Before we get into the law of diminishing returns, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
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What I will bring you in this article
The Law of Diminishing Returns
How does it apply to headphones?
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 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 price bracket.
Entry Level ($0-100)
Top Tier ($300-600)
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 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. Learn more:Sony MDR V6 Review!
Another headphone that is similar in this regard is the Philips SHP9500. It also tends to compete with headphones out of it’s price range, and provides the same amount of detail as an HD600. Learn more: Philips SHP9500 Review!
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.
This is what I consider the “audiophile sweetspot”, and in this price range you’re just about all of 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 the right 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. Learn more: Sennheiser HD600 Review!
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, and especially because all of the parts on it are replaceable.
But here’s where things get tricky.
I’ve heard plenty of headphones in this price range and a few things come to mind:
They will reveal more detail than a headphone in the previous bracket.
They will be built better.
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 over emphasized areas like the treble, bass, and even the mid-range in some cases. One of the reasons I always recommend the V6 as a closed back solution and a 9500 as an open back solution is because both manage to avoid these pitfalls that other headphones fall victim to. Closed back vs. Open back headphones. 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. Here’s a good graph of the V6 to illustrate my point. That graph is a very accurate portrayal of what my ears hear, though I don’t think the bass is quite as rolled off as Tyll does.
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. Learn more:Audioquest NightOwl Review!
Some of them need better Amps, although a good Schiit Stack can power various models with relative ease. Learn more:Schiit Magni 2 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 staggeringly beautiful fashion, leaving no stone UN-turned and presenting music in a truly blissful but 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.
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?
Stu is determined to provide the truth about all things audio, and strives to deliver excellent content to you the reader! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, attend church, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His attention to detail and perfectionist attitude are what allow him to excel, but it can be both a blessing and a hindrance at times.