The Price and Value of Headphones

You should be enraged when greedy people mess with holy things.

I recently posted a poll asking why the perceived value of headphones has increase so much over the last ten years. Much to my chagrin, the answer, "The success of the iPod in the pop culture allowed headphones to become a sweeping fad of fashion and celebrity" has just pulled into the lead.

Saddly, I tend to agree.

The Distant Past
Back in the '50s, you might be able to get a girl up to your apartment by telling her you had a "Stereo" and some LPs. A "Stereo" had a whole lot of cultural currency and, it seems to me, that value had a basis in the new technology that allowed a picture, an audio image, to appear before the listener. Coltrane in the left speaker, Miles in the right, and the rest of the group spread in between. What's not to like? The popularity of stereo had a basis in an improved listening experience, and it was very, very hip to have one up in your pad.

Over time the stereo console turned into a rack of gear in the living room with a couple of speakers on either side. There were improvements in sound quality, and the world of audiophiles was born, but to the popular culture the living room stereo became an uninteresting commodity pretty quickly.

Yes, the stoners of the 70's got the trippy quadraphonic sound experience for a little while, but what really caught on was the miserable 8-track that you could listen to in the car. After that the stereo cassette and Walkman hit it big because now you could now listen on the move. And let's not forget the gigantic plastic boombox craze. Improvements to audio in the pop consciousness were mostly about convenience and lifestyle.

The Near Past
One might argue, of course, that the CD was an improvement in sound quality over the cassette, and that FM radio was an improvement over AM, which they certainly were. But I'll argue that these so called improvements to audio were mostly about making music more profitable and convenient. After all, the promise of "perfect sound forever" on CDs is pretty much negated by the over-compressed crap they put on them. Yes, the CD is a sound quality improvement, but no, pop-culture doesn't really seem to care.

What pop-culture does care about is cool and convenient, and that they got in spades with the iPod. Portable MP3 players were available before the iPod, but Jobs and company made magic and captured the culture's imagination and perception of value. The iPod was unbearably cool and unbelievably convenient. I would contend the iPod was the first gadget since the 1950 stereo which was as culturally important as the music that was played on it. Problem is, the iPod wasn't about experiencing an improvement in the quality of sound, but rather experiencing greater convenience in accessing your sounds.

What about now .....

donunus's picture

I Love the Solution! I keep doing that all the time. I also stay away from being snobbish when people ask about whether to buy bose, beats or any question like that. I feel that being elitist about it will only alienate them. Instead I calmly guide them based on what kind of sound they are looking for or let them listen to some decent sound from my speakers or headphones and build upon that.

JIGF's picture

Amazing article Tyll.

I feel greatly identified with the concerns raised here.

Armaegis's picture

I've tried... but you know what? They don't care. I've had a couple friends that were truly amazed at a $200 headphone, but as soon as I told them the price they balked. Fast forward a week and they've bought themselves a new tablet or cell phone. Those stock earbuds are good enough it seems.

You see, sound quality just isn't important in mass culture these days. You can even generalize a bit more and say quality in general is not on the radar. People want gadgets, features, more things to consume, and make it cheap enough that when it breaks you can just buy a new one.

Who needs fidelity when most music nowadays is just a layer of noise? Start with a heavy synthetic bass line, add a synthetic melodic line on top which is really just one line repeated over and over, screw the accuracy just turn it up so people don't have to think. It's easier to get people to like your music when you obscure their ability to actually hear anything.

People don't listen to music. They acquire it and play it as background noise so they don't have to listen to their own thoughts. Music is a distraction from themselves, and the more it distracts the better it is.

donunus's picture

Whats funny about it though is that the people that heard the $200 headphone said nevermind because of the price then a few weeks later, you find out he has a 300 dollar Bose or some 400 dollar beats. You ask him, "how come you changed your mind about getting expensive headphones?", he replies... "Its okay, these are genuine Monster Beats Man!" LOL

Soaa-'s picture

Few things induce more rage and fury within me...

dalethorn's picture

I guess I have a few things to be thankful for, until the market changes and the choices aren't as good anymore. The notion that I can buy a world-class headphone that runs from an iPod with enough reserve that it doesn't go into clipping on most tracks - that's a real plus. The ability to load all of my media onto a pocket-sized 64 gb player is a big plus. I really want to have all my files at my fingertips wherever I go, a dream I described to people 50 years ago (and I can still hear 16 khz!) As weak as the iPod may be compared to a true audiophile DAP, the quality of what's being released by the music companies worries me more, because the iPod is on an almost certain track to improve SQ-wise, while those commercial recordings may not see audiophile versions released for 40 years or so. The Beatles was 47 years ago. Do you know what was 47 years before the Beatles? Caruso, recording into a large horn with no electronics.

RudeWolf's picture

Here in eastern Europe the tainting grasp of monsterous marketing is very weak. Most of the fashion headphone victims wear Scullcandies but they are quite few in numbers. The problem here is that very few people actually care for the sound. The most common solution here for buying headphones is to buy the most cheapest, wait for it to kick the bucket then rinse and repeat. Others argue that they have tin ears and they doesn't hear any difference between good or bad headphones.

