Celebrity Headphone Deathmatch

It's really all about making money ... and the price you'll have to pay for headphones.

Cast your mind back 15 years ... before the iPod. If someone told you they paid $129 for a portable CD player, you'd have thought that was pretty expensive. If they told you they paid $129 for a pair of headphones to go with it, you'd have thought they were nuts. Yet, today, we walk around with $500 iPhones in our pocket and $300 Beats Studios on our heads. In 15 years the culturally acceptable cost of your personal audio rig has skyrocketed. Why?

Obviously, part of the answer is that your average smartphone is enormously more useful than a Sony Discman. Five or ten times the price for a music player that's also your phone, camera, instant messenger, GPS, radio, TV, Angry Bird game center and more seems justifiable. Our portable media devices today are extraordinarily valuable to us, so we're willing to pay much more for them now.

But what about the headphones? Have they improved dramatically over the last ten years? In 2010, during truly sour economic times, domestic headphone sales in dollars increased a whopping 30%, and unit sales of headphones over $100 went from 2% to 3.5% of the market. Has the increasing price of headphones brought a similar increase in value to the consumer? Let's take a look at how we got here.

Over the last ten years I think four things happened that changed how the world thought about headphones: the iPod; Skullcandy; the headphone hobby; and Monster/Dre.

The iPod changed the headphone from an accessory to a necessity. You know the story, the iPod exploded into the popular consciousness and everybody had one. The iconic image of the time became the white wires of the Apple earbuds. The huge popularity increased the potential demand for headphones, and the dramatic increase in cost of the iPod over the previous portable players increased the potential price people would be willing to spend on headphones. The iPod opened the door.

The last decade has also seen the rise of Skullcandy, which made headphones cheap and fashionable. With their take-no-prisoners distribution channel development that brought headphones into skateboard and surf shops, and the very hip "Every Revolution Needs a Soundtrack" PR campaign, Skullcandy sold boatloads of affordable, colorful, and stylish headphones to kids with iPods. One of their keys to success was endorsements by action sport athletes. So successful were they eventually that by late 2010 they were second only to Sony with a 14% share of the headphone market. (Sony had 23%; Skullcandy 14%; Bose 12%; and Beats at 9% according to NPD Group.) Skullcandy made headphones fun and attractive.

Largely unknown to popular culture, over the last 10 years a vibrantly growing hobby of headphone enthusiasm has sprouted up. Head-Fi, the mothership forum for the headphone hobby, currently gets over a million unique visitors a month and is one of the largest audio websites of any kind. The rapid growth of this enthusiastic audience over the last decade gave the traditional headphone manufacturers the encouragement needed to start investing in higher performance. More expensive headphones started showing up. While previously $400 was expensive, we now have many headphones that sell between $500 and $1000, and maybe a couple of dozen over $1000. Headphone enthusiasts showed that high priced headphones could sell.

Late in the decade, with an enthusiastic hobby buying more and more expensive headphones, and with the broader public merrily swapping their white earbuds for Skullcandy's bubblegum, Noel Lee at Monster saw the rising demand for fun and performance with headphones and had an epiphany: "Headphones are the new speakers!" Evidently, he was the right person in the right place at the right time. In rapid fire succession, Monster started producing celebrity endorsed headphones. First with Dr. Dre and the Beats by Dre brand, and then by a multitude of artists under both the Monster and Beats brands including: Lady Gaga; Justin Bieber; "Diddy" Combs; Miles Davis; Lebron James; Earth, Wind, and Fire; and the Boston Red Sox. The tinder had begun to burn, and Monster poured gasoline on the fire.

In February of this year, the market research company NPD Group published a study: "Headphones: Ownership and Application." Their press release about the study is telling, here's some excerpts:

"...endorsements are extremely/very important to nearly 30 percent of consumers when deciding what headphones to buy. Music artist endorsements ranked highest among consumers purchasing headphones under $20 and over $100, and sales of headphones over $100 are growing. According to NPD's Retail Tracking Service, headphones $100 or more went from around 2 percent of the headphone market in 2009 to 3.5 percent of the market in 2010. Overall stereo headphone sales increased 17 percent in units and 30 percent in dollars in 2010."

