Why bend to the will of that pesky fork in the road when you can safely walk down the middle? If you’re a frequent visitor, you already know headphone prices can range from a mere $20 to “insurmountable college debt” level. Today, we’re talking about what lies between the two extremes—the best headphones under $100.
Editors note: this article was updated on March 3, 2020, to replace the Plantronics Backbeat 500 Fit with the Jabra Elite Activ 45e.
Related: Best headphones under $50
Who should buy these?
- Anyone interested in delving deeper into the world of audio for less. We’ve listed everything from studio headphones to workout headphones to account for anyone interested in upgrading their current setup. Making the switch to headphones under $100, rather than $50, opens a world of possibilities for a variety of audio preferences.
- People who enjoy audio, but can’t have nice things. Listen, we get it. You’re not great with things that break. It might be easier to replace cheaper headphones, but we think $100 gives you a nice upgrade without eating up your wallet.
- Gift givers. If you want to give the gift of music, this is a pretty decent price range to get a little something for someone you care about. Now if you really, truly love this person then you might want to check out this list.
The best headphones under $100 are the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x
The ATH-M50x are the top pick for many but the ATH-M40x easily keep pace. From the enthusiast to the professional, the 40x will sate any hi-fi appetite. If you’re interested in either model, but want a wireless version, well Audio-Technica offers that too.
Audio-Technica ATH-M40XFull Review
Thanks to the rotating ear cups, the headphones lay flat against the chest when inactive which is always handy. Generally speaking, the headband is comfortable with just enough padding. However, if you aren’t into the synthetic feel, you may have a differing opinion. The ATH-M40x provides more subtle bass reproduction than the ATH-M50x, which is ideal for mixing and makes it easier for sound engineers to register and remedy overemphasized treble, something that can fatigue products.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M40x are comfortable, durable, and reproduce only a slightly skewed sound signature.
Audio-Technica designed these with one purpose in mind: listening to music. Overall, if you prefer an ever-so-slight emphasis in the mids and vocals, you’ll thoroughly enjoy the ATH-M40x as our pick for the best headphones under $100.
If you’re in the studio, grab the Sony MDR-7506
In this corner, weighing in at 8.1 ounces, are the Sony MDR-7506. The 1985 inception of these classic headphones came out under the model number MDR-V6. Six years later the world met the MDR-7506, which had slight aesthetic and functional changes from the V6. The MDR-7506 have proven they can keep up with modern standards while maintaining a retro, professional look.
Sony MDR-7506Full Review
Although they’ll work in any context, the Sony MDR-7506 are intended for studio monitoring. Fortunately, if you want to expose them to natural light, folding hinges make transport a breeze. In general, these are a reliable and legendary pair of headphones under $100 with that “it” factor. The long 9.8-foot cable is great for studio use but may need tying up to avoid comical unwieldiness while out and about.
Over-ear headphones offer the best sound quality and soundstage, how headphones reproduce spatial cues, due to mammoth drivers.
If it seems like these headphones are a bit out of place, it’s probably due to the fact that our staff has decades of experience with them, and they still hold up today. They can be found in classrooms, studios, and even some speech labs. If you’re looking for headphones under $100 that have proven many times over that they last for years on end, these are the headphones to buy.
What you should know about headphones under $100
Headphones come in all shapes and sizes, but an uncompromising seal is necessary for proper bass. We’ve laid out the most important points covering the differences between on-ear and over-ear headphones. For more in-depth information, make sure to head over to our headphone buying guide.
Bluetooth codec support
This matters for anyone who values audio quality. If you have an iPhone, look out for AAC, because iOS devices don’t support other high-quality codecs. If you’re rocking Android, aptX and its many variants are your best bet. LDAC is fine but certainly not hi-res. If all of this alphabet soup is overwhelming, chances are your ears are too old to differentiate between codecs anyway, so no sweat. That said, if you want the best audio quality possible, stick to wired audio.
Bluetooth announced LE Audio and the LC3 codec at CES 2020, and once it reaches the consumer market, we’ll see a 50% increase in audio quality over SBC alongside more efficient performance. Not only will this benefit sound quality and connection stability, but those within the hearing-impaired community will experience additional functionality with compatible Bluetooth hearing aids. For instance, broadcast and multistream audio—not to be confused with Bluetooth multipoint—will allow more than one audio stream to be sent to a single headset. This technology will allow those with Bluetooth headsets to tune into relevant information-only at the airport, train station, and more. Now, those with hearing aids no longer have to strain to hear relevant announcements.
On-ear vs. over-ear headphones
On-ear headphones sit directly on your ears. They negotiate a healthy balance between portability and quality sound. As the name implies, they rest neither around nor within the ear, so they’re not as comfortable and the seal isn’t the greatest. If you wear glasses, on-ears typically aren’t your friend. However, I had great luck with the Bose SoundLink On-Ear headphones when wearing glasses.
Over-ears offer the best sound quality and soundstage—how headphones reproduce spatial cues—due to large drivers. They also use the ear’s anatomy by sitting around them and using the entire pinna to funnel sound. Consequently, this creates a better seal, which allows the sound to properly resonate within the space between our ears and the drivers.
Closed-back vs. open-back headphones
Closed-back headphones isolate well and are primarily used for commuting and travel, or where outside noise would ruin your music. The echoes that reverberate throughout the closed chamber are nearly unavoidable and can cause harmonic distortion. Cans like the Sennheiser HD 598 CS do a great job combatting this. Conversely, open-back headphones do not isolate at all. This is fine if you’re listening in a quiet room but will sound terrible when traveling or commuting. Quiet environments are where this breed shine.
