Sometimes our love of headphones is bigger than our budget: while we may dream of high-end headphones that cost more than a second-hand car, we have to be a bit more responsible when we shop. But that doesn’t mean we have to suffer substandard sound. There are plenty of great budget headphones out there, and many of them punch way above their weight – which is why you’ll see many of them in our best headphones round-ups even when price isn’t a factor. They’re that good.
How to choose the best cheap headphones for you
The first thing to think about is what you’re going to be listening to and where you’re going to be listening to it. A modest pair of in-ear headphones with noise cancelling may be better for listening to podcasts on the bus or tube than a giant pair of over-ear headphones, and in-ears are often better for the gym or a run than over-ear headphones. Wireless headphones are brilliant provided you’ll remember to charge them, and true wireless – where there’s no cable connecting left and right – are ideal unless like us, you’re prone to losing things.
In addition to comfort and cables or battery life, look at the frequency range. Headphones typically deliver frequencies from around 20Hz to 20KHz; the lower number is the lowest frequency, which is where the bass lives. Some headphones go lower than 20Hz, which can mean better bass – but quality counts too. Headphones that deliver too much bass without sufficient clarity can sound overly boomy and messy.
Let’s look at our current favourites.
The best cheap headphones today
Cambridge Audio is well known for its high-end audio kit, and its true wireless earbuds sound as good as you’d hope. In terms of sound quality they punch way above their price bracket thanks to excellent sound isolation, graphene drivers and high-quality Bluetooth aptX, and include great battery life.
Because of the unusual design, it's hard to tell which bud is left and which is right, and the fitting them securely takes a bit of practice. Once mastered, you're most unlikely to be disappointed, however, especially at this price – as our full Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+ review explains.
We know we're pushing the definition of cheap headphones with this entry, but if you can stretch the budget to them, they're simply a fantastic buy – It's proper, serious audio quality for much less money than equivalent-quality headphones go for. That's why they won Best Value Headphones at the T3 Awards 2021!
The Y500s are the wireless versions of our previous favourite, the (much cheaper) Y50. They bring the same stellar looks, albeit in more sober colours, and they have the same superbly comfortable memory foam ear cups and adjustable band. They feature AKG’s clever and useful “ambient aware”, which enables you to hear some of the ambient noise so you don’t get run over by a bus, and battery life is up to 33 hours.
Despite going down to 16KHz the bass isn’t as teeth-rattling as some rivals, but to our ears it sounds nice and tight if a little lighter than some. Mids are clear and the treble doesn’t get harsh when you start to push the volume up.
These have an RRP of over £100/$100 but can routinely be found below that magic figure. If you want a great pair of Bluetooth headphones from AKG that are definitely under £100/$100, look no further than the aforementioned AKG Y50. They have slightly worse battery life and less rock-solid connectivity but they look better and remain a great pair of headphones.
These are the wireless versions of the excellent SoundMagic E11Cs, and like their siblings they’re great for active people thanks to splashproof, comfortable earbuds. The whopping 20-hour battery life is exceptional for headphones this compact, and while the sound isn’t quite as good as you’d get from over-ear headphones it’s still solid and impressive: when you’re pounding pavements or sat at home.
If you don’t mind the neckband style and don't desperately need aptX Bluetooth – these support AAC only – these are very, very good buys.
If AirPods Pro or Sony’s WF1000XM3 range are out of your budget and the slightly odd design of the Cambridge Audio true wireless buds at #1 puts you off, consider these budget bangers instead. They’re true wireless, fully waterproof, and give a massive-by-true-wireless-standards 10 hours per charge. Oh and the case is good for six charges, so that’s over two days of audio.
There’s no noise cancelling or ambient awareness here, but there is a mono mode that enables you to pop out one earbud when you need to hear what’s going on around you. This also works well for podcasts.
Audio is not as impressive as Cambridge Audio's budget rivals, but it is easily good enough for most peoples' purposes, and the water resistance and improved fit make them a great choice everywhere, from outdoors to the (home) office or the (home) gym.
We’ve been fans of the Grados for some time now, because they sound even better than they look. However, it’s important to note that these wired headphones, though an incredible bargain, can be very dependent on the quality of your source material. Hook them up to a hi-res audio player and their detail will delight you, but throw some crappy 128K MP3s at them and the experience can be like being stuck inside a bin while people whack it with hammers.
When the music’s good, though, they’re great: they deliver a wide soundstage with clear bass and wonderfully airy treble. If you’re new to open-back headphones, these are a great introduction but be warned that the open back doesn't only make the audio more spacious and wonderful; it also means anyone in the vicinity can very clearly hear what you're listening to. One for home users and sociopaths only, then.
Sony’s wireless over-ears tick all the usual Sony boxes: great build quality, a terrible name and good technology. There’s 30 hours of life here, one-touch NFC pairing and swivelling ear cups for great comfort. Like a lot of cheap Sonys there’s also more bass than is strictly necessary. That's great if you like dance music and rock, but verging on painful with podcasts or classical.
Yes, you can turn the bass boost off, but to our ears that leaves the low-end lacking. So in summary, these are best suited to bassheads. Woomp woomp wuuuuuummmmmmp.
Sennheiser knows a thing or two about audio: we’ve loved very many of their headphones over the years, and these wireless, splash-proof headphones are as good as we’d expect from the brand. They sound brilliant, especially at the low end: the mids could be a little more prominent in riff-based guitar music, but if your tastes include big-bottomed genres such as bass-heavy rock, rap or electronic pop you’re going to love the way these little phones deliver big bass. They’re not thuggish, though: more delicate music sounds just as good. Battery life is around six hours.
The comfortable yet secure fit and sweatproofing make them ideal for sports and exercise, but these buds are easily good enough to use before and after your workout, as well as during.
Klipsch’s mantelpiece must be stuffed with trophies by now: its in-ears have won tons of awards over the years for their impressive combination of comfort, sound quality and value.
The T5M Wired is our pick of their more affordable options: they’re extremely comfortable even over long listening sessions, and the sound is bright, clear and enjoyably punchy, with bass response going to a super-low 10Hz without losing clarity. They sound much more expensive than they actually are and they’re a real joy to listen to. Just be aware that the cable can be quite noisy when you’re running, so you might want to clip it to your clothes if you’re soundtracking a sprint. Or do as we do, and just stick to a sensible walking pace.
Let’s face it: Apple’s standard earbuds, while better than they used to be, aren’t exactly brilliant. Or comfortable. Or durable. If you’re looking for an affordable alternative, Belkin’s earbuds are tangle-free, water resistant and offer good noise isolation.
The 20Hz to 20KHz frequency range is fairly typical for earbuds, and while it’s not going to chuck out so much bass your brain vibrates the sound isolation means that the bottom end won’t disappear on public transport either. These are excellent all-rounders and they’re much better suited to the gym and runs round the park than Apple’s basic ones.
The name of these JBLs reflects the fact that they have adjustable noise cancelling, which means that you can let a bit of the outside world in so you don’t end up underneath a tram or truck.
With a frequency range that bottoms out at a very deep 10Hz the sound is very bass-heavy, which we love, but we’re not so keen on the rest: the mids are much muddier, and in guitar-based rock in particular the sound feels more “boxy” than on rivals: listening to the JBLs after hearing the same tracks on the Klipsch makes the difference really obvious. Nevertheless the noise cancelling works well and the earbuds are comfortable; the JBLs are a decent option for urban warriors and anyone who wants a really bassy workout soundtrack.