Best Cheap Headphones
Published on By Michael Sweet
JVC Gumy Plus Review
(From $5.00 Best)
These earbuds are incredibly cheap, yet they still dish up loud and clear sound. They're also comfortable to wear, according to reviewers, and seem to last longer than you might expect.
JVC Gumy Plus reviews attribute the popularity of these earbuds to their incredibly low price (starting at $5, Amazon) and surprisingly good sound quality. A CNET expert describes the sound as well-balanced and clear. The treble can be a little harsh, though, and the bass is relatively weak. Still, this model sounds pretty good considering how cheap it is, he says. Best Buy shoppers praise the headphones' light weight and comfortable fit. They're plenty loud enough and sound pretty good overall, JVC Gumy Plus reviews say, despite a lack of powerful bass. On the Walmart website, reviews show that some users consider the treble overpowering and the bass not strong enough to balance it out. But others say these headphones deliver a nice, clear sound that exceeded their expectations.
JVC Gumy Plus earbuds don't sport a lot of extra features, but that's not surprising given their sub-$10 price. They do have a wide frequency response of 15 Hz to 20 kHz and an excellent sensitivity of 108 dB, which means they produce plenty of volume on relatively little power. Some reviewers wish the cord were longer; at 3.3 feet, it's the shortest among our picks. These earbuds are available in eight colors.
JVC Gumy Plus earbuds offer a bit of a compromise. If you don't have to have strong bass, these are a great value. You'd be hard-pressed to find a decent-sounding set of earbuds for less than this pair. They are also comfortable and fit well, according to JVC Gumy Plus reviews. Even with an extension cord, these headphones will come out cheaper than most.
Skullcandy Ink'd 2 Review
(From $11.00 Best)
These earbuds deliver the best audio you're going to find for less than $15. They do an excellent job reproducing a full range of sound, experts say. Just be aware that cheap earbuds aren't very durable, so you'll probably have to replace them occasionally.
Skullcandy Ink'd 2 reviews rave about the quality of the sound. The team at Top Ten Reviews judges these headphones a cut above the competition when it comes to sound quality, declaring them the best-sounding earbuds for less than $50. They pump out powerful bass yet still maintain clear highs and lows, according to the site's Skullcandy Ink'd 2 review. Shoppers posting Skullcandy Ink'd 2 reviews at Best Buy laud the crisp, clear audio. However, some users complain that their earbuds broke within a couple of months. Some buyers say the Skullcandy Ink'd 2 earbuds fit perfectly and are very comfortable, but we did see a few other shoppers complain about the fit, which just wasn't quite right for them. At Amazon, users are likewise split on the subject of comfort, and again we saw several Skullcandy Ink'd 2 reviews questioning the durability of these earbuds. However, many Amazon shoppers bring up the great sound, especially the strong bass.
The Skullcandy Ink'd 2 earbuds (starting at $11, Amazon) have a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, which matches the normal range of human hearing. The sensitivity, at 102 dB, is a little higher than average for budget headphones and means these earbuds can produce higher volume with the same amount of power. The Skullcandy Ink'd 2 earbuds include three sizes of silicon ear tips, which should accommodate most users. The cord length is pretty generous for earbuds, at 1.3 meters, or just about 4 feet. Some versions of the Ink'd 2 have a built-in mic, which increases the retail price to $20. These earbuds come in more than a dozen color combinations, including a handful of NBA team colors.
There's no doubt that the Skullcandy Ink'd 2 earbuds provide fantastic sound, especially for a budget product. Most users should find them comfortable enough thanks to the variety of ear tips included in the package. We're a bit concerned about the durability of these earbuds, but at as little as $11 a pair, they're all but disposable.
Panasonic RP-HJE120 Review
(From $5.00 Good)
These earbuds are so cheap they're practically disposable. Experts declare they have decent bass, although the highs can sound a little harsh. Still, for the money the sound is quite good.
A Panasonic RP-HJE120 review at CNET rates these earbuds 4 out of 5 stars due to their comfortable fit, decent sound, and dirt-cheap price (starting at $5, Amazon). The expert reviewer says the headphones produce pretty good bass considering how little they cost, and the audio has good detail. He warns that the highs can sound a little harsh, though. The headphones also don't feel especially durable to this reviewer, but at such a low price, if they break you can simply throw them away and buy a new pair without breaking the bank.
