"Punching Above Their Price"

When it comes to headphones, especially budget headphones, the term “punches above its price” is thrown around quite liberally to the same extent that the word “generational” is thrown around when talking about athletes who may be simply exceptional. I’m guilty of saying it myself.

I believe some of that comes down to perceived value vs actual value. The FiiO FH1 for example, comes with a Hard-Shell carrying case, a 3.5mm cable, 2.5mm balanced cable, 6 x Silicone tips, a nice unboxing experience and sleek design.

When I opened up a pair I came away thinking that it was pretty good value in the box for $74.99. But when it came down to actually listening to the FH1 I found it had awful, bloated bass, shrill treble. and the midrange certainly was doing it any favours. While it came with some nice accessories and a nice design, it’s sound was dreadful. But because of those inclusions and the unboxing experience, I could see people saying that they “punch above their weight”.

With that rambling example out of the way, here are a couple of questions:

  1. How do you feel about the term “punching above their weight”
  2. Which headphones do you feel truly punch above their weight class and why? (Giant killers are different thing, this is just for some headphones you feel are genuinely good in their price bracket)
  3. If every $35-50 Chi-Fi IEM punches above its weight, can that term still be used or should that just be the standard expected in that price bracket now?
  4. What are some headphones you feel punch below their weight? Whether it’s because they’ve become outdated with a stagnant pricing structure, released at the incorrect price or other factors.

Looking forward to seeing what you all think and how the opinions will differ!


6XX for me punches way above their price for sure, the Ananda at the current sale price punches above their price IMO. Lastly and definitely not the least the Koss Porta Pros most definitely deliver WAY above their price!



This will be an interesting discussion…

My soapbox feeling… the punches above it’s price gets thrown around too much to just about any good product that’s its like the standard so instead of “Hey this is a good $500 headphone” it’s gotta be “This $500 headphone outperforms headphones 3x it’s price” which often is not true outside of a moment of euphoria that comes from something new in ones hand. Steps off soapbox

A lot still comes down to preference for me so above and below:

Above: The Shozy Form 1.1’s are probably the last thing I can think of that I’ve had for a long enough time to say they perform better than I though they were priced at. In fact, I had to go re-look at how much I paid for them because I thought I had spent 2x what I did.

Below it’s weight… well, probably the Sony MDR Z7 for me… the bass was butter but they didn’t seem to be clear enough in the vocals/mids enough for me to warrant the price. I so wanted to keep them for the bass they had but at the end, the lack of clarity caused me to move on from them.

Other “below it’s weight”… and knowing the fanboy I am of the brand, this is hard for me… the Audeze iSine10’s aren’t a $300/400 IEM in my opinion.

Those are my first thoughts…


It works for me - I interpret it as “unusually good value” - and it tends to avoid the rapid descent into rampant hyperbole that terms like “giant killer” evoke. And over 30 years in the audio hobby I’ve come across lots of products that would qualify as “punching above their weight” (i.e. unusually good value), where as literally a handful are things I consider “giant killers”.

Listed alphabetically by manufacturer (no other ordering implied), some of the more prominent ones that come to mind (and not necessarily an exhaustive list):

Audeze LCD-2.2C (circa 2012, pre-fazor)

It took even Audeze several years to comprehensively beat a good copy of these. Yes, you could argue the LCD-X beat them - at nearly double the price and with a completely different signature. But if we wanted to retain the Audeze house-sound, it wasn’t until the original LCD-4 that Audeze pulled that one off reliably (good copies of the LCD-3 could be preferable - but personally I never found one that was good enough).

Dan Clark Audio/Mr Speakers - AEON Flow 2 Closed

Probably the best closed-back planar, period, and one of the better closed-backs at any price. The only reasonable alternative I can think of to the Elegia, for those that want a meatier signature, and really not much else until you start running into the likes of the Vérité Closed and Focal Stellia.

Etymotic Research ER4-S (and SR/XR)

The best mechanical isolation available, in a linear sounding, reasonably easy to drive, and tiny package that exhibits the best phase, technical and overall tonal performance in any single-driver IEM I’ve heard, and comfortably, and realistically, competes with IEMs costing many times its asking price.

Focal Clear

>90% of the performance of the Utopia for about 40% of the price. Easy to drive. Only really serious challenger for resolution and dynamics was the HD800S until the HEDDphone dropped.

Focal Elegia

Closest thing to a truly neutral, reference-class, closed back headphone - with fewer artifacts from being closed than pretty much anything else. Even with higher-end models from elsewhere most are a “fun” (U or V shaped) tuning, or too specialized, until you run into the Vérité Closed and focal Stellia.

