Poll: What, if anything, divides headphiles and audiophiles?

It's a thought that's been on my mind quite a bit lately. I don't like this seeming division between the audiophile and headphile worlds. I don't like the commonly held belief that high-end speaker audio is somehow superior to high-end headphone listening. I don't like that headphone exhibits at trade shows are being segregated in a separate but equal sort of way. I don't like that high-end retailers seem to be turning a blind eye toward headphone listening gear.

I wonder...is the divide real? Is it simply not there, and we just drag our historic perspectives around with us? Or is it real and we just have to deal with the differences? Is our market in need of some restructuring to see what's really there? Does the headphone market need to mature more to properly integrate with the traditional high-end market? Or is the high-end market out of step and in need of a wake-up call to the benefits of personal audio?

Or maybe we're all looking at it wrong. Maybe the 15 year old kid with a hundred bucks in his pocket looking for a good headphone is just as much an audio enthusiast as as the 52 year old looking to plonk down $100,000 on a pair of speakers. Maybe we need to redefine the "high-end market" as the "audio enthusiast market" and act accordingly.

I've got more thoughts, but I wanted to throw this idea out there as an opportunity for you to comment and tell me what you think. The poll is pretty limiting, to be sure, so please feel expand on your thoughts in the comments.

Poll: What, if anything, divides headphiles and audiophiles?
Silly boy, you're imagining things, there is no divide.
14% (195 votes)
There is a divide...and it's all in our heads. Marketers, magazines, and retailers just need to capitalize on change.
14% (198 votes)
Gear is changing, differences between personal and high-end audio equipment is real, and the gear should be treated differently.
19% (267 votes)
Dummy, don't use gear to draw lines, the scale is sound quality...period!
30% (415 votes)
High-end audio market players are protectionists. New markets scare them, so they're blocking progress with a blind eye.
14% (198 votes)
Don't be a conspiracy theorist idiot. Rome wasn't built in a day. Patience grasshopper.
9% (128 votes)
Total votes: 1401

NA BLur's picture

As expected without supplying a definition which we all may adhere to for each term the answers will by myriad.

Working with Merriam-Webster's definition of audiophile: A hi-fi enthusiast.

Digging into hi-fi:

Of, used for, or relating to the reproduction of music or other sound with high fidelity

High Fidelity:

The reproduction of sound with little distortion, giving a result very similar to the original.

Working with these definitions it is quite clear that in order to be considered an audiophile you have to have to use, produce, or in other ways directly relate sound that is produced with little distortion that relates similarly to the original.

The word similar is again subjective so we expect many definitions, feelings, and insights here.  For many of us actually knowing exactly how something should sound or how an artist presents their work is not easy to discern.  Unless we were there at the particular time of the particular recording from start to finish it is going to be quite difficult to know for sure whether we are hearing the original or not.  A little education and experience helps train our ears and pick our gear so we can reliably listen to something and know it is very close to the original or at worst we are hearing what is recorded rather than something else adding to the mix.

To me audiophiles are more about proving that what they are hearing is closer to the original production due to their gear, choice in mastering, and knowledge of sound and its reproduction.

I did not find a definition for Headphile so perhaps we should discuss what exactly that means and come up with a concise definition.

I want to enjoy what I listen to 99% of the time when I sit down to my music station.  At times I may want to analyze a particular piece of gear / music, but in the end if I am not enjoying it I do not do it for very long.

Tyll and many others are responsible for starting me on this journey and for those like Tyll that try to educate with a positive attitude I thank you.

Limp's picture

Do we even want there not to be a divide?
One of the biggest assets of headphiledom is that it's not audiophilia. It's largely unpretentious and value coscious, as opposed to the tweako-snakeoil-dominated audiophilia.
A divide means diversity, and diversity is good.

jakubg's picture

I think that the divide is artificial, that there is no reason to differentiate between speakers and headphones. But I'm happy that the divide is there. I'm afraid if the high-end retailers would take headphone gear, it would imediatelly jump in price by 10x or 100x or more. 

I came to headphones because I can afford them in reasonable quality, if I wanted I could afford even some of the best headphone gear.

In the speaker world the high end has moved to €100k and more for a single component. That is ridiculous.

Headphone gear uses the same components, the same amount of R&D, the same worksmanship and costs much much less. They are currently the only way to enjoy the music at the best possible quality and unfortunatelly the only way how to get new people interested in this wonderfull hobby.

