I don’t always dream about cool headphones. But when I do, I prefer the exquisite, the fascinating, and the all but unobtainable.
Most are rare birds, pinnacles of hype and the technology of their time, and have the mystique and price tags to match. The companies often proudly announce that they have made the “BEST HEADPHONES EVER MADE”. But what truly makes these headphones the most interesting in the world?
Is it the old-world technology that is lost on modern headphones? The promise of the ultimate performance? Or could it be their exorbitant price tag and unique headphones design that tantalizes us?
Let’s find out.
1. Sony MDR-R10
What makes the MDR-R10 so interesting?
- Cost $2500 USD in 1989 – considered the most expensive headphone in that era
- Only 2000 ever made
- 50mm Bio-Cellulose Dome Diaphragms
- Zelkova wood enclosures
In the 1980’s Sony electronics could do no wrong – they ruled the portable market with the Walkman and eventually with the Sports line. They looked to dominate the headphone market with an “Ultimate Headphone”, namely the Sony MDR-R10.
Since 1989, 2000 pairs were made, and with a price tag of $2500 USD, it certainly captured the spirit of this article. This scarcity and reputation meant that the few that come up for sale these days have price tags often in excess of $5000.
How can this almost 30-year-old headphone compete with modern offerings at this price?
Even when evaluated today, the MDR-R10 sound is described as effortless, highly detailed and extremely clear.
They remain for many, the pinnacle of closed-back headphones, with an exceptional soundstage and with a superbly natural and musical sound profile. It was available in two flavors, one with more emphasized bass.
The fit and finish of this MDR-R10 are top-notch. Although the Zelkova wood enclosures are big and bulky, they are well balanced and have a comfortable headband, along with lambskin leather ear pads. Users often report that they are one of the most comfortable headphones they have ever used, regardless of the relatively large size and weight (400 grams).
Experts attribute the extraordinary sound quality to the newly developed 50 mm Bio-Cellulose Dome Diaphragms. This material was also used in a few other Sony headphones over the 1990’s – but none was as coveted as the MDR-R10.
2. Sennheiser HE-60 – The Baby Orpheus
What makes the HE-60 so interesting?
- Similar size and shape to the HD 5xx/6xx line
- The 2nd Sennheiser electrostatic headphone ever to be made
- Foil polymer diaphragms, covered with a 1 molecule thick coating of gold.
- The HEV-70 amplifier that came along with it was unable to power the HE-60 efficiently
It’s unavoidable for Sennheiser to appear on this list several times. They have made some of the most ubiquitous top-tier headphones for decades. They have offerings in all price ranges but a few pairs stand out as exceptional.
All headphone enthusiasts are familiar with the HD 5xx/6xx line from its highly recognizable design. Unknown to most, Sennheiser had produced a rare variant – HE-60 in 2005. The HE-60 was Sennheiser second electrostatic type headphone.
It was targeted as being an affordable (~$700 USD) upper-tier headphone and shared the shape and design of the HD 5xx/6xx line. This was in contrast to the original Sennheiser electrostatic headphones, the Orpheus HE90 (built during the early 1990’s), originally priced at $16,000 USD and can sell for twice as much these days.
The HE-60 came with the HEV-70, a matching electrostatic headphone amplifier. Unfortunately, the HEV-70 was the weakest link in the chain and did not drive the HE-60 to its potential.
Covered in gold
The HE-60 featured foil polymer diaphragms, covered with a 1 molecule thick coating of gold. This was designed to reduce the mass and increase diaphragm responsiveness and perceived music detail for the listener.
Comfort and build quality are considered excellent, sharing much of the same characteristics of the 5xx/6xx line, but with the addition of a leather headband, ear cushions and metal grills on the outside of the cups.
The sound is described as somewhat brighter than the HD600, without the warmth of the HD650, but extraordinarily clear, tight and precise. Voice reproduction and midrange are considered the strength and are described as lifelike, transparent and refined. Soundstage and resolution are also considered assets of the HE-60.
