Audio: Listen to this article.
Best Headphones In 2023 / 2024
By Sajid Amit, Founder, Amplify Audio Reviews.
Hi everyone! Just casually dropping my top 10 headphones for 2023, here!
There are so many excellent headphones in the world, varying degrees of compatibility with musical genres, user preferences, head, and ear anatomies that an objective ranking is a fool’s errand. So, take this as a decidedly subjective ranking – result of one man’s desire to rank his favorite headphones and share it with the wider community!
If you are curious about my subjective preferences, I listen to rock, metal, alternative, some male vocals, and occasionally, female vocals, jazz, and acoustic. I seldom listen to orchestral music or EDM.
I also believe that pairing with the right source is a massive deciding factor, and my ranking below considers “average” impressions I have formulated over the years about these headphones. Lastly, do read till the end for the final summary table of rankings with tonal, technical, and overall numerical score (subjective)!
Rank 1: HIFIMAN Susvara
- Impedance: 60 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 83 dB
- Planar Magnetic Driver (stealth magnet)
- Price: $6000
The best headphone, as of 2023, is HIFIMAN’s magnum opus, the one-and-only Susvara. Susvara is stubbornly difficult to drive. Finding the right amplifier for the Susvara can be quite an adventure and by extension, a money pit. In fact, it is why I named my channel "Amplify" because I spent months experimenting with amps and the Susvara. The best sources I have heard are the Mass Kobo 465, the Primavera Trafomatic, and the Accuphase e-380 integrated amplifier. I prefer a neutral DAC with the Susvara such as the Weiss DACs. There are ‘’affordable’’ sources that synergize well with the Susvara namely, the iFi Pro iCAN amp and the Ferrum Stack.
The Susvara has the most beautiful and timbrally lifelike midrange among all the planars I have tried. It has a certain wetness without thickness. A certain airiness without brightness. And a certain speed without sounding like an electrostat (even though it almost does). If there is an ‘’impossible to hate for anyone’’ headphone then Susvara is probably number one in that ranking as well. It is not entirely flawless though. The bass is not particularly slammy and no matter what nuclear reactor you drive it with, it will not slam as powerfully as some other headphones on this list. Moreover, while the Susvara has an insanely realistic soundstage in terms of soundstage depth, it is not as wide-sounding as a HIFIMAN HE1000SE nor HIFIMAN Arya, which are significantly lower-priced. The Susvara overall is like the top student who gets an A for most subjects and at least an A- or a B+ in one or two.
Rank 2: STAX SR-X9000
- Electrostatic Driver
- Price: $6199
STAX is the king of electrostatic headphones and a whole cult has formed around the brand and rightfully so. They are highly regarded by the said cult (and normal human beings) for their relentless detail retrieval, sparkly and occasionally bright treble, and a certain “speed” to transients that is unmatched by planar and dynamic driver headphones. However, it is also widely understood that Stax headphones lack the visceral bassy impact that those that eschew it, may know well.
The SR-X9000 is interesting because whilst it is at least as resolving as the predecessor, SR009S, it has a decent amount of bass impact, especially with the right chain of amplifiers and DACs. Stax headphones reveal DAC colorations like no other I have tried, and they seem to pair well with dCS DACs with which they really come into their own. I also had the privilege of trying an X9000 with an AudioNote Tube Preamp which made it even bassier. Overall, the X9000 is a highly tweakable headphone as different source pairings will produce different outcomes. It is the undisputed electrostat king unless you are talking about the Sennheiser HE-1 and the HIFIMAN Shangrila-SR which are priced more than $50,000 and don’t seem to have a wide market yet. However, even compared against these behemoths, the X9000 trades blows. For many, it is a better headphone than the Susvara, but I rank the Susvara higher for its superior timbre.
Rank 3: Focal Utopia 2022
- Impedance: 80 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 104 dB
- Pure Be M-shaped Dome Dynamic Driver
- Price: $4999
The third-best headphone on this list is the Focal Utopia. The original Utopia is one of my all-time favorite headphones and Focal has improved that headphone even further in its 2022 iteration. I think the new Utopia looks better and is also built better. The sonic improvement from the OG Utopia is quite significant as well. The new Utopia is slightly warmer and smoother sounding, which is a welcome change as the original Utopia sounded ever-so-slightly metallic and peaky in the treble with the wrong sources. The Utopia is a unique headphone and there is nothing like it in the market for its neutrality, resolution, larger than life imaging, soundstage depth, and visceral; macro dynamics (which will not show up on a graph)! It deserves a place in every serious headphone afficionado's stable.
