One of my first real audiophile experiences was listening to my friend’s father’s system, which proudly featured not only electrostatic headphones but electrostatic speakers as well. I can tell you that this remains to this day one of the best systems I’ve ever heard, and I think so much of my own audiophile quest has been in trying to get back to what I heard back then.
Electrostatic headphones are quite pricey, yes, but they offer such substantial and inarguable advantages over other types of headphones – even the most expensive ones – that they are always and without fail well worth the money.
With only a very few true electrostatic headphones on the market today, it’s actually pretty easy to take a fairly exhaustive overview, so let’s take a look at the best electrostatic headphones available now.
What Is an Electrostatic Headphone?
Electrostatic headphones are fundamentally different in how they work from any other types and are the only kind of headphones that have fully passive drivers, which offer incredible advantages.
But what does that mean? Well, there are essentially three types of headphones currently being made, so it might be helpful if I very quickly describe each of them (these descriptions are also equally apt for speaker systems).
Dynamic Headphones are by far the most popular and prevalent type of headphones on the market, and including every single model made by the giants – Sony, Bose, Apple, Beats, JVC, and all the others – as well as pretty much every single smaller company.
The dynamic headphone is basically a miniature speaker and works the same way almost any normal home or commercial speaker system works. A coil of electrical wire – the voice coil – is attached to the throat of a cone of material – paper, mylar, or something else – and this coil is suspended in a magnetic assembly. When electrical current is applied to the coil, from an amplifier, the coil moves in relation to the magnets, creating sound.
While speaker and headphone manufacturers will generally try to make these speaker drivers as light as possible, the voice coils and other factors make them relatively heavy and hard to move – a big factor in sound quality.
Planar Magnetic Headphones
These are a more and more popular system, especially among audiophiles, planar magnetic speakers and headphones still account for a tiny percentage of overall products and sales.
These are also dynamic driver systems (though some claim they aren’t…), but rather than the heavier, thicker and stiffer speaker driver I just described above, planar magnetics use a very thin and light sheet of some sort of material (usually mylar). This sheet is printed upon with very light electrical conductors – similar to the voice coil on dynamics, but much thinner, lighter and easier to move. The driver is suspended in a magnetic field, and when the conductors are given electrical/musical current, the drivers move, creating sound.
While the sheet of mylar makes a much lighter and faster sound driver than in conventional dynamic headphones (and speakers), thus leading to lower distortion and greater detail, the planar magnetic still can’t quite compete with the king of the audiophile systems, the Electrostatic.
Electrostatic headphones are by far the least common type, generally require extensive research and engineering and very high-end specialized manufacturing facilities and processes, and are generally pretty darn expensive.
Electrostatics are the only headphones that do not have a dynamic driver – that is, the speaker driver inside the headphone does not in any way move – it has neither magnets nor a voice coil attached to it, and so is much, much lighter. Instead, an exceptionally high-quality diaphragm is suspended in a high voltage field, which moves the diaphragm to produce sound.
This very thin and light driver, which has no attached wires or magnets to impede it or slow it down, can move much, much more quickly, with much lower distortion and much higher detail recovery, than either normal dynamic driver headphone systems or planar magnetics – though the latter does sometimes come somewhat close.
So, Are Electrostatic Headphones Really That Much Better?
In a word, yes!
Although there are some pretty phenomenal dynamic driver headphones out there – the Sennheiser HD 800 and HD 820 are as good as it gets, and the 800s, an open-back design, actually come quite close to the best electrostatic headphones – they will never achieve the completely natural, relaxed and accurate sound of an electrostatic headphone.
Even considering electrostatic headphones vs planar magnetic headphones, the latter – even with diaphragms that are much lighter and faster than those in dynamic headphones – can’t quite reach the levels of ease, speed, and correctness of an electrostatic system – though to be fair many audiophiles would disagree, saying that something like the phenomenal Hifiman Susvara or the absolutely beautiful sounding Audeze LCD-5 – both as expensive as top-end electrostats – are just as good.
For me, though, nothing sounds like an electrostatic headphone.
As a result of their super light and super fast diaphragms, electrostatic headphones offer breathtaking sound, with ease and a lack of stress that you will never hear on any other type of headphone (or speaker system).
