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How Much Should You Expect to Pay for Quality Headphones?

Last updated: 12 months ago
7 min read

Finding quality headphones for a fair price is hard.

Don’t buy a lemon. Learn what to keep an eye on and what to avoid when buying new headphones.

How much to pay for headphones
CONTENTS (show more)

    What are Quality Headphones and Earbuds?

    Quality headphones faithfully reproduce audio in a controlled and detailed manner, are comfortable, and have reliable construction and headphone cables. So, you enjoy listening to music in comfort for years.

    Quality Bluetooth headphones also need reliable connectivity, useful features that are intuitive to use, and long battery life.

    What are quality earbuds?

    Quality earbuds share the same characteristics; audio quality, durability, reliability but put a greater emphasis on comfort and fit. That’s why you can expect many extra ear tips for achieving the perfect fit.

    Wired earphones are made of sturdier materials that last a lifetime and come equipped with a strong, detachable cable.

    Quality Bluetooth earbuds come with a durable charging case and features like Qi wireless charging, whereas earbuds are at least sweatproof and designed to stay in your ears no matter how hard you shake your head.

    Note: Be aware that there are no perfect headphones, and neither are there headphones that would satisfy everyone.

    How to tell the headphones’ quality before buying?

    Check specifications, they can reveal a few things about a headphone’s expected technical performance.

    Specs that matter are:

    Driver type

    Any headphone driver can deliver excellent sound quality, but when it comes to technical performance, electrostatic and planar magnetic are the best.

    Especially the latter, since it can better handle low frequencies. Electrostatic are great but are hard to drive and maintain.

    Driver types:

    • Dynamic
    • Planar magnetic
    • Electrostatic
    AirPods Max dynamic driver
    The dynamic driver inside Apple AirPods Max.

    Sensitivity

    Sensitivity or sound pressure level is a value/number of how loud headphones can get.

    Note that the higher number means that headphones get louder with less power, which means they probably have a low impedance which could result in an audible background hiss.

    Example of sensitivity:

    • 100dB/mW

    Total harmonic distortion (THD)

    THD is normally displayed in percentages. That percentage will tell you how much a headphone distorts at a specific frequency and power input.

    Always strive for the lowest percentage or at least below 1%. Don’t settle for more than that.

    Example of THD:

    • <0.05% at 1kHz and 1V

    Frequency response graph

    Before making a purchase, try finding some frequency response graphs. Some manufacturers even put graphs on their websites or the packaging.

    The graph tells you the sound signature of the headphone: how much bass, midrange, and treble it has.

    Bass region Sony WF-XB700
    The blue area shows where to find bass frequencies in the frequency response graphs.

    Make sure to distinguish the frequency response graph from the frequency range (like 20Hz-20,000Hz) since that number doesn’t tell much or can even be deceiving (specs for open-back Sennheiser HD 650 claim that the driver can reach 10Hz, but in reality, a person can’t hear anything below 50Hz).

    Impedance

    Impedance or resistance tells you how hard it is to drive wired headphones in the most optimal way; the lower the impedance, the easier they are to drive, and vice versa.

    To “drive them in the most optimal way” means that the speaker has enough power to play the music effortlessly. Where a weaker amplifier makes the bass sloppy and treble unrefined, a stronger one tightens everything up.

    However, lower impedance can lead to more audible background noise due to a higher electrical current.

    Example of impedance:

    • 32 ohms
    • 150 ohms
    HD6xx for gaming Windows Sonic
    Sennheiser HD 6xx (or HD 650) have an impedance of 300 ohms.

    How Much Should You Expect to Pay for Quality Headphones?

    To get an all-around high-quality experience, you should expect to pay more than $200. You will pay a bit more, but it will be worthwhile.

    That said, you can get great deals for less, but you have to accept some compromises.

    Here are different price tiers for headphones and what to expect from them:

    1. A budget range below $50 is also quite compelling these days, but unfortunately, you can’t find high quality headphones for that little.
    1. Average headphones cost around $70, which fits perfectly between $50 and $100, the price range most people are willing to spend for a pair of headphones. That falls into the “affordablerange (pros & cons of headphones under $100).
    1. The mid-tier range between $100 and $200 is the most confusing since manufacturers can’t decide on whether to improve the sound or build quality, leaving you with very few good options at this price.
    1. High-tier range costs from $200 to $500. That is where you can expect excellent build quality, with headphones delivering more than 90% of all the details and nuances you can find in music.
    1. The audiophile tier range goes beyond $500. Here you can expect superb build quality from premium materials and carefully engineered high-tech drivers and designs.

    Here’s a table of headphone price tiers:

    Price tiersPrice rangeWhat improves
    Budget-tierBelow $50Basic functionality,
    not many features,
    okay sound
    Affordable-tier$50-$100Better functionality
    and sound, features
    like ANC and apps
    Mid-tier$100-$200Better audio quality
    or build, high-res
    codecs like LDAC,
    feature-rich apps
    High-tier$200-$500Better build & sound,
    top-tier active noise
    cancellation
    Audiophile-tierAbove $500Luxury build materials,
    high-quality drivers,
    ability to squeeze fine
    details out of music

    Here are the best-sounding headphones are different price points:

    Factors that determine the price of headphones

    Here are all the factors that contribute to the price of headphones:

    Brand tax

    Unsurprisingly, the brand name is among the biggest ones.