SoundTeck's picture

Since a listener can achieve great sound, even within a reasonable budget, from both worlds, I think it really comes down to it being a personal preference. There are always going to be rifts between ideas in the audio world, such as speakers vs. cans, digital vs. analog, 2-way speakers vs. 3-way speakers and so on. I think, just like any hobby, you choose what you enjoy the most. As for the question of whether or not high-end headphones should be segregated from high-end speakers at trade shows, I wish they weren't. To me, they are just two roads toward the same goal: awesome audio. It may be awhile before such harmony between the two can be achieved, but I believe as more headphone geeks like us start showing up, high-end retailers will start taking more notice of us. As Tyll said, “patience, grasshopper.”

ultrabike's picture

Speakers and headphones are fundamentally different due to their application (public/audience address vs personal/private) and I believe this is the cause of the possible rift.

Some things that come to my mind regarding price differences:

- Speakers may be considered furniture (my wife doesn't think so though). A lot of work may go into the cabinets.

- Size, weight and power requirements are not the same, and with that in mind it seems easier to "justify" overkill stuff in the speaker world like the $490k/20kW Pivetta Opera amp, or the more "accessible" Mark Levingston Model 53 $50k/500W monoblocks (reviewed by Stereophile).

-Perhaps it is easier to show the size of your equipment in the speaker world than in personal audio, and snobby wallets naturally get abused.

Sound quality wise I feel headphones can do many things that are very hard with speakers due to room interactions, ambient noise, and room driving requirements. With speakers, the room is part of the audio reproduction system. Furthermore, while speakers may be have crazier prices, I feel personal audio may make up for that in sales volume. Some privileged people may be able to acquire a collection of say 20 or more high end headphones and associated equipment. Fewer can probably possess similar size collection of high end speaker monsters (unless most are in storage and collecting dust).

On the other hand, sometimes I personally find that watching movies with not-so-hi-fi speakers and family is more enjoyable that with headphones (and not necessarily due to sound quality).

Jazz Casual's picture

I voted for option two but I have to say that I don't reallly give these matters much thought. The divide between high-end audio and high-end personal audio comes down to a matter of money for me. I like and desire both but high-end personal audio is within my reach whereas high-end audio is not. Having said that, high-end personal audio is rapidly becoming another luxury that I cannot justify or afford. 

Stephen Mejias's picture

Hi everyone.

I've never thought about, or really perceived, the divide between headphone listeners and typical two-channel audio enthusiasts. Most audiophiles I know have a preference for one or the other -- just as they have preferences for tubes or solid-state, CD or LP, etc. -- but have significant experience in both worlds. 

I love both. : ) 

veggieboy2001's picture

I am usually turned off by them (labels). The certainly can be usefully, but I think, as a society, we usually put too much stock in them. These "clubs" I think are usually joined by people that like an "idea" they associate with these phrases (headphile, audiophile) and want to see themselves as such. Many audiophile disagree about sound quality, as well as many Headphiles, so It is really no surprise that there seems to be a divide between the two camps. I think they are in fact two camps only because they define the "path" differently, but they do seem to have a similar goal: Good Audio (however that is defined).  I don't know if I'm a Headphile, or an Audiophile (so I'm probably not) but as Casual Jazz said, I do know i want to have the best audio experience I can afford. It's not the cost of what I buy, but the enjoyment I get from what I purchase.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Im not sure about "divides" but i think there is a difference.  And im glad there is.

For starters:   It seems to me that, for years,  most of the attention was paid to the audiophile side of the equation.   Pre-internet was magazines dedicated to home equipment and even early internet didnt have much dedicated to headphones.    These days its a total treat to be able to come to sites like Innerfidelity and see dedicated, detailed, comprehensive reviews, information, and forum-based discussions focusing on headphones. 

Next up is how we consume music:    I cant speak for others, only myself,  but i find that my best chance to really listen to music is rarely in a fixed home setting.  As a lover of music and hearing it the best i can within my means,  headphones and headphiles is the fit for me.   

Finances:    not sure if/how this plays a role with the debate.    clearly you can spend a huge amount of $$ on either side of the coin.  however it seems to me that if you do want to dip your toes into the higher-quality-sound waters,  but do so with limited disposable income,  that the headphile route provides bigger bang for the buck.  