I think the main problem is indifference. Despite that people wear (yes, wear- not listen) headphones for a quite large portion of their time they don't really listen to music. My main gripe with the equipment that plays music nowadays is that it is not designed for deliberate listening. And nor is most of the music. Take for example the so called "loudness war"- all it managed is to produce is a lot of music that is very good for background murmur. It doesn't draw attention. I really don't remember where, but there was this one text about the loudness war on some music lover page. The author acknowledged that more and more people are using headphones, but he endorsed the reader to look at them. Music should provoke some emotional response, right? I think I won't be mistaken when I say that everyone of us tap their feet, fingers, bob their head and play the occasional air guitar. What do you see when look at the headphoners at the bus or metro? Blank stares. While you fidget as someone who hasn't got his daily dose of ritalin. And I don't think that they are listening to easy listening ambient music or some obscure psychodelica. I think that they are listening to nothing.

As Armaegis said- silence is not a blank page, it's a mirror.

timmyw's picture

I think this article is very interesting. I have actually tried to get my friends to listen to my set up and appreciate how good the music is.
Unfortunately, there is no chance they would ever spend any significant amount of money on headphones. My greatest success was getting a friend to purchase some Klipsch S4 instead of using his stock buds. Needless to say he loves them.
In fact when I confessed I was seriously considering purchasing some Beyerdynamic T1s I was openly ridiculed when they discovered the price.
I first started listening to music through headphones because I did not want to disturb others (especially late at night). I started out hating them. I heard all sorts of distortion through them which led me on a merry chase to find pure sound. I am one of those people that hear high pitched noises from monitors and flourescent bulbs. It really was quite frustrating and indeed painful on occasion.
I gradually started to read more and more about them and fell in love with with them and now I am very happy.
Unfortunately I just don't think many people are interested in finding audio nirvana. Especially when the costs are going up and everyone's disposable income is going down. I know my friends would not even consider buying a sound system, most are very happy with the rubbish tinny speakers you get in computer displays, let alone getting a pair of high quality headphones.
I think the average person just doesn't care enough about the quality of the sound. So this leads me to believe that there is a minority of people feeding the audiophile market, which I guess is why the monetary value has increased.
Well, they don't know what they are missing as getting shivers and goosebumps all over my body listening to Edvard Grieg, Camille Saint-Saens or Opeth or Isis or Devin Townsend is priceless for me.
It's a shame, perhaps if a lot more people did care, the price of the equipment may go down.

Share the Love I say!

SAS's picture

When I've let friends listen to my system -- headphones or otherwise --, they are usually impressed. The difference between them is that the classical music lovers then go out and buy the Grado SR 60, and the rock music people don't do anything. This phenomenon is not limited to musicians versus nonmusicians. I have lots of friends who are classically trained. True. I also played guitar in a rock band, and those guys are happy enough with their iPod docks and whatever earbuds come their way.

People who listen to classical music are extremely familiar with what live unamplified instruments and voices sound like. People who listen to rock are not. Furthermore, the average classical recording sounds better on a better system. The average rock or pop recording sounds worse. Jazz is hit or miss.

How many headphones are endorsed by leading conductors or classical musicians? None that I know of. They don't have to. Their listeners can easily tell for themselves whether a headphone sounds right or not.

Classical music listeners tend to pay attention to what they are hearing; most jazz listeners as well; a very small subset in other genres. To these folks, it is not sonic wallpaper. To most of the market it is just that.

Classical music represents about 3% of the music marketplace -- about the same for jazz. About what percent do you think these genres represent in the musical diet of the average audiophile?

I listen to and enjoy all kinds of music. I don't think that classical music and jazz are the only paths to audiophilia. But, I do think they are the clearest ones, and the ones most often followed.

maverickronin's picture

That was always on of my favorite bible stories.

bikermanlax's picture

When people will listen, which isn't often, I tell them to spend twice as much on headphones(portable) as they did on the player.

For example, a Nano will run $150. Buy a Clip+ for $50 and then spend the rest on headphones.

Missed in the review is the variety of headphones. Ten years ago, you had very bad stock earbuds, mediocre Sony portable headphones, Koss Porta Pro and Etymotic. The first two were the only widely available options.

Now, the variety is mind blowing. The explosions of IEMS in the last few years has added tremendous value and quality to the headphone market and may mean the preservation of hearing in many.

For someone who purchased his first portable player in 1981 and has had just about every variation since then, the value has increased without question for me personally.

LFF's picture

I take a different stance on the price and value of headphones. Surely each factor Tyll posted on the poll has contributed to the proliferation of headphones and IEM's...some more than others.

However, sometimes I feel that the true proliferation of headphones and associated paraphernalia is the death of live music. It is so hard to find a place to enjoy real good, top notch live music today. Music isn't being taught much in the public school system and what little live music is available is usually strictly for adults (nightclubs, concert venues, etc) or way too expensive for the average person to enjoy.

Thus the average person has come to recognize music as something that is presented to them via processed and packaged mediums, be it downloads, CD's or LP's or a host of other media. I am often amazed at the reaction I get when I play a minimalist binaural recording for someone. The reaction is one of awe and new discovery. Why? Because people simply are not accustomed to hearing music being presented in a natural way.

If more people had access to music the way they did back in the 1950's, perhaps we might see a musical renaissance in the hi-fi arena as well as a resurgence in the interest of proper music recording and music reproduction in general.

Just my 2 cents.