Recovery of detail and micro-detail reaches new levels, and not only will you hear things in the music you’ve never before noticed, but the details you have heard before will also sound different – closer to how they actually sound.
Phase correctness is also much higher with electrostatic headphones, meaning that all of the sounds hit your ears at the right time – in the correct temporal relationship with each other – and imaging, space, and soundstage are not just three-dimensional, but actually open and natural, big and, again, effortless (a word I and others tend to use a lot when describing electrostatics), and completely believable.
The proper phase also improves things like the relationships between instruments, and their relationships with the acoustical space itself – be it a concert hall, recording studio, or any other space. There is an elusive and indescribable sense of what audiophiles call timing – the existence of and impact of music in space-time – which comes through with electrostatic headphones not just at a higher level, but in a fundamentally different way.
Distortion is much, much lower on electrostatic systems, and music can fully exhibit its sweetness and what we might call its complex simplicity more fully and accurately, and acoustic instruments sound absolutely and uncannily real and present. Even electrically amplified, electronically processed, or electronically derived sounds come through with full character, and sound more like themselves.
There is so much more we could talk about, but perhaps the other most important factor is the reproduction of dynamics and micro-dynamics – maybe the most impressive thing about electrostatic headphones and speakers (maybe…), and also ironically the one thing even some audiophiles see as a bit of a disadvantage or drawback.
See, there is no added force in music played through an electrostatic headphone, just natural and accurate reproduction of all dynamics, from large changes in volume to the tiniest and most subtle inflections. In this regard, there is absolutely no doubt that electrostatic headphones are unparalleled.
At the same time, the lack of additional, unnatural force, especially coupled with the utter lack of distortion and harshness, means electrostatics often – at least to some listeners, and at least initially – seem to sound a bit boring, a bit dynamically blah. This is actually exactly the opposite of the truth, and when you really listen to what’s going on here you will be almost overwhelmed by the power of the music, the amazing energy, and dynamic expressivity, which you have quite probably never really heard before. Everything is more exciting, more powerful, and more real.
But, again for some, the slam and force of dynamic driver headphones especially mean a more continuous and obvious – if also a more artificial – dynamic sound, the false forcefulness of which can, to be sure, be pretty engaging, if ultimately a bit fatiguing.
Different strokes, as they say, but the vast majority of audiophiles agree that electrostatic headphones offer ease and accuracy, a musicality, that no other type of headphone can match.
And if they are like me, and have been lucky enough to spend some extended time listening to some good sets of electrostatic headphones on equally good and complementary sound systems, they’ve been trying ever since – consciously or not – to get back to that sound.
Who Makes the Best Electrostatic Headphones Now?
The elephant in the room, for people who already know and love electrostatic headphones, is Stax – the inventor of electrostatic headphones and maker of more legendary headphone models than probably any other company.
Thing is, despite a fairly healthy and sophisticated online presence, it’s not really clear what the company’s status is at this point. Their website claims that they are still making top-end electrostatic headphones, and yet they are very, very difficult to find in most parts of the world, including North America, and customer service, support, and warranty coverage are a bit of a gamble at this point.
Anyway, about ten years ago Stax was wholly purchased by the Chinese consumer electronics giant Edifier, and the most recent Stax release – or at least “Edifier Stax,” was not an electrostatic headphone at all. The Edifier Stax Spirit S3 planar magnetic headphones are, in fact, amazing sounding affordable audiophile headphones, and quite a value, but they nonetheless proved to be a big disappointment to those waiting for Stax to rise from the ashes.
Luckily there are very few truly exceptional electrostatic headphones being made by other companies, and any one of them may be seen as not only an advancement – in design, technology, and sound – from Stax headphones, but as quite possibly the very finest sounding audiophile headphones at their respective price levels – the Audeze, in fact, have often been called the finest sounding headphones in the world!
So let’s look briefly at five phenomenal electrostatic headphones.
The Best Electrostatic Headphones on the Market in 2024
The Koss ESP-950 open-backed electrostatic headphones are by far one of the best-sounding headphones I have ever used. I only had a few hours with them, and I left the experience actually craving them, wishing and dreaming they were back in my life.
They are also the cheapest electrostatic headphones I know of, considering that they are under a thousand dollars even with a superb amplifier, but there is absolutely nothing about their look, feel or sound that in any way suggests cheap.