"... on average, consumers said they bought a new pair of headphones every 14 months, but teenagers reported buying new ones even more frequently. Forty-one percent of 13-17 year olds bought new headphones within the past 3 months. Teenagers were almost twice as likely as the average consumer to say they plan to purchase new headphones in the next year."

"... headphones have been as much of a fashion statement as an audio accessory," said Rubin. "In particular, younger consumers are associating artists they admire with a premium portable audio experience."

So, headphones costing more than $100 grow 75% in one year ... endorsements important in purchases under $20 and over $100 ... teens twice as likely to buy ... youngsters wanting artists associated with their cans ... my what a whirl we're in. Since they were virtually the only game in town until mid-2010, I'm guessing almost all the hubbub in the above report is about Skullcandy at the low end, and Monster Beats by Dre at the high end.

Well, there you have it, by the end of the first decade of this century, the iPod, Skullcandy, a bunch of headphone geeks, and finally Monster, had woken up the consuming public to how cool headphones could be ... and headphones were flying off the shelves in the midst of a miserable recession. That really got the attention of other companies looking to make a buck in tough times, and today it seems like every company that's ever moved an electron in service of the music is making a pair of headphones. There's a dogpile of companies out there looking to get in on the headphone gold-rush, and because of Monster's success, many are using celebrity endorsement as their differentiating strategy.

Personally, I think headphones should be about good sound first, then comfort, then build quality and durability, and only then styling and bling. I'm very skeptical about companies putting a lot of focus on fashion and fabulosity. I'm very concerned consumers are getting style over substance with their headphone purchase. I'm afraid celebrity endorsements are driving the price of headphones up without a commensurate rise in performance.

But there's only one way to find out for sure ... let's go listen to some celebrity headphones!

Editors Note: In order to produce this article on a reasonable time frame, only full size headphones of circumaural (around the ear) and supra-aural (on the ear) types were tested. None of the in-ear models were evaluated --- perhaps another time.

I also want to thank Brian Gluck of Headphones.com who helped enormously getting many of these headphones to me for review. I simply don't think I could have done this effectively without his help. Thanks, Brian!

nunh's picture

article and site - thank you!

MrSaikes's picture

Gotta love the image, Tyll =D

jvlgato's picture

Great article, and great picture! Thanks!

Brentagon's picture

A lot of work obviously went into this article. Nice job, Tyll! Here's hoping that, in 2012, we'll be able to see a similar round-up of all the new headphones being produced by speaker companies, which seems to be the trend for the next year.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
It's a dirty job ... but someone's gotta do it.
RPGWiZaRD's picture

Haha, epic picture!

Draygonn's picture

I hope the V-Moda custom engraving catches on.

Pars's picture

Keep it up, this is great! And love the pic, BTW :)

JoeMarioZ's picture

Hi Tyll! Are those GREEN V-Moda a special edition they sent you? Or can you costumize them besides de engraving? Because I see the bezel is green also... I love green but I can't seem to find them at any online store...

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'm afraid I don't know. Val is coming up with new stuff fast and furious at the moment. Just call V-Moda and ask, I suppose.
shstrang98's picture

headphones endorsed by Dr Dre to actually sound decent?

Dr.Phil's picture

Reading the comments on youtube I find it amazing that the crowd looking for this kind of headphones can be so lazy to the point of watching your video and then go asking how the headphone you just reviewed in the article sound.

What does this tell us?

dalethorn's picture

I bought a couple of expensive headphones partly because of the look. I say partly as my personal disclaimer, so I don't come off looking dumb here when I look so smart and natty with my bling-bling headphones.

