What's behind very expensive headphones?

I would like to better understand what makes a $1500, or a $3000 pair of headphones (like ZMF ones) cost that amount of money. I would prefer not to argue about value. Rather, what I want to learn is why these headphones cost that much, and what they bring to the table for the $.

is it…
material quality?
crazy-good drivers?
the tuning?
the cost of something not mass-produced?
all of the above?
something else?

I have a pair of Teaks. They cost $500. They are really good. What do they lack compared to, let’s say the Vérité?



For ZMF stuff it’s a lot of hand made parts and craftsmanship. Also the R&D going into Zach’s new drivers. So you can say it’s pretty much all of the things you listed.
As for the emu compared to the veritas, I can’t answer that one as I haven’t gotten a chance with either of them.


You can look at tech at general to try and understand some of.
Even if you look at the non boutique brands lets take the Hifiman Susvara a 6000$ headphone and there is a reason for that (justified or not is of course subjective )

In a lot of cases not only R&D but its also the highest tier price tag is the cutting edge tech- basically when the develop and build a certain type of new driver the cost of production is extremely high (im leaving out the discussion of good or not), and the yields are low meaning how much they mange to produce successfully is much lower than down the line.

The good thing about this, is that they eventually do mange to make things cheaper with higher yields, so they make cheaper models based on that initial high investment - The “stealth magnets” that the Hifiman Susvara was known for eventually made it to the Arya and even the HE 400SE, a 150$ headphone.


I don’t think it can be answered clearly. It mostly depends on the size of a company and the amount of units being sold. All the R&D costs aswell as design and so on get a lot less relevant if you can move orders of magnitude more units. Same is true usually for the production. If you can scale the production up a lot you get better prices for materials or parts and then get a higher margin on the same product.
Sometimes the final price is also just set to where you want to be seen in competition to to dictate the comparisons customers/reviewers will make.
And adding to what @naturallymorbid said new tech can also often set the price due to perceived value / luxury or actual cost and RnD


TLDR: exotic wood and sheepskin are very expensive, non-mass production is very expensive, luxury goods like high-end headphones can have larger profit margins, weaker price competition than in the budget range

1.material quality? - wood in general is expensive, in particular exotic kinds. Sheepskin leather for pads seems another expensive material we can find in headphones
2.crazy-good drivers? - drivers usually are not that expensive (see Rikidougoku’s earbud building stuff in the earbud thread) but of course there are exceptions, like EST drivers for IEMS are very pricey
3.r&d?, the tuning?, design? - it can take a long of time from the beginning of designing a new headphone to receiving money from retailers or customers (direct sales), it can result in higher price to cover fixed costs etc.
4.the cost of something not mass-produced? - without the doubt it is more expensive than mass production

5.something else?
Well, high-end heapdhones are (arguably) luxury goods - so they can have relatively high profit margin and there is not as strong price competition as in budget range. In other words the demand for high-end headphones is realtively weakly correlated to their prices.


I’d say that Verite are just more “boutique” than Teaks without “justified” cost like R&D, drivers etc.

However, I am not in any way saying that expensive headphones do not make sense, are scam or whatever. To be fair, if I had much more spare money I’d probably buy one of ZMF headphones and some crazy tube amp.

Real life is not blind listening test and this hobby is super subjective. Listening is an experience depending on more than just the auditory sense; and beautiful wooden ornamentation on headphones’ cup can, in my personal opinion, improve this experience for us, subjective humans with less than perfect ears, far more than lower THD, SINAD or whatever measurment.


As a guy who owns both the Teaks and the VCs, I’d say that it’s immediately apparent when you put the VCs on that you’ve ascended several levels in both fit and finish and sonic performance. I say this as someone who thinks the Teaks are a great purchase value wise that offers you performance beyond what their pricetag would indicate and who thinks the VCs are a luxury good that you’re likely overpaying for a bit.

I really do love both headphones, but the differences between the two extend far beyond one being boutique and the other not. You can put the Teaks in the VC’s cups and chassis and they still wouldn’t be on the same level sonically, IMO. You’re definitely paying for the pretty package with the VCs, but, IMO, that’s not all you’re paying for and whether or not it’s worth it to someone is entirely up to the individual.

