Last Updated On: 6-22-20
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Preliminary Bottom Line
If you don’t want to read the whole article:
Doing audio reviews and comparisons is generally very fun and exciting… but analyzing the cheap stuff can admittedly be a bit of a slog. Listening to and comparing mediocre or worse headphones gets old.
But I understand that most people don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on pristine HiFi gear, especially when, to the layperson, it might only seem marginally better than cheaper stuff. Even most audiophiles like to have a budget go-to that they don’t have to worry about so much.
And while most budget headphones sound and feel like… well, budget headphones, there’s enough variety and competition now in this category that there are a few diamonds in the rough. Not only is it personally fun to find them, but in doing so I can make emphatic recommendations for the folks who can’t or don’t want to break the bank.
Turnover is pretty high in the non-elite headphone market now, but I’m always on the lookout for new products that just might usurp a current winner here. Best of articles on this site are evergreen and routinely updated, so you can also be sure that you won’t be getting an outdated recommendation.
A Quick Word About Prices
Prices can fluctuate significantly in the audio world, both up and down – sales, temporary overstock discounts, MSRP decay over time, and other such things. Point being: take this an any such article with a grain of salt, and don’t be afraid to compare it to what’s actually going on at the moment.
Amazon best sellers lists are a great way to snipe deals – they’re updated every hour, and the currently good deals will often creep to the top.
What To Look For In Budget Over-Ear Headphones
With budget headphones, it’s all about maximizing basic value with minimal cost. I don’t expect something to sound on par with or be as comfortable or feature rich as a HiFi alternative that costs many times more. But, I do want it to sound decent, without any glaring specific flaws. I also want it to be reasonably sturdy and comfortable. and it should at least have the features you want (if any) at a bare minimum.
Here’s what I’m looking for with budget over-ear headphones:
Consistent and even – balance! A decently flat frequency response curve. Meaning some vocal doesn’t overpower the rest of the song or some instrument doesn’t suddenly disappear from the song.
Good overall sound quality – partly a function of above, but also no sibilance (that cheap lispy hissy sound), good clarity and detail (instruments sound like the actual instrument), bass that doesn’t just shake my ears and make be feel like I’m rumbling through the mud. In general, nice fullness as opposed to feeling like I’m listening to a radio station on an old boombox with a poor signal.
Comfort – headphone units that are adjustable enough to fit properly. Pads themselves that are nice enough material. A well contoured headband that sits firmly on my head. Good force distribution so that they’re snug and don’t move. No hotspots. A little trickier on a budget, but still totally doable.
Sturdiness – i.e., doesn’t feel like a cheap plastic toy that creaks when I bend or move it. The wire is nice and thick and not some flimsy little thing
Competitive specs – specs aren’t the end all be all but I do want to see a decent enough response range, max SPL, low enough impedance such that my devices can sufficiently power it on their own, and so on.
Warranty – if a cheaper product is more prone to failure you should be covered. One year at a minimum I’d say, but two plus is solid and indeed available on some products in this category.
Packaging – secondary I’d say, but the box and padding should still be decent enough to protect it while shipping.
Features – most products in this category are bare-bones and can only be plugged in. But some do have wireless, on-board controls, in-line mics, or other such additional features if you’d like them.
Why Listen to Me?
I have actually acquired, listened to, and scrutinized each headphone mentioned herein. That’s in addition to well over 100 audio product tests and reviews under my belt. My process is methodical and continually refined – I listen to the same curated playlist of songs that do a good job of revealing product performance and common shortfalls. I A/B test whole or certain parts of songs with a select high quality monitoring pair of headphones to compare. Then I’ll do more freestyle listening, using the product like a regular customer would, and continue to take notes as I go.
The Top Choices, Explained Fully
The overall best all around sounding over-ear pair of headphones that’s currently available for less than $50 is the Audio Technica ATH-M20x:
These are part of an extensive closed back monitor series that goes up to high-end pairs that have the same fundamental design but sell for hundreds of dollars. At the time of this writing, I actually use one of those higher-end pairs as monitors for my reviewing. The ATH-M20x has the best response range with full bass that I’ve yet to see in the sub $50 category. Something might come along and beat them, but it’s going to be tough.
