You’ve made up your mind that it’s time to upgrade from the free earbuds that came with your smartphone. You want something nicer. Something more durable. Something that sounds better. But how much, exactly, should you expect to pay for a reasonable upgrade?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn’t so simple. Headphones and earphones run the gamut in terms of pricing, ranging from less than ten bucks all the way up to many hundreds of dollars. And the reality is that a lot of those double-digit offerings sound great, whereas sometimes really expensive cans just don’t deliver the goods. Instead of asking whether price matters when shopping for headphones or earphones, a more helpful question would be this: what sorts of things affect the price of different headphones?
And the answers to that question are many. Sometimes it’s just as simple as branding—in other words, the logo on the side of the box and the marketing dollars that went into the brand behind it. But more often than not, what makes one headphone or earphone more expensive than another (especially within the same brand) boils down to three key categories: design, materials and technology.
Why Design Matters
“Design” is a versatile word that can be applied to any number of aspects of a good pair of headphones or earphones, from their overall look, to non-functional style elements. But more importantly, it can apply to unique engineered elements that affect day-to-day use, but not necessarily performance. Let’s take the touch enabled Phiaton BT 460. Those cost more to design, engineer and build, and it’s one of a handful of reasons why the BT 460 sells for a little more than the otherwise comparable BT 390, one of Phiaton’s best budget Bluetooth headphones.
Speaking of the BT 390 and the BT 460, does a compact, foldable design make your headphones sound better? No. But it does make the headphones more portable, easier to stash in your backpack or carry-on, and thus more likely to be at hand when you’re ready to listen to your tunes or podcasts. It's said that the "best camera is the one you have with you," often in reference to smartphone cameras. The same is true when headphones are foldable and easy to carry around.
Why Materials Matter
This one is pretty obvious when you think about it, but it’s still worth spelling out. Machined aluminum costs more than thin plastic. Textured, tangle-free, oval cables cost more than cheap wires. And it’s true that material choices are often a matter of style, comfort and convenience, but the choice of materials can also affect a headphone’s performance. Neodymium magnets, for example, cost a good bit more than ferrite magnets. Neodymium also generates a stronger magnetic force than a ferrite magnet of the same weight. So, with something like Phiaton’s BT 390, the use of Neodymium in the drivers results in better bass without adding to the weight of the headphones themselves.
Why Technology Matters
While design and materials can have a huge impact on the price of a pair of headphones or earphones, let’s not forget all of the technology packed inside. Technologies like Bluetooth, water resistance, and noise-cancellation add significant manufacturing and testing costs. There are also technological considerations such as whether your earphones rely on dynamic or balanced armature drivers, the latter of which is much costlier to develop. Mind you, that’s not to say that all balanced armature earphones are super expensive.
So, in short, as we mentioned above, spending more on a pair of headphones or earphones doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get better sound, better comfort or an overall better listening experience. Sometimes you’re simply paying more for the logo and not getting the best value headphones in return. But all of the design, materials and technology that go into making a better pair of headphones do cost more.
By Dennis Burger
April 10, 2019