Best Cheap Headphones & Earbuds iMore 2022
The best cheap headphones and earbuds may not have the same name recognition as popular models like AirPods Pro or Sony WH-1000XM3, but nothing says you have to spend a lot just to get some good headphones for casual listening. The Audio-Technica ATH-M40x are an excellent place to start for the best cheap headphones, thanks to a solid mix of audio performance, comfort, and features that make them a real bargain.
- Best Cheap Wireless Headphones: Audio-Technica ATH-M40x
- Best Sound Quality on a Budget: TaoTronics Soundsurge 85
- Most Comfortable Cheap Earbuds: Skullcandy Ink'D+ Wireless
- Best Budget Noise Canceling Headphones: Anker Soundcore Life Q30
- Best Cheap Neckbuds: OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z
- Best Budget Earbuds: Monoprice Hi-Fi Reflective Sound Earbuds
- Best Cheap Earbuds for Workouts: Anker Soundbuds Curve
- Best Open-Back Headphones: Philips SHP9500
- Best Cheap True Wireless Earbuds: Aukey EP-N5 True Wireless Earbuds
- Best Cheap USB-C Earbuds: Google Pixel USB-C Earbuds
Best Cheap Wireless Headphones: Audio-Technica ATH-M40x
If you're looking for great sound for a low price, the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x is unbeatable as the best cheap headphones. Audio-Technica didn't veer too far one way or another with these, maintaining a steady balance in multiple facets. Because of that, there's nothing particularly fancy here — just wired over-ear headphones that sound better than their price would indicate.
The primary reason is the flatter tuning right out of the box. That tuning gives the headphones a vibrant soundstage without too much treble or too much bass. They will skew slightly toward the lower end of the audio spectrum, so bass listeners needn't be unnerved, only they aren't going to rumble quite like a pair of Beats might. The flat tuning gives every genre a fair chance of sounding good, making this ideal for more than one type of user.
Mind you; if you're able to make use of an EQ to adjust the sound manually, then you can probably pull even more performance out of these headphones. However, comfort can be subjective, where the fit might feel tight based on the shape of your head. They're also known to be a little "floppy" in handling. And lastly, being wired headphones, you will need to ensure you have an adapter for phones without a headphone jack.
- Great sound for the price
- Flat tuning for all genres
- Comes with two cable lengths
- Thicker cushioning
- No Bluetooth
- May fit tight
- Floppier design
Best Sound Quality on a Budget: TaoTronics Soundsurge 85
Bluetooth and active noise canceling? And at this price? Sure, other cheap headphones exist with those three factors involved, but there is immense value in considering the Soundsurge 85 from TaoTronics. They even throw in a decent travel pouch for the headphones and accessories.
But it's the sound that puts them on this list. Engineered with neutrality and balance in mind, the Soundsurge 85 don't favor one genre over another. Bass will be obvious, yet not overpowering, and the same is true on the other end with the treble. It makes for a wide soundstage that belies the price, and the comfy fit helps with decent passive noise isolation. If you want to take that an extra mile, tick on the ANC and block out even more ambient noise. It won't function as well as it would on more expensive cans, but it's still a great feature to have.
TaoTronics rates them at 40 hours per charge, which will largely depend on how consistently you raise the volume and use ANC. Their aesthetic is almost as neutral as the sound is, so if you're looking for something flashy, this probably won't cut it. The same goes for the learning curve on the onboard controls. They do support Bluetooth 5.0, which is excellent, as is the USB-C port and fast charging capability.
- Great sound
- ANC support
- Bluetooth 5.0 and USB-C
- Solid battery life
- Comes with travel pouch
- Not a flashy design
- Cushioning not as thick
- Onboard controls need time to master
Most Comfortable Cheap Earbuds: Skullcandy Ink'D+ Wireless
Skullcandy prioritizes comfort with a fit you can wear all day because of the well-designed earbuds and neckband that takes the weight and pressure off your ears. Aesthetically, the only fancy thing here may be the different color options. Still, otherwise, these great wireless headphones are a workhorse that will hold up well on any given day. When you forget you're wearing something, that's when you feel comfortable.
None of that would matter if the sound were awful. Thankfully, it isn't. There is decent sound quality to enjoy, though it's highly dependent on getting a good seal. That's the best way to get the most bass out of the modest drivers inside. Skullcandy also wisely put in an excellent microphone to help make talking on the phone easier for both ends of the call. The inline controls are easy to learn, keeping the learning curve short.
How well they'll stand up to sweat is debatable. Unlike the "Active" variant of these headphones, there is no IP rating here, so durability isn't something you should take for granted. Battery life is rated at up to eight hours, but expect less than that since you will likely be turning up the volume.
