Auditioning headphones (ethically)?

I've had some good headphones and I want to move up to some very good headphones. I'm thinking about the obvious ones in the $1500 range: 800s, Clear MG, Arya. 

Given that one needs to live with headphones for a while for both sound quality and comfort, how do people audition two or three pairs at once? Do you buy them from the same site and return what you don't want to keep? Do you buy them from different sources and return what you want? Are there any concerns about doing this, ethical or financial? I've read the policies on, the Cable Co., AudioAdvisor, etc--most have generous return policies but they seem to be centered on one-at-a-time purchases.

Anyway, all this is obvious. I'm sure many of you have faced this question. What do you guys do? 
I always research the heck out of them and make my best choice. I am normally buy 2x or 3x in cost so they always sound like a big improvement for my first purchase at a new level. I listen to them for many months before wanting to adding another set at that level. The first purchase gave me an empirical ruler with which to judge buying my next set. Owning and reading reviews of the ones I own allow me to understand reviews of others at the same performance level. I currently use Focal Utopia (bought first) and Sennheiser 820s. I enjoy them both… i switch. I liked the Focal more at first, but after six months have gravitated to the Sennheiser.
Most of us have a number of headphones at one level. We use them all.

So, for me, I only use return policies as a defense against a mistake.
There is enough info online,especially from sites like to narrow choices down to a pecking order.Since most online dealers/stores carry pretty much all the major players start with your #1 choice & live with them a couple weeks at least,you'll know by then if they are keepers,if not send them packing & try the next in line...
During my search for the perfect headphone (which never ends), I attended a few high end hifi shows. I recall going to RMAF and shows in California where they had whole ballrooms devoted to headphones. I was able to audition a lot of high quality, expensive phones and amps. My favorite phones were Stax, Fostex and Audeze. I still recall the Blue Hawaii tube amps and the magic they made with Stax headphones. I now own the Stax 009s and Audeze LCD-XC, but the Blue Hawaii is still on the horizon.

 Like the poster above, I switch between the two phones but my preference are the Stax 009 phones, which replaced my earlier Stax Lambda Pro version. My point is that, if cost is an issue, start with a model a little lower in the line. There are hundreds to choose from, and obviously you can’t audition them all. There is no "perfect, ultimate" headphone, just one that you prefer. Although you can’t audition every headphone available, you might try trusting those on this forum, and others, to help narrow your search.

I agree with tonykay about going to a show. I think an audio show is the only way to really hear and compare phones.  I love the venues with the giant ballroom full of exhibitors.  Everyone is helpful, and most are willing to permit you to take the phone to another table to hear the phones on a different set of electronics. 

It may be a while before I am comfortable sharing phones like this, but, one day, the pandemic will be in the past.
I just buy the Grados in the price range that makes sense to me. I much prefer to listen to loudspeakers but good headphones are a lot cheaper. 
Please do not underestimate how differently headphones sound with different headphone amps in play, the set favored with one amp might be the loser with another amp. Enjoy the music
Thanks all of you. I'm interested that you're all giving more or less the same advice, and it's *not* "order them all and keep what you want." I certainly agree about hifi shows; maybe now they will be happening more frequently. The last one I planned to attend was Montreal ... before the pandemic.

I agree about researching the heck out of it and I'm doing that. What I can't research, though, is how headphones will feel after an hour or two. And of course one man's "bright" is another man's "neutral." Etc.

Thank you again. The responses are not what I was expecting but they're *very* helpful.


If you look at my comment above, you’ll see that I prefer the Stax headphones over the Audeze. Obviously, that’s a personal choice but it’s due to two things; the heavier weight of the Audeze phones, and the transparent sound that electrostatic phones offer, in the case of the Stax.

In fairness to Audeze, my LCD-XC are not their top of the line. I like the sound of the Audeze phones but I found that the heaviness resulted in shorter listening sessions, although many people love those phones. Also, don’t discount the value of a dedicated headphone amp. I recommend one with tubes.
ZMF. You will have to wait several months but these are super real and lovely.
Thank you, Tony. I’ve read brilliant things about STAX "earspeakers" but I can’t imagine a way that I can listen to them at the moment. I’m not aware of any dealers in the Northeast. I’d need a dedicated amp as well. The 009s are beyond my reach but the 007MK2 are a possibility, perhaps with a STAX or Woo electrostatic amp. I’ll ponder!!

Edit: the ZMF headphones are beautiful!! I'm sure they sound sweet....
I own a pair of the the older version of 007 phones and a Headamp Blue Hawaii SE amplifier.  I considered the 009 phones, but, overall, I prefer the less bright sound of the 007 phones.  I have heard the Dan Clark phones on this amp, and I like these a lot—a warmer sound (more prominent lower midrange) with a tonal quality a bit more like Audeze phones than the Stax phones.

Comfort is important.  I find the Stax and Dan Clark phones to be quite comfortable.  The Audeze phones are very good too, except for the added weight which can be tough on one’s neck during a long listening session.  
I am now interested in the new Audeze electrostatic phone —the CRBN.  It is quite expensive, but it already has a following.

