The law of diminishing returns

Hi Everyone. My socks get knocked off when I see all the great gear that has been pictured and talked about. My question is have any of you bought gear,expecting an “upgrade” but then were disappointed. What does everyone think about “The Law Of Diminishing Returns?” Certainly,a discernible increase in quality should be expected from opening price points and then to gear that would be an additional hundreds of dollars of investment. There is also the question of the convenience of IEM or just lest expensive headphones(throw out one example-Bose) and how do you balance the all the factors of convenience versus audiophile standards of reproduced sound. I will be honest. I hear a lot of discussion and critiques of this versus that but my experience has been that there is,indeed, A Law of Diminishing Returns. Do I(or anyone) jump into that foxhole and start buying ALL the various combinations of phones,amps,music sources(streaming and hardware(CD’s,LP’s),DSD et all,cables,custom work. Have any of you decided to STOP and say …that’s enough…I am ok with what I have and will just listen to music.


This has happened to me a few times, but like the rat in the maze looking for some tasty cheese, I keep on keeping on, striving for audio nirvana.


A long time ago I did that with a set of Bose headphones.

Several years ago I did what with HD-600 headphones.

Each time I eventually realized they weren’t meeting my needs and started up again. Right now I’m not convinced that I need more than what I’ve got, and may settle down for a while. Or not. Hobbies come and go, and there’s not a lot of value to be found at the high end.

True stories:

At one point my wife was happy with “Two Buck Chuck” wine from Trader Joe’s. For her birthday I bought a $35 bottle from a winery that competed in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” competition. This was a (poorly judged) contest between Californian and French wines, and the outcome was more or less a wash. But, this put California on the wine map. When my wife tasted this level of quality, Two Buck Chuck suddenly was like vinegar to her.

At one point my wife was happy with Corona beer, and then I gave her craft beer…

At one point I was happy with McDonald’s burgers…and then I started eating at…

Happiness is everywhere, happiness is nowhere.


Once seen, can’t be un-seen applies here…or I guess more appropriate would be once heard can’t be un-heard.

I have a friend that fully gets that my HD800 with Bottlehead Crack is ear meltingly good…but is quite content with less fidelity for greater convenience of Bluetooth earbuds. To each their own, I am quite content with my current line up, but still love getting new toys… sometimes they’re great, other times not so much. But the experience is half the journey.


The Law of Diminishing Returns does not apply to music. Maybe to a group’s 4+Nth album, depending on the amount of talent in the first place.

So when you have the LDR blues on your hardware, software, and cable purchases, go to a concert, or find something new in the way of tunes.


I generally find that most new equipment enjoys a honeymoon period during which almost anything seems like a true upgrade from whatever came before, partially because of expectation bias and partially because it’s easy to interpret something that sounds “different” as sounding “better”, if for no other reason than that it creates fresh and exciting experiences.

After this honeymoon period it comes time to discover faults. Nothing is perfect, and its faults inevitable become clear. At this point, assuming the faults didn’t result in an immediate divorce, many will seek help. Some might attempt to find synergies with different amps and DACs, while others might pay visits to Dr. EQ for some counseling. With enough dedication, such efforts often result in a happy marriage that can last for some time.

Over time, those who frequent fora such as this inevitably come into contact with new and exciting equipment of which many speak highly, the draw of which may prove irresistible, thus beginning the cycle anew. Some may jump fully into these new relationships, while others follow a more polygamist approach, amassing a household of equipment dedicated to fulfilling varying desires and never letting go of that old equipment with which they made many a great memory.

Some enjoy the process for what it is and realize that it matters little whether the 10th upgrade bests the 1st in a head-to-head comparison nor by how much, opting instead to enjoy each step in the process for what it is without trying to find some overarching logic to it. For these, diminishing returns are a non-issue.

Some obsess, worrying at each step whether it’s in fact a misstep, their anxiety building with each unsuccessful attempt to reach “end game”, yet find themselves unable to stop walking down the upgrade path. For these, diminishing returns are an inevitability.

