“Upgrade” Vs “Sidegrade” and “Hi-Fi” Vs “Mid-Fi” : Audio Dictionary Part Three And Also Some Ranting

“I want to make sure that I’m upgrading, and not just sidegrading.”

“Looks like you bought a bunch of mid-fi headphones there, you should have just saved up and bought a true hi-fi set.”

“Oh, you like those headphones? I can’t even believe it.”

Upgrade: An objective upward move from one piece of gear to another. Sound quality, comfort, and build should all be measurably better by any reasonable standard.

Sidegrade: A largely meaningless term used by people online to demean the purchases of others. “Oh sorry, you screwed up and bought something that’s merely different instead of better. That’s a sidegrade, and clearly inferior.”

Hi-Fi: Short for high fidelity. The concept of reproducing sound exactly as it was recorded, often defined with the help of objective measurements of frequency response. Can be influenced by individual subjective preferences, and the quality of the original recording.

Mid-Fi: A largely meaningless, murky term. It means “less than hi-fi,” but sometimes that’s again indicative of personal preference. It’s one thing to use this to describe overt sound quality flaws…but more often it’s used as a personal insult, especially on forums.

Audio gear, like any other technology fandom, covers a wide range of tastes and budgets. Once you get your first taste of good audio, it’s tempting to go on a crazy journey, seeing what else is out there. Seeing if you can do even better.

That’s probably why the number one question I get asked is: Okay, but which one of these headphones is better?

And that’s fine. And almost impossible to answer. That’s an open-ended question. In the world of headphones, aside from super obvious build quality or sound reproduction issues, “Better” is frequently subjective.

That doesn’t stop people from trying to objectively rank all the headphones.

There’s always a new “best,” and there’s always a hot new flavor of the month. What was once a flagship headphone years ago is “merely of average quality” now, even if the manufacturer has continued to make and sell that headphone at that exact specification.

This is kind of a problem. All it does is lead to infighting in the audiophile community, and the shunning of newcomers who just want to take part and see what’s up.

And now some random Facts and Myths, sourced from my own personal experiences over the last few years.

Facts

Beyond $100, sound quality returns start to diminish. After $300 they plummet.

This is perhaps the most uncomfortable thing to swallow if you’re big/deep into headphones, but it’s also the most important thing to be aware of. If you’re just worried about fidelity to the source, first and foremost, you can do really well in the $100-$200 range. Heck, you can do well under $100. The $80 Sony MDR-V6 has one of the flattest midrange responses on the market. Midrange is where most of the sound lives, so it’s the most important thing to get right for accurate sound.

Does this mean that there’s no merit to more expensive headphones? Not at all. Does this mean that there are no quality gains above $300? Of course not! But the significant differences in sound, particularly for dynamic driver headphones, diminish greatly. There’s only so many material and design changes one can make.

Comfort/Design/Style/Aesthetic are important in today’s world. Even if they’re not important to you.

It’s important to like the way headphones look and feel. You’re going to be wearing these on your head, which is probably one of the top five most important parts of your body. At the very least.

If a headphone isn’t comfy, I don’t care how good it sounds. It needs to be wearable. Period. If a headphone looks incredibly stupid, I don’t care how good it sounds. Part of my brain will always be thinking about how stupid it looks, or about how everyone else around me will be thinking about how stupid it looks.

I’m sure Stax are great. I know people who swear by them. But man. They look like awkward plastic bricks. That’s fine if you have a personal home listening room, but I don’t. But it’s okay if you do and you like them! Odds are though, if you’re an audio consumer…

You probably have some Beats.

Most People are Buying Beats, and like them!

Apple/Beats has something like 70 percent of the secondary audio market. That’s insane. But not surprising. Every time I write an article about Apple or Beats, it gets way more views than anything else.

Beats have a bass-heavy sound signature. But that doesn’t make them “bad.” In fact, I think their comfort issues on my head are much worse than their sound, especially in newer models.

Is their sound signature so bass-heavy as to be “incorrect?” Maybe. It depends on your taste. Are they overpriced? Probably. But their marketing success and overall sales mean that the market doesn’t care.

Buy better headphones/speakers first, and other gear second

Want to notice a marked difference in audio quality? Start with the speakers or headphones. Better headphones make the biggest difference.

What about a DAC or an Amp? Or a DAC/Amp combo? This can help…particularly if your headphones are harder to drive. But it takes a trained ear to notice a difference on lower impedance headphones, and chances are good you won’t notice a big difference. If your phone/computer/whatever you’re using now has noise/hum in its output, then that’s a good reason to get a DAC too. But the more expensive ones don’t usually do anything all that objectively different from the cheaper ones.

People will fight me on this. Style, design, and ease of use are important with DACs, and I absolutely get the cool factor that fancy knobs or buttons have. But as far as the raw components inside, you can do pretty well for pretty cheap.

You’re always better off investing most of your budget into headphones.

Myths

Sidegrading is bad.

No. “Sidegrading” is not bad. There are so many different headphones, with so many different fits, designs, builds and sound signatures. Some are better for portable use. Some are better for use at home. Some are better for bass, some for treble. It’s totally reasonable to have a couple of pairs for different scenarios.

No single person is the arbiter of your fandom, or your personal audio tastes.

Follow what you think is good. If you want to get serious about headphones, hearing multiple pairs is the best way to refine/discover your tastes. Always buy from a place with a good return policy.

Neutral “Hi-Fi” sound is always the best.

Some people really just want some good bass. The phenomenal sales of Beats attest to that. How do you tell someone who loves bass that your fancy expensive studio monitor with a flatter response is “better” than their Beats? They probably won’t think so if they listen to them. They might not notice the difference. They might dislike the difference. And that’s fine.

It’s okay for people to like different things.

Not everyone is trying to get the “Exact” recording played back to them. A bunch of modern pop music is mixed for systems that can really bring the bass and treble out. Not everyone wants to hear the flaws in their recordings.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t write this just to lambast the hardcore headphone community. I just wanted to provide some perspective based on my own journey. I don’t think the fandom can truly grow if everyone just insults each other all the time and tries to find “the best” gear. I don’t think people who buy Beats are just “stupid people that don’t know any better,” and until the rest of the audio world shakes off this attitude, that large market won’t come check out their cool headphones.

It’s great to be excited about new things! It’s not okay to do that at the expense of the subjective preferences of others.

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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