Listening to (and collecting!) vinyl can be one of the most rewarding ways to enjoy your favourite music, and it’s actually a lot simpler to get yourself into the hobby than you may have originally thought. You might be wondering right now how on earth you’re going to fit a large stereo system - including a pair of speakers - into your home so that you can start spinning a bit of wax, but you can actually get equally-good, and in some cases better performance with a good pair of headphones, plus the right equipment that’ll get your turntable talking to them.
Let’s get one thing out of the way early - listening to vinyl isn’t exactly the cheapest way to listen to your favourite albums. A new LP will cost you upwards of $25 a pop, but I figured out early in the piece not to think of this as a cost, but rather an investment in your favourite music. Sure, I also own a few hundred CDs as well as subscribing to a hi-res streaming service (Qobuz), but for the albums that I really love there’s no better way to enjoy listening to them than dropping the needle on an LP or 45 and sitting down to really listen to them from start to finish.
So, what’s so good about listening to vinyl?
Vinyl is a far more intimate and tangible way to listen to music. It’s a bit like the difference between choosing a book from your shelf rather than simply clicking online and reading it on screen - there’s a lot more ceremony to the process. First, you get all the fun of leafing through the spines of your records as you umm and ahh over what you’re in the mood to listen to. You then get to pull the cover out from your shelf and experience the cover art, liner notes and lyrics in all their full-format glory.
Next, you drop your record on on the turntable, start spinning it, and then gently brush the surface to make sure it’s clean and ready to sound its best. Or, you’ll give it a good clean if it needs it. Yes, that’s right - you’re going to need to take care of your records to get them sounding their best!
And finally, “dropping the needle” to connect the stylus to the outer grooves on your record creates an unmistakable crackle that gives you a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling inside that pressing “play” on a phone screen simply can’t replicate.
All of this might sound a) expensive, and b) a big old hassle to you, but it also has the distinct benefit of getting you a lot closer to your favourite music. There’s no skipping going on here, and you can’t just venture off into a musical rabbit-hole if you lose your concentration - you’re in for the full album, in the correct track order, “just like the artist intended” (to quote a phrase that’s been bandied-around to death in audio). And when you’re strapped-in to listen to an album from go-to-whoa, you can’t help but listen a lot more intently - vinyl playback is a far more deliberate and personal experience.
Do you already have a couple of records lying around? Or, maybe you might have inherited yourself a few here and there? Lucky you. If you haven’t gotten around to getting a hold of your first record yet then you’re in for a treat when you pick it up, because it’s now yours - forever! I love owning and collecting physical music formats - especially vinyl - because if the internet ever decides to crash forever one day (remember Y2K, anyone?), I’ll still have my whole record collection at home, and you’re going to have to prise my records out of my Cold Dead Hands before I’ll ever let go of them.
The headphone difference with vinyl
I spend about half my time listening to vinyl - I’ll stream music when I feel like exploring something new or to simply have a few tunes on in the background, but when I feel like sitting down and really listening, then you can bet that I’ll be spinning my favourite music on wax. And when I listen to vinyl, I’ll split that time pretty evenly between listening on my stereo setup and listening with my headphone setup. And I can tell you right away that the performance difference between the two is pretty much negligible, and in most cases there’s actually more benefit in listening to vinyl on headphones than from a stereo hifi setup.
Headphones create a far more intimate experience than speakers can. For starters, you’re actually physically connected to your record itself, with the musical signal travelling all the way from the cartridge through to your ears via a series of small, conductive cables - getting up and walking away mid-album is less likely to happen this way!
Headphones also sound a lot more detailed than if you’re listening to the same record in your living room with a pair of speakers - those two tiny speakers are quite literally right next to your earholes, and you’re certainly not going to miss anything in a hurry. There is a flip-side to this however, and that’s the fact you’ll be hearing a lot more of everything, including the crackles and pops caused by dust, and the surface noise of the record itself. Keeping things nice and clean is absolutely essential when listening to vinyl with headphones - do it right and you’ll forget that you’re listening to a record at all.
Pound-for-pound, you can get a lot more audio performance for your dollar than you can with speakers plus all their associated equipment. You can find yourself an astonishingly-detailed and great sounding pair of cans for relative chump-change, if you’re thinking in terms of speaker money. In my opinion, open-back headphones create the most “speaker-like” presentation when it comes to enjoying vinyl, and a good pair will offer you a spacious soundstage and terrific stereo imaging - so much so, that when you’re in the “zone” you’ll often forget that you’re wearing a pair of headphones at all. There are obviously a wide-range of excellent closed-back headphones that will also make terrific vinyl-listening companions if you need a fraction more privacy and isolation from the outside world.
