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Headphones On a Dime: Can You Find High-Quality Headphones for a Low Price?

Last updated: 12 months ago
5 min read

It is important to keep your expectations at bay when buying cheap headphones. In this article, you will learn what sacrifices budget headphones make to keep costs down.

Find good headphones for cheap

Based on our experience, cheap headphones can be a mixed bag. However, with some research, you can get an excellent deal.

Some of the top budget headphone brands are:

  • (Anker) Soundcore
  • EarFun
  • Sony
  • JLab

What all these brands have in common is:

  • Fun and punchy sound signature
  • Decent build quality and comfortable design
  • Some of them offer more advanced features like active noise cancellation and a companion app

Do Cheap Headphones Have Good Sound Quality?

Compared to all headphones on the market, cheap headphones under $50 have mostly acceptable sound quality.

That means they can sound quite natural in terms of tuning, but they lack fine details and airiness that elevates the listening experience.

Two frequency regions in particular sound vastly different between cheap and higher-end headphones:

Bass

Most people buy budget headphones. And since most people also like bass, manufacturers make their cheaper headphones bass-forward.

Here’s a few frequency measurements from headphones below $50:

Headphones under $50 comparison

And a few measurements from headphones above $200:

Apple AirPods Max vs HBB Hook-X vs HD 6xx vs WF-1000XM4 comparison

Do you see the difference? (left side, below 200 kHz)

Cheaper, budget headphones tend to have more bass-emphasized sound.

However, headphones don’t handle loud bass that well. As a result, you hear a boomy, sloppy bass thump.

In contrast, expensive headphones lower the bass quantity while improving the quality by using better drivers/speakers. That way, the bass sounds more controlled and detailed.

The other frequency cheap headphones suffer with is:

Treble

Higher frequencies are problematic to master, even in premium headphones, let alone in budget ones.

If properly tuned, drivers in cheap headphones can produce a lovely shimmer and decent texture. But detail and airiness lack tremendously compared to what a more capable driver can deliver.

You will often see a peak around 8kHz or 9kHz in cheap headphones to compensate for the poor treble. It’s a psychoacoustic trick that adds some artificial clarity. But if you listen closely, you can hear that the treble is undetailed.

JBL Tune 125TWS frequency response
JBL Tune 125TWS have a distinct peak at 9kHz.

Sound quality conclusion:

  • Cheap headphones are fine enough for casual listening and enjoying your daily dose of music
  • If you want to squeeze a bit more out of music and focus on details, you have to opt for more expensive headphones

Here’s how to make headphones and earbuds sound better.

Build Quality of Cheap Headphones

While things have improved over the years, cheap headphones are still notorious for having subpar build quality.

To meet a specific price point, manufacturers pick:

  • Lesser quality materials like easily breakable thin plastic
  • Looser construction tolerances with worse quality control, which is why most budget options rattle when shaken
  • Cheaper electronic components that either stop working sooner than expected or introduce unwanted audible hiss

All of that combined affects the lifespan of budget headphones. So, handling them with care is most important to extend their longevity.

Here’s more about how much to pay for quality headphones.

Headphone earpads deteriorating
Earpads on cheap headphones start to “peel” sooner.

In contrast, higher-end headphones opt for:

  • More durable plastic, with more metal components to ensure sturdiness
  • Higher quality electronics to extend longevity and improve performance of features like ANC
  • Most come with a carrying case to avoid damage during transportation
Sony WH-1000XM4 folded in case
Sony WH-1000XM4 are still mostly plastic, but they feel more quality made, with no rattling at all.

The Comfort of Budget Headphones

The comfort of on or over-ear headphones changes noticeably with the price. The cheaper you go, the more you can expect them to be:

  • Stiff out-of-the-box
  • Made of more rigid faux leather
  • Filled with regular foam (not memory foam)

Cheaper headphones will usually use stiffer leather-like materials and foam for their earpads. Even when brand new, they might even provide subpar comfort.