- Comfortable fit
- Decent sound quality
- Good for phone calls
- Inline controls
- Bass needs tighter seal
- No IP rating
- So-so battery life
Best Budget Noise Canceling Headphones: Anker Soundcore Life Q30
Active noise-cancelation (ANC) is sometimes a premium feature reserved for more expensive headphones, but Anker has done something compelling with the Soundcore Life Q30. While certainly on the bulkier side physically, these cans will stand out to anyone who sees them, but they're still comfortable because of the larger-sized ear cups. Even with all that in mind, it's what's on the inside that makes them an easy sell for this list.
The onboard ANC won't necessarily match that of the premium models, but Anker was nice enough to include three different levels of cancelation, be it for transport, indoors, or outdoors. It does a good job blocking out most ambient sound, though the larger size creates a tighter seal for effective passive isolation to help out. As for sound, the headphones sound good out of the box, but it's the Soundcore app that takes them to another level. A built-in cutom 8-band equalizer, plus several presets, makes it possible to bring much more out of the sound signature.
All of that comes with some pretty exceptional battery life. Anker rates them at up to a whopping 60 hours per charge with ANC turned off, and as high as 40 hours when it's on. The numbers may dip a bit if you raise the volume consistently, but needless to say, you won't be charging these very often. And when you need to, a quick five-minute charge is enough for up to four hours of playback.
- Superb audio quality
- Outstanding battery life
- Better build this time
- Great companion app
- ANC support
- Limited touch controls
- Bulky design
- Unclear long-term durability
Best Cheap Neckbuds: OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z
OnePlus continues to undercut the competition with its wireless Bluetooth headphones, and the Bullets Wireless Z are designed to keep things just as simple. Neckbuds also aren't as common as other headphone types, but when you find a good pair at this price, it's worth giving them a chance.
Some features OnePlus is known for are here. Audio automatically pauses when the two buds magnetically attach, while the neckband does its job of keeping them from getting tangled and taking some of the weight off the earbuds themselves. They won't match the Bullets 2 Wireless in design and audio quality, but given their lower price point, it's an acceptable trade-off. Passive noise isolation is alright, but without ANC onboard, you won't be able to block out the outside world entirely. The inline controls are responsive and you get a decent mic for phone calls.
As per usual for OnePlus, warp charging support means plugging in for only 10 minutes gets you up to 10 hours of playback. You just have to make sure to use the included cable to benefit from that speed.
- Excellent sound
- Responsive inline controls
- Hands-free Google Assistant
- Warp charging support
- Extra features are OnePlus-only
- No ANC support
- Would be great if they were true wireless earbuds
Best Budget Earbuds: Monoprice Hi-Fi Reflective Sound Earbuds
These Bluetooth-enabled earbuds would fit just about any tight budget for cheap headphones, and they very much a 'bang-for-the-buck' product. When you want every dollar to stretch as far as it can, this is one way to do it. Monoprice's Hi-Fi headphones are nice because the "reflective" design points the drivers away from the ears to reflect back. The idea is to reduce ear fatigue over long listening sessions.
The flat cable is a good design choice to avoid tangling, and the inline controls are basic, with only one button to play or pause. There are no volume controls. The inline mic is decent, though don't be surprised if it struggles in noisier environments. Audio quality is reasonably balanced, but bass will probably be divisive. It may be too much or too little depending on what you're looking for.
They're also fragile and need to be treated with some kid gloves. They're not likely to last long if you plan to sweat or work out with them on. There is a one-year warranty covering them, though it will depend on what caused the damage, so bear that in mind. Monoprice doesn't mention battery life, and with good reason, because your mileage will vary based on how often you listen to them and how loud they are.
- Decent sound
- Flat cable avoids tangling
- Includes inline mic
- Highly affordable
- Fragile build
- Battery life varies
- Phone calls need quiet
Best Cheap Earbuds for Workouts: Anker Soundbuds Curve
Finding something rugged at such a low price isn't always easy, but there are some gems amidst the crowd. The Anker Soundbuds Curve (look for the "Upgraded 2019" edition) is designed for running and workouts because of an IPX7 rating that offers resistance to some water and sweat. The ear hook design is critical to keeping them in place in your ears, though you will need to experiment with the various tips and wings to get the most comfortable fit.
Granted, these won't match the fit and functionality of expensive sports earbuds, but that's not a realistic expectation. For something this affordable, it's a treat just to get that kind of protection. However, there is a caveat. You should clean and wipe them down to save them from potential damage after being exposed to water or sweat. Throughout all that, sound quality is superb value, with enough bass to satisfy any listener looking for that.
Battery life is long at up to 18 hours per charge. A quick 10-minute fast charge will power up to three hours of playback to get you through a workout or run. The battery lasts, but it's the overall longevity of these earbuds that you always have to consider. They can only take so much of a beating.
