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A pair of headphones

The Best Headphones for Vinyl Records

Record night is a magic time when friends gather for drinks and records and more drinks and even more records. However, if you’re going to listen to music alone, why not take it as far as possible?

Five pairs of headphones and two headphone amplifiers later, I learned two things: Headphones are amazing and the headphone category is dangerously deep.

Below, you will find three different turntable headphone levels: good, better, and best. Each is a great choice for different stages of the solo listening journey.

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Good Headphones for Vinyl

A product image of Audio-Technica ATH-M50x hi fidelity headphones

Audio-Technica ATH-M50X

There are cheaper headphones that sound good, but the ATH-M50X sound amazingly good. More importantly, they sound like music, with a fairly neutral approach that suits a wide range of genres. While these have been discontinued, they’re still widely available. The ATH-M50XBT2 is the current model, although it’s $199 with the addition of Bluetooth, which is still a great deal.

The M50X have been around for a while and have found their way into thousands of home recording studios, largely because they do an excellent job of telling you what’s on a recording. They don’t have a hot treble, recessed midrange, or overpowering bass, but they aren’t bland to the point of boredom either. With 45mm drivers, an efficiency of 99dB, and a benign impedance of 38, these guys will work anywhere, anytime.

The frequency response has been tweaked just enough to give a shot of warmth to the mids and a splash of energy to the treble. Because they’re closed-back headphones, they inherently have tipped-up bass, but not to a distracting extent. Since they behave so well with a lot of different kinds of music, switching from All Them Witches to A Tribe Called Quest to Tony Bennett is seamless and never feels as if a compromise is being made.

Even though they’re a bit large, these are great for travel or commuting because they do a decent job of blocking out things such as engine noise. That’s due to the closed-back design, which will unfortunately also lead to toasty, sweaty, and possibly sore ears. This is an on-ear design, which means that the cup openings will only completely cover small ears. For most adults, the padding will press on the top of your ears.   

While the sound is super friendly, there’s no true magic like you get with more expensive designs. The ATH-M50X are always very good, but there aren’t many “Whoa!” moments (which don’t start until you drop some decent cash). They aren’t that heavy at 10 ounces, but they feel like they are, which may partially be due to the thickness of the pads and the heat generated.

In the end, the ATH-M50X are a no-brainer at this price point and they’ll serve you well for a long time. Get a pair before they’re gone.

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Better Headphones for Vinyl

A pair of Sennheiser HD 650 Headphones

Sennheiser HD 650

There’s a reason why Sennheiser is synonymous with headphones. The family-owned business has specialized in headphones and microphones since 1945, although it recently expanded to mind-blowing soundbars. The HD 650s have firmly staked a claim as a gateway drug to the extreme high end of headphones.

They obviously aren’t cheap, but they are phenomenal. It’s difficult to find any real fault. They’re sweet, articulate, transparent to source, engaging, lightweight, and incredibly comfortable, all of which is why they’ve been a part of the Sennheiser lineup for nearly two decades. 

They also represent a very different design philosophy compared to the Audio-Technica ATH-M50X, which as we learned are a closed-back design. This provides more isolation from outside noise and minimizes how much of your music everyone else can hear, but the sealed enclosure can very much affect how the headphones sound — in a negative way. Bass is exaggerated and the music tends to shrink and remain confined in your head. 

The HD 650s have an open back with a fine mesh grill covering the 42mm drivers and that has a couple of benefits. Music feels as if it’s floating outside of your head as well as in, which creates a much more immersive experience — it’s like you’re swimming in Led Zeppelin. An open-back design will not provide much isolation, which means these wouldn’t be great for travel, but they’re very light and there’s good airflow for cooler ears. These completely cover my ears and are the only full-sized headphones I’ve owned that are so comfortable that I consistently forget that I’m wearing them (leading to several laptop dragging accidents).

The quality of the sound and the comfort has led to many hours-long sessions involving gin and Pink Floyd. The HD 650s are fairly efficient, but with an impedance of 300 ohms, they’ll benefit from some power. They sound fine when driven by a laptop or phone, but running them through the iFi Zen Can amplifier/DAC makes them come exponentially more alive and the ability to sink deeply into a mix will take you to another level of appreciation for familiar music.

The HD 650s will likely be the nicest pair of headphones I ever own and that’s fine. Great, actually. These things rock.

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Best Headphones for Vinyl

Grado GS3000E Headphones

Grado GS3000E

I have no actual experience with a $1,795 pair of headphones. Some day, maybe. So how did they earn the top spot? Fair question.

I’m very familiar with Grado in general and the Brooklyn-based company has a gift for maintaining a certain house sound across the full range of its headphones and phono cartridges. The Grado family worships the midrange frequencies, which is where most of the important stuff is happening.

Having spent some time with the venerable SR-60, which are Grado’s entry-level headphones at $99, it’s pretty easy to imagine what would be gained with the top-of-the-line GS3000E. More importantly, the GS3000E is what happens when engineers improve upon everything they’ve always done well while eliminating mistakes. The common wisdom is that the GS3000Es greatly improve upon two unwelcome aspects of Grado’s older headphones: questionable comfort and a distractingly hot treble. 

The GS3000Es have the largest driver of the three headphones in this guide: 50mm and made of Mylar. This isn’t the largest driver around, but it’s near the top. The rated efficiency is an above-average 99.8dB with a 32-ohm impedance, which means these are fairly easy to drive (although anyone buying $1,800 headphones will likely not be plugging them into a phone). The cups housing the drivers are made of cocobolo wood, the same wood used to make Grado’s top cartridges, and its natural beauty is secondary to its value. The Grado family firmly believes that cocobolo has a measurable influence on reducing distortion-causing resonances.

There are a lot of reviews praising these gorgeous wood-and-leather transducers, which are rated as Class A in Stereophile’s most recent list of recommended components. Herb Reichert praised their transparency, writing that listening to a Pete Seeger album made him feel as if his head had become the microphone used to record the song. “There was nothing but measurable space between me and the folk singer’s mouth,” he said.

The Reichert review in Stereophile is the clincher for me because he describes the Grados as having a “swaggering rock ’n’ roll boogie factor” in addition to delicacy and finesse. Some high-end products forget that they should be able to rock. It’s almost as if some engineers are stuck in an era when “audiophiles” were expected to only listen to classical music. 

So at $1,795, you get a headphone that’s adept with multiple genres, easy to drive, looks spectacular, sounds even more spectacular, and competes with more costly models. What could go wrong?

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