An introduction to headphone flagships

The STAX SR-009,
arguably the best headphone on the market

Headphones have long been considered the cheap way into hifi. However over the past few years several companies have started to fill the demands of summit-fi headphones, some of which might even be competing with some of the best speaker rigs out there. All of this is thanks to the digital revolution; many people are listening to music behind their PC's instead of on a couch. As a result the limited movement of headphones is no longer a problem. Furthermore because of the large popularity of the iPod, headphones have been getting extra attention as well.

The world famous HD800
Cue in Sennheiser for being the first to create a commercially successful summit-fi headphone; the HD800. At the time of introduction it cost $800, and gained huge popularity on communities such as Head-Fi as being the best headphones out there. At least, apart from the Sennheiser Orpheus, the AKG K1000 and some of the STAX cans, but more on that at the end of this article.

The HD800 was famed for providing incredible imaging and soundstage, and it was the first $500+ headphone ever to be mass produced. And it was in fact so popular that eventually it's price almost doubled to $1500. As a result it lost some of its popularity, but the real reason was the introduction of other top class models.

After the HD800 there was the planar magnetic revolution in 2009. Two companies released new top of the line headphones that supposedly would be able to beat everything out there. These two companies were the American Audeze (pronounced Odyssey) and the Chinese Hifiman.
The LCD-2
It started with the Audeze LCD-1, which was an attempt of fellow headphone enthusiast to reinvent the summit-fi market. It was a big hit, and not much later they came with the LCD-2, which gained huge popularity in the headphone community. These headphones were based on the planar magnetic principle, introduced by Yamaha in the 70's as 'orthodynamic' headphones. The name stuck, and nowadays all the planar magnetics are called 'orthos'.

The LCD-2 costs $950, and the LCD-1 (now discontinued) cost $400. We can see a pattern here, one we could see in Sennheiser as well. Demand for >$1000 is there, and as a result companies start asking ridiculous prices for these cans. .
Currently Audeze is at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest presenting the LCD-3, which costs a whopping $2000. However it has been famed to beat the $5000 STAX SR-009 by some initial impressions, I'm curious as to whether it can keep up this status. Although I highly doubt this since the SR-009 wins in terms of ergonomics. The LCD-3 is simply (like the LCD-2) far to heavy to be comfortable. This is because Audeze put in a very large amount of magnets in to create a strong uniform magnetic field, but unfortunately neodymium magnets are far from light.

The serene HE-6
Back to hifiman. They started with introducing the HE-5  at $600. People argued that the LCD-2 sounded better, but the HE-5 does win in terms of comfort and pricing. The product is now discontinued and there is the HE-500 ($900) and the HE-6 ($1200) as a replacement. The HE-6 is the current flagship, with the HE-600 coming soon. While not as popular as Audeze's flagship it still has a vast fanbase. Personally if I'd have the money I'd run out an buy an HE-500. But unfortunately, $900 is a bit out of my wallet's reach.

The Tesla T1
In the dawn of 2010 another headphone giant introduced a top class dynamic headphone. This giant is named Beyerdynamic, and came out with their mighty Tesla T1. Many people argue that this is the best dynamic headphone out there, although I personally think they are very much on par with the HD800. It costs an impressive $1200, and is famed to be one of the most comfortable headphones on the market. However this headphone is far from as popular as the HD800, and as a result I doubt that it could beat the HD800, despite it's higher price point (higher than HD800's intro price).

The SR-007
Having covered some of the greatest dynamic and orthodynamic headphones, it be almost stupid if I didn't go to the electrostatic headphones. I'm of course talking about the Japenese STAX, famed for making the best headphones ever since the 70's. The don't price their headphones as headphones, but rather as 'earspeakers'. This is because the headphones need to be driven by a power amplifier, rather than by a regular pre-amp. This is caused by their hugely inefficient drivers, but justified by their godlike specifications. Currently they have two top-of-the-line headphones available: the SR-007 and the SR-009. The former costs $2600 and the latter $5200. As you might have guessed, these are the most expensive two headphone on the entire market and are thus famed to be the best two headphones ever made. While these prices might seem insane to some (in fact, most) people, you should consider that there are many speakers costing many times this amount. The SR-009 is the most detailed audio device on the planet, beating even speakers in terms of imaging and sheer detail.
I'd love to have one of these two, but it won't be for another 10 years or so until I can have a job earning even close enough to justify these.

The peculiar K1000
Now there are also two famed discontinued headphones out there. The AKG K1000 and the Sennheiser Orpheus HE-60. These two are both fairly rare and as a result it's very difficult to judge whether either of these two would be able to compete with the previous flagships mentioned. However, they are still two cans which should be known to any headphone enthusiast as jewels of the past.

The Infamous Edition 10
Not all flagships have been large succeses either. There are two famous 'epic fails' in the headphone world. These two are the Ultrasone Edition 10 at $2750, and the the Grado PS1000 at $1700. I have never ever heard reports of these cans even remotely justifying their price in terms of comfort or sound quality. This shows that it isn't as easy as it might seem to create a world class headphone, and we must definitely respect the giants out there. Despite the fact that they charge ridiculous premium prices, most high end headphones are indeed marvels of audio engineering, and should be treated as thus.

This article is supposed to serve as an introduction to everyone that isn't literate with high end cans. In contrary to the speaker market, the high end headphone market is fairly small. I'm not implying I will ever buy even one of the cans I mentioned here, but they are definitely very interesting marvels of audio engineering.

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