The Headphone Price-to-Performance Sweet Spot

How much should you spend on your first pair?

Are you curious about good audio? Do you want to get a pair of headphones that’ll last you a number of years without totally breaking the bank?

Then prepare to spend about $100. And hope you can run away from the hobby satisfied after that.

Whether you’re looking for studio headphones, a gaming headset, style headphones, or even a wireless model…once you hit one hundred bucks you start to reap the benefits of collective decades of audio industry research and development.

You might not be getting the best, latest, “greatest” features.

But fortunately for you, the science behind audio doesn’t advance at a breakneck pace.

Technology that was amazing a few years ago still sounds just as good, and is more affordable now.

M40X. Photo taken by me.

Looking for an accurate studio-style pair? You could try a stalwart classic like the Audio-Technica M40X, Sennheiser’s HD 280 Pro, or Sony’s MDR-7506. All three will give you analytical, reasonably balanced sound. If you’re a fan of bass, the first two are better choices. If you want to see what “Detailed treble” is all about, pick the Sony model.

All three are engineered to last a long time and all three companies sell affordable replacement parts.

But let’s say you don’t want something designed in the 80’s or 90’s. Where to turn? The latest pair with a hype-machine behind it in the studio headphone space is AKG’s new K361.

I haven’t had the chance to try this model out yet myself, but many folks I trust say it’s truly spectacular, and that it more than deserves a place alongside the classic models.

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AKG K361 official marketing image, www.akg.com

If you’re more of a gamer, your first port of call to part yourself from $100 should probably be the HyperX Cloud Alpha. It combines extreme comfort with a warm, balanced sound profile and a durable metal frame. It’s the benchmark all other gaming products are trying to hit.

Every other major gaming audio company makes their own solid take on this price point, too. If the HyperX model is not your style, try the SteelSeries Arctis 5, Razer Kraken TE, or the Corsair HS60.

But what about style headphones? Surely there aren’t any good ones for just $100? That’s where you have to start paying $300 or more, right?

No!

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Beats EP. Photo taken by me.

The Beats EP is a great wired style headphone that regularly goes on sale for less than $100. It has my favorite build of any Beats product, and it’s the first entirely-new full size headphone out of the company since Apple bought them. It’s been really disappointing to watch Apple recycle older designs over and over again across the rest of the lineup.

Want to go wireless? The Sony CH700N is a great, balanced choice that even has noise cancelling, and it’s almost always discounted into this price range. And Sony’s XB700 is a great choice if you don’t mind an on-ear fit. Also check out the JBL Live series of Bluetooth headphones.

Or the legendary Koss Porta Pro, now available in a wireless form as well.

The audio industry constantly likes to portray itself in marketing as some sort of elite thing for elite people.

I don’t think it should be that way.

Its fans can be just as hardcore about gate-keeping as any other fandom populated by enthused people who sometimes fall prey to entitled, toxic thinking.

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Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

But the reality is that the mainstream products pay the industry’s bills, and audio fandom should be about enjoying audio, regardless of how much you paid to do so.

The headphones that folks can actually afford help pay for the development of the more expensive stuff.

And the cheaper stuff is so good.

You can get so many incredible headphones for $100 or less. Don’t let the constant hype cycle of the community and the marketing convince you to spend more, especially when you’re just starting out.

For your second or third pair, sure, go nuts. Get the fancy features and materials and hype. You probably will want a second pair once you’ve enjoyed one, because the audio hobby is a rabbit hole of dopamine the likes of which you may not be prepared for

But for that first “Good” headphone? Please don’t spend more than $100. You can get a truly legendary pair and learn so much about your preferences, and the price/performance gambit of the entire audio space.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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