Can you tell the difference between cheap and expensive headphones? Are there any obvious factors that make it easy to choose between the two? If you can’t answer either question with conviction, we’ll help you learn how to tell them apart!
The next time you’re looking for a brand new pair or just need an upgrade for your current setup, you’ll know exactly what to look for and what features matter the most. Of course, your personal taste and opinion both play a very important role, which means our advice and pointers are just that.
We think you’ll enjoy seeing why it might be a safer investment to spend a few extra dollars instead of buying a replacement every month or two. Keep reading below to learn more!
Difference Between Cheap And Expensive Headphones
The most obvious factors can be broken down into a few different sections. Take a look at the list below to see everything we’ll be covering:
- Can You Even Hear The Difference?
- Well-Built Cans vs. Cheap & Flimsy Plastic
- Can You Wear Them For More Than An Hour?
- How Do They Look?
- Does The Brand Name Matter?
- Should You Always Go Big Or Go Home?
If you’re ready to get started, take a look at our take on whether or not most people can even hear the difference!
Can You Even Hear The Difference?
Many people (including us) consider sound quality to be the #1 most important factor when it comes to making our final decision. One of the main distinctions between a casual listener and audiophile is listening experience.
What Defines An Audiophile?
Most people who consider themselves to be an audiophile will tell you that they spend way too much time, money (or both) on personal audio equipment. In the most extreme cases, their hobby can even verge on becoming a full-blown addiction.
Audiophiles also spend quite a bit of solitary time listening to and analyzing their favorite recordings (FLAC files of course). They might spend hours dissecting Radiohead’s OK Computer or Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis, carefully listening for imperfections or just enjoying the music.
Are You A Casual Listener?
If you don’t identify with any of that, you’re probably what we would call a casual listener. You might consume most of your music in the background at social events, during your commute to work or school, or in the car on the radio.
You might have a favorite artist or band, but probably don’t dig too deep and research things like what microphone was used to record “When The Party’s Over” by Billie Eilish. While these are over-generalized categorizations, you probably understand the point.
All we’re trying to say is that there are varying levels of listeners. Like most things, the more time you spend doing something – the better you become at that specific activity (listening to music in this case).
When Technical Specs Start To Matter…
At a certain point, you start worrying about things like sound imaging and earpad replacements. Technical specs on the back of the box start to matter a bit more than they did before. Once you start finding yourself debating warm vs. v-shaped sound profiles, you’ve joined the club.
This is where a difference in price really starts to matter. Most ‘phones that cost $15-$20 aren’t designed to reproduce high-quality recordings with laser-like accuracy. They’re usually designed to convert the audio sent from your laptop or phone into an electrical signal that’s sent through the cable and into your ears.
If you mainly use music to block the noise in the background and don’t really care what’s playing as long as something is – you probably don’t need to spend very much at all. Maybe you find yourself somewhere in the middle.
Music Lovers – You Might Be A Budding Audiophile!
You might not care to learn what all the technical terms mean, but you definitely love music. Maybe you spend hours and hours listening to your favorite music but haven’t had the opportunity to listen with audiophile cans.
If that describes you, you’d probably really enjoy investing a few extra dollars in return for a high-quality performance payoff. Although there is some debate about whether or not anything over $500 sounds astronomically better than sub-$500 cans – there’s no doubt that you’ll notice a difference in sound quality around that price range.
Aside from sound quality, the materials and attention to detail used to construct headphones are also worth seriously considering. Take a look at the section below to see why!
Well-Built Cans vs. Cheap & Flimsy Plastic
Have you ever bought a brand new pair of earbuds that broke after a month? It’s always extremely inconvenient (to say the least). For that exact reason, we never recommend headphones or earbuds that have a month-long life expectancy.
You Do The Math!
Would you rather buy a new pair of $15 earbuds once a month (adding up to $180 per year) or invest the same amount once on a pair that will last for years? As you can see, it really puts things into perspective when you do the math.
It seems pretty reasonable to expect that we should be able to keep a pair in our backpack, purse, or pocket for a few hours without having to worry about them breaking in half. Unfortunately, that isn’t always a guarantee.
Can They Survive An Accidental Drop?
The reality is, you can’t put most cans through hell (or very much wear and tear at all) and expect them to survive. That said, there are a few companies who specialize in crafting ultra-durable headphones. The V-Moda Crossfade LP2, for example, have gone through extremely rigorous testing to prove just how durable they really are.
In most cases, military-level durability isn’t completely necessary. It’s definitely a nice bonus feature to have, as long as everything else lines up (comfort, sound quality, etc.) – but most of us don’t absolutely need it. That said, we can all appreciate a well-built pair of cans that won’t break after a single drop.
Do You Always Get What You Pay For?
This is where the difference in price usually plays a pretty significant role. Then again, there are some pretty expensive cans that wouldn’t stand a chance (in terms of build quality) against others that cost much less. Usually, it’s safe to assume that you get what you pay for, but there will always be an exception or two.
