Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The 14 best value headphones

Best Value Headphones

*Note: this page is frequently updated to reflect changes in pricing, 
and/or which headphones offer the best value.

As promised in my earlier post, I would feature a post with some Froogal-approved headphones. The criteria? They must represent a good value, they must have good reviews overall, they must be durable, and they must feature good sound quality. It also helps if I have had good experiences with them.

The prices listed after the model number are based on the Amazon price for a new pair of headphones, on the day this was posted. Prices fluctuate, and I have previously extolled the virtues of buying refurbished electronics in order to save even more money!

And, as always, shop around! Amazon is not often undersold, but it does happen (as in the case of the Monoprice 8323, where it's cheaper to buy directly from the manufacturer). I've listed the Amazon prices because many people have accounts there, and feel comfortable with buying from Amazon--which may not necessarily be the case with other online retailers. A final note: some product listings would not let me include a link, for some odd reason. So the links I've provided below won't necessarily take you to the best price.

I think that wraps up the intro...and so we begin (cue drumroll):


#1: Sony MDR-ZX310, $20 (as of July 2015)


MDR-ZX310 Amazon link
(The above link takes you to the black version; there is also a white version, a red version, a blue version, and even a version that's gray with bright lime green earpads. Shop around for the ones you like best and the ones with the lowest price. Aside from the color, everything else is the same about these versions. There's also a version called the MDR-ZX310AP, which includes an inline microphone--these obviously cost a bit more.)

$20 headphones at #1?...Yes, they're actually that good! These fulfill all the requirements listed in the intro: favorable reviews, durable, very good sound, excellent value, and good looks. I can personally attest to these factors because I own this pair myself!

This picture is the exact pair I own: the MDR-ZX310 in black. Originally, I had the previous model (the MDR-ZX300), which impressed me so much that I bought the new version to replace them! (I broke the cord on the ZX300--which isn't easy to do--so the older ones now play music only out of one side. In case you're curious, the cord looped around my knee when I was crouched down, and I stood up quickly, without noticing this fact...the cord caught on my knee, and the force was too much for the admittedly thick and sturdy cord to handle. That's not the headphones' fault for breaking, it's mine for failing to pay attention).
The ZX310 has very similar sound quality to the ZX300, though when I really listen for it, I've noticed that a couple songs sound a little less clear than the older ZX300. I think Sony has fallen prey to the "Beats effect" of over-boosting the bass, thus distorting or drowning out the reproduction of some other sounds in the middle of the register.  
But the ZX310, though not quite as good as the older model, is still quite good, and still sounds better than most other headphones in its price range. The ZX300 and the ZX310 are both great values! The sleeker design of the newer ZX310, as well as the similar price for both models, helps make the ZX310 my recommendation.
They aren't terribly different: the new versions fold up in order to take less space than the old model, the ZX310 was slightly redesigned, and the sound is similar (and very good!). There is also a red version, for those who prefer some extra bling (for what it's worth, the earphone plate is shiny, so even the black ones have a little attention-grabbing factor), as well as a white version and a blue version. Though nobody will accuse them of being slim, they're also not so big that they look silly on your head.



They're much more than just a pretty set of cans, though. From my personal experience with the ZX310, I can tell you that when you listen to music on these, you'll hear details you may not have heard before (unless you already have a really high-quality sound system). The bass is strong, the highs are clear, and the mids are usually represented well. If you're not an audio snob, you'll be blown away by how good these sound!

Additionally, on some occasions when I was watching a movie with no headphones plugged in, I'd have trouble understanding what someone says. Well, one time I stumbled upon the brilliant idea of plugging in these headphones while I play back that particular line--and it worked! I could understand the line perfectly, even though I couldn't get it after three or four tries on speakers!

