A digital nomad in search of life, the universe, and everything.
Music is the soundtrack to our lives, so how much do you spend to hear it? Do you spend the bare minimum, as little as possible to get your tunes? Or do you spend a bit more, to get some decent sound quality? Some people go all out, spending tons to get the highest possible fidelity.
Is it worth it to spend more? Is there a difference between a $100 pair of speakers, and a $1000 pair? $10,000?
A better question, is that difference worth it?
The term itself “high-end audio” means different things to different people. A $1,000 Bose system might be “high-end” to many people, but to others, that’s nothing. “High-end” being subjective, seems to just mean “more than I usually spend.”
Maybe that’s where we should start. Why do you spend what you do? This could be as simple as “it’s what I can afford.” If so, cool. High-end audio is unquestionably a luxury, and no one should go into debt to get it.
But I’ve read comments across multiple articles that spending more isn’t worth it. This is always from people who say something like “I spent ‘x’ and that’s plenty.” This, I think, is less fair. How much to spend is entirely a subjective thing. Further, it removes the ability to have a discussion, the more important discussion really, on quality.
But wait, you say, quality is subjective too! Well, yes and no. There are two main ways a more expensive audio product can be of better quality than another: sound and build.
Build quality is far easier to quantify. More expensive audio products tend to be built a little better than cheaper gear. This isn’t to say that all inexpensive audio gear is built poorly, but by the very nature of budget manufacturing, they rarely have the solidity of more expensive gear. This often extends to how the products looks as well. More expensive gear tends to have more swoopy curves, better finishes, and so on.
Build quality, though, is less important than sound quality. What does that really mean, though, “sound quality?” Well, in the broadest way, it’s how close a piece of gear can get to reproducing an audio signal exactly. This “fidelity” to what’s recorded is the Holy Grail for audio purists. You want to hear exactly what the musicians intended, right? Harman has done countless studies that have shown that despite what some might think, people prefer an accurate sounding speaker over an inaccurate one. As in, the closer it sounds to real life, the more people will like it.
And this is what, to an extent, high-end audio does better than budget audio. It tends to be able to sound more like real life than artificial sounds reproduced artificially.
Is there a set rule, an amount you have to spend to get this “high-end” sound? No. Nor is it linear. A $1,000 speaker does not necessarily sound 10x better than a $100 one (though it could, depending on the products involved).
And it swings around the other side, too. Sometimes uber-expensive speakers sound worse than their cheaper counterparts. This is because the designers of some of the more esoteric brands are designing a certain “character” into them. A sound that differentiates the speaker from their competition. If you like that sound, they’re the right speakers for you. If not, they’re not.
The best question to ask, perhaps, is what “high-end” audio sounds like. Sure the “more lifelike” description is easy, but it’s also rather nebulous. There are a few aspects of “good” sound quality that are easy to describe.
The first is in the bass, the low, deep sounds. These should have a definition to them, that you’re able to identify the instrument creating the notes, not just a messy, indistinct “thump thump thump.”
Then there’s the high frequency treble sounds. Do they make you cringe? Do you reach for the volume control in a near-involuntary need to turn it down? High-end audio should have smooth, clear, non-fatiguing treble.
In the middle, is the mid-range. Can you hear voices distinctly? When a song gets going, can you hear all the instruments?
Balance is the key to quality audio. There shouldn’t be a preponderance of any one frequency (or a lack of one, either).
Better build quality, and better sound quality. These two basic things are what you get (usually) when you spend more on audio. There are always going to be gems that perform better than their price suggests, but even then, there’s always going to be something even better, likely for more money.
So figure out your budget first, then check out the reviews to see what’s good in your price range. Don’t assume that there can’t be anything better. I’ve had non-audiophiles listen to some ultra-expensive headphones, and everyone can hear a difference. How much that difference is worth to you is, well, up to you. Just keep an open mind!
Geoff Morrison is a tech and travel writer/photographer based (occasionally) in LA. For most of the year he’s a digital nomad, working while travelling around the world. In addition to Forbes, he writes about all aspects of technology and travel for CNET, the New York Times, and is Editor at large for TheWirecutter.com. He also blogs about his adventures at BaldNomad.com.
Before setting out into the wild, he was Editor in chief of Home Entertainment magazine and the former Technical Editor of Home Theater magazine.
His articles have also been in or on NBCNews.com, Salon.com, Sound Vision, Men’s Journal, HDguru.com, Consumers Digest, Popular Photography, Robb Report and more. He’s been interviewed by Fox, Bloomberg, NPR, and the BBC.