Looking for low-end audiophile headphones

By “low end audiophile” I mean something in the range of $50-$100. Dunno if that’s an accurate classification or not. I know high end audio is subject to diminishing returns ($2000 headphones are going to be less an improvement over $500 headphones than $80s will be over $20s) but I’m not sure what the value sweet-spot is where the price/performance really begins falling off.

90% of the time, they’ll be used for listening to music, watching movies, and playing games on my PC. 10% of the time, if they’re suitable, I could use them with my muvo (portable player)… but if they’re not suitable for that, no big deal, I can pick up something for them too.

I’m not too experienced in the world of speakers/headphones, but I think I want accuracy/authenticity in sound over pleasantly colored or over-bassed headphones. Circumaural (around the ear) seems like it’d be best, due to comfort, but I’d be willing to consider the on-ear type too. No interest in headbuds, just not enough comfort for the long term. Is the audioquality on open vs closed headphones that much better? I also want something with low enough impedance that I won’t have to drive them with a seperate headphone amp off my audigy 2 (which also might be getting upgraded).

Based on a few reviews, I’m starting to lean towards $80 sennheiser HD-280s, but I don’t really know. I suppose I should probably find an audio store around here that’ll let me play with different ones, but I was going to put in a newegg order tomorrow, so if I could find something that seems like a clear winner, I’ll go ahead and order it.

You can’t go wrong with the HD-280’s. If you can get them for $80, that’s a great price. There’s very little, if any, audible difference between those and the more expensive HD-300’s.

However, the HD-280’s are a fairly high impendence headphone. I drive mine with an Audigy, and they sound great, but I’ve heard they really shine with a headphone amp.

I really have no concept of what you need for different impedences. I’ve read that you don’t want to go past 60 for a portable player as the amp will be inadequate in driving it.

Are the HD280s the best choice in that price range? Is there anything significanly better in the next step up ($100-$150)?

I’m worried that the not-so-great audigy 2 will drag me down if I get better headphones. I was considering also upgrading my sound card. I dislike creative in general - their software and drivers are underwhelming.

I miss the nforce “soundstorm” I had with my nforce2 motherboard - it was the best PC sound I ever had after a bit of tweaking.

The best headphones I’ve ever used on a daily basis are AKG 240-M. They are the world standard headphone in nearly every studio, everywhere. You can buy a pair for around $100. You’d never be sorry you did.

The review site I’m looking at say the AKGs are 600 ohms.

I know nothing about headphone amps - what does an entry level one cost? And does having a cheap one degrade the quality?

Those are good ones. I also recommend the Sony MDR-V6. I think they’re still available.

If your ears can tolerate them ( and mine can’t ), the Grado sr60/sr80 headphones are in your range and sound excellent for the price. Better rock phones than classical, but pretty decent all the way round and very easily driven unlike the Sennheiser’s Sam mentioned.

I use Sennheisers myself ( I have a pair of 280’s for when I want sealed phones, 580’s for the computer and 600’s for the stereo ), primarily because they are very comfortable while sounding great. The problem with the Grado line is that they sit on your ear and for some ( like me ) they’re just too uncomfortable after ~20 minutes. But other folks swear by them and prefer them to the Sennheiser sound.

  • Tamerlane

I haven’t had any trouble running the AKG phones off of any equipment. However, mine are older and have a 1/4" plug. Newer models have an 1/8" plug for use with portable equipment. I don’t see why your sound card wouldn’t drive them. But then again, my sound card has been plugged into my stereo since day one, and I’ve never had to stick a pair of headphones into the actual card. The only difference 600 ohms makes that I’ve ever noticed is that you have to turn the volume up a couple of notches. You may wish to take a portable device to the store where they carry the 240s and ask to try them on your device, to see whether they will give you an acceptable level before you look into something like a headphone amp.

If your ears can tolerate them ( and mine can’t ), the Grado sr60/sr80 headphones are in your range and sound excellent for the price. Better rock phones than classical, but pretty decent all the way round and very easily driven unlike the Sennheiser’s Sam mentioned.


What makes them better rock phones than classical? The bass “impact”?

That’s a concern I have - a review says that HD280s are “severely lacking in bass impact” or something to that extent. Does that mean they kind of sound cold like AM radio? I’m not trying to break my ear drums with hip hop, but I want my bass to be noticible.

My only experience with the on-ear types are cheap headsets and such, and it might be different for a better pair, but then tend to irritate my ears. The circumaural type seems much more comfortable.

Are you happy with your HD280s? Are the 580s a big step up?

I gather that 60 ohms is pushing it for portable players, and a review talking about 300 ohm headphones said they definitely require an amp, so I couldn’t imagine a 600 ohm set would sound very good without an amp. It seems like adding an amp to the equation is at least doubling my price.

