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The Best $300(ish) Headphones

By Geoff Morrison, Wirecutter

The Wirecutter's Geoff Morrison helps pick out a pair of high-end headphones that he would buy today.

If I were looking to buy a $300-or-so headphone, I’d get the PSB M4U 1s. I base this on extensive Wirecutter-exclusive listening tests with amateurs and professionals, plus the long list of awards and positive reviews of the M4U 1’s nearly-identical-sounding noise-cancelling brother, the M4U 2.

What does spending $300 (or so) get you in a headphone that less money does not? Build quality is a big one. Most of the headphones in this bunch are solidly built and have a high-end feel to them. Sound quality is the bigger and more important aspect. These represent some of the best headphones available, and offer far more balanced, natural, realistic sound than cheaper headphones. Will you hear a difference between these and our lower-priced pick, the $120 Audio Technicas? Absolutely. Is the difference worth the extra money? It is to me, and if you’re looking for some of the best sound quality possible to enjoy your music, then it probably is to you as well. If you’re just looking for something to drown out the subway/train/etc, these are probably overkill (though our noise cancelling pick might interest you). These are obviously big and bulky, though all are lighter than they look. I wouldn’t necessarily call them “portable” but most come with carrying cases.

Photo Credit: Alex Washburn for Wired

First, a few words on how we did this. It’s normal Wirecutter methodology to find a consensus (or as much as possible) among professional reviews in a given product category, verify that with user reviews and any other hands-on assessments, and in many cases, check the product ourselves.

The problem with this category is, there’s no consensus. No reviewer has heard all of the headphones in this category.

So this article is sort of a hybrid between a typical Wirecutter article, and a traditional review. The six headphones mentioned below were all chosen for specific reasons. I asked the top headphone reviewers on the web and in print for their picks in this price range. They recommended the AKG K551,Beyerdynamic DT990, Sennheiser Momentums, and V-Moda M-100. These won out, in their minds over many other popular headphones and can be considered “the best of the best”. The PSB M4U 1 headphone is brand new, so it lacks any professional reviews at the moment. However, it is nearly identical to one of the best-reviewed headphones ever made (and our pick for step-up noise-cancelling headphone). The final entrant in our roundup is easily the most popular high-end headphone in the world: The Beats by Dre Studios.

In addition to quoting professional reviewers, I gathered all the headphones and had a listen myself. Despite being a headphone reviewer, one opinion is just that: one opinion. I solicited a panel of peoples to listen as well. Their experience with high-end headphones ranged from “none” to “professional audio reviewer.” After listening to all the headphones back to back (to back to back…), each gave me their opinion, and I used these to determine the final rankings. This combination of reviews, amateur options, and professional listeners is by far the most thorough test of headphones of this price.

Who were our esteemed judges? On the professional reviewer side, Steve Guttenberg of CNet and Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity gave me their picks in this price range. Steve has written for Home Theater, Stereophile, and many other magazines and websites and recommended the Momentums and V-Modas. Tyll is the Editor in Chief of Inner Fidelity and was the founder and former CEO of HeadRoom.com. He also recommended the Momentums.Brent Butterworth of Sound+Vision magazine, and formally of Home Theater,Home Entertainment, and many others, also gave me his pick for this range. Brent also listened and gave his opinions on all the headphones, plus objectively measured their performance using state-of-the-art headphone testing equipment. He recommended the AKGs. On the amateur and semi-pro listener side, there’s Stephen Gergely, a paralegal; Adam Phalen, a theater sound designer; Lauren Dragan, a voice actress and part-time headphone reviewer; and Phil Metzler, keyboardist in the band Just Off Turner.

And me? I’ve been reviewing A/V gear for over 12 years for various websites and publications. I review a lot of headphones, and participate in many headphone panel tests for Sound+Vision magazine. I put the Beyerdynamics in the mix, having loved them when I participated in an S+V panel test last year. I included the PSBs based on how well-reviewed their noise-cancelling counterparts were (the M4U 2) and having briefly heard them at a recent trade show.

So why the PSB M4U 1s? Every single listener ranked them either first or a close second. No other headphone came close to having such universal adoration. Their sound quality evoked such responses as “I could close my eyes and see the musicians playing,” and “I love the presence in the sound.” Brent said “Darned close to perfect, one of the best headphones made,” and “the naturalness of this headphone’s sound is almost impossible to beat at any price.” I felt that the more you listen to them, the more you like them, and that they just let the music through.

Now personally, this alone would be enough to convince me to buy them, as a varied listening panel nearly all picking the same headphone is fantastic evidence. A few professional reviews would be great, but these are brand new and there aren’t any yet. However, there are dozens of reviews and awards for the M4U 2, its more expensive sister model. This headphone is $100 more, looks the same, but has noise cancelling, so it’s slightly heavier. Lauren and I listened to the M4U 2 and M4U 1 back to back, and they sound almost exactly the same. Brent has heard the both as well, and he concurs.

