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Headphones: Are You Ready for an Upgrade?

by May 04, 2014
Earbuds: Worth every cent you didnt pay for them.

Earbuds: Worth every cent you didn't pay for them.

It wasn't long ago that we just accepted the headphones provided with our portable players. In the days of the Walkman and Discman, it was pretty much unheard of to buy aftermarket headphones; if you did (presumably because you sat on the ones that came with your player), your options were very limited. If you were lucky, you could get something that was exactly the same as the ones you got with your player, but a different color.

Let’s be honest: if your headphones came with your player, you need an upgrade. While there are ways to make the stock earbuds sound better, you can only do so much with EQ. You can't make them play lower bass or higher treble, and you can't completely eliminate distortion or clipping at high volume levels. But what if you have some newer, fancier headphones? Do you still need to upgrade? Take a look at our handy chart:


Yes Upgrade

Maybe Upgrade

Not Yet

Headphone Price




Headphone Use

Multiple Locations

One Location Only


How long you listen before getting a headache

<2 hours

2-3 hours

Never get headache

How often you adjust your headphones during listening session

2+ times per listening session

1 time per listening session



While price is not an absolute guarantee, it is a good starting point for knowing if you have quality headphones. Just like speakers and TVs, it's nearly impossible to make really good quality headphones without spending money. If you spent nearly nothing on your headphones, you can bet that the manufacturers didn't either.

We've found that the sweet spot for respectable, entry level headphones is around $40-$60. In this very competitive price point, you'll find that the quality of the headphones goes up considerably with every few dollars spent. Above $60, they generally only get better.


If you are using your headphones in more than one location, odds are good that they are better suited for one over the other. People buy in-ear monitors because they can use them while exercising and (they think) also for other listening. While there are some really good sounding and very comfortable in-ear monitors, they are very expensive. Most in-ear monitors are fine for the time of a workout (an hour or two), but end up hurting many people if they are in much longer than that. In this case, we aren't talking so much about an upgrade as purchasing a second, more comfortable pair.

If you are the type that likes listening while at home as well as on the go (out in public), you might also want to consider a second pair of headphones. Larger, on-ear headphones might be perfect for the home but be too cumbersome to take out. Likewise, open-back headphones might be perfect for home listening, but you’ll get more than your fair share of dirty looks on the bus as not everyone wants to hear your music.


HeadacheIn-ear monitors might give you headaches from the pressure on your ear canal, but other types of headphones can be fatiguing as well ("fatiguing" is a nice word for "screeching"). Poor quality drivers can distort at louder volumes or higher frequencies, and this distortion physically makes your ear and brain do more work to figure out what you are supposed to be hearing. High notes that distort or clip are particularly egregious and annoying.

But poor driver quality isn't the only reason for a headache. If you have on-ear or over-ear headphones with high clamping pressure, they can hurt your ears or head. We've tested headphones that sounded fine and were comfortable over short periods, but the high clamping pressure caused pain after just a couple of hours. When watching movies, we would have to take a break toward the end to give our ears a break.


If you are adjusting your headphones during playback, it indicates either a mismatch in design and use, or a fit issue. We know that some people exercise with over-ear headphones, but most prefer in-ear monitors. Those that use the ubiquitous freebie earbuds when running can attest to the number of times they have to stop to re-insert their headphones. Some people have ears that don't work well with in-ear headphones, and others have overly large/small heads or ears that make on- or over-ear headphone fit problematic. The key is to test out as many headphones as possible to make sure you get a good fit. A headphone that fits you well shouldn't have to be adjusted after you put them on, no matter what you are doing. The fact is that the performance of a headphone is directly linked to a proper fit. An incorrect fit means that you aren't getting the sound the manufacturer intended.

Headphone Types and Designs

There are three types of headphones (though some companies are experimenting with hybrid designs): Over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear. They fit exactly as their names suggest. Earbuds are pretty much only limited to the ultra-cheap and free price points. Their quality is normally so bad (we're qualifying this statement simply because it is possible that someone made a good pair that we are not aware of, but we doubt it) that they don't really deserve a mention.

sennheiser momentum on-ear

Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear Headphones

Within the headphone community, the common wisdom is that over-ear headphones are used for critical listening at home, in-ear headphones are used when on-the-go or exercising, and on-ear sort of do both (though not exercising). Our experience has been that you can't beat over-ear headphones for comfort, though the name can be misleading. If you have small ears, some on-ear headphones can actually be over-ear. Likewise, if you have larger ears, many over-ear headphones will fit on-ear. 

In addition to form factor, there are three types of drivers used in headphones. The most prevalent is a dynamic driver. This is the same sort of driver than you see in normal speakers. Much less common are planar magnetic and electrostatic drivers. Unless you are willing to spend many hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on headphones, you will only have access to dynamic drivers.

v-moda cross-fade m100

V-Moda Crossfade M-100 Over-Ear Headphones

Do you Need an Upgrade?

If you find yourself on the cusp of wanting to upgrade and aren't sure, here are a few things to take into consideration:

1) Money - lateral (same price point) headphone purchases are unlikely to make much sonic difference; however, if you are thinking of upgrading because of fit or use, it may well be worth it.

2) Crackle - are your headphones crackling? The weak point of many headphones is at the connection to the device. Reinforced connections aren't common, but they can be found. If you are worried about it for the future, look for headphones with detachable cables and standard size jacks so that you can replace a damaged cable rather than the entire headphone. 

3) Sound quality - are you on a budget and really want to experience fantastic sound but can't afford a full home theater setup? A pair of high quality cans (slang for headphones) can bring you much of that sonic bliss for a fraction of the price. Once you start spending around $300, you are looking at some really good headphones. Above that, and they only get better and you'd still be spending less than the price of a quality subwoofer.


RHA MA-350 In-Ear Headphones

4) Style - headphones got popular when hip-hop stars started wearing them as fashion accessories. While sound is most important to us, style is certainly a valid reason to buy a new set of headphones. Just remember that the most popular usually focus more on style rather than sound quality. Read reviews here on Audioholics for indications of the sound quality and then pick one that sounds as good as they look.


Only you know if you are ready for a headphone upgrade. If you are, we hope that this discussion will help you out. If you feel like you need more information about the different types of headphones, stay tuned for our in depth article coming soon.


About the author:
author portrait

As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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