Best Cheap Headphones

Price Range

$5 - $20

Cheapism

$20 - $100

Mid-Range

$100 and up

High End

Some people rip through headphones quickly -- probably because many cheap headphones, like those that come with MP3 players, are not built for the long haul. Manufacturers such as JVC and Sony have jumped into this noisy market with a wide range of options that cater to a range of budgets and feature preferences. Budget headphones generally seem to be a mixed bag of poorly constructed products and a few gems. If you know what makes a good set of headphones and ignore catchy buzzwords, you can find a solid pair of cheap headphones that won't set you back more than $15 or $20.

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.

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.

Headphone Reviews: Sound Quality

Of all the attributes mentioned in headphone reviews, the one thing that marks a great set of headphones is the quality of the sound. Features such as noise canceling are certainly appealing, but if a pair of headphones doesn't sound good, it's not worth buying in the first place. Consumers certainly don't want cheap headphones that lend a tinny or metallic feel to the music; rather, the depth of sound should be full and, at times, boomy. Sound quality is based on the drivers built into the headphones: High volumes can easily cause cheap headphones to pop, while pricier models can handle a bit of loudness.

Among budget headphones, Skullcandy Ink'd 2 earbuds (starting at $11) are clearly a cut above the rest when it comes to good sound, according to the headphone reviews we read. Top Ten Reviews names them the best-sounding earbuds under $50. These earbuds dish out deep, powerful bass but still do a nice job maintaining clear highs -- a real trick for most cheap headphones. Consumer reviewers on sites such as Amazon and Best Buy also admire the deep bass from the Skullcandy Ink'd 2 earbuds and appreciate their clear, crisp sound.

Gumy Plus earbuds from JVC (starting at $5) don't have particularly strong bass, according to an expert reviewer from CNET, but what they lack in bass they make up for in well-balanced audio. One caveat in this headphone review: Highs can sound a little harsh at times. Walmart shoppers say the Gumy Plus earbuds deliver clear sound and some users consider the bass satisfactory, although others wish it was a little more prominent. Overall, though, reviewers declare that the sound quality exceeds their expectations, especially considering how very cheap these earbuds are.

Judging by headphone reviews on the Amazon and Best Buy websites, users are satisfied with the overall sound quality of Panasonic RP-HJE120 earbuds (starting at $5). Some shoppers say the bass is adequate but a bit lacking and highs are on the harsh side, however. Overall consumers have found the sound quality of these earbuds very clear and surprisingly good given their $5 price. At CNET, an expert reviewer says the bass is decent enough and he likes the detailed sound.

JVC Flats (starting at $12) impress Best Buy shoppers with their sound clarity and surprising audio quality. The CNET expert says the Flats have well-balanced, detailed sound, with ample bass. At higher volumes, the reviewer noticed some distortion at both the high end and low end of the sound spectrum, but overall the audio sounds clean.

Headphone reviews on Amazon commend the clear sound of Sony MDR-ZX100 headphones, but the overall frequency range seems limited, they say, and the bass could be a bit stronger. The sound is balanced, though, and shoppers say mids and highs sound quite good. On the Walmart website, users complain that the bass isn't powerful enough and they hear some distortion.

Frequency Response and Sensitivity.

A lot of headphone manufacturers and shopping websites use jargon that's intended to entice you buy a product even if you don't understand what the words mean. Frequency response is a prime example of this. It's essentially the total range of sounds that a set of headphones is capable of reaching, from very low tones to high frequencies. CNET claims most manufacturers embellish this measure, even though it doesn't tell you anything useful. As a headphones buying guide on the website of retailer J&R points out, the width of the frequency range doesn't indicate which frequencies a given headset favors -- that is, whether the sound will be brighter or darker. Moreover, humans hear only in the range of 20 to 20,000 Hz, so any number outside those boundaries is essentially irrelevant.

