Take it from someone who records music: The world of high-end audio is often tainted with bullshit. Precious (and often snake-oily) materials and terms are exploited to sell products for inflated prices. Faux science is deployed to trick you into thinking you need overpriced accessories like 2-inch-thick speaker cables.
Once you start shopping for gear that approaches four figures, it's tough to distinguish what's good-sounding from what's simply good-looking. Never fear! I've spent thousands of hours listening to music in my acoustically treated home studio through many of the most-loved high-end headphones, speakers, and amps on the market. Below you'll find my favorites and some information about what each item does.
Before reading on, be sure to check out our cheap (or free!) tips on how to get more out of your home audio setup.
Updated March 2023: We've added the Neumann NDH 30, Focal Bathys, Q Acoustics M20 HD, Bowers & Wilkins PX8, Master & Dynamic MW75, and KEF LSX II.
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Before Wasting Money!
Consider where you will be listening before you decide what you should be listening with.
The quality of the sound you hear in your room will only ever be as good as the room itself. A pair of $250 speakers will sound better in a room that's been acoustically treated, than a pair of $10,000 speakers will sound in an empty room with bare floors and walls.
What is "bad," exactly, when it comes to room dynamics for high-end listening? Typically it means sound waves bounce around too much, giving the room what's known as a long reverb decay time. This is the length of time it takes for sound to die out as it bounces off the walls.
Try this: Clap your hands loudly in the middle of your room and listen for the decay—the audible echoing of that clapping sound. The best way to shorten that decay time is to fill the room with as much soft, porous mass as possible. This brings the audio reflections under control, damping them so you hear more of the focused sound waves coming out of the speakers, and fewer of the messy sound waves bouncing around the room. To treat a room, use acoustic panels (typically Rockwool insulation wrapped in cheap fabric and hung from the walls or ceiling) to provide the recommended amount of coverage for the space.
Throbbing and thumping bass frequencies, which are harder to tame than higher frequencies like splashy cymbals and twangy guitars, will typically degrade the audio quality you get in smaller rooms. Significant porous absorption is required to make large speakers sound great in a tighter space like a bedroom. If you like big speakers with big bass, set up your stereo somewhere a little more spacious.
In general, the softer and bigger your room is the bigger you can go in terms of speaker systems, and the better they'll sound. If you're stuck setting up your stereo in a room that's either small or particularly reverberant and acoustically “bright,” I recommend buying smaller speakers or just sticking with headphones. (Don't worry, great headphones are awesome.)
When improving your listening room, it's worth noting that investing in some acoustic treatment is much more cost-effective than investing in more expensive audio gear. You can buy or build enough panels for a medium-size space with just a few hundred dollars, and they can actually make your room look pretty neat. In my experience, hanging some panels and curtains over your bare walls will increase the quality of your sound more than any single piece of equipment.
Because they take problems with room acoustics out of the equation, a quality pair of headphones is the place most budding audiophiles should start.
Open-backed headphones like the Sennheiser HD6XX ($239) are a great first buy for those who have a quiet room to listen in. “Open-back” means that they don't seal out the outside world like the “closed back” over-ears you might be used to. There's nothing to block sound in or out—not only will other people hear your music, but you'll be able to hear sounds other than your music. However, open-back headphones sound more natural and speaker-like in any room. They are a perfect pair of headphones to plug straight into a phone or a stereo, though you will notice that using an outboard headphone amp improves the sound. (More on those later.)
If you want more sound isolation, I also really like in-ear headphones like the Shure Aonic 3 ($199), which cut out very nearly all outside noise, and pack up super small for travel. Sound quality is excellent, especially with an outboard headphone amp in tow.
At the higher end, my current favorite in-ears are from Portland-based brand Campfire Audio (the 3D-printed Supermoon ($1,500). There are many other high-end headphones that also sound fantastic. Personally, I have also loved in-ears from premium audio brand Audeze. The company's Euclid buds ($1,299) are among the most astonishing in-ears I've ever tested, thanks to their custom planar magnetic drivers. I've never heard bass this good from in-ear headphones, and the overall detail in the sound is nothing short of shocking.
If you prefer over-ear headphones, I really like the latest models from the French company Focal. The recent Celestee closed-back headphones ($999) are as gorgeous to listen to as they are to look at, and the recently released Bathys ($799) are wireless and offer noise-canceling, making them some of the best for travel. They produce one of the widest soundstages I've heard from wireless headphones. (In headphone lingo, the soundstage is the imaginary three-dimensional space you find yourself in when you shut your eyes and listen.) Other great wireless options that compete with wired headphones are the Bowers & Wilkins PX8 ($699) and the Master & Dynamic MW75 ($599), both of which feature beautiful design and high-end materials.