3. AKG K1000
What makes the K1000 so interesting?
- Just look at them!
- AKG’s flagship electrostatic headphone
- Swivel adjustable drivers
- Can only be driven by stereo power amplifier
Electrostatic headphones remain the unicorns of the headphone world. And with the radical design like the AKG K1000, it is no wonder how it is seen as a cut above the rest.
While Sony was building their flagship MDR-R10 in the very late 1980’s, AKG decided to take a futuristic design approach to K1000. Often compared to Stax’s square-framed Lambda ear speakers, the K1000 is AKG’s take on the flagship electrostatic headphone. Priced at around $1000 USD, they were approximately four times as expensive than AKG’s previous top of the line models.
The design of the K1000 is unavoidably polarizing. Retro-future cool or just really odd? I’ll leave that to you. White metal mesh panels on both sides of the square ear cups and bright red headband strips make this model instantly recognizable.
Drivers that swivel
Adjustable driver panels allow for the sound of the K1000 to be tuned in a unique way. Drivers are mounted approximately 20 mm from the ear and are on swivels. The drivers can be rotated in parallel (in a traditional headphone orientation) to almost perpendicular (~70 degrees) to the ears. Rotating the panels changes the sound in openness, forwardness, spaciousness and how diffused the music sounds.
This arrangement also allows for some time-delayed crosstalk of signals between the ears, like in a traditional speaker stereo playback, and removes the traditional ‘in the head’ listening experience of headphones. In addition, it allows for the entire outer ear to interact with the sound reproduction, which is how our brains interpret positional information.
The drawback of this unique open-air transducer design, which does not rest on the ear, means that the K1000 must be supported by stand-off pads pressing on the temples of the wearer. Long-term comfort is an issue with this arrangement and users often report pain with moderate to long listening sessions.
Only work with stereo amplifier
Another unusual design feature of the K1000 is the amplification requirement. They are not designed to be driven by a headphone amplifier. The K1000 truly deserves the title of “ear speakers” as the cables aren’t terminated and the bare wires are meant to be connected to a traditional stereo amplifier speaker outputs. Rated at 74 dB sound pressure at 1 watt, they will perform best with an amplifier providing 60 to 70 watt per channel.
Unfortunately, current reviews identify issues with the age of the driver design. Compared to modern electrostatics, playback of fast and complex musical passages can get lost, losing separation and becoming congested, and the soundstage is relatively flat without much-perceived depth (regardless of the rotating driver).
The bass is described as tight and controlled (if not particularly deep), but the upper midrange and treble can become a little harsh. Playback quality benefits from more and cleaner amplification. All that being said, there are still many audiophiles who consider this headphone near the pinnacle of personal sound quality.
4. STAX SR-009
What makes the SR-009 so interesting?
- Top of the line STAX (Cost $5200 at launch)
- Spectacular fit and finish
- Extremely refined sound
- Analytical more than fun
These are premium headphones from STAX, with a price tag to match ($5200 USD upon release in 2011). While other brands are hotly debated in the online headphone community, the Stax reputation remains synonymous with excellent sound quality, top performance, and distinctive design. Originally releasing their first electrostatic headphones in 1960, the Japanese company has gone through many ups and downs, including insolvency, resurrection as the STAX company, and then the eventual purchase by the Chinese company Edifier in 2011.
The build quality of the Stax SR-009 is outstanding, featuring extremely attractive aluminum and leather design. Of course, being an electrostatic headphone, they require a special amplifier to be used. The SR-009 is more efficient (easier to drive) than the lower STAX SR-007A, so it isn’t quite as picky about amplification as its little brother.
What makes the SR-009 really special is how they sound: refined, highly-resolved and impactful reproduction of music. Frequency response is listed as 5 – 42,000Hz with a max sound pressure level of 118dB / 400Hz. Described as being incredibly detailed, uncannily real sounding, and strikingly transparent, this is the headphone for critical listeners looking to analyze every part of the music.
