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A Comparison of Headphones Under $100 and Over $100

Last updated: 12 months ago
7 min read

This article looks at what kind of headphones you get for less than $100 and if it’s worth investing more than that.

Comparing headphones under and above 100

Affordable headphones cost up to $100, and with the arrival of Chi-Fi (Chinese Hi-Fi) brands, they can represent fantastic value.

However, despite their value, premium headphones still have their purpose. Discover why and when you should go beyond the $100 price point.

The Difference Between under $100 and more Expensive Headphones?

Below, we will more closely look at the difference between the two price ranges. But for starters, where’s a quick overview of how the two ranges differ:

Headphones under $100:

  • Good sound quality, but you can hear the lack of fine details
  • Good build quality but no premium materials like aluminum (except for the headband)
  • Excellent active noise cancellation and good transparency mode to boost ambient noise (in some models)
  • Long battery life with up to 60 hours per charge (in some models)
  • Many headphones above $50 already have a companion app (not as feature-rich, though)
  • Quite comfortable (over-ear headphones) but not the plushest earpads, also many are non-detachable

Headphones over $100:

  • Cleaner sound quality, more airiness, and detail
  • Great, if not excellent, build quality with the use of more premium materials and electronics
  • Best-in-class active noise cancellation and more lifelike ambient sound mode
  • Good battery life on average, but not as much as in affordable headphones
  • Feature-rich companion apps
  • Very comfortable designs, lots of ear tip choices, removable earpads with memory foam
  • Support for better Bluetooth codecs like LDAC, aptX HD

Here is a dedicated article on the pros and cons of headphones under $100.

Comparing Sound Quality: Headphones Under $100 vs. Expensive Headphones

Sound quality largely depends on tuning or frequency response and the quality of the drivers.

Frequency response

Since most people buy headphones below $100 and like to have some bass, many affordable options have boosted bass, negatively affecting audio quality.

Here’s a frequency response comparison of headphones at different prices:

Frequency response comparison between earbuds from 3 different price ranges
Comparing default frequency responses of EarFun Air Pro 3 ($80), Jabra Elite 7 Pro ($150), and Sony WF-1000XM4 ($250).

On the other hand, most audio purists don’t mind spending extra cash for a more natural sound. That’s why once you go past $200, you will hardly find extremely bassy headphones.

Here’s a comparison of headphones under $200 with expensive and cheaper options.

That said, many headphones under $100 already come with an app. You can use it to tweak their EQ to make them sound closer to neutral.

Driver quality

A lower driver quality is holding the sub-$100 headphones back, preventing them from sounding more resolving and detailed.

Compared to premium headphones, their drivers are more capable of reproducing controlled bass and airy, textured treble.

Cheaper drivers can also have lower impedance, making it easier to drive via low-power gadgets like smartphones. However, that makes them more susceptible to developing audible background noise.

On the other hand, many expensive headphones have higher resistance drivers, which are harder to run optimally but also less prone to distortion and loud background noise.

AirPods Max dynamic driver
A closer image of a dynamic driver inside Apple AirPods Max.

Dynamic range

Dynamic range (DR for short) refers to the difference between the loudest and quietest sounds.

The larger the DR, the more the sound feels realistic. Snare drums are louder and have a better presence, and orchestral music sounds more grandiose.

Cheaper drivers with poorer amplification will struggle to produce a dynamic sound. That’s true for Bluetooth and wired headphones.

  • Headphones under $100 can have a balanced sound signature and be detailed but not very lifelike, as if the band is playing in front of you.
  • Expensive headphones with more sophisticated drivers and better amplification will play the music more realistically.

It is worth noting that the DR also depends on the recording. Music streaming services are notorious for worsening dynamic range, at least for free or basic subscribers.

For many years now, there has been a so-called loudness war where music was intentionally mastered or remastered with a lower DR. Of course, audiophiles didn’t like that.

The appeal of lowering the DR is to make otherwise quieter details more apparent, which helps when listening to music in a car.

Bluetooth codec support

Headphones under $100 primarily support SBC and AAC, with a few supporting aptX. With the arrival of Bluetooth 5.3, we will start seeing more of the LC3, the new low-energy Bluetooth codec.

LDAC & BT 5.3
Bluetooth 5.3 will soon become a new standard, even in cheaper headphones.

On the other hand, premium headphones also support LDAC and aptX Adaptive, which are popular among demanding users.

That said, from our experience, you will rarely hear any difference between a standard SBC and LDAC, so it’s not something worth pursuing at all costs.

Comparing Design and Comfort: Headphones Under $100 and Over $100

Price affects build materials, consequently affecting durability and comfort.

Comfort

In general, once you pass the $50 mark, you can expect the comfort of your over-ear headphones to go up.

Affordable headphones like OneOdio A30 or Anker Soundcore Life Q30 have decently thick earpads covered with soft-feeling pleather. Some also use memory foam to adapt to your ears better.

However, those earpads are still relatively shallow. As a result, your ears start touching the foam covering the drivers inside the ear cups, which results in pain after prolonged listening.

On the other hand, earpads of premium headphones are roomier and plushier. Consequently, you can wear them for longer.

Plush earpads
Plusher earpads with memory foam (up) compared to shallower earpads on the bottom.

Design

Affordable headphones will always pick plastic over any other material.