You won’t have to deal with the biggest problem in the room when you’re listening to headphones - the room itself! Headphones aren’t affected in any way whatsoever by the acoustic properties of your room, so there aren't any reflections, echoes, or weird standing waves to deal with - you’re hearing the full frequency response of your headphones 100% of the time. You can also forget about worrying about things like room treatment of software correction to hear a properly-correct “flat” sound.
The other main benefit of listening to vinyl with cans over speakers is probably a little obvious: you’ll be the only one listening! You can enjoy a spin of “Appetite for Destruction” in the wee hours of the morning (if that floats your boat) without your family, housemates, or even your neighbours having to join in the fun as well.
What you’ll need to setup your own vinyl-listening headphone system
Assuming you’ve found yourself a couple of records that you’re keen to get stuck into, the first thing you’ll need is a turntable. Most easily-found records are printed in the standard 33+⅓ (a.k.a LP) format, but make sure you have a turntable capable of also playing 45-RPM discs if you plan on spinning those as well (or 78’s for that matter, too). Most modern turntables come pre-equipped with a turntable cartridge, but if yours doesn’t you’ll need to get your hands on one that’ll work properly with your turntable. If this is already sounding a little tricky, take a read of our article how to setup a turntable for a few handy pointers.
Next, you’ll need to ensure that you’re able to send a line-level signal to whatever it is that you’ll be powering your headphones with. What does this mean? The electrical signal coming out of a turntable cartridge has an extremely low voltage and needs to be “pre-amplified” to make it a strong enough (usually 2 volts) for an amplifier to play it at a correct level. This means you’ll either need a turntable with a built-in preamplifier such as the Thorens TD 102 A Automatic Turntable (which is what I’m thoroughly enjoying at the moment), or you’ll have to plug your turntable into an external phono preamp if you opt for something like the Rega Planar1 Turntable.
Many headphone listeners are already familiar with the idea of needing an external digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) to feed their headphone amplifier with the appropriate kind of analogue signal by decoding all sorts of digital file types, and a phono preamp really isn’t that much difference, in practice. As well as boosting the signal to a line-level voltage, a phono preamp also applied an equalisation curve (the most common one being the RIAA curve), which accounts for the dips and peaks associated with the signals that come directly out of a record and boosts/lowers them correctly to help achieve a faithful, “flat” sound that’s accurate to the source material.
The iFi Audio Zen Phono pre-amplifier is a relatively inexpensive way to add vinyl capabilities to your headphone setup, with options for both Moving Magnet (MM) and Moving Coil (MC) cartridges plus a handy sub-sonic filter which reduces the low-level “rumble” noise that records can sometimes reduce.
Another option which has seemingly been made especially with headphone listeners in mind is the Cambridge Audio Duo Moving Coil & Moving Magnet Phono Preamplifier which has the convenience of an included headphone amplifier plus volume control all built into the one convenient unit.
And before we get to the final step in your setup - your headphone themselves - you’ll need something to power them with. A dedicated headphone amplifier is the best way to ensure that you’re giving your cans they adequate power they need to perform at their best, with a suitably low output impedance to ensure you’re hearing an accurate frequency response from them. As both a vinyl and headphone aficionado, the Schiit Audio Jotunheim 2 Balanced Headphone Amplifier was an absolute no-brainer for my needs. With facilities for balanced inputs and outputs, a whopping 7.5 Watts of power available on-tap plus the ability to work as a balanced pre-amplifier, the Jotunheim 2 can extract an amazing performance from even the most difficult-to-drive headphones. The interesting thing about the Jotunheim 2 that made me pick one up in a heartbeat is the inclusion of an optional modular “card” in the form a USB DAC or Moving Magnet phono stage - no surprise as to what box I decided to tick at checkout!
Other great amp options for a beginner headphone system include the Schiit Audio Magni 3+ Headphone Amplifier (the Jotunheim 2’s smaller brother), or perhaps the iFi audio ZEN CAN Headphone Amplifier if you wanted to create a nicely-matched “stack” with the Zen Phono pre-amplifier. While these are more “entry-level” amp options, both have more than sufficient power and drive to get the best out of just about any headphone that you can throw at them, including those of the power-hungry planar magnetic variety.
Recommended headphones for listening to vinyl
Now that you’ve got a fair idea about the equipment that you’ll need need to get your records spinning for your new vinyl + headphone setup, it’s time to think about which pair of headphones are going to suit you best in terms of your budget, listening (and aesthetic!) preferences. Take a squiz at our different headphone types article for a quick primer on “what’s what” when it comes to understanding the difference between different headphone styles and technologies. If you’re still a little confused about what’s going to be best for you, don’t worry because I’ve picked a few options that I think make for a terrific pairing with any vinyl headphone listening setup.
