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The Law of Diminishing Returns

by Stuart Charles Black
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Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!

Before we get into the law of diminishing returns, grab a snack, sit back, and relax because…

You’ve come to the right place!!

What I will bring you in this article

  1. The Law of Diminishing Returns
  2. How does it apply to headphones?
  3. Entry Level
  4. Mid-Tier
  5. Top Tier
  6. Upper Echelon
  7. Final Word

Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!


You may or may not have heard of the law of diminishing returns.

In the context of this website, I’m referring mostly to audiophile headphones.

Regardless, the concept is still the same, so don’t fret!

What exactly is the law of diminishing returns?

The law of diminishing returns basically states that the more money you spend on a given product, the smaller the incremental increase in the quality you receive.

This may not be an official definition, and though there are many like it, this one is mine. 😛

How does this apply to headphones specifically?

Well, I’m really glad you asked, friend!

I will attempt to break it down according to the price bracket.

  1. Entry Level ($0-100)
  2. Mid-Tier ($100-300)
  3. Top Tier ($300-600)
  4. Upper Echelon ($600 and beyond)

These four levels are how I generally categorize headphones.

While there are some in the Upper Echelon that may be worth the money, for the most part, I simply would never pay the price.

I’ve had experience with many of these headphones, and though they sound very good, the price is rarely warranted.

Let’s start out with the Entry Level category and work our way up from there.

Entry Level ($0-100)

99% of the time, this is going to be your bread and butter of sound.

A headphone like the Sony MDR-V6 or 7506 will get you the majority of the way to a high-level type of can.

Will it provide 100% of the detail? No. But there’s a reason this thing has been around for decades.

It’s the quintessential studio headphone and represents a price range that not only makes sense but far exceeds expectations for how much it is.

Another headphone that is similar in this regard is the Philips SHP9500.

It also tends to compete with headphones out of its price range and provides the same amount of detail as an HD600.

So in essence, the law of diminishing returns is a non-factor at this range, but it helps to clarify and prime you for the point I will be making in a bit.

Philips SHP9500 vs. 9600

Mid-Tier ($100-300)

In this price category, the resolution will be slightly better, and you start to get into things like better Soundstage, better instrument Timbre, better build, and superior comfort.

This is a great price range if you wanted to upgrade without burning a hole in your pocket, and still, the law of diminishing returns has not set in just yet.

Top-Tier ($300-600)

This is what I consider the “audiophile sweet spot”, and in this price range, you’re just about all the way to a sound that covers all bases.

At this point, you could pay more and get a better sound, but a slew of other factors come into play like purchasing an amp, using the best source files, etc., etc.

The headphone that represents the Gold Standard of audiophile sound in this category or otherwise is most certainly the Sennheiser HD600.

It’s a headphone that works well in the majority of situations and has a balanced enough sound to render songs with startling accuracy and detail.

It’s the type of sound that renders music in the way that it was supposed to be heard and felt.

An investment such as this one should last you the rest of your life given proper care, especially because all of the parts on it are replaceable.

But here’s where things get tricky.

Upper Echelon

I’ve heard plenty of headphones in this price range and a few things come to mind:

Detail & Build

They will reveal more detail than a headphone in the previous bracket.

They will be built better.

Overall Sound

The sound will be more balanced, with a generally darker treble, an extremely flat and revealing mid-range, and a bass that is neither too rolled off nor too heavy.

This is where a more expensive headphone has an advantage over the little guy.

A lot of cheaper cans tend to have wonky sound signatures and overemphasized areas like the treble, bass, and even the mid-range in some cases.

One of the reasons I always recommend the 7506 as a closed-back solution and the 9500 as an open-back solution is because both manage to avoid these pitfalls that other headphones fall victim to.

Both have fairly balanced sound signatures (all things considered) and portray music in a way that’s both exciting, straightforward, and honest at the same time.

Comfort is hit-and-miss. Some headphones like the Audeze line tend to be a bit too heavy for my liking, but others like the Audioquest NightOwl are some of the most comfortable I’ve ever worn.

Some of them need better Amps, although something like a JDS ATOM effortlessly works with 99% of headphones out there. 

JDS ATOM HEVI Review

Now here’s the real question: Do these improvements make these headphones worth that much more?

In my mind, no.

There is one exception though: The Focal Utopia.

This is a headphone that reveals absolutely 100% of everything that could ever be in a song.

It does so in a staggeringly beautiful fashion, leaving no stone UN-turned and presenting music in a truly blissful yet still honest way.

So how much are they?

$4000.

Yep. You read that right.

Would I pay that much for them? Probably not.