To OP: If you look at the DCA Stealth and Expanse, my current top dogs, everything from their drivers, to their cups, to their headbands, and the materials they’re made out of is a product of in-house R&D, design, and engineering by DCA from the bottom up and the cost of which has to be recouped by the sale of the headphones. For two such niche products there aren’t going to be hordes of people looking to purchase them so that low demand also factors in to the price tag as well. There is a video interview out there on YouTube that I’ll try to find for you where Dan from DCA essentially breaks down piece by piece what went into designing, engineering, and manufacturing the Stealth and Expanse and how that translates to the price for the end consumer. He even goes into some sales figures for the Stealths, since the Expanse weren’t even available for sale yet at the time of the interview, and does some math to show the viewer what the thinking is behind setting the prices. I thought it was pretty interesting and it essentially addresses this exact question. I’ll go searching for it in a bit and post it here if I find it.

Edit: Thus far I haven’t been able to find the video I’m talking about yet. Did anybody else see it? The video came out on YouTube either the same day the Expanse were announced or the day after. I think it was posted on head fi at one point so I’m trying to find it there now because I have basically struck out on YouTube. If you think you saw it and know where I can grab it can you please shoot me a PM so I can check it out? TIA to anybody who helps!:+1:


Thank you all for the replies!

I understand the main premise. Boutique companies, small volumes, expensive manufacturing and r&d… large profit margins are kinda required to sustain the business.

What I would like is to dig deeper into what is actually underneath all of these things.
What makes DCA or ZMF headphones get to those price points? What is the result of their R&D?

The answer might be something like “drivers that are technically superior in X ways”.
Or it could also be that you’re paying more for the package and features, or the tailored tuning, and less about better engineering or bleeding edge technology. Like watches. At some point technically they peak, but you can keep going $$ wise, with most of the $$ going into materials and design.

I guess I should also point out that I’m a tech guy, and generally [want to] know how things work, and I don’t have a very clear picture of what stands between a $500 and $1500 HP. I should go watch some YouTube videos.

I think the easiest answer is that you get what you pay for, but what you pay for depends on what you end up buying. Some products are more luxury or lifestyle brands that you end up paying more for looks and brand name, others might be for more their quality build and fit and finish, others might be the service and warranty or the people behind it, etc. And sound of course.

You generally pay for all of the above to a certain extent, but some products you will pay more for the sound, others more the build, others the looks or the brand and service, etc. If you want to, you can buy something that isn’t very sound focused, or go for something mostly sound focused, but irritatingly the main way to tell that is to hear it. You can have more equal everything, but cost explodes at that point lol

(more generalized toward audio in general rather than headphones) In terms of what can make audio gear expensive in terms of the sound side of things, R&D is a huge one, you could have everything else right but then have a shit design/setup, so you typically see higher end companies invest more into R&D in order to get the sound they are after and offer more compelling results. Another one would be component quality, some of the really nice caps, drivers or driver materials, transformers, volume solutions, etc get up there in price, and that obs contributes to cost. Another one would be the actual assembly and internal build quality and tight qc to ensure their product meets or exceeds their standards which typically also results in better sound as well.

Of course there are margins on top of everything, but some audio gear will be very high margin, others not. Depends on the company and product, and in the end, if the sound justifies the cost then it’s not a big deal. The problem comes when the sound doesn’t justify the cost lol

Edit: I will say though, typically in the high end you aren’t really paying more for only a special tuning or something (at least in most cases, also assuming you mean strictly FR), most of what you pay more for are the intangibles rather than a special FR since imo that matters a lot more in the high end rather than the FR, the intangibles color the sound a lot more than the FR does in the upper ranges

In the teak example, a good straight upgrade is the th900 from a technicality perspective (somewhat different signature but not too far off). It’s a better driver, with a bit more refined cups, with very similar build and slightly better fit and finish on said cups. What you pay for is mainly going into the better driver, better r&d on that driver and cup design, stricter qc and assembly/build, and higher quality cups with nicer fit and finish, which most contribute to better sound and you pay for that


I have asked myself the same question and I don’t have any better answer than those posted before.

