July 8, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Yes, You Should Spend Over $100 on Headphones

etymotic lab testing headphones earphones shure bose skullcandy beats apple

Manufacturers of high-end headphones use labs like this to make your music sound as sweet as possible (link below).

We cover music apps like the waterfront here at Evolver.fm. But without a solid way to turn the ones and zeros comprising today’s music into vibrating air, there’s no point in digital music, apps, streaming subscriptions, interactive radio, or any of the rest of it.

That’s why we care about Apple Airplay, Google Fling, and Sonos: They put app-delivered music on decent-sounding speakers. It’s also why you should own a fine set of headphones, even if it costs nearly as much as an iPod Touch — or, if you’re lucky, even more. When it comes to recreating sound faithfully, the most important factor, by far, is what mechanics make the air vibrate.

Admittedly, I have not tested every headphone on the market. But I’ve purchased my fair share over the years, and reviewed several more as part of my former CNET hardware reviews gig.

What I’ve learned about these things we attach to our ears can be boiled down to one sentence: Whatever style of headphone you prefer, spend more than you think you should.

A compact design is important to me, in addition to sound quality, so I always go with in-ear, sound-isolating headphones. They’re as pocket-friendly as the crappy ones that came with your smartphone, but some sound so good that, according to one manufacturer, the engineers at Industry Light & Magic prefer them to big, over-the ear models.

If you like the Mickey Mouse look afforded by larger models, go that route. Some people find them more comfortable, too. Just don’t buy anything that doesn’t form a seal with your ear (unless you want to listen in a quiet home, in which case the open-air style works great).

Whichever style you prefer, spend. A lot. Over $100, even if it means saving up.

If you care about music (and if you don’t, why are you reading this?), an even frequency response, low signal-to-noise ratio, and other crucial factors make whatever you’re listening to sound so, so much sweeter. The difference must be heard to be believed — but you will hear it.

Why do I mention this? Because after losing a nice pair of headphones, I’d been putting up with a $50 in-ear model purchased at one of those airport vending machines, and have spent the past few months trying to convince myself that they sounded good.

Yesterday, my $179 Etymotic hf3 (pictured above; they even come with an app) showed up, revealing that $50 pair to have been a waste of money. In retrospect, the cheaper pair is bassy, muddy, and uneven, and their rubber earbuds don’t provide enough isolation against outside sounds. They simply don’t do justice to the music — but I didn’t even realize it until the more expensive pair showed up.

Spend the money. It doesn’t matter who makes them, where you buy them, or whether they surround your ear or fit snugly inside it. Your ears and music deserve it.

(Photo courtesy of Etymotic; other manufacturers of high-end headphones include Beyerdynamic, Shure, Bose, Skullcandy, Sennheiser, Grado, Sony, Ultrasone, and Westone)

  • Rodmon

    If non-sealing and big is fine, get a K701, which is imho the best headphone in the world, and has become very cheap, actually: $250 gets you there.

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  • Red

    lol, this is ridiculous… Excellent sound can be found under $100 and some of the more expensive stuff doesn’t guarantee good quality sound. Do your research and don’t rely on name brands!

  • http://profiles.google.com/circuitsoft.alex Alex Austin

    Please remove Bose from the list of “manufacturers of high-end headphones.” They aren’t.

  • Brianxl

    Grado SR60 are not over $100 and they sound really great. And they’ll run just fine off of an iPhone, too. 

  • Jackie Dylen

    I think he means for walking around and such. Grados are great in my office, but on the street, not so much, and you can forget about them on an airplane. I go for the $159 ATH-M50. And those are easily driven by my tiny ipod shuffle for goodness sakes, let alone an iphone or amped ipod.

    Beats, Bose, and others like them are simply terrible.

  • Guest

    If Skullcandy’s on the list (and they’re truly trash), why not Bose? =

  • Jo