You can spend hundreds (even thousands) on a new pair of headphones, and in some cases that's entirely justifiable. But you can still get satisfyingly great results from budget headphones. And sometimes, for quick commutes or even as an ever-reliable back-up option, such pairs are just the ticket.
From in-ear to over-ear, and wired to wireless headphones to even true wireless AirPods alternatives, the budget earphones we have below get our performance-per-pound alarms ringing. They're all What Hi-Fi? recommended products – all tried and tested, all star-rated – that deliver superb sound for not a lot of money. It helps that a lot of them are considerably cheaper than when they first entered the world, too.
So without further ado, here are a selection of the best budget headphones that will do a fine job without breaking the bank...
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. Two years on, we’re happy to report that they’re still pretty magic.
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 review: SoundMagic E11C
The fact that the AKG Y50s have been Award winners for five years on the trot tells you everything you need to know. They excel in sound and style, and can now be picked up cheaper than ever.
These are exceptionally well made headphones. Their aluminium ear cups – which house 40mm drivers – have a smooth, glossy feel and feature fine cosmetic detail. And they're easy to fold up when not in use, which makes them eminently portable when on the move.
They might look a little young and brash for some, but we quite like the colourful styling and big, bold lettering. And they never fall into the self-destructive trap of style over substance, sounding as cheery as they look with upbeat tunes and delivering scale and power when required. They can be a little on the quiet side, but otherwise we love everything about these stylish cans. Try them, and you will too.
Read the full review: AKG Y50
Hammering 2018's Product of the Year into second place are these simple but stupendous buds, fresh from their success at the 2019 What Hi-Fi? Awards.
Klipsch's oval silicone tips are some of the most comfortable out there. Underneath them, the Klipsch's 5mm dynamic drivers kick out powerful and punchy bass with exquisite precision. They give a good sense of space no matter whether you're using them for streaming Spotify or watching Netflix and their dynamic quality reveals a host of sonic subtleties you wouldn't expect from such an affordable pair of headphones.
Even the cable is a little bit special, with Klipsch's trademark specks of copper embedded within it. They're sweat- and water-resistant too, so should bear up fine during most workouts. Though remember they're not specifically a sports pair of headphones - if you're running an Ironman, you'll want something built for the task.
But anyone looking to upgrade their in-ear headphones needs to give these great musical performers a try.
Read the full review: Klipsch T5 M Wired review
The Beyerdynamic Soul Byrds (no, that’s not a slip of the keyboard) is a talented pair of in-ear headphones. If you want an affordable upgrade for a pair of ageing Apple EarPods, these headphones deserve to be on your hitlist. They’re so good, we’ll even forgive the spelling.
They're comfortable enough to wear all day, and because the earbuds have flat panels, they protrude less from the ear than most models. That means they'll lend themselves to lying down on your side, making them ideal for wearing in bed. Just make sure you pick something suitably soothing if you're hoping to drop off.
This is a superb pair of in-ear headphones – such an easy listen, but interesting and captivating too. It’s a brilliant feat for a pair of in-ears at this price. They might be a little pricier than some rivals, but they have that extra something that makes them worth it.
Read the full review: Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd
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 headphones for home listening at a bargain price, look no further.
The AKG K72s 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 review: AKG K72
With the Melomania 1s, Cambridge Audio has made good on its promise to save us from bad sound experiences. These budget-conscious in-ears offer a cohesive, expansive and rhythmically driven sound, but also an intuitive, playful soundstage that few wireless earbuds can achieve at the price.
With nine hours battery life from the buds themselves, plus four additional charges from the case, that means an impressive 45 hours of continuous use from this little set-up, too. That's up there with best of them - they even outdo some wireless on-ear pairs. So if you find yourself away from a charging point for long stretches of time - while camping, say - they will last you.
Admittedly they're not the most stylish. And some may find the fit a bit fiddly (they split opinion in the office - some got on fine, others struggled). But for true wireless on a budget, they really are hard to beat.
Read the full review: Cambridge Audio Melomania 1
These Sonys offer the added benefit of noise-cancellation, and are also one of the best-sounding pairs of true wireless buds we've tested. They may have been outdone by newer arrivals on the scene, but that doesn't diminish their quality one bit. And now that their successors, the Sony WF-1000XM3s, have arrived, these old-timers are now welcomley discounted too.
