Week 26, 2017: Buying your first set of headphones, best headphones under $100

Sound Advice

By Don Lindich

Week 26, 2017

Q. I purchased a vinyl record playback system based on your recommendations, notably Wharfedale Diamond bookshelf speakers on Sanus stands, an Onkyo TX-8020 receiver and an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB turntable that I recently upgraded with the LP Gear The Vessel A3SE cartridge. I am really, really happy with the sound, no questions for you there. I am writing because now I am listening to way too many albums for my wife’s sanity. I think I need to get some wired headphones to use with my receiver and turntable. How much do I need to spend to maintain sound quality comparable to my system? $100? $200? $300?

-G.B., Minneapolis, MN

A. My first, and perhaps most important bit of advice is that you wait before spending $200 to $300 on a pair of headphones. Sitting or lying down listening to headphones is much different than listening to a pair of speakers filling a room with sound. What if you find headphone listening does not suit you? Then you will have spent a lot of money on something you are not likely to use very often.

You have built a very good system with affordable components that provide an audiophile-quality experience. You can get excellent headphones for $100 or less, headphones that are fully up to audiophile standards of music listening. I’d start there and if you like the headphone experience, you can upgrade later and use the extra pair of headphones for traveling or with a portable device. The headphones I am going to recommend sound so good that you may not feel the urge to upgrade, anyway.

My top choice for under $100 is Grado’s stupendous SR60e, $79. These are the audiophile’s  go-to budget headphones, and for good reason. Though the build quality and fit makes them feel a bit unsubstantial (at least around my head) these wonderful headphones make sweet, sweet music. The sound quality has a touch of Grado’s characteristic warmth, with excellent clarity and a sound that is never fatiguing. These are open-back headphones, which provides the best sound quality but also lets outside noise in, and some sound from the headphones out. This sound is audible at close distances, for example to an airline passenger sitting next to you. For this reason they may not be the best for use on airplanes or public transportation. They are handmade in the USA and I have always been impressed by Grado’s ability to make a class-leading product domestically, with American workers, and sell it for only $79.

If you want something closed-back that isolates you from outside sounds, check out the Koss Pro4S. It lists for $149 but can be found online for $104. These lightweight, comfortable headphones are very pleasing to the ear and have tremendous clarity, reproducing every part of the audible spectrum with excellent definition. They come with a semi-hard case and Koss’ hassle-free lifetime warranty.

Regular readers of this column have probably seen these headphones recommended before. It may appear that I repeat myself when I recommend the same products multiple times, and whenever I do I try to include other helpful information and highlight additional products. If I need to repeat myself I will, because the column has always been about the best, not what is new. I am always on the lookout for products to recommend, though, and have some neat new recommendations coming up that will expand choices in a few of the most popular product categories. Stay tuned!