Best Cheap Headphones
This buying guide to the best cheap headphones includes larger over-ear and on-ear headphones in addition to cheap earbuds or in-ear headphones.
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.
We Looked At
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.
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.
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.
Koss UR20 full-size headphones are popular because of their leatherette ear cushions, which are comfortable to wear for long periods without discomfort, and very good sound quality. They aren't blaringly loud but still have enough oomph to satisfy most users.
Big, comfortable ear cushions keep external noise out.
Thick cord and sturdy feel.
Clear sound with solid bass and clean highs.
Well-suited for TV and home audio, with a long 8-foot cord.
Limited lifetime warranty.
Some users are less than impressed with the output, saying the sound is a bit hollow.
With sensitivity of 97 dB/mW, the volume isn't quite as loud as competitors drawing the same amount of power.
Frequency range (30 Hz to 20 KHz) is slightly lacking on the low end of the spectrum -- human ears can hear 20 Hz and many headphones go as low as 10 Hz.
Bulky design and long cord limit portability.
Shipping and handling for a warranty claim costs almost as much as the headphones themselves.
Koss KTXPRO1 Review
Koss KTXPRO1 on-ear headphones are a lightweight, portable alternative to earbuds and one of the few budget options available with in-line volume control. The audio is very clear, with good, solid bass.
Wide sound field, according to CNET, which is somewhat surprising for such a compact pair of headphones.
Big, clear sound and deep bass.
Comfortable and lightweight.
At 4 feet, the cord is an optimal length for using with portable devices.
In-line volume control.
Adapter for 6.3 mm jacks.
Frequency response of 15 Hz to 25 KHz spans the full range of human hearing.
Limited lifetime warranty.
Shipping and handling for a repair or replacement under the warranty runs almost as much as the headphones themselves.
Cord is too short for convenient use with home stereos and TVs.
JVC HA-RX500 Review
JVC's full-size HA-RX500 headphones punch out bass and sound quite nice overall. While audiophiles might turn up their noses at the sound and build quality, consumers on a budget looking for headphones to use with a game system should be pleased -- and the long cord lends itself nicely to this sort of home usage.
Very good sound quality overall, with especially strong bass tones.
Extra-long 3.5-meter cord (11.48 feet) ideal for plugging into a gaming laptop or TV.
6.3 mm plug adaptor provided.
Long cord is too unwieldy for portable devices and liable to tangle or trip someone.
Plastic headband may be uncomfortable after extended wear.
Some say these headphones feel cheaply made, although we didn't see many reports of breakage.
Panasonic RP-HT21 Review
Panasonic RP-HT21 headphones have pretty good bass and are so lightweight that users hardly notice them. But the sound quality is so-so, the design is rudimentary, and the durability is suspect.
Loud, clear audio with decent bass, according to CNET testing.
Comfortable and lightweight (1.2 ounces), with just enough grip to stay put.
Low enough price to excuse many shortcomings.
Overall sound quality isn't the best.
Design and construction resemble the disposable headphones offered on planes.
Basic foam ear cushions can easily wear out, and many reviewers say it makes more sense to just toss them and get a new pair than to buy replacement pads.
L-shaped plug doesn't fit smartphones with chunky cases and prevents portable devices from sliding neatly into a pocket but may be more durable.
Other Products We Reviewed
Skullcandy Ink'd 2 Review
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.
JVC HA-FX5 Gumy Plus in-ear headphones are not necessarily built to last but so cheap they're practically disposable. In the meantime, they're comfortable, colorful, and manage not to scrimp too much on sound.
Best-seller with hundreds of positive online reviews.
Impressive sound for the price, according to CNET; these headphones hold their own against more expensive options.
Surprisingly strong bass for their tiny size.
Comfortable and fit well in the ear, with three sizes of silicone earpieces.
Available in eight colors (intended to match Apple iPods).
Treble sounds a little "harsh," the CNET expert says.
Several users report that at least one of the earbuds stopped working after a short period of time.
1-meter cord is short (just over 3 feet) but fine for portable devices.
Panasonic RP-HJE120 Review
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.
JVC Flats Review
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-ZX110 headphones are lightweight yet manage to dish up some pretty heavy bass. The company also offers a version of these headphones (MDR-ZX110AP, starting at $15) equipped with an in-line microphone.
Inexpensive option from a generally high-priced, reputable brand favored by audio enthusiasts.
Clean, rich sound across the frequency spectrum and nice, deep bass, according to reviewers.
Lightweight and comfortable, even when worn for long periods of time, or over glasses.
Foldable for easy portability.
A 4-foot cord is ideal for portable devices, but the L-shaped plug may not fit very well with a case on.
Opinions on comfort and fit aren't universal; these are highly personal and on-ear headphones don't have the customizable fit of malleable earbuds.
iLuv HearSay iEP515 Review
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.
Sennheiser HD 219s Review
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.
Maxell Amplified Review
Maxell Amplified on-ear headphones prioritize bass without sacrificing overall sound quality, although some question their durability. The design, featuring a pink or blue print on each ear, may be the biggest factor in attracting or repelling buyers.
Designed for the many consumers who value bass above all, with deep, thumping lows and crisp sound overall.
Sensitivity of 106 dB/mW makes these about the loudest headphones you're going to find for less than $20.
Large, leatherette ear cushions for comfort.
Fold-up design makes them easier to stow and carry around.
Surprisingly tough, according to many reviewers, several of whom note the abuse these headphones have taken from their kids.
Relatively short cord for on-ear headphones, but sufficient for portable devices.
A handful of reviewers say the headphones aren't especially sturdy, and there are reports of earpieces snapping off.