[Weekender] Koreans shell out for high-end headphones

By Won Ho-jung
  • Published : Sept 1, 2017 - 17:24
  • Updated : Sept 1, 2017 - 17:24

Audiophiles in Korea are shelling out for high-end headphones as technology for audio players continues to improve and headphones are marketed as accessories.

“Once you hear a song through expensive headphones, it never really sounds the same after that,” said a 38-year-old businessman surnamed Kim, who was trying out a different headphones at the Sony store in the upscale Apgujeong area.

“At first I thought that it was ridiculous to spend more than 100,000 won on a pair of headphones. But after trying out a friend’s headphones, I was completely hooked. The headphones I use now cost about 500,000 won.”
Kim isn’t the only one -- high-end audio companies are targeting the mass market with their pricier products as high-quality audio becomes more accessible.

The Signature lineup from Sony, including the MDR-Z1R headphones (Sony)

“As smartphones have all but completely replaced portable music players, high-end earphones and headphones have become a new way for audio brands to bring in sales,” said an official with an electronics retailer. 

“Unlike other gadgets like drones or photography, you don’t need to have a specific hobby or be familiar with technology to shop for high-end headphones. You already know how to use them, and no one can hear the sound but you -- meaning that your opinion is the only one that matters when deciding what’s worth your money.”

“In the past, consumers used to use bundled earphones that came with their smartphones, so spending even 50,000 won ($44) was considered a lot. That standard has gone up to about 200,000 won as people look for something more,” said a spokeswoman for Sony. 

She said that one of the best-selling models from Sony retailed at more than 500,000 won.

Models for the mass market from brands like Sony and Sure easily reach into the thousands of dollars. Sure’s KSE1500, released last year, was priced at 3.95 million won, while Sony’s Signature flagship MDR-Z1R model is priced at 2.5 million won.

That “something more” is not limited to sound quality. According to the spokeswoman, headphones have become another form of self-expression.

Brands such as Beats by Dr. Dre, Sure, Bose and Astell and Kern have added design to their high-quality headphones to make them more appealing to consumers. Headphone brands have released collaborations with fashion brands and character brands, and use celebrities as spokesmodels to pique interest.

“The thing about headphones and earphones is that quality can mean different things to different people,” said an official with iRiver, the company that operates the Astell and Kern brand. 

“Some people will go as far as to make personalized earphones based on molds of their ear shape, or buy a new earphones to maximize the sound quality from a specific music player,” she said.

The upward trend in earphone and headphone prices is not limited to audiophiles. According to Electromart, an electronics multi-brand shop run by Shinsegae, the most popular earphones other than the lowest price tier are in the 100,000 won to 150,000 won range, which is just shy of the most expensive products carried by the store.

By Won Ho-jung (