Why Headphones Are Getting More Expensive

headphones, earbuds

Listening to music with headphones | Source: iStock

If you’ve gotten the feeling that headphones are getting more expensive, your intuition is right on the money. You aren’t the only one who’s stopped buying those $5 earbuds at Target and opted for something a little pricier to listen to your favorite music or stream your favorite shows on the go. Vlad Savov reports for The Verge that new research shows a 7% growth in annual headphones shipments but a 19% increase in retail value. In other words, we’re spending more on each pair of headphones we buy. That’s most likely because we expect more out of our headphones than we have in the past.

Rasika D’Souza of Futuresource Consulting explains that “the rise in the average price of headphones is due mainly to the increased consumer appetite for additional features.” Headphones that are specifically intended for sports and fitness, for instance, are growing in popularity in North America and western Europe. Wireless headphones are also rising in popularity; the number of shipments of wireless headphones doubled during 2015, and their share of the overall market rose to 14%.

According to a recent report from Futuresource, the average price of a pair headphones rose by 11% in 2015 to reach $34. Savov notes that the average price is influenced by the “vast quantities of cheap ear buds sold by the like of Sony, JVC, Philips, and Apple.” Sony is the world’s biggest vendor of headphones and claims 17% of the market. Apple, including Beats-branded headphones, commands 11% of the market.

The headphone market

Together, Sony and Apple get 47% of the revenue from the headphones market, thanks primarily to the strength of Beats by Dr. Dre products in the premium headphones market. Beats and Bose together are responsible for 40% of the premium headphones market, but both have had to cut their prices as the market grows more competitive.

The consulting firm reports that headphones are getting more expensive because consumers want more features in their headphones, which explains why headphones designed specifically for sports and fitness applications are selling well. However, headphones that integrate health-tracking features haven’t yet caught on, and Futuresource notes that most people prefer “dedicated wearable devices” for actually tracking their physical activity.

Another trend that appears to be picking up speed in the headphones market are headphones that enable you to customize the audio that you’re listening to. In a review of a prototype of the Nura headphones, which measure and adjust to your hearing to adapt music for you, Nathan McAlone reported for Business Insider that “the future of headphones customize how music is played to the unique biology of your ears.”

The Nura headphones measure how your ear responds to different frequencies of sound in order to determine the frequencies you’re the most sensitive to, in order to “tune” the sound to boost the frequencies you don’t hear well and balance the sound. It’s a compelling idea, and one that demonstrates how we’re coming to expect more from (what used to be) the cheapest piece of tech you’d have in your briefcase.

Another pair of high-tech headphones that’s made quite the splash is the Here Active Listening system, which is comprised of two wireless earbuds and a smartphone app that enable you to control the sound of what’s going on around you. The earbuds can adjust the volume, EQ, and effects of the sounds around you, and Rachel Metz reported for MIT’s Technology Review that while Here isn’t meant for listening to music privately or making phone calls, the system can do plenty of other things.

You can “swipe to adjust the volume on a conversation you’re having with a friend,” “play with an equalizer to fine-tune the bass, mid-range, and treble tones you hear while listening to music,” or use one of eight different filters “meant for eliminating noise in specific situations — on a subway, bus, plane, or office, for instance.”

Metz reported last year that a wave of “bionic hearing gadgets” is on its way because “startups focusing on sound enhancement, like Nuheara and Soundhawk, believe consumers are getting comfortable enough with technology worn on the body to put it in their ears.” It may not be easy to convince the average consumer to spend $200, $300, or more on a pair of headphones, even as people grow more used to the idea of paying more than $5 or $10 for a pair of earbuds, or upgrading from the generic pair that’s packaged with their smartphone.

But it seems likely that more sophisticated and specialized headphones, whether they’re designed to stay in your ears while you’re running or to help you tune out the noises of the city, are going to become increasingly popular and attractive options, even if they cost a little bit more than the basic headphones we’ve been using for the past few years.

More from Gear & Style Cheat Sheet: