This was a tough list to choose in a lot of ways for me, I hope you find some interest in my choices
Audeze LCD-4z $3,995 USD
With its gold embossed chassis/yolk details and golden-mesh planar-magnetic driver grilles, leather ear cups and carbon-fibre headband it exudes more bejewelled crown to worship at the altar of high-fidelity headphones then simple transducers with a headband. The Audeze LCD-4z is one of the most comfortable headphones – especially for long, extended listening sessions – I’ve ever worn, it is both a ruthlessly revealing musical translator and a rich timbral/tonal sonic haven where the best recordings will rock your head back as if on gimbals. Built with an unwavering commitment to the highest quality product they are capable of making, build, fit and finish are second to none in the industry and exude a level of luxury befitting their flagship-model status and commiserate price. The fact that unlike the 200-Ohm impedance LCD-4 which need serious juice to run fast and breathe easy, the LCD-4z manages 5Hz~20kHz in rated frequency response, has an increased sensitivity of 98dB/1mW and a mind-bogglingly easy-to-drive 15-Ohm impedance makes them as right at home on your iPhone or DAP as they are jacked into a dedicated head-amp with voltage grunt. Not in everyone’s price range, but for those seeking an end-game, over-ear, open-back headphone you can take pretty much anywhere and run off pretty much anything, look no further.
Naim DAC-V1 $2,595 USD
With DSD128 and 24/384 Asynchronous USB-B PCM file handling capabilities, coupled with a SHARC 40-bit DSP chip, two optical TOSLINK, two Coaxial RCA and one Coaxial BNC input, selectable fixed or variable analog outputs (DIN or RCA) and a single-ended, Class-A headphone amplifier output driven by the preamplifier circuitry, which according to Naim: “The moment headphones are plugged in, the output current drive is automatically turned up five times to give dynamic-drive for all headphone impedances. The amplifier runs from a high-voltage power supply so [it] has the ability to drive high-impedance headphones with the voltage swing they require for open and dynamic sound. The result is the audio stages are kept as simple and pure as possible for both normal and headphone modes.” The Naim DAC-V1 is my go-to for critical listening and reviews of headphones as I find its highly-resolving presentation is one of the most transparent and powerful I’ve come across. The fact that its not only what I consider a Reference-Class Headphone Amplifier, but can also be used as a straight-up outstanding DAC in a two-channel system get it a big grin here and an “Editor’s Choice” nod.
Aurender N10 Music Server $7,999 USD
If you’re a dedicated digital-audio junkie, or just like having access to the the cloud for Tidal, Qobuz or Spotify as backup to your CD or LP collection, then getting your ones and zeros passed along to your DAC or headphone amplifier/DAC via your laptop or PC may not be the most sonically-outstanding experience that your setup could be capable of delivering. And honestly, is a bit dated in this modern, tech-savvy world of Siri and Alexa. I should know, I was truly happy with a dedicated MacBook Air to run my streaming apps to various DACs and then I tried the Aurender N10 and I was floored at how much better all my locally-stored high-res and streamed 16/44 or 24/96 files sounded. I don’t mean in a subtle way either, this was an order-of-magnitude difference in my personal setup. Not only did I instantly recognize a huge drop in the noise floor, better dynamics and an overall tightening-up of the presentation with more detail coming through, but instruments and vocals seemed to have a more natural flow: sonically, it was like wiping clean a dirty window. Throw in a great control app via iPad in Aurender’s proprietary ‘Conductor’ software, dedicated power supplies, an all-metal alloy chassis with built-in EMI and RF shielding, an internal 256-gig SSD for playback caching and a four-terabyte HDD for storage and you begin to see why using something like a PC which was never designed for audiophile playback suddenly sounds so 1996.