At the end of the day im not concerned about a "division" between the groups.  Rather im just glad they both exist and both are getting attention.     

      Peace &  "We are the Music Makers,  and We are the Dreamers of Dreams"
                                                                                             -willy wonka


Jazz Casual's picture

If a divide between high-end audio and high-end personal audio/head-fi really does exist, then you need look no further than the enormous diifference in financial outlay required to acquire them. Headphones once were regarded as the way to buy into hi-fi sound on a budget. Although high-end headphones broke the $1,000 barrier a few years ago and you can now spend over $10,000 for a SOTA head-fi rig, these are relatively modest amounts when compared to the extraordinary sums of money required to enter the world of full-sized summit-fi. So yes 3ToF, financial outlay most definitely plays a role in this debate and is arguably the crux of it. Whether this is a debate that is actually worth having is also debatable.    

The Federalist's picture

This is just my own opine but I think the division lies exactly where the hobby lines are and so is in some way a natural extension of the hobbies themselves.

Audiophiles and headphiles (some at least) will say it is all about the music... high quality reproduction.... Chasing the ultimate sound quality. Chasing High Fidelity.

But in truth, it has less to do with music and more to do with consumption.... You guys aren't reviewing CD's and albums that sound fantastic on headphones.... nor does any reviewer ever really go into depth about music. 

Not to say that headphiles and Audiophiles don't love music.... everyone loves music to an extent....But we read about DA Converters, Headamps, Integrated Amps, Power Amps, Preamps, headphones, speakers, etc.... and it ultimately informs our... .... Purchasing... i.e. consumption. Audiophilia and headphilia are forms of gadget based consumerism.... Not much different from PDA loving people who lurk on Crackberry, or people who are hardcore into custom computers/ gaming, or who pimp out RC cars and planes.

It's a bit disingenuous to catagorize audiophiles as "music enthusiasts" because the average iPod/ Ear bud listening teenager is a music enthusiast... so where does the difference lie? In the equipment!

The head/ audiophile is marked not by a markedly more passionate interest in music but by a markedly more passionate attitude with regard to playback equipment. It's pretty rare to come across the "satiated" audiophile or headphile who is settled in their system. We eventually roll gears, sell buy, trade.... not because we are dissatisfied with the music.... the music sounded superb a few thousand dollars ago and still sounds superb... but we stay engaged in the culture because we WANT THAT OTHER THING! THE NEW THING!

The division between a bunch of people obsessed with speaker based equipment and headphone based equipment is natural considering it is the equipment that drives the hobby.... not music.

And every culture/ community operates with a certain level of exclusivity.... Every community in some small way views similiar but different communities as less than.... that how their own community is able to maintain an attractiveness to them.

There is exclusivity in stating that audiophiles hold themselves higher... inversely the assumption is that headphiles are more down to earth while audiophile are pretentious.... It's human nature.

Rambling I suppose but that is my take. 



veggieboy2001's picture

I kinda disagree. I do think that you brought up some valid points. I am quite sure you accurately describe many an Audiophile/Headphile ...Three Toes of Fury (I love the name BTW) certainly seems to agree. For me,it's not about " the consumption", although that is the logical result.Like others mentioned previously, my set up is also mostly portable right now. I have a decent stereo rig, but my tastes are a bit too eclectic for my family, so I do a lot of my listening solo...and not always at home. So i mostly listen through headphone. But I don't get gadgets for gadgets' sake...it's no more than a means to an end for me. Take the music out of the equation and you can have my headphones. When I buy, I look for the best cost to performance ratio I can find. I am happy with my current set up...can I improve it? probably. Will I? Maybe. It is fun (at least for me) to hear the SQ of different headphones, so I'm always on the look out for a good deal. But I don't buy just because the next-latest-and-greatest as anointed by (fill in reviewer here) has arrived. I do it so I can hear my tunes in a different way. 

Then again, maybe you're right. Maybe we're just quibbling over definitions.Maybe I'm just not an Headphile (or Audiophile). Like I posted...I don't really like labels all that much anyway. That's my rant...Thanks

Limp's picture

For truth, man. 
Always chasing the next hit, main difference being the Audiophiles take it in bigger chunks. Deluded on the source of their excitement. Some say it's a love for music, some say it's all about the technological improvements, but for all of them it's really about buying the new shiny object. Get that buzz when you hit buy, following your parcels journey across the land (it's in Tampa now, then in Atlanta, no, it took a detour to Chattanooga, where the hell that is) all the way to your home. Elation when you unpack it, plug it in, set it up, lean back and savour the high. Rave about it online for a week or so, and then it's gone, you start looking for that next new high.

