Ask LH: Are High-End Headphones Really Worth The Money?

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

Lead headphones picture from Shutterstock. Additional photos by Taylor Burnes, Nickolai Kashirin, Jon B, Chad Kainz and Toshiyuki Imai.

Dear Rusty,

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

Are High-End Headphones Really Worth the Money?

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

Are High-End Headphones Really Worth the Money?

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

Are High-End Headphones Really Worth the Money?

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

Are High-End Headphones Really Worth the Money?

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

Are High-End Headphones Really Worth the Money?

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.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    If I was starting again (to look for headphones) I would start at :
    http://www.head-fi.org/products/category/headphones

    There is a great search function or you can look on the left and find headphone categories. It really helps if you can go second hand - because then you have the 'bay. I couldn't go second hand for in ear headphones though, not that I use them at all. Cheers

      I'll put in my vote for headphone.com.
      On their build-a-graph page, you can do direct comparisons of things like frequency-response, if you're into things like that.
      Head-fi is also really good, though.

        I use the build-a-graph feature too, but there's nothing like listening.

        Pick one of the reference "standard" headphones (even if you can't afford it), stick to the same song (punchy bass, regular treble, repeating melody) then compare the same track with one other headphone at a time. Find one in your price range and with a similar tonal signature.

        Re the signature tone, you'll grow into it; don't re-act if it has less bass or treble than you like.

    If you're a gamer, prioritise high frequency response.

    If you're a music freak prioritise low frequency response.

    Unless size is an issue, you want circumaural headphones.

    In-line volume adjusters always cause loss of sound quality, avoid if possible.

    If you're in a quiet place you want 'open' headphones (yes, there are open circumaural headphones, and they are awesome).

    If you're in a noisy place you want 'closed' headphones.

    If you're in an insanely noisy place you want active noise cancellation (beware, the resulting increased ear pressure may not be tolerable to you).

    5.1 and 7.1 headphones are snake-oil.

    In CS I'm frequently accused of wallhacking because I use Sennheiser HD598s, which enables me to accurately shoot targets through-wall based only on the sound of their footsteps and the differing sound of successful bullet impacts.

      The only thing I disagree with on here is the 'if you are a music freak...'. Well, no so much disagree as think it is very, very music (and taste) specific:
      If you're listening to classical then you'll probably want a very flat response
      If you're listening to industrial you'll probably want a bit more bass (but not necessarily a lot more)
      If you're listening to Dre on Beats headphones you need to throw yourself off a cliff because nothing can save you.
      Not to impose my tastes on anyone, of course. *cough*

      (Note: I have a pair of Senn HD570 open circumaurals for home and a pair Senn HD280 Pro closed circumaurals for PT and office)

      Last edited 01/07/14 12:49 pm

    Great article and agreed on most fronts.
    5 years ago I had a "nice" pair of on-ear Sony closed backs (about $50). Loved em.
    3 years ago I had a stack of Qantas points so I used them to buy a pair of Bose OE-2's. Wow!
    Six months ago I bought a pair of Shure SE425 dual-driver in-ears for stage use. While they initially seemed to lack bass for music, going back to the Bose's is just unpleasant now... I dread to think how the Sony's would sound!!

    The number one lesson in headphones is that taste is very subjective. Some will say they can't tell the difference, others will swear by it.

    The good thing about higher end gear is that decent stores will often let you try stuff out before dropping big dollars. The best thing is to try products for yourself... load some good quality lossless recordings that you are familiar with onto a phone or laptop and test with those. You might be surprised what your ears pick up.

    Years ago i spent $200 on a pair of Bose headphones and thought they were awesome. Recently I dropped 10X that on a pair of Sennheisers and a Woo Audio tube amp and I don't have a single regret. Occasionally i throw on the Bose ones and have a chuckle at the fact I once thought they were amazing.

    Think of the car analogy. Is a Ferrari really worth 10x a high end Toyota/Holden/ford? Does monster cable really give better sound? If you answered yes to any of these (or re: very expensive headphones), I have a bridge to sell ... Going cheap.
    If you have money to burn, pay the difference, it will make you feel better. Case in point, many people rave about beats by dr dre - and they are WAY over rated. I'm yet to come across any "wow" headphones that greatly outperform cheaper but good cans.

    The gain you get changes at different price points changes too. The difference you hear going from $5 earphones to $30 ones to $60 ones to $150 ones to $400 and beyond gets smaller - instead of huge, obvious differences, it was subtler shades of finesse.

    In my experience, more expensive earphones sound better but the trick was figuring out what I was willing to pay for which level of sound quality.

    Cheap AND good?

    I have 2 pairs of circumaural headphones. First are my Sennheiser HD-600s for serious listening late Friday nights. I haven't heard any home stereo beat this for deep, extended, tight bass, and smooth, silky, treble. NEVER shrill - I HATE shrill :-). Most importantly mids are always perfectly balanced, neither lost in the mix nor too forward. They need power so while you could plug them into your iPhone or Galaxy, they'll really not flying but simply skimming the surface of your frog pond, any AVR with just 10 watts RMS will be enough. They're open-backed so my wife always worries I'm listening too loudly! They would still cost as much as $500 a pair retail (beware of imitations from Asia).

    Source is always WAV files ripped from CDs I've purchased. The DAC is nothing fancy, just the one in my AVR. Hardest part was making sure I was getting raw digital out of my laptop and not (coloured) analogue.

    Bliss...

    For less intense listening I have 2 pairs of Sennheiser HD-201s, one in my bedroom and the other at my PC. They are sealed-back units. Their bass isn't as tight or as extended as their big brother HD-600s, have a warmer sound with slightly recessed mids, and tizzier treble. But these are the ONLY budget headphones I can tolerate without having to reach for EQ or tone controls. Heck, I paid $30 for each one, so what the Hell!

    Hard to find - there is a lot of rubbish out there (and our too-forgiving hearing doesn't help) - but the HD-201 proves you CAN get cheap and good headphones!

    Cheers,
    skris88

      How can I go about getting the raw digital output from my PC?
      I have the Astro MixAmp ready to receive an optical audio output and feed it to my headphones, if that helps.

        PC USB to Optical Digital converter.

        I've had some success with this - http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/USB-6-Channel-5-1-Audio-External-Optical-Sound-Card-Adapter-PC-Laptop-Blue-/190904804616

        The documentation is woeful. The seller useless for support. In the end I found the correct driver file was the last folder in the supplied CD. Windows PCs only.

        A huge improvement over the analogue audio output from the PC into the same AVR!

        Good luck!

        Cheers,

    Absolutely genre dependent. I listen to 20s and 30s jazz and blues, difference between $20 and $300 yes, difference between $50 or $100 between $300. Nope.

    i went from $25 sennheisers that i loved to $130 audio technicas, the difference is everything explained in this article.
    headphones.com.au is a great aussie site for buying.

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