shake your eyes in their sockets if you give them a slight EQ boost in the 40-60Hz range. A stronger clamping force is required to produce the bass impact, so these may not be ideal for those with large heads or for wearing over extended periods of time.
The HIFIMAN headphones are pretty different from all the other options in this guide in that they use planar magnetic drivers. In the simplest terms, planar magnetic headphones often sound “clearer” than dynamic headphones, although they aren’t capable of the ultrawide soundstages you will find on the best open-back headphones. The HIFIMAN HE400S is a big, comfortable set of headphones that work well with just about any type of music. The HE-400I is the company’s replacement for the 400S, though both can still be found in retail channels. The 400I offers better earpads and a flatter EQ than its older sibling. While both of these sets have a low impedance, it is highly recommended that you pair them with a powerful headphone amplifier (due to the planar magnetic design). There is currently no cheaper way to get into the world of planar magnetic headphones than these models from HIFIMAN, so they represent a great value for those who are curious to try them out.
AKG headphones have been around forever. The Austrian company is world famous for its microphones and headphones as they have been mainstays in professional recording environments since the mid-70s. The AKG K701 and K702 are a great choice for those looking for a comfortable set and enjoy a more detailed sound signature. The biggest differences between the models are the colors and frequency emphasis. The K701 is white/silver and has a slightly boosted top end, yet it never produces a harsh, sibilant sound. The K702 comes in black and has a flatter frequency response. Neither of these headphones are recommended for bassheads, though. The AKG sets do offer a very wide soundstage and work very well in gaming.
The Sennheiser HD 599 is similar to the previously mentioned HD 579, while offering more accurate bass and a midrange that is very relaxed. Once the clamping force on this set relaxes after a few hours of use, they can be worn for hours. While they do have an open-back design, the soundstage is not as wide as those found in the Audio Technica or AKG headphones. The tan and brown color scheme is polarizing, but the design and materials scream “high quality”. If you like the HD 599 but are repulsed by the color scheme, Amazon offers a similar version of this set known as the HD 598 SR.
The HD 600 and HD 650 are legendary among headphone enthusiasts. Released forever ago (the HD 600 in 1997 and HD 650 in 2006), these headphones have stood the test of time. Before high-end headphones became all the rage, these Sennheiser units stood alone as masters of the market. Enthusiasts consider the HD 600 to be the cheapest headphone available that is considered to be “endgame quality”. Many audiophiles and music lovers begin their equipment journeys with cheaper options and work their way up the totem pole. Most that reach the HD600 find it to be the top of the mountain (with a select few willing to venture into the >$1000 market).
Upon the first listen, users may wonder what all the fuss is about, as the Sennheisers offer a sound signature that is anything but lively, yet once you adjust to it, you wonder how you ever lived without it. The midrange and high-end reproduction is incredibly smooth and you can listen to them for hours with no fatigue. Those that prefer their high to sparkle may not enjoy these as much as the AKGs or Beyerdynamic DT 880s, though. The main difference between the HD 600 and HD 650 is the sound signature, with the HD 650 having more bass and an overall darker presentation.
With 300 ohms of impedance, amplification is a must with these headphones, though they do work well with even the most modestly priced options. Headphone enthusiasts love these models because they are good enough to reveal upgrades in your signal chain in price categories way above their MSRP. It is not uncommon to find people who pair their Sennheisers with amps costing $1000 or more. Bargain hunters should also look into Massdrop’s Sennheiser HD 6XX, which is just a rebranded HD 650 for $200 (though quantities are limited).
Germany’s Beyerdynamic is a major player in the enthusiast headphone market. If Sennheiser is Coke, Beyerdynamic is Pepsi. The DT series of headphones offers option for all type of listeners in a durable, comfortable package. All of the models have metal construction with premium velour earpads, with a premium look and feel. The closed-back DT 770 gives strong bass and sparkling highs along with an “in your face” presentation. The open-back DT 880 has a sound signature that leans more toward a lush midrange and crystalline highs. If you like you music presented with a slant towards high-end detail and a wider soundstage, the DT 880 fits the bill. Finally, the DT 990 makes use of a semi-open design, sporting a sound signature that has the classic “V” shape, with the low-end and top-end being emphasized. While its midrange is more recessed, instruments and vocals remain clear. The DT 990 should be considered the most “fun” sounding of the set, but critical listeners may prefer the DT 880.
Each of these Beyerdynamic headphones are offered in a variety of impedances to suit the needs or equipment of the listener. Generally, they all sound the same, with the high-impedance models having slightly lower distortion and getting the edge in overall quality, provided you have enough power to drive them.
