The main show is finally here.
For this semi-annual update to the ranking list, 47 new headphones will be added alongside adjustments to 39 existing entries. This brings the total number of headphones ranked on In-Ear Fidelity to 222.
The Usual Disclaimer
Before I begin, I shall copy and paste the disclaimer that has been on the Ranking List since its very inception.
Yes I know it’s wholly unnecessary for most of you dear readers, but it’s no secret that some of you have some literacy problems and require the section to be crammed down your slimy throats before you acknowledge its existence.
- The headphones are ranked purely by sonic performance. Fit, isolation, durability, build quality etc. are ignored unless they interfere with the sound itself.
- The headphones are not ranked in terms of price-to-performance value. They are ranked according to what I think is “objectively” the best.
- Most of the headphones in this list are determined based off demo units from shops.
- Rankings will only consider stock pads (or pads provided out of the box). Third party pads (apart from “stock replacement” pads designed for a specific headphone) are not a consideration in this ranking list.
- The positions are not set in stone. I’m only human; I may miss out on certain details or traits that may only be apparent with repeated listening. Expect changes.
- Ranks will be determined based on the best unit tried. Because of this, I am not accounting for unit variation. I cannot guarantee that what I’m hearing is what you will be hearing.
- This will revert to the most recent unit tried if there is a significant time gap between the last and most recent times I tried a particular model.
- Prices are at MSRP in USD. Prices not directly available in USD are based off the exchange rate during the time of writing.
- The price of any additional compulsory component (e.g. electrostatic energisers) will be added to this MSRP value and valued accordingly.
- With enough requests, a headphone may also be tested with a different (typically more expensive) amplifier. If the community deems this amplifier as “necessary” for said headphone, the price of the amplifier will also be added to the MSRP value and valued accordingly.
- All headphones are tested on the iFi iDSD micro Black Label, unless otherwise indicated.
- Headphones are occasionally tested on the Motu M2 and Topping A90, but final ranks are determined according to performance on the micro Black Label unless performance is deemed superior on the A90, in which case it will also be indicated as such.
- A (non-complete) list of headphones that I’ve tried can be found on my measurements database.
- If you can tell, some headphones on the database (that I’ve tried) are not in this list. This is could be due to lack of interest or lack of enough ear time to make a proper decision on tier placement.
- Yes, this is the opinion of one person on the internet. Please do not get too offended if your favourite headphone isn’t graded as highly as you’d like. (vice versa applies)
- This list is meant to be used as a reference point. I highly recommend against blind-buying and suggest to have a listen to the headphones yourself. By all means, use this to shortlist what you should try in the future but don’t take it as gospel.
Also, here I reference my “Tonal-Technical” post which highlights the process in which said headphones are ranked:
An update of the “Technical Ability” article, explaining the concepts of ‘tonality’ and ‘technicalities’ which are the cornerstones of the IEF ranking system.
So if anyone has any complains on certain rankings on certain headphones, do acknowledge the whole “tonality versus technicalities” split. Just because a headphone may be “technically excellent” does not necessarily mean that it may be tonally so, and vice versa. And since I rank by a weighted system… well, the criteria for higher rankings get even stricter.
(Frequently Made Arguments)
BUT THIS HEADPHONE’S RANK IS WRONG–
Have you fully understood that, under IEF metrics, headphones (and IEMs) are graded under tonal and technical performance? What that means is, a headphone that may be excellent one aspect and weak in the other will not be ranked as high as one that is good in both. Many, many cult favourites tend to favour one or the other to capture a specific target audience, and so unfortunately would not fly high on my lists.
For more information, do refer to this post breaking down the weighting system in more detail.
BUT I USE EQ SO I DON’T CARE ABOUT TONE GRADES–
Great, amazing. The list is also sortable by “Technical Grade” for your own convenience. Or you could have a different critera for tonal performance but similar critera for technical performance. Or you could just be tone deaf, I don’t know, I don’t judge.
Simply put, the overall rank is just a basic snapshot. There are many other columns and details in the list that you can make use of to make more informed decisions. Don’t limit yourself to just the basics.
BUT I DON’T WANT TO USE EQ–
Then sort by “Tone Grade”. Assuming, again, your criteria for tonal performance is similar to mine.
BUT I USE EQ AND THINK TECHNICALITIES AREN’T REAL–
Good lord– use the graph database then. Nobody’s forcing you to look at my subjective impressions.
