Looking for the best cheap headphones doesn't mean you need to compromise. We presume, being a T3 reader, you're a person of exemplary taste who enjoys the finer things. So if you love music, if you want to hear every syllable of podcast vocal fry, but don't quite have the cash for the best headphones? We've got you.
Our picks of the best cheap headphones go way beyond what budget headphones are supposed to manage. They're cheap wired, wireless and true wireless headphones which absolutely shine in the audio department, and also include the kind of high-end features you're looking for. There are cheap ANC headphones here, for instance, which can make at least a stab at competing with the big boys and keeping outside sounds under control.
Realistically, there are options here which may appeal even if you have a bit more to spend. They're just that good – and many of them appear on our other guides: check out the best wireless earbuds, the best noise-cancelling headphones, and best noise-cancelling ear buds.
We've also got our list of the best wired headphones which is aimed more towards the audiophile end of things, though not having to include wireless tech does mean that even the cheap ones tend to punch especially far above their price range.
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.
These are at the top of our limit for headphones we'd consider budget, but if you stretch 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!
You may look at these, and the Melomania 1+ which takes our top spot, and think there's no competition: there's a wire connecting the S20BT's buds, and that inherently makes them less good, right? Not so fast. There's not a huge difference in terms of freedom, since you'd need a pretty unusual head to test SoundMagic's neckband and wires, and the cost is less than half that of Cambridge Audio's already reasonable price tag.
The sound is pretty impressive for the cost too, either – in our full SoundMagic S20BT review we say they "combine a willingness to focus on the broad strokes of a digital audio file without losing sight of the finer details, and they’re not picky in the slightest about the quality of audio stream they’re asked to deal with." If you're really looking for cheap wireless earphones, with an emphasis on the financial side of the word 'cheap' rather than the physical one, these are an excellent option.
While their design is rather rudimentary, JBL's on-ears are an incredible choice if you're looking for quality audio on a budget, and they're absolutely packed with features. JBL's Pure Bass tuning pushes a warm, rich sound from an audio stage which performs far above its price point, there's your choice of Bluetooth 5 or a 3.5mm jack, there are actual physical buttons rather than the touch buttons which seem to be becoming trendy – oh, and there's some very sharp, reactive noise cancelling.
If ANC is your goal, we can't think of a much better way to get it. In our full JBL Tune 660NC review, we say "you’ll be hard pushed to find a better pair of noise-cancelling headphones for this low of a price", and even though they're on-ears rather than the more all-encompassing design of over-ears they perform remarkably well when it comes to cutting out outside noise.
Excellent battery life, a quality-looking design, a comfortable fit and sound quality that absolutely sits at the top of their price point. That's what the Soundfree S20s offer in a nutshell: these are true-wireless ear buds that do, admittedly, cost a little more than some of the more budget entries in the market, and don't feature ANC (though there is an ambiance mode) but sound far richer than they have any right to.
In our Lypertek Soundfree S20 review, we say "the combination of dynamic headroom and worthwhile poise is a rarity in more affordable earbuds such as these", and that's saying something. Lypertek took its time releasing the S20s, but when they did land it was in that graceful Iron Man pose rather than the Wile-E Coyote-style giant divot in the ground.
For anyone who is trying to make more eco-conscious buying decisions, the House of Marley Rebel earbuds are made from sustainable materials like bamboo and recycled plastics.
Despite being affordable, and sustainable, they are actually very capable. Not only do they look good and do good but they sound quite good too. They’re hardly going to match up to the AirPods of this world but for this price, they’re definitely amongst the top dogs.
Naturally, it can’t all be good and there are certain aspects of these buds that just don’t work particularly well, like touch controls and ear detection both of which are a little hit and miss, and the shape of them makes them feel like they might fall out when you’re moving about.
Despite that, they actually have some pretty nifty features that do work well - you can charge the case wirelessly, switch between equaliser settings and there’s Call Noise Cancellation to boost the quality of your calls. Find out more about them in the House of Marley Rebel review, they’re certainly worth considering!
At £60, even at £100, these would be very decent headphones. At £30, or perhaps even less if you shop around, they're uniquely credible. AKG's trimming has been done in the material department, meaning these are mostly plastic and fairly lightweight, though there's a metal headband and some very comfortable ear pads which contribute to a very secure fit. There's also no wireless here – these are wired-only.
And that's... fine? For the job they're asked to do, the AKG K52s sound wide and balanced, with a huge amount of detail. They can't really handle a heavy electronic push, and they're perhaps on the more cool side of sound, but for more moderate listening and natural instruments they're absolutely superb. And an absolute bargain, if that wasn't already clear.
Popping out of a case that looks like a space egg and themselves looking as much like AirPods Pro as it is possible to look without activating Apple's industrial lawyers, Huawei's true wireless buds don't mess around. And if you're looking for a set of stalk-packing true wireless headphones and don't fancy paying Cupertino prices, they're well worth a look.
They're certainly not lacking in features, with ANC on board, IP54 water resistance and a ten-hour battery which will grind through a good day's listening before having to resort to a case top-up. While this isn't a premium build as such, and you'll find better ANC elsewhere, the Freebuds 4i feel plenty robust and manage a bouncy, if not too detailed, sound. In our full Huawei Freebuds 4i review we say "these are a solid pair of Bluetooth-connected earbuds, especially for those who are mostly into pop music"; not world-beaters, but decent in their own right.
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.
The cheapest Beats headphones around, the neckband connected Flex don't necessarily follow the current Beats trend for refinement and subtlety: they have big ol' red logos on each ear, and a distinctly old-Beats sound which emphasises the bass and treble while almost entirely forgetting about mids. Honestly, that's not always a bad thing. Sometimes bargain beefy buds are just the thing, and these are that.
In our full Beats Flex review, we call these "a great choice for those who don’t want to splash out on the Powerbeats Pro or Apple AirPods for their iPhone", which just about sums it all up. The Beats Flex are absolutely best suited to Apple users since they feature Apple's last-gen W1 chip. you can use them with Android, but all the auto-connectivity, Find My, audio sharing and customisation functions won't work. Given the price that probably won't be such a disappointment, but it definitely adds a little extra value if you're an iPhone user.
Boy, do these on-ear wireless headphones feel cheap - the plastic makes them moreso, even, than the JBL Tune 660NC - but that's where the budget sensibilities end. They're light and comfortable, with an extensive battery that'll last 35 hours of listening or 30 hours of talking on the phone. They pack 30mm full-range dynamic drivers, giving Sony's sound a real chance to shine, and connect via Bluetooth 5.0 with assistant support.
But do they sound great? That's dependent on your outlook. These are not so much dynamic as assaulting. In our full Sony WH-CH510 review, we say "the WH-CH510 are an absolutely flat-out listen, all the time... [yet] despite all this bluster the Sonys are by no means an unengaging listen." If that sounds good to you and you have a paltry £30 hanging around, they're not to be sniffed at.
These are outliers in terms of their case design, with a slide-out form factor which wins points for originality, and they're also pretty unique as far as their battery life is concerned, pulling off a good 12 hours on a single charge. That's basically a whole transatlantic flight. Whether you can keep them in your ears for that long is another question, though: even with the smallest ear tips, they're fairly girthy buds, so the small-eared will need to look elsewhere.
They sound pretty decent - not a knockout, by any means, but far from a spaghetti punch. As per our full Creative Outlier Air V2 review, "the soundstage is wide enough to give you distinct highs, mids and lows... but there’s slightly too much emphasis on the treble so that sometimes took over a little". Give the Super X-Fi functionality a try, too, which maps your head to personalise the sound for more accuracy.