The sound? No problem. You don't have to buy the worst of them, after all. That's how Innerfidelity helps, by screening out the crud so we can make these decisions with a clear conscience.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
So wudja buy, Dale?
dalethorn's picture

Well, er, the Vmoda V80 for one. I couldn't resist the extra red and the True Blood insignia. However, I didn't get the extra custom plates yet. But since I use it every day now, I'm gonna have to take the plunge. Note to Dale: Order the plates.

The other was the red/blue earcup Beyerdynamic.. Pure indulgence? No, no - it was, ummmm, it goes good with my red and blue netbooks. (It does, actually...)

helluvapixel's picture

Can someone tell me if the Marley Stir it Up are truly decent? I tried the others in the line and found the bass too bloomy... too artificial.

I'm looking for something more smooth and laid back to compliment when I'm not using my P5's and while I'd like the Senn HD25-ii, $300 is hard to drop.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
The Stir It Up is very bassy and has very withdrawn highs. I thought the Exodus was great though. May I suggest the V-Moda M-80 or V-80, very nice for $200.
helluvapixel's picture

Tyll, I am tempted. I liked the Crossfade LP for their construction but found the bass a bit boomy and the highs too subdued. Although, funny enough decent enough to watch tv/movies since shows seem quite amped in mid to high.

You mention the new M/V-80 are more neutral. I may give them a shot, I'm a sucker for just buying headphones... it's almost an addiction :)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Addicted maybe, but you won't be the only one around here with that afliction.
dalethorn's picture

I don't use the V80 (M80) in the house a lot because I have a couple other items I use more, but it's my exclusive portable headphone. There's nothing I can think about it that I don't like. It looks pretty good as is, and you can snazz it up with custom side-plates too.

helluvapixel's picture


You find the isolation good too? I thought they were quite good, definitely more so than P5 since they have the large ear cup.

dalethorn's picture

I tested the isolation of the M80 in my small apartment with someone in the kitchen making kitchen noises about 15 feet away, and there was not much isolation. Now that's a plastic earpad and the humidity was low, so I'm wondering if I waited longer if maybe the earpads would seal a little better when they got warmer and conformed better to my head. But it still isn't as good as a lot of closed circumaural 'phones.

MittWaffen's picture

If you could buy the Stir It Up for 99 instead of 199 would you recommend them over the M-80's?

Let me know ASAP so i can order them or not.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
MittWaffen's picture

Thanks, I tried a whole bunch from future-shop.
Bose, were OK.
Beats, they sucked.
Marley, they sucked.

I ordered the M80s, thank you VERY VERY much for your advice and reviews; seriously you must save thousands of people from making product purchasing mistakes.

jimmyjames's picture

Tyll, as always, U DA MAN! but the AKG K701's were the worst sounding headphones I ever owned and I've owned a lot in the $0 to $600 price range. Maybe they never broke in but if not then I would never have lived long enough for them to do so.

Your article is very timely as it seems Consumer Reports just came out with a Xmas Headphone round up and it came out just like you might expect any CR review of audio equipment would. Argh!

Cheers! Merry Xmas! and keep out of my neighborhood, I mean keep up the good work!

souluser12's picture

I was choosing between the skullcandy aviators and the soul by ludacris sl 150. i ended up getting the souls just because the passive isolation was there where as with the skullcandy it wasnt and also because the bass was a lot more prominent. thank you for helping me with a big decision your reviews are very helpful considering you know what true audio is. Thanks again.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
You're welcome, mate.
amateriat's picture

...is that it's basically lifting a page from the athletic-shoe marketing playbook: Monster's Beats by Dr. Dre are the audio industry's Air Jordans, overinflated price-tags and all, with others falling over each other for the proverbial piece of the action. It might be a bit cutting to liken Noel Lee to a 21st-century P.T. Barnum, but I'm having a hell of a time shaking that analogy.

I recently auditioned, among others, AKG's K450s while in search of an iPod-friendly headphone, and, like you. found their sound quality close to execrable. Putting Quincy Jones' imprimatur on those 'phones was a major marketing misfire from a company that should know better. (I ended up with non-rebranded Sennheiser HD 25-1 II 'phones...love 'em.)

