Mainstream vs. Hi-Fi Gear: Why Mainstream Wins And Why I Prefer Hi-Fi

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Mainstream audio has a lot going for it such as marketing, exposure, and branding and if I were to spitball some well-known brands like Sony, Bose, or JBL, chances are, you already know them. 

This is with more benefit to them and more detrimental to you though, and I mean this generally. I’m not trying to badmouth any brands here. The truth is that although mainstream audio gear is decent, they’re worth less than they seem to be. 

Naysayers begone and all that, but I speak from experience. 

I started in the audio hobby with a pair of Sony 1000XM3 headphones. At the time, they were said to be the best ANC headphones on the market, and based on my experience, they were absolutely magical. From the moment I put them on, the voice prompt greets me, and the sound vacuum kicks in – this experience screams premium.

The sound is authoritative and musical, and you can probably go on listening until the battery gives out and the voice prompt tells you to charge. 

I won’t deny that I’ve had my fair share of enjoyment with these headphones but as we speak, it’s now collecting dust on my headphone stand. I wouldn’t even pick them up unless I have absolutely no choice for any other headphones — and that’s granting I even grab a pair of headphones instead of IEMs.

Chi-Fi gear and the entirety of the audiophile market have now rendered me incapable of purchasing any mainstream stuff. Why, you ask? Well, we’ll talk about it. But first, the initial question. 

Spotify Discover Weekly - Mainstream vs. Hi-Fi

What Makes Mainstream Better Than Hi-Fi

There are pros and cons to everything and in the topic of mainstream vs. Hi-Fi, let’s talk about the advantages of mainstream over the latter.

#1: Accessibility 

The average Joe is more likely into mainstream stuff than Hi-Fi. And again, you may attribute this to exposure but in this case, I think it has to do with general accessibility. 

Hi-Fi is a niche when it comes to audio and despite any arguments rooting for or against it, it isn’t easily accessible. Acquiring DSD files is a pain in the neck, and the same goes for FLAC. Why would you pick Hi-Fi options for files when you could just stream Spotify and not worry about anything? 

Of course, the whole discourse about bitrate and the limitations of MP3 come into play but it’s irrelevant at this juncture. It’s just easier to use what’s convenient. 

#2: Plug and Play

Again, who doesn’t like things easy? You plug your headphones in and voila! They work and you won’t have to do anything else. That’s the single 3.5mm to the right earcup kind of headphone, of course. You don’t even have to worry if you’ve swapped L and R terminations. 

Much of the plug-and-play appeal is understandable. Audiophiles, however, are very particular people who don’t mind having to navigate through a jungle of connectivity options like RCA or XLR balanced and the like. If you hate complexity and just want the sound to get into your ears as fast as possible, then you drive my point even further. 

People like easy and dislike difficulty. Kind of spoken like a chimp there but hey, it’s true.

Why Hi-Fi Wins Over Mainstream In My Book

Now that we know the reasons why many people prefer mainstream audio gear, let me explain why I prefer Hi-Fi.

#1: Sound Quality

As an audio enthusiast under the wide umbrella most would categorize as an “audiophile”, sound quality is one of my obvious priorities. In essence, I like stuff that sounds good. 

Most of the mainstream audio gear do sound good to a degree but they employ a one-trick pony maneuver that sticks to bloated bass and elevated highs. What sounds good is relative but I’d argue that fun-sounding is far from being a refined sound. 

Hi-Fi gear is tuned by audio engineers with years of experience in sculpting sound signatures around targets, both proprietary and research-driven, like Harman. A certain degree of polish, apart from the usual considerations, like tonality and technicalities takes play in audiophile gear. 

You can say it’s almost sort of specialized attention to sound akin to getting custom clothing instead of taking one off the rack. 

#2: A Short Rant on the “Cheap Train”

Mainstream gear has its gimmicks and marketing, and really, how can an average person look away when products are so dirt cheap? Drunken with the promises of “superior audio quality”, the average guy won’t even blink an eye and say money is better spent elsewhere. 

Affordability has to mean something, like cost-cutting on the build, mediocre sound, and whatnot. If anything should inflate the price, it’s the R&D (research and development) and sound signature rather than branding and hype.

Still though, if all people know are the mainstream brands and these brands release something that’s a cheap cash grab, you’d expect it to be a real hit with the label “affordable”. 

Mainstream vs Hi-Fi

Unfortunately, affordable mainstream products tend to be more accommodating to what the market wants, which means it isn’t parallel with wanting to achieve the best sound quality for the price. But who cares because it’s cheap right? 

Of course, if you don’t read my tone, it’s purely satirical.

#3: Value for Money

I get it – some people aren’t mud-deep into the audio hobby and just want something that sounds fun. But for how much mainstream stuff costs, I’m confused as to why anyone wouldn’t go for something cheaper but better because that’s what Chi-Fi basically is. 

The Hi-Fi market can go ahead and target the vast demographic of people who are particular and are heavily invested in audio. The high-end may be the land of the deep-pocketed but the budget segment exists just as well, especially after the major Chi-Fi boom in recent years. 

More and more people are ditching their old mainstream rigs and crossing over and the reason is definitely clear. Mainstream can’t win against Hi-Fi in a battle of value. 

Mainstream vs. Hi-Fi: Final Thoughts

The existence of Hi-Fi has completely obliterated my will to ever look at mainstream stuff again. 

While not wholly absolute, exceptions are few and far between. I could think of a lot of pairings for a $150 Chi-Fi rig that can kick a $300 mainstream headphone’s ass. For instance, my pair of Hifiman HE400SEs paired with a VE Megatron sounds better than my Sony 1000XM3 even with its DSP correction on. The difference is night and day. 

You might need to hear it to believe it though. Mainstream isn’t the devil but their prices are. It may win on several accounts but given enough time for Hi-Fi to develop its reach, I think that’s not for long.  

Gavin is a college student who has a lot going on. From collecting IEMs and modding mechanical keyboards, to different hobbies like digital drawing, music mastering and cooking. It is safe to say he is a complete multi-faceted geek (and he's kinda cool too)

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