With good sound, there's is always a point of diminishing returns. Each incremental aural improvement you crave will require an increasingly larger investment. Or, put another way, the more you pay, the less it's worth.
So where is the point of diminishing aural returns for a pair of headphones for your iPhone or Android phone? In other words, how much is too much to pay for a pair of earphones?
First, "Zero dollars!" is incorrect. Free headphones are free for a reason – they're cheap, they don't stay in your ears, they won't hold up to reasonable wear-and-tear and, most of all, they mostly sound like crap. Listen to good headphones from a friend or in a store to get an idea of what you're sonically missing.
Reasons to spend a little more
The best reason to spend a couple of bucks more for better earphones is to compensate for our gradual hearing loss. As we age, we lose the ability to hear higher frequencies – voices, subtle violins, high-pitched instruments.
Better headphones offer a wider frequency response – they provide better reproduction of these higher frequencies. You also get a wider soundstage – the sounds are spread out, making it easier to differentiate and appreciate each individual instrument and sound.
Earphones designed for use with your smart phone include a higher-quality microphone.
You want earphones to not just to stay in your ears, but you want them to be comfortable while they're in there. Better earphones include multiple earpieces in varying sizes and materials to make sure you get one that feels right. (Or, you can get custom-made earphones molded to your ears; see "Why Noise Canceling Headphones Are Stupid.")
Then there are a host of ergonomic reasons to spend a little more on earphones. Build-quality, for one thing. The cable on a better set of headphones are less likely to break where the cable attaches to the earpiece.
Higher-priced earphones also are more likely to incorporate an angled headphone jack, which lessens the odds of the cable breaking off from the jack.
And there is no excuse for any Ready for iPhone earphones at any price to not include volume up/down controls on the inline mic.
Finally, when you finger the cord do you hear a wrinkling paper kind of noise through your earbuds? You shouldn't hear this static when you touch your cable. A better set of earphones will have a better-shielded cable.
Now how much would you pay?
I want to discuss three examples of good-better-best earphones that both exemplify and are exceptions to all these points: the Altec Lansing Muzx Ultra MZX606 ($100), the Bowers & Wilkins C5 ($180) and the Audéo (aw-DAY-oh) 232 ($599).
That's correct. Six hundred bucks for a pair of earbuds.
Audéo is a new headphone brand from an old Swiss company called Phonak, big in the hearing aid business. Audéo is also the name for the company's hearing assistant gadget, similar to the RCA Symphonix I wrote about last May ("Best Hearing Aid/Not a Hearing Aid EVER").
There are three models in Audéo's new line of earphones, each model featuring minor variations, each with a different model number, starting at $99. All models feature tiny filters you have to surgically insert behind the actual earpiece and designed to enhance certain types of music – one for classical, one for jazz/pop, and one for beat-heavy dance or hip hop music. Both the filters, which have to be replaced every six months or so, and the multiple model variations and model numbers are unnecessarily complicated.
But the top of the line is the 232 – how do I say this so it can't be used as a laudatory pull quote…at half their price, I would heartily but conditionally recommend the Audéo 232. They offered the smoothest, fullest sound of any earphones I've used, although not as effective at reproducing those fading higher frequencies. (I used the iPhone's treble boost – Settings-Music-EQ – to fix the problem).
The 232s also are the lightest, most comfortable earbuds I've worn. You hardly know you have them on/in. You can lie on a pillow, ear down, comfortably without puncturing your eardrum.
But $600 is insane – I paid half as much for my Ultimate Ears 4 Pro Custom In-Ear Monitors that sound nearly as good. Unfortunately, the lower-priced Audéos don't deliver the same aural quality or comfort.
More reasonably priced are the unique looking C5 (the headphones in the middle of the photo) from venerable speaker maker Bowers & Wilkins.
Do you see the cable loop around the earbud? This is adjustable, designed to create a tight fit in your earlobe. Unusual, but it works, although not as comfortable over a long period of listening time as other in-ears I've worn.
Sound-wise, the C5 are unusually open – you can still hear a fair amount of ambient noise. These open acoustics give your music a light, airy tone, as if the music were floating live and all around you rather than isolated in your head, I've never heard from a pair of in-ear phones.
If you can keep your environment quiet, the C5's over both a bright high-end and bass beat you can hear and feel, along with arguably the widest soundstage I've encountered in in-ear phones. And at $180, the C5s are reasonably priced.
Less than $100
Add to these the Altec Lansing Muzx Ultra MZX606. You see the cord loop attached to the bud? This is a bit of added protection to keep the cable attached at the point cords most often come loose. This arrangement makes the Muzx a bit bulkier in the ear than I'd like, but not uncomfortable.
I can't say the Muzx sound as bright or light as the B&W C5s or as smooth as the Audéo, but they deliver far deeper base and cleaner sound than any cheap, ill-fitting free earphones you stick in your ears.
And that's the whole point of upgrading – to get some better built and better sounding.