Edifier’s H840 is a great lightweight alternative:
These really impressed me, even when going in to it with higher than normal expectations. They sound almost as good as the M20x, but don’t quite have as much fullness or bass reach. They are, however, a bit less expensive and very light and compact while Audio Technica’s cans tend to be pretty big and bulky. The H840 headphone is more of a smaller over/on-ear hybrid, but still fits comfortably with a solid seal. Edifier has come to dominate the budget bookshelf speaker market in recent years and I honestly don’t know why these headphones aren’t as popular. Probably just under-marketing.
MPOW’s H5 is a solid choice if you want wireless and/or onboard controls:
These also impressed me, especially because some of MPOW’s other headphones just don’t sound that great. It’s nice to see a decent wireless option in the sub $50 category. I did a fair amount of A/B listening between these and the H840s, and it’s quite close, but I think the Edifiers sneak a little ahead. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if some actually preferred the H5s kind of rounder sound. The H5s feel and look nice and are compact as well. The active noise cancelling switch isn’t all that effective and changes the sound considerably, and for the worse in my opinion. For that matter, I don’t think truly good noise cancelling is going to realistically be available at less than $50.
The cheapest option that I’ve seen that’s still decently passable is Tascam’s TH-02:
They’re among many on/over ear headphones that are suspiciously available for less than $20. But not only do the TH-02s sound better than any of the others that I’ve listened to so far, they also sound better than a lot of stuff that’s 2-3 times as expensive. They’re a little flimsy and cheap feeling, but sturdy and comfortable enough.
A Quick Note on Earbuds
If you’re not dead set on over-ear cans, you might consider earbuds instead – they’re easier to get down into the sub $50 price range, and there is thus a lot more selection and competition. Some ~50 dollar earbuds achieve a very good overall sound that I don’t think similarly priced over-ear headphones are capable of achieving.
Below is a short comment on some popularly compared alternatives. Each product title will link to the full review:
AKG K240 – decent detail and clarity but general sound quality is not that great. Also has seriously recessed bass. Poor fitting issues as well. Same price as the M20x but seems unilaterally worse.
Behringer HPS3000 – surprisingly decent overall sound, but not quite as good as the TH-02s, which are about the same price. Bulky and cheap too, and the pad faux leather is that cheap wrinkly kind.
iJoy Logo – surprisingly decent sounding and adequately sturdy. Definitely a viable cheap-as-possible choice in the wireless/Bluetooth category.
JBL T450BT – pretty much bad all around, no 3.5mm input (meaning Bluetooth only) which forces you to endure an awful perpetual background hiss/static/ring noise. Cheap built and not comfortable either.
Koss UR20 – very big and bulky, not enough clamp, headphones would slide a bit. Had significant boxiness, likely exacerbated by the headphones being too loose.
Monoprice 8323 – awful force distribution with a major hotspot on top that is enough of a deal breaker on its own. Also sounds worse than the TH-02s anyhow.
MPOW 059 – uneven response, muddy bass that overpowered recessed trebles, flimsy and bulky, looks childish, as expensive as the H840s but sounds worse. The packaging was also atrocious.
MPOW Holo H7 – surprisingly decent sound, feel and look more expensive than they are. Also good Bluetooth connection with long battery life. Might currently be the best choice of it’s kind that’s available for less than $25.
Skullcandy Hesh 2 – muddy bass, feelable resonance, recessed trebles, and despite MSRP discounts go for the same price as the ATH-M20x, which sounds significantly better. Headphones also don’t fully fit over-ear, and lack enough adjustability to get a proper fit.
Superlux HD681 – apparently highly regarded by many, but they just didn’t sound that good, had pretty bad sibilance and were thin and flat, certainly worse than the TH-02s. Also hugely bulky and pretty ugly.