Opinion post by
C. Scott Brown
If you want a pair of Bluetooth headphones, it seems like one has almost unlimited options. For example, a set of these Mpow over-ears cost less than $25 and have nearly perfect reviews on Amazon. Meanwhile, these on-ears from Marshall clock in at about $100, and also have some great reviews.
There are plenty of other brands that offer Bluetooth headphones in every conceivable style, color, and price point, many of which also tout a great listening experience.
If that’s the case, then why would anyone spend $350 on a pair of expensive headphones such as the Sony WH1000XM3 or the Bose QuietComfort 35 II? It seems like you’re just overpaying for something you could get for less without the brand name attached.
I held that thought — that spending lots of money on a set of expensive headphones isn’t worth it — for a long time. However, I recently bought a pair of Sony WH1000XM3 headphones and I gotta say that I’m singing a different tune.
Before we get into my experience with this, I want to point out that this is not a post about why you should specifically buy the headphones that I purchased. This is more about why spending more money on headphones — regardless of brand or style — is worth it. This post is no way sponsored by any company, including Sony.
I didn’t buy into the hype
Over at our sister site Sound Guys, Chris Thomas (pictured above) called the Sony WH1000XM3 headphones “the best noise-canceling headphones” you can buy today. I read that review before shopping for a new set of ‘phones, but said to myself, “I don’t need the best, I just need something good.”
My then-current set of headphones — the AKG N60NC noise-canceling on-ears — sounded great (or so I thought) but were uncomfortable on my head. Since there isn’t much padding on the headband, after an hour or two of listening the top of my head started to hurt (bald people problems).
Additionally, when listening to music with my glasses on, the AKG headphones would push my ears in over the stems, which was also uncomfortable.
I thought of jerry-rigging some padding onto the headband, but that wouldn’t solve the problem with my glasses. I then thought that getting a new pair would probably be best, considering I only paid $100 for them used. Truth be told, the pair of headphones I owned before the AKGs cost me $50, and they sounded about the same.
I paid $100 for headphones and thought they were just as good as a previous $50 pair. Why should I spend more?
Basically, I knew I needed to replace my current headphones, but the audio quality wasn’t a problem I was trying to fix so I wasn’t looking to spend much.
Still, I was curious about the various types of expensive headphones, like the Sony and Bose ‘phones. Why are people paying $350 for these? The reviews on Amazon are all pretty much glowing, and Chris Thomas’ opinion on these matters is one I certainly trust, but $350? That’s way too much money.
This is the internet age though, so what did I have to lose? I decided there would be no harm in buying a pair of the WH1000XM3s and giving them a shot. Amazon’s return policy is pretty lenient, so the worst that happens is I try them out, don’t think they’re worth it, and return them for something cheaper and equally as good.
In hindsight, that decision cost me $350.
That premium feel, that premium comfort
When the XM3s arrived, I was immediately struck by how premium they looked and felt. My AKG headphones were nice, don’t get me wrong, but the XM3s are very, very nice. If you hold a pair you can immediately tell these things ain’t cheap.
With my glasses on, I popped the XM3s onto my head to see how they felt. Honestly, it was like resting my head onto a pillow. The headband’s padding was soft and light and the foam cups covering my ears weren’t constricting or heavy in any way. I’m not sure if it’s the ergonomics of the design or simply the premium build materials, but the XM3s seemed to get lighter when I put them onto my head as compared to when I held them in my hands.
I tried shaking my head a bit to see how stable the ‘phones were, and was pleased to find that there was little movement at all. I’m not one to headbang with my headphones on (OK, maybe a little headbanging), but I feel like I could do some light bobbing to the beat and the XM3s would sit firm.
From the get-go the XM3s were far more comfortable than the AKGs, which alone would have been worth the extra cash.
