Audio Files: Are Expensive Headphones Really Worth It?

Brent Butterworth tests high-end headphones from Audeze, HiFiMan, JH Audio and more

Focal's Stellia headphones
Focal, a French company known for high-end speakers, recently introduced a few super-high-end models, including the new Stellia, which runs $3,000.

Many people think of headphones as commodity items that deserve little of your attention or budget. Headphone enthusiasts beg to differ. As manufacturers started inching up their prices after seeing the success Beats had selling $300 models, they found ’phone enthusiasts happy to spend more in search of sonic nirvana. The last two years have seen the launch of numerous headphones priced at $2,000 or more … and sometimes way more.

Don’t Take the A Train

Non-enthusiasts surely wonder how anyone could justify spending thousands of dollars on something you plug into your phone when you’re on the subway, but most high-end headphones are designed only for use in the home. Many are bulky, some are heavy, and most reach optimum performance only when paired with a separate amplifier. Many are of open-back design, which lets sounds from around you leak into the headphones—and makes them practically useless in noisy public places.

HiFiMan’s $6,000 Susvara headphones

Still, could any headphone be worth thousands of dollars? I got my answer when I compared HiFiMan’s $6,000 Susvara headphones to the company’s HE1000 V2 headphones, which cost $2,999 when they were introduced. Numerous reviewers thought the HE1000 v2’s ambient, detailed sound was as good as headphones can get, so I wasn’t expecting the Susvara to be substantially better. But all those same reviewers thought the Susvara sounded far clearer and more natural. “The Susvara makes the HE1000 v2 sound like it’s broken,” one told me. I’ve never had $6,000 to spare for headphones, but for jazz fans with plenty of disposable income, I think the Susvara is one of the best bargains in audio—even though it requires spending another thousand or two on an amplifier powerful enough to drive it.

What do you get with the best ultra-high-end headphones? Clarity and naturalness, basically. When I heard my best jazz recordings on the Susvara, it was hard to tell the timbre of a reproduced saxophone from the real thing. When I switched to almost any other headphones, it seemed like the sax player had suddenly started playing through a P.A. system.

That’s not to say all high-end headphones are great. Around the same time, I got to try HiFiMan’s Shangri-La electrostatic headphone, which includes a purpose-built amplifier powered by a quartet of vacuum tubes roughly the size of 12-ounce beer cans. Despite the system’s $50,000 cost, I preferred the Susvara’s sound. To my ears, the Shangri-La needed more bass—it made Trane’s “Giant Steps” sound almost as if the band had started without Paul Chambers.

Focal, a French company known for high-end speakers, recently introduced a few super-high-end models, including the new Stellia, which runs $3,000. The big, blingy Stellia not only ranks among the best headphones I’ve heard; it’s also the most user-friendly high-end headphone I’ve tried. The closed-back design does a pretty good job of blocking the sound of the burbling coffee machines and background music at Starbucks, and even when plugged straight into a smartphone, they’ll reproduce Billie Holiday’s softest whispers as easily as they handle the ferocious dynamics of Mike Stern’s wildest solos.

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High End, Low Profile

Abyss just introduced the $3,999 Diana Phi model.

Nobody said high-end headphones have to be colossal. Abyss, whose $4,995 AB-1266 Phi TC headphones are among the world’s largest, heaviest, and most revered, just introduced the $3,999 Diana Phi, a high-end model so compact and conventional-looking that you could even wear it to the gym without attracting stares. I hadn’t heard the Diana Phi as of this writing, but initial reviews suggest nothing was compromised when the size was slimmed down.

Audeze’s $2,495 LCDi4

There are even a few ultra-high-end in-ear headphones. One of my favorites is Audeze’s $2,495 LCDi4, which squeezes the same audio technology found in the company’s $3,995 LCD-4 over-ear headphones down to about the size of a couple of poker chips. The LCDi4’s sound is so natural and spacious, you won’t believe you’re wearing earphones. But like the LCD-4, the LCDi4 is an open-back design, so it’ll let traffic noise and chit-chat intrude on your Miles sides.

If you want ultra-high-end sound while you’re walking around, your best bet might be JH Audio’s Layla in-ear headphones, which start at $2,725. Each of the tiny earpieces contains 12 minuscule drivers: four each for the bass, midrange, and treble, and all tuned to work perfectly in concert. Because the earpieces are custom-molded to fit your ears, the Layla does an excellent job of blocking outside sound—and you can also get it in a wide range of styles, from carbon fiber to zebrawood.

The Layla in-ear headphones from JH Audio retail for $2,495.

Sonically superb as ultra-high-end headphones can be, it’s quite a leap of faith to spend more than $2,000 on a pair. Fortunately, most large cities have specialty audio dealers where you can try different high-end headphones. You can also hear them at CanJam, a headphone show that takes place annually in Denver, Los Angeles, New York, and several other cities worldwide. Even if you decide to spend less, it’s worth the effort just to find out how great your favorite jazz albums can possibly sound.

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.