Related: Why you don’t want studio headphones
Take the necessary steps to prevent hearing loss
Hearing loss comes in all varieties and can negatively impact an individual’s emotional wellbeing. In order to prevent this altogether, we suggest finding a proper fit with your headphones. Doing so will keep external noise out, making you feel less inclined to turn up the volume to dangerous levels. If you have a few more dollars to spare, you may want to consider premium active noise cancelling headphones as they further protect you from the chances of developing noise-induced hearing loss. There even exist sub-$100 ANC headphone options, but they won’t be nearly as effective as the more advanced alternatives.
Work out with the Jabra Elite Active 45e
Jabra makes some of our favorite workout earbuds, and the Jabra Elite Active 45e headset is a great option for all sorts of athletes. The IP67 rating denotes both dust and water-resistance, making these a great pick for rock climbers and runners alike. Unfortunately, they lack onboard storage, so you can’t actually use them while swimming. If they happen to take a dip in the pool, though, you needn’t worry.
Jabra Elite Active 45eFull Review
The proprietary ear tips allow users to remain aware of their surroundings at all times, something any outdoor athlete must have in a pair of workout headphones. The downside to this safety feature is that sound quality takes a toll: external noises make it difficult to perceive musical detail. In this case, it’s not a huge deal, but is something we’d knock for a pair of studio cans.
Battery life is fine; you’re afforded nine hours of listening on a single charge. It’s a bummer that the Elite Active 45e uses microUSB, but at least it supports quick charging. Just 15 minutes of connection to the cable yields an hour of listening. If you want to go completely wireless, check out the Jabra Elite Active 75t true wireless earbuds.
For the best sound quality get the Grado SR60e
Ask anyone about open-back headphones and they’ll likely utter the dual-syllabic company’s name: Grado. This is no coincidence; the Brooklyn-based company has been making open-back cans since 1953. In fact, it just released a wireless version of its beloved open-back cans. The SR60e is a sub-$80 entry-level set of headphones that sounds fantastic for the price.
Grado SR60eFull Review
The open-back design promotes a wider soundstage, and makes for a notably more engaging experience. It includes a one-year warranty and a seemingly indestructible cable with a substantial Y-splitter. Be warned, though, the on-ear design isn’t comfortable for listeners wearing glasses; I had to take breaks at 30-minute intervals to sidestep behind-the-ear pain.
If you’re interested in open-back cans and want to experience your music in a completely new light, the Grado SR60e is a low-risk fan-favorite that’s sure to be in your audio arsenal for years to come.
Related: Best earbuds under $100
The Anker Soundcore Vortex will give you a little bit of everything for under $100
Anker is no stranger to making easy-to-recommend, budget-friendly products. The company rarely has the absolute best products, but it’s consistent. When you pair that with the company’s pricing habits, it has us wondering how Anker is still in business. The Anker Soundcore Vortex are less than $60, yet they offer features that give more premium headphones a run for their money.
First let’s get some of the negatives out of the way. When you’re trying to cut down the price, build quality is typically the first thing to go, and that is true here. These won’t go breaking on you, but they’re not exactly durable, with an all-plastic design and synthetic leather. They also won’t give you the same clarity as some of the other headphones on this list. However, if you’re willing to make those trade-offs, you’ll get some great specs in return.
Anker Soundcore VortexFull Review
These headphones are aptX compatible, so you can connect over Bluetooth for higher quality streaming. If you’re using an iOS device you’ll be bumped down to the standard SBC codec as iPhones, unfortunately, don’t support aptX. If you’d rather connect an audio cable, these also have a 3.5mm input on the right ear cup.
The Soundcore Vortex has folding hinges, so you can fold them up and toss them in your bag to save space. They also have a ridiculously good battery life, at around 20 hours of constant playback—if you hate plugging in your gear every night these might be for you.
- Sennheiser HD 280 Pro: These headphones attenuate external noise effectively, but the bulk and tight headband are too much for some.
- Aftershokz Trekz Titanium: If the Plantronics BackBeat 500 Fit resonated with you but you’re not one for running with traditional headphones, these bone conductive headphones allow listeners to remain fully aware of their surroundings while exercising. This awareness, however, is at the expense of sound quality.
- Jabra Move Wireless Style Edition: This set of headphones features an eight-hour battery life with a 12-day standby time. Sound quality is surprisingly clear given the sub-$50 price of these cans.
- Beyerdynamic DT 240 Pro: These supra-aural cans, like the ATH-M40x, are meant for the studio but don’t need to be confined there. The earcups are small and light enough to take with you, too.
- Razer Kraken 7.1 V2: If you want a solid pair of gaming cans with 7.1 surround sound, Razer is a great pick; plus, it has a low-profile microphone.
Next: Best headphones of 2019
How we choose the best headphones under $100
We do our best at SoundGuys to directly test as many audio products as possible, but alas, we too are only human. While testing every audio product in the world is nearly impossible, we research as many candidates as we can if we’re unable to directly test something. Fortunately, with this “best headphones under $100 list,” we were able to directly test each of the top picks, allowing us to speak candidly about our experiences here and in the in-depth reviews.
If a product made it as one of the best headphones under $100, it’s because we earnestly feel it’s one of the best in its class.
Why you should trust us
We work day and night (well the night part mainly because we work remotely), to ensure we’re able to keep tabs on the ever-changing world of audio. What’s in today may not be in tomorrow, and our collective years of experience empower us to easily distinguish the diamonds in the rough from, well, the rough.
It’s not just about the subjective experience here, though. Audio is both a subjective but also objective and quantifiable phenomenon. In recognizing that, we also perform objective, in-house testing on an array of audio products.
All we want is for you to enjoy what you’re listening with and none of us see a penny, nickel, or dime from partnerships or referral purchases. What’s more, no writer at SoundGuys may benefit from guiding readers toward one product or another. If you’re interested, feel free to read up on our ethics policy.
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