When I picked 2019’s best gaming headsets, I was able to break it down into different price categories, selecting favorites for every budget and some solid second choices.
For good old-fashioned wired headphones released this year, there’s no reason to go to such lengths.
There’s one clear pick, and one clear runner-up.
These two headphones are so good for my personal needs that they slowed down my rampant headphone buying, changed my internal grading benchmarks, and re-excited me about studio headphones around a certain price when I thought the segment was all but dead in terms of innovation.
If you’re in the market for wired studio headphones around $100 that will work perfectly for monitoring, critical listening, home listening, or gaming purposes, the two pairs listed below are excellent choices that outshine the current competition.
BEST WIRED HEADPHONE OF 2019: AKG K361
Whoa whoa whoa Alex, the K361 and not the K371? Yes. I’ll explain why.
The AKG K361 (official page) is one of the best “trimmed-down” headphones I’ve ever used.
Trickle-down engineering is prominent in consumer technology design. Over time, the tech advancements developed for higher-end products make their way into lower-cost goods that offer a bigger bang for your buck.
Headphones shoot for this all the time but frequently stumble. Cheaper versions of iconic headphones often lose out on too many of the core features that made the costlier model attractive. Build quality suffers. Materials feel bad. Smaller drivers change the tuning.
Not so with the K361. Yes, it’s built of cheaper materials than its bigger brother. But those thinner materials also shave the weight dramatically, improving the already excellent comfort without feeling cheap or brittle. The sound profile is a bit thinner in terms of warmth and impact, but the headphones still use the same titanium coated drivers as the K371, and still retain most of their incredible, market-leading sonic performance.
The proprietary 2.5mm connector is a slight bummer, but that’s the only aspect of the K361 I could reasonably lob a complaint at. It’s a sleeker, sexier, better-sounding pair of headphones than any other commonly-recommended $99 studio pair. It eats Audio-Technica’s and Sony’s closest competing models for breakfast.
The K361’s light weight and compact design have made it my go-to “writing in a coffee shop” headphone. I carry them everywhere. I use them for gaming. I use them for relaxing with music. I use them for sound editing.
I went into my review of the 361's expecting a cut-down version of a great headphone that was ultimately a little disappointing. That’s what happens almost every time I look at a cheaper version of something great. But the 361’s destroyed the grading curve. They offer the same phenomenal value proposition as their more-expensive inspiration and sound nearly as good, for $50 less.
RUNNER-UP: AKG K371
The AKG K371 (official page) is a fantastic, market-defining thing.
It’s a reference-quality headphone that costs $150. It’s matched through acoustic means alone to the most heavily-researched headphone signature target of the modern era, the Harman target.
The only other headphones I’ve personally heard that come close to this level of sonic performance per dollar at this price range are the Beyerdynamic DT880 and the Sennheiser HD58X. The Beyer pair is brighter than the AKG’s, and the Sennheiser pair is warmer, leaving the K371 in a perfect “Goldilocks zone” for critical listening.
The $50 premium over the cheaper version gets you a few build extras on top of more-refined audio. There’s exposed metal in the frame, the headband pad is thicker, and the connector is a standard mini-XLR plug, which means replacement cables are easier to find.
The visual designs of these two headphones split the difference between consumer and studio gear, and for a while I found that a little baffling, and it’s one of the few things here that might not be to your tastes.
Turns out, there might be wireless versions coming. Retailers leaked listings for wireless versions of both pairs, though as of this writing nothing is confirmed by AKG. The design makes a lot more sense if it was made for Bluetooth consumer use as well as the studio, and a Bluetooth version would be excellent competition for the M50XBT.
I’ve seen some build quality issues reported, though these seem to stem more from a fast retail roll out of the initial production run than any underlying design problems. Fellow reviewer Wheezy Reviews cataloged his personal challenges with AKG’s quality control in this phenomenal video. It’s worth pointing out that AKG did eventually get him sorted out with a working pair, but it’s a bummer he had to go through all of that.
My two personal pairs did not have any major issues, and I can only really speak to that experience. The pads on my K371 were a little squished in the box, but they popped back into shape thanks to their use of memory foam.
The crowded ~$99 headphone market is filled with choices that have been hotly debated for years, all with their own pluses and minuses, and all suffering in some way when trying to make the transition between the studio and the home.
These AKG pairs are the current gold standards for this price point, and I expect they’ll remain so for a number of years. Their design might not be for everyone, but their performance is exceptional.