The Best DACs and Amplifiers For Desktop Music Lovers
The FiiO E10K is a small USB-powered DAC/Amp combo that gives life to your music and pairs wonderfully with virtually any low-impedance headphones. It uses a micro-USB plug for signal and power, using its DAC chip to give your digital audio a much cleaner signal that you’d get from a motherboard solution or a laptop. It also features a hardware bass boost switch to give your cans a little extra oomph on the bottom end. The E10K also has a line out if you’d like to send a fixed signal to an external amp or a set of desktop monitors. For $75, I can wholeheartedly recommend pairing with all of the sub-$100 headphones in this guide and a few of the more expensive choices (ATH-AD900X and HD 599).
The Dragonfly Red is Audioquest’s newest Dragonfly DAC revision. It features a better DAC chip and more power than its Dragonfly Black predecessor. This ultraportable unit is perfect for use with laptops and can even be paired with a USB OTG cable for use with Android phones or a Lightning adapter for use with iPhones or iPads. It is relatively pricey at $200, but you do pay a premium for its portability and size.
The Fulla 2 is Schiit’s cheapest combination unit and, like all Schiit products, made in the USA. This desktop DAC is perfect for your low-power headphone needs and also works perfectly as a desktop preamp for your powered studio monitors. It’s shiny, luxurious knob feels great in the hand and makes it easier to adjust the volume of your monitors (when used as a preamp). Performance is similar to the FiiO E10K, but the extra $20 gets you that premium knob (and I’m the kind of guy who really appreciates a quality knob).
If you have hard-to-drive or high-impedance headphones and you’d really like to have a slick box of Schiit on your desk, the Lyr 3 may be just what the doctor ordered. This tube-powered monster can deliver 9000mW per channel at 16 ohms and 450mW at 600 ohms. Like the Fulla 2, the Lyr 3 also acts as a preamp when the headphone jack is not being used. Unlike the Fulla 2, the Lyr 3 runs the signal through its tube stage to give your music some of that “tube magic” before it’s sent off to your desktop monitors. It features a modular design, allowing the use of a USB DAC module (the same DAC found in Schiit’s Modi 2) or a phono preamp (for those who love spinning wax). You can also buy the Lyr 3 as just an amplifier without either module for $100 less. With either module included, the Lyr 3 costs $599, but it will drive literally everything and may be the last amp you ever need to purchase.
If someone asks me to recommend a headphone amp, I’m gonna go with the Schiit Magni 3 every time. At $99, this solid monster has enough juice to drive power hungry planar magnetic headphones like the HIFIMAN HE-400I and the finesse to work well with earbuds (using its low-gain switch). Like the other Schiit amps, the Magni 3 has preamp outputs so you can use it as a volume control for your desktop monitors when the headphone jack is not being used. It can produce 430mW at 300 ohms, meaning it has more than enough oomph to work with the Sennheiser HD600s or the high-impedance Beyerdynamics. The Schiit Magni 3 simply has no equal in its price range and is the best bang for your buck in this market. It is made to be paired with Schiit’s Modi 2 DAC and both units will sit in a neat little stack on your desk (I have been rolling with a Schiit stack myself for years - currently using a Modi 1 with a Magni 3).
Listeners who are curious about dipping their toes into the world of vacuum tubes without wanting to break the bank should give some consideration to the Little Dot MKII. This is the cheapest you will be able to find an all-tube design (rather than units that only use tubes for the buffer stage). Tube enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the MKII supports tube rolling (term for swapping tubes) for dialing in that perfect sound. It is not recommended that you use this amplifier with extremely low-impedance headphones or IEMs (earbuds).
The Valhalla 2 is Schiit's cheapest all-tube amplifier. You get similar performance to the Lyr 3, though the Valhalla lacks the ability to have a DAC module built-in (or installed). Its preamp can be used with a set of desktop monitors and it supports tube rolling. Unlike most OTL tube amps, the Valhalla 2 can be used with all of your equipment, from high-sensitivity IEMs to 600 ohm planar magnetics. At $349, this amp can be the centerpiece of your desktop audio setup.
When it comes to dedicated desktop DACs, the Schiit Modi 2 is the only unit I’ll recommend. For $99, you get a high-quality DAC with a quiet, clean output. It is a perfect match with Schiit’s Magni 3 and Valhalla 2 amplifiers or any other amplifier you have. Spending more money than this for a desktop DAC puts you into the realm of insanely diminishing returns. The Modi 2 Uber variant costs an extra $50, but you get coaxial digital and optical inputs, along with a front panel input selector switch. The Modi 2 Uber can be a perfect match for your CD player, Chromecast Audio, or other device with a digital output. I use the Modi 2 Uber with this exact setup in my listening room, allowing me to have my PC, CD player, and Chromecast making use of its high-quality DAC and outputting into my preamp.