The most popular model from Brooklyn’s own Grado Labs is pair of light-weight, open-back headphones that uses a traditional dynamic driver, and provides exceptional value for money when it comes to hearing a vivid, engaging and spacious rendition of your favourite records.
At a mere 245 grams, the SR80x feels practically weightless on your head, and they have an extraordinarily “exciting” tuning that I find is a terrific pairing with rock, metal and acoustic music in particular - they feel like they’ve been made with Bill Evans Trio’s live jazz album Sunday at the Village Vanguard squarely in mind. The SR80x’s open-air design creates a great feeling of space, and their mid/treble-forward voicing simply makes vocals and instruments (especially electric guitar) come alive.
If you like what you’re hearing in terms of the attributes of the SR80x but are keen to step things up a notch or two, its bigger sibling - the RS2x - provides an even greater dose of transparency, resolution and overall immersion with whatever it is that you feel like spinning. Those of you who are into a more “old-world” design will simply love the RS2x’s timber construction, which actually features both a hemp composite on the inside of the cups as well as a fabulous maple finish on the outside.
The RS2x is a superb choice when it comes to hearing all the excitement, nuance and detail in a vinyl recording, and it’s my go-to headphone of choice when it comes to one of my favourite classic rock albums of all time - AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. If you’re keen to hear a little bit more about what the RS2x has to offer take a read of my Grado RS2x Reference Series Headphones review for a more in-depth take on these impressive headphones.
It may have been released all the way back in 2004, but the legendary Sennheiser HD650 is still considered a “reference” benchmark for good reason - they have an exquisitely smooth tuning that is incredibly hard to beat. Also a pair of dynamic-driver headphones, the HD650 has a much warmer and more full-bodied tone compared to the previously-mentioned Grado headphones which makes them exceptionally well-suited when it comes to listening to vinyl. Because they have a more “forgiving” nature to their voicing, the HD650 has the ability to smooth-over some of the imperfections in a recording as well as the odd “pop” here and there that you might experience with a less-than-clean record.
With a nice dollop of weighty mid-bass plus an brilliant-sounding mid-range that is second-to-none when it comes to reproducing the analogue feel of instruments, the HD650 has been one of my go-to headphones for years now when it comes to dropping the needle on records like The Smashing Pumpkin’s Siamese Dream. The luscious mid-range on the HD650 makes the “wall” of electric guitars on this record feel opulently thick, and you can’t help but lean-back and grin.
We might have taken just a slight step-up here in terms of price, but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the new Audeze LCD-5 is the absolute crème de la crème (insert “chef’s kiss”) of headphones when it comes to enjoying vinyl. The LCD-5 has the final word when it comes to detail, quite literally - they leave absolutely nothing on the table when it comes revealing new dimensions in a record that you’ve listened to hundreds of times before. The LCD-5 has an impossibly smooth and balanced frequency response and provide a studio-like sound that’s both transparent and utterly, utterly enjoyable.
Audeze has created an all-new design for the latest flagship which weighs in at only 420 grams - significantly less than previous LCD headphones. This lighter weight combined with their sumptuous pads makes the LCD-5 extremely comfortable for a flagship headphones that features massive 90mm planar drivers plus their associated magnet array, and I can say from experience that you will want to keep digging out record, after record and simply keep listening late into the night with the LCD-5.
Given the LCD-5’s astonishingly-detailed presentation, you’ll want to make sure that you’re feeding them with appropriately well-recorded and mastered music, as they’re honest to a fault - they’ll show up any mistakes made in the recording studio, the mixing desk, as well as any imperfections on your record. Daft Punk’s 2013 record Random Access Memories is about as good as it gets when it comes to sonic production values, and the Thorens TD 102 A > Jotunheim 2 > LCD-5 chain is a suitably adept way to hear this seminal album in all its glory - it’s utterly addictive.
Hopefully these pointers have given you the inspiration to take the “plunge” and start your very own relationship with vinyl. A good pair of headphones and a headphone amplifier can take you all the way to sonic bliss without the need to drop a fortune on a stereo setup (nor will you need to rearrange your house to make room for it), leaving you with plenty of pocket change to go do a bit of “crate digging” at your local record store.
Like anything in audio, only your ears can tell you what pair of headphones will be best for you. Drop into your nearest Addicted To Audio store and have a chat with the friendly staff who’ll be more than happy to help you find the right equipment to setup your own vinyl + headphone setup. Take the time to try out a few pairs of headphones until you find the ones that you can picture forming a part of your home listening system, and make sure you find the right balance of sound, comfort, and performance to best suit what you plan on listening to.
And lastly, enjoy the music - happy spinning!