However, I think that you might find interesting the Abbys channel in YouTube. When you start to think how many people are working there, each of them needs a salary every month. Then materials for each model. Then machines. Utilities. Real state. Social media. So on, and so on. Everything keeps adding. How many headphones do you need to sell to pay for everything, every month?

Combination of factors.
R&D certainly eats into revenue, and when pushing boundaries, cost can only go skywards.

Material Quality (metal is more expensive than plastic, and machining metal is WAY more expensive than plastic. The more exotic the material, the higher the price.)
The moment CNC-machining gets involved, cost goes through the roof. Because despite insane speeds, each part will be in there for hours. Meanwhile, plastic parts are made by the tens each cycle.

Economy of Scale, two guys running machines manually and then hand assembling twelve headphones a year in Brooklyn is way more expensive than two thousand guys overseeing a semi-automated production line in China making ten thousand headphones per day.

As mentioned it differs strongly. And the problem with the technical aspects is that they are hard to quantify meaningfully.
Look for example at the focal utopia. The driver sports a lot of technical aspects that should be better. For example the use of a full beryllium diaphragm should yield better weight to stiffness ratio enabling lighter thus faster diaphragm. But if you look at the measurements there is little to no improvement in high frequency distortion or the sheer amount of treble. It’s very much the same from a measurement perspective. Now if you ask the listeners I’d imagine they will talk about a stronger difference.
Which is all to say that you can spend money to engineer the “in theory” better driver and housing or whatever but that usually is hard to quantify and say look that’s the result of your money.

Just to add the Utopia does imo have the technically best driver. Not by sound but by design. Very light stiff membrane with independent surround for unhindered yet very pistonic motion with a super light voice coil inside a honking phat magnet that’s completely open from behind. So little to none dampening mechanically yet strong control due to the big magnet. That’s all RnD stuff that costs a lot of money but does not necessarily result in the best headphone money could buy

It’s also worth keeping in mind that many of these manufacturers don’t release all the details regarding the tech employed in a certain headphone in order to maintain trade secrets. A manufacturer assumes that the competition will be purchasing and deconstructing their headphones to learn what they can so it’s standard practice not to release info that could help those competitors connect the dots in understanding the inclued tech, how it’s being used exactly, and what it’s accomplishing.

You’ll often notice newly developed tech referred to be some name or acronym in marketing literature, but there will generally be only a superficial description of the broad strokes of what it is and what it does, the material left intentionally vague in order to not become useful study material for other manufacturers. Take for example DCA’s Acoustic Metamaterial Tuning System (AMTS). Their marketing material on the Expanse and the Stealth is replete with references to it being used to break up standing waves in order to provide a smooth presentation. It even goes so far as to tell you what individual concepts and prior tech are part of the system, but in the end it doesn’t connect the dots, so to speak, and explain anything beyond the most basic points. Now DCA, and Dan Clark specifically, has actually been pretty open in explaining some of the nuts and bolts if the tech in a few interviews, but that’s only been fairly recent since it has been out for a few years now and even at that they’re still notably vague regarding details of certain aspects.

This is a big reason why you’ll see even budget manufacturers including incorporated tech in marketing so we, as consumers, are left to determine which manufacturers are including true innovative improvements in their products and how much they’re worth to us. Thankfully, when a pair of headphones comes out and is consistently underperforming for it’s given price, the market is generally pretty effective at driving down the price and pushing inprovements in future products. Off the top of my head, the Sennheiser HD700 and HD800 is one of the first and best examples I can think of. The HD700 was released to much fanfare, but was almost immediately marked as being polarizing at best and largely overpriced for what it offered. Sennheiser quickly began lowering the price to pickup sales and in the meantime, immediately began developing the HD800 which was then quickly brought to market and the HD700 was discontinued. That’s what happens when consumers reject the price a manufacturer places on their latest tech when it doesn’t provide a desired improvement in performance.

That ended up being longer than I thought, but I hope it was at least useful.