Hi-fi headphones are often the ideal solution for enjoying high-quality individual listening. When listening to music with headphones, the sound is not dependent on the acoustics of the room, contrary to what we see with speakers. The primary objective of hi-fi headphones is to reproduce sound without artifice for a high-fidelity experience. Therefore, the sound is hardly or not at all modified, contrary to the sound of wireless headphones and Bluetooth models. To help you choose the hi-fi headphones that best suit your needs and expectations, here is our comparative guide about the best hi-fi headphones of 2021.
The different types of hi-fi headphones
There are three types of hi-fi headphones: closed-back, open-back and semi-open. Each model meets very different needs depending on the requirements, listening conditions and daily use of the headphones.
Closed-back hi-fi headphones
In closed-back headphones, the sound travels from only one side of the driver to the listener’s ear. This results in what is known as passive isolation: the often thick ear pads combined with unilateral diffusion create a cocoon-like impression. It is therefore easy to enjoy music at low volume, even in a slightly noisy environment. In fact, your listening session won’t be interrupted by surrounding discussions, even when other people are in the same room. Closed-back headphones also have the advantage of limiting sound leakage. This allows you to enjoy music without disturbing other family members.
To recognize a pair of closed-back headphones you simply need to look at the appearance of its shells: if they have no perforations, then we can say that the headphones are “closed”. When in doubt, a quick look at the headphones’ features will quickly clarify their design.
In addition, closed-back hi-fi headphones can be used both indoors and outdoors, unlike open-back headphones, which are exclusively intended for use indoors.
Open-back hi-fi headphones
Open-back hi-fi headphones are generally the most popular model among audiophiles. Unlike closed-back headphones, open-back headphones offer a wider and deeper soundstage. They produce a feeling of space that can approach that reproduced by a real hi-fi system. The shells in this case have more or less visible openings. They are most often equipped with grilles or small dispersed “holes”, or can be covered with a transparent acoustic fabric. With open-back headphones, the sound is directed both to the listener’s ears and away from the shells, which can be problematic if there are other people in the room. As you can see, the use of open hi-fi headphones requires a quiet environment free of unwanted noise to fully enjoy your music, because if those around you can hear your music, even at low volume, you will also be able to hear any surrounding noise. Apart from this factor, open hi-fi headphones have the advantage of providing a sound similar to that offered by a hi-fi system, but without the clutter.
It should be noted, however, that lovers of deep bass will generally prefer closed headphones, since an open-back design is susceptible to generating a slight loss of bass, even though some models such as the Audeze headphones remain very generous in this register.
Semi-open hi-fi headphones
Less common on the market, semi-open headphones are a very good compromise between completely closed and open models. They offer a wider and deeper soundstage than closed headphones, while isolating more effectively than open headphones.
Indoor use in a quiet room is still recommended. However, music leakage outside the headphones is greatly limited, allowing you to use semi-open headphones without disturbing the peace and quiet of others in the room.
Headphone coupling: circumaural vs. supra-aural
While hi-fi headphones generally offer excellent comfort because they are designed for long listening sessions, there is one important parameter to take into account: the shape of the headphone’s earpieces. There are two types of “coupling” available with hi-fi headphones: circumaural (over-ear) and supra-aural (on-ear).
Circumaural/over-ear hi-fi headphones
Circumaural headphones are easily recognized thanks to their large earpieces. They offer the advantage of effectively isolating you from outside noise, but also of evenly distributing the pressure across your head and ears rather than on the outer ear. They completely surround your ears and provide a cocoon-like feeling, whether they have an open-back, semi-open or closed-back design.
This coupling is generally considered to be the most comfortable, but means the headphones are bulkier.
Supra-aural/over-ear hi-fi headphones
The earpieces of supra-aural hi-fi headphones rest on the ears instead of surrounding them, which decreases their passive isolation compared to a circumaural design and puts more pressure on the ears. Closed-back on-ear models are usually used for on-the-go listening because they are less bulky, but open-back models are also available.
This type of coupling can be a little less comfortable to wear. Some people may find that it makes their ears too warm.
Hi-fi headphones: measurements
Although it can be tedious to focus on figures, the specs of your future hi-fi headphones will have a significant impact on your listening experience. Here is a short explanation of the data that will help you choose the best 2021 hi-fi headphones!