I still have yet to encounter a pair of wireless earbuds that sound amazing, but the best I've heard are the Astell & Kern UW100 ($299), which have some of the most realistic sound you'll find, thanks to the company's excellent processing.
Fans of open-back listening with big budgets should check out the Elex ($599), a collaboration between Drop and Focal that brings elements of Focal's more expensive Elear and Clear headphones to the sub-$1,000 mark. They sound even better than the more expensive closed-back models. Another solid pair are the Neumann NDH 30 ($649), which are aimed at more studio-style sound. If you've got unlimited cash, the Audeze LCD-5 ($4,500) are exceptional. They offer the cleanest, clearest sound I've ever heard from a pair of headphones—great for high rollers without perfect listening rooms.
A quality pair of speakers will last a lifetime with a little TLC. Speaker size and power output is an important factor when determining what to buy. For most people, smaller, “bookshelf-style" speakers are a better fit. If you have a big listening space, though, consider going bigger. It's not always true, but larger speakers typically have better bass response.
Your first speaker purchase should be a quality pair for your desktop. After all, it's where you probably spend a lot of your time at home. For listening at my desk, I love the iLoud Micro Monitors ($350). They're a small pair that sound exceptional for their size, and they have some surprisingly awesome bass response.
As far as bookshelf speakers go, my favorite pair is the KEF LS50 Wireless II ($2,800 per pair). They have the biggest, most detailed sound I've ever heard from a pair of speakers their size. The cheaper KEF LSX II ($1,400 per pair) model are also great, as are the wired KEF LS50 Meta ($1,600 per pair). We've also recently tried and enjoyed the Q Acoustics M20 HD ($499 per pair), which are a solid option for those who want a small but great-sounding pair for a turntable or desktop.
The KEF and iLoud models I just mentioned are powered. They have amplification built-in, and they draw their power from a wall socket, so they can be used without a dedicated amplifier. If you already have an amp (or if you plan to buy one), a pair of passive speakers is the best way to go. Those hook up with regular speaker cables, and you won't need to worry about plugging them into the wall.
Some passive bookshelf models I love are the ELAC Debut 2.0 ($380 per pair) and JBL 4309 ($2,000 per pair). The ELACs are a great entry-level speaker that will easily take you into audiophile territory with the right amp, where the 4309 more or less sound amazing with anything powering them. I'm a fan of fun, energetic sound when I'm listening on speakers, and both of these models deliver that, but with enough detail that you won't feel you're sacrificing anything.
Moving away from bookshelves and onto passive floorstanding speakers, I'll highlight two very different models. The Paradigm Monitor SE 6000F ($1,000 per pair) are a great pair of speakers for those who like things a bit more clinical and precise—they're amazing for classical music, jazz, and folk, thanks to their incredible detail. Some audiophiles prefer the type of tight precision you get from speakers like the Paradigms. The Klipsch Forte IV ($4,998 per pair) are more lively. In fact, they are perfectly tuned, mid-century–inspired masterpieces. They come with hand-made wooden cabinets and gorgeous horn tweeters, and the 15-inch passive bass radiators on the back of the sealed speakers make them punch deeper and with more authority than a professional boxer. If you're looking for the most fun you've ever had listening to Hendrix at high volume, speakers like these are the way to go.
Your taste may differ from mine! The best way to find your favorite high-end speakers is to use your ears. Find a local dealer and go listen to several models before you buy. For reference, other brands that make excellent speakers these days include Yamaha, Bowers & Wilkins, Focal, Bang & Olufsen, and Polk Audio, among many other more boutique brands.
You'll never know how a pair of speakers truly sounds in your room until you get them there, so try to test them at home. Most high-end dealers allow some form of this, but big-box retailers may not, so check the return policy on anything you buy.
Digital-to-analog converters (DACs) take the digital audio signal from your audio files and convert them to analog audio signal that you can send (via an amplifier) to headphones and speakers. Every piece of digital technology you own that comes with a headphone jack already has a DAC chip inside it, but it's usually a pretty cheap one. If you route your signal through a dedicated DAC—one with better components and a higher build quality than whatever's in your phone or computer—then you'll get higher fidelity out of your digital files.
In my experience, if you have good headphones or speakers, it's worth it to invest in a proper outboard DAC. On the more affordable side, I love the options from AudioQuest ($100), Schiit ($149), and S.M.S.L. ($479). All of these connect to your computer or phone using USB or a digital audio cable. If you are willing to spend even more, the best DAC I've heard is the Chord Electronics Mojo 2 ($775). You can spend more, but higher-priced models typically also come with a headphone amplifier or some kind of other amplification on board.
