In Marketplace Commentary

The Marshall Monitor headphones are the cheapest of the bunch, but what does that mean for the quality?

5 high-end headphones that won't break the bank

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2. Beats Studio Wired Over-Ear Headphones ($229.99)

All the athletes wear them; all the kids want them. What's with all the hype? The Studios are the most expensive wired headphone in Beats' line-up and are the only adaptive noise cancelling headphones of the group. What that means is the ear cups contain microphones that generate noise to cancel out outside sound. It also means there is a battery that needs to stay charged or the headphones do not work. You will find out the hard way at least once – like I did – when you go to use them realizing you left the cable plugged in and the battery is dead.

The ear cup size is about the same as the M-100s so larger ears will have to be pushed in. They are made out of plastic with a minimalistic look that I like. They feel close to the same on my head as the M-100, except my ears touch the inner padding of the ear cup on the beats. This started to bother me during extended listening.

As for sound? The first thing you notice when you put these headphones on your head – before you even plug them into the phone – is a hiss. That is the biggest issue I have with the Beats. Yes, they have the best outside noise isolation of the group by a large margin, but the hiss of the adaptive noise cancellation is always there.

Once plugged into the iPhone, they get louder than any other headphone in the group and actually sound neutral to bright with recessed bass. This was surprising to me because I thought they would have the most low-end of the group. The soundstage is not as open, and there is less separation compared to both V-MODAs and the M50s.

Hooking up the E12 helps everything a little, and the bass heads will defiantly use the bass boost. When the bass does hit, it tends to spill over into the mids. The vocals are forward, but detail is lacking. With the CEntrance M8, things get a little more detailed, but the bass still spills over, and the soundstage still feels closed and congested. The end result was not what I expected in the bass department.

Everything else was OK sounding, but the constant hiss from the noise cancelling never goes away. Value based off of the competition is not good. I feel these should be priced closer to $150. I would price the Beats below the Audio Technica ATH-M50x if they didn't have noise cancellation.

3. V-MODA XS ($199.98)

When I first saw the V-MODA XS, they looked tiny. The V-MODA XS is the only on-ear headphone of this shootout. The look and build quality are identical to the M-100, which is a plus, but the XS is obviously smaller. They are very comfortable on the head with memory foam pads applying the perfect amount of clamping force on my ears. They have the least amount of outside noise isolation of the group which is to be expected from an on-ear. But will smaller headphones bring smaller sound?

I assumed that the XS and the M-100 would sound similar with the M-100 having more bass and an overall fuller sound. With playing them on the iPhone, however, XS surprised me right from the start. The bass impact wasn't as over powering as the M-100, but it was awesome bass for a sub $200 headphone. The XS and M-100 share the same dark sound signature, but I would say the XS is less laid back. Another way to put it would be the M-100 has more bass, but XS has quicker, more refined bass that I actually preferred over the M-100 on some songs. The M-100 had a slightly larger soundstage, but the XS has a tad more clarity.

I am amazed how good these little headphones sound using just the iPhone 6. The volume levels from the iPhone will satisfy most, but with the Fiio E12, everything improves with the added power. Stepping up to the CEntance M8, the XS sound great. The first song I heard with the M8 made me smile. I thought, "I can't believe how good these little things sound." The M8 gives the XS a more detailed sound with more vocals and treble. The sound signature is still on the dark side, but I enjoy the XS M8 combo. Overall, the sound from the smallest headphones was better than I expected. At $200, it's a great value and sounds much better than expected.

4. Audio Technica ATH-M50x ($129.99-$149.99)

The Audio Technica ATH-M50x has a huge following and is considered to be one of the best headphones for the money. You can buy it for $149.99, although it frequently goes on sale for $129.99. The ATH-M50x is the only headphone in the group not designed to play off a mobile device so it doesn't have a cable with a built in mic. The ATH-M50x was designed to be a studio monitor, which are specifically designed for audio production applications – such as recording studios, radio studios and anywhere accurate audio reproduction is crucial. This means the sound signature should be neutral.

To me, the ATH-M50xs are the most comfortable headphone of the group with the largest internal ear cups. They look and feel somewhat cheap and flimsy, however, compared to the other headphones tested.

As for the sound quality, the iPhone 6 does a good job with the ATH-M50x. I expected the ATH-M50x, as a studio monitor, to be harder to drive than the others, but the volume got pretty loud with no distortion. The sound signature is the close to neutral, similar to the Beats, but they have a cleaner sound with a slight low end boost. The soundstage is the largest of the group, but it's not approaching open-back headphone territory. The strong suit for the ATH-M50x is the clarity and detail with treble that's not too bright and quick accurate bass.

The ATH-M50s have the best overall sound to work well for all genres and, as to be expected, things get better with amplification via the Fiio E12. Stepping up to the CEntrance M8, things sound really good, and – not to sound like a broken record – soundstage and clarity go up a notch as well. Overall, I love the sound you can get from a $130-$150 headphone. Like the M-100, I lost many hours of sleep listening to the ATH-M50x/M8 combo. The Audio Technica ATH-M50x lives up the hype: These are the best value of any headphone tested.

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