It is designed to accurately reproduce every nuance of the music being played, which may be somewhat fatiguing for the listener. For better or worse, there is no house sound, no flavor, nor coloration. These terms are usually applied to “fun” sounding headphones, not the almost perfect linearity of the SR-009 playback. The other headphone that comes up quite a bit in discussion with these sort of terms is the Sennheiser HD800, but direct comparisons give the sound quality nod to the SR-009 as it comes across as less harsh and sibilant than the HD800.
What makes the HD800 so interesting?
- Achievable end-game
- First headphones to use ring radiator driver
- Tightly controlled bass and unsurpassed imaging
- Universally revered audio quality
Since I brought up the comparison above, let’s move on to the infamous Sennheiser HD800. This headphone remains as the ultimate end-game and also the upgrade goal for many audiophiles. Recently eclipsed by the HD800s, the original HD800 was released in 2009 (and is still available today for $1400 USD) with the tagline “Good enough was never good enough” from Sennheiser’s first HD800 brochure.
Right from the early reviews, this headphone was universally hailed as something special. They were a top replacement for the long-standing HD6xx series and were designed from the ground up. The most innovative part of the HD800 has to be the large ring radiator driver.
Ring radiator driver
This is designed as such that it doesn’t suffer from traditional cone breakup distortion at high frequencies. While speaker companies have already been using ring radiator design, this was a first for headphone drivers. In brief, a ring radiator diaphragm is attached at both the inner and outer edges, with the voice coil attached at the midpoint. The benefit of this design is that it is significantly less prone to unwanted vibrations because the driver is much better supported than traditional drivers.
What are benefits of this new ring radiator design for the listener?
Tightly controlled bass and unsurpassed imaging. The 56mm transducer was the largest used in dynamic headphones and as any subwoofer bass lover will attest, there’s no replacement for displacement.
The large, precisely controlled ring driver delivers effortless low-end extension. In addition to greater size and control, the ring driver delivers a flatter waveform to the ear. This yields the ultimate in soundstage, accuracy, coherence, and imaging.
The drivers are positioned slightly forward of the ear, and this design allows for the outer ear to receive the sound in a more natural way, and as a result, the brain to better interpret and localize the sound. Flatter waveform, combined with a more natural sound source positioning, means the HD800 are the undisputed imaging kings.
Sounds perfect right?
Well, some folks find that they may be a little too revealing and resolving to be completely enjoyable. They excel at highlighting flaws in the playback equipment and in the source material. They also are known for exhibiting an energetic treble response, and users can find them too bright for their personal tastes. However, regardless of their analytical and detailed nature, it’s unlikely any other headphone is as universally revered as the Sennheiser HD800.
6. Sennheiser HE1060 (He 1) – Orpheus 2
What makes the Orpheus 2 so interesting?
- Out-of-this-world design
- Costs as much as a luxury car ($55,000 USD)
- Integrated 8-tube amplifier and headphone storage
- Made of Michelangelo’s Carrara marble
What happens when you let the Sennheiser designers unleash their creativity with no boundaries? Sennheiser’s $55,000 USD Orpheus 2 headphone system.
Yup. You read that correctly – no extra or erroneous 0’s. Sure, you could have your choice of new cars at the BMW or Audi dealership, or you could have the most coveted (and expensive) headphones ever made.
Carrara marble from Italy
In 2015, Sennheiser celebrated its 70th anniversary with the launch of another Orpheus: the HE1060 headphones and integrated HEV1060 amplifier. Each pair took 400 hours to make and Sennheiser only sells about 250 units per year. The HEV1060 base is made from a large block of Carrara marble – the type made famous by Michelangelo’s statues and hand selected by one of the lead engineers (he traveled to Italy to do it properly).
Silly? Absolutely and it doesn’t stop there.