    Famous companies can raise their prices because people know and trust them, so they’re more willing to purchase their headphones.

    Also, bigger brands put much more money into advertising, which is later returned through sales.

    On the other hand, instead of heavy advertising, many chi-fi (Chinese HiFi) brands target reviewers. Reviewers spread the word for them which increases sales.

    Moreover, they often create an outrageously cheap product that performs much better than it should for the price. This creates buzz in the market. (VE Monks, Moondrop Chu). And that’s how you get quality headphones on the cheap.

    Moondrop Chu accessories
    For less than $20, Moondrop Chu offer balanced tuning, ear hooks, zinc-alloy build, and good-quality ear tips.

    Quality of the driver

    Another major factor is the quality of the driver inside the headphones. Only a good-quality driver can deliver on technical capabilities like dynamics and small details.

    The type of driver isn’t as important as the quality itself. However, electrostatic and planar magnetic headphones should provide overall more controlled performance than dynamic ones.

    Unfortunately, you can’t tell the quality of the driver before buying them. So, the only way to know is to read the tests and reviews.

    Design

    You also have to consider design, which has to complement the driver to achieve the desired sound quality:

    • What earpads to use: Leather earpads or hybrids (leather mixed with velour) will ensure better bass extension, whereas velour increases comfort and breathability. Angled earpads change how the driver fires sound into your ears, creating a more “room speaker” effect, thus improving soundstage.
    • Dampening material: Using different foam inside the earcup or in front of the driver helps to absorb/reshape problematic frequencies before they reach your eardrums.
    • The shape of the ear cup impact sounds, but it’s impossible to tell because the difference is minimal.

    Quality of electronic components

    With the arrival of Bluetooth headphones, you also have to consider the electronic components that run them:

    Unfortunately, you can’t tell how good electronics are just by looking at the specs sheet or marketing material. But in general, more expensive headphones will come with better-quality electronics.

    Materials

    High-end headphones have few plastic parts and last longer or you can at least repair them.

    Read more on the headphone lifespan here.

    Sennheiser HD 6xx changing earpads
    Sennheiser over-ear headphones (at least older ones) are known to have fully replaceable parts.

    Some premium headphones are even carefully and individually inspected, with a signed certificate reassuring they have passed quality control.

    What are the main differences between cheaper and more expensive headphones?

    The main difference between cheaper and more expensive headphones is in the:

    • Sound quality
    • Build quality
    • Comfort (for full-sized headphones)

    Even when cheap and expensive headphones share the same frequency response, you can clearly hear that more expensive headphones reveal more details and are clearer and more dynamic overall.

    Comfort and feel can also change dramatically, as expensive headphones use more generous padding and feel sturdier.

    That said, comfort differences don’t apply to in-ear headphones. For example, Moondrop Chu are very comfy, whereas Sony WF-1000XM4 are bulky and uncomfortable to some.

    How to determine if a price is fair for a pair of headphones?

    You can determine the price of your desired headphones by comparing them with multiple other headphones in the same price range.

    Check:

    • What features do other headphones offer and how good they perform
    • Is their build quality better or worse
    • How long does their battery life last
    • Do people in reviews like their audio quality

    If your desired headphones provide the most and are the best at it, they are a great deal.

    That said, when looking for something in the mid-tier or affordable price range, you have to make some compromises.

    Determine characteristics that matter to you the most, like sound or build quality or features, and prioritize them.

    Remember: always consider comfort. No matter how good a pair of headphones sound or look, you will hate using them if they cause physical pain.

    Sony WH-CH710N earpads size
    You can make a “3 knuckle test” to see if earpads can fit a normal human ear.

    Also, some audiophile-tier headphones can still disappoint in sound quality and comfort. Before making any expensive purchases, try the desired headphones in one of the audio shops.

    Price Comparison of Popular Headphone Brands

    We researched how headphone prices vary between popular headphone brands.

    Interestingly, some brands, like Sennheiser, Sony, and Audio-Technica, cover everything from budget to extremely expensive headphones.

    Here’s the full comparison table between brands and their price ranges:

    Popular
    headphone
    brand
    Price range
    Apple$129-$549
    Sony$8-$1,550
    Bose$129-$995
    Beats$50-$350
    Sennheiser$30-$59,000
    Skullcandy$8-$319
    Anker$15-$150
    JBL$13-$300
    Audio-Technica$50-$9,000
    Jabra$61-$799
    EarFun$40-$90

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    Are luxury headphones worth it?

    Luxury headphones are only worth it if you’re after every tiny detail and want speaker-like performance (and bragging rights). Otherwise, you can get 95% of the technical performance below $500.

    Read more:

    Conclusion

    Hopefully, you now know how to determine if headphones you want are good quality without being an audio engineer.

    If you’re buying headphones for a specific purpose, find a way to try them first. Visit an audio shop where your headphones are on display and try them out. See how they feel to you.

    Remember that there is no rule on how much you have to pay for headphones. What matters is that you’re happy with them and they sound good to you.

    And read the reviews:

    1 Comment
    1. Very good 💯

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