People ask us which headphones to buy a lot, and no surprise: it’s our job. However, one of the most frustrating things about answering this question is a rather high frequency of people looking for something that doesn’t exist. I am very sympathetic to not wanting to spend more than a few bucks on headphones, but unfortunately: there’s no such thing as a good set of wireless audiophile noise cancelers that sound great under $50. Stop searching, you ain’t gonna find them.
For most people that I talk to, the justification for cheap headphones is simple: they break all the time anyway, so why waste money on them? Headphones can sometimes seem to be a disposable commodity to be replaced after short periods of abuse.
In this light, I feel like some tough love is in order. The truth of the matter is, buying expensive headphones is worth it—especially when you consider just how much you’re getting in return. Headphones are the most important part of your audio consumption at the computer or with your phone. While I loathe telling people to spend more money, in this instance: taking the plunge on a set of really nice headphones have benefits that are very apparent almost instantly—just make sure you’re getting what you pay for.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 2, 2021 to clear up language, provide additional context, and reflect our change in methods.
“They’re just gonna break in a few months anyway, so why waste money on them?”
Let’s get this one out of the way so we can talk about the more fun stuff: if you want headphones that can withstand your abuse, you need to shell out more money. Build quality means a lot of things, and people often forget that it’s not just durability that a good build will get you. Good build quality will often mean more comfortable materials, fewer annoyances, and design features that make the headphones easier to use.
While it might seem like a foregone conclusion, comfortable headphones are super important if you listen to music for more than a few minutes a day. Sure, we don’t all need lambskin ear pads, but they certainly feel great. There are lots of premium headphones out there with creative headbands that offer levels of comfort not possible with cheap plastic. On top of that, when was the last time you truly enjoyed wearing cheap headphones? You probably have more than a few complaints about drugstore headphones or in-ears, so why not give something that’ll actually last a try?
More expensive headphones also tend to have replaceable parts, like removable cables, bands, and ear pads. If you find that you tend to chuck your headphones when the pads get torn and gross from excessive use, picking up $20 replacement pads every year or two is one hell of a lot cheaper than getting a new set of headphones in the same time frame. Even the most common breakage point on headphones, the 3.5mm TRRS cable, is replaceable on most higher-end sets.
...picking up $20 replacement pads every year or two is one hell of a lot cheaper than getting a new set of headphones in the same time frame.
Sometimes brands will also stand behind their products with surprisingly good warranties, even in the face of misuse. For example, V-Moda has something called the “immortal life program” where they’ll give you 50% of the original cost of the pieces of your broken headphones, allowing you to get a new set for a pittance compared to their original cost. On the other hand, good luck breaking V-Moda headphones; they’re mostly metal.
This level of durability will cost you. However, buying a more durable set of headphones means spending less money in the long run if it means not having to replace a broken set every few months.
Are Beats the best?
For most people, buying a more expensive set of headphones might mean looking for Beats at Best Buy or Amazon. While there’s nothing wrong with these headphones if they suit your needs, there’s so much more out there that you’ll most likely find something else that does better for less.
Beats’ strength is also their weakness: They target the general user, and don’t stray too far out from their marketing niche. That works to drive sales, but if you’ve gone so far as to come to us to research headphones, you’re probably the type of person who’s looking for more in their lives.
There are so many established and competent brands out there that anyone telling you one brand or another is “the best” doesn’t know what they’re talking about. There’s lots of really cool models out there, even if most people don’t recognize them.
Expensive headphones have very interesting features
We’re now at a point in headphone history that will be remembered as the beginning of something beautiful, and a little sad. By that I mean: headphones are moving away from simply being vehicles for music, but they augment our daily lives. Not only are they getting more complex with virtual assistants, wireless connectivity, and active noise canceling—but they’re also starting to become the subjects of big tech innovations.
For example, the coming MPEG-H broadcast and streaming revolution is going to change the way people listen to… everything, really. While it’s a long ways off, the software is going to make much more of a difference than your physical headphones will for anything you listen to. On that day, features will finally become more important than performance.
Until then, however, we’re going to see a long, steady increase in features that will improve your listening experience outside of performance. Things like off-the-wall fashion statements, tech features, and upgrades to streaming services are all going to trickle out in the meantime. However, unique features cost money—and you’ll pay a premium to get them.
Some of the features you should absolutely shell out for are:
- Active noise canceling
- Sound control via dedicated mobile app
- Bluetooth connectivity
- Voice assistant access
- Atmos or 3D sound support
- Water/sweat resistance
- Multi-point connectivity
Of course, there are countless more features out there that are worthy of your attention, but those are the most useful so far. Hell, you can even get cat ears for your Razer gaming headset if you want. Headphones aren’t merely a cheap tool, they’re so much more nowadays. You may not be able to get the perfect set of cans, but you can get real close.
Expensive headphones often sound better by a country mile
Of course all of those things are firmly in the “nice to have” camp, and it doesn’t really mean much if your headphones don’t sound good. That’s where expensive headphones set themselves apart. While the sound of each model is right for someone, if quality is your main concern: you’re probably going to be looking at the higher end of the spectrum in terms of cost.
It might seem like a pretty obvious thing to say, but it’s really true: whether you’re buying headphones that are loaded with audio features, or passive cans with none: if you want higher audio quality, you probably need to increase your budget a bit. While it’s not true that spending more money will always mean better audio quality—or that items like a DAC or amp will always make things sound better—it is true that the best-sounding headphones are mostly north of $100.
My colleague over at Android Authority, C. Scott Brown recently experienced this when he decided to kick the tires on the Sony WH-1000XM3. He had been used to using mostly sub-$100 on-ear headphones which didn’t quite fit his head in an ideal way. Longtime readers of SoundGuys will know that this affects sound quality considerably, no matter what type of headphones you use. Once he switched to over-ear headphones that delivered high quality, isolation, and a correct fit:
The thing that blew me away the most was the immersion into the sound. I have been so used to hearing music in headphones that sounds like it’s all happening in a two-inch radius around my head (I am not a technical audiophile, so that’s the best way I can describe it). With the XM3s though, it sounded like the music was happening 20 feet around me, as if I was surrounded by the band performing a live concert. — C. Scott Brown, Android Authority
This can be explained by observable phenomena, but the full experience is always tough to contextualize. Sometimes the jump in audio quality really is that drastic. Of course, as you age this becomes less and less possible, but there’s almost always better out there if you want to get lost in your music. Just as long as you don’t get addicted to chasing “perfect” audio, a one-time investment in your headphones can leave you happy for a good long time.
How do I know which headphones are quality, and which ones are a ripoff?
That’s where we come in.
Reviews can be a pain to divine purchasing decisions from, and trial and error is as expensive as it is tedious. That’s why we show our work, use the latest equipment, and offer up as much proof as we can muster. That way, you don’t need to take our word on anything: you can see things for yourself. Additionally, you can check out our consumer education pieces that help you learn what really matters, and what doesn’t.
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