So what praise does the M4U 2 get? (Again, this is not our pick but the more expensive version of our pick with identical sound.)

Sound+Vision magazine gave it their Product of the Year Award last year. Brent and I both voted for these headphones to win this award, picking them over the dozens of other products we reviewed last year. In S+V’s writeup of the headphones for the award, they said “They're comfortable, stylish, and about as close to a flawless integration of aesthetic and sonic features as we've run into in a headphone recently." "[They] perform fantastically in passive mode too. In fact, he managed to maintain remarkably consistent sonics in active, passive, and noise canceling modes — no mean feat, in our opinion.” The praise was similar when we reviewed them last June, “Not only does the M4U 2 sound like a really great speaker, it sounds like a great speaker in a great listening room.”

Storied British magazine What HiFi gave the M4U 2s 5/5 stars and said, “So, how is the sound? Awesome.” They also said they had “brilliant all-round audio” and that “if you want to turn your office, flight or train journey into a private listening experience of exceptional quality, these are the headphones to get.”

Hardcore tech website Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity said in their review, “Overall, the M4U 2 is well balanced, providing a warm and welcoming sound. It covers the basics with ease: solid detailed bass, clear and open midrange, and detailed upper octaves. It is a headphone I would have no problem recommending to a wide demographic, from a friend with no experience in the hi-fi world, to one with risers for their speaker cables.” They concluded their review with “The PSB's are a very well-rounded product delivering quality sound across all types of music.”

AVGuide.com’s Editor-in-Chief Chris Martens said in his review, “PSB’s M4U 2 is one of the most cleverly conceived, well executed, versatile, and good sounding headphones that $400 can possibly buy. It literally offers something for everyone: sufficient sound quality to please purists, cool-looking industrial design and great fit and finish for those who demand headphones that look as good as they sound, terrific comfort and ease of use for those who will spend long hours listening to their ‘phones." Concluding, "This is why we call the M4U 2 a “headphone for all seasons.” They gave it 10/10 for tonal balance, clarity, and value and 9.5/10 for dynamics, comfort.

So yes, the M4U 2s are $100 more expensive, and have noise cancelling, but sonically they’re very similar. So for an accurate, comfortable, all-around excellent headphone, the PSB M4U 1 should be your go-to pick.

While the PSBs were liked by everyone and disliked by no one, some preferred other headphones slightly more. These other headphones, however, were also disliked by certain judges. This is why it’s worth mentioning how the panel (and other professional reviews) judge the other headphones. While we’re confidant nearly everyone will love the PSBs, some people might prefer certain aspects of the fit, style, or sound of some of the others here. If the PSBs are great for all, some of the other picks here are good for some.

Interestingly, we had a tie for second place: the Beyerdynamic DT990 and Sennheiser Momentum. These headphones couldn’t be more different.

Beyerdynamic DT990 ($350-380, depending on ohm rating)

The DT990s have an open, clear sound, yet still offer decent bass. Some people love the sound of open-backed headphones and might prefer that to the PSBs. However, some people feel the opposite. Also, as far as overall sound goes, the PSBs have a better balanced, more natural sound and cost less.

Personally, I found the DT990s to have a little more treble, and a little less bass than the PSBs. I ranked them third, which is somewhat ironic as I picked these to participate in this roundup, loving them the first time I heard them.

Phil and Stephen picked the Beyerdynamic DT990s first. Their sound is similar to the PSBs, in that they’re accurate and balanced. Phil felt they had a “nice, warm sound” that was “clear and crisp.” He also said that he “couldn’t see getting fatigued listening to almost any music on these.” Stephen’s love for the DT990s stemmed largely from how comfortable he found them (I, and nearly everyone else, concurred with that sentiment). He also loved how full the sound was, and how he could distinguish all the instruments in the music. Brent felt they had a “big, natural, open, ambient sound that others can’t match,” and that they’d be “a good buy for audiophiles who want the open-back sound.” That open-backed nature is one of the reasons why Lauren didn’t like the DT990s (ranking them 4th). Open-back headphones let the sounds of the headphones out, and the sounds of the world in, for a unique sound that is loved by some, but disliked by others.

On the professional review side, Chris Martens from AVGuide.com said, “Beyerdynamic’s DT-990 premium is a very fine mid-priced headphone, and one that offers plenty of sonic resolving power and a compelling quality of dynamic expressiveness. The DT-990 does provide touches of bass and upper treble emphasis that some will enjoy, but that will not suit every taste.”

Headphoneinfo.com didn’t love them, but said, “The DT 990s had an average frequency response. Since our current average is a pretty good result, consider the DT 990s to also be pretty good,” and decided, “The DT 990s are great for people who like good audio quality and aesthetic customization.”