One area that most of us aren’t willing to sacrifice is comfort. It’s an absolutely essential factor to consider, whether you’re shopping for some new in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear headphones. Are they really worth it if you can’t wear them for longer than a single hour before you need a break?
Can You Wear Them For More Than An Hour?
Sometimes when you put some ‘phones on your head, they just don’t feel right. Most companies say things like “you can wear them all day long” or slap “premium comfort” in bold lettering on the side of the box. Unfortunately, they don’t always deliver on that promise.
One headphone might fit perfectly on your head but clamps too hard on someone else’s. You might prefer a tighter clamp while they prefer a loosely fitted wearing design. Just like each factor we’ve already covered, our personal preferences tend to vary.
What Ear Pads Do You Prefer?
We could tell you that velour ear pads are more comfortable than memory foam (or vice versa) but we can only speak for ourselves. Cheaper headphones usually include a single pair of stock ear pads that are usually basic foam with faux leather covering.
If you tried those first and then compared them side by side with memory foam pads, you’d feel a pretty major difference. Many higher-end ‘phones come with an extra set of pads that you can mess around with until you find the perfect fit.
Once you start moving up into the $150/$200 price range – you’ll have more options for customization. Your options become more and more limited on most models costing less than that. When it comes to headband comfort, the basic design is usually the most important factor.
Why Does The Headband Style Have Such A Major Affect?
For example, some people find that the wing support headband design used on the Audio Technica R70x is much comfier than the basic single-band design that you’re used to seeing. Many higher-end cans have a split headband design with a suspended strap underneath that rests on the top of your head.
We’re not quite sure why the split design isn’t more common on less-expensive cans since it tends to be one of the best ways to evenly distribute the weight.
It really boils down to 3 main elements:
- Headband padding/clamp
- Weight distribution
Although it’s not impossible to find a budget-friendly option that checks most of those off the list, it is much less common. Ventilation is also pretty important, especially for gaming or mixing tracks in the studio.
Ventilation & Letting Your Ears Breathe!
If your ears are dripping with sweat 30 minutes into your gaming/studio session – that’s never a good sign. That being said, it’s fairly normal (and even recommended) to take a break once in a while to let your ears breathe and rest for a few minutes.
What’s the bottom line? If your cans cause significant discomfort after fairly short periods of use it may have something to do with the quality. Nine times out of ten, high-end manufacturers pay more attention to detail which usually lends to an effortlessly comfortable listening experience.
How Do They Look?
In our humble opinion, general aesthetics one of the least important factors when it comes to overall performance. (Then again, some of us are a little bit pickier than others.) For you, how they look might be more important than sound quality or durability.
We’ve seen some pretty cool-looking inexpensive cans at the gas station, but that also tends to be their only strong suit. No matter how you try to spin it – how you think they look when you’re wearing them is purely a matter of opinion.
A Work Of Art Is Open To Interpretation
Well-built cans are truly a work of art. The Mona Lisa is a famous painting for a reason, but have you seen a painting since then that you enjoyed even more? We all enjoy different styles of artwork and the same concept applies to audio gear.
For the last section, let’s take a look at whether or not a well-respected brand name should sway your opinion one way or the other!
Does The Brand Name Matter?
Although the brand name and advertising does play a pretty big role in how you make your final decision, it’s not necessarily the best marker of a quality product. That said, you can count on all of the Top 10 headphone brands listed here.
Each one was selected based on their lifetime company reputation, customer reviews from people like us, and overall performance. Beats is one brand that has gotten some of the most mixed feedback from the crowd.
Weighing Personal Preference vs. Reputation
Once again, much of this boils down to personal preference and there’s quite a bit of room for debate on the opinion of an audiophile compared to a casual listener. Audiophiles who hated Beats usually based their opinion on a strong dislike of their v-shaped sound profile and over-inflated price tag.
The average listener might agree with the second piece but disagree with the first. The way a headphone sound is subjective the same way aesthetics are. Most of the time you can trust brands that have a solid reputation backed by mostly positive reviews.
If the reviews don’t match the reputation, it’s probably wise to avoid that brand. Last but not least, let’s clear up the debate surrounding price vs. performance!
Should You Always Go Big Or Go Home?
Ultimately, it’s usually pretty safe to assume that you get what you pay for. Although price tags can be deceiving in some cases, they’re usually somewhere within the general ballpark. That being said, price isn’t always the be all end all.
Sometimes, it might be smarter to save a few extra dollars rather than fork out a few hundred if you’re not 100% sure that they’re exactly what you’re looking for. It’s also a good rule of thumb to stay within your budget (no matter how big or small).
Even though $5,000 cans might buy you a mind-blowing, life-changing sonic experience – it’s probably not as important as paying next month’s rent. By now, we hope you understand the difference between cheap and expensive headphones.
Some are pretty obvious and others only become obvious once you’ve tried them on for yourself. If you still aren’t quite sure how to tell, feel free to leave your question below! We respond to every single comment and look forward to helping in any way we can!
Thanks for taking the time to stop by and learn – we hope to see you here again. Happy listening!