The Best Headphones and In-Ear Monitors of 2022

The Best Headphones and In-Ear Monitors of 2022

It’s about that time of year for us to look back on the best headphones and in-ear monitors of 2022. If you’re looking for an endgame headphone, a new addition to your collection, or just want to vicariously fawn over the top-shelf releases that have come out this year, you’re in the right place. There are some pretty expensive units on this list, but quite a number of the impressive releases from this year fell into a moderately affordable, mid-tier price range. This list is organized in descending price order. Anyway, let’s get into it, starting with one you knew was going to make it onto this list.

Focal Utopia 2022 ($4,999)

Focal Utopia 2022 headphone

The original Utopia was released as Focal’s flagship headphone back in 2016. It’s seen a few upgrades since then, culminating in the Utopia 2022 edition. Besides getting a new makeover, the enormous formerless voice coil in its 40mm Beryllium dynamic driver saw an upgrade that made it more lightweight and responsive. Another impressive technical feature is the lightweight and absorptive Beryllium “M” shaped dome that mimics the planar waveforms produced by loudspeakers. In my experience with the Utopia 2022, one of the most striking details I noticed was that when listening to quieter tracks in quiet rooms, you can hear the Utopia’s sound leakage subtly reverberating throughout your listening environment and back into your ears. It makes a lot of sense why Focal called described the Utopia as “two full sized loudspeakers over your ears.” It truly produces a near-field listening experience in a way I haven’t quite heard from any other headphone.

When it comes to balance, I find it virtually impossible to poke a hole in it. The Utopia 2022 reaches deep into both its highs and lows, recreating tracks in vivid, near-perfect fidelity. The only real criticisms I’ve seen around the headphone is its jaw-dropping price tag – but you would be hard pressed to find someone who can convincingly refute it’s stellar sound quality and comfortable fit.

The Focal Utopia 2022 is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: Dynamic. Over-ear open-back

Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 50 kHz

Impedance: 80 ohms

Dan Clark Audio The Expanse ($3,999)

Dan Clark, The Expanse, planar, audiophile

To each their own, but full disclosure: the Dan Clark Expanse is my personal favorite on this list, and may currently be my favorite over-ear open-back of all time. The Expanse was released towards the end of this year as the planar, open-back flagship counterpart to the closed-back Dan Clark Audio Stealth. The Expanse appears utterly alien, with enormous cans that span from behind the ear to the middle of a listener’s jaw. Despite what you might think when you hear that, it nonetheless manages to be one of the most comfortable headphones released this year, thanks in large part to its self-adjusting suspension headband that is as flexible as it is meticulously fine-tuned. When it comes to technical design, the list seems endless: firstly, the 76mm x 51mm single-ended planar magnetic driver is the largest driver in any Dan Clark release to date. Then there’s the proprietary and patent-pending Acoustic Metamaterial Tuning System, which involves a device situated between the transducer and listener’s ear that kills unwanted resonance by deploying waveguides, diffusion control, quarter wave and Helmholtz resonators. Then, there’s its use of Finite Element Analysis and Computational Fluid Dynamics, which employs aerodynamics to stop unwanted air turbulence (the same technology is used in jet engines to put this in perspective).

“That’s nice, but how does it sound?” Imaging and staging is like sticking your head into a cloud of sound. Not only is ethereally wide and deep, but it’s strikingly tall, sending ride cymbals, harmonic guitar overtones, and reverbs flying above a listener’s head. Its tone is very well balanced, but not without its own colorful character, with an airily-smooth high end and powerful, tightly controlled bass. A particularly stand out feature to me is The Expanse’s response time, as it has a way of starting and stopping sounds at an exceptionally high speed; effects such as stereo-panned tremolos bring out this quality prominently. Dan Clark Audio’s Expanse easily makes it onto the best headphones and IEMs of 2022 for its innovative technical and physical design, superb comfort, and nearly unmatched sound quality.