If I could get them for around $2000 I might consider it, knowing full well that it would be my last serious headphone purchase.

While they are the best headphones I’ve ever heard, in reality, they aren’t worth $3700 more than an HD600.

A lot of folks will debate me on that, especially some of the guys over at Audio Advice. But I stand by it.

I’ve heard most of the LCD line from Audeze, The Utopia, the MDR-Z1R from Sony, and many others.

Check out my Reviews page to see what I’ve heard!!

I just think that after $600, you’re paying way more money for a much smaller improvement in sound quality.

Video Discussion

Don’t forget to leave me some love! <3

Final Word

I hope I’ve shed some light on this matter, and you have a better understanding of how this law functions in the context of audio equipment.

As mentioned before, the Utopia is almost worth the asking price, and at a discounted rate (not retail) it’s your end-game headphone for sure.

Interested in learning all about it?

 

 


Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on the law of diminishing returns, and came away with some valuable insight…

Marvin, what do you make of all this? Am I right? Wrong? Be sure to let me know!!

If you have any other questions or feel I’ve missed the mark on something, leave a comment down below or contact me!

I very much look forward to speaking with you…

All the best and God bless,

 

 

-Stu

[Xtr@Ba$eHitZ]

Can’t decide which headphones to purchase? Interested in a complete buyers guide outlining over 40 of the best options on the market? Click on over to the best audiophile headphones to learn more!!

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2 comments

Jesse May 5, 2023 - 10:30 pm

Hey Stu,
The topic regarding law of diminishing returns especially pertaining to headphones is something that has come up in my experiences for lack of a better word. Even though as a fellow music lover and so on, not crippling myself financially speaking just to obtain the top of the line headphone, speaker, etc. Granted if money were no object, I’d fancy a small stable of headphones for differing purposes plus “flavors”. An HD6xx/650 for general tonality especially midrange (already have that covered), HD800 or HD800s for soundstage or just dissecting music, probably an Audeze HP like the LCD 2 Fazor etc as a planar option. Point being, I’ll probably have some intrigue in at least hearing differing headphones. Though, I have to say that even with owning at point a Focal Elear (which was a very good HP though not $1,200 brand new in 2016 or $600 in December 2019 is pushing it)… I didn’t really get the impression it was massively better than my HD650s or HD600s at the time. Plus, my wallet probably thanked me for not completely jumping into $1,000 plus HPs etc.
On a side note, I imagine that you’re at least aware of how Sennheiser recently released the HD660S2 (a tweaked HD660s supposedly). At some stage, I’d probably make a point to least hear a HD660s in earnest due to intrigue plus likely becoming less pricy with the 660S2 being the new kid on the block. Anyway, I wanted to post my comments regarding law of diminishing returns.
Best Regards,
Jesse

Reply
Stuart Charles Black May 6, 2023 - 4:32 pm

Jesse,

Great to hear from you as always! I actually almost pulled the trigger on a 660S sold by a guy on eBay for around $195. I should have done it. Oh well.

Glad you didn’t get caught up in all that Focal stuff. I like some of their headphones (Utopia mainly) but I was not impressed with the Clear or Elear (FOR THE PRICE to anyone else reading this about to hammer away on their keyboard).

As you point out, neither is worth the money and the Elear was kind of pretty bad lol. The Focal Elegia (and I could barely remember the name it’s so horrible) was one of the absolute worst pieces of trash I’ve ever listened to haha.

Just remember something: when a relatively expensive product goes on sale and they slash the price so hard it makes it look like a good deal, it’s because the headphone is garbage. Never forget that xD

It’s not ALWAYS the case, but I’ve seen it a lot lately with some bad headphones.

So yeah, Focal in my opinion is very hit and miss. I think they get by from brand recognition and build quality/comfort, but in all honesty, some of their headphones are so badly tuned it’s embarrassing. Others are ‘okay’ and then you have the Utopia which is basically perfect.

So if I had to guess, I think they experiment a lot purposefully to see how people will react.

Re: diminishing returns. So glad you’re commenting! I am actually just getting into this concept with microphones and I think it’s a lot worse (perhaps on par with DACS). Headphones are a bit different in that you can still get some really nice upgrades above mid-fi, but with microphones, it’s almost capped after $100. I just read a comment from Amazon about a guy who thought an AKG C214 was going to be a massive upgrade over his MXL990 and he said it wasn’t. The prices there were around $100 for the 990 and $400 for the C214. The same thing applies to the SM57 vs. SM7B. You can actually make the Sm57 sound almost identical by just using a specific windscreen lol. Here’s the article if you were interested. There’s a video in there (the one from Matt) that goes over it. Pretty cool.

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