Yet others find their appetites sated, step off this quirky path and choose to find new experiences elsewhere. For these, diminishing returns are real and might have provided the impetus for calling it quits.

I’d like to think of myself as falling into that last camp, but the mere fact of my writing this belies that.


Great explanation, pwjazz! - For me, if I have something for portable, on the move listening, like a decent IEM, and something closed back for more critical listening in a non-critical environment, and then the open set-up, for when the music is the main and only focus. Once you’ve got those bases covered, as a composer and producer, I have come to know how adaptable most of us can be. I also am acutely aware of how each of us hears differently. It’s almost like hair color or temperament. We all have a unique perspective. As many have alluded to, there’s also a psychology to how we listen and what we lend our biases to. There is no “one headphone” that completely works for everyone. But I’ll never call it quits. I suggest there’s always going to be a better wave coming on the next big swell, better technology, more efficient manufacturing, or a new playback innovation. Music defines my life so strongly, I’ll always be on the hunt to find that next big rush, whether it be from listening with a great headphone or speaker set-up, or finding a new band or new sound that knocks my socks off! I swear my headphones sound better when the music is really good! What touches the heart, inspires you to tears or goose bumps, or makes you smile, the price of your headphone set-up becomes secondary, not the point anymore. But still… if music is meaningful to your everyday life, keep reading and asking and listening for the best set-up that you can afford. And… spend as much time looking for new music that moves you, as you spend listening and searching for better equipment. Music… to most of us, has a deeper impact on how we see the world, how we thrive in our communities, than maybe we realize. Music saved my life, for sure!


Great discussion. In my humble experiences I can only conclude that at a certain point (of which is always up for debate) most upgrades are simply sidegrades. It’s just a question of how much you’re willing to pay for small increases in performance.

Personally I will always want to find something better, even though I can feel satisfied with my gear. Perhaps it is a character flaw of mine. But it’s one I have had all my life no matter what hobby. The only real downside I can see is it gets very expensive. What is expensive for one may not be for another. It’s subjective like so much of this hobby.


I believe from personal experience that the hearing system trains to its sources. When I listened to one set of headphones for a long period (e.g., months to years) my ears heard what they heard. When switching to another set the differences stood out and I had the ability to understand unique characteristics. When using several playback systems in the same period, one is simply more attuned to differences. My ability to distinguish definitely improves with variety.

Now, I agree with the rest of your assessment too. Lots of people get stuck in the process and the process becomes the end goal. When extreme, it’s diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder!


Diminishing returns sets in big for me for 2 reasons:

  1. Limited funds - I don’t have money to burn and I have other hobbies I like to waste money on. I’m not going to pay $500 more for a set of headphones that I think sound a little better if I listen really closely, especially when we could have a fun weekend with five extra bills.

  2. I get a thrill out of big leaps - like the first time I tried HD650s, I had never heard open backed headphones before and my jaw dropped. That’s what I chase. But the great thing about this hobby now is that with such great online communities you can try something out and resell it getting most of your money back so I’m always flipping stuff but it’s pretty rare I find something that replaces my favorite stuff.


I am pretty sure I fall into this category lol

Had to add, I have a desire to try all things, along with wanting the best thing… It can be problematic for my wallet… mostly because if I want something it is usually in my house in a couple of weeks/months of back and forth in my head on if I should get it(if not hours/days lol).


I would like to thank ALL of you. Your responses were thoughtful and it seems that all of you put some time into your responses. All of you are audiophiles but also philosophers. All of you gave me great answers about buying/thinking about new gear and thinking and looking at my present gear.


@frank_gyrue2 . “Great Topic”

I certainly believe in this law. Often time many changes in gear are only small changes in sounds. An example to me would be the Focal Utopia and the Focal Clears. No way are the Utopias worth 3x as the Utopias imho. I found the Clears to be as good or better than many in their price range.
I can also say from my experience some my greatest increases in sound have cost me a lot of $$$
When I gear that I know I’ve clearly made a poor choice. I make a quick reverse and resell immediately.
Almost always I buy used mint condition gears. If I have to lose and not always, a take a small hit and move on.


