Cheap Doesn’t Have to Mean Bad
Less than 10 years ago, a headline like the one above would’ve been hard to imagine—inexpensive headphone manufacturers simply hadn’t cracked the code. But times have changed, and audio engineers have achieved something that was previously inconceivable: inexpensive headphones can now pump out booming, palpable bass without distorting, and deliver very solid sound quality in general.
You’re still going to need to spend a decent amount of money if it’s studio-level clarity and balance you’re looking for. But if you want to improve on the so-so audio performance inherent in the standard-issue earbuds bundled with mobile devices, and you want to do it without breaking the bank, it’s possible. Read on for what to look for in a pair of budget headphones, along with our top-rated picks under $50.
Earbuds vs. Earphones (In-Ear)
Let’s quickly define the terms “earbuds” and “earphones.” Earbuds—despite the marketing jargon of many a manufacturer—are not earphones, and the terms aren’t interchangeable. Earbuds don’t enter the ear canal; they are flat and sit just outside the canal, and can often sit fairly loosely in the ear, creating problems when it comes to accurate stereo images and bass response.
Earphones, on the other hand, do enter the ear canal, just slightly. Their silicone eartips safely seal off the canal, which accomplishes two things: a secure fit and an accurate stereo image (in which both ears get the same amount of audio). Sealing off the ear canal is also the easiest way to provide an enhanced sense of bass response.
So, one way to avoid subpar audio in the sub-$50 realm is to make sure you avoid earbuds and stick with earphones that seal off the canal. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the audio will sound magnificent, but it’s a step in the right direction—many of the earphones we’ve reviewed are sweat-proof, exercise-friendly pairs, and nearly all of them include useful inline mics and remote controls.
Headphones (On-Ear and Over-the-Ear)
We can divide headphones (which are not the same as in-ear earphones) into two categories. Circumaural, or over-the-ear headphones, create a seal by pressing the cushioned earpad against the area around the ear. Supra-aural, or on-ear headphones, typically use light pressure against the ear to stay in place. Both styles can offer a solid audio experience, so it’s really about personal comfort and preference.
Budget headphones have really picked up their game in recent years, and not just in terms of bass response. There are more stylish designs, with better-feeling materials and more secure fits than there used to be. We’re also seeing super-lightweight pairs that somehow manage to summon lots of power.
While budget headphones tend to place added emphasis on bass, one surprise is that, in addition to some very comfortable, stylish options, there are some more serious models aimed at recording studios or audiophiles on serious budgets.
While there are gym-friendly headphones, most decent options are not priced to fit in the sub-$50 realm, so you may wish to either spend more or stick with exercise-friendly in-ear pairs.
If your budget is more flexible, take a look at our picks for The Best Headphones, regardless of price.
The Best Cheap Bluetooth Headphones
In general, this is a category that has yet to truly flourish in the budget price range, and options greatly open up if you can lean more toward $100. Still, there are some very good options to try, including a surprisingly decent $50 true wireless pair from JLab.
For more, see The Best Wireless Headphones.
Noise Cancellation on a Budget
Effective noise cancellation circuitry is expensive, and while you can certainly find brands trying to sell you active noise cancellation headphones for under $100 or even under $50, the circuitry won’t work very well. They will likely mask the ambient sound they cannot eliminate by actually adding in hiss. That doesn’t mean audio performance can’t be decent, but there is a reason the QuietComfort series from Bose is not cheap—nothing about that noise cancellation technology is easy to reproduce in a budget model. In other words, don’t look for any noise-cancelling headphones in this price range.
That said, check out our list of The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones for the top models we’ve tested. And once you’ve found the perfect pair, take a look at our 5 Easy Tips to Extend the Life of Your Headphones and 6 Ways You’re Using Your Headphones Wrong.
Pros: Affordable. Handsome design with quality materials and a decent array of included accessories. Clear mic intelligibility.
Cons: Remote control has single button. Mids are scooped out a bit.
Bottom Line: The $30 RHA MA390 Universal earphones outperform more expensive options in both design and audio performance.
Pros: Excellent audio performance with vibrant bass and clear highs. Simple, comfortable design. Built-in cable cinch for tangle-free storage.
Cons: No accessories. Sound signature may be too sculpted for purists.
Bottom Line: The Coloud No. 16 headphones look and feel good and sound even better, especially for the price.
Pros: Very affordable. Powerful bass response matched with sculpted highs.
Cons: Not for purists seeking accurate frequency response. No inline volume controls.
Bottom Line: Bluetooth earphones don’t get much more affordable than the Skullcandy Jib Wireless, which packs a strong bass punch for the price.
Pros: Strong audio performance with clear highs and rich bass depth. Affordable. Removable, washable headband. Cable can be wrapped using built-in tie to avoid tangles.
Cons: Could use more high-mid presence and a slightly bigger bass sound.
Bottom Line: The $30 Coloud No. 8 is an attractive headphone pair with audio performance that was once a rarity at this price.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with boosted bass and sculpted, bright highs. Attractive design with three-button inline remote control.
Cons: Can sound overly bright and sibilant on certain tracks. Bass boosting isn’t for purists.
Bottom Line: The House of Marley Nesta earphones deliver robust lows and bright highs in an appealing and affordable design.
Pros: Powerful bass response matched with sculpted highs. No distortion on deep bass tracks. Secure fit. Sweat-resistant design.
Cons: Collarband design not for everyone. Sculpted sound signature won’t appeal to purists.
Bottom Line: The exercise-friendly Jam Comfort Buds earphones may not be flashy, but they offer a solid Bluetooth audio experience with deep bass response.
Pros: Inexpensive. Solid bass depth and overall audio performance. Throwback design looks like old Walkman headphones.
Cons: No onboard volume controls. Sound leakage might annoy people around you.
Bottom Line: The JLab Retro Wireless headphones are a Bluetooth take on the iconic ’80s Walkman staple, with big bass and a low price.
Pros: Stylish Scandinavian design. Detachable cable. Can be linked to another pair for shared listening.
Cons: Light on accessories. Limited remote control.
Bottom Line: The stylish, comfortable, on-ear Urbanears Plattan 2 headphones deliver bass and balance at an affordable price.
Pros: Affordable. Powerful bass depth. Three EQ modes. Sweat-resistant.
Cons: Earphones can remain connected to phone and drain battery life when docked in case. Buttons can be difficult to operate. Weak battery life.
Bottom Line: The JBuds Air from JLab are far from perfect, but for $50, they’re one of the best bargains you’ll find among true wireless earbuds.