It’s taken me a while to get this article together, partly because I am basically reviewing six different headphones in the same thread, and it took me some time to formulate my thoughts on how to best go about it. So, about 75% of the write-up will cover several excellent and relatively affordable examples, while the last little bit will focus on the models that stood out to me and that I’d recommend without hesitation.
My criteria for selection were simple: Find six or so headphones for sale on Amazon that qualified for Prime free shipping, were <$500, and that I’d never tried before. I came up with the following, in alphabetical order. All headphones were tested with portability in mind, using either my iPhone 7 and Audioquest Dragonfly Red, or the Onkyo DP-X1 digital player.
Meze 99 Classic–$309.00
A brief note about what I didn’t include: Any in-ear monitors, models with active noise-cancelling circuitry, or every model <$500 of every company (i.e. at the time of purchase the HiFiMan HE400S was the only model available at this price restriction, and the HE 400i is as of publishing time available for $499. One can’t have every model reviewed.)
I’ve owned the Beyerdynamic T70p headphones for about three or four years now; they were my first decent headphone purchase. I bought another pair strictly for the purposes of this comparison because I’ve had Larry Dale at www.headphile.com so drastically modify my current pair that they’re almost unrecognizable as a pair of Beyers. This unit has been very popular in recent years due to the great price point and its compatibility with mobile units (the p stands for portable and signifies that the resistance of the unit averages around 32 ohms, perfect for an iPhone or Android unit. Beyerdynamic makes an almost identical model for home use that has a 300 ohm resistance. The biggest pro to this headphone is that it’s extremely comfortable; the microfoam over-ear pads and the headband pad combined with the light weight of 330 grams make for a very easy listening experience. I found the sound to be very evenly balanced, and certainly the heft that the Dragonfly added was palpable but not a big deal if one were lacking a portable DAC/HPA. This headphone really does shine with any portable DAC/HPA, and I guess that’s becoming the norm, especially when using an iPhone 6 or older and the old 3.5mm jack with Apple’s substandard integrated DAC/HPA. Now with an iPhone 7 or newer, since the 3.5mm jack has been deleted, one either must buy the $30 lightning to 3.5mm adapter or go with the Apple CCK to dongle-DAC solution. For a total of $40 for the CCK cable and maybe $100 for the dongle-DAC, it’s worth it to me, but that’s for another story. The soft sided faux leather and foam case is very nice, and my old one has stood up well for the past three years. The one negative that I and another friend noticed is that the Beyer is a little on the harsh side with some bright trebles that may turn some off. I personally like them, and since the price has dropped to <$300 I think it’s one of the best buys on the market currently.
I was very excited to try the HiFiMan HE400s open back planar magnetic headphones. The Chinese company has produced not only one of the least expensive options in this sub-category, but has done so while nailing the sound. I was very impressed by how comfortable the headband was, and overall at 350 grams it did not feel heavy at all. The dimensions, are, however, what one would expect from an open planar, i.e. a little on the larger side. The foam ear cups are very comfortable, and I felt that the cables were more than adequate. In terms of sound, HiFiMan achieved and surpassed my expectations, delivering a wide-open soundstage and darn good detail retrieval. Compared to an equivalent closed-back model, the bass may have been somewhat lessened, but I have learned to sometimes accept this compromise with open back cans. A few minor quibbles: The metal portion of the headband looks rather wonky, but is still quite functional. I wasn’t also a huge fan of the silver paint, but again very minor issues in the grand scheme of things. For <$300, this is probably the market’s best open back planar magnetic.
Next up was the Meze 99 Classics. This new company out of Romania took the headphone world by storm by having some aesthetically beautiful cans, gold or silver trim with CNC’d wood cups, that combined with a great sound and came in at a great price point of around $300. I very much liked the included cable, especially since it’s detachable and replaceable. I felt replacing the cable did make a marginal improvement of the sound, but probably not the best rate of return on your own personal investment for a $300 headphone. The standard cable is all you’ll need, and comes with device controls if you want it. They’re nice and long, and easy to coil, which is great for both home and travel. The friction headband design and extremely light weight of 270 grams made for an absurdly easy listening experience, no head fatigue whatsoever. I’d describe the sound as very smooth, with good bass extension and decent 3D imaging. The case is a very slick affair that allows one to Velcro the cords within, and is a hard style that would stand up to jamming it into your overnight bag without crushing the cans. If you’re looking for a bit of an aesthetic statement piece while out and about that also has a killer sound, then the Meze is a very good choice.