HEDD Audio HEDDphone

A first entrant that, after a couple of weeks listening, I would say pretty much tops everything I’ve heard around its price, several models well above its price, and manages to best some much more expensive units in some individual technical areas. Possibly redefines its segment (though may also result in price increases from other manufacturers as they update/replace their similarly-priced models).

Koss Porta Pro

Not much really needs to be said here.

RAAL-requisite SR1a

Literally bests every headphone I’ve ever heard, at any price point, all the way up to Sennheiser’s $55,000 HE-1 (“Orpheus II”). Redefined what was possible in a headphone, while coming in at a lower cost than any of the legitimate flagships.

Sennheiser HD58X - Jubilee

As a sensible remix, that are easier to drive, and have a really solid baseline tonality, along with more than decent technical performance, they handily beat out much of the competition up to 2-3x their price, with the exception of their old, more venerable, “brothers”.

Sennheiser HD650 (and HD6XX)

A classic, and its cheaper, plainer, but still fantastic, derivative. Recent models (late 2015/early 2016) removed the “veil” and expanded the stage. These are still a reference over a decade and a half (actually 17 years) since they were introduced. Even today very few headphones can legitimately claim to best the HD650 across the board, and they are frequently fixtures in systems with four and five figure sources and amps.

Sennheiser HD800S

The HD800S, along with suitably modified original HD800, have been sporting with the more recent rounds of $3,000-$4,000 headphones all along. They’re not as heavy a higher-tier puncher as the HD650, nor as consistently so highly regarded, but there are still things they do so well that you cannot best them without spending significantly more.

I’ve got a big box of “recommended” models that fall in that category that ably demonstrate that by no means does every $35-50 Chinese IEM punch above it’s weight. A lot were superficially impressive, but with further listening it rapidly becomes apparent the only punching that then went on was to the dick.

Which is not to say there aren’t IEMs in this category, its just not nearly all of them.

A disturbing proportion of Beyerdynamics, everything I’ve ever heard from Ultrasone, the HD700, Sony MDR-Z1R, Fostex TH900-Mk2, I think HiFiMAN still need to do a better job on their builds, particularly at the higher end and the Meze Empyrean would be a lot more interesting at $2,000.


I knew when I saw you replying to this post it was going to be good!!! Great impressions as always Ian.


It just is.


LOL!!! :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: :joy: This just made my morning, thank you sir!


Koss KSC75 with Yaxi Pads- micdrop :slight_smile:

QCY T5 - a true wireless IEM for a quite detailed flat sound at 35€

All you guys wrote, is so right- could not put more information out. So this will be a shorty

Semnheiser 58x
Hifiman 560 V1 from what I read
Sennheiser 6line
Focal Elegia - my love

Dan Clark Audio AEON 2C with top isolation over Elegia and so small - perfect for shorter sessions before ears get hot - would love to get it as I use more closed backs

Focal Clear at the 1000€ Promotion - if stage would grow a touch, my “pic it and never look at other pairs”

Hifiman Ananda at Promotion and for sub 1k at start

The HEDD phone, hope it is the Focal Clear I dreamed of


Nice you picked it up. My writing took to long
It is so funny because it’s true “punching on the…”

that is why I did not mention the Tin Hifi T4- made no mistakes for 70€ with 11/11 codes for balanced cable and a pentacon adapter from 2.5 - both for free
The T4 makes no mistakes- is what I wanted to say

The prior T2 Pro and T3 punched under the weightclass


Yes, how the hell could I forget AEON2C they are so loved!!!


Yes on the HiFiman build… was considering that. I had a pair of 560s fall apart in my hands…

I should add the Audeze EL series to my underweight category. I liked some things about them but the build took on some odd choices. Price wise, they would have been better situated in the $350~$400 range than $600+ and without the proprietary connector.


I was going to reply, but, @Torq pretty much said what I was thinking but, with way more detail and panache! Torq you’re a treasure, good sir!

I will add that from my point of view the Chi-fi stuff I think is its own category and sets it’s own standard, plus there are so many that it is hard to keep up with what is good or not! I’ve tried following a couple of discord’s and Reddit threads regarding this topic and it seems there are darling IEMs in the morning but by afternoon they are trash and a new king is crowned lol… this is daily it seems lol, so I’ll leave that topic to the likes of @antdroid @Titienne and others of similar IEM reviewing capabilities

I also wonder how much of personal “feelings” creep into the “punches above its weight class” or “giant killer” statements is taken into consideration… also group thinking :thinking: as everyone loves the HD650/6XX (which let’s be real these absolutely deserve punches above its weight/price bracket) but, I almost think that is just the new standard, as in my opinion the next level up is actually better than them granted it is a large level up in price.