They. Sound. Awesome. Drums are lively and full of punch, and the level of detail is very impressive. There's bundles of insight and a great level of texture that really brings tracks to life. The noise-cancelling might not be as immersive as a pair of on-ears, but we wouldn't expect it to be, especially at this price.
They also come with both Google Assistant and Apple Siri voice assistants, and nine hours of battery life. Aside from occasional dropouts, they come highly recommended. And while they may have been toppled as the number one truly wireless pair around, they're still up there with the best of them.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000X
JBL is a heavy hitter when it comes to true wireless sports earphones – and with the Under Armour Flash as its predecessor, the JBL Reflect Flow is a hotly anticipated entrant to the flourishing, albeit rather niche, true-wireless-for-sports market.
In their niche category, though, the JBL Reflect Flow headphones are very good indeed, especially if you want a bass-heavy sound for the gym without resorting to massive cans (which, if you're moving a lot, many people won't want).
Battery life is impressive too, standing at 10 hours (or 30 with the case). That will last even the most hardcore of training sessions. The case is a bit bulky, however, so you won't be taking that with you on a run. The finish also started to rub off after only a few days of testing, which isn't ideal.
Sound-wise, they're crisp with plenty of detail, and they time very well indeed. Bass is suitably cavernous, while the instruments sound distinct no matter how complex tracks become. Impressive.
Read the full review: JBL Reflect Flow
SoundMagic's very reasonably priced wired headphones have been a big hit and the TWS50s - the clue's in the name - are the portable specialist's debut true wireless set. At just 4g apiece, these teardrop buds are beautifully light and wonderfully comfortable with a fit that's secure enough for all your wearing needs.
You'll get around six or seven hours of battery life out of the these Bluetooth 5.0 buds but an impressive total of 30 hours when combined with the charge case. There's no power-draining noise cancellation to bring that figure down but they do have an IPX7 rating, which means the headphones can withstand being submerged in up to 1m of water for around half an hour.
The TWS50 don't offer quite as much in the way of dynamic detail or timing as the likes of the Melomanias but, then, they are significantly more affordable. They still have an open and spacious musical presentation with plenty of layers to enjoy. Voices are full-bodied and there's a good zing at the top-end too.
They may not make the angels weep, but if this is the extent of your budget, you’ll get a very competitive product.
Read the full review: SoundMagic TWS50 review
Are you the sporty type, looking for a durable pair of in-ears that will survive the rough and tumble of a gym workout or outdoor run? Then these are for you.
No matter the price, sport headphones need to do two things: fit securely and comfortably, and sound decent. These JVCs get it in one. Despite being eminently affordable, they are the flagship model in the company’s new in-ear sport range, and fully committed to the fitness cause. They aren’t just water-resistant, but washable to IPX7 standards, so you can give them a thorough clean under the tap after use. Handy.
Cheap headphones often suffer from thinness and brightness. Not here. The JVCs have decent weight and are beautifully balanced. OK, they don’t have the full dose of insight or subtlety of pricier pairs, but their presentation is one you could happily listen to for hours on end without any discomfort.
Read the full review: JVC HA-ETR40
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'd 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-60s aren't for the discerning audiophile, but as a great value pair of noise-cancelling headphones with the added bonus of wireless Bluetooth, we can’t quibble with what’s on offer here. First rate.
Read the full review: Lindy BNX-60
Shure normally concerns itself with higher-end earphones and some of that premium technology has trickled down to these much cheaper models. There's a reinforced Kevlar cable, a vast array of bundled buds and the standard carry case. They fit very securely too, which makes them feel like a much pricier pair.
Sonically, they're less stellar than Shure's range-toppers, but still very impressive, especially given the price. They sound warm and detailed, which really brings tracks to life. And there’s a weight and richness to bass we didn't particularly expect from Shure, with vocals given a rich, full-bodied flavour.
You sacrifice some detail and excitement, and the treble is a little rounded off and lacking in impact. But it's still a smooth, bassy delivery with a level of detail and nuance that's not matched by many in this price bracket.
If you're after a pair of affordable but hard-wearing onstage monitors, you'll find much to love here.
Read the full review: Shure SE215