Rank 4: ZMF Caldera
- Impedance: 60 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 95 dB
- Planar Magnetic (CAMS system- Patent pending)
- Price: $3499
The ZMF Caldera is the brand’s first foray into bespoke planar magnetic headphones and boy, did they hit it out of the park on their first try! Being a ZMF headphone, Caldera is built to absolute perfection and can have stunning colors and aesthetics, and despite its 490g weight, it is a comfortable headphone thanks to the pillowy ZMF pads. The Caldera features ZMF’s patent-pending CAMS technology and the sound is something I would describe as dynamic driveresque. The timbre is incredibly natural, vocals come to life on them as they do on every ZMF, and they have incredible bass texture, slam, and extension. In fact, the Caldera’s technical performance trades blows with those of Susvara and other more expensive planars. I cannot recommend these headphones enough. Their creators, Zach and Bevin, are also some of the nicest people in the portable audio industry.
Rank 5: Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC
- Impedance: 42 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 98.4 dB
- Planar Magnetic
- Price: $5995
The fifth-best headphone on this list is the Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC. It is easily the most unique headphone on this list in terms of aesthetics and form factor. It is also the most expensive one if you buy the complete package with the expensive cables the company sells, which, incidentally, does pair exceedingly well with the headphones, sonically speaking. The AB-1266 Phi TC in stock form, is not an allrounder. Its tonality is often regarded as “wonky”, and its timbre can be on the metallic side. However, the headphone has arguably the best bass and macro dynamics on the planet with electrostat level of resolution and an out-of-the-head soundstage that make it easily the most technical planar, at least as far as my vote goes. It is also possible to tweak the headphone’s tonality with the right cables, an R2R DAC like the Holo May, and a tube headphone amp. People like pairing the Abyss with Woo Audio’s WA33. For less expensive options, iFi’s Pro iCAN works well.
Rank 6: Raal SR1B
- Impedance: 32 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 91 dB
- Amplifier Rating: 100W
- Ribbon Driver
- Price: $3750
Another headphone with unique form factor and aesthetics is the Raal Requisite SR1-B. Raal is a unique brand and the only one using genuine ribbon drivers in headphones. This is a driver technology otherwise commonly found in speakers. Being ribbon headphones, the barrier to entry to the SR1-B used to be high, as you would either need a speaker amp to provide it sufficient output power or buy one of their rather expensive but excellent headphones. However, this has changed as now the company sells an impedance adapter with the SR1-B with which you can drive it from a regular headphone amp, as long as the amp outputs 2 watts. So why is the SR1-B special and worthy of being the sixth-best headphone of 2023? Well, the SR1-B, to my mind, is easily the most resolving headphone on this list and has by far the widest soundstage, with imaging that rival many nearfield speaker setups. The SR1-B lacks a little bit of bass extension and is lacking in macro dynamics. Using tube amps with EL34 tubes such as the Primaluna EVO200 synergizes magically with the SR1-B. Also recommended is their new tube amp called the VM-1a.
Rank 7: Stax SR-009S
- Impedance: 145 Kilo Ohms
- Sensitivity: 101 dB
- Electrostatic Driver
- Price: $4545
The predecessor to the SR-X9000 is still an extremely competent option and offers similar technical performance but in a different flavor. Although ranked seven on this list, it is the number one headphone for many. The X9000 has better build quality, bass performance and stage depth, but the SR009S has a similar level of resolution and is more energetic in the treble. The treble quality is sweet and sparkly with the right chain. Many electrostat afficionados yearn for this treble sparkle which is perhaps more evident on the SR009S than on the X9000. The one that I personally find lacking with the SR009S is lack of low-end punch and authority. Many say that the SR009S is like an electrostat version of a Susvara and I tend to agree.
