Editor’s Choice Over $2,500 USD – InnerFidelity 2019

The air starts to get a little thin when you’re reaching to pull 25 or more Ben Franklins out of your wallet, but there’s an excitement involved with this level of purchasing power that exudes commitment to what you’re throwing down hard-earned cash for. I’ve had cars that cost half as much, so while this job affords me the ability to spend time with high-priced kit, I’m in the same boat as most in that I’m always looking for the best value for my money. The picks for 2019 that top $2,500 USD represent, to me, the pinnacle of their respective categories of personal audio and are end-game purchases that will have a lasting, positive and life-enriching impact on your music-listening experience.

Over $2,500 USD

HIFIMAN HE1000se over-ear headphones – $3,499 USD

As I wrote in my review, “The HIFIMAN HE1000 se is a convincing witness to the recorded event for those looking to crown their heads with nothing less than the best which can be had. At $3,499 USD it is priced firmly in the uppermost echelon of headphones and while obviously a serious financial investment, I feel it is worth the price of entry that this level of sonic reproduction commands.” If timbral, tonal and spatial accuracy coupled with incredible frequency extension at either end and a midrange that offers less an imitation of vocals and instruments than in-the-room flesh and blood, then the HE1000 se might just be the last headphone you ever buy. Paired with appropriate sources and amplification its ability to suspend aural disbelief is not hyperbole, fiction or waxing poetic, but rather something that needs to be experienced. The HE1000 se stands as a transportive piece of analog technology that has few peers, and further chalks dust in the plus column because of its ability to stay longer over my ears than any other design at this price/performance point. If you’re looking for the speed, slam and detail of an end-game over-ear planar-magnetic design, then look no further.

ZMF Verite Closed Back – $2,499 USD

I’ve had the chance to listen to almost every headphone model ZMF has made over the years, from their early T50RP Fostex mods, to the current crop of dynamic flagships. If the sound of ZMF headphones has been too dark and bassy for you in the past, I’d encourage you to take a listen to the Verite closed back. It’s the most neutral headphone ZMF has yet done, and the bass emphasis has been reined in and moved further down into the subbass, giving these a satisfying rumble without clouding the midrange. The result is a headphone that lets you hear the detail and smoothness provided by ZMF’s Beryllium driver and Magnesium baffle. This headphone is one of my favorite closed flagships in a year that’s seen a deluge of excellent closed backs.

Liner Tube Audio MicroZOTL MZ3 headphone amplifier – $3,700 USD

Headphone amplifiers are as personal a choice as the transducers we put over our ears to wash away the world and immerse ourselves in the music. It’s a deeply personal audio journey. We want to be taken away, wowed, slammed, tossed and emotionally compromised by our tunes. So, as I wrote in the review of the LTA MZ3 “I can say without hyperbole that in my experience this is a headphone amplifier with few peers at this price point: it is an honest and forthright amp that does that unique job of bringing warmth to music without sacrificing resolution. It excels at balance in its frequency response, does clean, tight bass without exaggerated tube bloom and has flesh-and-blood treble and midrange reproduction capabilities that should leave both solid-state and tube-amp fans feeling satisfied that they’ve dropped their hard-earned coin on a piece of gear that has the flexibility to drive pretty much any headphone you can throw at it, thanks to its ZOTL circuit design. The fact that it can run as a preamp or even an integrated amp with proper speaker-matching only adds more to its value. Highly recommended.” Yes, that’s a good summation.

dCS Bartók Streaming DAC/Headphone Amp/Preamp – $15,000 USD

For those not familiar with the dCS house sound, it’s fast, goes deep, has an incredibly smooth midrange and extended, clean highs with an overall tonality that tends to be slightly more resolution oriented than warm. The dCS Bartók is imbued with this sonic signature (or lack of one, if you will) and also includes several DSP filters to fine-tune the sonic flavor to go along with the unit’s Ring DAC and FPGA-based Digital Processing Platform. Featuring more tech than I could possibly fit in a brief description, I’ll just say it handles 24-bit/384kS/s PCM and DSD128 with DXD and DSD upsampling available. The headphone section features an 1/4-inch and balanced headphone outs on the front of the unit with 1.4W rms into 33-Ohms/ 0.15W into 300-Ohms, and output levels that can be set via app/menu to 0, -10, -20, -30dB). It’s got every type of digital input going, and as I write in my upcoming review, ”The Bartók can be used as the digital source of a two-channel separates system, slotting in as a high-end streaming UPnP DAC/preamplifier with both single-ended and balanced outputs for directly driving a power amp or monoblocs – just add an iOS or Android device to control it – or as the sole device required in a binary-based asynchronous renderer/home headphone rig of impeccable standards.” Enough said.

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Chord Hugo2, DAC/headphone amp, $2,695 :-) .......

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Chord Hugo TT2, DAC/headphone amp, $5,495 :-) ...........

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Manley Absolute tube headphone amp, $4,500 :-) ..........

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Chord DAVE, DAC/headphone amp/pre-amp, $10,600 (reviewed by Stereophile) :-) ...........

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RAAL SR1a ribbon headphones, $3,500 (reviewed by Stereophile) :-) .........

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Warwick Acoustics Aperio electrostatic headphones with matching DAC/headphone amp, $24,000 :-) ........

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Audeze LCD-24 headphones, $3,500 :-) .........