Choosing a good pair of headphones should never be an afterthought when you’re building a hi-fi system. A decent pair of cans isn’t a mere accessory, or a necessary tool to ensure you don’t annoy the neighbours or wake the kids up – the right pair can be your passport to a world of musical enjoyment you scarcely imagined existed, revealing hidden depths and unexpected, thrilling highs in even the most familiar of recordings.
It has to be said that this was one of the toughest group tests we’ve undertaken in a while. As you’d hope, given that these are four of the best headphones from four highly respected manufacturers, all priced around the £500 mark, there isn’t a sub-standard pair in sight. No try-hard contenders, no victories of style over substance, no disappointing ‘will this do?’ offerings from companies trading on former glories. If we met you in the pub and you told us you’d bought any one of the headphones on test here, we’d say “Ooh, nice” and shake our heads enviously, because we couldn’t afford them.
That said, objectivity and close critical listening are the name(s) of the game. So over the course of many happy hours of testing, here’s what we found out testing four of the best Hi-Fi headphones money can buy.
Bower & Wilkins P9 Signature
Type: Circum/supra-aural, closed back, dynamic
Frequency response: 2Hz-30kHz
With their metal headband and earcups swathed in soft brown leather, the B&W P9 headphones look like the kind you’d find in the listening room of a gentleman’s club in St James’s Square – a little old-fashioned, perhaps, but simply oozing quality. And they pack a musical punch.
As you’d expect from the closed-back design, the P9s are no slouches in the bass department. They deftly kept pace with the most frantic and intricate of jungle basslines and rendered the sonorous tones of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor impressively too, so whatever your choice of listening, there should be no grumbles here. Thankfully, mids and highs shine through brightly as well. The P9 headphones offer a slightly tighter, more compact sound than the airy Sennheisers and Quads, but again that’s to be expected from the design. If pushed, you might say the midrange can get a little muddled at times (noticeable on Pink Floyd and Love albums), but honestly couldn’t say if that was the fault of the cans or the recordings. Either way, we’re firmly in nit-picking territory here.
The Bower & Wilkins P9 Signatures do have a couple of major drawbacks. The first is that they are quite heavy and the second is a cable that’s only 1m long. The in-line remote suggests the reason for this: they’re primarily intended for use with mobile devices. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and in a round-up of mobile headphones they’d no doubt wipe the floor with the competition. But no one wants to pay £700 to sit on top of their stereo. 7/10
Type: Circumaural, closed back, dynamic
Frequency response: 5Hz-45kHz
First impressions upon taking the ATH-A2000Z headphones out of the box were good. With their shiny metal earcups and lightweight two-pronged metal headband with separately mounted cushions, they’ve got a satisfyingly ‘space age’ look about them, and they sport a nice long cable finished with a 3.5mm jack, as well as a screw-on 6mm adaptor included in the box. They’re light and supremely comfortable to wear for long periods though they perhaps feel a little loose on the head, but otherwise there’s nothing to grumble about in the looks and build department.
The Audio-Technicas impressed when it comes to sonic performance, too. The sound they deliver is incredibly detailed – they revealed a closed hi-hat tsk’ing away in Pink Floyd’s Brain Damage that I’ve never noticed in 30 years of owning the album, while Nile Rodgers’s screeching guitar on Chic’s Happy Man shone through in exemplary fashion. If there’s a criticism, it’s that they’re perhaps a little lacking in ‘oomph’ – Bernie Edwards’ bass on the rest of Chic’s album was forced to take a back seat it doesn’t really deserve, while Love lacked a little of their usual exuberance. When it came to Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips’s Mayhem In Manhattan live concert recording, though, none of the other headphones could quite give you that “being there at Carnegie Hall” feeling as well as the Audio-Technicas did.
All told, while they’re perhaps best suited to lighter styles of music, this is a fine pair of headphones that definitely warrants a place on your listening list. 8/10
Sennheiser HD 660 S
Type: Circumaural, open back, dynamic
Frequency response: 10Hz-41kHz
The Sennheisers are the most affordable headphones in our round-up and that’s reflected somewhat in their build: they’re lighter than the other pairs on test and have a metal-and-plastic headband with foam rubber cushioning. They still look a very classy proposition, though, coming in a hardboard presentation case and, in true Sennheiser fashion, not only is the long, double-stranded cable user-replaceable, a spare is included in the box – as is a step-down 6mm-3.5mm adaptor. The headphones feel snug and comfortable on the head, too.
When it comes to their musical qualities, the open-backed design delivers a sound that’s spacious and airy. This was particularly true with Forcione & Sciubba smooth jazz recordings, where the Sennheisers revealed each guitar note and breath with a crispness and clarity their closed-back rivals couldn’t compete with. But there can be a downside to such high-end transparency, with the duelling saxes of Mayhem In Manhattan sounding a little shrill and screechy at times. Lower down the spectrum, Love’s brass passages sounded a little muddy in places, while the intricate drum & bass twists of JumpUpThrowDown sometimes left the Sennheisers struggling to keep up.
Again, though, these are the kind of niggles that 99 per cent of listeners won’t even notice and as long as your musical tastes don’t skew too much in favour of bass-heavy styles, the Sennheisers offer solid build and quality sound at a far lower price than their rivals here, so they certainly shouldn’t be dismissed. 8/10
Type: Circumaural, open back, planar magnetic
Frequency response: 10Hz-40kHz
Uniquely, Quad’s first-ever headphones deliver their sound using not a moving coil as in ‘dynamic’ heaphones, but an ultra-thin, electrically active diaphragm, of the type also found in the British hi-fi stalwart’s acclaimed electrostatic loudspeakers. That alone marks them out as special, but the hard clamshell carrying case, leather-encased metal headband, metal-grille earcups and sheepskin ear cushions also scream quality the minute you look at them.
Quad claims its technology gives the ERA-1 headphones a more “natural and accurate” sound. It’s certainly a warmer, smoother sound than their rivals here: you’ll never experience ear-strain, although they are quite heavy. There’s no faulting their definition right across the sound spectrum: high notes are bright without ever being shrill or piercing, mids are lovely and crisp, but perhaps the biggest surprise was in the bass department. These are open-backed cans, and by Quad’s own admission, really optimised for vocal and acoustic recordings – yet for sheer bottom-end welly, we simply couldn’t fault them. Bass tones did perhaps lack a little ‘bite’ at times, both on the drum & bass and the Chic albums, but then we were testing a factory-fresh pair and Quad recommends running the ERA-1 headphones in for a little while, so that would almost certainly improve over time. All told, this is one very classy set of cans indeed. 9/10
The Bower & Wilkins P9 cans look and sound great, but they’re aimed more at mobile use rather than home listening and are rather pricey. The Sennheisers, on the other hand, offer great value for money but they’re just a little more ‘ordinary’ in terms of design and build.
Both the Audio-Technica and Quad cans offer great definition, but sound quite different: the Audio-Technicas are light and delicate, while the Quads sound warm and rich. The Audio-Technicas fared slightly better with bass-heavy styles, but we’re sure the Quads would catch up in time and that, coupled with their sturdier build, makes them our winners, by a hair.
This is an extract from issue 328 of BBC Focus magazine.
Subscribe and get the full article delivered to your door, or download the BBC Focus app to read it on your smartphone or tablet. Find out more
Follow Science Focus on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Flipboard