My local dealer has an assortment of headphones to demo with different amps. They have a 30 day return policy. I bought the Sennheiser HD800. High comfort factor on me, I can wear ‘em all day and don’t tire of the sound. I kept them.

I also wanted some closed back and since the 800’s were so enjoyable, bought some 820’s. They’re a little heavier than the 800’s but it’s not an issue. Same comfort, great sound. I switch back and forth.

Nice, bslon. I don't have such a local dealer. There's one about three hours away that has Focals for home audition, but only for a week and they're grouchy if the customer isn't local. (They're kind of grouchy anyway.) There's a store about four hours away that does sell Focals and Sennheisers and Audeze, and I can ask about their policies. Buying a pair with a 30-day return policy is easy; it's the comparison that I'd like to do. (Obviously, I can compare the weight and comfort one-by-one; it's comparing the sometimes subtle differences in sound that I find difficult that way.)

Doing your research should help minimize the risk of picking something too far off the mark.  Obviously finding a dealer online with a good return policy would be one way to go, but you can also consider buying used headphones and in the event you make a mistake with sound, fit, etc. you can resell them with little/no loss as long as you buy well.  Best of luck.   
I have always found a dealer with a good selection of headphones to listen and compare them to each other in real time and pick the one i liked best because headphones are such a personal and crucial item especially for sound and fit.
The Cable Company has a Headphone Lending Library, you can borrow multiple models. I’m not affiliated with them but have made purchases.
Good luck, enjoy your quest.
Like russ69, I've worked my way up Grado's line of headphones from the entry level SR-60s up to the SR-325e's and they do improve as you climb the food chain. Not everybody likes open backed headphones but they allow me to hear ringing phones, doorbells etc when necessary.
@bslon, thank you so much. I read in another headphones thread here that the Cable Company had a good policy but I couldn't find it on their website. That's great. I have an account with them and will most likely try that.

@orgillian, thank you. I've had Grados for at least twenty years, the SR-60, SR-80, and now the RS2E. They're incredibly comfortable and I love the Grado sound. Long story short, I want to branch out. 
Not sure where the ethical concern comes in, if you're abiding by the return policies. The Music Room literally expects people to try and return things, so I'd think that other companies must expect the same, or at least they should if they want to stay in business.

Why not start buy buying a couple of headphones from TMR:

"Every product we sell has undergone a rigorous testing protocol and is backed by our 14day satisfaction-guaranteed return policy (when purchased at, along with a 45-day warranty. In short, we want to make sure you are 100% satisfied with your purchase."
Ethics were part of your question, yet most responses seem to ignore that aspect.  From the standpoint of a dealer selling headphones, the only real ethical point is that if you use a dealer's time, demo inventory, home trial policies, etc., you owe it to the dealer to make your purchase from them if you settle on something they made available to you.  In a case where several dealers have the same offering and each made their best effort to facilitate your decision, you have to choose to buy from one.  A "good customer" will thank the losing dealer for their help, and acknowledge they bought elsewhere and why.  If price becomes a factor, always allow the most courteous and professional dealer the option to counteroffer or match, and be prepared to ethically decide if their service has monetary value, because if it doesn't, you are not a "good customer"!
Buy used, try them out, and if you don't like them, flip them.  If you don't overpay you should be able to get most or all of your money back.

Headphones are a personal thing, definitely find out if the person selling is a non-smoker and consider buying a new set of earpads for them.
Again, thank you all. @big_greg, super advice about the ear-ads and the smoking. 

The ethical concern for me is what @crustycoot picked up on. It's not a question of following policies; that's easy. It's about playing fair. I'm especially interested in what that means when I'd like to audition at least three and maybe (after reading this thread) five pairs of headphones--ideally at least some of them at the same time. Is it ethical to buy three pairs of headphones from a website (would we call that a dealer?) knowing that I'm going to return at least two of them? If a dealer carries more than one pair that I'm interested in, is it ethical to sequentially buy headphones, knowing that no matter how much I like one pair I'm going to return it and try another, and another? Is it ethical to buy headphones from three different sources, knowing that two of those sources will never see a penny of my money? Is there a difference between buying from Amazon and buying from a smaller vendor? Etc etc. I can read the policies but would I just be gaming the system? 

To put this a different way, it would be easy for me to buy five pairs of headphones, from one site or from multiple sites, and return at least four of them. I would be within their policies. But is that ethical?

And, yes, good idea about buying used and flipping. That doesn't solve my hope to have more than one at a time, and ... there are obvious risks and costs to that approach.

I'm not looking for problems here! I'm genuinely curious about how people audition multiple headphones. I'll check with the Cable Company. If they're set up to do this, I'm in. (I've emailed with them in the past about auditioning cables from their "library" and, well, it wasn't as straightforward as it sounded.)

Finally, I wonder how dealers would respond to this. If I asked audioadvisor or or a store, would they encourage me to buy three pairs, knowing I was returning at least two? What would feel fair to them?