Great work you've done here, and great site!

Shop's picture

Great article by the way. Would like to find out which one would be better out of the two, Soul sl150 or the V-Moda V-80? I've tested the sl150, and they were great, just wondering if the V-80 would be similar or better. Thanks in advance.

Wasted's picture

Hi, I find your blog very interesting, I have been searching for information about In-Ear Headphones for iPhone (with controls and microphone) but unfortunately I can't find the headphones you recommended on the in-ear headphone post here in Spain and some of theme didn't even have controls and microphone.
The maximum price I can afford is 80$. In this post you talk about SOUL by Ludacris and it seems to be a good brand. I would like to know what do you think about In-Ear SOUL by Ludacris - SL49, as they seem to fit my needs and price. Do you have the frequency response graphic of those ones? Or which ones would you recommend to me?
Thanks in advance, and thanks for all the technical info, measures, graphs of you posts, it's very useful.


Tyll Hertsens's picture
Sorry mate, I have been focussing on full-size headphones at the moment. I like the low cost Audeo PFE cans. They go for around $100. Maybe some others here will have a suggestion. Keep an eye out I'll be doing more in-ear cans this year. Also, check out inearmatters.com, great advice there.
doubledge's picture

i was listening to you on home theater geeks today. and was wondering. i watch moves at night so i need headphones so i dont wake everyone in the house i own sennheiser hd 280 pro headphones. i want something with a more bass. what do you recommend? i like the sennheiser that i got but was is there better ones for bass. thanks.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I might go with the Shure SRH 840 or Skullcandy Mix Masters.
doubledge's picture

thank you for your recommendations.

nunya's picture

I use a sansa clip plus with a short cord, but whose gonna be the first of these headphone companies to just embed a good mp3 player or micro sdcard slot? add $50-$100 to the price people paying over 200 for headphones won't mind.

Anyway great review.

Rickz80's picture

You just has opened my eyes... or should I say, my ears?
I have a Monters Dr. Dre Solo HD... I have to say I was very proud of having a 200€ headphones, I gotta admit, my friends are very envious, but I didn't have an idea of how bad they are...

By the way, I must say that I saw your interview in Home Theater Geeks
and It was great! Both of you are very funny and most of all, both of you are experts in your subjects.


P.S. Because of my english is not very good I missed a some of the details of the interview, so I would like to know if you could suggest me an excellent headphones that I could find in Spain (Where I live, but I'm mexican), please?

ricecake's picture

Hi Tyll,

This is my first time to buy an expensive earphone and your review is suuuuuper helpful!I just received my Beats solo but decided to return it back immediately cuz it is nothing but crap!I should have read your review earlier.......

Would you pls give me some help? I am kinda struggling between Soul by Ludacris 150 and Sennheiser adidas. Which one shall I buy if my music is more like pop, R&B and soul?

Thank you sooo much!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
The Adidas is significantly better, the Sennheiser Amperior better yet (more dough as well). Consider the V-Moda M-80 for a bit more cost efficiency and cooool looks ... a great little headphone.
Tarweb1562's picture

The SL150 is supposed to be fairly neutral, correct? If so, I think I will go with the LP2/LP.

And the LP2/LP. You said the LP2 was better than the LP. How significant is the difference? With the price of the LP at $100 dollars at places like Amazon, and the LP2 at $200.. Is the LP worth it? Or should I just save up an extra $100?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I like the LP2 quite a bit better. Whether it's worth the difference really has more to do with the strength of your wallet.
Tarweb1562's picture

Thank you very much for replying.

Hmm.. So the LP2 is very significant in SQ then the LP..
With the LP, is it a BAD value at $108? Is it just a bad can in general?
Are there better stylish, removable cable bass-head options at around a $100 dollars?
My original budget was $200, but stuff happend and I had to half it to $100...