This is -philia, tech, audio, head, car, whatever. For what it's worth I prefer the head variety. It's a little more honest, down to earth and less corporate. At least it appears so from my limited vanage point.

koolpep's picture

I read your very good comment. However I have some problems with it. I agree in general. We are often caught up in spec wars and details while loosing sight for the goal. Good music listening experience. I had the same experience in photography forums where more time is spend discussing details of lenses and pixel sharpness than actually going out and using your camera to take pictures. Nobody reviewed their work/pictures but the results of test shots, discussed sensors, etc. so a clear case of gadgeteritis and spec obsession.

For me though, I have "my music", my personal preference, music I love and know inside out. There is not a lot new music coming out I like, every few months there is something that strikes a chord with me, and some makes it in my "my music " collection. What I want is new listening experiences with my existing music. I want it to sound better, more real or sometimes just different enough to give it a new angle, something I didn't hear before, a new a detail or an instrument I didn't know was there before... That makes my day, listening to a song I know inside out and just be in awe of the reproduction, the fun of listening to the same song again for the first time and loving it. 


Just speaking for me, but with every new piece of equipment I am chasing for that moment. Sitting there with closed eyes or staring in infinity and just smiling at myself think about out the genius song or melody I just listened to, mind blown, again. I want to relive that moment again and again, hence I try to better my gear to top the moment. Again. ;-) hope that explains a bit my seach for the ultimate. I hope I never reach it, so I can enjoy the journey for some time longer....



Three Toes of Fury's picture

@The Federalist....i really liked your write up.     Several of your comments and observations ("gadget based consumerism",  pretty rare to come across a "satisfied" audiophile, etc) hit home with me.   Very well written and thought out.     Your comments do shed some light on, and turn the mirror back on, we lovers of audio toys and our reasons for doing so.    I would write more but im heading to amazon to see if there's any daily deals on headphones (he he he).

Peace  &.  Gadgets, Gadgets, Gadgets!!



paul's picture

I don't have an issue.

I listen to music at home on my stereo system. All my headphone listening is portable and on the road.

I'm I alone?

wongwarren's picture

You're not alone. My comment is right underneath yours.

wongwarren's picture

I am both an audiophile and a headphile. I like to be able to enjoy my music whenever I want it. When I'm out and about, I certainly won't be able to bring my $70,000 Maxx 3's and all the amplifiers and gears needed to run the speakers. But how if I wanna enjoy my music? My only choice is to go to my $171 headphones.  At home, my speakers will certainly be abler to provide me with a fuller experience. Plus I don't wanna have something on my head all the time. So to me, sound quality is the be all and end all.

acs's picture

There is an obvious answer that is missing from your poll.


Headphones not only take up very little physical space as a product, the sound they produce takes up little physical space as well.  Speakers in shared spaces intrude on other people using those spaces, whether it is a bus, train, work area, or shared living space.

Headphiles, for whatever reason, listen to their music primarily on headphones.  Usually that reason is space.  They might be in a dorm room, share a room with a sibling, live in a small apartment, have children and can't have a fancy stereo system, listen primarily at work or in transit, etc. 

Since there is no "speakerphile", the term audiophile is usually used to refer exclusively to speaker listeners, although I would argue that audiophile should be considered a  large category of people who care about the quality of their music reproduction, of which headphiles are a contigent.  "Speakerphiles" have space for speakers and larger systems.

There are speakerphiles who do not like to listen with headphones, and there are headphiles who prefer to listen with headphones, but the primary separation between the two is access to space.  A headphile with sufficient space and funds will eventually purchase some kind of speaker system.  A "speakerphile" will not necessarily purchase headphones, but if they find that they need them for a space consideration (work, travel, late night listening), then they may become a headphile.

Budget is a consideration as well, which was briefly touched upon earlier.  Dollar for dollar, much better sound is available to a newbie through headphones and associated equipment than through speakers and associated equipment.