That's indicative of the level of clarity and precision you get with these headphones. I've also done a little club DJ-ing, and I can tell you that I've never heard my music as well as I have while wearing these. (My parents' Panasonic SC-HT740 Home Theater System, which sounds absolutely great, yields similarly excellent sound. The Panasonic SC-HT740 is a discontinued product that originally retailed for almost $300 in 2006).

The over-ear, closed-back design helps deaden sound from the outside. It's not a noise-cancelling function; it's just the same as putting anything over your ears. It's just enough to help insulate you from outside noises while listening to your audio.

It also features an adjustable headband that can accommodate most head sizes. The earpads are made of a soft, comfortable vinyl-like substance. The cord is thick, and feels reinforced--it gives you confidence that it can take some punishment (though, obviously not standing up too quickly if it's looped around your knee!). When you're ready to transport them, they fold up with a twisting hinge, so that they take less space. Overall, it's a well-thought-out design (though I actually preferred the ZX300's ability to rotate the earcups 90 degrees, rather than folding up with that twisting hinge).

My praise for these headphones is obviously effusive, since my experience with them, and with their predecessors, has been so good. After owning these, I will never be able to put up with cheap earbuds and their inferior sound!

A glance at some of the many Amazon reviews will tell you that I'm not alone--other people also love these headphones, as shown by the 82% recommendation rate (that is, 82% of ratings on Amazon got 4 or 5 stars)!

The only drawbacks I can think of are: a) the cups don't breathe well and can make your ears warm, b) there's no padding where the plastic headband meets the top of your head (if this bothers you, it can be easily fixed by gluing a piece of soft foam to the headband), and c) I sometimes get a mild headache if I wear these for hours on end. Maybe they exert a little too much pressure on my skull, or maybe it's from the constant sonic assault--the headphones can get very loud, so I usually listen to music at about 20% of max volume. Some other reviews have specifically said that these headphones do not give them headaches--so maybe I'm just spending too much time listening to them!

Finally: a friend (a real audiophile) let me listen to his pair of open-back Sennheiser HD 650 headphones, which retail for around $439 (my laptop cost less than that!). I listened to several songs, and I determined that these expensive Sennheisers did sound slightly better than the previous version, the Sony MDR-ZX300, that I was using at the time.

But the difference was not large enough to notice unless I was specifically listening for it. The Sennheisers and their over-ear, open-back design with padded headband were also a little more comfortable than the Sonys. If I rated the Sennheiser headphones a 100, then the MDR-ZX300 would have earned a 95.

So are the Sennheisers worth the extra $400? Certainly not in my book! But I'm a noted cheapskate, so I'm willing to live with the marginal decrease in comfort and performance, for a product that is only around 5% of the price. This is why I thought the Sony MDR-ZX300 was the best headphone value on the market!

If you're willing to pay the extra hundreds of dollars for the extra bit of comfort and slight improvement in sound for the Sennheisers, here's the link. But if you do, be prepared to pony up for an amplifier as well, because on their own, these headphones will not be loud enough for you to hear anything, even at max volume!

If you're going spend that much, I'd recommend instead spending a roughly a quarter of that on the Sony MDR-7510 studio headphones, which are commonly used by the producers and engineers that actually produce and mix music! Some will say this isn't the best available...but frankly, I think it's good enough to hear music the way the producers are hearing it when they actually mix the music in the first place!

#2: Monoprice 8323 Pro Headphone, $33
Monoprice 8323 Amazon link

Some people prefer these to the Sennheisers described below. Since these Monoprice headphones are marketed toward DJs, they emphasize the bass more than others. Based on your musical tastes, this may be either a selling point or a drawback.

I like the generous padding on this model, and many reviewers cite the excellent sound reproduction. Without hearing them for myself, I can't verify this claim, but several reviewers have enthusiastically advocated this model--a couple even compared them favorably to the Sennheiser HD 201 found elsewhere on this list! I also like the flexibility of having a removable cable. This allows you to plug your cable into the bottom of either earcup (which could be useful based on your audio equipment's setup), and also gives you the ability to replace your cable if it gets lost or broken.