I just plugged my V6s into my Line Out jack on my computer’s sound card (Creative SB Audigy LS) and started a music mp3 file that I had on my computer - damn near tore the top of my head off. Had to scramble for the volume control.
These are rated at 63 ohms. I can’t say anything about a portable player as I don’t have one, but no problem straight out of a sound card.

I’ve been using these for many years now, and they are comfortable and accurate - very, very clean.
Better, I found them on Amazon for $75.00

Highly recommended.

To my ears ( and at least some, but not all, reviews I’ve seen ) the Grados are “brighter” and “tighter”. The Sennheisers are “darker” and “flatter”. A lot of people think the Grados give a bit more detail at any given price point, while the Sennheiser have more muted highs and mellower lows. All of the above being quite subjective and the terms somewhat undefinable :D.

So with classical music Grados might sound a little reedier on high strings and a little thinner on low notes than the Sennheisers, but sound “punchier” for rock music.

Buit some folk claim Grados are just plain more detailed and thus are better for all music. Dunno. I do find them better for rock music, but like I said I owned the sr60’s for several months and could never get used to them physically - the outside of my ears were literally in agony after an hour spent with the damn things. Watching a movie with them would be impossible for me ( and I watch films after 10 p.m. with headphones in deference to my neighbors all the time ).

For that matter I find the tightly clamping 280s, while far more comfortable than the Grados, have about a two hour window before they start to bug me as well. The lighter ( even though larger ), open-style 580s and 600s are much better for, say, extended computer gaming. But of course the noise seeps out of them, if you have a spouse or roommate that might get annoyed.

The 580s ( discontinued ) sound significantly better than the 280s, but open models almost invariably beat closed models, so that’s no surprise. You just give up that sound isolation. I take the 280s on planes, something I’d never do with the 580/600s.

  • Tamerlane

I love the Grado SR-80s – they’ve been very comfortable to me. I listen almost entirely to Classical, by the way, and I think they sound great. I auditioned them against a number of other headphones in the price range, and against some models by other makers that were a lot more expensive (e.g. Sennheiser). To me, the Grados consistently sounded better.

But yeah, I guess some people find them uncomfortable. I’ve worn them for hours at a time (literally) and they’ve been great.

I have a pair of the HD280 Pro headphones at work, since I need a sealed version there, and a pair of HD600s at home. If you can go with an open style and if you plan to be wearing them for any length of time, I would highly recommend just breaking down and spending the extra money for the HD600s if you can afford them. I can wear them comfortably for hours at a time and pretty much forget that they’re there, but the HD280s are pretty uncomfortable–they’re okay for a while, but get annoying eventually.

Go ahead and check out the Grados, but I find them uncomfortable enough that I’d rather not wear them.

I have Sennheiser HD580s and I love them. I had to up my MP3 encoding rate from 128 to 196 becuase I started hearing imperfections with the HD580s that I couldn’t hear before. The range on them is amazing. I pop in some thumping tunes and feel like I am in a club, and then I pop in some classical music and the violin sounds like it is in the room with me.

The only problem, as mentioned before, is that they do nothing to keep in the noise.

Been reading more reviews, and they echo the “accurate but subdued” bass impression. One says that they respond well to equilization, though. Is that accurate?

I don’t want thumping brain death, but I want some punch to my bass. If I can bump up an equalizer a bit and un-subdue the bass on them without distortion, that’d be ideal.

I bought a pair of these AKG headphones to use during band practice. I’m very happy with the sound, both at high levels and low levels, and I wear them for about three hours at a time with no discomfort.

I’ve gotten a very good impression of the knowledge and selection at headphone.com, where they have lengthy discussions of all these issues, plus they sell headphone amps.
I used to have a pair of good Sennheisers, but they were a bit fragile and eventually broke (although in their defense, I dropped them a lot). Now I have a nice pair of Beyer Dynamic headphones, which have suddenly developed a buzz, after several years of super-heavy use.

After more reviews, I’m starting to lean more towards the grado SR80s.

It seems like the HD280s are the technically better headphones, and would be better for something like monitoring a mix, but the Grado’s seem like they’d produce a more lively but colored sound. Not as good for technical accuracy, but more pleasing.

Still not sure - I take forever to make these decisions, but that’s what I’m leaning towards.

Sorry about my earlier answer above - I confused the 280’s with the 580’s. I’ve got a pair of 580’s - never heard the 280’s.

You might want to check out Sennheiser’s HD-97’s. Generally, the ‘open’ Sennheisers get better reviews than the ‘closed’ types. They’re also more comfortable.

If you can find a pair of 580’s, they’re well worth the money. They just sound beautiful if you can drive them (don’t get them for a portable MP3 player without a headphone amp, for example).

According to this eBay search, you can still get the HD-580’s new for about $169, or refurb ones for $139.