The good thing about headphones is there are plenty of styles and options to choose from. Earbuds are the most portable, while over-ears usually offer a few more features (and better battery life if they’re wireless). However, if you want the best of both worlds, go for a pair of on-ears. Usually, the best headphones are going to cost you a fortune, but that isn’t the case. These are some of the best on-ear headphones you can get for under $100.
Editor’s note: this list was updated on April 24, 2021, to replace JBL T500 headphones with AKG Y500, and to add a note about glasses with the Koss Porta Pro.
Related: Best wireless headphones
The best on-ear headphones under $100 are the Grado SR60e
Grado is a family-owned business operates out of their warehouse in Brooklyn and makes products well known for sound quality. One of them is the Grado SR60e on-ear headphones.
Grado SR60eFull Review
For less than $100, these are widely considered one of the best bang-for-your-buck open-back headphones you can get. The foam padding on the ear cups isn’t the most advanced, but it’s comfortable enough. Because they’re open back you’ll get a great soundstage and the heavy-duty cable won’t break anytime soon.
Of course, these aren’t the most portable pair of headphones. They don’t fold at the hinges, they don’t block sound due to their open-back construction, and they don’t have an inline mic and remote to control music on portable devices. But if you just want good sound, these are some of the best on-ear headphones you can get.
What you should know about the best on-ear headphones under $100
Get a headset that’s not too tight, but just right
Getting the proper fit is just as important for on-ear headphones as in-ear or over-ear models. Unfortunately, since on-ears sit, well, on the ear, it’s more difficult to achieve this. Often, we consumers run into one of two issues: either the headset is so tight that it hurts to wear for longer than 20 minutes, or it’s so loose that it falls forward when we go to tie our shoes. Bespectacled listeners should jump ahead to over-ear headsets like the Shure AONIC 50 or even the AKG K371, or stick to the Koss Porta Pro. Once you get it right, the benefits of proper isolation will allow for optimal bass response and clarity.
Bluetooth audio or wired audio?
If you’re looking at any of the wireless models, bear in mind that wired still trumps Bluetooth with regards to audio quality. Of course, sometimes you just can’t put a price on the convenience of cutting the cord. If you’re a die-hard Bluetooth fan, keep an eye out for high-quality codec support. Android users should look out for aptX or LDAC headphones, while iPhone users will benefit most from AAC headsets. See, Android doesn’t play well with AAC across devices and iOS doesn’t support aptX or LDAC.
Become an expert: Bluetooth codecs 101
If you’re streaming from a basic music service like YouTube Music or Spotify, high-quality codec support is still important for connection quality and reduced latency, but it won’t turn crappy headphones that happen to support aptX into an audio miracle. You still want to make sure you’re using a well-engineered headset to get the most out of your music.
What about open-back headphones?
Open-back headphones aren’t meant for travel since they leak noise like crazy, and allow external noise in. That said, it’s really more of a feature than a drawback since it facilitates a more realistic perception of sound. Sure, it’s not quite 3D sound, but it’s better than traditionally closed cans. We recommend relegating your Grado headset to the home and picking up something more sealed off for travel.
Stay aware with the Koss Porta Pro
Looking for the best on-ear headphones with the most portability? The Koss Porta Pro is a classic pair of headphones, and the new limited editions add important features along with their new color options. The retro design hasn’t changed since its first release, and it’s just as practical now as it was then.
Koss Porta Pro Limited EditionFull Review
The headphones have a thin, lightweight frame and plastic ear cups that fold down to a more compact size for travel. These also have a switch on the side that adjusts the firmness of the ear cups for a more comfortable fit. The unique adjustable design with ear pads and then a space with another set of padding on the side of the wearer’s head makes these probably one of the best on-ear headsets for individuals who wear glasses. They aren’t the most durable pair of headphones but they come with a hardshell case for protection during transport. What’s more, the limited edition models have a small mic and remote for use with mobile devices.
One thing to note is that these are open-back headphones so although they work with mobile devices you’re probably not going to want to use them during your commute unless you want everyone to hear what you’re listening to.
The Jabra Elite 45h has the best battery life
The Jabra Elite 45h rocks an attractive minimalistic design. The buttons can be a bit difficult to differentiate, but you can always activate the Google Assistant button to then make basic voice-directed playback controls and perform simple tasks.