Nothing else? So without further ado, the ranks.
The New Entries
|Model||Rank||Value Rating||Tone Grade||Technical Grade|
|Audeze LCD-X (2021)||B-||C||A+|
|Audio Technica ATH-A1000Z||C-||C-||C+|
|Audio Technica ATH-A2000X||C||D+||B|
|Audio Technica ATH-A2000Z||C-||C-||C+|
|Audio Technica ATH-AD1000X||C||C-||B|
|Audio Technica ATH-AD2000||C||C-||B|
|Audio Technica ATH-AD500X||D||D||C-|
|Audio Technica ATH-AD700X||D||D||C-|
|Audio Technica ATH-AD900X||D+||D||C|
|Audio Technica ATH-L5000||C-||D||B-|
|EKSA E900 Pro||E||E||E|
|ES Lab ES-1a||B-||C-||S-|
|Grado The Hemp Headphone||C||C||C+|
|Hifiman Edition X V2||A-||S||B+|
|Hifiman Jade II||A||A||S-|
|Hifiman Shangri-La Jr||A+||A||S|
|Pioneer Monitor 10||D+||D+||C|
|Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless||B||★||A-||B-|
|Stax SR-Lambda Pro||A-||B+||S-|
|Stax SR-X Mk2||C||C||B-|
|Model||New rank||Old rank|
|Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC||C+||B-|
|Acoustic Research AR-H1||C+||B|
|AKG K712 Pro||C+||B-|
|Audeze LCD-2 Classic||B-||B+|
|Audio Technica ATH-A900X||C||B-|
|Audio Technica ATH-ADX5000||B||A-|
|Audio Technica ATH-AWAS||C||B|
|Audio Technica ATH-AWKT||C-||C|
|Audio Technica ATH-M70x||B-||B|
|Audio Technica ATH-R70x||A-||A|
|Beyerdynamic T5p (1st Gen)||C+||B|
|DCA Aeon 2 Closed||C+||C|
|Final Audio D8000||B||B+|
|Final D8000 Pro||B||B+|
|Koss PRO DJ100||C-||C+|
|MrSpeakers Ether C||B+||A-|
|Precide ERGO 2||C-||C|
|Sennheiser HD25 Plus||B-||B|
|ZMF Verite Closed||B||B+|
As it has been since the very beginning, the ranking list has sort of targeted a “normal-ish distribution”.
Some notable stats:
- Getting at least a C+ rank puts you in the top 50-ish percentile. C+ in the context of this ranking list is about average to above-average.
- This is pretty consistent with the IEM Ranking List that is about 4 times the size of this list, so no problems here.
- Getting at least a S- rank puts you in the top 2-ish percentile. The S ranks are hard to get.
- Getting at least an A- rank puts you in the top 7-ish%, which is a little under the expected range of 10-ish%.
- The top 30% lies around B, which is a little over the expected range of 25-ish%.
- The B and C ranks make up a whopping ~75% of entries. This is consistent with expectations, though the ratio between B and C ranks are a little off (more on that in the section below).
- There are only five 3-star (★★★) headphones, consisting of only 2.25% of total entries.
- There are seven 2-star (★★) headphones, making up only 3.15% of the population.
- The 1-star (★) award is a lot more attainable in comparison. 13 awardees, or ~14% of the population.
Observations & Problems
- The criteria for higher tone grades have been tightened, hence the demotion of many entries on the list.
- There is still some selection bias going on considering the relative youth of this ranking list; headphones that I’ve gone out of my way to listen/measure tend to be more reputable and “exciting” models, hence the positive skew in subjective impressions.
- For reference, the IEM Ranking List didn’t really get a decent distribution of ranks until roughly 500 entries or so, so while there is a skew currently it is also within expectations.
- There seems to be a disparity between the sub-$400 price bracket and anything above; one could get a decent linear-ish performance increase up till $400, after which it seems to take a lot more money to get a headphone that is both well-tuned and technically proficient.
- Value ratings in the headphone context get pretty weird because of this; one could get an “A-” rank headphone at under $400, but anything ranked above shoots up to kilobuck ranges. As such, even a ★ rating is only awarded to a bare handful of headphones above $500, and only then it’s by virtue of there being no cheaper equals.
- A-rating overcompensation? Perhaps I’m gatekeeping the A-ranks a little too hard. Regardless, high standards are always a good thing for the consumer and the industry as a whole.