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Make the Audiophile Leap With These Affordable Over-Ear Headphones

Illustration for article titled Make the Audiophile Leap With These Affordable Over-Ear Headphones
Image: AKG

The cheap earbuds that came with your phone served their purpose for a while, but you’re ready to move up to the big leagues. You’re ready to hear your music in ways you never imagined. But in a world where a set of headphones can cost more than a car, it’s hard to know where to start. Here are some great-sounding cans that won’t break the bank.

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Our main focus for this list is sound quality. Most of these over-ear headphones are wired to get best bang for your buck (though many do have wireless versions available), and they won’t come with fancy features like touch controls or noise canceling. All of our picks are under a few hundred bucks, though, and shouldn’t require an amplifier to drive—though an inexpensive DAC/amp like the Fiio E10k or FX-Audio DAC-X6 might be useful, particularly if your headphones won’t get loud enough, or if you hear electrical noises when plugged directly into your computer’s headphone jack. Otherwise, we’re putting your money where it matters most: sound.

Great value for money

 The Philips SHP9500 is a very affordable pair of cans that belies its price tag in terms of balance, clarity, and comfort.
The Philips SHP9500 is a very affordable pair of cans that belies its price tag in terms of balance, clarity, and comfort.
Photo: Whitson Gordon
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Low-cost headphones are a dime a dozen—most have bloated bass, a muddy midrange, or too-harsh treble that covers up the best parts of your music. But once in a while, a pair comes around that truly stands apart. The Philips SHP9500 is a very affordable pair of cans that belies its price tag in terms of balance, clarity, and comfort.

You won’t get a thumping bassline ideal for EDM or hip-hop, but a more “neutral” sound signature—that is, a balance between bass, midrange, and treble, with none overpowering the others—with astonishing clarity for the cost. If you listen to jazz, classical, or acoustic-heavy pop, the SHP9500 will shine. It doesn’t clamp down on your head, so you barely even feel it there, and its open-backed nature provides a better soundstage than most budget closed-back options. It does, however, mean that other people will be able to hear your music, so this is not one I’d use in public.

Studio quality at an absolute bargain

 The AKG K361 is closed-back, so others can’t hear your music, and foldable, so it fits nicely into a bag.
The AKG K361 is closed-back, so others can’t hear your music, and foldable, so it fits nicely into a bag.
Photo: Whitson Gordon
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The AKG K361 is closed-back, so others can’t hear your music, and foldable, so it fits nicely into a bag. It hovers just above the Philips in price, AKG’s target response curve comes from some fascinating research into consumer preferences that achieves an incredibly pleasing sound. I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty, but compared to the SHP9500, the K361 offers better bass extension so you get a more filled-out low end, plus some improvement in instrument separation.

They’re also quite comfortable (though not quite as cloud-like as the SHP9500). Since I listen to rock, metal, and electronic, these are actually my preferred low-cost cans and have unseated the decades-revered Sony MDR-7506 as my recommendation for bring-anywhere over-ear headphones in this price range. That’s no small feat, so believe me when I tell you: these are some of the best headphones you can get in a double-digit price range.

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The new benchmark

 If you can afford to spend a bit more, the AKG K371 is objectively the best headphone on this list.
If you can afford to spend a bit more, the AKG K371 is objectively the best headphone on this list.
Photo: Whitson Gordon
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If you can afford to spend a bit more, the AKG K371 is objectively the best headphone on this list. A step up from the K361, it shares a similar form factor with its younger sibling, including foldable ear cups, comfortable leather pads, and a soft headband, with a few premium touches (like leather along the top instead of plastic). Most importantly, though, it sounds even better: clarity and instrument separation are both kicked up a notch, with incredible detail in the midrange and just a bit more thump in the bass to get you grooving.

It also has surprisingly good soundstage for a closed-back headphone, giving the music a bit more spaciousness. If you aren’t quite sure what you want from your headphones, it’s almost impossible to go wrong with the K371—it’s the new standard by which I judge just about everything else in this price range.

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A more fun sound signature

  Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x is arguably the most hyped-up headphone of the decade, thanks to its more bass-heavy, “fun” sound signature.
Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x is arguably the most hyped-up headphone of the decade, thanks to its more bass-heavy, “fun” sound signature.
Photo: Whitson Gordon
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Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x is arguably the most hyped-up headphone of the decade, thanks to its more bass-heavy, “fun” sound signature. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t like the old, over-bassy Beats headphones of the mid-2000s—it’s still geared toward audio enthusiasts, after all—but it has a more “V-shaped” frequency response than the other headphones on this list, boosting the bass and treble for a bit more of that headbang-inducing sound.

