Best cheap headphones: your guide to the best budget headphones in 2017

At TechRadar, we’ve built a reputation for covering all the latest, greatest, and most expensive technology out there. But we do have a passion for finding great technology that you can get your hands on without taking out a second mortgage on your home to afford. At the end of the day, there is nothing more exhilarating, at least in our minds, than finding great cheap tech. That’s why we built this list – we’ve put our bargain-hunting prowess to the test, and have found all of the best cheap headphones you can buy today.

Still, headphones are, by their very nature, highly subjective and because there are just so many cheap headphones on the market, it’s impossible to bring them in and test every single pair – and we refuse to recommend anything that we haven’t tested ourselves. With that in mind, it’s entirely possible that we missed your favorite pair of headphones, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. All of the headphones on this list, however, we stand by when we call them the ‘best cheap headphones’, so if you’re looking for a new pair, you can rest easy. 

With this guide, we went through a process – extensively testing a great number of cheap headphones from every corner of the internet. In-ear, over-ear, wireless – everything you can think of. We then took the results of all of this exhaustive testing, and measured each headphone against each other until we could confidently pick a few to proudly wear the ‘best cheap headphones’ badge. So rest assured, even if we didn’t pick your favorite headphone, there isn’t a single pair in this list that will disappoint.

Best cheap earbuds: RHA S500

These simply have no right to sound this good

Great clarity/precision
Good Fit
No cable noise 
Can be fatiguing
No built-in microphone

Everybody loves earbuds due to their portability and noise-cancelling abilities. Whether on a morning commute, or just a brief walk around your neighborhood, they’re perfect. And, in this hotly popular and competitive category, the RHA S500 reigns supreme.

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

Really good bass response
Sweat-proof
Good fit
Chunky design

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

Hefty bass response
Built-in microphone
No volume controls

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 Urbanears Plattan II – a more balanced pair of on-ears that cost almost exactly the same amount as the Skullcandy Grind. 

Best cheap on-ear wireless headphones: Creative Sound Blaster Jam

Lightweight wireless headphones that are the perfect office companions

Lightweight
Great sound quality
No passive noise-cancellation
A bit on the fragile side

As great as wired headphones can be, being constantly tethered to your phone, MP3 Player or PC can be downright irritating. If you find yourself ready to tear the cord out of the jack once and for all, you need a pair of wireless cans.

For those looking to cut the cord on the cheap, the Creative Sound Blaster JAM is the way to go. It's lightweight, sounds great and is dirt cheap. What makes it on-ear headphones? Well, the foam earpads sit directly on top of your ears instead of encompassing them entirely, something some folks find more comfortable. 

Our only real complaint about the Creative Sound Blaster JAM is that, because they're on-ear headphones, they let in ambient noise like no one's business. This is totally fine for the dull roar of an office (and might even be helpful if someone needs to grab your attention real quick) but, for commuters or anyone who can't stand to hear the outside world while listening to their tunes, you're best served looking at one of the over-ear options coming up on the list. 

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

Flat EQ
Great clarity
Limited dynamic range
Plastic construction

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

Insanely cheap noise-cancelling
Hip design
Distorted highs
Weird button config

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, 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 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

Sound quality is outrageously good
Insanely immersive
Sturdy build
None really

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. 

 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.