Beats products are everywhere, and a pair of Beats headphones can be pretty expensive relative to the competition. But you’re in luck: you can get better sound than Beats for under $100.
We’ll kick this party off with an oldie but a goodie: the Sony MDR-7506 headphones. Although the Beats Studio3 has the name “studio” in their name, you won’t find any audio engineers wearing them. The Sony MDR-7506, however, is an industry-standard.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on July 22, 202, to include the Anker Soundcore Life A1 in the Best list.
If you really want studio headphones, get the Sony MDR-7506
One of the main reasons people enjoy Beats headphones is the emphasized bass response. While that’s fine for some people, that’s not ideal when you’re actually working with audio whether that means producing or mixing. You don’t want a pair of headphones that are going to color your music in any way, and this is where the Sony MDR-7506 headphones shine. They reproduce accurate audio and have remained an industry standard for decades. frequency range and have a sound that people have relied on for decades.
Sony MDR-7506Full Review
These are closed-back over-ear headphones so isolation is pretty good compared to the Solo Pro which are on-ear headphones. The MDR-7506 includes a cumbersome, coiled audio cable which is good for studio work, but not great for commuting. That said, I’ve seen people using them for just that so it isn’t impossible. You just have to be great with your cable management skills. Plus, they fold at the hinges for easy storage so you can easily stuff them in a bag when you’re not using them.
For the best sound quality, get the Sennheiser HD 350BT
Sennheiser headphones always sound great, and the Sennheiser HD 350BT is one way for you to get accurate, high-quality wireless audio on a budget. This headset supports a host of Bluetooth codecs (aptX, aptX Low Latency, AAC, and SBC), so you can enjoy optimal audio quality no matter your smartphone.
Sennheiser HD 350BTFull Review
The ear cups are comfortable for those with fairly small-t0-average-sized ears. If you have larger ears, you might find that these fit more like on-ear headphones than over-ear headphones. If you can look past that, you’ll be able to enjoy all that these headphones have to offer: onboard controls, Bluetooth multipoint, and efficient fast charging.
The microphone quality is pretty good for an embedded system, and you can definitely skate by using this headset for your next conference call. You can contact the headset by folding the hinges up toward the headband, which is great for commuters.
If you want a pair of true wireless buds, go with the Anker Soundcore Life A1
True wireless earbuds are all the rage these days, and Beats actually has a really great pair of them: the Powerbeats Pro, and the adequate, Beats Studio Buds. However, those come in at at eye-watering prices. If you want to save some cash and get something that will keep you happy until you can save up: get the Anker Soundcore Life A1 instead.
Anker Soundcore Life A1Full Review
The Anker Soundcore Life A1 has an IPX7 rating, making it nearly impervious to water damage. The onboard touch controls are comprehensive, so you rarely have to pull out your phone to control anything. If you have an iPhone you’re in luck: the A1 supports AAC—ideal for iPhone—and SBC with a reliable connection.
You get above average battery life of 8 hours and 23 minutes on a single charge, which ought to last any commute, plus a workout or a few. The fit is comfortable and lightweight with included different sized ear tips and wings. For well under $100 the A1 the sound is bass-heavy which most Beats fans will probably like.
The 1MORE Triple-Driver in-ears sound way better than the urBeats
This one is a no-brainer. It’s not a secret that the entry-level urBeats leave a lot on the table. If you’re going to get a pair of wired earbuds, just get the 1MORE Triple-Driver In-Ear: these sound much better and include a wide variety of ear tips for proper isolation. Each earbud houses three drivers and this yields clear, enjoyable audio.
1MORE Triple-Driver In-EarFull Review
1MORE’s build quality is way better than the urBeats. Instead of cheap plastic that’s prone to breakage, the Triple-Driver In-Ear has a fabric-wrapped cable for durability. The earbud cases are a strong metal and the nozzles angle inward for a more ergonomic fit.
The Anker Soundcore Life Q30 gives the Beats Solo3 a run for its money
The Beats Solo3 Wireless, aren’t cheap. But you don’t need to spend well over $100 on a pair. Instead, just get the Anker Soundcore Life Q30 headphones that only cost under $100.
Anker Soundcore Life Q30
These headphones boast a 40-hour battery life and comfortable design, thanks to the plush ear pads. Bass notes are emphasized which means Beats fans will be right at home with the Life Q30 frequency response. These headphones use active noise cancelling to shut out the world around you. Its ANC can’t compete with the likes of Sony and Bose, but it’s good for coffee shops and libraries.
What you should know about Beats alternatives under $100
What’s up with the Beats frequency response?
