To date I’ve written and published well over 100 headphone and earbud reviews, and listened to yet many more. I’ve reviewed products that span all along the range of price: from cheap but passably decent – which is around $20 in my opinion – to expensive enough where the marginal improvements that come with further price increases become pretty small and debatable – which is around $200 in my opinion.
But there’s still a lot of ambiguity within that price range of $20 to $200, and people often ask: are expensive headphones worth it? Are a pair of $200 headphones really ten times better than a pair of $20?
Well, that’s kind of like asking if a luxury car or gourmet restaurant meal is worth the money. It’s going to depend on the person. The better and more specific question I think is this: can expensive headphones not just sound noticeably better than cheap headphones, but a lot better than them?
Based on my experience – which at this point is more than most – I do think the answer to that question is yes, and that paying a premium for expensive headphones can definitely be worth the money. The various earbuds I use as reference monitors for doing reviews cost around $150-$200, and so do the headphones and earbuds I have for personal use.
So, how exactly do expensive headphones sound that much better than cheap ones then?
Well, I don’t think that’s possible to fully articulate. At a certain point you’ll have to just listen to them, because sometimes you just can’t see what you’re missing until you actually experience it for the first time. But I’m sure you’ve heard “just listen to them” before. So I’ll try to answer the question in an objectively explicit and understandable way.
Factors That Make Expensive Headphones Noticeably Better Than Cheap Ones
No obvious flaws
Cheap headphones almost always have noticeable shortcomings: uneven frequency response, recession, sibilance, muddiness, graininess, etc. etc.
Accuracy, Clarity, and Separation
This is the big one in my opinion. Things sound much more real and natural. You can really start to hear individual instruments and sounds clearly, and they’re relatively easy to pay specific attention to if you want to. Try doing the same with cheap headphones and it’s much more difficult if not impossible.
This is something that, in my opinion, you honestly don’t even start to see until you start closing in on the $200 price point. Soundstaging is basically the created sensation that you’re hearing the music as you would listening to the actual players – singer(s) up front, strings nearby, brass somewhat back, etc. etc. Good soundstaging is indeed a partial function of good clarity and separation.
Good Fit and Comfort
This is not directly related to sound quality but is still very important factor. If you’re going to be wearing something on your head for hours a day, you want it to feel seamless.
Durability and Warranty
Budget headphones rarely have more than a year of warranty coverage, and even if you are covered there’s still a decent chance that going through the hassle of getting them repaired or exchanged is just not worth it. Two years of full warranty coverage is the relatively standard minimum for higher-end headphones, and many companies offer more. Point being here: “cheap” headphones can quickly become not-so-cheap-actually if you’re having to constantly replace them, and the potential value of expensive headphones becomes that much more apparent if they’ll last for several years or more, which many products absolutely can.
All headphones have a personality, so to speak. Some are tight and crisp, some are warm and light, etc. etc. As the price tag goes up, you’re going to get a lot more distinguishable variety in what things sound like, and you just might find that one product that, to you, sounds uniquely great. Now will this necessarily be a function of higher quality and increased price thusly? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just different in a way that you like and it also happens to be more expensive.
Did I pay more for it because it sounds better, or, does it sound better because I payed more for it?
It might sound silly – and maybe it actually is – but it’s very much a real and significant phenomenon. There’s a plethora of scientific research that corroborates it, and the fact that people are quite fallible.
The perception of sound is ultimately a personal and subjective experience. If you pay, let’s say, $100 more for a pair of headphones and “trick” yourself into perceiving better sound quality, is that not ultimately just the same thing as actually perceiving better sound quality?
If you listen to music (or media in general) pretty regularly and are at least somewhat interested in it sounding decent, then I’d say it’s definitely worth looking into nicer pair of expensive headphones. Why the number $200 used in this article? Well, said again, that’s about the point where, in my experience, the marginal improvements with further price increases become too small to be worth it or are entirely debatable.
But a lot of experienced audiophiles would still argue with me there though – just some more food for thought.