Sensitivity is a term that describes how loud headphones can be when using a certain amount of power. It's listed in dB/mW, or decibels per milliwatt of power. Simply put, the higher the sensitivity in a set of headphones, the better. Most budget models clock in at between 95 and 108. Headphones with high sensitivity can achieve a louder volume than headphones with low sensitivity using the same amount of power.

In the end, sensitivity and frequency response are distractions from the main event: the headphones' overall sound quality. These specs are worth noting but shouldn't be the determining factor in your buying decision.

In-Ear vs. On-Ear Headphones, Cords, and Reliability

Some questions to ask yourself: What style of headphones is most comfortable for you -- earbuds or on-ear headphones? Where will you primarily use the headphones, and with what device(s)? Do you want the cheapest headphones possible, or are you willing to spend a few dollars more for better sound? And, how long do you expect your headphones to last? The discussion below will help you sort through the slew of models and features to find exactly what you want.

Headphone Styles.

There are a few different headphone styles, so figure out what suits your ears. In-ear headphones or earbuds are great for active people, especially when jogging or exercising. In general, users seem to prefer earbuds to on-ear headphones when connecting them to a phone. MP3 players, too, are usually paired with in-ear headphones although plenty of users prefer to use on-ear headphones with those devices.

We checked out several earbud and on-ear-style headphones. Our picks for best and good in-ear headphones are the Skullcandy Ink'd 2, JVC Gumy Plus, and Panasonic RP-HJE120. For consumers who prefer on-ear headphones, we chose the JVC Flats. The more expensive Sennheiser HD 219s on-ear headphones (starting at $49) are also worth a look. For full-size, over-the-ear headphones on a budget, consider the Koss UR20 (starting at $14).

Headphone Cord Length.

Cord length may not seem like a big deal, but if you expect to be active when using your 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 3 and 6 feet. On the other hand, if you're pairing your headphones with an MP3 player or a phone, you don't want an extra-long cord, either. A 4-foot cord should be just about right. Don't let on-ear headphones with a short cable deter you from using them with your PC or stereo, however. You can easily alter any pair of headphones by purchasing a cable extension for less than $10.

Headphone Reliability.

Durability is an important issue when it comes to cheaper headphones, mostly because of the corners manufacturers cut to keep them inexpensive. Most often these models are built with less costly materials, such as thin metal and plastic. Budget earbuds are cheap enough that they're practically disposable. If you can get four or five months of good listening pleasure from a pair of $5 earbuds, that's a win in our book. If a cheap pair breaks, you can throw 'em away and get another pair. Of course, if the earbuds break after only a couple of weeks, that is a problem.

It's pretty clear from the online reviews we read that cheap earbuds often don't last very long, despite how good they may sound. Skullcandy's Ink'd 2 earbuds are a good example of this. The sound is excellent, but some shoppers posting at Best Buy report that they simply aren't that durable and one of the earpieces may stop working after just a few months. Some Amazon reviewers report similar experiences. Buyers should be prepared to replace these earbuds a couple of times a year. JVC Gumy Plus earbuds, our other pick for best in-ear headphones, don't sound quite as impressive as the Skullcandy Ink'd 2, but they do appear to be more durable. We saw few complaints about them wearing out quickly, and some Best Buy shoppers are impressed with their durability. Panasonic's similarly cheap RP-HJE120 model isn't made to last, it seems. A CNET reviewer says these earbuds don't feel very durable at all, and many Amazon shoppers consider them flimsy and cheaply made -- thousands of positive reviews notwithstanding. One buyer who posted a review at Walmart reports that one of the earpieces stopped working after only one week.

On-ear headphones tend to last a bit longer than earbuds, and that seems to hold true with the JVC Flats. We saw few complaints about the sturdiness and reliability of these headphones, though one user posting on Amazon did say one earpiece conked out shortly after purchase. Sony's MDR-ZX100 also seemed to suffer from few durability problems, and one user review at Best Buy specifically praises the on-ear headphones for their sturdiness.

Michael Sweet

Michael Sweet writes about consumer electronics. If something runs on electricity or ones and zeroes, he's interested in it. Sweet has written about PC technology and consumer electronics for 14 years.

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