Thank you very much...!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I like the Creative Aurvana Live! quite a bit. Also the Philips Citiscape Downtown.
De.F's picture

I really love what you do and it gives me a great insight to the headphones that I don't get to try. I live in Canada and I don't have any headphones to try. Now obviously some of these big name ones I can try. Like beats and House of Marley but vmoda, koss, and akg I can't find them where I live so I really do enjoy your reviews.

Are the Q701 worth the money? I really like Quincy Jones I think he's a cool dude.

Would you recommend Q701 over the sennheiser HD598? Or would there be any similar headphones like the Q701 you might suggest?

Also I noticed you put a lot of emphasis on the MixMasters, Aviators, Exodus, and the V-modas. But you didn't really say too much about the Q701. Does that mean you would recommend those headphones over the Q701?

briskly's picture

I think that his silence on the Q701 has partly to do with the open back, which I don't the average consumer finds too appealing, and their lower volume with an iPod or most media players, which I also think people would find a turn off.

The Q701s aren't exactly bassy, which is where the consumer tends to cut his teeth in the pursuit of sound. The Q701 in the states are rather inexpensive and quite nice, if divisive in their following. I would think that the 701s are a step up the HD598, if you want my thoughts on that.

De.F's picture

Thank you very much for you input. I wonder where he went.

I am actually looking for an open back headphone because they generally to me just sound better and they much cooler in the summer if I wear them for hours.

I don't mind buying a headphone amp either, I was thinking the Fiio ones would do.

As for bass, I like it, but I don't like it too exaggerated. I do listen to a lot of R&B and hip hop. However, when I listen to music for enjoyment it is usually jazz, soul, or even stuff like Adele and that is where I am repulsed by exaggerated bass (eg. my Sony XB700 that I got for really cheap, and it shows...)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Sorry, to many comments to keep track of ... I think I'm going to stop answering YouTube comments.

IIRC the 598 is quite a bit warmer sounding than the 701. I think if you can find your way to a HD650 you'd be pleased. As I say in the article, the 701 is a bit bass shy and can feel a little insubstantial.

GioCool's picture

Sweet review... I was wondering how the LP2s and Mix Master headphones compared. I was looking for over the ear, I have a wide range of music likes... I was looking for something that has rich deep bass for Rap but also clarity for classical and flamenco music... any suggestions between those two cans...

Tyll Hertsens's picture
The Mix Masters are quite a bit clearer sounding. The LP2 is more for bass heavy listeners. Don't get me wrong, the Mix Master has got plenty of bass, but it's more neutral than the LP2.
GioCool's picture

Well I was also looking for great solid headphones too, which I see that the LP2 had a better structure than the Mix Master (has that plastic feeling)..I had a chance to get my hands on some at the store but I dont think that i would get my hands on LP2 unless i bought them.. which have a better feel, in terms of comfortably and durability? ... Thats a big reason why i was not spending 299 for Beats by Dre... they feel like plastic toy cans, Thank you for thorough research in the full size headphones, it has really helped me immensely...

ricoc82's picture

Thank you very much for this article, looking forward to see more of these comparisons. :)

soundj's picture

so are you shure that the sl 150s are better than the 300 because price doesnt matter for me i just want the better sound and the good looks and celebrity branding is great. crossfade m80/v80 vs the mix master for sound quality and specifics vs the soul sl150 or sl300 whichever one is the answer to my first question. thank you for the perfectly organised and hard worked article with the technical comparison and experienced sound reviews. thank you again for all your hard work and please answer me.and i listen to alot of rap i like bass but not much especially when it overpowers the words sooo much that its hard to hear the words, I hate that.i listen to a little rock and also listen to pop and urban. plus i would like to show off with my headphones so the top three are some of the best looking ones and are the pros really that bad because i like the detox edition and i also love the blue studios looks?

ps.nice picture ;)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I do like the SL150 better than the SL300; and I like the sound of the Mix Master slightly better than the V-80.
soundj's picture

so is the sl150 better in sound or is the mix masters better or is there something that is waay better sounding and again not looking at cost but more looking towards sound quality and branding and is the beats pro or studio worse sounding by alot and thnks for thhe very quick answer :)ur the beast

Mastakilla's picture

Hi... I'm new to this site and I'm interested in the new headphones from WesC Chambers Street from RZA. It's another celebrity headphone and wanna ask you if you're going to test this headphone??? Thx..

