You can spend hundreds – even thousands – on a new pair of headphones, and in our experience testing them for over 45 years, in some cases that's entirely justifiable. But you can still get satisfyingly great results from budget headphones that don't cost the earth. And sometimes, for quick commutes or even as an ever-reliable back-up option, such pairs are just the ticket.
From the best earbuds to on-ear and over-ear designs, wired to wireless models to even truly wireless AirPods alternatives, our pick of the best budget headphones below get our performance-per-pound alarms ringing.
They're all What Hi-Fi? recommended products – all tried and tested, all four- or five-star-rated, and some are even Award-winning – that deliver superb sound for not a lot of money.
So without further ado, here is a selection of the best budget headphones that will do a fine job without breaking the bank...
How to choose the best budget headphones for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
Budget headphones aren't limited to earbuds – they come in all shapes and sizes. You can get some pretty decent over-ear headphones for not much money at all. Some models also boast features usually associated with higher-end models like noise-cancelling, too.
Your next decision is between wired and wireless. The best Bluetooth headphones and wireless earbuds are great for their cable-free convenience, but it's a technology that generally attracts a higher price tag compared to wired counterparts of similar sonic quality. Still, you can find some stellar pairs for not much cash.
Lastly, if you're a fitness fiend who wants to prioritise a secure fit and waterproofing, you're better off going for a pair of sport headphones. Some pairs here offer sweat- and water-resistance – look out for an IP rating of at least IPX4.
Current What Hi-Fi? Award winners, the SoundMagic E11C headphones are the latest addition to a range that represents one of the more surprising success stories of recent years. The E10 set the marker for affordable excellence for a number of years, and following an E10C in-line mic and remote control upgrade, the E11C equivalent arrived back in 2018. Three years on, we’re happy to report that they’re still pretty magic – exactly what the best budget headphones should be.
They boast an improved driver, and a silver-plated copper cable over their predecessors. The better driver means improved sound, but it still remains recognisably SoundMagic – the bass is ample, with plenty of warmth and depth to keep you enveloped, while the top end isn't compromised. And the midrange has decent clarity, displaying great energy and control.
Considering the price, these are nothing short of a miracle. If you're on a budget, we have no hesitation in recommending them most heartily. What are you waiting for?
Read the full SoundMagic E11C review
When it comes to wireless earbuds, Sony has sewn up the high end with the WF-1000XM4. But can it do the same at the budget end of the market with the WF-C500?
These won a 2022 What Hi-Fi? Award, so the answer is yes, indeed it can. The C500 handle the basics very well, with Bluetooth 5.0, and compatibility with SBC and AAC codecs. Battery life is a healthy 10 hours from the earbuds themselves, and another 10 from the charging case, making a total of 20.
They pair with Sony's consummate Headphones Connect app for sublime controls, and numerous extra features (like the Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, which upscales audio files to something approaching ‘hi-res’ quality). Voice controls come via Google Assistant and Siri, and the IPX4 rating means they're resistant to water splashes.
Sonically, they're even-handed and nicely balanced, with well-shaped bass notes. In short, they offer a lot of what makes Sony's high-end buds so compelling, without cutting too many corners. Definitely one for the shortlist.
Read the full Sony WF-C500 review
If you have a bigger budget and prioritise a superior sound, there are models that will better suit you. But until these came along, we had never awarded five stars to a set of proper wire-free headphones at this budget level – despite testing models from well-known and highly respected audio brands.
This little-known company has produced a comfortable, nicely built set of headphones that also boast excellent battery life, wireless charging support and a pleasant and spacious presentation. Fans of a grippy, energetic listen to get you through a workout will find much to enjoy here.
The Earfun Air buds have a waterproof IPX7 rating, so they can be submerged in water up to a depth of one metre for up to 30 minutes, and an impressively long battery life of 35 hours. There are also touch controls and in-ear detection tech to pause playback when you remove them.
If you’re after some of the best budget headphones that’ll sound good on the treadmill, the Earfun Air buds could just be the ideal proposition.
Read the full Earfun Air review
Røde is big in the world of pro recording equipment, and the NTH-100 are its first headphones. So can the Australian brand cut it in the world of consumer audio?
It's made this list, so yes, it can indeed. The NTH-100 are wired – something of an anomaly in this day and age – and fairly unremarkable to look at. During testing our two experts found they're heavy too, but very comfortable thanks to the soft headband and hanger arrangement. The earpads do tend to cook your ears during long listening sessions, however with both our testers reporting mild discomfort during prolonged listening sessions.
But that's a minor gripe, given the quality of these cans. The 40mm full-range drivers kick out plenty of insight, making for a revealing listen. Listening to a variety of test tracks, we found they're punchy, with a great sense of rhythmic expression, and pack a treble with bags of substance. And that midrange – it's the real star of the show, picking up even the slightest variations in tone or timbre.
