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Cheap Headphones Buying Guide

The best cheap headphones we found are a pair of earbuds from Skullcandy, the Ink'd 2 (starting at $11). The sound quality of these headphones is excellent across a full range of frequencies, according to reviews, with good-sounding lows, mids, and highs.

JVC Gumy Plus earbuds may not sound quite as sharp, but they still sound good and will set you back only about $5, making them a real bargain. JVC Flats (starting at $12) are on-ear headphones for consumers who prefer larger, more traditional headphones to earbuds. The audio from these headphones sounds clean and has nice detail, though it's a little light on bass, reviewers say. Panasonic RP-HJE120 earbuds are similar to JVC's Gumy Plus and cost about the same (starting at $5), although they don't feel especially durable. They deliver pretty good bass, but high frequencies sound harsh, according to users. Overall we give these a qualified endorsement. Sony MDR-ZX100 headphones aren't bad, but they're more expensive than the other models we looked at (starting at $15) and lack bass.

The most important criterion when shopping for headphones is sound quality. Users don't expect budget headphones to deliver concert-quality sound, but the audio should still be clear and sharp. Relatively strong bass and clean highs are also appreciated. Distortion is unacceptable at lower volumes but will occur at higher volumes in some cheap models. Comfort, of course, is essential. Cheap headphones may sound great, but if they aren't comfortable to wear, what's the point? Many earbuds include silicon ear tips of different sizes to help buyers get just the right fit. Whether to buy earbuds or on-ear headphones is strictly the user's choice, although earbuds seem to be the most popular choice for MP3 players and phones.

Don't expect to find a lot of extra features, such as noise cancellation or built-in volume control, in the budget price range. Such features are nice but confined to more expensive products. Some mid-range headphones, such as the iLuv HearSay iEP515 earbuds (starting at $21) and an upgraded version of the Skullcandy Ink'd 2 ($20), include a mic so you can take phone calls while wearing them.

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Upmarket headphones also tend to be more durable than their budget counterparts. Cheap headphones are mostly plastic, while higher-end products incorporate sturdier materials, such as steel and specially formulated silicon. Although inexpensive headphones aren't as reliable as high-cost models because of the way they're built, reviews suggest that users understand that cheap earbuds probably won't last all that long. Some models cost so little that users simply don't care if the headphones wear out in a few months. It seems that manufacturers can get away with making shoddy headphones because consumers keep buying them. Still, there are some cheap headphones out there that should last long enough to give you plenty of value for the dollar. Just 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 cheap headphones.

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