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Can I get good sound from cheap headphones?

technologyEdward KiledjianComment
Image by Anemone Jones used under Creative Commons License

Image by Anemone Jones used under Creative Commons License

Headphones (or earphones) come in all shapes, sizes and budgets. You can use the cheap ones included with your smartphone or buy $1000 audiophile ones powered with a headphone amp. A question I hear often is "Can I get good sound from cheap headphones?"

Good is very subjective and means different things for different people but the simple answer is YES. A $20 pair of cans won't sound as good as a $1000 pair but more often than not, it will be good enough for most users (especially since the source is often a compressed MP3 played through a weak headphone amp in a smartphone or PC).

I am a semi-audiophile and love high quality headphones but to really appreciate them, you need lossless audio files, played on a device that support the lossless format (usually FLAC on Android and ALAC on Apple) and a high quality headphone amp between the two. Did I mention you need a fairly quiet room?

Assuming you will be listening on a street, train, plane or at the office, you will be served by a good pair of headphones that can be bought at a reasonable price. Nothing is more distressing than travelling with super expensive headphones and having them break because of all the hustle and bustle. 

The cheaper the headphone (or earphone) the more the sound will be compromised. Compromise here is a more restrictive sound-stage, less neutral reproduction, less clarity in the low/mid/high, etc. 

$20 earphones

I wrote about this buds almost a year ago so I recommend you go and read my review (link). You can buy them from Amazon (link) for $13 or from Monoprice for $8 (link). To say these headphones have a fanbase is not an exaggeration. They offer a more bass-heavy clean sound with decent mid-range.

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They achieve better than normal sound for this price-range by using larger driver. These larger drivers make the device slightly larger and heavier than other. Some people love the fit, others complain. some people find them easy to wear for long periods of time, others find them slightly heavy.

Everyone agrees that they offer an incredible value. They perform better than many other headphones in the $50-70 range.

In the same price range, they offer another pair of decent headphones that offer a more balanced sound (less bass heavy) called the 9396. You can buy this on Monoprice for $8 (link) or on Amazon for $10 (link)

$20 headphones

If you prefer headphones, then let me recommend the Monoprice 8323 for this price range (aka the Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone). You can buy them from Monoprice for $23 (link) or from Amazon for $33 (link).

Like the above Monoprice earphones, these headphones offer a fantastic value proposition. They are comfortable and offer decent sound at an unbeatable price. It is plastic and feels like plastic but at the same time it is remarkable durable. the pleather earpads worried me at first but that can easily be modded or is easy to forgive considering the price. 

Like the Sennheiser CX300 MK-II, this headphone provides a small bass boost but nothing overly aggressive. The Mid/High are decent but sometimes come through a little muddy (but are fairly crisp most of the time). 

These headphones work great plugged into your device but the performance is taken up a notch when you pair this with a headphone amplifier. 

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My second headphone pic in this range is the Sennheiser HD 202 II (buy it for $25 on Amazon link). The Sennheiser HD 202 II offers great value with clean sound (not bass heavy - more neutral), decent build quality and good noise isolation. 

My one complaint is that these seem to be weak when used with most smartphones. To really get decent performance, you need to power these with a headphone amp (the amp in most smartphones is too underpowered). 

I found these comfortable for the first 30-45 minutes of wear but then my ears started to get a bit sweaty. My other con is that the cord is too long. Otherwise this is an incredible value.

$30 range

I am a big fan of sennheiser headphones. They make some solid products with excellent performance. for for this price range, the Sennheiser CX 300 MK-II is a natural choice. The CX300 MK-II offers a little more bass (isn't completely neutral) without being too punchy. It offers a nice combination of rich bass and clear mids / highs.

I was really surprised at the larger than expected soundstage (for such a small in-ear device). These are light, well built and provide a decent amount of noise isolation. 

You can currently pick these up on Amazon for around $36 (link).

If you are willing to spend about $10 more, then you can upgrade to its bigger brother (about $45 on Amazon link). The CX 400 offers improved sound in a package the same size.