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 most of us will be looking for headphones that are far more affordable.
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 deliver plenty of bang for buck.
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. Five 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-1000XM5. 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
And they're a brilliant option that more than justify their price tag. The buds are impressively small, and their lightweight design helps make them even more comfortable than Sony's higher-end XM4. Battery life is competitive at seven and a half hours.
They lack aptX HD and LDAC but do feature noise-cancelling tech, which the WF-C500 lack. Adaptive Sound Control automatically switches listening modes depending on your location, and Sony's DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) upscales low-res digital audio files to higher quality.
The sound quality is superbly balanced too, with deep, detailed bass, expressive mids and engaging highs. They're a very musical listen for the money.
Downsides? The lack of support for aptX HD and LDAC is disappointing, while Multipoint – which lets you switch seamlessly between devices – still hasn't arrived. And the charging case only provides one extra charge which seems a little mean. But the superb sound and great feature set make these easy to recommend as some of the best cheap headphones available.
Read the full Sony WF-C700N 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.
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
Sony's WH-1000XM5 are some of the best over-ear headphones around, but they cost a pretty penny. If you want a stripped back version at a fraction of the cost, check out the brand's WH-CH520.
Pretty much every claim from here on it should be proceeded by the phrase 'for the price'. They're feature laden, with Bluetooth Multipoint letting you connect to multiple devices wirelessly and seamlessly switch between them, voice assistants are supported, they have on-earcup controls and you can fine-tune the sound using Sony's excellent Headphones Connect app.
Speaking of the sound, it's very good indeed. The low end is solid, deep and controlled, though it could be a bit more expressive. The midrange is informative and eloquent, while the top of the frequency range balances brightness with substance well.
Oh, and did we mention the battery life is a phenomenal 50 hours?
They might feel a bit plasticky, but they're solidly built and will withstand their share of knocks. Even at this cheap price, that's reassuring.
Read the full Sony WH-CH520 review
Røde is a big name in the world of pro recording gear, but the NTH-100 are the brand's first headphones. And impressive first attempts they are too.
Initial impressions are not hugely promising – the NTH-100 are fairly unremarkable to look at and reasonably heavy (350g). However, things improve when we slip them on. The soft headband is incredibly comfortable and locks in place when you've found the perfect position. Genius.
It is with their audio quality that they really shine, though. Dual 40mm full-range drivers deliver a great sense of rhythmic expression and plenty of detail, and the midrange is the real star of the show, picking up even the slightest variations in tone or timbre.
The downsides? The ‘CoolTech’ gel in the memory foam earcups only stays cool up to a point. But all in all, the detail-heavy NTH-100 are a superb debut, especially when you consider the budget price.
Want an even cheaper alternative? Check out the Grado SR80x. They're open-backed, so not suited for using out in public. But for home use on a budget, they're tops.
Read the full Røde NTH-100 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.
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
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.