The Dan Clark Audio Expanse is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: Single-ended Planar. Over-ear open-back

Frequency Response: n/a

Impedance: 23 ohms (note: this impedance is low on paper, but The Expanse does in fact require quite a bit of power)

64 Audio Fourte Blanc ($3,699)

64 Audio, Fourte Blanc, in-ear monitor

The Forte Blanc is the third and final iteration of 64 Audio’s Tia line of IEMs. Like its predecessor the Tia Noir, only 500 units have been made available. The Fourte Blanc follows 64 Audio’s tia design principle of tubeless drivers, with sound being combined in special acoustic chambers and a single bore design before reaching a listener’s ear. This eliminates issues with resonance that acoustic tubes can incur. The idea is simple: let the sound from the drivers reach a listener’s ear with as few obstacles in the way as possible.

The Fourte Blanc packs a full and forceful tone, with a driving bass response and extended high end that provide a well balanced but impactful listening experience. Its sound stage and imaging are equal parts impressive, sending pans flying behind shoulders and over the top of a listener’s head. Its lightweight physical design and rounded shape also contribute to its comfortable and easy fit. Long story short, it’s the pinnacle of the type of innovation audiophiles have grown to expect from 64 Audio, and one of the most elite in-ear monitors to have been released this year.

64 Audio’s Fourte Blanc is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: (3) Precision Balanced Armature, (1) Dynamic. In-ear monitor.

Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 22 kHz

Impedance: 10 ohms

Audeze MM-500 ($1,699)

Audeze MM-500, reference headphone

If the $4500 price tag on the Audeze LCD-5 scared you off, the Audeze MM-500 can get you pretty close to it for a fraction of the price. This planar open-back features a Neodymium N50 magnet and a Fluxor magnetic array to deliver an extremely clean and balanced sound signature – one could say it’s the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 on steroids (and with planar magnets). These were designed to be used as mixing and reference headphones for their highly accurate representation, but lack the cold, sterilie tone present in many other headphones that serve this use case. Instead, the Audeze MM-500 has a dense and inspiring mid and high bass warmth that avoids clouding and masking the rest of its sound signature. It also wins points for its secure, durable, and comfortable build, even if they’re a bit heavy at 495 grams. If you’re looking for a headphone that’s as useful for mixing and referencing as it is for casual enjoyment, the Audeze MM-500 may well be the best candidate to have come out in 2022.

The Audeze MM-500 is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: Planar. Over-ear open-back.

Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 50 kHz

Impedance: 18 ohms

T+A Solitaire T ($1,600)

T+A Solitaire T, wireless, ANC, headphone

It was a competitive year for premium wireless releases: the Focal Bathys, the Mark Levinson No. 5909; the list goes on. Out of all of them though, I’m giving top dog status to the T+A Solitaire T. Firstly, it boasts a 70 hour playback battery life, putting it way ahead of most of its competition in this department. To be fair, that battery life is 35 hours when High Quality Mode is engaged, which you would be obligated to try if you ever find yourself with the Solitaire T on your head. In HQ mode, a built in analogue DAC/amp processes the signal, resulting in tighter lows and cleaner treble. Another technical feature worth mentioning is the passive high frequency damper and active low frequency damper on the edge of the transducers that serve to eliminate coil reflections at the source. For anyone skeptical of wireless battery shelf life, it can be used passively on a wired connection with the headphone cables provided – no battery needed.

The Solitaire T is not only unique for its specs and technical design, but also for its refreshing break away from what most have come to expect from wireless balances; no trace of “soft” or “coated” timbre due to bloated low mids is present. The Solitaire T instead has a powerful bass response, well balanced mids that maintain a naturalness to its sound, and ample lift from its bright and fairly trebly high-end. The Solitaire T makes in onto the best headphones and IEMs of 2022 for this example-setting wireless balance, its one-of-a-kind High Quality mode, and its passive-playback ability via headphone cable that allows it to outlive its battery (in the both the short-term and long-term sense).

The T+A Solitaire T is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: Dynamic. Over-ear, closed-back, ANC wireless

Frequency Response: 4 Hz – 22 kHz

 

Meze Audio 109 Pro ($799)

Meze Audio 109 Pro, open-back, dynamic driver

Meze Audio is a force-to-be-reckoned with, acing everything from their $200 releases to their $4000 heavy-hitters. This year, they released the Meze 109 Pro, something of a follow up to their highly popular 99 Classics. The 109 Pro features a specially designed dynamic driver with a Dual Composite Diaphragm made of beryllium-coated polymer, cellulose and carbon fiber composite, and copper zinc alloy, which is encased in a rigid aluminum frame. It’s “W” shaped dome contributes to extra accurate high frequency reproduction that avoids unwanted resonances.

