August 2015

For many people, a good set of closed-back, over-ear headphones is the core of the personal listening experience. Properly designed, they seal out much of the sound of your surroundings, are comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time, and sound terrific, often with better bass than other types of headphones.

Brent Butterworth

But which closed-back ’phones are “properly designed”? That’s what I’m here to tell you. Through my own reviews and my work on listening panels, I’ve heard almost every closed-back, over-ear headphone model on the market. After testing literally hundreds of them, I can’t even come close to remembering what they all sound like. But some have had such high sound quality that I haven’t been able to forget them.

As I did with my recent article “The Five Best Earphones (According to Me),” I offer a caveat. Like other Internet articles featuring the “The Five Best Whatever” or “The Top 10 Doohickeys,” this one is subjective, reflecting only its author’s own tastes and biases. Even though I’ve heard more closed-back, over-ear headphones than 99.9999% of the listening public, there are some I haven’t heard, and new models are released every week -- so there may be an awesome new headphone model I’ve missed. My intent is merely to give you some models to consider. Chances are, you’ll like every model listed below . . . and a couple of them you might even love.

Headphone aficionados may wonder why I’ve never mentioned MrSpeakers, a San Diego company known for converting Fostex professional headphones to closed-back. As I learned at T.H.E. Show Newport 2015, MrSpeakers is moving toward producing its own original designs, and is selling off its stock of modified Fostex closed-backs. They’re great, and some may still be available.

Here are my picks, including a budget model, a high-end model, and a few in between. From lowest to highest price:

Audio-Technica ATH-M40x ($139)

Audio-Technica ATH-M40x

Since the 1990s, I’ve loved Sony’s MDR-7506 headphones: affordable, neutral-sounding closed-backs that have become an industry standard for recording/broadcasting engineers and a superb choice for audiophiles. But I love Audio-Technica’s ATH-M40xes just a little bit more. Their treble is slightly more present, bringing out subtle details in cymbals and acoustic guitars, and the bass has a few Newton-nanometers of extra kick. And they’re designed to remain comfortable through all-day, all-night recording sessions.

NAD Viso HP50 ($299)

NAD Viso HP50

The Viso HP50s have been my reference for midpriced closed-back headphones since they were introduced last year. Their fold-flat earpieces make them travel-friendly enough to take anywhere, and they’re one of the more comfortable choices in this price category. What makes them really special, though, is their dead-flat, tonally neutral balance. That’s why I use them as a reference: To my ears, they neither highlight nor diminish any part of the audioband. Still, some of my colleagues find the HP50s’ bass a bit weak; they prefer PSB’s M4U 1s ($299), which were also designed by PSB founder Paul Barton. Both use Barton’s RoomFeel tuning, which gives a more spacious sound by mimicking the way speakers work in a room. Either way, you’re getting great headphones.

Sennheiser Momentum ($379)

Sennheiser Momentum

Don’t let the high list price scare you -- for whatever reason, the Sennheiser Momentums routinely sell for less than $200 online. To my ears, the Momentums aren’t as neutral as NAD’s Viso HP50s, but their sound has a charm and an excitement that I enjoy, particularly when listening to rock. The Momentums’ bass is more pumped up, and because their earcups are a bit smaller than those of the other headphones listed here, they may not be as comfortable. But at their discounted price, the Momentums are one of the best buys in headphones right now. And they look supercool (if you care about that).

Oppo Digital PM-3 ($399)

Oppo Digital PM-3

If you want a more vivid sound than the NAD Viso HP50s deliver but don’t want to depart too far from reality, the Oppo PM-3s are a superb choice. They’re among the least-expensive planar-magnetic headphones available, yet they convey the qualities of sound that draw so many audiophiles to this driver technology: spaciousness and treble detail that headphones with dynamic drivers struggle to match. The PM-3s also feature a great industrial design, with a solid, luxurious feel, and earpieces that swivel so that the headphones can be folded flat for travel.

Audeze LCD-XC ($1799)

Audeze LCD-XC

The LCD-XCs are the most expensive closed-back headphones I’ve encountered. These planar-magnetic headphones are also the best closed-backs I’ve heard. As I put it in my review on, “The NAD Viso HP50 sounds huge compared to most closed-back headphones, but the LCD-XC sounds huge compared to the HP50.” In my experience, the LCD-XC is as close as a closed-back model has ever gotten to the awesome spatiality of the best open-back headphones. The bass is a little more oomphy than I consider strictly neutral, but the LCD-XCs have more kick than any open-back models I’ve heard, and that has big advantages if you listen mostly to R&B or rock. And for what it’s worth, they’re gorgeous, with earcups made of your choice of four polished hardwoods.

. . . Brent Butterworth