You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get great sound. High end, pricey headphones definitely have their place, but if you know what to look for and shop smart, you can get surprisingly good audio for around $20. Here’s what to look for, and some suggestions to get you started.
Choosing the right pair of headphones can be tricky, and is definitely a matter of personal taste (no matter how many comments, forums, and Amazon reviews try to tell you otherwise), but there are some commonalities that can give you great sound on a budget.
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To get you started, we’ve discussed some great headphones, some great in-ear models, even some solid headphones designed for exercise, and noise cancelling models for the office. Now let’s look at some budget friendly models you won’t feel bad about tossing in your bag as you run to catch a train, or manhandling while you’re doing yardwork or cleaning around the house.
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What You’re Getting and What You’re Giving Up
You can get great sound on a budget. Will it be the same as expensive, super-high-end headphones? Likely not. Is it good enough for most people, especially if you’re listening to a lossy mp3 or middling-quality internet stream on your phone or PC? Absolutely. There’s a time and place for expensive headphones, and it’s usually in quiet environments with lossless audio where fidelity is important. For every other time, on the go, when you’re traveling and you want good sound but don’t want to feel terrible if your headphones are lost or broken, or if you’re on a budget, more affordable headphones are better buys.
We’re not here to settle the debate over high-end versus low-end audio, but we will tackle a few important points. First, buying affordable headphones will require some compromises. None of the models we tested had that broad, beautiful soundstage that make everything sound almost live and real. By going budget, you’re giving up the kind of high fidelity sound, frequency range, and rich, clear mids and highs that mimic live performances or studio quality.
In return, the best models grant you deep, rich bass (which can be a good or a bad thing, we’ll get to that), portability, decent mids and solid highs (if at times a little bright). Bottom line though—you’re not going to get an experience that matches hundred dollar-plus headphones, but a pair of Hamiltons can certainly buy sound quality that matches or surpasses headphones two or three times as expensive.
The Best In-Ear Monitors and Earbuds for Under $20
Monoprice 9927 Enhanced Bass Hi-Fi Noise Isolating Earphones ($7 direct): You didn’t think we would kick off this list without mentioning these, did you? The 9927s have quite the cult following, and while a lot of professional reviewers are mixed on them, I loved them for their rich, full bass response and clarity through the midrange. Whether I was listening to electronic, classical, or jazz, I found they offered rich and full sound that’s often tough to get in a pair of in-ear headphones. Part of that has to do with their massive external drivers, which can lead to an uncomfortable fit depending on your ears, but the price-to-performance ratio is solid. Some people have said the treble is too high—I didn’t find that at all. I did, however, find that the bass can be overwhelming sometimes, and how comfortable you are wearing them for long periods depends on your ears. We’ve featured them before. You love them. Buy a pair.
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RHA MA-150 ($12 on Amazon): While technically RHA has moved on from the MA-150s, they’re still widely available, and they’re some of the most crisp, clear, rich headphones that you can get for the money. I found them a bit less bass heavy than the Monoprice models, while the mids and highs were remarkably clear. Don’t misunderstand me though—they pack a serious low-end punch, which again is great for electronic, but if you’re an acoustic or metal fan, there’s a lot here to like as well. The bass can be a little distracting though; and if you listen closely they can leave the mids and highs a little muddled. The 150s offered rich and deep sound in a small and comfortable package. I wasn’t expecting much when I tried these on, especially as I’d had the opportunity to try RHA’s higher-end models a few months back, but I was so blown away I actually emailed my contact to ask how they managed to make cheaper headphones sound better than their more expensive models. Don’t just take my word for it though, PCMag rated them highly (and I’ve seen their headphone testing facilities) and even the New York Times had good things to say as well.
Panasonic RP-TCM125-K ($16 on Amazon): The Panasonic RP-TCM125-Ks are The Wirecutter’s pick for best sub-$30 earphones, so I had to try them out myself. They’re spot on with their recommendation here, with a few caveats: If you need headphones with a microphone and you’re sticking to this price point, these are a stellar option. They offer well balanced sound and even frequency response that makes all of your music sound smooth without any part of it being muddled by anything else. At the same time, that even response may turn off people who really like powerful bass or strong highs. They’re a comfortable fit, and come with additional ear tips if you need them. They’re not perfect though—I like a little more punch, but I felt that the tradeoff for even, clear sound was that everything sounded more boring than I was used to (which could be personal preference). That said, if you want good headphones not just for listening but also for talking, you can’t do much better.