Jabra Elite 45hFull Review
The Elite 45h has the best battery life in the business, permitting an insane 54 hours of constant playback before requiring a recharge via the included USB-C cable. The headphones support AAC and Bluetooth multipoint, but the multipoint connection is a little dubious.
Assuming you’re able to get a proper fit with these on-ears, the neutral leaning frequency response adapts well to a variety of music types. Unfortunately, external noise attenuation isn’t great, but that’s the case for nearly all on-ear headphones. The mic quality is good on these headphones, and they offer a two-year dust and water damage warranty.
Cut the cord and add features with the Sony WH-CH510
One of Sony’s newest additions to its line of headphones, the WH-CH510 wireless on-ear headphones continues the company’s streak of great products with terrible names. These sleek headphones come equipped with swiveling hinges, so they can lay flat on a table or around your neck when you’re not using them.
These headphones connect to your device using Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC to provide fast and expansive control. Using the built-in mic, they’re compatible with Siri and Google Assistant, and support hands-free calling. There are also volume and playback control buttons. Unfortunately, the headphones only support SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs, so no aptX for those who really want it.
Inside the headphones sit 30mm dynamic drivers and a battery that can last up to 35 hours. The headset charges through USB-C and it even sports a quick charge function, where 10 minutes of charging will get you 90 minutes of playback.
All told, these are reasonably priced on-ear headphones packed to the gills with useful features.
The AKG Y500 wireless headphones have premium features on a budget
The AKG Y500 Wireless headphones have been around for a couple of years and recently dropped in price, which is great for folks looking for some premium features. You get automatic play/pause when removing the headset, tactile function buttons, and wireless capability with Bluetooth multipoint all for $79 USD. These are closed-back which are more suitable for a commute or in a shared space than open-back ones on the list.
With folding hinges and a carrying case, the AKG Y500 ticks most boxes on paper for the on-ear buyer. They purportedly supply a 33-hour battery life (AAC codec), but wired will always get you the best sound. If you’re listening with a wired connection the frequency range is impressive (16Hz – 22kHz), though most people won’t be able to hear some of the highest and lowest frequencies.
The AKG Y500 does not have active noise cancelling, but AKG is confident that the passive noise cancellation is sufficient enough to include an ambient mode, in order to keep listeners aware of their environment. For a good all-around on-ear headset the AKG Y500 will do the job, and it’s rather unique in the market as a headphone set marketed as a portable-friendly option for buyers that maybe know the historical cache of AKG in music production, but aren’t looking for audiophile headphones.
Best cheap on-ear headphones: notable mentions
- Jabra Move Style: These funky and compact wireless headphones can pair up to eight devices and have a very durable build. Their battery is alright, topping out at around 12.75 hours, and they have a neutral-leaning frequency response. They’re not great for exercise, but you’ll surely be the most stylish pedestrian wearing these.
- Puro Sound Labs PuroQuiet: Whether you want on-ears for your kid or you just have a smaller head, these are a great-fitting pair of cans. They also have active noise cancelling and a volume limit to help protect those precious ears.
- Sennheiser HD 25 Light: Sennheiser is known for their top-tier audio quality, and that reputation holds true with these on-ear cans. The bass response is emphasized, but not so much that it destroys the clarity of your music. And the cord is detachable, so if it breaks, you don’t have to worry about buying a whole new set of headphones.
- JBL TUNE 500: For around $30, fanciness probably isn’t as important. JBL has been putting out solid headphones and speakers for years at a variety of prices, and the TUNE 500 brings that pedigree to a bargain-level price. They might be discontinued, but hunt around.
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Frequently Asked Questions
For $20, the Sony MDRZX110 are not bad. These wired headphones have decent audio quality which pumps through their 30mm drivers. They're lightweight and fold at the hinges, so they can be thrown in your backpack easily. These headphones are no-frills and have no microphone or onboard controls, but if all you care about is listening to your music, this should be no issue.
No! The Beats Solo 2 are a pretty old pair of wired headphones, and they're not worth $100. The sound quality isn't very good and you can definitely find a better pair of on-ear headphones in this price range.