Headphones under $100 typically opt for cheaper plastic that feels thin and can easily crack under pressure.

Another negative impact of cheaper plastic is that over the years, it can become sticky, almost as if it’s melting. However, with Bluetooth wireless headphones, the battery will die long before that happens.

In contrast, expensive headphones use plastic of higher quality that feels denser but also softer to the touch. There’s much less, if any, rattling noise when you shake them.

Of course, using higher-quality materials like metal or wood makes premium headphones heavier. So, it’s crucial to have plusher padding to absorb the extra weight.

Comparing Battery Life: Is the Battery of Headphones under $100 Worse?

You might think cheaper headphones have shorter battery life. Thankfully, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

We did some battery life calculations between ANC headphones below $100 and over and found that the averages are very similar, if not slightly in favor of affordable options.

The table shows average battery duration for headphones under and over $100 (all headphones were tested with ANC enabled):

Headphones’ price rangeAverage
battery life for
headphones
Average
battery life
for earbuds
Affordable (under $100)34:576:33
Expensive (over $100)33:576:22

Surprisingly, affordable ANC headphones and true wireless earbuds have better battery life and even charge faster.

We collected official fast-charging data from various headphones under and above $100. We picked the fast charging time that appeared the most as the overall most common for each price range.

Headphones’ price rangeAverage
fast-charging
speed for
headphones
Average
fast-charging
speed for
earbuds
Affordable (under $100)4.5h in 5 minutes2h in 10 minutes
Expensive (over $100)4h in 10 minutes1.5h in 10 minutes

Overall, you’re getting better battery performance when buying headphones under $100.

A few things can explain this.

  • Premium headphones have more features and sensors which drain the battery faster.
  • New models of expensive headphones don’t come out as frequently as cheap ones, so the latter have newer, more energy-efficient batteries.

Wired earbuds under $100 don’t have to be charged.

Comparing Features and Technology: Headphones under $100 vs. over $100

Nowadays, affordable headphones under $100 get most of the features previously exclusive to premium cans.

Features that are getting common in affordable headphones are:

  • Active noise cancellation
  • Ambient sound mode
  • Companion app
  • Custom equalizer
  • Customizable touch controls
  • Game mode

On the other hand, some features are still in the domain of premium headphones, like:

  • Spatial Audio (or similar virtual surround feature)
  • Adaptive EQ: continuously adjusting the tuning during listening by using an internal microphone
  • Support for LDAC

Thankfully for consumers, features only found in premium headphones don’t make a night and day difference in everyday use. So, spending extra money just to get them doesn’t make sense.

That said, you might want to spend a bit more if you wish your features to perform better. Expensive noise-cancelling headphones have better electronics inside them, giving you better performance.

  • Like active noise cancelling, for example. While affordable headphones are close to matching the premium models, the latter are still better at reducing more complex noises, like people’s speech.
  • The same goes for ambient sound mode. Apple AirPods Pro and Max are especially famous for having exceptionally clear Transparency mode.

Is wireless connection stability worse in headphones under $100?

Bluetooth connection strength and range aren’t affected by price.

The best headphones we’ve tested for indoor connection range are Apple AirPods Max ($550) and TrueFree F1 ($30), lasting for around 65 feet.

Even by picking random Bluetooth headphones from both price points, the average Bluetooth range was 48 feet in both cases.

Do headphones above $100 have newer Bluetooth versions?

Quite the contrary, affordable headphones are usually the first to get newer Bluetooth versions.

TrueFree F1 listening music
TrueFree F1 cost only $30 and have not only the most robust connection but are also among the first to have Bluetooth 5.3.

Check the top wireless $100 picks:

Premium headphones take more time to develop since manufacturers pay more attention to quality.

In contrast, the affordable headphone market gets new products almost every day, which makes it easier to adopt new Bluetooth versions as soon as they arrive.

Do expensive headphones have better companion apps?

On average, expensive headphones pack a few more features and usually ensure better customizability. Although, the trend is changing now, at least with customizability.

Some headphones below $100 offer more customizable controls and adjustable audio equalizers than expensive ones.

The quality of the companion app is largely dependent on the headphone brand.

SoundPEATS Air3 Deluxe in app
Features inside the app for SoundPEATS Air3 Deluxe that only cost $50.

On the other hand, headphones above $100 have other custom features like adjustable ANC or ambient sound mode intensity, personalized EQs, or some proprietary features (like Speak-to-Chat).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is the difference between cheap and expensive headphones?

The main difference between cheap and expensive headphones is in the sound quality and how well the features perform. Despite compromises when choosing budget options, you can get truly impressive headphones for little money if you pick carefully.

Do expensive headphones make a difference?

Expensive headphones do make a difference, especially in sound and build quality. However, not all premium headphones are good, and not all cheap headphones are bad. You always have to be careful what you’re buying.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you now better understand the difference between affordable and expensive headphones.

  • Invest in headphones above $100 if you’re an audio enthusiast or demand the latest features.
  • Headphones under $100 are nowadays packed with well-performing tech and represent a fantastic value for a casual user.

The best headphones under $100 will give you a good taste of premium performance. However, while expensive cans are better in all areas, it’s hard to justify spending an extra $100 or more for marginal improvements.

It’s up to you to decide. Do you want to pursue perfection and spend more money, or are you a bargain shopper?

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