AudioQuest Niagara 5000 Low-Z Noise Dissipation System $3,999 USD
I’ve always been a proponent of clean power for music playback in two-channel systems and that goes doubly with headphones being run off a home rig since, in my opinion, the immediacy and resolving power of the headphone-listening experience makes them so much more sensitive to crap AC juicing whatever amp/DAC you’re jacked into. A case in point was testing how capable the AudioQuest Niagara 5000 Low-Z Noise Dissipation System was with the Naim DAC-V1 headphone amp/DAC while up at a cabin in the woods where incoming AC is a bit dodgy to say the least. Listening to several over-ear headphones through the DAC-V1 plugged directly into one of the cabin’s wall outlets brought about a drive and sound stage that I was used to, but ultimately I found the resolution to be more than somewhat veiled and an electronic hash to the noise floor masking detail that I had not experienced previously while listening through the V1 at home. Enter the AQ Niagara 5000 and it was like taking shutters off a grimy window and cleaning them: resolution returned with sparkling clarity, dynamic response increased dramatically as did frequency extension and the noise floor dropped precipitously once again to that blackest-of-black backgrounds I’d come to cherish when the V1 was in my regular system. According to AQ, the 500 uses “…the widest bandwidth-linearized AC filter in the industry, and our unique passive/active Transient Power Correction Circuit. Boasting an instantaneous current reservoir of over 90 amps peak, the Niagara 5000 is specifically designed for today’s current-starved power amplifiers.” If you’ve not though seriously about what proper AC power-management can do for your listening experience, I urge you to audition the Niagara 5000.
Meze Empyrean $2,999 USD
Few headphones have made such an instantaneous sonic impression upon me as the Meze Empyrean did at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this fall and once I’d received a production model for review here at home, it was déjà vu all over again when I slipped them on with their accuracy, tonal and timbral cloud, 3D-spatial imaging and huge sound stage. The patented “suspension wing” headband design (leather and carbon fibre), is distinct and its design helps ensure an increase of the contact surface-distribution area to allow less pressure on the skull. The skeletal aluminum driver yoke/chassis are impeccably integrated with the driver mounts and build quality is off the hook as there’s not a square-inch anywhere on the Empyreans that doesn’t look exquisitely executed: especially the CNC-milled aluminum driver grilles with their sculpted equilateral-triangle cutout pattern. Utilizing a “Hybrid planar-magnetic dual-sided magnet geometry array [that] features three distinct sections within an unbroken trace pattern but with a rounded maze-like upper section (switchback coil) and a more circular shape for the lower half of the driver array all with differing levels of excursion to handle differing frequency levels (upper trace: bass, lower trace: treble and midrange)” the Empyrean is built to last as one of the greats of headphone design and manufacture.
Chord Hugo TT 2 $5,795 USD
I won’t deny that upon first hearing the Chord Hugo back in the day I was deeply impressed with the playback experience, so when Chord announced a successor to the Hugo in the Hugo 2 I got in my listening time and again came away with a true appreciation of what chief designer John Franks and digital engineer Rob Watts were accomplishing, but when the Hugo TT 2 came out and I got to hear it at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, that’s when I felt I was hearing something incredibly unique and especially impressive for this price point in both a DAC and a headphone amplifier. With double the processing power of the Hugo 2 and five times the processing power of the original Hugo, the TT 2 is only bested in sonic integrity by the company’s flagship reference Headphone Amp/DAC DAVE, which retails for more than $11,000 USD. Featuring a custom-coded Xilinx Artix 7 FPGA with “86x 208MHz cores running in parallel to create an advanced 16FS WTA 1 filter with 98,304-taps” the TT 2 is designed to deliver DSD 512 and PCM files with a resolution up to 768kHz via USB-B, two Coaxial BNC and two optical inputs as well as Bluetooth support. Throw in the now-expected Chord digital filter options as well as a three-stage, user-selectable digital crossed function on the head amp and one can see why the TT 2 made this list.
Focal Utopia $4,000 USD
Most of us remember the classic 1977 Carly Simon cut “Nobody Does It Better” which was used as the theme song for the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. Whenever I throw on the Focal Utopia this song goes through my head for a few seconds until whatever track I’ve queued-up starts playing. Focal designed the Utopia as their reference-level flagship open-back circum-aural model and it doesn’t disappoint with all that rhetoric heaped upon it. Listed specs of an 80-Ohm impedance, a rated sensitivity of 104dB and frequency response of 5Hz~50kHz makes them not quite mobile friendly, but I surmise not many would really be driving $4K cans with an iPhone. One of the best-fitting, most accurate, yet completely fatigue-free listening experiences in the headphone world has graced the Utopia with many accolades since its launch. While these are dynamic-driver headphones, they utilize beryllium for the cones, which is one of the lightest, stiffest materials available on the planet that can be used for transducers. That light/stiff combination makes the Utopias capable of “in the studio live” sonics and dynamics with the most minimal of excursion. Featuring staggering clarity and resolution along with stygian bass and some of the most accurate timbral and tonal cues I’ve experienced in either a headphone or loudspeaker, the Utopia is not repeatedly called the best headphone in the world for nothing.