The price range of headphones varies widely from a few dollars to thousands of dollars. There are certainly cases to be made for the inexpensive and expensive headphones on the market, and knowing your own wants and needs as a buyer will help in choosing the best pair for you.
Are Expensive Headphones (Or Cheap Headphones) Worth It? Cheap audio equipment, including headphones, is known to sound subpar; perform poorly, and to break easily. Expensive audio equipment is often well-designed but over-hyped. Depending on your usage, low mid-range (consumer) or high mid-range (professional) is often best in terms of headphone price.
The obvious answer is “it depends on your situation.” In this article, I’ll make a case for cheap headphones and expensive headphones and discuss the middle ground price ranges that often have the best products for given situations, applications and budgets.
Everyone has their own views and values about money and the inherent worth of the products they buy. My opinions will inevitably come out in this article but my hope is to provide you with information that will help you to decide whether or the price point of your potential headphones purchase is worth it to you.
Questions To Ask Yourself When Choosing A Pair Of Headphones
When determining whether a pair of headphones are worth the price or not, there is a list of questions I’d recommend you ask yourself.
The main questions and concerns are:
- What is my budget?
- Will saving a few bucks on these cheap headphones mean I’ll have to replace them shortly and end up spending more money than if I just bought a quality pair upfront?
- Will these cheap headphones give me the sound quality I want for my listening pleasure?
- With these cheap headphones feel cheap? ie: will they hurt my head or ears after listening for extended periods of time?
- What is the overall build of the headphones?
- What do other people have to say about theses headphones in reviews?
- What is the cost-to-benefit ratio of the headphones?
- Will these expensive headphones sound better than their counterparts that cost a fraction of the price?
- Is there any marketing hype behind this product that could drive up its price and how beneficial are the marketing claims to my experience?
- Will I be using these headphones professionally to make money, am I using them for work, or purely for my own listening pleasure?
- Am I buying these headphones secondhand or brand new?
- Are these headphones compatible with my current audio playback setup or will I need to purchase additional gear?
- Am I an audiophile hellbent on reaching nirvana through my headphones?
That’s a lot of questions to ask yourself but I assure you they will help you decide whether the headphone price is worth it to you. Let’s touch a few of these questions in a bit more detail.
Of course, budget is a major factor when making any kind of purchase. If you have to decide between paying your rent/mortgage or getting a shiny new pair of headphones, you should keep the headphones in your wishlist.
Many cheap headphones have poor build-quality and are not ergonomic whatsoever. Many sound like garbage and break very easily. I would suggest reading the reviews and being wary of headphones under $5.
I’ve had some success with cheaper throwaway earbuds under $20. They’re great for travelling since they’re compact and it’s not a huge loss if they break or you lose them. The audio quality is not great but isn’t often terrible. The comfort level varies from model to model and person to person.
That being said, if you’re buying cheap headphones that you’ll need to replace shortly, you may be better off investing in a higher-quality pair upfront.
When it comes to buying quality headphones for listening, comfort and sound quality are paramount. There is an objective element to audio quality but it is very subjective. Listen to and reference the headphones you plan on purchasing if at all possible.
Consider the added technology in the headphones. Do you really need active noise-cancellation; true wireless; Bluetooth; balanced connections, and the “cool factor” that reigns supreme in headphones today? Maybe you do but maybe the hyped-up marketing/copywriting is tricking you into spending more than the headphones are worth.
Finally, if you’re a professional who plans on making money by using these headphones. I’d highly recommend getting a high-quality durable pair of headphones that will give you an accurate repr0duction of the audio you’re selling.
These are my top tips to help you decide whether the headphones you’ve got your eyes on are worth it or not.
Now to get into the bulk of this article!
Cheap Vs. Expensive Headphones (With Examples)
As with any device as popular as headphones, you’ll have cheap and expensive options on the market.
Cheap Headphones (With Examples)
Cheap can have several different meanings. To me, cheap is more about the quality of the product than the price. However, the two often go together. Hop on Amazon and search for headphones all you’ll find a multitude of low-quality low-priced earbuds and headphones that match the general definition of cheap.
For example, have a look at the “Semoic H-169” earbuds here. These
These headphones are cheap. I mean, the shipping costs more than the product.
