Why the headphone market is getting cheaper and better, not more expensive.​

I’ve seen a few comments lately about the headphone world going the way of 2-channel, with insanely priced products, especially in reaction to the HiFiMan Susvara, Abyss, Shangri La and Sennheiser H1 system.

However, aside from the two (or three if you count the MSB system) ultra-flagships, the headphone world is clearly going the opposite direction, with high-quality tech getting cheaper, and more, but not necessarily more exceedingly expensive, headphones being developed. 

In response to a number of comments, I demolished that headphones are, to quote one well-known Youtube viewer “becoming more expensive”.

Quote from a Head-Fi member:

Actually, it’s not. The Sony MDR-R10s cost $2600 in 1989 money, which is over $5000 today, and were selling second-hand for $6-7000 a pair on the second-hand market. Then there are the Qualia 010s which look to have been $3,300 10 years ago (over $4000 today) and equally expensive second-hand. 

As well, the original Sennheiser Orpheus was over $20,000, making it the first ultra-flagship.

Sony MDR-R10 in case
Sony MDR-R10 in case

If we consider that the $1500 HD800 has similar measured performance to the R10s, for the sake of this argument, I’m going to consider them comparable in performance (see the Innerfidelity measurements for the reasoning behind this).

Then we have a bunch of high-end planar headphones from about the $1k mark (LCD-2) up to $6k (Susvara), with the median price between $1500 and $2000. So if we compare the price of the R10 and Qualia 010 to today’s flagship price, they aren’t really that different. What has changed is that the variety of options has increased.  

What is more, either side of the median, we have a variety of inexpensive planars and high-tech dynamic-driver headphones (Oppo, HiFiman, Audeze, ZMF, MrSpeakers and Focal) which bring much of that performance down lower, often below the $1000-mark. For people with deep pockets who want the best performance possible, the LCD-4s and Abyss are there, now joined by the Focal Utopia, which cost equivalent to what the Qualia did.

Sony Qualia 010

It’s also worth noting that despite in increase in flagships, where a model has not stood up to scrutiny, it has been quickly rubbished — eg; Ultrasone’s Edition 10. It’s also worth noting that, possibly as a result of this, the Edition 5 hardly gets a mention amongst enthusiasts either.

That’s a big difference to how things were prior to the LCD-2s and HD800s, when the Edition 9 was THE flagship (Sony and Grado flagships having been discontinued for some time and also very expensive in the second-hand market). Now if you consider that the ED9 tech is available in the Signature series, between a $499 Audeze SINE and a Sig Pro or Sig DJ, which would anyone choose?

Ultrasone Edition 9

If you wanted resolution, you HAD to buy a Stax rig in the past, and often a vintage one if you didn’t want to break the bank. A 717/02 rig used to cost $2k imported from Japan and a good, vintage R2R DAC didn’t cost much at all. Good luck getting those kind of prices now! The cost of those rigs, second-hand, has shot up, where the quality of planar headphones has shot up and decreased in price instead.

The Susvara is the one pair of headphones, after the Abyss, that threw up sticker-shock complaints at its $6000 price, double the cost of the HE1000 V2, which is only slightly behind in sound quality. Even if we account for the inflation-adjusted price of Sony’s MDR-R10 ($5000) the build quality of the HiFiMan is still behind, for $1000 more. Even if they are excellent headphones, HiFiMan may have overstepped the mark on that one.

The Focal Utopia, to my ears, performs so far above every other pair of dynamic headphones, and have had so many years of research put into them that I can’t really criticise the price, they appear to be genuinely game-changing in what is possible from a pair of dynamic headphones.  Every other pair of headphones I tried, Susvara excepted, sounded veiled in a serious way after listening with the Utopias. It was rather like the first time, many years ago, that I tried a Stax rig, after which regular dynamic headphones sounded like a pretentious effort at sound reproduction.

Massdrop Focal Elex

In the under-$1000 region, Focal’s Elears (and Massdrop-branded Elex) not only perform well (depending on your preferences for their tuning) but have also dropped in price.  Likewise, MrSpeakers has entered the market with the Aeon models at around half the price of their flagship Ether Flow and C Flow for very little sonic compromise.

Now if I was to start into IEMs, I could continue on in this vein, but demonstrate that the cost of good performance has become vastly lower than before. That’s not to say that there aren’t expensive flagships, but I have $50 IEMs here that are excellent (from Shozy and Meze), and similar products are coming out constantly that well-and-truly balance out the expensive ones. Compared to when I used to go into the stores here and try all the top models, hating almost all of them, things have changed considerably.

In electronics there simply is no comparison. What is available today is both measurably and audibly better. Again, there is expensive gear and always will be. If some rich people want to have their crazy expensive gear, I don’t think it will affect the rest of the market as much as people fear.