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Cheap Headphones Buying Guide
Some people rip through headphones quickly, probably because many of the cheap headphones, like those that come with CD or MP3 players, are not built for the long haul. Manufacturers such as Sennheiser and Sony have jumped into this noisy market with a wide range of options that meet any consumer's budget or feature preferences.
What really distinguishes cheap headphones from their upmarket counterparts is the materials used to make them, not to mention the overall sound quality.
That said, there are a lot of decent quality cheap headphones out there that won't set you back more than $50. But first make sure you know which features are essential and which models are durable so you don't wind up disappointed and looking, all too soon, for another set of headphones.
Headphones Features.Some questions to ask yourself: Where will you primarily use the headphones? Do you need noise cancellation? What type of headphone is most comfortable for you -- ear bud or closed cup? What device will you use the headphones with? CD players and MP3s use a 1/8-inch jack. If you're using headphones with a guitar amp or a stereo receiver, you might want a more expensive pair because the input will be better, and you'll probably need a 1/4-inch adapter because all headphones are sold with a 1/8-inch plug. The discussion below will help you sort through the slew of models and features to find exactly what you want.
Headphones Style.There are many different headphone styles on the market, so figure out what suits your ear (cup or ear bud) and head (over the ear or ear pad), and which design is best for those times when you're physically active. The best approach is to try on each model and imagine wearing the headphones for hours on end. An expert at Goodcans.com notes that his Koss Portapro Headphones (starting at $30) with an ear pad design are the most comfortable headphones he's ever owned because the weight is distributed evenly throughout.
Early on only some headphones were designed with comfort in mind. But these days most manufacturers claim to have perfected the padding and cup designs and insist that one size fits all, notwithstanding the variations in peoples' ears and skull. Headphones with ear pads, like the Sennheiser HD 201 (starting at $19) or the Sennheiser eH 150 (starting at $42), sit on your ears, while headphones with ear cups, like the high-end Bose QuietComfort 3 (starting at $300, Amazon), encase your ears completely.
Earbud headphones, like the V-MODA Bass Freq Earbuds (starting at $30), are experiencing a sales spurt given the near ubiquity of MP3 players. As the experts at CNET note, cheap earbud headphones are very light, portable, and can provide decent noise separation from all the ambient clatter. On the other hand, continues CNET, the bass response in earbuds is often less boomy than what you hear with other cheap headphone styles. The great advantage of ear buds is their portability. An expert review at Ezinearticles.com notes that cheap earbuds may be uncomfortable for users whose ears are oddly-shaped or who find the buds themselves too small or large. Many manufacturers offer different sized ear bud attachments that suit a variety of ears; the Maximo iM-590 (starting at $45), for example, comes with four ear bud sizes and the V-Moda Bass Freq comes with three.
Sport headphones, like the Sony MDR-A35G (starting at $16), are designed for people on the move. They might have a headband or an ear clip that holds the cheap sport earphones in place, are usually sweat resistant, and collapse easily for portability. The biggest downfall of cheap sport headphones is their shoddy build. The hinges that make them collapsible are often poorly constructed and break easily if you're not extra careful.
Over-the-ear headphones are a high-end style designed for maximum noise isolation; most cost well over $300. These headphones are primarily used by sound engineers or production coordinators because of their excellent sound quality and long-term comfort and wearability.
Ear pad headphones, like the Koss PortaPro Headphones, are also referred to as supra-aural because they sit on top of your ears instead of cupping around them. CNET experts point out that cheap ear pad headphones don't have the same bass response as over-the-ear models. But not everyone can comfortably use cheap ear pad headphones; although the Sennheiser eH 150 provides unmatched sound quality at a low price point, one user notes on Amazon that his ears were too big for them. Cheap ear pad headphones don't block as much outside noise as over-the-ear models do, but as the Ezines experts point out, this can be a good thing: you at least remain tuned in to your surroundings.
Headphones Noise Cancellation and Isolation.Noise cancelling has become a buzzword in the headphones industry. Noise cancelling enhances users' listening experience by creating a vacuum around the ear that eliminates the chance of outside noise leaking in. High-priced over-the-ear headphones eliminate ambient noise by using a battery to create the vacuum, a technology that sometimes creates uncomfortable pressure on the eardrum. Most headphones with an actual noise cancellation feature are more expensive than the budget models we researched.
Cheap headphones rely on a variety of low-tech strategies to minimize seepage of background noise without actually cancelling the noise. Many manufacturers state that the fit of the headphones is what makes it resistant to the din from outside, but this is not noise cancellation. The supra-aural Sennheiser eH 150 has a noise-dampening feature that's based on its ear pad design. The ear pads sit tightly on your ear, but as a user comments on Amazon, there's nothing that prevents external noise from seeping in. This type of ear pad or ear cup design is common in the cheap headphones category, but doesn't seem to perform its intended function.
Cheap earbud headphones are at least more effective in isolating noise. Earbuds are much like earplugs: they block out noise by attempting to fill the ear canal. Earbuds let you listen at lower volume, but they may irritate your ear canal or make your ears sweaty after a while.