They are described as having subwoofers, which is straight-up false advertisement.
To learn more about headphones and subwoofers, check out my article Do Headphones Have Subwoofers & How Do HPs Produce Bass?
The one review (at the time of this writing) states that the headphone broke within one day and sounded horrible when they did work.
I would bet that these headphones are de-listed by the time you’re reading this article. I don’t mean to be harsh but many of these products are just not worth the price of a few bucks.
But it’s not just the unknown manufacturers that produce cheap headphones. This may be controversial but I’d argue that the Apple Earpods are cheap headphones as well. Many would agree and others would argue with me on this. You can check the reviews of the Apple Earpods on Amazon here.
These headphones are incredibly successful due to the popularity of Apple. However, I wouldn’t call them good earbuds. They are cheap and easy to manufacture and are “good enough” for what Apple deems the average consumer.
In my opinion, there are better earbuds out there that feel better; sound better; are more durable, and cost less money.
Cheap designs are not limited to earphones. There are plenty of bad headphones out there as well. One example that comes to mind is the Rockpapa brand.
This is a somewhat brand, marketed toward children, that produces fun and colourful headphone designs that simply do not sound good. Now this isn’t a big deal (I don’t know any child audiophiles, for example). However, the durability is lacking, too. For toy headphones, durability should be paramount even if all else is lacklustre.
I feel bad for firing shots at specific companies here (I must be Canadian, eh). However, I feel it’s important to discuss what cheap headphones are and the importance of avoiding them.
Now, there are plenty of inexpensive headphones that work fine and are durable. I’ll leave it up to you to determine for yourself if they’d be worth it.
Expensive Headphones (With Examples)
Now onto the expensive headphones.
There’s no doubt that many expensive headphones warrant their price tags due to their advanced and costly technology and their pristine audio quality. However, we should be wary of the gimmicks and marketing hype that often surround expensive headphones to evaluate if it’s worth it to us.
Again, this has to do with budgeting. The meaning of “expensive” may vary from person to person.
In this section, I will not share any headphones I consider to be over-priced. I’ll only mention a few factors that marketers use to boost prices that you should be aware of. Use the following list for your information:
- “Cool” factor (celebrity endorsement, flashy outer body design work, etc).
- Balanced: balanced audio is certainly cleaner than unbalanced. However, balanced audio is ofter over-priced in the market today.
- Noise-cancelling: Note that noise-cancelling does work but it isn’t totally effective across all frequencies and tends to falter when attempting to cancel transient sounds.
Expensive headphones come in all shapes, sizes and driver types. Let’s have a look at examples of expensive headphones in the following headphone types:
- Moving-coil headphones
- Moving-coil earphones
- Electrostatic headphones
- Planar magnetic headphones
- Balanced armature earphones
Expensive Moving-Coil Headphones Example
The Focal Utopia (link to compare prices on B&H Photo/Video and Amazon) is a pair of moving-coil dynamic headphones with an open-back design that runs about $4000 USD.
These headphones are designed for professional mixing and mastering in quiet environments. The 40mm pure beryllium drivers are designed in an M-shaped dome and produce pristine audio from 5 Hz to 50,000 Hz.
The 20mm thick memory foam cushions make the headphones incredibly comfortable and the headband includes a length-adjusting mechanism and earcup rotation to allow for the perfect.
Expensive Moving-Coil Earphones Example
The HIFIMAN RE2000 (link to compare prices on B&H Photo/Video and Amazon) is a pair of moving-coil dynamic earphones that go for about $2000 USD.
The RE2000 headphones utilize proprietary 9.2mm drivers with nano-particle coating for incredible clarity and precision. The drivers yield a frequency response of 5 Hz – 20,000 Hz and operate at a sensitivity of 103 dB.
Silver-coated, crystalline copper wire ensure the signal gets to the earphones in excellent condition and a new purchase of the RE2000s comes with multiple ear tips and ear guides.
For more information on dynamic headphones, check out my article What Are Dynamic Headphones And How Do They Work?
Expensive Electrostatic Headphones Example
The STAX SR-L700MK2 (link to check the price on Stax’s official website) is a pair of superbly designed electrostatic headphones that cost about $1600 USD.
