This is the first part of a multi-part series that gives some recommended models of headphones for you to consider.
After reading this introduction we suggest you then read the various articles showing our recommendations for each category of headphones :
4. Under $200
If you’re listening to music from a small portable device, you absolutely should be using something better than the tiny speaker built-in to it, and also something much better than the set of throwaway in-ear headphones that may have possibly been included.
Due to the wonders of digital music storage and playback, even a very low-priced device such as a regular smart phone or inexpensive MP3 player is capable of sound quality that, only a few decades ago, would seldom have been possible in systems costing tens of thousands of dollars. To take the enormous sound quality potential that is available, and to waste it on a set of throwaway in-ear headphones, is a terrible shame.
The same is true of your computer too. Its built-in sound card probably creates audio of a quality that can’t be distinguished from a standalone high-end DAC (digital audio converter) costing $2000, but then you go and mangle the sound through the laptop’s built-in speakers.
You can possibly connect your portable music playing device or even your laptop to your main stereo/home entertainment system at home, but we’re looking more at the best way for you to enjoy your music while traveling, whether it be traveling around your local neighborhood, or further afield. Clearly, the most appropriate approach involves headphones, and the great thing about headphones is that a good set of headphones doesn’t need to cost a great deal, and is capable of giving you a listening experience that would cost at least ten times and possibly even one hundred times as much if you were buying a speaker system for your living room.
Perhaps because of the intimate nature of listening through headphones, or perhaps because of the extraordinarily high quality sound they are capable of delivering, or perhaps because you can get such good sound at such affordable prices, or perhaps because it is easier to compare and evaluate headphones than full sized speakers – whichever the reason or reasons, there seems to be more focus on quality issues with headphones than with regular speakers. We’re delighted to see an appreciation of quality when it comes to headphones – perhaps it is a shame that speakers don’t receive similar attention!
So, now for the challenge. There are probably thousands of headphones available for you to consider at present. Many are good, some are great, and others are appalling. How can you be sure of getting a great quality pair of headphones at a good value price?
We’ve published a separate article that explains how you can personally evaluate headphones and accurately, reliably and confidently form your own conclusions about the respective merits of each set. This is a simple process, straightforward, inexpensive and essential. We urge you to do this so you will have the confidence you need in your ultimate choices.
But while that article gives you a methodology and testing protocol for evaluating headphones, you’re still stuck with hundreds of models of headphones to try. So here’s a starting list of some of our personal favorite headphones, so you can at least work from some reference points in your own trials.
The Lack of a Link Between Price and Performance
It is not correct to assume that more expensive headphones are invariably better than less expensive ones. This disconnect between price and quality applies more intuitively between one brand and another, but also within a single manufacturer’s product line as well, a situation that makes no sense to anyone except perhaps the marketers, and is most pronounced when comparing ‘street prices’ rather than list prices.
A case in point would be Sony. They offer two very similar headphones, the MDR V6 and the MDR 7506 , indeed, a beloved topic on audio forums is to debate if they are truly identical, and/or to discuss which is better. Sony itself claims the 7506 to be the better headphone, and sets a recommended list price of $130, compared to a $110 list price on the V6. But go to Amazon and currently you’ll see the V6 is being offered for $99 while the 7506 has a semi-secret $85 price , only disclosed after adding the headphones to your shopping cart.
This very sensible review site says the 7506 is the best headphones available for about $150 or less, and says that to improve on these headphones would require going from their $85 price all the way up to $300 for a pair of PSB M4U 1 headphones.
While a very weak indicator of anything at all, the innate superiority of the 7506 over the V6 is perhaps also hinted at by the 7506 currently scoring as the 20th most popular model of headphones sold by Amazon, whereas the V6 fails to appear anywhere in the top 100.
The Sony pricing is heavily counter-intuitive and results in the ‘better’ headphones costing less than the not-so-good ones. But it is what it is, and we’ve regularly seen similar examples of this crazy pricing in other manufacturer’s catalogs too. As for trying to compare a set of headphones from one manufacturer and a set from another manufacturer, totally different pricing rules sometimes apply to the two different brand names, with these rules having nothing to do with underlying quality.
Neither does the underlying product cost have much impact on the pricing. It seems that for much of the range of headphones, manufacturers are working on the basis of ‘take the cost price and multiply it by about ten to get retail price’. Low priced headphones are priced lower as much due to their markup being lower, and higher priced headphones have as their greatest variation in price merely more markup rather than more expensive componentry and manufacturing.
A helpful analogy might be wine. The underlying cost of materials of a bottle of $2 wine (‘Two Buck Chuck’ at Trader Joes), $20 wine, $200 wine and $2000 wine (a prime vintage first growth Bordeaux from France) might range from $1.25 to $2.50 to $15 to $50. The difference in quality might actually see the $2 and $20 wine tying in true blind taste tests, with the $200 wine scoring perilously close to both, and the $2000 wine quite possibly losing out to the $200 wine and coming close to the $20 wine.
The biggest reason for the difference in wine costs is marketing and external validation, much of which comes from sycophantic writers and commentators who blindly follow the pricing and marketing claims. There is no correspondence between cost/quality of materials, price, and actual drinking experience with wine, and it is the same for headphones.
The entire industry is based on trying to persuade you to spend more money on allegedly ‘better’ quality. Resist this strenuously, and base your headphone choice not on their price, but on the sound that you like, after having scientifically evaluated them according to the procedure we explain here.
Having said that, price is still a very relevant consideration in the sense of being an unfortunate constraint to us and our wallets, so we’ll factor this into our recommendations, but more in the sense of more money being a bad thing than a good thing!
Somewhere around the $200 – $400 point, you clearly enter the world of massively diminishing returns in terms of headphone cost vs headphone performance.
Many people will find they can’t perceive any improvement in quality as between the $85 priced Sony MDR 7506 we recommend in the ‘About $100’ category and the more expensive headphones we also suggest. Yes, you’ll probably notice a slight difference in sound coloration, but can you say for sure the difference is an improvement, or merely a difference?
That is, indeed, the some-hundreds-of-dollars question, and our sense is most people answer it, not based on their own personal perception, but based instead on what other people claim, and on a simple price measurement in the desperate hope that more expensive means better.
Unfortunately, both these external validating factors are terribly capricious and should not be relied upon. Use our recommended headphone evaluating process, and then trust your own ears.