Are you seriously about to tell me that there are downsides to owning nice headphones Alex? What is this? Some kind of terrible “First World Problems” article?
Well, a bit. But also no.
More and more people are taking the plunge into the world of better audio gear every day, and headphones are the most common starting point. But I’ve learned through several years of reviewing audio gear that there are all sorts of potential nightmares that nice headphones reveal.
And these nightmares can end up costing you a lot of money if you’re not careful.
HEARING THE FLAWS IN YOUR EQUIPMENT
Nice headphones are better at exposing little details in your audio…and at exposing all the issues the rest of your setup might have, ranging from hiss to imbalances and everything in-between.
Many users start out plugging their headphones into a computer. Now, there’s usually a noticeable difference in quality between the average motherboard or laptop jack and a nice dedicated external DAC(digital-to-analog converter)/amplifier.
So far, so good!
Debates rage online about which DAC/amp combo is the best of course…but any decent external solution should do fine.
At least, that’s what I thought till last week.
I own four different headphone DAC/amp combos because I’m a crazy person.
The first one I bought was a SoundBlaster E1, a nice cheap little battery-powered number that also has a great microphone built into it and components with solid reputations. It has been confined to my closet for about a year now.
Last week, I was checking out Beyerdynamic’s DT770 headphones on a few different sources to answer a question for a reader, and I decided to dust off my good old E1 and give it another listen.
And then I heard it: a several decibel channel imbalance between the left and right sides. I swapped the headphones around on my head to confirm it and yup, the channel imbalance swapped sides.
Guess I should have left that amp in the closet. That imbalance could have been there all along, or it could have developed from all the dust I let get into the device.
Once you hear a flaw in your non-headphone equipment, the immediate temptation is to run out and buy something new. And many audio companies are all too happy to charge you a high price for their flashy new amp.
HEARING THE FLAWS IN YOUR MUSIC FILES
See above, but this time with your source files instead of your gear.
Digital audio compression is actually really good now. Most of the big music streaming services use codecs that are virtually indistinguishable from CD audio, and only the most ardent of listeners could be disappointed.
Of course, if you have an old collection of low bit rate MP3s lying around, there’s only so much quality for your new headphones to render.
And then there are the problems you can’t control by buying a higher quality copy or subscribing to your streaming provider’s premium tier.
With a good pair of headphones, you’ll hear all the mistakes the musicians and studio engineers made when originally creating the track. You’ll hear bad edits. You’ll hear distortion. You’ll hear noises in the room. These things might make your music sound more “authentic,” or they might really frustrate you.
This is the problem that all others inevitably lead to.
“Oh, my PC’s motherboard didn’t make my headphones loud enough, and there was some hiss. So I bought a new dedicated amp. Wow, this sounds so much better!
I…I wonder how much better a more expensive amp could sound?”
“I deleted my old MP3 collection and went back to creating rips from my CDs at a higher quality. Oh! This new streaming service offers hi-res files! Maybe I should subscribe and see how their more expensive versions of my favorite tracks sound?”
“Wow, these new headphones sure do make everything sound great, especially now that I’ve spent tons of money upgrading my other gear and my source files because I couldn’t get past the tiny problems those both had.
“I…I wonder how much better a different, even more expensive pair of headphones would sound?”
The entire audio industry is subtly designed to keep extracting your hard-earned cash.
That’s every industry of course, but it’s rare to see this so cleverly woven into the background.
New headphones are an amazing thing, but they only push your brain’s “BETTER!” mechanisms into high gear… and you’ll begin to wonder what else you’re missing out on out there in the audio world, and what more you could gain by spending more and more money.
Watch out for this. Be aware, and don’t forget to enjoy the things you bought!
Assuming they don’t break, of course.
PARANOIA ABOUT GEAR DEATH aka COME ON APPLE, SERIOUSLY?
I review a lot of studio headphones, and don’t review as many consumer-focused models.
That’s because I’m buying all this stuff on my own dime…and I don’t like it when things break. I can’t keep them in my collection or sell them to someone else if they’re broken.
Consumer headphones can get pretty expensive. You’re paying to subsidize the massive marketing and licensing campaigns that are built up to promote them, in addition to all the other usual costs like manufacturing and research/development.
The typical sweet spot for value in Consumer Headphones is $300. That’s the price that companies want you to spend.
By “companies,” I mostly mean Apple, Sony, and Bose.
The biggest downside of most consumer-focused headphones in this price range(or any price range) is a complete lack of user-replaceable parts.
You’re lucky if they let you change the pads out.
Beats doesn’t even do this.
Apple doesn’t want you to fix your headphones if a pad wears out or one speaker dies…they want you to buy a brand new pair.
Beats headphones don’t have replaceable pads. They’re glued on. If the ear pads wear out, and you’re outside the warranty, they’ll charge you a “repair” fee that’s almost as much as buying a new pair of headphones…and then they’ll hand you a new pair of headphones because they can’t repair them either.
This is the standard policy for most repair claims on Beats headphones. They’re a disposable $300 item.
I hate this.
Studio headphones don’t usually have this problem. Even though they can also get quite expensive, most of them are designed with a large amount of user-replaceable parts. You can often order the parts direct from the manufacturer and do the repairs yourself, or send them in for a nominal fee. Warranties tend to be longer. And overall build quality tends to be higher.
Sure, studio headphones might not look as cool as all the flashy consumer models. But when you’re spending a lot of money, don’t you want that investment to last more than a year?
I guess if you’re upgrading every few months it doesn’t matter.
KILOBUCK HEADPHONES ARE RIDICULOUS
Over the last few years, the “Kilobuck” market (headphones in excess of $1000) has seen a lot of expansion.
These models are paraded around as the top of the heap…the pinnacle of audio that only the truly great among you can afford or aspire to.
Nine times out of ten…they also don’t really perform that much better than the sub $300 headphones.
Don’t buy Kilobuck headphones unless you fully aware of their status as a luxury item. You’re not always getting better sound. You’re not always getting a better build. You can do just as well for a fraction of the money.
The very studio audio companies I was praising above are as equally guilty of this as the consumer brands. I get that there’s a market for high-end items, and that’s fine…but more money does not always equal more quality in the world of headphones.
Don’t forget that headphone listening is supposed to be fun! It’s easy to be caught up in the nightmarish rabbit hole of “finding the best” and completely lose the joy of listening to music, or movies, or video games…or whatever audio suits your fancy.
Take some breaths. Take some time to enjoy your headphones and your music. And always sleep on big purchasing decisions for a day. There’s almost never a need to upgrade at this very instant, and if you wait a day you can make sure it’s something you really want.