$20 vs $200 – Are Expensive Headphones Actually That Much Better Than Cheap Ones?

Written by Pete Anthony 
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To date I’ve published reviews of about 50 different headphones and earbuds (and listened to yet many more) that sit all along the price range of cheap but still reasonably passable – around $20 or so in my opinion – to expensive, high quality, and at the point where marginal improvement becomes pretty small – around $200 or so in my opinion.

Are “expensive” headphones that cost $200 (or more) worth the money? Well that depends on the person and situation obviously – that’s like asking if a luxury car or gourmet meal is worth the money. A better question I think is: can headphones that cost that much more sound not just noticeably better, but a lot better than cheap ones?

In my somewhat expert level opinion? Yes. Absolutely. The earbuds I use as reference monitors when I do reviews cost about $160, and the headphones that I use at my desk cost about $130. They are both great and very much worth the money I paid.

…but I also have cheap earbuds for casual and/or all-weather use that I won’t get devastated over if I break or lose them. Situational, like I said.

So, how exactly do expensive headphones sound that much better than cheap ones? Well, I don’t think it’s possible to fully articulate – at a certain point you’ll have to just listen to them, and when someone hasn’t ever before they often liken it to lifting the veil: it’s hard to see what you’re actually missing until you actually experience it.

I’ll try my best though, as a seasoned reviewer, to at least somewhat explain it in an objective way.

Factors That Definitely Make Expensive Headphones Noticeably Better

No obvious flaws – cheap headphones almost always have noticeable shortcomings: uneven frequency response, recession, sibilance, muddiness, graininess, etc. etc.

Clarity and Separation – this is the big one in my opinion. With $200 headphones 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.

Soundstaging – 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 Comfort and Fit – this is a sometimes forgotten about but 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/Reliability/Warranty – with cheap headphones you’re lucky to get up to a year of coverage, and even then there’s still a decent chance that going through the hassle of exchanging them 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.

Factors That Could Make Expensive Headphones Noticeably Better

Sound Signature – 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.

Perceived Value – there’s a lot of different ways this broad psychological concept is applied and explained, but, as it pertains to this article, people are inclined to think something is better if they pay more for it.

Did I pay more for it because it sounds better, or, does it sound better because I payed more for it?

It sounds silly, and maybe it is, but it’s very much a real and significant phenomenon. There’s a plethora of scientific research that corroborates it.

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, could that be worth the money? I’d argue it definitely could be, and to a degree more than most are willing to admit that they are fallible.

In Conclusion

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, that’s about the point where, in my experience, the increased improvements with increased price start to stagnate and become pretty clearly not worth it. A lot of people would argue with me there though – just some more food for thought.