Some people do not feel that these are comfortable headphones. Again, since I have never used them, I can't weigh in on the matter. They have headband padding, which is a good idea, and they have vinyl earpads that appear to be soft and forgiving. Perhaps people find them uncomfortable because they make your ears warm, or because they're too heavy, or because they exert too much pressure. I suspect that this objection is largely a matter of personal taste: one person may find them uncomfortable, whereas another person may think they're fine. Amazon has a pretty user-friendly return policy, if you opt for these and decide that they don't meet your standards.

At any rate, 84% of Amazon reviewers rate this product 4- or 5-stars, which is certainly enough to recommend this set to anyone who wants a durable set of headphones with great sound!

A final note: these may actually be available for less on Monoprice's website (as of the time of posting, they cost $23 direct from Monoprice). This would make these headphones an outstanding value, similar to the #1 ranked Sony MDR-ZX310!

EXTRA: Philips SHP1900, $15 

SHP1900 Amazon link

These lightweight, recording studio-style headphones are meant to give clear, balanced sound. They're geared for people who are watching TV or listening to music on their home computer; they're not exactly on-the-go headphones.

I own these myself; I leave them at home as a great option for watching movies or listening to music. I appreciate the long, single-sided cord, as it allows me some freedom to move around. They're also comfortable to listen to for long durations! As for the sound quality--they're not as immersive as the above headphones, as they sound a bit...distant. It sounds like you're listening to something from across a field, as opposed to inside your head (as with the Sonys I put at #1). But the upside is that the sound is very balanced, and does not emphasize any particular range (such as bass or treble). Some people would appreciate this balanced sound; some prefer the more immersive sound of the punchy bass and strong mids in the Sony MDR-ZX300 or the newer ZX310.

If you're a musician looking for something meant to be comfortable and balanced without spending a fortune, a few of these out-of-production headphones are available for $10. Remember, they're for home/studio use, though, so they're not the best option for everyone. But for those who are in the market for home-use headphones, you can't beat the price!

#3: Sennheiser HD 201 or HD 202; ~$25 for either

The Sennheiser HD 201 is pictured here

HD 201 Amazon link
HD 202 Amazon link

Sennheiser products feature a sterling reputation. I have not listened to either of these, but they are well-regarded headphones within the target price range of $20-30. Customers swear by them, and the company stands behind their products with a 2-year warranty!

I wonder if these actually sound better than the ZX310; I have no reason to believe that they would. Some reviewers claim that the bass is a bit weak, but others think these are the best values available in that price range! Users frequently note that they hear songs more clearly through these headphones than they do with other headphones (but the same could be said of the Sonys). Users also frequently point out the noise isolation and comfort of the 201, and the clear and faithful sound reproduction of the 202.

The 78% recommendation rate for the HD 201 on Amazon reflects good customer satisfaction; the HD 202's is even better, at 80%. I'd feel comfortable buying either of these; the 201s would probably be my choice, based on comfort and looks.

#4: Amazon Basics On-Ear Headphones, $15


Amazon Basics On-Ear Headphones link

These headphones were engineered by Amazon as low-cost alternatives to the headphones that are already on the market. Judging by the 83% recommendation rate (fully two-thirds of the reviews give these headphones 5 stars!), customers find them to be a great buy!

One reason you might go for these instead of the #1-ranked Sony MDR-ZX310 is the padding on the headband. This should enhance the comfort if you're wearing these headphones for a long period of time.

Many reviewers note that the sound is good...for a pair of $15 headphones.  Such praise is not nearly as effusive the reviews on the headphones listed above; this indicates to me that the sound is not quite on the same level as the Sony, Monoprice, or Sennheiser headphones listed from #1-3. One reviewer compares the sound favorably to the lower-priced Sony MDR-ZX110 listed below, saying that he ordered these to replace the other pair. [Though, judging by that reviewer's comment, the headphones he returned were likely defective, as he said they sounded tinny and had a buzzing sound in one ear. Neither of those occurrences are normal.]