And, yes, amps. Right. That, too.

To put this a different way, it would be easy for me to buy five pairs of headphones, from one site or from multiple sites, and return at least four of them. I would be within their policies. But is that ethical?
I think as long as you’re honestly willing to buy the headphones if they’re the best for you and you’re following the dealer’s own return policy I think that’s perfectly fair and kinda how the world works these days.  I think it’ll be tough for any dealer to stay in business longer term if they can’t adapt to this way of doing business.  

The other way to look at is that this way at least the dealer has a legit shot at at making a sale they absolutely wouldn’t make if they didn’t allow you to try them.  Plus, even if you return them the dealer can sell them as demo units and still make some — albeit a bit less — $ on the sale.  So yeah, this increases a dealer’s cost of doing business, but on the flip side they have a world of potential customers as opposed to mostly local traffic.  Anyway, just my $0.02 on it FWIW. 

Sounds like it’s a good excuse for a road trip. The good thing is you get to take your listening room with you. 😁

You ask a good question. To answer it from my point of view, it is absolutely not ethical to purchase multiple sets of headphones with the intent to return all but one. That is not the intent of the companies that offer this policy and it constitutes a cost to them as they can no longer sell the returned headphones as new. To me it this kind of behavior points to one of the reasons society has become so angry and unfriendly. Most people used to be taught to “do the right thing” based on principles of fairness. Our society has moved to make decisions based on rules… and how close can I get to, without actually violating the rule. Rules are gross generalities established to stop an unwanted behavior after it has been detected as a problem. If we would always act in such a way that if the situation was reversed, it is the appropriate action, then people would act more considerately.

So you asked a valid question. I have been in business most of my carreer. The answer is absolutely no. If I wanted you to buy multiple headphones and use the return policy. I would state it as a option. I would advertise it as an option. “Buy 3 return two… no charge. 
Agree with ghdprentice.
Returning items costs the dealer money and purchasing items KNOWING you are going to return them is unethical. But it can get even worse: one of my other interests is backyard astronomy and on a related forum a member stated that he would decide on a certain telescope, buy 2 from 2 separate dealers, and then "take the best parts from each" and put the rejected parts on the other one and return it. He made no mention of whether or not what he was doing was ethical (and is it even legal as he was not returning exactly what was sent to him?) His only concern was  paying the return shipping charges which he called "the cost of doing business". I was speechless.
Okay, so now we have two thoughtfully articulated positions, best voiced by @soix and @ghdprentice . @qjm101 states one side with clarity: "purchasing items KNOWING you are going to return them is unethical." And @soix is compelling as well: as long as someone follows the policies and is committed to a purchase, that's not only playing fair but it's giving the dealer a chance at a sale that he might not otherwise have.

I can see both sides and I truly appreciate the time you all have taken to open all this up. I think I'm going to split the difference and 1) try the Cable Co lending library and 2) make a road trip, I guess, and see how I can do in a physical store. I hope they have a comfortable chair. I'll have make sure they're good with doing returns by mail. I don't want to drive eight hours just to return a pair of headphones...

Thanks, all!
Check out this review for ZMF Auteur.After I watched this 22 minutes, I bought ZMF  Auteurs and never looked back!
There was a time when haggling & a discount was SOP.Nowdays dealers REFUSE to discount,sighting manufacturer controlled pricing,which is garbage as it constitutes restriction of fair trade,along with pushing the cost of doing business(Paypal or CC fees)to the buyer as well.IMO it's all out war so I say if your going to be charged as much as the dealer can squeeze out of you then by all means USE their policies in the same manner!

Haggling and discounting was a thing when the cost the dealer got the goods was less than 50% of the MSRP. But that has been squeezed out. The margins for dealers is much smaller now… thank the internet I think.
... Nowdays dealers REFUSE to discount ...
Not true. Dealers give discounts to their best customers.
You can still get some discount by trading in equipment as it allows your dealer to over value the trade in, effectively giving you a discount. You can pay in cash and ask for a 3% discount.
Can you get a good audition at a hi-fi show? I'd like to go to Canjam here in Southern California and audition open back models but I'm wondering if it will be too noisy. Just yesterday while listening to my Stax Lambda Signatures, my wife was wadding up a piece of paper two rooms away. I thought either the amp or phones were having a meltdown!
I personally think not. There is noise and activity all over.there is the demand to quickly decide. None of these things work I]in your favor. But as arts cut, ok.
Yes, you can audition reasonably well at a show.  The noise levels are not so high as to make it impossible to hear what a phone is capable of delivering.  Unlike auditioning speakers, you don't have to be concerned about how the room is affecting the sound, so, by comparison, phone auditions give a fair representation of the sound you can expect to hear in your own system.  You still have to deal with the differences in upstream components, but, at most of these shows, you are allowed to move the phones to a different table to listen on another system.

To me, a show is the best way to hear a variety of phones and make a reasonable pick based on what you hear.