Yes, You Should Spend Over $100 on Headphones

We cover music apps like the waterfront at But without a solid way to turn the ones and zeros comprising today's music into vibrating air, there's no point in digital music, apps, streaming subscriptions, interactive radio, or any of the rest of it.

That's why we care about Apple Airplay, Google Fling, and Sonos: They put app-delivered music on decent-sounding speakers. It's also why you should own a fine set of headphones, even if it costs nearly as much as an iPod Touch. When it comes to recreating sound faithfully, the most important factor, by far, is what mechanics make the air vibrate.

Admittedly, I have not tested every headphone on the market. But I've purchased my fair share over the years, and reviewed several more as part of my former CNET hardware reviews gig.

What I've learned about these things we attach to our ears can be boiled down to one sentence: Whatever style of headphone you prefer, spend more than you think you should.

A compact design is important to me, in addition to sound quality, so I always go with in-ear, sound-isolating headphones. They're as pocket-friendly as the crappy ones that came with your smartphone, but some sound so good that, according to one manufacturer, the engineers at Industry Light & Magic prefer them to big, over-the ear models.

If you like the Mickey Mouse look afforded by larger models, go that route. Some people find them more comfortable, too. Just don't buy anything that doesn"t form a seal with your ear (unless you want to listen in a quiet home, in which case the open-air style works great).

Whichever style you prefer, spend. A lot. Over $100, even if it means saving up.

If you care about music (and if you don't, why are you reading this?), an even frequency response, low signal-to-noise ratio, and other crucial factors make whatever you're listening to sound so, so much sweeter. The difference must be heard to be believed -- but you will hear it.

Why do I mention this? Because after losing a nice pair of headphones, I'd been putting up with a $50 in-ear model purchased at one of those airport vending machines, and have spent the past few months trying to convince myself that they sounded good.

Yesterday, my $179 Etymotic hf3 (pictured above; they even come with an app) showed up, revealing that $50 pair to have been a waste of money. In retrospect, the cheaper pair is bassy, muddy, and uneven, and their rubber earbuds don't provide enough isolation against outside sounds. They simply don't do justice to the music -- but I didn't even realize it until the more expensive pair showed up.

Spend the money. It doesn't matter who makes them or whether they surround your ear or fit snugly inside it. Your ears and music deserve it, and you can thank me later.