Users who have posted Panasonic RP-HJE120 reviews at Walmart like the fit and feel of these earbuds. They also describe the sound as clear and loud, with good bass. One user does report that one ear went out after just a week of use. At Amazon, users conclude that the Panasonic RP-HJE120 earbuds are a pretty good value and sound great for an inexpensive model. Some consumers complain about the cheap build, and again comes the gripe that the highs sound harsh. Others appreciate the solid bass these headphones deliver, as well as the comfortable fit.
The Panasonic RP-HJE120 earbuds have a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz and a sensitivity of 96 dB, both typical for budget headphones. The cord is a bit on the short side, at 3.6 feet. These earbuds literally weigh next to nothing, at 0.1 ounce, and you can find them in eight different colors.
If you're looking for super-cheap headphones that simply sound OK, this model gives the JVC Gumy Plus earbuds, the cheapest in our top tier of recommendations, a run for their money. The JVC earbuds cost about the same and probably sound a little better, but the Panasonic RP-HJE120 have good bass and seem to fit most users nicely.
Where to buy
JVC Flats Review
(From $12.00 Good)
If you prefer on-ear headphones to earbuds, these are the way to go. Colorful and cheap, the JVC Flats have detailed, clean, well-balanced audio with enough bass to keep your feet tapping.
JVC is one of the best-known names in audio electronics, and JVC Flats reviews show that this company knows how to make a good product at a budget price. An expert from CNET likes the clean and detailed sound the JVC Flats deliver. He notes a little distortion at high volumes, however. The bass is a little on the light side, as well, although the reviewer says it's still strong enough to satisfy. The on-ear headphones are comfortable, too, the review concludes. Walmart users agree that the JVC Flats feel comfortable to wear. In JVC Flats reviews at Best Buy, shoppers give the headphones credit for clarity and declare them a great value considering how nice they sound.
The JVC Flats (starting at $12, Amazon) are on-ear headphones with a wide 12 Hz to 24 kHz frequency response and solid 103 dB sensitivity. The cord is 4 feet long. The headphones come in six iPod-Nano-matching colors.
The JVC Flats are definitely no-frills headphones. This pair is almost entirely lacking in extra features compared with other on-ear models -- no built-in remote control, no carrying case, just the headphones, thank you. But the JVC Flats serve up very good sound at an oh-so-cheap price. On-ear headphones typically cost more than earbuds, but these show that an on-ear model can deliver performance at a competitive price.
Sony MDR-ZX100 Review
(From $15.00 Think Twice)
These on-ear headphones are comfortable to wear, but reviewers have found the bass lacking. Although the ZX Series headphones do have many fans, you can find better for less.
These on-ear headphones are modestly priced (starting at $15, Amazon) and they serve their purpose pretty well, according to many Sony MDR-ZX100 reviews. Shoppers at Amazon describe the sound as clear and balanced. The highs and mids sound particularly good, they say, although the bass is a little lacking. Sony MDR-ZX100 reviews on Amazon also note that the headphones feel comfortable. In comments posted on the Walmart website, consumers agree that these ZX Series headphones don't have very strong bass, but they're lightweight and comfortable. Shoppers seem to feel they're a good value overall. However, some users noticed distortion though these headphones. Sony MDR-ZX100 reviews at Best Buy generally declare them sturdy and comfortable.
The Sony MDR-ZX100 has a 12 Hz to 22 kHz frequency response and sensitivity of 100 dB, a measure of the volume generated by a milliwatt of power. The cord is just shy of 4 feet long, nearly as good as consumers can expect in this price range, yet reviewers on multiple sites comment that they wish it were longer. Like most budget headphones, the Sony MDR-ZX100 model doesn't really have any extra features such as a built-in mic or volume control. These headphones are available in four colors: black, blue, red, and white.
The consensus on the Sony MDR-ZX100: These headphones are OK but not great. The sound is respectable and users like the fit and feel, but this model is a bit more expensive than other, better-sounding budget headphones we looked at. Without any extra or unique features to set these headphones apart from the competition, they end up being decent but perhaps slightly overpriced.
Where to buy
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.
Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Skullcandy Ink'd 2 Review
Frequency Response 20 Hz-20 kHz
Sensitivity 102 dB/mW
Cord Length 4 feet
|11||Earbuds||20 Hz-20 kHz||102 dB/mW||4 feet|
JVC Gumy Plus Review
Frequency Response 15 Hz-20 kHz
Sensitivity 108 dB/mW
Cord Length 3.3 feet
|5||Earbuds||15 Hz-20 kHz||108 dB/mW||3.3 feet|
Panasonic RP-HJE120 Review
Frequency Response 20 Hz-20 kHz
Sensitivity 96 dB/mW
Cord Length 3.6 feet
|5||Earbuds||20 Hz-20 kHz||96 dB/mW||3.6 feet|
JVC Flats Review
Style On-ear headphones
Frequency Response 12 Hz-24 kHz
Sensitivity 103 dB/mW
Cord Length 4 feet
|12||On-ear headphones||12 Hz-24 kHz||103 dB/mW||4 feet|
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.
