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Just because they're inexpensive doesn't mean cheap headphones are cheap

Cheap ANC Headphones
Cheap ANC Headphones (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

Cheap headphones often get a bad rap. With plently of manufacturers — Sony, Bose, Beats, etc. — pushing $300 to $400 headphones that promise to deliver uncompromising sound quality, it makes you think that cheap headphones must sound like garbage. That's just not the case. While I'm not here to argue that a pair of $60 headphones from a smaller company is going to sound as nice as a $400 pair of headphones from Sony, I am here to argue that most people don't need to spend $400 to get a pair of headphones they would be happy with.

Around our virtual office, I'm known as jokingly as "Low-Cost Luke" because I have an affinity for not spending money I don't have to, but still being able to get quality products with the features I want. Inexpensive headphones ≠ cheap headphones.

A few things off the top

To start, while I haven't bought a high-end pair of headphones, like the Sony WH-1000XM3 or the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700, I have tried those particular headphones and other high-end headphones in many styles over the years.

Secondly, as I said in the beginning, I'm not here to argue that cheap headphones sound better or even the same as high-end models — especially since sound can be so subjective from person to person.

Lastly, I'm not criticizing anyone who buys expensive headphones. Trust me, I love the way the Sony WH-1000XM3 sound, and I have been close a few times to buying a pair for myself. I'm merely here to suggest some budget-friendly options and give my opinion on what the compromises are between the high-end and low-cost offerings.

Over-the-ear ANC headphones

TaoTroncs ANC Heapdhones (Image credit: iMore)

This is the category of headphones that likely has the biggest difference in quality when comparing the high-end to low-cost options. The sound quality and the quality of the ANC are noticeably different between the two, but when you decide to save money and go with the cheap headphones in this style, you do get a few advantages.

One day, on a whim, I decided to pick up a pair of TaoTronics headphones because I was looking for cheap headphones that had ANC to take on a trip with me. Years later, I'm still using TaoTronics headphones as my go-to ANC headphones, and they don't even cost $50!

The ANC is nowhere close to as good as you will find on the Bose or Sony high-end models, but it's very passable for its price point. I have taken them on a plane, and while it certainly won't cut the engine noise completely, it will make the sounds around you very dull to the point where if you're listening to music, you likely won't notice. Do you know where I use these headphones the most, though? At work where the ANC is a benefit, but not necessarily the most crucial feature. You certainly won't see Taotronics TT-BH085 on any list of the best noise-canceling headphones, because the ANC is not the best. Still, it's certainly good enough for most people who don't regularly travel.

The biggest advantage that a pair of headphones like the Taotronics TT-BH085 add is the incredible battery life. These can play music consistently for 40 hours with ANC mode active, meaning they outlast both the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700, which is perfect when you're using them for work every day for 8-10 hours. Plus, I personally find them very comfy to wear for extended periods — even with glasses. Since they are made out of cheaper and lighter materials than their high-end counterparts, I have never experienced neck or head fatigued after wearing them for a whole day.

Workout earbuds

Anker Soundcore Spirit Dot 2 Water With Package (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

Wireless earbuds that you can work out with is a relatively new category in the world of audio technology, and it's been gaining popularity in recent years. When you're running, lifting weights, or doing any sort of physical activity with headphones, you need something that will not only stay in your ears, but also won't get ruined by your sweat. There are plenty of high-end options in this space from companies like Beats, Apple, Sony, Jaybird, and more. Still, I actually think this is a category where the discrepancies between the high-end and budget options mostly come down to a matter of preference.

Take the Anker SoundCore Spirit Dot 2 as an example. They cost around $65, and they have most of the features you can ask for in a wireless workout earbud. The IPX7 rating means it's going to hold up to sweat just fine, and all the extra silicone tips and 'EarWings' will ensure that you can find a good fit. As long as you find the right tips and wings to fit your ears, these earbuds won't fall out of your ears, regardless of how hard you workout.

They do sound bass-heavy, but for a workout pair of earbuds, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Heck, the high-end Powerbeats Pro is known for sounding bass-heavy and Lory Gil still gave them a glowing review, because when you're working out, perfect sound fidelity isn't really on the top of your mind.

As I mentioned in my review of the Anker SoundCore Spirit Dot 2, the charging case could be better quality and the touch controls are only so-so. Still, those minor inconveniences pale in comparison to saving anywhere between $60 - $100.

You don't need to spend a ton of money on headphones

Anker Soundcore Spirit Dot 2 Water Wih (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

Obviously, if you're a sound engineer, sound designer, DJ, or just an audiophile, cheap headphones aren't going to deliver the experience that you're looking for, and I'm not looking to convince you otherwise. I just am passionate about making smart buying choices that tailor to an individual's needs.

There's no doubt there are some compromises you make when you buy cheap headphones, but it's up to you to decide if you can live with those compromises. If you're looking for a pair of workout earbuds and you really want them to have an IPX7 rating and a portable charging case, think about all the options. You can find those features in headphones that cost a lot less than high-end models, and likely still be immensely happy with your purchase.

These are just a couple of examples of cheap headphones that I happen to love, and I believe they provide a ton of value, especially when you consider how much money you can save by not going with the high-end models.

Luke Filipowicz
Staff Writer

Luke Filipowicz has been a writer at iMore, covering Apple for nearly a decade now. He writes a lot about Apple Watch and iPad but covers the iPhone and Mac as well. He often describes himself as an "Apple user on a budget" and firmly believes that great technology can be affordable if you know where to look. Luke also heads up the iMore Show — a weekly podcast focusing on Apple news, rumors, and products but likes to have some fun along the way. 


Luke knows he spends more time on Twitter than he probably should, so feel free to follow him or give him a shout on social media @LukeFilipowicz.

2 Comments
  • At work, I find the most important feature of a good set of headphones is sound ISOLATION from ambient noise. That requires only relatively inexpensive insulating materials and design, not expensive Active Noise Cancellation features. But the manufacturers can charge more for the proprietary technology sold to slavishly gullible and otherwise ignorant sheeple.
  • Exactly. Noise cancellation is way overrated. It also eats up battery life. I have lots of headphones. Wired and Bluetooth. With and without NC. Over ear and ear buds. I rarely use the NC. I would also never spend $400 for headphones. Careful shopping can get anything for way less than retail. I have Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds that I paid $90 for on ebay, new. That is half the retail price.