On the contrary, the absolutely open, free, and easy sound, with no apparent physical limits to the soundstage and with the truly amazing recovery of all musical cues, allowed me to hear things, and understand and connect with the music and musicians, in a way I’d only experienced before with much more expensive headphones.
In fact, I was reminded, listening to the Koss 950s, of a listening experience I had had a few years previous. I was in a small hi-fi boutique with very, very high-end equipment, and listening to their flagship system, including behemoth speakers bolted to the floors and walls for stability and cables that cost more than some automobiles.
The owner put one of those legendary RCA Living Stereo LPs from the early sixties onto the massive turntable and – just for a brief moment – suspension of disbelief was complete. I was in the concert hall and the orchestra was actually spread out before me, giving the performance of their lives.
My body was electrified when this happened, and I still get chills thinking about it! The thing is, I had that same experience over and over again with these Koss electrostatics, where all thought, all analysis, all judgment, and all separation disappeared and it was just me and the musicians in time and space.
I can talk for hours about the pinpoint accuracy of their spatial presentation, the detail, the subtle dynamic energy, the sweetness and musicality, the deeply extended, fast, and powerful bass, the extremely linear frequency response, the naturalness, and accuracy, but all I really want to say is that for under a thousand dollars – including amplifier – this level of musical engagement is unheard of, and I cannot recommend the Koss ESP-950 strongly enough.
Are the Audeze better? Yes, a bit. Are they, at ten times the price (with a suitable amplifier), that much better? All I can say is that the Koss ESP-950 electrostatics will, just like the Audeze CRBD, or the Dan Clark Voce, give you what audiophiles spend their lives pursuing, and are a supreme value.
If you want the accuracy, ease, and emotive power of electrostatic headphones, but want or need in-ear monitors, there is really only one choice – the Shure earphone system.
Luckily, that one choice is for absolutely incredible in-ear headphones, which provide an almost overwhelmingly beautiful listening experience – and not the beauty of equalization, phase adjustment, bass boost, dynamic enhancement, or any other audio trickery, but the beauty and power of the music itself.
Because the Shure KSE1200 and KSE1500 are strikingly accurate earbuds, with a presentation of the original recording that is so perfect, so unadorned and unaltered, that great recordings and great music are fully allowed to do what they do, with all the power and all the magic of the original recording session coming through with unprecedented precision.
This won’t come as a surprise to experienced sound engineers and musicians, seeing as the whole line of Shure in-ear monitors has been the standard choice for serious audio professionals for many years. But still, these electrostatic earphones are a whole new world and make even the incredible Shure dynamic IEMs (some of which are pretty darn pricey!) sound closed up and restricted – at least in direct comparison to the KSE1200 and KSE1500.
I said that there is only one choice for top-end electrostatic in-ear ‘buds, but in fact, as those model numbers indicate, there are actually two – well, sort of, at least.
Both the Shure KSE1200 and KSE1500 have the exact same in-ear monitor, with a nearly weightless single diaphragm suspended in an electric field, and so they both have the same astoundingly high levels of speed, detail, and dynamics, as well as the same wide open and spacious stereo imaging, utter lack of distortion and near perfect neutrality.
And they both come with an amplifier, but here is where the difference lies. The KSE1200 includes a straight analog audio amplifier – an incredibly high-quality one, though, with sweetness and authority, accuracy, and resolution that are easily the match for the headphones themselves. This amplifier simply plugs into a headphone output, and so you can use your music player, phone, PC, mixer, or the soundboard directly or – much better – connect to the headphone output on a high-quality external amplifier.
The Shure KSE1500, on the other hand, includes both that amplifier and an integrated DAC (digital to analog converter) to be connected to the digital output of a phone, PC, tablet, player or even digital music streamer – or, of course, a sound board in a professional studio or mobile recording setup. This digital converter is incredible, with, again, resolution, power, and musicality that match the amplifier and the monitors, and is one of the finest soundings I’ve heard – and, more to the point, ideally balanced and matched to the rest of the system.
This integrated DAC does, in my experience, seem to raise these IEMs to a slightly higher level of both accuracy and impact, and brings them closer to that supreme audiophile goal of absolute neutrality and musicality – just the music, as if there were no headphones at all.
