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Home Theater Shack's Guide To Headphones, Part 1 - How Much Should You Spend?

It should be no surprise that the price range for headphones covers from a few dollars to thousands of dollars. But how much is a reasonable amount to spend?

Consider the following as a rough guide for what you can expect from the different price ranges. There are always exceptions; each of these ranges contains surprises which perform way better or worse than competing models.

$0-$50, Throwaway: Performance expectation: Horrible to Not Too Bad.
$50-$100, Budget: Performance expectation: Pretty Good.
$100-$200, Solid Performance: Performance expectation: Very Good.
$200-$300, Entry-Level Audiophile: Performance expectation: Great.
$300-$600, Serious Audiophile: Performance expectation: Amazing.
$600 and up, Chasing Perfection: Performance expectation: Almost Perfect!

$0-$50, Throwaway: This does not mean that they should be thrown away, only that you probably would not miss them if they got lost or broken. This range includes most headphones and earbuds that come free with portable players and the like. Their performance can be anything from Horrible to Not Too Bad. Do not expect much for comfort or good sound, and cool features are rare, smartphone useability being one common exception. Even high-end headphone makers have offerings in this range, however, and sometimes they fill a worthwhile niche. For example, Sennheiser's HD 201s might not great to the serious listener, but they are rugged, comfortable, provide good isolation, and have a midrange frequency emphasis, making them a nice $30 candidate for a batch of studio tracking headphones. For many, the uses for a typical device of this type are: deep backup, hear if the system is working, have a set for loaning to the kids without worrying, and little more. Personal taste rules, though, and many music lovers use Sub-Budget 'phones for all their listening and are perfectly happy with them.

$50-$100, Budget: While many of the offerings in the $50-$100 range are only marginally better than those in the Throwaway/Sub-Budget range, there are some decent options to choose among. In this category, you can expect Pretty Good performance if you choose wisely. It has more than its share of fashion 'phones, made for looks with little attention paid to their sound other than ensuring loud bass. You are more likely to find a specific feature you are after: some fold, have special controls, detachable cords, or other "Hey, that's cool" conveniences. The saying "You get what you pay for" has little meaning here. Clinkers hang next to respectable performers on peg hooks in department stores, and at the same price point. Unless you know a model has a good reputation, hang onto your receipt and plan on auditioning and possibly returning them. One that has been around for years as an exercise and travel 'phone and has received praise for its clean, even sound is the Koss Porta Pro, at $60 or under. As prices drop, there are models now in this category that used to be priced well into the next.

$100-$200, Solid Performance: The $100 mark is where headphones really start to get interesting. Every major maker of top headphones has lots to offer in this range. Here it is reasonable to expect Very Good performance, and most models worth considering have reviews by respected publications available, making it easier to research a potential purchase. Travel 'phones often feature elegant folding designs, and in-ear models can be very comfortable. And the sound can be a treat! A standout example is the Audio Technica ATH-M50s, which ran around $150 for years, but have recently dropped down to just over $100. Serious-listening sound and comfort should be expected in this range. Noise-canceling options also appear in this category, although audio quality is often sacrificed for the feature.

$200-$300, Entry-Level Audiophile: At this price range you can find 'phones just worthy of being referred to as audiophile grade, able to provide truly Great performance. Imaging and sound stage start to become something special, frequency response can be very smooth, audible distortion becomes a thing of the past. In other words you can expect to find a model that you would consider hanging onto for years and locking away to protect from the kids. They may not be the ultimate you will end up with, but you can get an introduction to what it is like to have a delightful headphone listening experience. AKG's K 701s, among the company's top offerings, are considered by many to have the most accurate, flat frequency response available in headphones today, an engineer's reference model. A possible added expense may be a headphone amplifier. Some of these models need the additional drive muscle that a such a dedicated amplifier provides.

$300-$600, Serious Audiophile: Now we are talking about a set of headphones that you might hang on to for life, and consider like a member of the family. The performance level here should be Amazing. The best of these models have the ability to transport a listener, with reach-out-and-touch imaging and tonal smoothness that first strike you with impressions like "luscious," "dreamy," and "gorgeous," and then make you forget where you are altogether. These models are rarely small enough to be considered portable, they are made for sound and all-evening comfort. Here is where you find model names and numbers that are talked about as grand references for truly serious listening, like Sennheiser's venerable HD 600s. It is interesting to note that audiophile headphones are made primarily by North American and European manufacturers. Most of the big far-east audio makers have seemed to not catch on to what it takes to produce a serious audiophile headphone, except for a few who specialize in headphones and microphones.

$600 and up, Chasing Perfection: Some would say there is little to be gained by spending more than $600 for a set of 'phones. Are there models that sound better? Certainly. The question is how much better. When you find yourself listening for differences that are hard to discern, and the price has gone from $500 up to $2000, it starts to become hard to justify spending the extra money. Unless, of course, you have money to burn and you want the best and the ones for $2000 sound a teeny, tiny bit better, and you just have to have them. Performance expectation level? Almost Perfect! Perfection can be chased to the point of spending several thousand dollars for 'phones. Some call Sennheiser's HD 800 model the ultimate headphones, priced at $1500. Someone else will say that another model at $5000 is way better, but at some point you can argue that egos are overcoming the hearing mechanism, convincing you that $5000 HAS to sound better than $1500. If you have large amounts of cash to throw at audio gear, it is fun to think about headphones in this price range. The difference in what you hear, though, will be small enough that you had best not try to justify the purchase beyond "I want them, I can afford them, so I shall have them."

There you have it, an idea what you'll need to spend on headphones to satisfy your requirements. Many listeners will be perfectly happy staying in the $100 to $200 Solid Performance range. Few listeners will feel the need to go beyond the $600 mark. But the audiophile bug is a strange creature, and when it bites you, reason takes a backseat to the hunger for better and better sound. Beware.
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