Thoughts on pricing, quality, and diminishing returns
Sep 21, 2015 at 9:50 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 4


100+ Head-Fier
Dec 27, 2009
I spend most of my time on this forum shopping and engaged in a surprisingly difficult task: trying to identify price points at which one can discern clear steps up the quality scale. How much must one pay to obtain "quality"?  How much more must one pay to get something that's clearly a step up in quality? My takeaway is that once one gets to the so-called Mid-Fi trio (DT 880, HD600, AKG 702), or roughly the $300 price point, from then on most things aren't better but simply 'different,' and obtaining something that's clearly better requires a great deal more money (diminishing returns).
So let's take a step back: the first time I consciously attempted to buy quality was about 20 years ago when I walked into a Radio Shack interested in improving on the crap headphones that came with whatever was my last Walkman. I picked what looked to be the best available, which was a Sony on-the-ear model. I spent about $30.  They were better than what I had before, but I quickly realized that they were still really crappy. They did nothing well and had a stupidly emphasized bass that put bass where it didn't belong. Not too much later I acquired a set of Harmon Kardon Soundsticks to go with my Mac, and, thanks the subwoofer, had really learned to appreciate the value of strong-but-proporionate-and-appropriate bass.  Classical music, my favorite genre, really benefits from that. Bass has to be strong, but appropriate. In its place. I need to be able to hear the attacking cellos and double bass, but they must only be center stage when they are intended to be center stage...
About five years ago, I talked myself into trying again to buy good headphones. I joined this forum, did my research, and talked myself into spending $100 as what I thought would be the minimum price for quality. I bought a set of Sennheiser HD448s.  So there was a $70 step from the Sony to the Senns. 3x the amount of the Sony cans.  What did I get? Something in an entirely different league. The HD448s were far from perfect, and in retrospect they would have benefited from amping, which is dumb for cans at that price point. I found myself playing with the iTUnes EQ in order to bring them alive. Still, there was no turning back. I was hearing my music like never before. I was also realizing that my 128k music files were inadequate and started doing ALAC. I could tell the difference between crap recordings and good ones.
I lent the 448s to a neighbor, who broke them. And by this time I had decided that I wanted IEMs for portability. So, back to Head-Fi, and LFF's reviews convinced me to spend $150 for Fischer DBA-02s. They were the clear kings of the $200 and below price point. I would have had to spend a lot more to get something that was not just different but clearly better. That's what LFF and others said, and after getting them, all I can say is that they were fantastic. One has to be careful comparing IEMs with headphones, but still, the DBA-02s were a clear step above the HD448s.  I loved them until I lost them about six months ago. Then, without hesitating, I bought the Mark II versions, which were a tad more expensive. Anyway, jumping from $100 to $150 to get the Fischers constituted another major leap in quality.
In the mean time, I wanted to go back to cans for office use and bought a set of DT770s, 32Ohms for roughly the same price as the Fischer MKIIs, $170.  Great headphones. It's hard to say they're better than the Fischer IEMs. They're certainly different. More engaging. Better? I guess, yes. Not majorly better. Not like the jump from my $100 HD 448s. 
Now I've been looking to spend $250-300 and then another $100-$150 on an amp.  So, instead of jumping up $50-$70 (the difference between the HD448s and the DT770s), I'll be jumping up $350-450 in price, with the price of the amp included. I expect to move up another level, although I still doubt I'll be moving up as much as I did when I went from the HD448s to the DT770s. More like the incremental step up from the DBA-02s to the DT770s.  More to the point, when I've looked at whatever comes next, it seems that I'd have to spend much greater sums to move much? I've read reviews of the HD800, for example. Better than the HD6xx series? Yes. But they cost $1,000 more. More modestly, the Beyer T1 costs about $750. That's a full $400 more than the HD880s. So the amount I'll have to spend to get not just different but clearly better will grow, which the difference with respect to improved quality diminishes.  So, roughly $300--the mean price of the DT880s and the HD600 therefore appears in my eyes to be the tipping point beyond which one enters the realm of diminishing returns.  
Sep 21, 2015 at 10:03 AM Post #3 of 4
  Yes, definitely huge diminishing returns after 600/650.  I will throw in some of the cheaper/older Hifimans in there too, like 400i and 500.  I will tgive a recommendation for Oppo PM3 too.

Even the 650, when compared with the cheaper 600, appears to be pushing it with respect to quality/price. Is the 650 better? Some think so; it's certainly different. But it's also another $100, which is why plenty of reviewers end up arguing that the 600 is the better buy unless the idiosyncrasies of the 650 exactly align with one's musical/listening preferences. But either way, beyond the 650 price-wise, that's when I'd argue about diminishing returns.
Sep 21, 2015 at 10:30 AM Post #4 of 4
I say 650 is just different compared to 600.  Slightly larger soundstage, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter.  650 has a little more mid-bass while 600 has a little more upper midrange.  The two are basically identical in the big picture.  Take whichever is the cheapest.  Especially sweet if you can get one used-like new for even less.

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