Takato14's picture

Personally, I find that speakers are really starting to lose their place in Hi-Fi. Sure, no headphone can recreate the soundstaging or raw tactility of a good pair of speakers, however I find that most people I talk to prefer headphones over my floorstanders (a pair of old Sansui dynamics, missing the model number, sound damn nice).

It's seeming like the whole personal aspect of headphones is becoming increasingly important to the general population. People seem to fear unspoken judgement people pass based on what you listen to, and even with a well soundproofed room, loudspeakers are going to take that and throw it out the window entirely.

Portability seems to have become equally important; you absolutely cannot transport loudspeakers, because they're always either six feet tall, weigh hundreds of pounds, or both. Plus, even if they were portable, it isn't exactly courteous to others; I recall that one of the kids who rode my school bus used to use these shitty little portable speakers out of his CD player, and it was absolutely infuriating. And, regardless of how it might sound, you can take an HD800 on the subway and drive it from a RockBoxed Clip+.

Either way it seems like apples and oranges to me. Some prefer speakers, some prefer headphones. They're not the same and they cannot be treated as such. Consumers make up 90% of the market, so I guess technically there is a divide, since most consumers prefer headphones.

miceblue's picture

...but what is the difference between an audiophile (one who loves the accurate reproduction of sound, speaker or headphone) and a "headphile" which I have never heard of before?

Seth195208's picture

"Creates the illusion of musicians performing in your room!" This really is the main objective of your typical audiophile. That is why advertisers use it more than any other cliche. It is also something that headphones can never ever do. 

reindeer's picture

I find speakers relatively impractical for private use, but I find the sound characteristics of headphones relatively disappointing. Whenever I hear mediocre speakers, I usually find it much more natural, clear and full than whatever "audiophile" headphones are for offering in my price range. I yet haven't found anything truly balanced in its characteristics, no matter their reputation and regard in the audiophile world.

And something that bothers me about this is the idea of different phones for different types of sound. This seems merely a sophisticated way of talking about the many ways in which headphones fall short of an overall balanced yet pleasant picture. Of course, there are some extreme ends of the spectrum which can't be easily compared, but there are many trying to offer something in terms of natural or allrounder sound, yet being incredibly picky and often falling short on absolute basics of fidelity. For example, the grainness and offensive roughness of the Beyer, the shoddy bass and many strange reasons of why many end up disliking one of the two major AKGs (closed, open) after a while, the uninvolving and dark "carpet" sound of the Sennheisers, and the million other phones which are no better and mostly worse.

Often there are aspects which are totally satisfying, so much so that one wonders why it's so difficult to get maybe one more thing right, and of course you can "use" almost all of them just fine. But so far I've experienced dissatisfaction with finding "my" headphones, though part of that is based on reading about them, and not trying all of them, though it's often easy to see them in relation to each other.

Jim Tavegia's picture

Many audiophiles have $$tens of thousands in their hifi rigs, but it is much cheaper to do it with cans and leave the problematic room issues out of our playback. Plus you are not interferring with anyone elses auditory space with our music they dislike. 

I love my AKG 701's, but also enjoy my Sony 7506's or Grado 80's with my Sony portable CD players or my 2496 Tascan DR-2d flash recorders.  

KG_Jag's picture

Excluding those who wear cans as fashion or social statements (and/or as jewelry) and those who buy expensive speakers and more for presentation in their home to impress...well somebody, there is little difference.  Most want the best sound, as he/she defines it, that falls within the budget.

Space, location, circumstances, people (the roomate, neighbors and/or spouse) can be dispositive of the question of whether you are in the speakers or cans camp.  Even if you go with speakers, you may be forced into certain types, size, numbers, location and loudness restrictions.  For many that tilts the table toward cans.

It was the mid-60's when I first started my music passion.  The usually mono LP reigned as the peak source of music fidelity and was a major step up from 78's (which we still had); TV's had a cheep mono speaker like car radios; and computers were only seen in the home during episodes of "The Outer Limits".  In those days there were no quality cans available--at least none that I knew about, much less could afford.  Speakers were the only option.

I happen to love both excellent speakers and cans.  So far my wife has limited the  space, location, loudness and use of my speaker kit--much as apartment living did decades earlier.  On the other hand, she is more than pleased when I use my cans and will usually look away from how much any one may have cost.

So I guess I am in the cans camp.  However when I get my sound isolated man-cave to place my multi-channel Tekton and Oppo equiped system, I just might switch sides.  Still--I'll keep my cans.