Electrostatic headphones are typically more expensive than moving-coil dynamic headphones. This is due to moving-coil HPs being the most common.
The high price is partly due to the hand-selected thin-film diaphragm and the fixed electrodes (machined through three-layer stainless etching using heat diffusion). Combine this carefully crafted driver with exceptional physical design and you have a clean, transparent set of headphones that can command a high price.
Expensive Planar Magnetic Headphones Example
The HIFIMAN SUSVARA (link to compare prices on B&H Photo/Video and Amazon) are the most expensive pair on this list with a price tag of about $6000 USD.
The HIFIMAN SUSVARA planar magnetic open-back headphones are designed for mixing and mastering in the professional studio.
The proprietary “stealth magnet” technology and nanometer-grade diaphragm provide impeccable acoustic transparency without any interference. The frequency response runs from 6 Hz – 75,000 Hz and the ergonomic body design is optimized to eliminate any resonant frequencies.
Expensive Balanced Armature Earphones Example
The Sony IER-Z1R (link to compare prices on B&H Photo/Video and Amazon) balanced armature in-ear monitors have a price point of about $1700.
These in-ear monitors actually utilize an HD hybrid driver system (2 dynamic/1 balanced armature). They feature a refined-phase structure, along with the sonic purity of a 4.4mm balanced audio connection.
Remember my piece about balanced headphones? Sony is pushing the 4.4mm balanced connector. Though balanced audio does virtually eliminate interference in the cable and provides a healthier signal, it does come at an increase in price as well can see with the IER-Z1R earphones.
Who Should Buy Cheap Headphones?
I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy cheap headphones that don’t sound good and will break in a matter of days or months.
However, if you’re on a budget, looking for a “throwaway” pair or just looking to listen to audio without getting the full sonic picture, a pair of inexpensive headphones may be for you!
If the majority of what you’re listening to are podcasts and audiobooks, you do not need audiophile-grade headphones. A good pair of decent affordable earphones or headphones would work great.
Who Should Buy Expensive Headphones?
My immediate advice on buying expensive headphones is to do tons of research and listen and reference the headphones thoroughly before spending that hard-earned cash. Come back several days in a row to test out the headphones/earphone you’ve had your eyes/ears on and ensure you want that particular model.
My second piece of advice, and this is merely my personal opinion, is to consider an expensive pair of headphones as an investment. What are you getting out of it? Is listening to pristine quality audio worth all the cash? Will the headphones allow you to produce better products you can sell to make a profit? Will they allow you to make better music and sonic art for personal satisfaction? Ask yourself these questions before making the final purchase.
So I guess the answer to the question of who should buy expensive headphones is anyone who can afford them and benefit from having them in any significant way!
I will remind you of buyers’ remorse here to help you think about it!
Mid-Range Priced Headphones
Of course, not all headphones fall into the “cheap” or “expensive” category. There are plenty of headphones in the middle price range. For the vast majority of situations, I’d recommend an affordable high-quality pair of headphones over a cheap pair or an expensive pair.
That being said, use the same tips and questions offered in this article to help you choose the best headphones for you and your listening experience.
Is it okay to buy used headphones? Buying used headphones is fine. A few tips for buying used are:
- Always “test drive” the headphones.
- Give them a good sanitary check for earwax and dirt.
- Estimate wear and tear.
- Listen to test the headphones on the playback devices you intend to use them with, if possible.
Are headphones better than earbuds? Headphones and earbuds both have their own pros and cons and it’s difficult to say one is better than the other overall. Here is a table to show the difference between headphones and earphones to help distinguish which is better in certain factors/applications:
|Portability||Poor - Good||Great|
|Active Noise-Cancelling Capabilities||Yes||Yes|
|Passive Noise-Cancelling||•Better than earphones|
•Poor in open-back
|•Worse that closed-back headphones
•Excellent in custom IEMs
|40mm - 50mm||7mm - 15mm|
|Driver Types Available||•Dynamic Moving-Coil|
|Width||Seems wider||Seem narrower|
|Fit||More universal||Less universal|
|Comfort||More comfortable||Less comfortable|
|Driver Placement||Near ear||Inside ear canal|
|Sound Quality||Poor - Incredible||Poor - Incredible|