Additional Products We Considered
Koss UR20 Review
(From $14.00 )
It's hard to find a decent set of full-size headphones for less than $20, but Koss UR20 reviews suggest these are a good place to start. Users posting at Newegg say the headphones have good, solid bass and are quite comfortable. One reviewer describes the sound as a bit hollow, though. Amazon shoppers praise the Koss UR20 (starting at $14, Amazon) for deep bass, as well as good highs and mids. Buyers also appreciate the solid construction and durability of these headphones, saying they feel like they're built to last. Some Koss UR20 reviews come from users who aren't overly impressed with the audio quality, however. They label the sound merely "decent" and a little muddy.
The Koss UR20 closed headphones have a relatively narrow frequency response, from 30 Hz to 20 kHz. Their sensitivity is lower than average, at 97 dB. Many reviewers like the 8-foot-long cord, which is good for home stereos and PCs but may be a bit much for smartphones and MP3 players.
Koss UR20 reviews flag this model as a pretty good deal for users looking for cheap closed headphones with excellent bass. They aren't the best-sounding headphones out there, but users confirm they're not bad by any means.
iLuv HearSay iEP515 Review
(From $21.00 )
These earbuds are designed to work with Apple iPhones, iPods, and iPads and sound impressive, according to an iLuv HearSay iEP515 review at Macworld. The reviewer commends the well-balanced audio, although he says the bass can sound a little "bloated" at times. Still, the highs are smooth and the midrange has nice detail. An iLuv HearSay iEP515 review from Beatweek, on the other hand, favors the low end of the frequency spectrum. This expert praises the headphones for their strong bass and solid midrange but finds the treble a bit weak. The reviewer likes the flat-ribbon design of the cables, as well, because it's less apt to tangle. Overall he judges the headphones quite a bit better than most earbuds in this price range. Amazon users, like the experts, have positive things to say about the sound from this model in reviews. They also appreciate the extra eartips included with these headphones, saying they fit very well.
The iLove HearSay iEP515 headphones (starting at $21, Amazon) include an inline remote control with a microphone built in, so you can receive calls through your smartphone. Macworld's iLove HearSay iEP515 review notes that audio coming through the mic isn't too bad, although the sound may be a little shallow. The company's website is pretty coy about the other specs for these earbuds -- it doesn't list details such as frequency response or sensitivity. The cord is 4 feet long, which the Macworld reviewer declares a little on the short side, but it's on par with our budget recommendations. The earbuds are available in three colors: black, red, and white.
The iLuv HearSay iEP515, made for Apple devices, cost more than other earbuds we checked out, but iPhone users can take advantage of the included remote control to play music and take calls using the built-in mic. The sound quality of these earbuds is quite good, reviewers say, and they're comfortable to wear.
Where to buy
Sennheiser HD 219s Review
(From $49.00 )
Sennheiser products rarely come cheap, but they generally enjoy a warm reception from critics, so we turned to Sennheiser HD 219s reviews to find out if that holds true for one of the more affordable pairs in the company's lineup (starting at $49, Amazon). Alas, this on-ear model earns only 3 stars out of 5 from a PC Mag reviewer. The headphones' audio is crisp, according to the expert, and the highs sound especially sharp. But the bass is lacking and sounds distorted at higher volumes. The Sennheiser HD 219s headphones include an inline mic so you can take calls on a smartphone. The PC Mag reviewer observes that calls sound quite good through these headphones. Amazon users agree that the mic does its job well and many seem to share the PC Mag expert's assessment that the base should be more powerful. They appreciate the overall sound quality, though, and say the headphones are comfortable. A few users mention that they feel like this model is cheaply made, but we saw no reports of breakage or tendency to malfunction in Sennheiser HD 219s reviews.
The Sennheiser HD 219s headphones' frequency response is from 19 Hz to 21 kHz, about the same as the other models we researched. These on-ear headphones have a higher sensitivity than most headphones, though, at 108 dB. In addition to the mic, they also include integrated volume control, which no doubt contributes to their higher price. The cable is just short of 4 feet long.
If you're willing to spend a little extra for the convenience of an integrated mic and volume control, the Sennheiser HD 219s headphones may be a decent choice. If you love deep, pounding bass, however, these headphones are not for you.