Aukey EP-N12 spacious earpads
Aukey EP-N12 are one of the rare cheap headphones that have spacious and comfy earpads under $50.

Consequently, as foam hardens and loses shape, your ears start to touch the insides of the ear cup and get squished. The latter results in physical pain, forcing you to take regular breaks.

Most expensive headphones come with plushier earpads covered with softer leather or velour. They stiffen up after some time, but they feel comfortable before that happens.

What about earbuds?

Budget earbuds or in-ear monitors aren’t as susceptible to lower prices as you can find comfortable and uncomfortable earbuds in all price ranges.

What you can expect from budget earbuds is:

  • Fewer ear tips in the box
  • Thinner ear tips that feel plasticky/cheap in hand
  • Only basic silicone ear tips

Here are all the accessories you get with cheaper CCA LYRA:

CCA LYRA accessories

And here are the accessories you get with premium in-ear monitors like RAPTGO x HBB HOOK-X:

RAPTGO x HBB HOOK-X accessories

What Features to Expect from Cheap Headphones?

Features you can expect from cheap headphones and earbuds are mostly:

  • Touch controls
  • Fast charging
  • Companion app (some)

Some cheap headphones like UGREEN HiTune T3 already support premium features like active noise cancelling but it has (currently) subpar performance.

On the other hand, earbuds like SoundPEATS Air3 Deluxe support a companion app with all the bells and whistles like Game Mode and a custom audio equalizer.

Most cheap true wireless earbuds can charge wirelessly, and they are no slower at doing so than premium models.

EarFun Free Pro wireless charging

However, premium headphones still take the lead in the overall quantity of features. Some might be a gimmick (Speak-to-Chat, Spatial Audio), but at least you can use them if you want to.

Features almost all premium headphones have by now are:

  • Active noise cancellation
  • Ambient sound mode
  • Companion app
  • Custom equalizer/presets
  • Controls customizer
  • Qi wireless charging
  • Automatic play/pause sensor

Less common features:

  • Multipoint
  • Game Mode

You can still get good ANC headphones on the cheap, see our guide.

The Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Headphones

1. The most significant trade-off between cheap and expensive headphones is built quality (and comfort in on/over-ear headphones).

2. The second most noticeable difference is in sound quality, where cheaper headphones simply can’t reach the same level of detail and resolution as more expensive ones.

3. The last is the lack of features that generally come with premium headphones. If you need those features or not depends on the individual. But you’re better off without them if they don’t work well.

Microphone quality can also disappoint in cheap headphones as they have difficulties reducing background noise during phone calls.

However, through our history of testing, some things are usually more prevalent in cheaper rather than premium headphones:

  • Higher IP rating: budget earbuds are almost always waterproof (up to IPX7), whereas most premium ones are rated between IPX4 and IPX5
  • Longer battery life: cheaper headphones, especially earbuds, have beefy batteries that outrun most premium models
Anker Soundcore Liberty Neo are IPX7 water-resistant
IPX7 rating not only allows you to wash them but also dip them underwater up to 1 meter.

Frequency Asked Questions (FAQ)

Do cheap headphones sound good?

Cheap headphones can sound good if you don’t expect them to be crazy detailed. However, you have to do some research to avoid buying bad-sounding headphones.

Are cheap wired earphones better than wireless?

Cheap wired earbuds sound better overall than wireless ones. But the two aren’t as far apart as you might think. Wireless earbuds have come a long way, and they sound perfectly fine, on top of being more practical due to the lack of wires.

Conclusion

Summarizing all the trade-offs when buying cheap headphones (lower sound and build quality, compromised comfort, lack of features) might steer you away from the purchase.

However, if you do some research and carefully select your cheap headphones or earbuds, you might end up with a bargain.

Budget headphones might not deliver on all fronts like premium do, but at least you know you got the best you can get.

Check our buying guide for the latest models:

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