Some people rip through headphones quickly -- probably because many cheap headphones, like the ones that come with phones, are not built for the long haul. Manufacturers such as JVC, Panasonic, Koss, and Sony cater to this noisy market with a wide array of options for a range of budgets and feature preferences. Our research found that low-cost headphones are a mixed bag of poorly constructed products and a few gems. We decoded the tech buzzwords and carefully combed through expert and user reviews to find solid pairs for $20 or less.
Perhaps the first question to ask is which style of headphones you prefer: in-ear, on-ear, or full-size, over-ear headphones. In part this depends where you'll primarily use the headphones, and with what devices. Earbuds or in-ear headphones are best for smartphones and listening to music or podcasts while jogging or exercising. Larger, full-size headphones typically deliver fuller sound and more volume. They're ideal for home use, such as plugging into a PC or stereo system. Consumers seeking cheap earbuds or on-ear headphones have plenty to choose from. Good over-ear headphones tend to exceed our $20 budget, but we managed to find a couple of models worth recommending.
Our top picks are led by two pairs of Koss headphones. Koss KTXPRO1 on-ear headphones (starting at $17) are lightweight and comfortable; deliver clear audio; and dish up solid bass despite their portable size. Koss UR20 headphones (starting at $15) are a tried-and-true full-size model with good sound quality and a comfortable design. Rounding out the frontrunners are the JVC HA-FX5 Gumy Plus in-ear headphones (starting at $6). These earbuds are very popular among consumers, available in an array of catchy colors, and so cheap they're practically disposable.
Another full-size option worth considering, JVC HA-RX500 headphones (starting at $20) are strong on bass and have an extra-long cord for at-home listening or gaming.
Panasonic RP-HT21 on-ear headphones (starting at $6) are similarly cheap and lightweight, but they aren't especially durable. One expert reviewer likens them to the disposable ones handed out on airplanes.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Headphone Reviews: What We Considered
Sites for audiophiles and even more mainstream tech sites tend to ignore cheap headphones. To make our picks, we referenced expert reviews when available, from sources such as the consumer electronics pros at CNET, but leaned heavily on thousands of online user reviews on retail sites such as Amazon, Newegg, and BestBuy.com. We went beyond the standard lists of headphone specs to evaluate two primary things most consumers ask of their headphones: that they sound good and they're comfortable to wear for extended periods. We discovered that sometimes the flimsiest looking earbuds can provide solid, nuanced sound, and plump, padded earpieces don't always guarantee pain-free wear for extended periods. Our top picks manage to deliver both a decent sound experience and a relatively comfortable fit without breaking the bank or, for the most part, malfunctioning within just a few months.
Sound Quality.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 sound at high frequencies are also appreciated. Distortion is unacceptable at lower volumes but does occur at higher volumes in some cheap models. A good set of headphones provides clear audio across the range of low, mid, and high frequencies, without hissing or crackling. The more nuanced detail a set of headphones can provide, the better, although that's a real challenge for cheap headphones (and even for mid-range headphones).
Koss KTXPRO1 on-ear headphones perform especially well, according to a CNET review. These headphones have a wide sound field, and the audio is big and full. JVC Gumy Plus earbuds might seem frivolous, with their extremely low price and candy-colored design, but they sounded surprisingly good in CNET's testing. They delivered pretty well in the lows and mids, although the treble was just a little harsh.
For consumers who like particularly bass-heavy sound, Maxell Amplified on-ear headphones (starting at $19) are worth checking out. They deliver pounding bass while maintaining crisp sound throughout the audio spectrum (and come in blue and pink designs). The same can be said of Sony MDR-ZX110 on-ear headphones (starting at $14): They emphasize bass but still sound good throughout the mid and high tones.
Comfort.Comfort, of course, is essential. Headphones may sound great, but if they aren't comfortable to wear, what's the point? This is a big challenge for budget headphones, because headphone makers can't afford to outfit cheap models with components such as leather earpads or flexible, plush headbands. It's less of a problem for earbuds, which use simple rubber tips that fit inside the ear. Many, including the JVC Gumy Plus, include silicone ear tips of various sizes to help users get just the right fit. In reviews on Amazon, shoppers admire how comfortable the Gumy Plus in-ear headphones are. Perhaps the most comfortable headphones in our lineup are the Koss UR20. These full-size headphones have well-padded earpieces for all-day comfort.
It can be difficult to determine the best choice for you without taking headphones out for a spin. Neither looks nor brand reputation guarantees a good fit. Do the cushions sit comfortably over your ears? Do in-ear headphones fit the shape of your ears? At the same time, some budget headphones are so inexpensive that some consumers are willing to risk buying them online without a "hands-on" trial.
Cords.Cord length may not seem like a big deal, but don't overlook this feature. For one thing, with a short cable, you can't comfortably stow a portable device in your back pocket or leave it on a table while reaching for something else.
Earbuds typically have relatively short cables. If you're pairing headphones with a portable device, you don't want an extra-long cord; 4 feet should be about right. The shorter cables on earbuds and on-ear headphones aren't ideal for in-home audio equipment, however. Users don't want to be tethered right up next to a PC, TV, or home stereo. You can easily purchase a cable extension for home listening, but it may cost as much as the headphones themselves.
Over-ear headphones typically have much longer cables -- often 6 feet to 8 feet. Koss UR20 headphones have an 8-foot cord and JVC HA-RX500 headphones stand out with an extra-long 3.5 meter cord, or about 11.5 feet. These full-size headphones also have single-entry cords, meaning they are attached to only one side of the headphones. Many users prefer this design over cords that come from both earcups and join in a Y shape below the chin.
Most of the headphones we researched have straight plugs, but the Panasonic RP-HT21 and Sony MDR-ZX110 have 90-degree, L-shaped connectors. The straight plugs fit easily into a headphone jack even with a hefty smartphone case on. However, an L-shaped plug may be sturdier.
Extra Features.Koss KTXPRO1 headphones include an in-line button to regulate volume. Consumers can also purchase a version of the JVC Gumy Plus in-ear headphones (model HA-FR6) with built-in remote controls and a microphone for making and answering phone calls. This version costs only about $5 more, but our research suggests it might not be as reliable as the basic in-ear headphones.
Aside from that, don't expect to find a lot of extras, like carrying cases, or specialized features, such as noise cancellation, in the budget price range. Such features are generally confined to, or tend to work best on, more expensive products. Best to focus on functionality in a pair of inexpensive headphones and forget about the frills.
Durability.Most cheap headphones, including our picks, simply aren't made to last. They are built with less costly materials, such as thin metal and plastic. That said, some hold up better than others over time.
Koss offers a limited lifetime warranty on its products, including the UR20 and KTXPRO1 headphones. However, some reviewers who considered returning broken headphones concluded that the hassle and associated shipping and handling fees are too steep for a set of cans that cost less than $20 to begin with.
Indeed, some budget earbuds are cheap enough that even four or five months of listening pleasure is enough to make the headphones worth the initial outlay and the cost of a replacement for many consumers. Reviewers acknowledge that the JVC HA-FX5 Gumy Plus in-ear headphones are less than sturdy, but the sound quality is good enough that they don't mind making multiple $6 purchases.
Of course, if headphones break after only a couple of weeks, that is a problem. One buyer reviewing the Panasonic RP-HT21 headphones on Walmart.com reports that one of the earpieces stopped working after only one week. Many Amazon shoppers consider them flimsy and cheaply made -- thousands of positive reviews notwithstanding. The plastic headband doesn't fold up, leaving it vulnerable to snapping.