Koss KSC75 Ear Clip Headphones ($15 on Amazon): The Koss KSC75s are perfect for someone who doesn’t like in-ear headphones (or has a hard time getting a good fit) but doesn’t want to give up their convenience for a pair of full, over-the-head supra-aural or circumaural cans. I loved this combination—they clip snugly around the backs of your ears, and the pads rest on-ear. I could see those pads getting tough to wear over long periods, but they’re very modder-friendly in that department. Sound-wise, I found them a little underpowered and soft, but when I connected them to an amp, they really, really shined. That isn’t to say you won’t have a good experience—they have a wide frequency response and offer great sound. However, they’re definitely open-backed, so your neighbors may hear more than other in-ear models, and because they’re on-ear, they won’t block out as much external noise. That said, they sound good, they’re cheap, and they’re perfect for people who want portability but not necessarily something jammed in their ear.
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If you have a little more to spend…
If you have a little more to spend on headphones than $20, you have plenty of great in-ear and portable models that are just over the $20 price point.
Sennheiser CX 300 Mk-II ($35 on Amazon): An extra $15 bucks gets you a pair of Sennheiser in-ear headphones that offer great build quality, excellent clear and crisp sound, surprising soundstage for such a small set, and satisfying—although not overwhelmingly boomy—bass response. I really liked the CX 300s (although not as much as their pricier big brothers, the CX 400 Mk IIs, but they’re over $50), and when I first tested them they were much closer to $20 than they are now. Chalk it up to holiday price inflation or what, but if these were still $20, they’d be in the category above. They’re light, noise isolating, and while they’re not the most powerful earbuds I’ve listened to, they are some of the most clear. Don’t take my word for it though, they’re well liked at Engadget, over at PCMag, and at CNET.
Klipsch Image S4i-II ($40 on Amazon): Double your dollars, and you can grab the Klipsch S4i-IIs, the successor of one of your favorite in-ear headphones that also packs volume controls and an in-line microphone. Here’s the deal with these—when they were new, they were over $80. They’re a little old, but since you can pick them up for half-price, they’re a decent bang for the buck. The build quality is solid, the separated tip-and-driver design is comfortable, they have great noise isolation, and most importantly they sound good. Some of the others above will match it beat for beat when it comes to clarity and bass response, but your extra dollars here go towards a better build that will hopefully last you longer. The in-line controls were a little spotty on my Android device, but Klipsch only markets them to iPhone users anyway, so keep that in mind if you buy. For more, check out CNET’s review.
The Best Over-Ear Headphones for Under $20
If full, on-ear and over-ear headphones are more your style, $20 still nets you a great selection of quality audio gear. These models deliver great sound, whether you wear them on the go or at your desk listening to music on your PC.
Monoprice 8323 Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone ($20 direct): The 8323s are a brilliant example of great sound and comfort on a budget. They’re built pretty well (barring the pleather earpads), and they sport a long, strong, detachable cable. I was a little put off by the wide fit of the headband and the plastic earpads at first (all of which are easily modded), but that faded pretty quickly when I started listening to music. They deliver way better sound than you would expect in a $20 closed-back set of headphones. They’re DJ-style, so the individual cups are adjustable, and the whole thing collapses nicely for storage or portability. The bass is strong but not too boomy, the mids are good but a tad muddled, and the highs are crisp. They’re well balanced, but the drivers still deliver enough power to really make you feel what you’re listening to at any volume. Hook them up to a solid DAC (digital to analog converter, a topic we’ve discussed and have recommendations for) for a real treat. For more, check out this Head-Fi review and CNET’s glowing review.
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Sennheiser HD 201 ($20 on Amazon): I’ll be blunt about the HD 201s. They don’t sound like $20 headphones. If I didn’t know they were $20 before I put them on, I would have assumed they were $50, and the sound is balanced like a pricier pair of headphones. They’re well built to boot, sturdy and comfortable to wear—unlike a lot of headphones in this category, they don’t feel like a little twist will crack or break them. They’re over-ear, closed back models too, so they do a decent job at isolating outside noise so you can focus on your music. I found them a bit underpowered, and not as bassy as I would like, but if your favorite tunes aren’t bass heavy, it’s not a big deal. They’re crisp and clear, but definitely not loud. For more, check out CNET’s review, or Head-Fi’s review of the 201s. If you have room to stretch, step up to the $33 HD 202s or the $38 HD 203s. The 202s and 203s each sport a more stylish look, if you care about that kind of thing. Audio-wise though, each step up will earn you better sound. Sennheiser’s bang for the buck here is remarkable.
Panasonic RP-HX40-K ($18 on Amazon): If you’re really on a budget, these Panasonics will deliver solid sound in a pretty small package, at around $18, less if you shop around. Part of this is because they’re on their way out—I think Panasonic is either finished manufacturing them, or about to discontinue them, so while they’re easily available now at multiple online retailers, this time next year they may not be. Surprisingly though, they’re some solid sound—definitely on par with the others here—and they include an in-line microphone for taking calls. That means if you prefer full headphones but don’t want to give up the convenience of actually listening and answering on your phone, they’re worth a look. Here’s the catch—they’re really flimsy, and don’t feel like they’ll take a ton of punishment. One sharp twist and they feel like they’ll break. The soft fabric on the earpads is thin as well, so they wouldn’t be comfortable for long periods. They’re also a little snug fit-wise, which may or may not be a bad thing for you.