Brent, writing for Sound+Vision mag, said in his review, “It’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t like the sound of the DT-990.” He concluded with “[The DT990s are] comfortable and well built, and your impression of the sound will likely range from very good to great.”

Crowd-sourced headphone reviews are dicey, as you don’t know if the reviewer was able to compare different headphones at the same time, which is the only valid way. That caveat said, both Amazon and Head-fi.org like the DT990s. Amazon, from 120 reviews, gives them a 4.5/5, with 75% 5/5 and 14% 4/5. Reviewer “Config ‘inuwolf’” says “I've gone through MANY headphones in my time (Sony, Sennheiser, Grado, Panasonic, Denon and so on), and these are by far my favorite,” and “I'm an audiophile, and love good, LOUD, but very clean sound for my music. I listen to everything from death metal to hip hop to airy ambient music, and these headphones handle everything with grace and clarity! I strictly use them with portable devices (iPod & iPad) for listening to music in bed or at my desk while at work, so I can't comment on how well they work with an amp.”

At Head-fi.org, a website for headphone fanatics, the DT990s get 4.5/5 from six reviews. Reviewer “Wake up Neo” voiced what most said about the headphones, saying they had “high and detailed sound quality, large soundstage, good bass,” and that they were, “comfortable open headphones.” It’s worth noting some of the reviewers were listening to the more headphone-amp friendly 250ohm versions, we tested the more portable-device-friendly 32ohm version. The sound quality should be similar.

So if you’re looking for a big, natural, clear (arguably slightly treble heavy) sound, or are looking for the headphone equivalent to flannel pajamas, the Beyerdynamics are with checking out.

Sennheiser Momentum ($350)

The Momentums are fantastic headphones. No one disliked them. Their warm sound doesn't mask clear, detailed treble. They're a little bass-heavy compared to the more neutral-sounding PSBs, and their smaller ear cups might not fit over some ears. They don't have the "open-backed" sound of the Beyer's, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your preference. They came in second largely because people preferred the PSBs, not that they didn't like the Sennheisers. So even though they tied with the Beyers, the DT990s had a few #1 picks, but were ranked as low as 4th by others. Everyone ranked the Sennheisers either 2nd or 3rd. And the PSB headphones cost less.

The Momentums were recommended by Steve Guttenberg and Tyll Hertsen for their picks in this price range. It’s worth noting that Steve loved the PSB M4U 2s, but hasn’t yet heard the M4U 1s. Tyll, who has, found the PSBs too “strident” for his liking.

Brent, who picked them 2nd, summed them up best, “This one gives the PSB M4U 1 a run for its money. Voices are extremely clear and natural, highs sound lush. The only downside is that the bass has exaggerated punch; maybe some would like that, though. A great headphone.” In fact, I would like that. I tend to like a little warmer sound, and the Sennheisers have that. They’re not as open and revealing as the Beyer or PSBs, but still offer a fairly balanced sound. I ranked them 2nd, and it was a very close second to the PSBs. I’d be happy with either.

I, and a few other reviewers, noted an extra “tightness” to the bass, almost like the bass was being compressed. While not detrimental, it wasn’t as natural sounding as the Beyer’s bass (even though they had less).

Steve Guttenberg gave them 4/5 stars (including a 9/10 for performance) in his CNet review. “The Momentum headphones sound remarkably crisp, clear, and accurate; they don't have the usual bass or midrange emphasis that's common to many headphones designed for use with phones and portable music players” and that the “sound and build quality are excellent.” He compared them to another headphone in our group, the M-100s, “Switching between [the Momentums] and the V-Moda M-100 pair, the sound was very different. The M-100s were tonally darker and more subdued; there was a lot less detail coming from them. Ah, but those V-Moda headphones made a lot more bass than the Momentums. Not that the bass from the Momentums was lightweight or lacking in any way, the M-100s simply have more. While I felt the Momentum headphones' bass level was more accurate and slightly better defined, if you listen to music that sounds best with extra bass, you might prefer the M-100 model. It's a matter of taste.” He concluded “The Sennheiser Momentum headphones will appeal to audiophiles or anyone looking for full-size, over-the-ear headphones that sound equally good with a wide variety of music genres. Build quality is superb, and the handsome design is a nice alternative to more hip-hop and fashion-oriented headphones like the Beats line,” and “These are clearly among the best-sounding headphones in their price class. And for some, they may actually be the best.

What HiFi gave them 5/5, saying they had “dynamic, balanced and enjoyable sound,” concluding, "At £260 they certainly aren’t the cheapest among their competitors, but their refreshingly balanced sound and great design makes them worth every penny, easily putting them among our favourite on-the-go headphones."