A $1000 headphone will not necessarily be twice as good as a $500 one, interconnects and DACs and other minutiae allegedly do get better the higher up the ladder you go, but it will never be as dramatic a change as going from freebie earbuds to decent headphones/speakers.

After a certain point it comes down to refinement, keying in those last few incremental bits towards achieving the sound you want. It only stops when you’ve spent as much money as you’re willing to; I’d say as much as you’re able to, but I know of some few in the hobby who’ve incurred credit card debt or inconvenient lifestyle changes due to nervosa. Absolutely (censored) stupid in my opinion, but to each their own.

As far as my experience with gear’s gone, I think one can find a personal endgame with a $1500 all-told digital system, transducers taking priority and amp immediately following, then DAC and others. The production quality of the music you’re listening to will matter as well. Anything more than this and while you may still be getting discernible improvements, it will not necessarily be the sort you’d notice offhandedly.

Do note that I’m neither a trained musician nor someone with good taste in music. People with better-refined listening skills may find that lower-tier systems sound intolerably offensive because they’re able to discern subtler differences than others.


I call these people snobs.

It’s ok to be a snob. I’m one. I won’t drink crap coffee. Folgers is awful. Starbucks is mediocre.


Hah! Guess that makes me a pleb; I love good quality teas and coffees, but if I’m broke or dead on my feet I happily endure McDonald’s roasts; they make Folgers taste passable.


Not the case with spirits though. If I’m getting plastered I’m doing it in style, meaning I don’t get drunk very often, haha.

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The high-end audio market has fractured into at least 3 groups:

  1. Critical science, technology, and quality-driven users – they are the basis of “high fidelity reproduction,” and focus on innovation with proof. This group has a lot in common with Pro Audio users and relatively little tolerance for untested devices or wasting money on nonsense. However, vendors often tout new high-tech products to recoup their investments but actually provide no value.

  2. Classic audiophiles who are driven by emotional experiences and hear things either through their eyes or hear things that no one else on planet earth can hear. They’d routinely fail a blind test, but generally won’t participate in a blind test. This group clearly split from #1 certainly by the 1980s/digital era (e.g., the initially valid but later unclear need for vinyl records), and fed growth in the marginal utility/snake oil industry (e.g., Monster Cable and all that followed).

  3. Spendy show-offs. This follows from flashy McIntosh amplifiers of decades past, as well as huge and unique looking speakers (e.g., originally B&W, B&O, Wilson, Martin-Logan, etc.). This market has now morphed into companies that make rare and expensive gear that the Investment Banker Next Door doesn’t have. They may or may not care about quality, just about having a beautiful but different luxury yacht, car, or watch than the next guy.

Hobbyists may fall into one or more category, depending on personality and budget. Their pleasure and satisfaction follows from their points of comparison: (1) pure audio quality, (2) a good personal experience, or (3) winning in social comparisons. Each strategy is widespread and sometimes hard to fully avoid.


I am a huge coffee snob too. I roast my own coffee and spend too much time tinkering with my espresso machine and grinders


I find myself somewhere between 1 and 2. In a nutshell, I like measurements, but I’m open to the idea that the state of the art in measurements can’t fully capture differences in the experience that various pieces of equipment offer. That said, I’m fairly intolerant of the idea that something will sound better for no other reason than “it’s more expensive” – if the designer doesn’t have a plausible working theory for why it should sound better (e.g. thinner diaphragms, higher flux density, or whatever), I lose interest.

EDIT - I should add that I find ABX testing both tedious and flawed. Take something like distortion. Unless something is distorting really heavily, I’d be hard pressed to pick it out in an ABX test where I’m constantly switching back and forth, but over longer listening sessions I’m quite sure that the increased distortion makes itself felt as a bit more fatigue and generally lower satisfaction.