You can look the headband in place too, so when you've found the perfect position it won't budge. Genius.
Read the full Røde NTH-100 review
Earfun builds on the success of its Earfun Air (above) by cramming even more features into the ‘Pro’ variant, the main addition being active noise cancellation. There is now a 10mm driver and three mics per earpiece, too. But, considering the claims on the spec sheet, the price remains jaw-droppingly low.
They're a solid proposition for the money: they fit securely, connect easily, have reliable controls and feature basic but effective noise-cancelling profiles – for just a small premium on the Air model. There’s also USB-C charging and wearer detection, plus the sound is pretty decent for the money – well-balanced, relatively transparent, taut and full through the bass, and musically pleasing overall. Nothing at this level can match these for features or performance.
Read the full Earfun Air Pro review
Panasonic isn't a brand that immediately springs to mind when you think of the best budget headphones. But perhaps it should be. The 2021 Award-winning RZ-S500W are the company's first foray into wireless noise-cancelling earbuds and they're sensational performers for their outlay.
Specs are thorough, with noise-cancelling tech, an Ambient Mode, twin mics for voice calls, and a battery life that totals 19.5 hours (6.5 hours from the buds and 13 hours from the charging case). A 15-minute USB-C quick-charge can deliver 70 minutes of playback. The touch controls on each bud are responsive and intuitive, allowing you to control your music and switch between noise-cancelling modes with zero fuss.
You also get five sizes of ear tips to help with fit. We found this a little hit and miss, so we'd definitely experiment and consider mixing the sizes if it means getting a more secure fit.
Both noise cancelling and sound quality are excellent. There's plenty of agility through the low end and loads of texture across frequencies. Music sounds clear and there's a great deal of refinement on show, which is to be welcomed at this price level. To sum up, these Panasonic earbuds are superb for the money.
Read the full Panasonic RZ-S500W review
The Melomania 1 Plus have some big shoes to fill given the popularity of the original Melomania 1. But we're glad to say that these budget headphones hit the spot.
They boast app support, customisable EQ settings and the British audio firm's innovative High-Performance Audio Mode. Your colour options are white and black.
Like the originals, the real selling point is battery life. The 1 Plus provide a whopping nine hours from one charge, and you get an additional four charges from the carry case. That makes 45 hours of total run time. The fact there's no noise-cancelling onboard helps to explain the marathon battery life, as the tech can be a real drain.
The Melomanias deliver an impactful and expansive musical performance. They sound clear and more dynamic than their predecessors and there's a smidgen more detail too. If you want an affordable and accomplished pair of earbuds the Cambridge definitely warrant a closer look.
Read the full Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus review
JBL might not dominate headlines like Sony or Apple, but it's been making wireless earbuds for years. And mighty fine they are too. Case in point: the JBL Live Pro 2 TWS, which sit just above the entry level.
They look decent for the price, with their mirrored finish elevating them above their similarly-priced peers. They're a comfortable fit – if not quite as secure as some pairs – and have extras that are above what we expect at this level. These include wireless charging, IPX5 water-resistance (most pairs are IPX4), and Bluetooth Multipoint which lets you seamlessly switch between devices without having to reconnect to each. And at 30 hours (including the case), the battery life is up there with pricier pairs.
The noise-canceling feature is impressive, automatically adjusting to the optimum level depending on your environment. And the sound? Worthy of the five stars these headphones earned in our review.
Read the full JBL Live Pro 2 TWS review
Given everyone’s apparent obsession with wireless headphones, you’d be forgiven for thinking the days of wired headphones were numbered, especially at the more affordable end of the market.
But, we’d be surprised if those thoughts ever surfaced in the corridors of Austrian Audio’s Vienna HQ. The company, born out of ex-AKG employees, has hit the ground running with its first-ever range of wired headphones, Hi-X. And this model won a 2022 What Hi-Fi? Award.
We’d consider the Hi-X15 an analytical pair of headphones, but they still manage to make music entertaining with it – they extract bags of detail but keep the soul of your music intact. Throughout the frequency range, these headphones deliver consistently high detail levels and fantastic dynamics. There isn’t an ounce of fat on any track played through the Austrian AudioHi-X15 headphones. But at the same time there’s enough weight and substance to low frequencies that you don’t feel as though you’re missing out.
We wouldn't insist on you partnering them with a suitable DAC/headphone amplifier, but do so and you’ll be rewarded with a mature-sounding pair of headphones that go above and beyond at the money.
Read the full Austrian Audio Hi-X15 review
OK, we admit you are unlikely to wear these when you're out and about. They are quite large, after all. But if you need a decent pair of over-ear budget headphones for home listening at a bargain price, look no further.
