Headphones have come a long way from the days when they were synonymous with the free earbuds that came along with mobile phones. Today, people are aware that there are literally hundreds of different kinds of headphones today, catering to virtually every kind of user need, music listening preference, and design preference. More interestingly, advancements in sound technology are now first applied to the latest cutting edge headphones that make their way to today's discerning audiophile listener.
Several brands have made cutting edge headphones that are perhaps worthy of the flagship tag, and I'm going to list eight headphones that blew my mind, and are sure to impress you too.
The HE-1 brings together the very best of Sennheiser's decades of experience and research in making some of the finest headphones in the world. These headphones are priced at around Rs. 45,00,000 and use electrostatic headphone technology, where the magnets in the speakers are replaced with precisely tuned electro-magnets controlled by an energiser. Electrostatic headphones are known to be extremely accurate, needing a dedicated headphone amplifier with precise sound control of the electrodes, and the HE-1 builds on that.
The headphones use eight tubes for the amplifier, and the beautifully crafted knob and buttons rise out of the housing made from fine Carrara marble, and an enclosure opens up revealing the headphones. It's really quite a dramatic experience to power up and use the headphones for the first time. Sennheiser's design team will custom-design the appearance to virtually any specification you may ask for, with an exhaustive list of colour options and finishes. That said, these headphones really do sound incredible enough to justify the price tag.
HiFiMAN is a high-end headphone brand that manufactures some of the best sounding headphones in the world, and the Shangri-La is its answer to the Sennheiser HE-1. Aptly named after the mythical paradise, the Shangri-La has pushed the boundaries of sound technology in several ways.
Just like the Sennheiser HE-1, it too uses an electrostatic headphone system, and needs its own amplifier which features eight custom designed vacuum tubes, amongst the finest ever made, to give it a distinct life-like sound. The headphones have a metallic mesh that is the thinnest ever produced at just 0.001mm, which means that music sounds incredibly accurate, detailed, with virtually no distortion. And you would expect it to, after paying the incredible price tag of Rs. 36,00,000 for one of the finest sounding headphone systems in the world.
One of my favourite pairs of headphones, the Empyrean comes from a Romania based Meze Audio founded by Antonio Meze, known for some of the finest-designed headphones in the world. The Empyrean is Meze Audio's flagship headset, pouring years of development and design research into developing a world-class pair of headphones. The Empyrean uses planar magnetic drivers, that have been specifically designed for them by Russia-based Rinaro Dynamics, a research team specialising in high-end audio.
This expertise alone can be attributed to making the Empyrean amongst the finest sounding headphones ever made. Meze Audio has made the Empyrean with premium materials and a beautifully crafted chassis that stands out as a beautiful and sophisticated art nouveau. Priced at Rs. 2,50,000, the Empyrean should certainly be on every audiophile's wish list, and a prized centrepiece in every listening room.
Focal has been known for several decades as a French manufacturer of some of the finest speakers in the world. Its foray into the high-end headphones world was marked with the introduction of the Utopia in 2016. An open-back headset with high-end dynamic drivers specially made using Beryllium, the Utopia is the culmination of Focal's incredible expertise in making fine speakers and applying it to a flagship pair of headphones.
Priced at Rs. 3,00,000, they're obviously made for a very discerning audiophile. However, more interesting is the the limited edition Utopia By Tournaire, the celebrated French Jeweller, which truly raises the bar when it comes to exquisite craftsmanship. These headphones feature 18 karat yellow gold mounted with six karats of diamonds, entirely handcrafted at Tournaire's workshops in France. This limited edition pair of headphones will set you back by around Rs. 1 Crore, quite possibly making it the most expensive and luxurious pair of headphones in the world.
These earphones come from German custom IEM manufacturer Vision Ears. The Vision Ears ErlKonig truly encompasses luxury and fine craftsmanship on in-ear headphones. The Erlkonig, loosely translates as ‘Elf King' in English, is perhaps the most exotic pair of in-ear monitors ever made with a price tag of Rs. 3,79,999. The incredible price tag is perhaps justified once you consider that the IEM is entirely handcrafted from silver.
The earphones come with four interchangeable faceplates, and a wooden and leather case to put them in when they're not sitting in your ears. What makes this more impressive is that the earphones have 13 individual drivers in each earpiece, an engineering achievement on its own considering the size of the earphones. There are four drivers for the lows, four for mid-range, four for highs, and one ‘super tweeter'. What's more, they come with four adjustable configurations, allowing you to change the sonic signature according to your preferences.
Shure is perhaps best known as the go-to brand for microphones for musicians and performers around the world. But they also make fabulous in-ear monitors and headphones that professionals swear by for their accuracy and performance on stage and in the studio. Shure's take on the finest sounding in-ear headphones that can be made is the KSE1500. A pet project that was several years in the making, the KSE1200 uses electrostatic technology, the same technology used on the Sennheiser HE1 and HiFiMAN Shangri-La, but in a super compact form factor to fit in an in-ear headset.
The result is the world's first electrostatic In-Ear that truly expands the horizon of possibilities when it comes to cutting edge sound that can fit in your pocket. The KSE1500 is priced at Rs. 2,59,990, and is a complete in-ear audio system, with its own electrostatic amplifier and a top-notch digital-to-analogue converter that effortlessly plays the highest resolutions of music available. It simply plugs into your smartphone or hi-res audio player for a portable listening experience that is unmatched.
JH Audio, founded by Jerry Harvey, is credited with really pioneering the use of custom in-ear monitors for performing musicians. While working with legendary rock band Van Halen, Jerry designed the first custom two-way in-ear monitors. Since then Jerry Harvey's IEMs have been used by some of the biggest artists in the world, including Aerosmith, Gun N' Roses, Lady Gaga, Foreigner, Linkin Park, Alicia Keys, Rob Thomas, Godsmak, and pretty much every other big name you can think of.
The JH Audio Layla, named after the classic Eric Clapton song, is the flagship in-ear headset from the stable. Exquisitely crafted and customised for each user, the Layla features 12 drivers for each ear - four each for the lows, mid-range, and highs. With a virtually unlimited number of finishes, materials and colour options, the JH Audio Layla starts at Rs. 1,99,999 but can cost considerably more depending on the customisations chosen.
The Audeze Mobius, unlike a lot of other headphones in this list that have six-figure prices or more, costs just Rs. 29,990. What's so special about these headphones? In short, this is probably the finest gaming headset ever made. Audeze, founded by engineer Sankar Tiagasamudram, is a pioneer in the use of Planar Magnetic drivers, a speaker technology using super thin electro conducting diaphragms sandwiched between extremely powerful magnets that give an extremely accurate and distortion-free listening experience that is hard to beat.
Take that planar magnetic technology, and combine it with an in-built gyroscope, accelerometer, and cutting edge digital signal processing, and what you get is the Mobius. The Audeze Mobius tracks your head movements 1,000 times per second, and constantly adjusts the audio while emulating a 3D room around the listener, giving you a cinematic experience comparable to a 5.1 or 7.1-channel surround sound system. The Mobius is designed to give gamers the most life-like and immersive sound that is hard to beat. The Mobius can also be used for watching movies on Netflix in 5.1-channel audio, which makes this worth considering even if you aren't a gamer.
The author of this article Raghav Somani is the founder and CEO of Headphone Zone, an online retailer and distributor of headphones and earphones in India.
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