Less than ten years ago, a headline like the one above would’ve been hard to imagine—inexpensive headphones simply hadn’t cracked the code. But times have changed, and headphone manufacturers have achieved something that was previously inconceivable: inexpensive headphones can now pump out booming, palpable bass without distorting, and deliver very solid sound quality in general. You’re still going to need to spend a decent amount of money if it’s studio-level clarity and balance you’re looking for. But if you want to improve on the so-so audio performance inherent in the standard-issue earbuds bundled with mobile devices, and you want to do it without breaking the bank, it’s possible. Read on for what to look for in a pair of budget headphones, along with our Best Cheap Headphones Under 50 2017
First, repeat after me: Earbuds are not our friends. We do not buy earbuds under any circumstances.
Okay, good. Now, let’s quickly define the terms “earbuds” and “earphones” so we’re on the same page. Earbuds—despite the marketing jargon of many a manufacturer—are not earphones, and the terms aren’t interchangeable. Earbuds don’t enter the ear canal; they are flat and sit just outside the canal, and can often sit fairly loosely in the ear, creating problems when it comes to accurate stereo images and bass response.
Earphones, on the other hand, do enter the ear canal, just slightly. Their silicone eartips safely seal off the canal, which accomplishes two things: a secure fit and an accurate stereo image (in which both ears get the same amount of audio). Sealing off the ear canal is also the easiest way to provide an enhanced sense of bass response.
So, one way to avoid subpar audio in the sub-$50 realm is to make sure you avoid earbuds and stick with earphones that seal off the canal. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the audio will sound magnificent, but it’s a step in the right direction—many of the earphones we’ve reviewed are sweat-proof, exercise-friendly pairs, and nearly all of them include useful inline mics and remote controls.
Headphones (On-Ear and Over-the-Ear)
We can divide headphones (which are not the same as in-ear earphones) into two categories. Circumaural, or over-the-ear headphones, create a seal by pressing the cushioned earpad against the area around the ear. Supra-aural, or on-ear headphones, typically use light pressure against the ear to stay in place. Both styles can offer a solid audio experience, so it’s really about personal comfort and preference.
Budget headphones have really picked up their game in recent years, and not just in terms of bass response. There are more stylish designs, with better-feeling materials and more secure fits than there used to be. We’re also seeing super-lightweight pairs that somehow manage to summon lots of power.
While budget headphones tend to place added emphasis on bass, one surprise is that, in addition to some very comfortable, stylish options, there are some more serious models aimed at recording studios or audiophiles on serious budgets; the Shure pair included here is one of the more impressive examples we’ve seen in this price range.
While there are gym-friendly headphones, most decent options are not priced to fit in the sub-$50 realm, so you may wish to either spend more or stick with exercise-friendly in-ear pairs.
If your budget is more flexible, take a look at our picks for Best Cheap Headphones Under 50 2017.
While Bluetooth connectivity has made some serious strides in recent years in terms of audio quality, there aren’t many excellent sub-$50 Bluetooth earphones or headphones yet. There are a couple of good Bluetooth options on this list, but in general, this is a category that has yet to truly flourish in the budget price range. If you can lean more toward $100, Bluetooth options greatly open up.
That said, check out our list of The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones for the top models we’ve tested.
Best Cheap Headphones Under 50 2017 Skullcandy Method
Powerful audio performance with heavily boosted bass, and sculpted high-mids and highs. Inexpensive. Secure fit and design ideal for exercise. Inline remote control and microphone for mobile devices.
Intense, boosted bass not for anyone looking for accurate, flat response.
- BOTTOM LINE
Bass lovers will find plenty to love about the exercise-friendly, budget-priced Skullcandy Method earphones.
Skullcandy‘s earphones have typically veered toward the bass-heavy end of the spectrum, and the exercise-focused, in-ear Method is no exception. The moisture-resistant design will withstand your sweaty workouts, and the intense low-end will please bass lovers while offering enough balance with its sculpted high-mids and highs to keep things from sounding ludicrously weighted towards the lows. Purists seeking flat response can stop reading, but for $29.99, the Method is a fantastic value for any bass lover on a budget, earning it our Editors’ Choice award.
Offered in bright yellow, gray, or light blue, the Method’s overall design is simple, with a focus on a secure in-ear fit over flare. The included eartips fit snugly in the ear canal, and they’re moisture-resistant, so sweat won’t cause them to fall out. In fact, the entire design is sweat-resistant, so you don’t have to worry about the internal components getting ruined during your workout.
On tracks with intense sub-bass, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Method provides gobs of deep bass response. It sounds as if it’s just about to give way to distortion at top, unsafe listening levels, but this never really happens. At more reasonable listening levels, the subwoofer-like bass response is still quite intense. This is indeed a pair for bass lovers who like some serious boosting of lows and not for anyone seeking a very accurate sound signature.
On tracks that lack serious sub-bass content, like Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” the Method overdoes the bass response a bit and gives Callahan’s already rich baritone vocals more low-mid presence than they need, while coating the drumming on this track in an extra layer of bass that isn’t normally part of the mix. But again, big bass fans will love this sound, and the Method at least does a laudable job of pairing these heavy lows with a crisp, sculpted high-mid response that helps the vocals and guitar strumming remain clear and in the forefront of the mix.
Classical tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, get more boosting in the lows than purists would want. Still, the Method brings out the lower register instrumentation in a way that plenty of listeners will enjoy. Richer, truly low parts sound powerful rather than subtle, but they never overpower the vocals and higher register strings, brass, and vocal parts, which remain crisp, bright, and in firm control of the mix.
Purists seeking balance obviously know by now that the Method is not for them, but plenty of listeners who love a bigger bass sound and are on a budget will be quite pleased with the sound they get for $30. Typically, we recommend more affordable earphones at this point in the review, but when things are this inexpensive, there’s not much point—this is about as good as it gets for bass lovers on a budget, whether you’re seeking an exercise-focused pair or not. If you have more flexibility in your budget, obviously your selection range increases. Consider the JBL Synchros Reflect or the much more expensive, wireless Jabra Rox if an exercise-friendly design is your highest priority, or the over-all excellent Audio-Technica ATH-CKX7iS for top-performing earphones under $100. Still, the $30 Skullcandy Method is an excellent value and easily wins our Editors’ Choice award for budget earphones. Bass lovers, it doesn’t get much more affordable than this.