Mustangjim1's picture

You are right on with Beats. Beats (like Bose) have a great marketing machine behind them but I have been unimpressed by either company. Too bad, Beats headphones look great and created a sensation with the design element, instead of boring black. Keep up the great reviews.

Would love to see a sport headphone review. I run 4 times a week and would like to find a lightweight, decent sounding headphones (in ear, over ear etc). This is a really difficult category. It hard to just find headphones that stay in, let alone sound good, durable and are waterproof. Yurbuds are the best I found so far. Not the absolute highest quality sound but very respectable for their price of $50. Best of all rock solid in the ear, even with hard activity.

Cman775's picture

Hey Tyll,
Just would like to say really nice reviews you got here the best i have seen so far! I was wondering you could do an "in-depth" review of the crossfade lp/lp2 by V-moda. I want to specifically how they sound. I saw that you made a small mention but I'd wish for a more detail.


EgmontSong's picture

I love classical music, I have QLS QA350,and I love it's clean sound.
How about this, QLS QA350 + Yulong D100 + AKG K702. Do you think this combination is suitable for classical music?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
702s are good for classical. I'm not familiar with your other gear.
EgmontSong's picture

Thank you for your recommendation!

NoirBlanc's picture

Hi Tyll.
I am intending to get a new pair of headphones. I considering whether to get the House of Marley Exodus or the Sennheiser Adidas. Which of these two sounds better?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
It's close, but the Sennhiser is likely the wisest choice...they're very good. I'll be posting a review of the HG 25-1 II and new similar Amperior today.
NoirBlanc's picture

Hi Tyll,

I just saw your review on the Beyerdynamic DT1350, which similarly looks like the Sennheiser Adidas HD25-1 II. You mentioned that the Beyerdynamic DT1350 is remarkable. I would like to know which of these two actually sounds better? The Beyerdynamic Dt1350? Or the Sennheiser Adidas HD25-1 II? Also, which one of these would you choose? Thx in advance.

andrew_park's picture

i want to buy a really good pair of headphones and i cant choose between the soul sl300 vs the skullcandy mix masters.

can u give me the pros and the cons for both and ure overall opinion?

ASAP i have to choose buy April.

norjaywiggins's picture

Im new to the forum and I found this article very helpful. I was interested in seeing how the Chambers by RZA faired up against the rest also. Particularly the Street edition

aphocus's picture

I would like to see Astro, Steel Series, Logitech, Tritton and Razer put to the test, these also seem to follow the same parallels in terms of appeal and target audience, but no one in the audiophile sector seem to give them a solid review.

Now a question, you didn't like the Q460 as a pick for the Quincy line, how about the Q701's I found some on amazon for $250 should I got for it, or is there something else in that price range, I'm looking for some with a nice flat phase response this should help with 3d audio and spacial positioning in movies and games, and if possible a good all-round music performance, I like Electronic, Classical and Jazz, and need something around the ear as my ears lobes get sore after large listening sessions, but anything at this stage will be an upgrade from my Sennheiser PC-151's

Billson's picture

haha..I like the picture on you holding so many headphones.

Baldas's picture

This development cannot be consideration of, with no hiring the armed forces of any specialized iphone app development Newcastle upon Tyne . This does not signify that mounting the iPhone app is very multifaceted in natural world.

Grands1ayer's picture

I ride the bus to and from school everyday for about 40 minutes. The bus is full of students and is quite loud. would the isolation of the AKG k81 dj be sufficient in blocking this noise or should i look else where? If there are any suggestions of other headphones can you please put headphones under $50, im a bit tight on money right now.