The general consensus is that these headphones provide good value and good sound for the price. Therefore, they're a natural entry on this list!

#5: Sony MDR-ZX110, $15


See a pattern developing here? For quality headphones at a good price, Sony delivers consistently. These headphones are the little brother of the ZX310 mentioned earlier. This model also has a variety of color options, but the matte plastic just doesn't look quite as good as the shiny material used on the ZX310.

As far as the sound goes, these are good headphones; the sound is not as rich and full as on the ZX310, and I find the bass to be a bit muted, but for $15 headphones, the sound is very well-balanced!

The 81% recommendation rate on Amazon is very good for such a low-priced model of headphone; especially considering that over 1800 people rated this product! With so many people giving these headphones 4 or 5 stars, it's a safe bet that they'll be good for your needs. I encourage you to get the better-sounding ZX310 (which has an even higher recommendation rate!), as I think the better sound is worth the extra $5--that's why I bought the ZX310, and the ZX300 before them.

But some people are hard on headphones, or they want a cheaper second pair to wear at the gym. If you're looking to spend even less than the $20 cost of the higher-end ZX310, the ZX110 represents a good option. For $15, you won't find a better mix of sound quality, durability, comfort, and value!

#6: Philips SHL3000



Again, these are generally well-reviewed (77% recommendation rate) for headphones that go for under $15. Users generally like these for the good sound; others dislike the mediocre construction quality.

I think these would be good for headphones to keep at home or in the office. If you're not frequently moving these headphones around, the durability shouldn't be an issue, and you can enjoy the good sound for a low price.

Every product has its market. I view these as good options if you've only ever used cheap earbuds or other low-quality headphones. If this describes you, you'll enjoy the sound on these. But if you're used to high-quality audio, you'll probably be underwhelmed by these entry-level headphones.

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We're getting into (marginally) more expensive headphones at this juncture--these are ranked lower on this list because the purpose of this list is to find the best value headphones. These Audio-Technica headphones provide excellent sound, but are also the most expensive on this list (excluding the $400+ Sennheiser HD 650 mentioned earlier). If you don't mind spending a little more money for the privilege of better sound quality, read on!

#7: Audio-Technica ATH-M30x Professional Studio Monitor, $60 

ATH-M30x (these are a newer version, yet currently [2/5/2016] cost less!)
Also see the older ATH-M30

These are 86% Amazon user-recommended (4-and-5-star reviews); tied for the highest user rating on this list! These headphones are also the most expensive in this test, so there may be some post-purchase rationalization going on (this effect is also known as Buyer's Stockholm Syndrome--look it up if you're interested in how this works). Some reviewers contend that these are the best headphones under $50; perhaps they're right. [UPDATE 8/7/2014: This is no longer the case, as they're listed for over $60 with shipping on Amazon. I did find a pair today on Newegg for just under $50, so it's worth checking around.]

Audiophiles on a budget love these, as they reportedly sound only slightly worse than the extremely well-regarded, but much more expensive, audiophile-grade M50x. Since I haven't heard these myself, I can't refute that claim. My only comment on the matter is that the #1-ranked Sony MDR-ZX310 will certainly give these a good run for their money!

These are also open-back headphones, so sound leakage is an issue if you'll be using these in public, or in the presence of a roommate/parent/significant other who doesn't necessarily want to hear your music. The specs on these are actually inferior to the ZX310, but again, specs don't always tell the whole story.
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The following headphones are a mix of (mostly) lower-priced headphones that have pretty good reviews, especially for their low price point. At this point, you can't get much cheaper without getting absolutely awful headphones, or else going for earbuds--which may or may not fit your ears, and which may or may not sound better than hollow tin cans. I have personally had very little luck with earbuds, aside from the Sony MDR-J10, so I didn't include any other earbuds on this list. They're an unpredictable crapshoot, so my best advice is to try them out before buying them (eww!), or just going with over-ear headphones that are better for your long-term hearing, as well as usually featuring superior sound.