- Good sound quality
- IPX7 rating
- Plenty of tips and wings
- Excellent battery life
- Could be too "bassy" for some
- Need extra care to last
- Comfort isn't assured
Best Open-Back Headphones: Philips SHP9500
Fans of open-back headphones will appreciate an opportunity to avoid spending a fortune to get great sound. That's why the Philips SHP9500 is still around after several years on the market. Their design and audio efficiency work well, in large part, because the soundstage is both broad and spatial. There's plenty of bass if that's what you're looking for, though there will be plenty of treble, too.
They're not just for music, either. The wider soundstage works for movies, shows, and video games, and if you do use them as monitors for any kind of audio work on a computer, this is a more affordable way to go that route. The larger earcups should passively block outside noise, and the open-back design creates a little reverb when listening to live music.
All that said, they may not be comfortable for everyone to wear, but as with any pair of headphones, that's often a subjective thing. The treble may also be too sharp with sibilance that stands out. The music source may also play a role. Take the time to use an equalizer, DAC, or listen to high-res audio, and you may pull even more out of them.
- Great sound quality
- Wide soundstage
- Large earcups for passive isolation
- Listen to more than music
- Sibilance could be high
- Fit may not feel comfortable
- Not easy to travel with
Best Cheap True Wireless Earbuds: Aukey EP-N5 True Wireless Earbuds
The best true wireless earbuds can come in a variety of styles and prices, but when it comes to the more affordable models, some do stand out for the right reasons. At first glance, the Aukey EP-N5 True Wireless Earbuds come off like an offshoot of the AirPods, but there's much greater flexibility here. They're well-designed with a comfortable fit that doesn't shake loose as easily as others.
Audio quality isn't going to be spectacular, but when it's at its best, it'll be more than agreeable for the price. Not surprisingly, the key is to get as good a seal as possible to pull more bass out of the whole soundstage. ANC is decent, cutting out most background noise, but you may not need it as often if the seal is tight enough. Phone call quality is okay, and you might expect better given there are multiple mics inside. The onboard controls on both ends are responsive and hold up well.
It's nice to see USB-C for the case, and an extra four charges on top of the (up to) seven hours the earbuds can go for. Volume and ANC will probably cut that down, so five hours and change is probably more realistic. While they do have an IPX5 rating for water resistance, tread carefully when using them for runs or at the gym, since there's no official sweat resistance here.
- Good audio quality
- Lightweight build
- ANC support
- Onboard controls
- IPX5 water resistance
- Phone calls could be better
- Bass could be deeper
- No official sweat proofing
Best Cheap USB-C Earbuds: Google Pixel USB-C Earbuds
For better or worse, most phones these days ship without a headphone jack, so USB-C earbuds are your best bet for portable wired audio. They came in the box with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, but not with the Pixel 4 or 4 XL, so they're now sold separately. One look at them is a strong indication that these very much fit in the Google hardware aesthetic, but you don't have to use a Pixel device. They work with most Android phones.
The Pixel Earbuds sound better than their price implies. They sound vibrant and offer plenty of bass that stands out even more because of the lack of distortion. It helps that they also support 24-bit digital audio, so you will get something out of them if you prefer high-res audio playback. The button on the inline mic controls playback but also has another crucial function, which is to bring up Google Assistant. It works best with phones running Android 10, and when plugged into a Pixel device, Google Translate also works in real-time — though you will need the phone to do the work.
Though the loops help stabilize the earbuds, there are no rubber ear tips, so you can't adjust the fit with any extra pieces. Getting a good seal isn't a guarantee, but these are pretty loud on their own, so it's not a total loss. With solid call quality on top of everything else, these are good for backup when Bluetooth isn't available.
- Good sound signature
- Works with non-Pixel phones
- Google Assistant and Translate
- Solid call quality
- No tips to tighten seal
- Assistant not as good on non-Pixel phones
When it comes to the best cheap headphones, there are a surprising number of them available. And being inexpensive doesn't automatically mean they won't sound good. Take, for example, Apple's AirPods. The true wireless earbuds market was filled with expensive options when the AirPods arrived on the scene, but now is filled with multiple options in any price point. The same goes for other types of headphones, including over-ear and neckbuds. No matter your needs, you can find headphones that fit them these days.
Go for the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x if you're OK with over-ear headphones that will do more than you might think. They're surprisingly portable, comfortable, sound great, and are wired, so you don't have to worry about charging batteries or latency.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Ted Kritsonis loves taking photos when the opportunity arises, be it on a camera or smartphone. Beyond sports and world history, you can find him tinkering with gadgets or enjoying a cigar.
We may earn a commission for purchases using our links. Learn more.