Here at TechRadar, we know that we cover some of the best high-end audio equipment on the planet – varying from $8,000 OLED TVs (LG OLED W7) to $1,000 planar magnetic headphones (Oppo PM-1) – however, there is nothing that brings us greater joy than finding you the best products that you can buy without taking out a second mortgage on your home.
So, now that we’ve made our intentions clear, we’d like to welcome you to TechRadar’s guide through the best cheap headphones, a list of the best headphones that sound great but won’t make your wallet scream out in pain.
In our quest for the cheapest headphones you can buy today, we pilfered through the depths of the internet, searching high and low for headphones from reliable manufacturers with high ratings (whether they were in-ear or over-ear). We then tested the headphones head-to-head (ear-to-ear?) to see which pairs really are the best for the price. What you see below are the results of that quest.
One thing we get out of the way before we start though: In spite of our exhaustive (and trust us, we do mean exhaustive) search, we will have very likely missed some people’s favorite pair of cheap headphones. We apologize in advance, but there are just too many options out there on the market, let alone too many to call in and test. However, if you do really want us to test out your favorite headphone, shoot us an email or reach out on Twitter, and we’ll do our best to make it happen.
What to look for in cheap headphones
In order to create this guide, we’ve tested, listened to and compared over 25 headphones in every category, shape and size. When we found a great pair, we then put it against the rest back-to-back-to-back to make sure they still really deserved the title of ‘best cheap headphones’.
You might be wondering what we were looking for through all this expansive testing? Sound fidelity was clearly the most essential detail – but we also made sure to consider comfort, design and other features also.
Like most people, we prefer our music detail-rich and well-balanced. We can live with our music sounding a bit warm with an emphasis on the mids and highs, but we still like to be able to feel the bass. Also, it’s important to look for headphones with reasonable battery life if they’re wireless, a robust, durable build that will stand up to the trials of everyday commute and comfortable padding to help make longer listening sittings nice and comfortable.
Keep in mind though, that testing headphones will be, at least on some level, subjective, and our taste in tonal balance might not match yours (neither will the size of our head or the shape of our ears). Still, we’ve done our best to take subjectivity out of the equation and can present, through our expertise, the best cheap headphones that won’t hurt your wallet.
- 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
Best cheap earbuds: RHA S500
These simply have no right to sound this good
Earbuds are loved for their portability and noise-isolating capabilities. They’re great for brief walks around the neighborhood, your morning commute or a day at the office. In this contested category, the RHA S500 is our top pick.
For its cheap price, the RHA S500 frankly has no right to sound as good as it does. We found it to have the best clarity and precision of any in-ear headphone we tested, along with a comfortable fit that doubled as a passive noise barrier. Plus, it offered solid, balanced sound with warm mids and highs and sturdy bass reproduction.
In a category with tons of great competition, the RHA S500 stands well above the rest.
Best cheap wireless earbuds: Anker SoundBuds NB10
Looking for a workout buddy, check out the Anker SoundBuds NB10
We knew going into this that Anker would end up on this list somewhere. Since bursting onto the scene a few years ago, Anker has destroyed the competition, offering good-sounding in-ear headphones (and battery packs, and chargers, and cables) all for unbelievably cheap prices.
When looking for a good pair of wireless in-ear headphones, We’re 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 we 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 you’re at the gym and when it’s time to hang up the towel.
Best cheap on-ear headphones: Skullcandy Grind
For movers and shakers, these are the best on-ears for the price
It was love at first listen with the Skullcandy Grind. These bass-heavy headphones bring a built-in microphone to the mix and offer amazing sound quality at a bargain basement price.
They do everything we want in a pair of on-ear headphones – they’re light, but not fragile. They’re powerful, but 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 style aren’t for you, there’s always the equally good – a more balanced pair of on-ears that cost almost exactly the same amount as the Skullcandy Grind.
Best cheap over-ear headphones: Monoprice 8323 Hi-FI DJ Style Headphones
Although they're a bit fragile for on-the-go use, the 8323s are awesome at home
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 adept 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 (the Status Audio 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.
Best cheap noise-cancelling headphones: CB3 Hush Noise Cancelling Headphones
Want to seal the noise out without draining your bank account? Try these
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 we mean here 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, ) while others accept the trade-off for what it is. The CB3 Hush are most definitely in the latter camp. But while we 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.
Best cheap planar magnetic headphones: Tidal Force Wave 5 Headphones
Planar magnetic for half the cost of the competition
If we’re going to explain what, exactly, planar magnetic headphones are, we’re going to need you to do something for us: please put on your nerd glasses – or simply put electric tape around the glasses you already own.
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 us 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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