When Apple launched the AirPods Max, the price of “high-street” headphones shot past the £500 mark, and while diehard audiophiles are scoffing at that being ‘cheap’, it remains for the majority of us a hefty chunk of change.
Prices have been increasing steadily since Beats by Dre transformed the headphone business model in 2008, with well-established brands quickly realising there’s a market for premium audio products not designed for the classic hi-fi set.
With the phenomenal rise in music streaming and ubiquitous nature of smartphone design, headphones quickly became status symbols. The global market size was valued at $25.1 billion in 2019, with annual growth predicted at a staggering 20.3 per cent from 2020 to 2027.
It’s little wonder the market is now awash with new brands looking for a slice of the profits, which makes finding the best pair harder than ever. John Lewis now sells a total of 134 pairs from the likes of Sony, Apple, Bang & Olufsen and Sennheiser, while Amazon tops 4,000 options with unknown brands such as OneOdio, Artix and PowerLocus offering the latest features for a fraction of the cost.
Do these relatively unknown brands offer genuine quality that undercuts the established names in the industry, or are they just cheap imitations? What makes a pair of headphones good, and which features are really worth spending on, however much you’ve got to invest?
All good questions. But, regardless of budget, think about what you need your headphones to do. Are they for home listening, commuting, sitting at your desk, working out, walking the dog or all the above? Is sound quality the most important feature, or is wireless convenience more appealing?
You’ll probably discover you need at least two pairs of headphones, maybe three. However many pairs you go for, this is what you should expect to find at each headphones price point.
Astonishingly, you can now find true wireless earbuds loaded with features – countless AirPod-a-likes for instance – and sports headphones with ear hooks and neckbands for secure fit. In fact, you’ll find most things in-, on- and over-ear, but as a rule they will sound terrible, have shaky Bluetooth connections, be cheaply made and perform as well as you might hope for £20.
At this price, however, you will get headphones that offer more features than the pair you got with your smartphone. If you’re looking for a cheap pair for exercising, you’re spoiled for choice, especially as sound quality isn’t (well, it shouldn’t be) as much of a consideration.
The most important thing here is fit and durability, so look for a decent IP rating, at least IPX4, which means the electronics are splashproof in all directions.
But buying cheap doesn’t mean you can’t find excellent sounding headphones. It does, however, mean restricting your search to wired earbud designs.
SoundMAGIC have a multi-award-winning range of budget headphones with audio you’ll genuinely be impressed by, while Japanese brand Final, who also hand build some of the most luxurious audiophile grade designs, flog the wonderfully musical Final E500 for just £20.
Move away from the ‘bargains’ on Amazon and you’ll soon be surrounded by big-hitters like Sony, Sennheiser, even Beats. It’s an immensely competitive price point with plenty of solid performing designs available.
Sony’s WH-CH510 Bluetooth on-ears might be a little flimsy, but they sound pretty good and have a 35-hour battery, all for £35. Many people won’t need much more from their headphones.
Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) starts to appear around £50, but we’ve yet to find a pair to wholeheartedly recommend. The Anker Soundcore Life Q20 (£49) deserve a mention however for getting the basics right. The problem with cheap ANC is the fact it clouds sound quality for the sake of silence. This is an issue even at the top of the market, but those differences are amplified when driver technology and chipsets are mediocre to begin with.
If you’re still prepared to plug your headphones in though, £50 stretches surprisingly far. WIREDs favourite budget in-ear headphones are the £40 SoundMAGIC E11, while the AKG K92 (£51) closed back over-ear studio monitors are the best value home listening headphones you’ll find. This reviewer often uses them when testing more expensive models to flush out marketing babble from actual audio performance.
True wireless earbuds start to get interesting at around the £50 mark, with better IP ratings, longer battery life and better designs, but sound quality remains woeful. If you’re looking for sport-specific designs though you’ll find plenty to keep you moving, again, from Anker’s impressive Soundcore range.
Fierce competition between brands and psychological pricing mean you can buy some great headphones for around £90 or just under £100.
The first thing to notice here is that headphones get significantly better looking. Form becomes less generic, fashion drives sale and marketing campaigns start to kick in. Features become a little more intuitive, materials feel – or at least look – more premium, and you will hear the difference in audio quality compared to a £20-£50 pair.
Jabra has carved out a healthy chunk of this sector with an ever-evolving collection of designs that offer good value, enjoyable sound and features. We’ve been impressed by the true wireless Jabra Elite Active 65t, and on-ear [Jabra Elite 45h, both just £90. JBL is another brand to watch, especially with their sporty options like the tiny JBL Reflect Flow, also £90.
We’re not yet into audiophile territory, but sound is a much bigger consideration, alongside all the other flashy things such as ANC (still to be mostly avoided at this price), True Wireless earbuds, excellent Bluetooth battery life and slick onboard controls.
If you really want it all, the less-than-attractive LINDY BNX-60 sound good and have aptX and ANC for less than £80, while the Mixcder E10, £90, look twice the price and use quality materials, they just don’t sound as good.
But be warned, £100 only buys you so much, especially in regard to sound quality, and you’re on the cusp of really noticing the difference… if, predictably, you spend just a little bit more.
£100 to £200
Headphone snobs are still sniggering at your measly budget, but you are now thoroughly spoiled for choice. Decent Active Noise Cancellation is here, as are designer looks, voice control and appreciably better sound quality. Pick a brand – Beats, Sennheiser, Sony, Beyerdynamic, Bang & Olufsen, Bose, Technics, Grado, to name only a few – choose a pair you like the look of, and you’ll be able to find a glowing review somewhere online to justify your purchase.
That’s not a criticism of online reviews, far from it, just an indicator of how many good pairs of headphones are currently available.
You’re not getting the best possible ANC just yet, but market leaders Bose and Sony are now so good at implementing their technology – and trickling down tech from older premium models – you’ll do well to find a duff pair.
To eke out the most from your budget with on- and over-ear designs, look for premium materials such as memory foam, leather earpads, metal headbands and detachable cables. These are all signifiers that the headphones will survive being abused on the commute and remain comfortable for long listening sessions.
It can be tempting to go all-in with technology, after all, it’s finally getting good, but if sound quality is paramount wired designs still win. They’re old, but the Shure SE425 (£175) are a superb In Ear Monitor (IEM) with removable cables, while lesser known brands such as Campfire Audio and Final are worth investigating.
But don’t forget, you can often find Apple AirPod Pros for £199, which, given the sound quality, fit, ANC, battery life and pure convenience, should at least earn them a place on your shortlist.
£200 to £500
For WIRED the best headphones right now are Sony’s WH-1000XM4 (£320). The noise-cancelling is not only brilliantly effective but can adapt to suit your specific environment. They’re also light, comfortable, have massive battery and will blow your audio socks off.
What’s interesting, however, is the marginally older Sony WH-1000XM3 are now almost £100 cheaper, at £239, and remain a brilliant pair of headphones. They’re a bargain. Brands don’t like old models hanging around, so distributors often heavily discount last year’s offerings; known charmingly in the business as flushing the pipes.
As we’ve already mentioned, you’ll do well to find bad headphones at this price, but you can get more for your money. Older models don’t stop sounding good. Bowers & Wilkins PX7s are wonderful at £339, but hunt for a pair of discounted P7s and you’ll be treated to audio excellent as a fraction of the price. The same goes for Sennheiser’s acclaimed Momentum range.
With bigger budgets come high-fashion headphones from Master & Dynamic, Bang & Olufsen, even Montblanc. They’re desirable, made from the most luxurious materials and are designed to turn heads. Yes, you pay a premium for the design, but that’s the whole point. They’re exclusive.
Interestingly, audiophile brands are also starting to dip their toes in this lucrative market, with brands like Audeze introducing open-backed planar magnetic technology – admittedly wrapped in a plastic casing – to a new audience. At £399 the ‘entry level’ Audeze LCD-1 will open your ears to new levels of detail in music, and also highlight just how bad MP3 recordings can sound.
£500 and above
By now we’ve probably lost the majority of readers. With the exception of Apple’s latest AirPods Max (£549) and perhaps the Bang & Olufsen H95, headphones over £500 are wired and designed for home listening, or very demanding on-the-go listeners.
Welcome to the world of hand-built headphones, unique driver configurations, perplexing jargon – Dynamic, planar magnetic or electrostatic? – and sound quality that will leave you speechless.
Frequency (Hz) and Impedance (Ω) also start to figure heavily, as does the music you’re playing and the equipment you’re playing it through. What you’re powering high-end headphones with is as important as the headphones themselves, with DACs (Digital to Analogue Converter) such as the superb Chord collection and headphone amps (you’ll not go wrong with the Audiolab M-Dac) extracting every drop of detail from hi-res audio files.
Key brands worthy of your money include Focal, Audeze, Beyerdynamic, Grado and Sennheiser. Focal specialise in premium luxury and audio performance, while Grado, premium ranges are still handmade in Brooklyn, sound truly wonderful, but come presented in a battered plain white cardboard box, while Audeze sound phenomenal, they definitely look ‘different.’
And while large over-ear designs dominate, niche brands including Campfire Audio and Noble Audio build exquisite miniature multi-driver in-ear monitors that offer epic soundstages and phenomenal detail in your pocket. Well, assuming you’ve got a suitable hi-res music player and portable DAC.
There’s something for all musical preferences, but unlike mainstream models, where’s it’s often impossible to do so, we recommend you demo as many pairs as you can before investing. Weight and fit is also important, and some of these designs will leave your neck aching. We appreciate that’s not practical during a global pandemic, but good audio retailers will offer at-home trials for a deposit.
And if you’re looking for a bargain, check out hi-fi forums and eBay where there’s a roaring trade in second-hand audiophile headphones. As we publish, there’s a pair of Audeze LCD-4 available for £2,099, half the original price.
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