Home Tech You really can get audiophile headphones for less than $50

You really can get audiophile headphones for less than $50
You really can get audiophile headphones for less than $50 avatar

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Over the last year, I’ve really started to appreciate the simple pleasure of escaping into an album with an excellent set of headphones. I’d been searching for a quality set to enjoy between reviews, and kept stumbling upon an impossibly cheap pair with a near cult following on Reddit, YouTube, and various audio forums.

The headphones are the Superlux HD 681. Available locally for just $39, these headphones are praised for clarity, comfort and a well-balanced sound. At that price, they were worth the gamble.

The HD 681 look and feel a bit nasty, but they’re light and sound incredible.

When the package arrived I assumed they must’ve been counterfeits; the headphones were vacuum-sealed in thin plastic with a sliver of cardboard between the cups. But after checking forums I was assured that this is what a pair of Superlux look like; every corner cut to get these headphones under $50 is proudly on display.

Inside the plastic skin was the kind of tote bag an airline might give you to vomit in, with an airline adaptor and perhaps a warranty card or manual. It’s hard to say, since I’ve had these headphones for months now and I’m sure the bag was accidentally tossed the day they arrived.

Open back headphones are quite bulky by design, and manufacturers will often lean in to this by adding superfluous buckles, stitching, or other items of flair. It makes the category a tad ostentatious, but even by these standards the Superlux HD 681 are easily the ugliest headphones I’ve ever bought. The Superlux have a cross-stitch leather look moulded right into the plastic, with highlights dipped in red, and a hideous font across the headband.

The design is heavily borrowed from the AKG K240, right down to the garish cross stitch pattern, with the Superlux coming in at a third of the price. Most Superlux models are based heavily on studio headphones from more expensive manufacturers, but it’s this AKG clone that is considered the model to buy. In fact, the go-to website for high end av equipment, rtings.com, rates the sound quality of the Superlux above the AKGs they are imitating.

They’re so unbelievably, proudly plastic. But that gives them a durability that means they might survive being thrown around by high schoolers.

After months of daily use there is no creak to the plastic when I move around, a feature of many cheap and some expensive headphones. The plastic makes these extremely light to wear, and thanks to the open back design that allows airflow, you can wear these all day with no fatigue.

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There is also zero cable noise and despite how cheap everything else looks, the cable is sturdy and well designed. There’s no fancy Bluetooth here. The quality of the audio cable is seemingly matched by the audio components inside that shoddy plastic, because the HD 681 lives up to the high praise it receives.

Sound is wonderfully balanced. The bass is deep enough to make Beats blush, with excellent detail in the mids, and an immediacy to the high end that gives music a live, crisp feel. There’s not a big wide soundstage, more a studio session experience.

Over the past few months, the $39 Superlux HD 681 has shared my stereo with headphones that sell between ten and thirty times the price. While all felt like nicer objects to hold and wear, with smoother edges and softer materials, very few beat the sound from the HD 681. If you’re audiophile curious but have been put off by the price, the Superlux HD 681 is a great gateway product.

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Peter Wells writes about technology and podcasts. He interviews Australia’s best podcasters every week on his podcast, Meta.

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