One of the things you’ll hear people talk about all the time when it comes to audio is frequency response. This is especially true with Beats products as they have a characteristically unique frequency response. But what is frequency response and why is it so important? We’re only going to scratch the surface here, but if you want to dig in deeper you can read this full explainer piece by one of our resident geniuses Rob Triggs.
If you look in the specs of a pair of headphones you’ll probably see something that looks like this: Frequency Response 20Hz – 20,000Hz. Coincidentally, that’s also the range of human hearing. Basically, the frequency response of any audio product refers to the ability of the components of those headphones to receive an input signal and output that same exact signal. But if you’ve ever played a game of telephone as a kid, you know that a message can get confused and garbled by the time it reaches the end of the line.
The same is true of audio. Depending on the components of the headphones, that initial signal can change slightly by the time it reaches the drivers and your ears. Furthermore, human hearing is wildly different from person to person. So even if you made the perfect pair of headphones that could reproduce a signal perfectly, it will still sound different to some people.
This leads manufacturers to do tons of research so that their products sound good to most people. This includes tweaking certain components, and thus the frequency response, to what they hope people will like. In the case of Beats headphones, this was done by really emphasizing lower notes. So the sound of a bass kick coming through their product will be more powerful than the sound of a cymbal. It isn’t better or worse, just different. It’s what they think most people will like, and whether it’s because of marketing or because of the exaggerated low end, the company clearly on to something considering how many they’ve sold. Still, most audio circles frown upon that characteristic sound, which is why this list exists.
AAC, Bluetooth, and you
All but two products in the Beats line-up are wireless, which means that you should know a thing or two about Bluetooth before you invest your money. We have a whole series breaking down every aspect of Bluetooth, but here we’re going to focus on something called a codec. A Bluetooth codec can be thought of as a common language between two devices. If two products speaker the same language (or have the same codec), they can transfer more data between the two.
This is important because there are a number of different codecs that all work slightly differently. Luckily, all products speak the same basic codec called SBC, so you’ll never be stuck not being able to connect. This is important with Beats products because the only codec Beats headphones and speakers are compatible with is AAC. Now AAC isn’t the best codec available, but it isn’t the worst. The problem with it is that it works best when you use an iOS device as your source device. If you have an Android phone, your performance can vary based on which model you have.
The wireless products on this list (save for the Jaybird earbuds) are all aptX compatible so you won’t have that issue. Unfortunately, it brings rise to another problem that’s the reverse of the first. Apple devices don’t have any special codecs besides AAC. So if you’re using an iOS device you’ll be connecting via the standard codec of SBC.
Why is isolation so important?
When it comes to headphones, isolation is arguably the most important factor you should consider. It’s the enemy of good sound, which is why active noise cancelling headphones have risen in popularity over the years. If you’re commuting or going on a plane, there’s always a lot of outside noise around you. And if your headphones don’t block those noises, or in the case of ANC headphones actively work to negate them, it could make for a crappy listening experience.
Human hearing is great, but it isn’t perfect. And one area of life where this is apparent is when we’re trying to listen to our favorite tunes. For evolutionary reasons, when two sounds of similar frequencies occur simultaneously your brain ignores whichever one is of lower volume. This is called auditory masking, and the ability to focus on what’s louder and most important helped our ancestors survive in the wild. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the wild anymore and our brain prefers to focus on the sounds of a passing bus instead of the delicate bassline of your favorite tune. Isolation can fix this by not allowing those outside noises to even reach your ears in the first place.
For headphones, closed-back over-ears do this best which is another reason why the Solo3 headphones as on-ears, have such a strong low end. It’s to help you hear the bass when it otherwise might be lost due to auditory masking. In-ears are a little trickier because they physically can’t form a seal around your ears because, by definition, they go in your ears. In those cases, it’s good to look into a solid pair of memory foam ear tips to complement your favorite pair of ‘buds as they do a great job of isolating outside noise. Plus, it’s a great way to ignore the holiday music that’s surely going to be berating you for the next few months.
The history of Beats
This entire article might seem like we’re berating the Beats brand, but that isn’t the case. Beats products have their place in the world and I usually recommend a product or two depending on the use case and who is asking. They also have a really interesting backstory that’s worth checking out if you want to know how they came to be. While it’s true that we’re not entirely sure what’s going on with the brand now, there’s no doubt that the company is going to sell tons of headphones. Especially since Apple, its parent company, removed the headphone jack.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
As a team, the Sound Guys crew has years of testing experience behind them. Not to mention that we’re all nerds and care deeply about anything audio. Lily spent much of her time before joining Sound Guys in and out of radio stations, Adam has listened to hundreds of audio products in the six years he’s been here, and Chris spent years testing products for the likes of USA Today and Reviewed.com, so yeah, we’re pretty confident in what we say here. If you want some fun reading also make sure to check out our ethics policy so you can be as confident in our picks as we are.