Rank 8: ZMF Atrium Closed
- Impedance: 300 Ohms
- Dynamic Atrium driver
- Price: $2499
This entry might raise some eyebrows. Why the Atrium Closed? Why not the open version? The Atrium Open is the better headphone but the closed version gets to a similar level of technical performance with some of the most pounding visceral yet clean and tight bass among closedbacks or openbacks, and it is by far, the best closedback on the market, in my opinion. The type of wood used for the closedback can and does affect qualities such as bass decay. Harder woods can result in a tighter bass but less decay. It is also uncanny how ZMF managed to make it relatively open sounding with their Atrium Damping System (ADS) technology. This is number eight on my ranking for 2023. I prefer it to the Verite Open and Closed, for its superior tonality and bass.
Rank 9: HIFIMAN HE1000SE
- Impedance: 35 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 96 dB
- Stealth Magnet (Planar)
- Price: $3500
The HE1000SE is HIFIMAN’s most open-sounding planar with the greatest soundstage width, depth and height, dwarfing the famous soundstage of the HIFIMAN Arya, and matching 99% of the Susvara’s resolution, while being able to be driven to close-to-peak performance of a dongle! It is Arya’s bigger brother but not a “baby Susvara” because it surpasses the Susvara for soundstage height and depth, and even macro dynamics, I would say. Susvara fans may disagree because they know of certain amps which can make the Susvara pound hard and offer a wider and taller stage than the HE1000SE. But having driven the Sus off every conceivable speaker amp and headphone amp, including the Mass Kobo 465, I stand by my opinion of how the HE1000SE bests the Susvara in aforementioned area. And it does all this at $3500! The only thing to note is that the treble can be fatiguing off even neutral sources so it does prefer a warmer source. If it were not for that, this headphone would have ranked higher on this list, but it gets a respectable 9!
Rank 10: HIFIMAN Arya Organic
- Impedance: 16 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 94 dB
- Stealth Magnet (Planar)
- Price: $1299
The Arya Organic is not a mere side grade to the Arya Stealth like several reviewers like to suggest. It is a thing of its own with a stunning midrange that is somehow rich in its presentation whilst the treble is airy and extended, and the bass, punchier than any other HIFIMAN ovoid headphone, save the HE1000SE. The HE1000SE is more technical and brighter than the Organic, but the Organic may appeal to more because it is tuning is “safer”. It is still a brighter leaning headphone and prefers a warm source. However, HIFIMAN nailed the soundstage with this one, that is both deep, wide, and tall, and in these respects, it can be called a “Baby HE1000SE”. I love these headphones for what it does and consider it to be incredible value at its price point and recommend it strongly. These headphones round up my top headphones for 2023.
A Note on Missing Headphones!
Sennheiser HE-1: This is a unicorn, more akin to a statement piece and collector’s holy grail. It still has not achieved a large market given portable audio enthusiasts do not tend to spend over $50,000 on a headphone (although this is an entire headphone system!). Therefore, placing it within this ranking list would be unfair to other headphones on it.
HIFIMAN Shangri la Senior: Same reason as the HE-1. Although I have it on good authority that it could potentially trounce most if not all headphones on my top 10 list. But it does not have a wide market yet, and is unlikely to, soon.
Warwick Headphones: Warwick Acoustic Bravura and Aperio are amazing headphones, but you are essentially bound to a proprietary system which is limiting. I did not connect with the Bravura enough to put it on this list, and the Aperio is five times more expensive than the most expensive headphone on this list, which makes it unattainable for most portable audio enthusiasts.
Audeze Headphones: I do not find myself liking the newer Audezes. They track Harman too closely for them to be exciting to me in the long run. I would probably though rank the Audeze CRBN eleven on this list since it is a decent sounding (and bassy!) electrostat. The older ones are heavy, uncomfortable and require EQ to make them sound acceptable, and I do not enjoy EQ. I find that EQ invariably results in sonic compromises.
Meze Empyrean and Elite: The Meze Empyrean is a solid headphone but can be muddy with the wrong source which is a deal breaker for me. Meanwhile, I never connected with the Elite. That said, the Empyrean II, from all the rave reviews it is receiving, might well be a top ten contender, but I've yet to hear it!
Summary Ranking Table
That is all. Do stay tuned for my future articles and YouTube videos on such rankings to be released during the holidays, one for headphones and one for IEMs.