The marble contains the huge 8-tube amplifier, with milled solid brass dials, and is integrated into to the dustproof headphone storage box. When powered on, the controls and tubes slowly motorize out of their sockets, allowing a few moments for the amplifier to reach the optimum operating temperature.
A limitation of electrostatic design is that they require high voltage from the amplifier, where the majority of the voltage can be lost in transmission to the drivers. The Orpheus 2 moves the high voltage amplifier stage into the headphones themselves, and Sennheiser claims this is 200% more efficient than any other solution available. The ear cups are machined from solid aluminum and feature handmade leather, velour and microfiber ear pads.
8 Sabre DAC
The Orpheus 2 uses eight internal SABRE DAC, capable of handling high-resolution audio up to 32bit/384kHz (as well as 2.8/5.6 MHz DSD signals), with four parallel channels per ear, promising to reduce distortion and noise levels. There are balanced and unbalanced connections, plus digital optical, coaxial and USB inputs.
From the lucky few who had experienced the Orpheus 2, the general consensus is that it delivers the most realistic imaging of any headphone available. It gives the impression of limitless power and instantaneous speed.
7. Napa Leather Rhinestone Headphones With Crown
What makes the Napa Leather Rhinestone Headphones With Crown so interesting?
- A crystal and pearl crown
- $9000 USD
- Sold out in a day
Lest you think that audio quality is everything, the last contender on the list is the $9000 USD D&G’s Crown headphone. It was made famous by selling out the day after Rihanna posted a tweet with her wearing them.
Other than a lambskin-padded metal headband, it has metallic rings embellished with Swarovski crystals and pearls. They also feature an audio stereo connection with volume control and are compatible with MP3 readers, smartphones, and audio playback devices. I know, right?
Beautreport.com describes them as:
Take that Sennheiser!
Believe it or not, the sold-out set isn’t the only expensive headphone created as part of the collaboration between FRENDS and Dolce & Gabbana. Using an untraditional crown design and materials including fur, crystals and faux pearls, FRENDS describes the line as “a new take on the unique, stylish and contemporary headphones for the modern woman”. Priced at $7000, a pair of red leather headphones was the least expensive option in the lineup. STAX only wishes they could command that sort of price for their bottom of the line headphones.
Digitaltrends.com noted that:
At least Rihanna looks fantastic wearing them.
8. Bang & Olufsen U70
What makes the Bang & Olufsen (B&O) U70 so interesting?
- B&O first pair of headphones
- Minimalistic, industrial design that is way ahead of its time
- Designed by the renowned Danish Designer, Jacob Jensen
- Cost $40 in 1979 = $160 in 2018
Before there was Jonathan Ives, the prior generation had Jacob Jensen. The Danish product designer had the vision to design products that are sleek and unapologetically minimal. The B&O U70 was one of his finest achievement and really did summed up for what he stand for. The headphones were added to the Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in 1979.
Despite looking rather bulky, the planar magnetic U70 only weighs 300g. It placed ergonomic first with individually adjustable ear cups that move in both axis while the headband is also adjustable for optimal fit. Basic features that will put most modern high-end headphones to shame.
Unfortunately, the ear pads are reportedly made of leatherette that didn’t last with age. It is hard to find a pair that have the ear pads well-preserved. Even so, it is still an overall work of art.
Most of us will live our entire lives without ever experiencing any of the headphones on this list. Most are not meant for us mere mortals. Only the headphone elite will own one of these fantastic devices. As with ‘the most interesting man in the world’, these privileged few only have one regret, and that is not knowing what regret feels like.
This list varies from being merely expensive, to simply outrageous, where cost justification is pointless. Manufacturers build devices like the Orpheus 2 just to see if it can be done and to further technological advancement. These wonders let us see where the limits truly lay. On the other hand, fashion can command a hefty price, even with no performance to back it up.
Stay dreaming, my friends. In the meantime, check out the rest of the nice headphones that is still within our reach on Headphonesty.
What other headphones deserve to be on this list? Let us know in the comments below.