How much of it is what someone’s budget is that plays into these statements? “I can only afford X, and I’m completely satisfied nothing can beat this!” Or “I heard such an such and yeah it’s good, but my X is good enough and is almost as good!”

Lots to think on for sure, but, remember, we all are on different paths of enjoyment, no one is wrong for liking the audio equipment they like for enjoyment :face_with_monocle:

Anyhow, too soon? Too real? Lol :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes: maybe @Resolve and I can discuss some of this in a live stream… :smirk:


Yes it is for sure the different budgets and use cases.

Auditioned the Elegia more than half a year before I got them at the crazy good price, here.
Many months before this I started saving up for the full price of 899 and would be as happy as I am with them.

Would you guys @Resolve and @DarthPool inform us a day before the next stream please?


Well stated.

So much of what we perceive is based upon ‘value’, and our emotions always creep into that equation.

I think that perceived value is what makes something like Drop (Massdrop) so popular. They do bring great value and products to market, but I don’t think one can say that they have ‘TOTL’ products (though they did/do sell the RAAL).

They’ve made themselves the ‘mid-fi’ kings.


Not everyone :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: but I completely get your point.

agree, soo many factors come into play. I think I’m learning that I need to take my time with audio equipment, tends to be my initial feel is not the one I’ll have a week or month later.

Drop… something about them these days. I maybe becoming a contrarian old fart though. :smiley:


Closed Backs:
Punching Below Their Weight: totally agree that the Sony MDR-Z1R are in this category. I bought them when they cost considerably more than they do now and they need to come down another $1k to be at their weight class. Finally tweaked my PEQ curve to tolerate the Z1R but at times the “Punching Above Their Weight” Sony MDR-1AM2 still sound better.

Another headphone that is great for what it does and for less money than you would expect: Sennheiser RS 175 RF WIreless Headphone System. This headphone has transformed how my hard-of-hearing Mother enjoys TV.


This topic is a minefield, as it mixes impressionistic marketing hype with statistics and quantitative analyses. Audio is notorious for both, and the misapplication of both.

In general, I imagine a quadrant chart such as this when the topic arises:

The products that offer both quality and value are placed in the top right, while those offering quality at a high price go in the top left. Poor quality products go in the bottom.

To get here, one must generally look at a bunch of relevant factors and rate/rank them. Then throw them in a distribution curve:

Standard Distribution Curve:

However, audio products may or may not conform to a bell curve like this. Even a poor product can sound “decent” to many people.

Diminishing returns are often graphed on an ogive chart like this:

Or this:

Industry standards such as the HD-600 and HD-650 clearly perform well above similarly priced products from many vendors – they are also near the point of diminishing returns (Point C in the chart immediately above). Other price-is-no-object products do indeed outperform them, but the gains may be relatively trivial [how much better is a Holy War – this is the audio minefield]. But, do the HD-6 family “outperform” now that they’ve been on the market for ~20 years? They now define the mainstream meaning of “Punching At Its Price.”

By simple logic, very high cost products can only punch AT or BELOW their price. Anything in the “Punching Above Their Price” must be cheaper than many competitors. A Rolls Royce is the standard in its price bracket. A Ferrari is the standard in its price bracket. When the very cheap but reliable Japanese cars expanded across the world in the 1970s, they very often punched above the local competition, and drove umpteen US and European brands to death’s door or out of business. However, they did not compete with luxury brands at that point.

Chi-Fi is akin to Japanese cars in the 1970s. Their IEMs are vastly superior to anything else in the <$100 range just 5 years ago. They reshaped the quality curve…as happens all the time with technology…


I can’t really list those that “punch above their weight (or price bracket)” as the headphones I have had the pleasure (or displeasure) of trying out are mostly under the $600 bracket, as I have always been one to “not try what I am not willing to buy” (except for cars and motorbikes but that’s a different story).

I can say that there are budget headphones that I have tried that have left me impressed by their qualities but they haven’t replaced more expensive headphones I have already owned.

However, I will say that the KZ ZS10 Pro have replaced far more expensive Shure models for on stage monitoring while playing bass. For listening to music, I do find them fatiguing after a while, but for clarity while playing they compete with models 10 times their price.

Again, there are lots of ChiFi IEMs that I enjoy but I can’t compare them to IEMs costing much more as I don’t have the experience.

To be honest, anything that I get enjoyment out of I consider a good purchase, anything I don’t is a waste, no matter the price.




I think the Hifiman/Drop Edition XX stands out when considering a good value performer. They are comfortable, light weight, large cup size adds to the comfort level and the sound is definitely a top performer for an open planer. I have been using them more over others on the desk.