Dear Lifehacker, You guys often talk about headphones, and some of them are really expensive, costing $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? Thanks, 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. 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.
Budget Doesn't Automatically Equal Bad
On the whole, 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 pronounced.
Price tag alone doesn't automatically indicate quality. We've seen great headphones for around $20 that sound better than sets two or three times their price. However, some of your favourite headphones and earbuds are more pricey, and most of them are definitely better than any $20 pair. I've tested headphones priced above $300+ that sound amazing. There's good sound to enjoy at all price points.
Higher-End Headphones Can Produce Clearer, Better Audio
On expensive headphones, your music will sound clearer and crisper, with bass that doesn't seem muddy and highs that aren't quite so harsh. You're also likely to experience 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 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 leave you underwhelmed by the more muffled, lifeless sound.
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 and detachable cables. We're not saying you should look for wood trim and metal (although you will find those features on some pricey models), but a pair of expensive headphones should feel like they can stand up to extended use, and they should feel solidly built.
Most high-end headphones sport features like a fold-up design, a carrying shell, ear pad coverings 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. Extras 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 gear just to jack up the price.
Consider Music Types And Location
Lastly, keep in mind that high-end headphones aren't the best choice in every situation. Think about the actual music sources you enjoy and where you listen to them. Spending $US500 on a pair of headphones won't do you much good if you listen to low-bitrate streams on noisy station platforms. They will, however, come in handy when listening to high quality music at home. 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 enjoy 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 high-end headphones — but give yourself a fair trial 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.
Bottom Line: The Choice Is Yours
Headphones are tricky things to buy. You can do a lot of research, take recommendations and read reviews, and put your money down only to find out that you still didn't get the listening experience you were looking for. 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 large amounts money on a high-end design.
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.
Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact form.