Many higher-end headphones sound their best when driven by a more powerful amplifier than the one that's built into your laptop, phone, or tablet. Headphone amplifiers take the signal from your DAC and amplify it with better overall fidelity than the cheapo amps found in most personal electronics. A good headphone amp can really bring more life and a more realistic soundstage to your music, mostly by providing better signal-to-noise ratio.
Just like with headphone amps, some of the best affordable options are from Schiit ($212) and S.M.S.L. ($149). Either model sounds excellent and will especially improve the sound of more power-hungry headphones. You can spend a ton of money at the high end, but you probably don't need to go higher-end than the Rupert Neve Designs RNHP ($549). Neve was a legendary engineer who designed some of the most famous recording equipment in history, and he didn't cut any corners making his headphone amp either. It sounds warm and open, bringing even the densest mixes to life.
Quality amps range from fully-fledged streaming models with color displays to old-school tube behemoths. Each has its place. Your main concern when shopping for a stereo amp should be how much power per channel you want, and what kinds of analog and digital inputs you need.
I'm a pretty lazy listener, which is why I love modern streaming amps. These amps have controls for Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and other streaming services built directly into easy-to-use interfaces. Streaming amps have gotten really great over the last few years. It used to be that anything with an internet connection sounded terrible, but that's not the case with the latest models. My high-end favorites right now are the Cambridge Audio Evo 150 ($2,999) and the Naim Uniti Atom ($3,799), which both feature gorgeous color displays and some of the best fidelity (and most glorious knobs) I've ever experienced. Both work with every major streaming service imaginable, and you can connect to them over Bluetooth too.
If you don't have that kind of money, I highly recommend checking out the Canadian brand NAD. Its amps, like the NAD C 316 ($499), aren't the flashiest, but they sound amazing for the money. The C 316 model even comes with a phono channel on board so you can hook up a record player—a nice touch, seeing how it doesn't have streaming built-in. If you want to stream, you can find the proper dongle to connect your phone to it.
Vinyl is back! And turntables are more fun—and better-sounding—than ever. If you're looking for a starter deck with audiophile-grade sound quality, I would check out options like the Pro-Ject T1 ($499) or Debut Carbon Evo ($599). On the higher end I like the Rega Planar 2 ($775), which has a bit more open and dynamic sound.
If you have a vintage stereo, it likely has a phono preamp built-in, meaning you're able to plug a turntable directly into the back of the unit and get straight to listening. But if you have a modern stereo, you may need to buy a dedicated phono preamp to play your records through your headphones or speakers. Check both your turntable and your stereo, because setups differ, and some turntables come with phono amps inside them that you can activate by flipping a switch. Still, you might find that whatever built-in phono preamp you're dealing with doesn't sound as good as you'd hoped.
Basic models like the Pro-Ject Phono Box DC ($129) and Fluance PA10 ($100) will sound better than whatever is built into your turntable, but for truly high fidelity I recommend more expensive models. My current favorite for the money is the Cambridge Audio Alva Solo ($229), but other acclaimed options include the Rega Fono MM ($445) and Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Ultra ($349).
People might tell you to spend more money than this on a phono stage, but I generally think those people are foolish. The signal profile for phono stages is set by the RIAA, the recording industry's big trade group. In theory, every good phono amp should sound identical.
Cables and Accessories
Accessories are where the vast majority of audio snake oil shows up. The worst offender? Cables. The first thing to know is that unless you're running speaker cables for hundreds of feet, you just don't need to worry too much about cable quality. People will try to sell you crazy-expensive cables. Laugh at them and buy standard cabling—which isn't as cheap as it used to be, due to material costs of copper alone.
You're essentially shopping for looks and durability, not fidelity; cheaper speaker cables are more susceptible to fraying or breaking, but they still carry audio signals just as well. Just buy modern wire and you'll be fine. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn't understand physics.
I also recommend grabbing some banana clips, which you can easily twist speaker wire ends into to make quick plug-and-play connections between your amp and your speakers.
In terms of sources, I'm a die-hard vinyl-and-Spotify listener, so I typically enjoy music in those two ways. I know Spotify's streams are compressed, but even through high-end gear, I can't hear any degradation on most tracks. (You probably can't, either.)
I will say that a good portable player like the Astell & Kern SP3000 ($3,700) is a great option if you're on the go, though in most cases, your phone will provide excellent digital audio quality via its USB port.
There are also excellent new plug-and-go DACs made just for mobile phones. I've never used one, but the Chord Mojo ($403) is beloved by many. I like the Astell & Kern USB-C Dual ($248) for Android. It just plugs right into my mobile phone and provides excellent audio quality to my headphones. Another great portable option is the THX Onyx ($200), which comes with a standard USB adapter in addition to USB C, so you can also use it with iPhones and laptops.