Best of the rest: Philips Rich Bass Neckband headphones SHS5200/28, $25 UPDATE 8/7/2014: $22

Amazon link

A 75% Amazon recommendation rate, quality specs, good looks and light weight recommend these for people interested in quality sound, on the go. Many reviewers seem to love them for working out (which the behind-the-head style suggests that they were made for in the first place), and they say that the sound quality is very good, with excellent bass response. I have not listened to these, either, but they seem to represent a good value.



Best of the rest: Koss UR-20 Home Headphones, $15
Amazon link

A 72% Amazon recommendation rate, glowing user reviews, and--of course--the price serve to recommend these headphones. The specs don't measure up to many of the other headphones listed here, but the people who bought them generally seem to think that the sound is very good. This is a clear example of what I mean when I say that specs don't tell the whole story. Koss is a brand that has a history of making quality headphones for a reasonable price, so the brand equity is there to support these as well.


Best of the rest: Sony MDR-G45LP 'Street Style' headphones, $14

Amazon link

I own the long-discontinued MDR-G42LP, the predecessor of the G45. The G45 has the same drivers, frequency response, etc. as the G42, so the sound should be the same. The sound is good--not great, but good--on the G42. The G42 is comfortable and durable (I've owned this pair for almost 6 years, and they're still going strong with replacement ear pads). I'm recommending the $14 G45 under the assumption that it's pretty much the same as the G42. Not sure why they would have discontinued the G42 in the first place, if they were going to replace it with something so similar...


Best of the rest: Sony MDR-J10, ~$30 (clip-on earbuds; discontinued)

Do not buy for $30! These were under $15 new!

Amazon link

I bought these from Staples when they were on sale for $7.99. I was looking for a pair of headphones for the gym, but earbuds always fall out of my ears while I work out, and the Maxell clip-on earphones (headphones with no headband) I got from Wal-Mart for $5 didn't stay put, and sounded awful. Note to self: with electronics, you get what you pay for!

These Sony earbuds were promising--they featured a piece that slid on around my ear, hopefully holding the earbuds in my ear even when I'm contorting my face under exertion. When I opened the package and used them for the first time, I was really surprised at how good the sound was; an unexpected benefit for a pair of sub-$10 headphones. And they successfully stayed in my ear, for the most part. On occasion, the earbud would pop out of my ear canal, but the clip held it in place well enough that I could still hear music until the end of my set--much better than standard earbuds, which invariably fell out completely by my third chin-up.

These served my purpose well, and were great for the gym and on-the-go. In fact, these headphones ended up being my default headphones in almost any situation: pretty impressive, considering that I don't like earbuds! They were durable; I appreciated the reinforced, L-shaped jack seen in the picture above, and they lasted me almost a year and a half with no problems--also unusual for my experiences with earbuds! They would probably still work, but I lost them one day. So I guess someone else got a pair of quality earbuds, for free (that actually still makes me mad, even though it's been almost 6 months. But these were replaced with the superior Sony MDR-ZX300 listed above, so I can't be too upset).

The recommendation rate (4 or 5 stars) on Amazon is 81%. Again, these headphones are very well-liked by people who bought them.

Drawbacks: these earbuds would hurt my ears if I used them for longer than two hours, since the earbuds were slightly too big for my small ear canals. They could also pick up wax, as any in-ear headphones will do. But that's about it for the drawbacks of these outstanding earbuds.

It's a shame that they were discontinued--though some new ones can still be found online on sites such as Amazon. If you like earbuds rather than on-ear headphones, these are the best ones I've heard, and the $10 price makes them a bargain!


