My Benchmark Headphones and Headsets for 2020

The representative standards others will hope to beat

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The AKG K361, a MacBook, and a blonde flat white. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

hether they declare it openly or not, headphone and gaming headset reviews are always comparison pieces.

Everyone has to start somewhere. But once an audio reviewer has a stable of product knowledge under their belt, every new review has to face that gauntlet of past experience.

Rather than keeping hundreds of headphones around to compare things with, it’s useful to pick standard models to represent certain sectors of the market. These may not always be the “best” headphones out there, but they should be well-designed models that hold high appeal for a wide swathe of buyers.

Here are the models I’ll be using for review comparisons in 2020, so you can get an idea of where I’m coming from. When I say a pair of headphones is neutral, comfortable, well built, and worth the money, it means that it compared favorably to the models listed below.

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The AKG K361 and K371. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

HEADPHONES

For several years, Audio-Technica’s stalwart M50X was my benchmark model for most headphone reviews. Its $150 price represents the center of the mainstream market. Its sound signature is flexible enough for a wide variety of listening types. Its rugged studio build translated well into the consumer space. And it carries a comical number of critical recommendations.

With the release of the AKG K371 and K361 last year, the M50X’s long tenure as my secret review reference comes to a close.

The AKG models match the popular $99/$149 price points of the M40X and M50X. They offer more consumer-friendly designs than those old studio models. They have superior comfort thanks to larger, softer memory foam ear pads. And they have peerless sound quality thanks to the years of science poured into the Harman target headphone response.

Some people might not like the design. Some folks might want an open back headphone instead. And some might not like that they’re not as mod-friendly as the Audio-Technica models.

But as closed-back headphones around $100 go, I’ve never encountered a better benchmark example.

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The HyperX Cloud Alpha, special gold color edition. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

GAMING HEADSETS

The HyperX Cloud Alpha has been my secret standard for mainstream-priced gaming headsets since its first release…and in 2020, it continues to hold that spot.

HyperX’s in-house refresh of their timeless Cloud II brought a lot of smart changes. It has better sound quality thanks to redesigned dual-chamber ear cups. It has a detachable cable. It has a competent microphone with an emphasis on background noise cancellation. And it has a sound signature that splits the difference between pro gaming footstep emphasis and consumer-friendly bass response.

As $99 gaming headsets go, the Cloud Alpha is a great, popular example of just what the market can deliver, and it’s widespread enough to be a known quantity.

For gaming headsets above $200, comparing against a Cloud Alpha doesn’t quite do the trick. So, premium gaming products face the $329 Cloud Orbit S and Steelseries Arctis Pro Wireless. Both of these are “kitchen-sink” style gaming products, packed with features and performance to match their high price points.

Both headsets present neutral, accurate audio that shines in the same way as the AKG headphones mentioned above. Both have great microphones. The Arctis Pro Wireless has three styles of connectivity. Both include the latest surround sound virtualization technologies.

If you’re going to make an expensive gaming headset, it has to at least take a shot at most of the things that the Arctis Pro and Cloud Orbit get so right.

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The HyperX Cloud Orbit has massive shaped ear pads. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

WHAT ABOUT OPEN BACKS? IEMS?

I don’t have a specific reference for these two types of headphone in mind this year, and that’s because of my personal listening preferences.

I’m not a huge fan of open back headphones or in-ear monitors. I have nothing against open backs in principle, and indeed, I think the Sennheiser HD58X, DT880, and Grado SR80e are all wonderful products.

But I do a ton of listening in spaces where the isolation and intimacy of a closed-back pair are of great benefit. I like the additional warmth and punch that closed headphones provide.

The staging and presentation of open back headphones are undeniably great things. But I live in a somewhat-noisy apartment complex, I edit and produce audio in environments where sound leak needs to be at a minimum, and I write in busy cafes every week. So closed back headphones are my go-to.

As for in-ear monitors, I know that they provide extreme isolation, and when tuned right, impressive detail. But I don’t like the way they feel in my ears. I find isolating tips uncomfortable. They press into my ear canals and get covered with ear wax. And ear buds, while great for podcast listening and chores around the house, don’t usually sound as good as the more isolating models.

In rare cases where I look at an open headphone or an in-ear headphone, I’ll be sure to mention my standard of comparison directly in the review.

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Arctis Pro Wireless base station. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Every audio reviewer is different, and I’m well aware that my benchmark models probably won’t match up with a lot of other reviewers you personally encounter or enjoy. That’s fine! Every person has their own preferences.

The models I’ve listed above represent my personal tastes, but they also represent models that I think best represent these market sectors. I love the DT770, but I couldn’t use that in good conscience as my modern review benchmark because it has a hilarious treble spike that most other products try hard to avoid.

If you see an audio review from me in 2020 where I’m totally gushing about something, it’s because it blew away one of the products listed above. Hopefully that will happen more than once this year, but the competition is stiff!

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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