Sure, we review plenty of high-end products here on TechRadar – everything from $8,000 OLED TVs (LG OLED W7) to $1,000 planar magnetic headphones (Oppo PM-1) – but our first true love is finding the best products that cost less than you’d expect. It’s like finding a diamond in the rough.
With that said, I’d like to welcome you to our round-up of the best cheap headphones, a guide to the best cans that sound great and don’t break the bank.
In our search for the best-performing set of headphones for the least amount of dough, we scoured the internet, searching high and low for headphones from quality manufacturers with high ratings. We then tested the headphones head-to-head (ear-to-ear?) to see which one stood above all others. What you see below is the fruit of that experiment.
But, one quick caveat before we begin: In spite of our exhaustive (and I do mean exhaustive) search, we will have very likely missed <insert your favorite pair of cheap headphones here>. I apologize in advance, but there are simply too many options out there in the world, let alone too many to call in and test. That being said, if you do really want me to test out your favorite headphone, shoot me an email or reach out on Twitter and I’ll do my best to make it happen.
What to look for in cheap headphones
For this guide, I tested, tried and compared over 25 headphones in every shape, size and category. When I found a winner, I then put it against the rest back-to-back-to-back to make sure they still stood head and shoulders above the crowd.
So, what was I looking for throughout all this testing? Sound quality first and foremost. But also things like comfort, design and feature-set as well.
Like most folks, I like my music detail-rich and well-balanced. I don’t mind when music sounds a bit warm with a focus on the mids and highs, and I like my bass to be controlled. Beyond that, it’s important to look for headphones with good battery life if they’re wireless, a strong, durable design that will hold up to the dangers of a backpack and comfortable padding to help get me through longer listening sessions.
Remember that headphone testing is, on some level, subjective, and my taste in tonal balance might not match yours (neither will my head or ear-shape). That said, I’ve done my best to take subjectivity out of the equation and can present, in my mind, the best cheap headphones very little money can buy.
- Best cheap earbuds: RHA S500
- Best cheap wireless earbuds: Anker SoundBuds NB10
- Best cheap on-ear headphones: Skullcandy Grind
- Best cheap over-ear headphones: Monoprice 8323 Hi-FI DJ Style Headphones
- Best cheap noise-cancelling headphones: CB3 Hush
- Best cheap planar magnetic headphones: Tidal Force Wave 5 Headphones
In-ear headphones (often referred to as earbuds) are beloved for their portability and noise-isolating qualities. They’re perfect for quick strolls around the block and your daily commute or a day at the office. For those purposes, the RHA S500 is my top pick.
Said simply, the RHA S500 has no right to sound as good as it does. I found it to have the best clarity and precision of any in-ear headphone we tested, along with a comfortable fit that created a passive noise barrier and it offered robust, balanced sound with warm mids and highs and sturdy bass reproduction.
In a field of crazy competition, the RHA S500 stands well above the rest.
I knew going into this that Anker would end up on this list somewhere. Since bursting onto the scene a few years ago, Anker has eviscerated the competition, offering good-sounding in-ear headphones (and battery packs, and chargers, and cables) all for crazy cheap prices.
When looking for a good pair of wireless in-ear headphones, I’m always on the hunt for something that sounds good (duh!), feels comfortable to wear for long periods of time and, most importantly, doesn’t fall out mid-workout. The Anker SoundBuds NB10 does all of the above perfectly.
What I loved most about the Anker SoundBuds NB10 is its warm sound and spectacular bass response. It’s not as heavy-handed as some other in-ear headphones, but that demureness makes it great both when I'm at the gym and when it’s time to hang up the towel.
It was love at first listen with the Skullcandy Grind. These bass-heavy cans bring a built-in microphone to the mix and offer fantastic sound quality at a bargain basement price.
Ultimately, they do everything we want in a pair of on-ear headphones – they’re light, but not fragile. They’re powerful, but don’t are directional enough that sound doesn’t spew out everywhere, alerting your neighbors that you’re listening to Taylor Swift again.
If Skullcandy’s low end-heavy tone and teenager-esque aesthetic aren’t for you, there’s always the equally good Urbanears Plattan II – a more balanced pair of on-ears that cost almost exactly the same amount as the Skullcandy Grind.
It’s easy to spend an arm and a leg on good over-ear headphones. Barring the exception of noise-cancelling and planar magnetic cans, they are the top dogs of the audio world. Really good over-ears should be the most comfortable, most versatile headphones in your audio arsenal. They should be just as happy with Hi-Def audio sources of 16-bit/44.1KHz as they are streaming from Spotify, and they should do so without sacrificing either end of the audio spectrum.
In our testing we found a half-dozen that can do the job (Status Audio’s CB-1 come to mind, as do the Sennheiser HD201 and Audio-Technica ATH-M20X) but, of them all, the Monoprice 8323 Hi-FI DJ Style Headphones are the cream of the crop. They’re a bit cheaper constructed than the others, but for their price they sound outrageously clear. Balanced and powerful, the Monoprice 8323 is the epitome of what the best cheap headphones should be.
If over-ear headphones are the swiss-army knives of headphones, noise-cancelling cans are the paring knives: they’re useful for certain purposes and not so much for others. What I mean there is that typically, noise-cancelling headphones trade overall audio fidelity for the ability to cancel out incoming sound waves – reducing or eliminating external noise.
The best noise-cancelling headphones can eliminate noise while maintaining Hi-Res Audio quality (cough, Sony MDR-1000X) while others accept the trade-off for what it is. The CB3 Hush are most definitely in the latter camp. But while I didn’t find them the best-sounding headphones of the bunch, the CB3 does deliver on its promise of cheap, effective noise-cancellation at under $100.
If you don’t mind some distorted highs and lack of low-end, the CB3 will cut out a fair amount of the external noise and should serve you well either in a busy office or on your daily commute. If you’re traveling longer distances on the regular you’ll want something a bit more heavy duty than this, but for the causal noise-canceller, the CB3 Hush will do nicely.
If I’m going to explain what, exactly, planar magnetic headphones are, I’m going to need you all to do something for me: please put on your nerd glasses – or simply put electric tape around the glasses you already own. I don’t care which.
Most headphones you’ve likely heard in your life are dynamic driver headphones. They use a magnetic field to drive the diaphragm of the speaker – a.k.a. the big pulsating cone of sound. Planar magnetic headphones also use a magnetic field to move the diaphragm, but instead of a cone, it’s a thin sheet of coils that allows for much greater sound uniformity. Stay with me here. Dynamic drivers produce spherical sound waves that are unnatural for the ear while planar magnetic produce a planar wave, which sounds more natural and give the headphones their name. The result is a truer-to-life sound that is far more robust than anything you can hear from a dynamic driver-powered pair of cans.
Tidal Force’s Wave 5 Headphones utilize this technology and cost less than half of what other companies like Oppo charge. Said simply, they sound incredible – like almost bring-a-tear-your-eye amazing. If you’re an audiophile on a budget, you should do yourself a favor and check out the Wave 5.
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