Best of the rest: Philips SHS4700/28 Adjustable Earclip headphones, $15 UPDATE 8/7/2014: $20
Amazon link

These are an earbud alternative--if, like me, you can't get earbuds to stay in your ears, perhaps these will do the trick. Reviewers complain that they pinch people with larger ears, and there is only a 65% Amazon user recommendation rating. But the sound should be better than with earbuds, and if earbuds won't stay in your ears, it could be because you have small ears like I do, which would mitigate the discomfort that some people express. My only experience with Maxell clip-on earphones was not good, but that's because they were really cheap! However, I did like the idea; they stayed on my ears quite well--these Philips seem to be made better, and the 32mm drivers, 12-24,000 Hz frequency response range, and 115 dB sensitivity indicate very good sound quality. The 24-ohm impedance also means that these headphones won't drain your phone/mp3 player's battery as much as some of the others in this list.


Best of the rest: Koss SportaPro, $24 or Koss KSC75, $15

SportaPro:


KSC75:


The specs on these are very good: a wide frequency response, high sensitivity, relatively high impedance (indicating a higher power draw, but better sound reproduction--see below), and--crucially--very low distortion, these appear to have very good sound for the price. The SportaPro headphones are a 15-year-old design; some would say they're "proven." Others may just call them ugly. The KSC75 clip-on headphones don't look much better. But if you're more interested in good sound for a low price, these headphones may be what you're looking for.

The SportaPros have a sterling 86% Amazon recommendation rate, and the KSC75--based on the same drivers--curiously trails with a 71%. Maybe people don't like the fit of the clip-on KSC75, or perhaps people found them less durable. At any rate, pick which of these is a better fit for your lifestyle, or your budget. While they won't win any beauty awards, the proven design kicks out very good sound, good durability (based on reviews), and they're well-liked by the people who use them--a great value indeed!



A parting note: if you're interested in comparing specs, the most relevant ones are frequency response, impedance, and sensitivity. I'm not an engineer, so my comprehension is very limited, but I'll do the best I can to explain these in a practical manner.

Frequency response: The standard frequency response is 20 Hz-20,000 Hz (or 20 kHz, if you prefer). A range greater than that will yield more natural-sounding bass and better reproduction of high sounds. A human can only hear sounds more or less within the 20-20,000 Hz range, but individual variation may be important to your experience, not to mention that deep bass is not just auditory: you can feel it! So if you get headphones with a minimum frequency response of 20 Hz, you may be missing a richer bass experience. If you're young and your hearing is intact, you may register sounds higher than 20,000 Hz as well, so a wider range than 20-20,000 Hz may be a worthwhile investment for you. As an example, the #1-ranked Sony MDR-ZX300 has a response range of 10-24,000 Hz. Frequency response can be massaged, so it isn't good to rely on this stat alone. Plus, the driver plays a crucial part, as well: another pair of headphones with the same specs could sound better--or worse--even if the frequency response range is the same. A bigger driver is better; 30mm drivers are pretty typical for over-ear headphones; 40mm is even better. Earbuds, by contrast, typically have 10mm drivers--which is why earbuds usually deliver inferior sound quality, compared to over-ear headphones of the same price point.

Impedance: This is the amount of resistance an electrical current will encounter as it passes through the headphone jack and the wiring inside the headphone. The higher this number (in Ohms, represented by the capital Greek letter Omega), the more power your device will have to put out in order to push the sound through your headphones. Simultaneously, a higher impedance allows the engineers who designed the headphone to modulate the sound more precisely. So, you're trading off sound for the battery life of your device. The reason the super-expensive Sennheiser HD 650 headphones require an amplifier is because the impedance is 300 ohms, as opposed to the Sony MDR-ZX300's 24 ohm resistance.

Sensitivity: This measures the response at a certain level of input. Essentially, a higher number here is better. A typical number here for high-quality headphones is at least 100 dB/mW; the Sony MDR-ZX300 has a sensitivity of 102 dB/mW. This means that they can get pretty loud, and thus require less energy to get the desired sound output.