Why are headphones so darn expensive?
Most decent quality headphones are priced somewhere between $100 and $500. But do you really get what you pay for?
- Audiophiles are willing to break the bank for great sound. One company sells speaker cables for $38k each.
- Neither price nor branding guarantees quality. The latest $400 headphones from Blue have disappointed some reviewers.
- Even if you buy the right headphones, you might need to adjust your setup to enjoy the improved sound.
In simplistic terms, a pair of headphones comprises two tiny speakers and a headband. Of course, the design process is somewhat more complicated in reality. Audio components must be finely tuned in order to deliver the kind of sound quality we expect as consumers. But it seems extraordinary that such a small, simple device could be worth upwards of $300.
Why are headphones so expensive? And is it worth paying top dollar? We set out to answer these questions.
The price of consumer electronics is always somewhat inflated. Brands such as Apple and Beats by Dre are finely tuned marketing machines, built to excite our inner lust for newness. In some cases, the new technology is truly impressive. But much of the time, these devices can be likened to the Emperor’s new clothes — money for nothing.
This was illustrated to stark effect back in 2015, when a couple of writers from the Huffington Post decided to dissect a pair of Beats headphones.
Before making the first incision, the writers noted that the Beats — priced at $199 — felt weighty in the hand. This seemed to imply premium quality. But on closer inspection, it was discovered that 30 percent of this weight could be attributed to four pieces of metal. These components had no purpose, other than to serve as ballast.
Why are headphones so expensive? And is it worth paying top dollar? We set out to answer these questions.Click to tweet
It’s not just weight that can trick us. We often associate certain brand names with quality, when others perform just as well. It’s also worth remembering that new technology isn’t always refined. It sometimes takes several iterations before the new sound is perfected.
Cutting the cost
So, how much should you be paying for a set of headphones? And where should you invest your money?
These questions require nuanced answers. Firstly, it’s worth noting that some higher end headphones are considerably better than budget options. That said, budget headphones are not always bad — but many are. Some brands are worth paying attention to, while others should be avoided at all costs.
In order to decipher this puzzle, you need to make a few decisions. First of all, you should think about what type of headphones you want. Your choice should depend on your lifestyle:
- In-ear headphones are good for gym workouts and traveling light.
- Circumaural headphones help to block outside noise.
- Choose open-back or on-ear headphones for the best possible sound quality.
Secondly, there is connectivity to consider.
- Wireless headphones are convenient, but cheaper options tend to provide poor Bluetooth performance.
- If you’re on a budget, stick with wired ‘phones.
Thirdly, you need to think about brands.
- High-end names like Sennheiser and Audeze are worth looking for.
- Lesser-known brands often provide a great compromise between price and acoustics; see Master & Dynamic.
Finally, take into account your own listening habits. How long will you be listening for? How important is sound quality?
- If you want to listen to music at work, look for wireless headphones with a good battery life.
- Comfort is very important for long flights and work days. If possible, try before you buy.
- While the best audio comes from premium headphones, you may not personally need studio-quality sound.
Buying headphones is a complex business. You probably realized that about halfway through our bullet-point flow chart. But what’s clear is that headphones don’t have to be expensive. Sure, you need to cough up for the very best sound available. But for most of us, those $500 cans just ain’t worth it.
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