The Sennheiser Momentum headphones are next up on the list. To cut to the chase, it probably isn’t fair to even include these in the comparison, because at $199 they’re the least expensive by 30%, which puts them in a different buyer’s category in my opinion, and to spend the extra money especially when compared to the forthcoming HD700 or any other headphone here is clearly worth it. This device suffered from a one-two punch of pretty uncomfortable feel and a truly dreadful sound. My readers know that I wouldn’t say that lightly, and I typically don’t like to publish overtly negative reviews, but I feel I must be honest about this one. In addition to them being uncomfortable, I thought they sounded like death warmed over. The bass was truly the worst lack-luster bleating noise that I’ve ever heard from an upmarket headphone. When doing an A-B using the 192 FLAC HDTracks version of Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround,” I was flabbergasted at how outgunned the Momentums were against the Meze 99 classics. Although the Meze cans are $100 more, after listening to the Momentums I feel that $199 is about $150 too much. I would only use this headphone if no other alternative existed. If you’re looking at this headphone or have already bought it based on the price, I would strongly recommend trying out the Meze offerings for the extra Benjamin. I know at this price point that a 33% jump is a big deal, but if it were me I’d continue to save up and skip the Momentums.
Next up is one of the best deals in the headphone world, the Sennheiser HD700. Like I said before, it just isn’t fair to Sennheiser to even mention these two headphones in the same sentence, as the latter is more than twice the price of the former. However, having listened to both, I don’t understand why they even bother producing the Momentums without bleeding some of their excellent technology downstream to the more entry-level product. Now, again, the HDs are about twice the price at $430, and are over-ear compared to the Momentum’s on-ear design, but the sound of the HD700 just so significantly outclasses its little sibling that I felt it was worth mentioning to readers that in this instance, double your money gets you a more than double improvement in build quality, comfort, and sound. In short, the tone of this headphone is among the best I’ve ever heard. Sennheiser clearly has the open back dynamic driver market figured out; these cans are so smooth and detailed that It’s hard to find a better over-ear dynamic driver monitor on the market today, and this has become my default recommendation in the sub $500 price range. Highly recommended.
Last, but certainly not least in the Sub $500 can shootout, comes the shining star, the Oppo PM-3. I initially wanted to try this headphone out for a myriad of reasons, chief among them being the myriad of glowing online reviews. It’s very unique in the $400 price point of an on-ear closed back planar magnetic design, and it folds flat with a great case, so I thought it would be perfect for travel. Boy, did I call this one, because friends, this headphone is one of the best products I’ve ever tried. First off, the build quality is top notch, with genuine leather ear pads and headband cover, beautiful metal frame, and the sound is just to-die-for. I’m hearing absolutely fantastic dynamics, instrument separation, and power, without being too harsh. Truly sublime.
Oppo is really onto something with the on-ear closed-back planar magnetic idea, and now I’m itching to try their upstream products, the PM2 and PM1, albeit in an open back configuration. In my humble opinion this is the absolute best deal on the headphone market today, and in trying to decide between the HD700 and the PM3, one is choosing between two world-class products, and nitpicking the questions 1) do I want open back (Sennheiser) vs closed back (Oppo), 2) over ear (Senn) vs on-ear (Oppo), 3) dynamic driver (Senn) vs planar mag (Oppo), and 4) size, the oppo being smaller and more suited for travel while the HD700 is primed for home use with its double-cabled ¼ inch plug. Either way one can’t go wrong with these two headphones, and I would say that if you could only choose one, it would be the Oppo. Otherwise, if you were flush with cash and wanted the Senns for home and the Oppos for travel, I believe it would be many years before you’d need to upgrade your headphones. Two strong products that I would recommend without hesitation.