All headphones must offer a minimum frequency response of 20Hz to 20,000Hz (20kHz) to be qualified as hi-fi headphones. The lowest frequencies represent the headphones’ ability to descend in the lows, and the highest frequencies determine the definition in the treble. This range from 20Hz to 20kHz is known as the audible range, the one that can be perceived by the human ear. It generally decreases with age. However, the wider the frequency response, the more precise the sound, with better reproduction of the different harmonics. This is why you will find hi-fi headphones with a very wide frequency response, some of which can go down to 5Hz (such as the Audio-Technica ATH-AD500x and Focal Listen Pro headphones) and others that can reach over 50kHz, as is the case with the HiFiMAN Anandas. All of these models that reach over 40kHz are, by definition, eligible for Hi-Res Audio certification. However, only a few brands agree to pay for this license. This is why it makes more sense to focus on the technical characteristics, in particular the frequency response, rather than to look for a logo. Its absence is not synonymous with the inability to deliver a Hi-Res reproduction.
Impedance, sensitivity and transducers
The impedance, sensitivity and size of the transducers (the name given to the drivers in headphones) are some of the most important points to consider when choosing your hi-fi headphones. The impedance defines which sources you can associate with the headphones: over 35 ohms, it is more difficult to power your headphones with a smartphone. The higher the impedance, the more important it becomes to choose a powerful source. As for the sensitivity, the higher it is, the less you need to turn up the volume to enjoy your music properly. Thus, hi-fi headphones with a low impedance (less than or equal to 35 ohms) and high sensitivity (more than 100 dB) are considered easy to power. Moreover, large transducers make hi-fi headphones more complicated to power, as more power is required to move their drivers and therefore to fully express themselves.
Likewise, the materials used for the design of the transducers have an influence on the headphones’ resistance. For example, Focal headphones, despite an average impedance of 35 ohms, need a particularly powerful source to demonstrate their full potential.
Hi-fi headphones: comfort
Comfort is an essential criterion and one of the aspects on which manufacturers place great emphasis. During long listening sessions, it is common for some users to feel an unpleasant warmth on the top of the head due to the headband! In order to overcome this problem, brands are redoubling their efforts and ingenuity to offer you the most comfortable listening experience.
While Audio-Technica and AKG have often opted for an adjustable imitation leather headband, others have simply preferred to generously pad their headband and sometimes cover it with a soft microfiber fabric.
The different accessories included with hi-fi headphones
The accessories that come with a pair of hi-fi headphones can enhance the way you listen to your music. Here, we are going to focus on ear pads and cables.
The primary purpose of ear pads is not comfort. Indeed, the choice of their covering is mainly based on acoustics. Therefore, leather or imitation leather reinforces coupling with the wearer’s ears and, as a result, the passive isolation. It retains more bass, which is why we generally find this type of covering on closed-back headphones.
Conversely, a perforated microfiber fabric or velvet coating reinforces sound diffusion, which explains why we find these materials mainly on open-back headphones.
There are two main types of cable that can be supplied with headphones: unbalanced and balanced. The first category, more common, includes 3.5mm mini-jack and 6.35mm jack cables. These formats broaden the range of possibilities in terms of power supply as the vast majority of sources have this type of connector. Balanced cables, on the other hand, are available in 2.5mm mini-jack, 4.4mm jack and XLR formats. The latter have the advantage of reinforcing the sensation of stereo and allowing more power from the amplifier. However, it is rarer to find this type of connector on the different sources. It is nevertheless possible to find 4.4 and 2.5mm jack connectors on some digital audio players such as the iBasso DX120, Shanling M2X and Sony NW-ZX507, but also headphone amplifiers like the FiiO Q3 and iFi Audio hip-dac.
As for XLR connectors, they are usually found on high-end amplifiers such as the Cayin HA-300 headphone amplifier.
What are the best hi-fi headphones of 2021?
We’ve reached the end of our summary of the various parameters to take into account when choosing the hi-fi headphones best suited to your needs. We examined the differences between the various types of headphones, the coupling, the measurements and the supplied accessories. The time has come to offer you a selection of the best hi-fi headphones of 2021. So that everyone can find what they are looking for, here is a non-exhaustive list of hi-fi headphones for all budgets: less than €100, €100 to €300, €300 to €500, €500 to €1000 and, finally, over €1000.