The 109 Pro is equal parts boomy and bright, with a driving low end that is complimented by shiny treble. In my time with 109 Pro, I was struck by its great response time, as well as it’s distinctly snappy sound. It’s expansive and engaging soundstage in part lends itself to it open-back design. Meze Audio’s 109 Pro makes it onto this list for a simple reason: packing the audiophile-level quality that Meze is known for into a headphone that’s under $1,000.

The Meze Audio 109 Pro is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: Dynamic. Open-back over-ear.

Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 30 kHz

Impedance: 40 ohms

Sennheiser IE 600 ($699)

Sennheiser IE 500, in-ear

Sennheiser’s IE line of IEMs have certain audiophile brutalism unlike any other with their tiny, industrial style metallic build and crystal clear balances. If the IE 900 is a bit more than you would like to pay for an IEM, the IE 600 gets incredibly close to its sound for about half the price. Sennheiser imparted a highly neutral and clean tone with a powerful but controlled low end thanks, in part, to the 7mm TrueResponse transducer built into the in-ear monitor. Other technical design elements include the use of dual two chamber absorbers that dampen masking frequencies and heighten the IE 600’s resolve and articulation.

It’s balance can be defined by its powerful low end that seems to be controlled by an iron fist, its present and tasteful mids profile, and its highly revealing treble balance that brings air and detail while artfully avoiding sibilants and harshness. The IE 600 is all about creating distinct and robust layers, both spatially in its imaging as well as tonally in its balance. This in-ear monitor makes it onto the list for its squeaky clean sound, its price-to-quality value relative to the IE 900, its durable build, and small size that makes it an easy fit in most ears (unless it’s too small for your ear).

The Sennheiser IE 600 is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: Dynamic. In-ear monitor.

Frequency Response: 4 Hz – 46.5 kHz

Impedance: 18 ohms

ThieAudio Oracle MK2 ($589)

ThieAudio Oracle MK2, MKII, tribrid, IEM, electrostatic, crossover

I’ll be upfront here: ThieAudio is one of my favorite IEM manufacturers. They consistently release in-ear monitors that sound as great as they look, whether they be from their flagship line such as the V16 Divinity and Monarch, or from their tribrid line, such as the the Oracle MK2. This is an IEM that frequently ends up in my ears when I’m not sure what to listen with. It’s three way cross over system utilizes a dedicated dynamic driver for lows, two balanced armatures for the mids, and 2 electrostatic drivers for its highs. ThieAudio finely tuned The Oracle MKII to mimic a pair of studio loud speakers – and seemed to accomplish this spectacularly, both in terms of its expansive staging and balanced-but-big tone.

ThieAudio’s Oracle MK2 is similar to the IE 600 in terms of its focus on an analytical and pristine balance – but does so with a little more color and unique character with its boosted subs and mid bass that add a touch of heft and slam to listens. ThieAudio claims the trick behind the Oracle MK2’s distinct balance is its ruler-flat mids profile that leaves vocals, guitars, and other main parts to tracks sounding natural. As much as I love its balance, it’s the Oracle MKII’s deep and vibrant stage that really won me over to it. ThIeAudio Oracle MK2 makes into onto the best headphones and IEMs of 2022 for its unique balanced-yet-colorful timbre, a soundstage that outdoes most IEMs at its price point, and frankly, for looking extremely cool.

ThieAudio’s Oracle MK2 is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: (1) Dynamic, (2) Balance Armature, (2) Electrostatic. In-ear monitor.

Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 40 kHz

Impedance: 11 ohms

HiFiMAN Edition XS ($499)

HiFiMAN Edition XS, open-back, planar magnet, headphone

HiFiMAN had two pretty sizeable releases this year that are worth mentioning: the Sundara 2022, and the Edition XS. While the closed-back Sundara was plenty impressive, it’s the open back HiFiMAN Edition XS that makes it onto this list, a testament to the ongoing refinement of HiFiMAN’s open-back planar formula. Central to its technical design is its inclusion of a stealth magnet, which allows for waves to pass through it without interference. Its most upgraded feature from its previo0us iterations is its Neo Supernano Diaphragm, which is 75% thinner than the diaphragm in previous versions and results in an accelerated response time. Build quality and fit are pleasant, with particularly plush memory foam composing the earcups and headband – though a select few may find the fit somewhat loose.

If you’re familiar with the Harman Curve, a theoretical frequency response curve that is theorized to be the optimal balance for the greatest number of people, the HiFiMAN Edition XS comes the closest to replicating it than any other unit mentioned on this list (if you’re interested in this, the Mark Levinson No. 5909, which almost made this list, was intentionally tuned to the Harman Curve). Subs, bass, and mids are tight and flat, while high mids and highs are tastefully boosted without a shred of harshness. Like the Audeze MM-500, the Edition-XS makes for an exceptional pair of reference headphones as well as for use as a fun, balanced, and casual pair.

The HiFiMAN Edition XS is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: Planar. Over-ear open-back.

Frequency Response: 8 Hz – 50 Hz

Impedance: 15 ohms

iKKO Asgard OH5 ($489)

iKKO Asgard OH5, lithium, IEM

The Asgard OH5 was my first introduction to iKKO, and has made me obsessed with seeing what the company puts out next. IKKO hasn’t been around for a terribly long time, but has making a splash with its unique tunings and innovative design principles. The Asgard OH5 IEM is the first headphone in the world to use lithium in its diaphragm. Titanium alloy and resin compose the Asgard OH5’s housing, making it a particularly sturdy unit. It also comes with a premium, single crystal copper silver plated cable that is heavily insulated and durable.

Maybe you’ve gotten sick of me calling everything on this list “balanced” (sorry, usually the best stuff is), and while the iKKO Asgard OH5 is balanced to some extent, it’s better described as heavy and full. While a lot of bass-heavy tunings focus on dramatic emphasis in the subs and mid bass before scaling back, the Asgard OH5 rides a moderate and wide low end emphasis from its subs all the way into its center mids. This makes its tone firm, thick, and driving rather than more typically “boomy” (though it has that going for it as well). In my extensive time with the unit, I found it to have a uniquely internally 3D sound stage that took place inside of my head rather than around it. The Asgard OH5 makes it onto this list for it’s one of a kind technical qualities, its unique and convention-defying balance, and its compelling staging and imaging all packed into an in-ear monitor under $500.

The iKKO Asgard OH5 is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: Dynamic. In-ear monitor.

Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 40 kHz

Impedance: 32 ohms

RaptGo Hook-X ($239)

RaptGo Hook-X, bone conductor, piezoelectric, open-back IEM

Besides being the most affordable item on this list, the RaptGo Hook-X one of my favorites. Everything about it is pretty exciting, from how it sounds, to why it sounds the way it does. Besides being one of the Best of the Year, I elect it to be one of the Weirdest of the Year. Already somewhat unusual with its open-back design, it also features 3 driver types, none of which are DD’s or BA’s. These drivers are a planar, a piezoelectric, and a bone conductor. Frankly, I have never come across any IEM quite like it.

The RaptGo has somewhat of a V-Shaped tuning with powerful bass, mildly attenuated mids, and boosted treble. While often quick to be critical of this tuning approach, the Hook-X provides an undeniably fast, fun, and detailed listening experience. Ultimately, it’s powerful and driving low end steals the show (without masking the show). A lot of balances that put heavy stock into the lower bass profile end up sacrificing definition, but this is not a problem for Hook-X, which does so without losing articulation and definition. The RaptGo easily makes it onto the best headphones and IEMs of 2022 for its intriguing technical design, fun sound, and just generally being a lovable weirdo.

The RaptGo Hook-X is available for purchase here from Audio46.

Driver and Type: (1) Planar, (1) Piezoelectric, (1) Bone Conductor. Open-back in-ear monitor.

Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 40 kHz

Impedance: 15 ohms

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Chris is an audio engineer, recording artist, and NYC native.