You guys often talk about headphones, and some of them are really expensive—like $200 or more. I have a pair of $20 headphones that I love, and I’ve always wondered: are those high end ones really worth it? What’s so special about expensive headphones that makes them better?
A Rusty Audiophile
Well, one thing is certain: Not every expensive pair of headphones is worth their price. In some cases, you wind up paying for branding or style, and not necessarily audio quality. However, cheap headphones as a category do suffer from common problems, and finding great ones may not be difficult, but it’s not exactly the norm either. Let’s take a look at why high-end headphones are as expensive as they are, when they’re actually worth it, and what they have to offer over their cheaper alternatives.
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Budget Doesn’t Equal Bad, but High-End Is a Huge Step Up
On average, you do get better sound quality the higher you’re willing to go in price. There are certainly diminishing returns, but if you have the cash to spend, the right higher-end headphones can blow you away. This isn’t an audiophile thing, either—anyone can hear the difference between a good $20 pair and a good $200 pair. The differences are quite stark.
Of course, price tag alone doesn’t automatically indicate quality. We’ve seen great headphones around $20 that sound better than sets two or three times their price. However, some of your favorite headphones and in-ear monitors are more pricey, and most of them are definitely better than any $20 pair. I’ve also tested headphones at and above $300+ that sound amazing. There’s good sound to enjoy at all price points, but the higher you go, the higher the bar.
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Still, on average, more expensive headphones will sound better—though other things can contribute to that higher price tag.
Higher-End Headphones Can Produce Clearer, Better Audio
First and foremost: more expensive headphones can sound a lot better. Your music will sound clearer and crisper, with bass that doesn’t sound muddy, highs that aren’t quite so harsh, and so on. You’re also likely to get better soundstage, which is the sensation you get when you’re listening that you could close your eyes and “feel” like you’re listening to a live performance. You’ll hear the separate, individual instruments, combining to create one piece of music without sounding muddled. In this thread at Head-Fi, one user offers a great example:
Sometimes there’s a subtle bell, whistle, ring in a song. Confused, you look up to see if the ring came from the telephone across the room. That’s soundstage.
You think your $20 headphones sound great because they’re probably some of the best headphones you’ve ever heard. Once you step up to something better though, it’s very easy to tell the difference. Going back to your old headphones after hearing something better will probably leave you underwhelmed by the more muffled, lifeless sound. Even an exceptional pair of budget headphones, like our beloved Monoprice 8323s, can’t stand up to a higher-end pair like the Sennheiser Momentums (another pair I’ve tested, and loved).
More Money Buys Build Quality and Added Features
Ideally, a pair of high-end headphones should have build quality and features to match the price tag. They should feel sturdy, relatively heavy, and be made of solid material. More money can also net you features like wireless audio, noise cancellation, detachable cables, and so on. We’re not saying you should look for wood trim and metal (although you will find those things on some pricey models), but a pair of expensive headphones should feel like they can take a bit of a beating, and they should feel solidly built from the inside out.
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Most high-end headphones sport features like a fold-up design, a carrying shell, ear pad coverings (whether they’re vinyl or velour) that don’t feel like they’re going to come right off, replaceable tips, and plastic that doesn’t creak and groan every time you adjust the headband or slide them over your head—all problems cheap headphones are plagued with. Sure, things like cloth braided cables, leather headbands, and gold-plated connectors are nice to have, but they mean less when it comes to sound—and are often added to sub-par drivers just to jack up the price.
Consider What Types of Music You’ll Listen to, and Where
Lastly, keep in mind that high-end headphones aren’t best in every situation. THink about the actual music sources you enjoy and where you listen to them. Spending $500 on a pair of headphones won’t do you much good if you listen to low-bitrate streams on noisy subway platforms. They will, however, come in handy when listening to high quality MP at home, where it’s nice and quiet. If your common listening environments are noisy, like open offices or outdoors, consider a bang-for-the-buck pair without a huge price tag. If you’re the quintessential at-home listener, spring for a better pair so you can hear everything your music has to offer.
If you know you can’t tell the difference between low-bitrate and high-bitrate audio, then there’s no reason to spend money on headphones like you can—but give yourself a fair shake first. Better headphones make it very easy to tell the difference, and you might be surprised once you get a decent pair over your ears and find out what you’ve been missing.
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Bottom Line: High End Headphones Are Worth It, but You Decide If They’re Worth It To You
Headphones are tricky things to buy. You can do a lot of research, take a ton of people’s recommendations, read reviews, and put your money down only to find out that you still didn’t get the listening experience you were looking for. That’s okay—always buy from someone who has a good return policy, and the flexibility to try something out for a little while and then send it back if you don’t like it—especially if you’re spending good money on a high-end pair.
Do your homework, check out our guide to finding the perfect headphones, and shop wisely. If you love your music and listen to high-quality tunes in the right environments, a well-crafted, high-end pair of headphones can be worth every cent. If you’re on the go, on a budget, or aren’t really concerned with all of these details and nuances, there are great deals for you too that won’t leave you feeling like you’re listening to cans on a string. Where you put your money should be based on that—not just reviews or fashion.
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Title photo by Mr. Brainwash and isak55 (Shutterstock). Additional photos by Taylor Burnes, Nickolai Kashirin, Jon B, Chad Kainz, and Toshiyuki Imai.