Finally, I pressed the power button to start things up and check out the noise cancelation. Unsurprisingly, noise cancelation worked much better on the XM3s as compared to the AKGs. How much of that was due to the fact that the Sony headphones covered my ears entirely and the AKGs didn’t, I am not sure. Regardless, the XM3s were much, much better.
With everything being great so far, I connected the XM3s to my smartphone (which was as easy as tapping my phone to the built-in NFC chip on the left ear) and pulled up my Plex library to listen to some music. The first thing I played was “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve.
I was simply not prepared for what I heard.
It was like listening to music for the first time
When the first orchestral swells of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” began, I thought to myself, “Hey, these very expensive headphones sound pretty good.” But hey, I wasn’t expecting them to sound bad, so this wasn’t too surprising. As the track gained some steam and the staccato violin parts came in, though, I started to smile — “OK, these things sound really good.”
Then, the full band entered with that booming kick drum and that driving bass guitar, and I actually sat back in my chair, as if someone had pushed me over. Honestly, at that moment, I felt like I was hearing this song for the first time, despite the fact that I’ve been listening to it regularly for literally 22 years.
The thing that blew me away the most was the immersion into the sound. I have been so used to hearing music in headphones that sounds like it’s all happening in a two-inch radius around my head (I am not a technical audiophile, so that’s the best way I can describe it). With the XM3s though, it sounded like the music was happening 20 feet around me, as if I was surrounded by the band performing a live concert.
I was hearing parts of these songs that I simply hadn’t heard before.
After “Bitter Sweet Symphony” concluded, I decided to put the XM3s through the wringer. First, I pulled up “Payback” by Slayer to test out how the ‘phones handle very loud songs with most of the sound in the mid-range. Sure enough, the song sounded amazing, with no digital distortion and a clean, moderate bass tone. Next, I pulled up “M62 Song” by Doves to hear how the XM3s did with very quiet, acoustic guitar-based music. Lo and behold, it sounded like Andy Williams was in my living room playing the song just for me.
Honestly, no matter what I threw at the XM3s, it was like listening to the music for the first time all over again. I sat there for about an hour just slamming through different tracks to see what I’ve been missing all these years. I can’t remember the last time I just sat in a chair and listened to music without working, playing on my phone, hanging out with friends, or anything else — just sitting and listening.
If you’re on the fence, take it from me: Buy them
I don’t want this article to sound like I’m shilling for the Sony WH1000XM3 headphones. I selected these because they get great reviews and Chris Thomas said they’re the best, but I probably could have bought the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones and had a similar experience. I also probably would have written this same article if I invested in some super-premium headphones as well, like these Focal Stellia headphones that cost a whopping $3,000.
And, to be honest, the XM3s aren’t perfect. The touch-sensitive pad on the right ear allows you to start/pause tracks, increase the volume, skip tracks, etc., by swiping or tapping. However, this really hasn’t worked well for me at all; it usually takes a few tries for the expected action to occur. The headphones also are pretty bulky, so fashion-conscious listeners might not dig how one looks while wearing them.
The real point I’m trying to make is that there is a reason people pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for headphones: because they are simply better than cheaper ones. I haven’t even mentioned all the other amazing features of the XM3s like the companion app with so many awesome customization features, the crazy-long battery life, USB-C charging, and many other features you won’t find on a lot of cheaper headsets.
I’ll be the first to admit that the old adage of “you get what you pay for” doesn’t apply to everything. One doesn’t necessarily need a $2,400 MacBook Pro, for example, when there are many PCs out there for half the cost that will work just as well, if not better. Generic drugs, unbranded groceries, and yes, even mid-range smartphones can deliver everything you need for considerably less money.
However, it does not appear headphones fall into this category. In my experience — and the related experiences of people like Chris Thomas and the Sound Guys team — you need to spend some cash if you want to really hear what your music has to offer. In this case, you really do get what you pay for.
So if music is important to you, yet you are still on the fence about forking over some considerable cash for a great set of headphones, whichever brand or model they might be, heed my advice: just do it. It will be worth the money.