I do think the M50x is a bit overhyped—it’s not the “one headphone to rule them all” some people make it out to be—but it excels at genres like electronic and hip-hop, so for people looking to step up in quality without giving up that low-end thump, the M50x is still a good choice. You may need to stretch out the headband a tad so the ear cups don’t squeeze your brain too hard, though. And if you have trouble finding them, the Beyerdynamic DT 770 is a great alternative for a similar price. (Some argue the ATH-M40x are a better alternative due to their more neutral sound, but I disagree: if you want neutral, AKG’s options are far superior to the M40x—while the M50x does its own thing well.)

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Ideal for at-home music and gaming

 The Sennheiser HD 599 offers a wider soundstage than its closed-back competitors, which makes for a natural, more airy sound.
The Sennheiser HD 599 offers a wider soundstage than its closed-back competitors, which makes for a natural, more airy sound.
Photo: Whitson Gordon
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It’s impossible to talk about audiophile gear without mentioning Sennheiser. They are some of the best in the business, especially when it comes to neutral, open-backed headphones. The Sennheiser HD 599 offers a wider soundstage than its closed-back competitors, which makes for a natural, more airy sound. It also offers great imaging, which makes them good for gaming too—you know exactly where an enemy is by the noises they make. Its bass extension is surprisingly good for an open-back as well, and I find its midrange is great for putting guitars front and center in rock, metal, and other similar genres.

They’re some of the most comfortable headphones on this list, and they regularly go on sale, making this an easy win—as long as you plan on using them at home. (The HD 599 isn’t very portable, and their open-backed nature means other people will be able to hear your music). I’d also be remiss not to mention the HD 58X and HD 6XX as even better options, though their availability comes and goes, which is tough if you want something right now.

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An entry-level planar magnetic with a relaxed sound

  HiFiMan’s HE-400i is an affordable planar magnetic headphone with a unique design and incredibly smooth, warm sound.
HiFiMan’s HE-400i is an affordable planar magnetic headphone with a unique design and incredibly smooth, warm sound.
Photo: Whitson Gordon
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There’s a new-ish technology emerging in headphones: planar magnetic drivers, which use a thin, flat diaphragm rather than the cones and domes of more common dynamic drivers. You can read this article for an explanation of the science behind them and their advantages and disadvantages, but ultimately, it’s just one piece of the puzzle in the sound of a given headphone.

HiFiMan’s HE-400i is an affordable planar magnetic headphone with a unique design and incredibly smooth, warm sound. Its open-backed nature provides that wider soundstage I mentioned earlier, its large headband avoids putting pressure on your skull, and its half-leather-half-velour earpads are comfortable while keeping bass from leaking out. The sound on these is rather unique as well: it’s incredibly smooth without sounding muddy, and can make even the harshest death metal sound laid back. If your tastes are less analytical and more relaxed, the HE-400i—or its similarly-priced sibling, the HE-4XX—is a good buy.

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A revealing headphone with crazy-wide soundstage

 The AKG K702 is a super-comfortable headphone with an extremely open, spacious sound that you have to hear to truly understand.
The AKG K702 is a super-comfortable headphone with an extremely open, spacious sound that you have to hear to truly understand.
Photo: Whitson Gordon
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If the HE-400i sounds like the opposite of what you want, then look toward the other end of the spectrum. The AKG K702 is a super-comfortable headphone with an extremely open, spacious sound that you have to hear to truly understand. It’s still fairly balanced in terms of bass, midrange, and treble, with only minor bumps that make instruments feel very “present.” They also reveal an incredible amount of detail, which sounds like a good thing, but coupled with the extra-wide soundstage, it actually makes these headphones a bit controversial—the more detail a headphone offers, the more it’ll also reveal any flaws in the recording or mastering of your music.

It’s also a bit light on bass, though its more affordable cousins—the K612 Pro and the K7XX—boost the low end a bit at the expense of some of that soundstage and clarity. Not everyone will love this family of headphones, but it’s one of my all-time favorites—in fact, I’ve owned the K702’s now-defunct sibling for over six years, and it’s still my go-to headphone that I don’t plan on upgrading anytime soon. This is one of the few headphones on this list that really benefits from an amplifier, though, so keep that in mind as you budget.

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Whitson Gordon is a writer, gamer, and all-around tech nerd. He eats potato chips with chopsticks so he doesn't get grease on his mechanical keyboard.

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