The AKG K72 are large circumaural headphones with pads large enough to engulf all but the most gigantic of ears. They help to make comfort among the best you’ll find at the price.
Special mention should go to their headband, too. Rather than a static padded band, a hammock of fabric cradles your head, and yes, it's as comfy as that sounds.
As for sound quality, it’s expansive, with width and scale just not heard in the kind of headphones found on the high street at this price. There’s enough bass to make them a fun listen and they’re an altogether more grown-up and detailed pair of headphones than most similarly-priced rivals. A great buy.
Read the full AKG K72 review
iPhone users have got multiple models of AirPods to consider, but what about Android smartphone owners? We'd point them in the direction of the Pixel Buds A-Series, the latest wireless model to be launched by the search giant – they are its best effort to date.
They're light and comfortable, and while noise cancelling is off the menu, they do a good job of isolating you. Your colour choices are either white or 'Dark Olive' and the earbuds also boast IPX4 water resistance so you can use them for general exercise and running.
The five-hour battery life isn't exactly class-leading but should be enough for most people. You also get another 20 or so from the carry case. Pairing Pixel Buds A-Series is extremely simple, especially if you're using an Android smartphone or tablet that boasts the Fast Pair feature.
Come music time, there's a lot to like about the Pixel Buds thanks to their approachable, balanced sound. It doesn't favour any part of the sonic spectrum which can't always be said for earbuds at this level. They're well-rounded performers and available at a great price.
Read the full Google Pixel Buds A-Series review
The SR80 have spawned many variants within the company’s Prestige Series in the three decades since, and the fact that they are still a part of the all-new Prestige X Series makes them the longest-running Grado model. The all-new SR80x succeeds the 2014-released, multi-What Hi-Fi? Award-winning SR80e from the previous Prestige E Series, and won a 2022 What Hi-Fi Award for itself.
Everything we like about their predecessors – their nimble-footedness, expressive, rolling dynamics, and insight across well-defined frequencies – has been inherited, and the punch and panache that have made the Prestige models such born entertainers are very much also part of the SR80x’s sonic signature. These are far from rich or even warm in tone, but an extra generous sprinkling of refinement this time round has made their forward, clinical presentation all the more palpable.
Grado hasn’t torn up its own rulebook and revolutionised its legendary headphones, because it hasn’t needed to. But the tweaks made to the SR80x have certainly added value in the right direction. At this money, the SR80 model remains the finest in the market.
Read the full Grado SR80x review
Kill two birds with one stone in fine style with these affordable, feature-packed headphones: they're wireless and noise cancelling, all for a very affordable price indeed.
Fit is comfortable and snug, and connecting to a phone or tablet over Bluetooth is simple; press and hold the power button to make the headphones visible and then select the headphones on your device. And that's it.
Noise cancelling can be turned on or off, and with it on these do a solid job of blocking out external noise. At this price we would often expect bright treble or booming bass, but instead the Lindy BNX-60 headphones deliver a balanced sound that’s easy to listen to.
Admittedly the Lindy BNX-60 aren't for the discerning audiophile, but for a pair of budget headphones with noise cancelling and wireless Bluetooth, they're first rate.
Read the full Lindy BNX-60 review
The WH-CH700N sit at the more affordable end of the spectrum and boast a solid Bluetooth connection, an impressive 35-hour battery life, and a tight, detailed sound.
Noise cancelling is only OK, but at this price that's fair enough. If you want Sony WH-1000XM4 levels of cancellation, you're going to need to spend WH-1000XM4 amounts of money, which is around double what these cost.
Sonically, the WH-CH700N deliver an easy listen with just enough weight and detail across the frequency band to offer better than passable insight. They're let down slightly in the timing department, but what pair of headphones at this price isn't?
In short, if your budget is limited, you could do a lot worse. In fact, we'd be very happy indeed with these budget headphones.
Read the full Sony WH-CH700N review
How we test headphones
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door.
Of course, testing headphones don't often require such facilities (though we do often try audiophile headphones in our reference hi-fi system). What is important in our headphones reviewing process is that each pair is compared to the best in its price and style class – whether that's one standout pair or a few we favour the highest among the 100+ pairs we listen to each year for reviews and What Hi-Fi? Awards judging. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, and we keep class-leading products in our stockrooms so we can always compare new products to ones we know and love.
We are always impartial and do our best to make sure we're hearing every product at their very best, so we'll try plenty of different types of music and give them plenty of listening time (and time to run in), while the wired headphones that might warrant being used with a DAC are tested with a suitable one. It's not just about sound quality, of course. If a pair has active noise cancellation – increasingly the case these days – we'll ensure part of our testing involves using them in different environments.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible, too. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.