Best Cheap Headphones
Published on By Michael Sweet
Koss UR20 Review
From $15 Best
Best Cheap Over-Ear HeadphonesPros:
- 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.
Takeaway: 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.
Koss KTXPRO1 Review
From $17 Best
Best Cheap On-Ear HeadphonesPros:
- 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.
Takeaway: 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.
JVC HA-RX500 Review
From $20 Good
Good Cheap Over-Ear HeadphonesPros:
- 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.
Takeaway: 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.
Panasonic RP-HT21 Review
From $6 Think Twice
- 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.
Takeaway: 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.
Where to buy
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.
Additional Products We Considered
JVC HA-FX5 Gumy Plus Review
Best Cheap EarbudsPros:
- 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.
Takeaway: 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.
Sony MDR-ZX110 Review
Best Cheap Sony HeadphonesPros:
- 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.
Takeaway: 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.
Maxell Amplified Review
Cheap Headphones With Good BassPros:
- 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.
Takeaway: 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.