Koss Porta Pros ($25 on Amazon): The Koss Porta Pros are pretty legendary, and have a long and storied history that goes back to their introduction, 25 years ago. That’s why we’re cheating a little bit and adding five bucks to the bottom line to mention them here (as opposed to below). They have a well-deserved following, and are highly regarded as solid bang-for-your-buck headphones. I actually owned a pair of Porta Pros a long time ago, and it was nostalgic to try them again, only to find that they sound even better, today. They’re still beautifully balanced with rich bass and striking highs, and soundstage unlike anything else in the category. They’re well built and sturdy, and while they’re semi-open backed, leakage isn’t terrible at moderate volumes. They’re comfortable to wear (although I imagine people with long hair may hate the collapsible band), and even though they definitely have that 80s headphone look about them, they sound terrific regardless of the type of music you put through them. Even if you buy another pair of headphones, these are worth having around.
If you have a little more to spend….
JVC HAS400B ($28 on Amazon): These headphones sound surprisingly good. They’re really well built over-ear, closed back headphones that sport solid sound in a small, collapsible package. They’re made from firm plastic, not the flimsy stuff. They’re also pretty powerful and clear at low and high volumes. I found them a little bright (aka, louder in the mids and highs than the bass) but just like bassy headphones, it’s probably not an issue for you if the music you listen to is acoustic-heavy or aggressive in the high frequencies. Their bass, while lower in volume, was pretty solid and natural. They’re comfortable to wear for long periods, and while the earcups have that plastic-y feel, you can replace them with fabric pretty easily if you choose. Second, JVC touts its use of carbon nanotubes in these headphones, and while they may be carbon in there somewhere, or maybe the drivers were manufactured using technology associated with carbon nanotubes, just know that this is marketing at play (although I admit it sounds pretty cool.) If you can grab a pair at this price or even cheaper, they’re a great buy.
Superlux HD 681 ($30 on Amazon): The HD 681s may not win many awards for portability, but if you love this style of old, can-style headphones and you also want sound you’d normally get from a $50-$60 pair, look no further. These are clearly designed to appeal to audiophiles, specifically audiophiles on a budget. The sound is crafted to be even, clear, and balanced, with restrained bass response and even highs. If you like driving music, or your favorite genres are really loud, you might be disappointed with them, but I was impressed by exactly how balanced these headphones really were. Electronic and hip hop tracks I knew were ridiculously bassy evened out a ton (which could be a good or a bad thing), and gentler music like classical and instrumental jazz were almost silky smooth. Not everyone will like the design, but they were certainly comfortable to wear, sport a self-adjusting headband, and while CNET praised them, they think they’re ugly. That’s a matter of taste, as these Head-Fi reviewers indicate. One thing to note however; the HD 681s look closed, but they’re actually open backed—you’ll definitely get sound leakage from them, and they’re not for noisy environments. They do sound great though for 30 bucks.
If you really have a bit more to spend and you want a solid return on your investment, the Grado Labs SR60i ($80 on Amazon) and the SR80is ($100 on Amazon) are absolutely incredible for the price. The Audio Technica ATH-M50s (~$100 on Amazon) have also earned high praise from multiple corners of the web, and while I liked them the last time I tried them, I didn’t get to test them for very long in a controlled environment. Besides, we’re talking low-end, budget headphones here, so I don’t want to go too far with this, but just note that all three of these are mentioned in our best headphones roundup, for damned good reason.
Further Reading and More Options
These are just some of the models we tried (and the only ones we loved), but they’re by no means the only sub-$20 headphones available. There are others we didn’t get to test, and more still hit the market regularly. Many are terrible, but there are diamonds in the rough out there. Read reviews and first-hand impressions, and take the advice of reviewers you trust. Don’t throw your money away just because they’re cheap. Check out the return policy of the retailer you’re buying from, and if the ones you get sound like crap, send them back or exchange them for another pair. If you can try them before you buy, that’s best. Finally, remember: the only person’s ears who matter are yours.
Check out some of these reviews and roundups if you’re looking for more suggestions and reviews:
- Headphones at The Wirecutter (Specifically their guide to in-ear headphones under $30)
- Head-Fi, specifically their Help and Recommendations forums
- HeadRoom, specifically their best cheap headphone guide
- PCMag’s Headphone Hub
- CNET’s Headphone Reviews
Photos by shlala, Dan, and Josh Semans.