To help achieve maximum noise isolation, some cheap headphones come with earbuds of different sizes to accommodate users with different sized ears. The four earbud sizes included with the Maximo iM-590 make all the difference for blocking out noise, though they're a bit bulgy because of the size of the drivers, as an expert at TechPowerup notes. A satisfied user posting a review of cheap earbuds on B&H Photo Video says the V-MODA model provides a decent seal in his ear canal, so outside noise isn't an issue.
Headphones Cable Length.Cable length may not seem like a big deal, but if you expect to be active in any way when using your inexpensive headphones, don't overlook this feature. For one thing, with a short cable you won't be able to stow your MP3 player in your back pocket or leave it on a table while reaching for other objects. Most cords range between four and six feet, but the Sennheiser HD 201 features a 10-foot long cable, as does the Sennheiser eH 150; a headphones user review on CNET says the cord is long enough to skip rope with. But don't let a short cable deter you: you can easily alter any pair of headphones by purchasing a cable extension for about $10.
Headphones Frequency Range and Impedance.A lot of headphone manufacturers and shopping websites use jargon that's intended to make you buy a product even if you don't understand what the words mean. A great example of this is frequency range; a product description might say something like "the X model has a 500-5k-frequency range." (Frequency range is essentially the total area in the frequency spectrum that a headphone set is capable of reaching, from the very low to the insanely high.) CNET claims most manufacturers embellish this measure, even though it doesn't tell you anything useful. The experts at the Australian Headphones.com write that most listeners believe a wider frequency range makes for better headphones. But as the headphones buying guide on JR.com points out, the width of the frequency range doesn't indicate which frequencies the headset model favors; that is, whether the sound will be brighter or darker. Moreover, humans only hear in the range of 20-20,000Hz, so any number outside those boundaries is irrelevant. The Koss PortaPro headphones have a frequency range of 15-25,000 Hz, but the heavy bass tends to favor the lower frequencies.
Impedance is a term for electrical resistance, and many manufacturers insist this is an important factor in headphone design. Simply put, the lower the impedance in a headphones set, the easier it is to get louder volumes. In and of itself, the impedance measure can be misleading, because as CNET notes, low impedance doesn't ensure that one model will sound louder than another; other factors, like power output, come into play here. And except for the iPod, MP3 players don't have sufficiently high power output to affect the volume regardless of impedance.
In the end, impedance and frequency range are distractions from the main event, and that's the headphones' sound quality.
Best Cheap Headphones
The PortaPro headphones from Koss feature a collapsible design for portability, thorough bass response, and 1/8" and 1/4" adaptors for home stereo use. Users and experts rave about the PortaPro's sound quality, ear pad comfort, and overall durability. Koss provides users with a lifetime warranty, a rarity in the budget headphones category.Read more »
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V-MODA Bass Freq Earbuds
V-MODA's bass frequency ear buds use a technology called BLISS (Bass-Level-Isolating Soft Silicon) to eliminate outside noise when listening to music. Three different-sized bud tips are included, and users and experts note the silicon affords a decent level of comfort. Experts agree, however, that these buds can be a bit too bass-heavy at times.Read more »
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Good Cheap Headphones
Sennheiser eH 150
Featuring a very long 10-foot cable, the Sennheiser eH 150's are made for movement. The noise-dampening feature does a decent job of removing extraneous noise from the background. Some users note that their ears aren't always a perfect fit with the ear pad eH150's, and some experts quibble about the build quality. In general, though, users and experts rave about the sound quality and overall value.Read more »
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Sennheiser HD 201
Sennheiser's HD 201 headphones get high marks from users and experts for their lightweight, comfortable design, which allows listeners to wear them for hours without irritation. While the sound isolation isn't quite what some users might prefer, for budget headphones it's acceptable. Users report these ear pad headphones aren't made for high volume levels, which sometimes causes distortion in the sound.Read more »
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The Maximo iM-590 has a very stable bass response, although some experts think it's a bit too much and muddies up the sound. Several users gripe about durability, but in general consumers praise the sound quality. Experts and users agree that these ear bud headphones are quite comfortable; the four sizes of bud tips supplied certainly helps.Read more »
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The water-resistant Sony MDR-A35Gis built for portability and physical activity, not comfort. It folds up easily, using three hinges, to fit into bags and other small receptacles, but many users report the hinges are brittle and frequently break. The Sony MDR-A35Gheadphones are a cross between ear buds and an open-ear design that lets air pass through, which lets your ear breathe while working out, but some users say the headphones fall out of their ears.Read more »
Skullcandy Smokin' Buds
Skullcandy's ear buds come in a variety of colors and styles, but a majority of users and experts agree that there are better budget headphones on the market. Users report that the buds don't stay in their ears during any type of movement, and many experts say the sound quality is below par. While the cloth cable is a bit stronger than the traditional plastic, these ear buds are not an ideal buy for consumers looking for value.Read more »
Skullcandy Smokin' Buds Review
Sennheiser eH 150 Review
Sennheiser HD 201 Review
Maximo iM-590 Review
Koss PortaPro Review
V-MODA Bass Freq Earbuds Review
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