Reviewing Headphones Was A Stupid Idea

Don’t Make the Same Mistakes I Did

I’m taking an indefinite hiatus from reviewing headphones, and I’ve scaled down my personal collection to just three pairs. That’s the smallest my collection has been since 2015.

Now I feel like I can breathe.
What happened?

(And yes, for the curious among you, the list of the three pairs is at the bottom of this article. Ugh.).

Photo by christian ferrer on Unsplash

BURNOUT

It’s easy to get so caught up in a hobby that you enjoy the logistics of the thing more than the thing itself.

I still like headphones, audio, and music.

But buying a new pair of headphones became about going through the review process instead of just enjoying them. I’d devour a new pair in a matter of just a couple days and then crank out a review over a 4 or so hour writing process.

And yes I bought them. Every single one. And then sold most of them to keep the cycle going.

And honestly, I’ve listened to so many pairs at this point that it usually only took me about 15 minutes to form the basis for my opinions in the review.

Even though I still went through the motions over the course of the next two days…very few headphones managed to change my mind much after that first session. There were exceptions.

This gets old after a while.

It quickly becomes about reviewing and writing and not about listening and enjoying. The enjoyment was still there, but once the drive of the review went away…each headphone would get packaged up, and placed in a specially-designated place.

The great pairs went onto my two main shelves, above my desk. Those were my pairs in active rotation, and I could fit about six there.

The merely good pairs that I still thought I’d want to keep around went onto the shelves in my closet across the hall.

Honestly, once something got put in that closet, the odds of me using it again were about 15 percent.

The rest got sold to friends, or occasionally given away.

And so on the machine ran, for the last three years or so. I had fun writing the reviews. But I stopped enjoying the listening about a year ago. And that’s almost completely my fault.

“A woman with a cup of tea working on a laptop” by Dai KE on Unsplash

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

I didn’t start out really wanting or expecting anyone to read my content.

I have a tendency to overanalyze the details of the things that I love, and for headphones it was no different. I would generate all these opinions and they’d float around in my head. Reviewing started out as a way to make those thoughts mean something.

The first few reviews were on Tumblr of all places, on a page that I took down years ago. I wrote about five headphone reviews there…and that was the purest time.

I experimented with form the most, writing reviews in an informal blog style that would go on to heavily influence all of the non-headphone writing that I put up on Medium. I was desperate to break away from the five paragraph essay format that had dominated years of school, and the too-similar review format that I used when writing for a small computer magazine.

I should have taken more from those early experimental days.

Photo by Chan on Unsplash

EVERY HEADPHONE REVIEW IS THE SAME

There’s only so much I can say about any one pair of headphones. Or that anyone can say, really. After a certain point it’s hard to keep writing the same thing over and over again. There’s no nuance.

I can either talk about the things I like and don’t like, or split the headphone up into the same handful of categories.

Every headphone is more or less trying to accomplish the same thing within the same set of design constraints.

It has two cup things it puts on your head and it pumps sound into your ears.

Very few pairs do things so dramatically differently that they provide talking points.

So it’s always the same.

Explain the sound signature. Try and describe what listening tasks it’s good for. Explain the comfort features. Talk about the design and build. Comment on the extras and the value.

And then you’re done.

Talking about the design was the most interesting part, for me. That’s the part where there’s the most variation, and where individual tastes really come into play.

Sound quality is second, as far as subjectivity rankings. When I first started, there were a fair few stinkers on the market. But now, you can’t walk 12 feet in a Best Buy without finding plenty of totally okay-sounding headphones. Manufacturers have stepped up their game as the market has exploded, and it’s less about quality now and more about differences.

And the best way to decide which of those differences appeal to you is to try them out. Which I was doing at an alarming rate.

That made some people think I was an expert, instead of just a really enthusiastic guy.

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THE QUESTIONS

The number one question I get is “which headphone is better?”

The number two question I get isn’t a question at all, and is in fact an accusation. “You were PAID to write this.”

They’re both ridiculous statements.

The headphone that’s better is the one that you think is the most appealing. Use your personal taste as your guide. Don’t use mine.

I made my tastes public so that I could share my thoughts, not so that I could serve as The Great Decider and do your critical thinking work for you.

I’m sorry.

I only get accused of being paid for an article when I either like something a great deal, or when I dislike something that the group has decided everyone has to like.

How dare I have an opinion! Since I have an opinion that is different than that of one specific reader, I must have been paid by a company to hold it.

Occasionally people will also just personally insult me for liking/not liking a headphone.

A headphone.

I don’t let those comments live on my blog.

I’ve met a few great people that took the time to share their own stories with me, but I’ve also seen a lot of vitriol.

And it’s about 1 percent of the vitriol that the bigger writers and YouTubers are exposed to. It’s completely ridiculous. If you’ve ever thought that someone was paid for an opinion, especially in the last three years of disclosure laws and tighter regulations…I don’t know what to tell you.