But either way, these are superior in-ear monitors – the best IEMs I’ve ever heard, in fact – and well worth the not insubstantial price. If you are a studio professional or serious musician who wants the beauty, accuracy, and enjoyment of electrostatic headphones or an ardent audiophile who simply prefers in-ear headphones, the Shure KSE1500 and KSE1200 are at the very highest level and sound indescribably beautiful.
I have a friend who recently purchased the Dan Clark Audio Voce, with a wonderful iFi Audio Pro iESL amplifier (see my Bonus Section below), and the beauty and power of this system is really what inspired me to write this article.
And I have to say that it really was a beautiful listening experience, and one that would tend to squelch many of the concerns people have about electrostatics – people who, it seems, have rarely if ever actually heard electrostatic headphones.
Because the Voce has a power that is way out of line with the expectations we might have about electrostatic systems – including a real slam in the low end, with bass that goes as deep as I’ve ever heard in any speaker or headphone (and then some) and is incredibly fast, detailed, rich and substantial. Really, I don’t think I’ve ever heard better bass in any system!
But that’s just part of the power I’m referring to. There is a palpable presence here, dynamic energy and even intensity that, while never forced or unnatural – and never, ever augmented or artificially enhanced – is in line with the best dynamic headphones.
Somehow, considering these are among the most accurate and honest headphones on the planet, the Dan Clark Audio Voce sound so very big, bold and impactful, and are so very exciting to hear.
I feel like, with all that said, I have to re-emphasize the accuracy of the Voce, because they are easily the most accurate and precise headphones I’ve ever heard short of the Audeze CRBN below.
Retrieval of detail, speed and agility, correctness and coherence of phase information, presentation of dynamics and micro-dynamics, and the sense of aliveness and rightness are better than any other headphone at this price level, and even much more expensive planar dynamic designs don’t quite capture the music the way these supreme electrostatics do.
If I had no real budget, I would opt for the Audeze CRBN headphones with the Hifiman Shangri-la Jr amplifier – really, the best headphone system I’ve ever heard. But the Dan Clark Voce with the iFi iESL energizer is so close on all levels, and with maybe even a touch more impact and deep bass slam, and the package is about half the price – an easy recommendation!
Yeah, yeah, Dan Clark this, Shure that and Koss blah blah blah. I feel like this whole article has been a lead-in to the good stuff – the Audeze CRBN open-back electrostatic headphones.
Ok, the Dan Clark Voce, the Shure 1200 and 1500, and the cheap (!) KossESP-950 are good too – as good as it gets at their price points, I’m sure. And they all provide astounding – unforgettable, even – listening experiences.
But they’re just not the CRBN.
Let me just lay my cards on the table – the Audeze CRBN is, without a doubt, the finest pair of headphones I’ve ever heard, and there is no question in my mind that they represent the true apex and state of the art in both electrostatic design and implementation and in headphone sound.
To put this in context, I’ve spent a bit of quality time with all of the Audex headphones, including their similarly priced planar magnetic models, as well as all of the Hifiman, the Sennheiser 800s and 820s, the high-end Focal ‘phones, and even most of the current and past ear speaker systems from Stax.
[Full disclosure – I have not yet listened to the obscenely expensive Sennheiser Orpheus HE90 with matching HEV90 valve amplifier, which at over fifty thousand dollars is probably better than even the CRBN – probably…]
They all have their charms, and they all sound fabulous, but none of them – not even the high-end Stax – can match the ease and openness of the CRBN, which offers a kind of transparency that no longer seems like transparency – since that word still seems to imply that you are looking at the music through something.
And that’s the thing about the Audeze CRBN – they just disappear. I mentioned that when listening to the relatively inexpensive Koss 950 headphones I had that true and total audiophile experience, where disbelief disappeared, but with the CRBN it’s that way all the time, every moment and with everything you hear – so much so that I even stopped thinking “the headphones have disappeared” and just fell wholly into the music.
There is also no thought of detail retrieval because all of the detail is just there. Same with both large dynamic shifts and the tiniest micro-dynamic variations, which are just there. Phase, imaging, and soundstage aren’t even words that occur to me when I’m listening to the CRBN because I’m not listening to a stereo, I’m listening to musicians in space-time.
Now I should say a couple of things:
- I was listening to the Audeze CRBN with two very good amplifiers – the Hifiman Shangri-la and Shangri-la Jr (BTW, the older brother, while absolutely fabulous, is not, to me at least, worth four times the price), and the interaction, the chemistry or synergy between these headphones and those amplifiers is really magical, and doubtless added to this best-ever sensation I kept feeling.
- I was listening to very good sources – at the very least 16-bit lossless FLAC, and only then recordings are known to be exceptionally honest and accurate, and more often very high-resolution digital files, and through a very advanced, very high-resolution digital streamer.
As you probably already know, any headphones – even the very best – can sound like crap with the poor source material, like low-res files or poor original recordings, and so number 2 is a bit of a deal-breaker – you have to have good recordings to really hear what the CRBN are capable of, but if you don’t…
But I have to think that the first of my qualifications are a bit less important. I suspect that the CRNB sound best with the Hifiman amp, but given their own qualities – not just sonic, but also their wonderful wearing comfort – I am pretty sure they do a similar disappearing act with other amplifiers and related equipment.
And that’s why the Audeze CRBN is the finest headphone in the world, the very best on the market today and without any real or serious competition. They are modest to an extreme and don’t mind completely stepping aside, leaving just you and the music.
I’ve been listening to music all my life, and most often on very good sound systems, but there are only a handful of times when I felt I was hearing just the music, and completely stopped hearing those “very good sound systems.” To have a pair of headphones where that is the norm, instead of the rare and magical exception, is every true audiophile’s dream, and while I will bravely soldier forth with my Sennheisers and KEFs and Finals and Focals and so forth, the Audeze CRBN is definitely my own personal dream headphones, and without question the finest in the world.
Bonus Section: A Note About Electrostatic Headphone Amplifiers
Because of the way they work, electrostatic headphones will not work with any normal headphone amplifier – they require very high voltage, and their plugs are a special (usually five-pin) DIN variety that won’t even fit into standard 3.5 or 6.5 mm headphone jacks.
If you’re getting the wonderful Shure in-ear electrostatic in-ear monitors you’re good to go, as they come with a really beautiful sounding, powerful and dynamic amplifier as part of the package. And the same is true with the Koss, which includes its own electrostatic energizer, making the package an astounding value, and a serious contender for the very best in sub-thousand dollar headphones.
But for the Dan Clark or Audeze you’re going to need a special amplifier made specifically for electrostatic headphones.
Electrostatic headphone amplifiers are pretty much as expensive as the headphones themselves, and so the bad news is that if you’ve already resigned yourself to spending almost five grand for the Audeze – and for perhaps the ultimate headphone listening experience – you’re going to need to double that price.
The good news is, though, that for that price you can get a hybrid tube amplifier with such breathtaking speed, transparency, timing, and musicality, and with such low distortion and such high resolution of all detail and dynamic cues, that it is fully worthy of even the Audeze CRBN – the best-of-the-best Hifiman Shangri-la Jr.
But if the Shangri-la seems a bit too expensive to match with the less expensive Dan Clark Voce, an absolutely lovely complement to their sound comes from one of my favorite companies – iFi Audio – with their >relatively< inexpensive electrostatic “energizer,” which is not exactly an amplifier, but uses the output from any headphone amp or speaker outputs and converts it to a superb sounding high voltage signal for any electrostatic headphone system.
The iFi Audio Pro iESL is less than a third the price of the Shangri-la, and while it may not have the astoundingly deep and complete retrieval of musical cues of the Hifiman, it is very, very close, and one of the most satisfying and emotionally moving amps I’ve ever listened to. It is the perfect complement for the Voce, and so optimally matches their truly top-tier level in terms of accuracy, palpability, imaging, timing, dynamics, micro-dynamics, and extreme recovery of detail – in fact, these two products in concert offer easily one of the very best values I know in extreme audiophile listening.
The iFi Pro iESL will also work brilliantly with the Audeze CRBN, but for my money, the Hifiman amp, with its supreme accuracy, musicality, and emotional power, brings these superb headphones to a new level – a level that nothing else I know or have experienced, speaker or headphone, can really compare with.