Have you ever wondered whether expensive headphones are worth the extra money? After all, earbuds are free with nearly every phone purchase and easy to pick up for $5 in any store. Airlines that won’t give you an extra cookie hand out headphones or earbuds like candy and don’t bother to make sure you return them at the end of the flight. But, are cheap earbuds and expensive headphones really the same thing at all? Here’s why audiophiles say they’re not.
It’s common wisdom among wine connoisseurs that only a small percentage of the public has a palate that can differentiate truly fine wines from good ones. That doesn’t seem to be the case with sound systems. Studies have shown that, although personal tastes may vary, people who are trained to listen for a certain type of sound can universally tell the difference in audio quality.
Culturally, some groups of people tend to prefer different volumes and different levels of bass, but overall everyone seems to enjoy an “accurate neutral spectral balance,” which most inexpensive headphones and earbuds fail to achieve.
Improved Sound Quality
Although more expensive headphones don’t automatically give better sound, the odds certainly improve. Music sounds less muffled, more crisp and bright. High tones will be less harsh and bass won’t sound muddy. Your ear will perceive the separation between the various instruments that are playing, almost as if they are arranged around you (this is called “soundstage.”) A great speaker or pair of earphones will give you the feeling that you’re listening to live music, with the individual instruments blending together in the way the composer intended, instead of flattening down to a single sound.
Higher-end speakers come with a variety of convenient features. Some are waterproof, which is important if you like to use them while floating in the pool or soaking in a bubble bath. Bluetooth compatibility is a popular feature since it lets you enjoy great sound without being tethered to a device. Probably the most popular feature on high-end speakers, though, is noise canceling.
People who are not dedicated audiophiles often assume that the term refers to the padding around the headphone earpieces blocking external sounds, but that is considered “passive” noise canceling. In “active” noise canceling, the extraneous sound is actually filtered out electronically.The headphones detect the pattern of the noise using a microphone and then filter it away.
Cheap headphones are often plagued by problems like loose wiring or faulty adjustments, even if they’re handled delicately. Not all expensive headphones are perfectly durable, of course, but you’re more likely to find a workhorse at the higher end of the price range than at the low end.
It’s a subjective quality, and an indulgent one, but more expensive headphones will usually place a higher emphasis on design. If you’re going to be wearing them a lot, or have them resting on your coffee table, you might as well have a set that you find aesthetically pleasing. Whether you sport a top brand like Beats by Dre from T-Mobile or go for something in leather and steel, high-end headphones can serve as a fashion accessory to your personal brand.
The Right Fit
Unlike speakers, headphones are cupped directly against your ear, which makes the shape of your ear an important part of the sound system. Each earpiece will react with the shape of your ear and ear canal in different ways, which is why it’s important to try out a variety of sets before you choose your headphones. A great pair of high-end headphones will give you more options for individual adjustment than a cheap set of earbuds, so you can achieve a more customized fit and sound.
Although more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better quality, you are more likely to find great sound, durable construction, good looks, and a great fit in a higher-end pair of headphones. If you’re not happy with your current set, visit your electronics store to try out other options.