Tyll Hertsen awarded the Momentums his “Wall of Fame” award, concluding his review with “The Momentum is simply one of the best balanced headphone offerings I've ever experienced. They're very good looking, very good sounding, have excellent isolation, are easily driven from portable players, and are supremely comfortable.”

With the same crowd review caveats as the DT990s, the Momentums are rated 4.4/5 on Amazon from 33 reviews. The breakdown is 60% 5.5, 27% 4/5. Reviewer Andrew S. Giovannini summed them up with, “They are just soo unbelievably smooth sounding… so much detail without any of the spikes from other headphones. This means you can really crank the volume, hearing every detail with a great deal of intimacy without having to be worried about any kind of harsh high-end noise coming out of left-field… or over-bloated bass over-powering everything else… killing those details.”

At Head-fi-org, the Momentums are well loved, with a 4.5/5 from 13 reviews. Reviewer Leliana summed them up as having, “Good soundstage, fantastic instrument separation, tight but strong bass,” concluding “Overall I'd say these are a fantastic portable headphone if you are interested in fantastic isolation, comfort and natural well balanced sound, all while being able to be driven by most portable devices.”

The Momentums certainly have a gorgeous design. I found them to fit rather tight around my ears. Stephen found them very “snug.” Tyll noted “Let me get my one gripe out of the way, these cans are slightly small for circumaural headphones, and folks with larger than average ears may want to test fit a pair before committing to a purchase.” Steve Guttenberg mentioned, “Comfort is usually a Sennheiser strong suit, and at first, the headphones seemed very comfortable. But over longer listening sessions I found that the nicely cushioned earpads put more pressure against the tops of my ears than the bottoms and I was a little too aware of the thinly padded headband resting on my head.”

While the PSBs are our overall pick, if the Beyers or Sennheisers seem like they offer some aspect that sounds good for you, they’re worth checking out. The rest of this list, though, are less likely to be loved by a wide audience.

V-Moda M-100 and AKG K551

The V-Moda M-100s were solidly mid-pack, and a decent headphone just out performed by the others here. Adam actually picked them first, loving their sturdy construction. He found them dynamic, had “sonic goodness.” But for as much as Adam liked them, Brent did not, ranking them 5th. He felt they were “a very exciting, vivid-sounding headphone. It’s a hyped-up, boom’n’sizzle sound, but it’s fairly well-balanced overall and sounds very dynamic. The bass is somewhat boomy and exaggerated, while voices have a slight ‘cupped’ coloration, like they’re being sung through about 1/3rd the length of a toilet paper tube.” Other panelists mimicked his opinions.

The AKG’s did not fare well in this group. Most found the sound to be rather “tinny” or having “subdued bass.” Their size was also a concern for Lauren and Stephen. Brent probably put it best, “Overall, a little on the bright side but nothing I couldn’t get used to, and a good choice for detail-loving audiophiles.”

Beats by Dre Studios

And then we come to the Beats by Dre Studios. These are, without question, the most popular high-end headphones out there. If you recognize them, you’ll see them everywhere. There isn’t a crowded public place I can go where I don’t see someone with Beats around their neck. Interesting, though, I never see anyone actually listening to them. Our panel test shows why right away. These were universally despised. The only person who didn’t rate them dead last was Stephen, who found the AKGs too uncomfortable not to rate at the bottom. Comparing them to other headphones of the same price, the Studios are astonishingly bad. I’ll let the comments speak for themselves: “Boxy and muddy,” “indistinct and undefined,” “flat and lifeless,” “sound like you’re listening in a tunnel,” and finally, “terrible.”

This wasn’t a question of music preference, or even a desire for more bass, as other headphones in this test had lots of bass, but it weren’t nearly as “sloppy” or “boomy” as the Beats. Yes, they have noise cancelling (and can’t be listened to without working batteries and the NC on), but if you’re looking for noise cancelling, the Bose QC 15s offer far better noise cancelling and sound better to boot, for the same price.

A step up?

Recommending a step up from the PSBs is difficult, as the sky is really the limit when it comes to headphones. For $100 more the PSB M4U 2 headphones add noise cancelling, which is a cool feature to have, even if the noise cancelling performance isn’t quite as good as the Bose QC15s (which don’t sound nearly as good). In terms of sound quality though, you’d have to go up a lot in price to get better sound than the M4U 1s. Many reviewers love the Audeze LCD3 Planar Magnetic Headphone, and I was greatly impressed when I heard them. But at $1,945 they’re not for the faint of wallet.

Wrapping it up

So because of their near-universal love, and almost non-existent negatives, for $300 I’d get the PSB M4U 1 headphones if you definitely want to spend more money on headphones than the $120 our lower end headphones cost.

This story originally appeared in The Wirecutter, published 2/25/2013 and reprinted with permission. Lead photo courtesy Wired.com and used with Creative Commons 3.0