It should be easy for you to distinguish between someone’s personal opinion and people trying to scam you. The scammers are so obvious it’s painful.

I’ve never been paid for a review. In any way whatsoever. And no one gets into writing about headphones because people are rolling in piles of money from doing it.

I didn’t even use affiliate links!

(One time, Beyerdynamic, who used to be one of my favorite headphone companies, published a review on their Facebook page that plagiarized most of its content from one of my reviews and then included affiliate links).

Yay?

Most of the nice people I’ve met are other regular Medium users, and I do value their insights. And yet the one time we were all able to come together as my own little community was over hating Sony for ignoring an obvious flaw in a product. I have desperately wished that wasn’t my most popular story for a really long time. I put very little work into it compared to the other ones.

“A woman’s hand with a ring and a polished nail holding an iphone towards a laptop on a desk with a distant flash drive.” by William Iven on Unsplash

DIVERSIFICATION/INSULATION

If you’re trying to get into the tech reviewing game, you should probably focus on cell phones and laptops.

Those are the two biggest reader/viewer markets in the tech space right now. Both of those are commoditized enough that you get a wide swathe of user-types. Mainstream consumers and enthusiasts can both come together to talk about cell phones and laptops.

Not so much with headphones.

I’ve never managed to build a community of readers outside that one time we hated Sony. I get a lot of hits from people just searching around on Google for a quick bit of purchasing advice before they head to the store around holiday time. And that’s about it.

Building a headphonecommunity is very tough.

Headphones have a wildly polarized user base that never agrees on anything. You’ve got the enthusiasts (audiophiles) and… everyone else. And never the twain shall meat.

There are a few shining lights out there. The r/headphones community, and their new Headphone Advice community aren’t quite as intense as the core of the “problem.”

That problem is largely centered around a community whose name rhymes with head-fi.

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Over there, everything is a pitched battle. A new product comes out. The community rallies around it. Someone actually buys the headphone, and the reviews begin. Things quickly split into two camps. Those that think the new headphone is the greatest thing ever, and those that get bullied out of the thread for disagreeing even a little bit.

Oh and if that new product happens to be an advertiser on the site? Well then any dissent is deleted, discouraged, and vehemently denied.

It’s not a healthy cycle for an enthusiast community. Or any community really. And not something that can sustain itself, long term. It’s a toxic and insular echo chamber that’s only welcoming to new users if they agree with everything the group wants them to think, and you’ve got to have a lot of money to keep up.

Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

KILOBUCK HEADPHONES

There are two big growth markets in headphones: headphones around the $99 price point, and headphones that cost over $1000.

I refuse to spend more than $300 on technology products unless they’re something I’m going to use for several hours every day of my life. Like a computer. Or a cell phone.

The diminishing returns within the “kilobuck” headphone market are absurd. It’s all about selling people on flashier and flashier headphones with more exotic materials and higher profit margins.

And head-fi continues to eat it right up.

On the plus side, the $99 headphones are really good now. You can feel good about those. Don’t let anyone shame you if you like your cheaper headphones. It’s okay.

To me, $99 is still a pretty decent chunk of money. I’m sorry I’m not rich.

MY COLLECTION

Thank you for reading all of that and not just scrolling to this.

You didn’t just scroll to this, did you?

Here’s what I kept:

Corsair HS70

Corsair HS60 (bought on sale to use this same pair with my Switch/Xbox).

Steelseries Arctis Pro

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

That’s it. That’s all I have left. Three gaming headsets.

I’m such an audiophile disappointment, right?

The HS70 and 60 are fun-sounding, comfy headsets with okay mics that I don’t feel bad tossing around. They have a sound signature I like and if they ever broke I would probably just buy another one.

The Steelseries Arctis Pro sounds enough like other “audiophile” headphones that I got rid of even my favorite studio pairs I used for production work. Its included GameDAC is a solid piece of kit, that’s now the center of my PC audio solution. Its virtual surround is fun. Its mic is good enough for broadcast recording. And its hi-res audio support is fun…though not all that useful.

I still think it’s probably more headset and more expense than most people should bear for what’s largely an entertainment product.

I don’t need anything else other than this. Nobody needs headphones. Although they can be useful for audio production, they’re not nearly as useful as a computer or a microphone or a nice mixer. They’re mostly a consumption device, these days.

I don’t want to keep buying headphones and headsets just for the sake of reviewing them. I want to be interested in my hobbies again. I want to actually be able to listen to all of the headphones I own on a regular basis.

Don’t get caught up in this madness. Run away now!

Get caught up in the fun and be nice to other people that like things. I’m looking forward to spending my time on writing about things I still enjoy, on getting back to writing content that’s for me first and not just for the process, or to help other people make up their minds in a glutted marketplace.

I’ll still be posting regularly. I just won’t be reviewing any more headphones. I’m sorry if that disappoints you. But I can’t wait to talk about music and movies and games and books again. I feel like I’ve been living under a weird rock shaped like headphones for three years.

It’s nice to breathe.