Image: Beats

When It Comes to Audio Gear, Price and Quality Don’t Always Correlate

Before you pay big bucks for a hot brand, consider the science behind sound quality and price.

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Jun 22 2017, 1:00pm

Image: Beats

They say you get what you pay for. We've heard it so many times we just assume it's true. But when it comes to headphones, what you pay has little to do with what you get.
Consider the findings of a study just published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. It measured frequency response (using several methods) for a whole bunch of headphones, trying to determine there is any correlation between price, headphone type, and frequency response. The findings speak for themselves.

"The results indicate that neither the measured response nor an attempt to objectively quantify perceived quality is related to price."

Of course, this isn't the first time actual science has shown that expensive audio gear isn't necessarily better. We just rarely hear about it, because the audiophiles that write about audio gear are almost pathologically opposed to blind testing. Home Theater Review wrote a good article about this problem a few years ago.

The Audio Engineering Society published a paper in 1994 from researchers at Harmon, who wanted to find out if people rated the quality of loudspeakers differently if they could see them. (Spoiler alert: they do). This is a problem with audio gear—we are all susceptible to confirmation bias. If we see something and it looks fancy or we know it's expensive, it colors our impression of how it sounds.

Blind listening tests have been the subject of much debate in the audiophile community, with professed sound gurus often coming up with dubious excuses about why they're not valid (often combined with a complete misunderstanding of what double-blind testing is). Sure, you can find numerous articles urging you not to spend extra money on cables. CNET has a great one. Noted skeptic James Randi once offered $1 million to anyone who could prove the superiority of $7,250 speaker cables (there were no takers). But it's hard to find such unbiased views about speakers or headphones.

This latest headphone test was unique in that it went a step beyond double-blind listening tests, measuring sound response with a method that takes human hearing preferences and flaws out of the equation entirely. The researchers used a special acoustically-modeled artificial head with artificial ears microphones in it, in order to get an accurate but not-listener-specific measurement of how various headphones sound when placed on a head (with all acoustic changes that implies).

They did find some notable differences. In-ear headphones, on average, had better bass response than supra-aural (on-ear) or circumaural (over-the-ear) headphones. And supra-aural headphones had less accurate frequency response than in-ear or over-the-ear headphones. But no matter the type, the price of the headphones was not a determining factor in their ability to reproduce sound accurately.

This doesn't mean you should buy the cheapest headphones you can find. Factors not measured by the researchers, like build quality and comfort, are very important. But before you spend a lot of money, ask yourself: Am I paying for the brand name? Is it all marketing? If those headphones have slick, expensive ads, maybe that's what you're paying for. You might want to shop around.

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