Why bend to the will of that pesky fork in the road when you can safely walk down the middle? If you’re frequent a Sound Guys visitor, then you already know that the price of headphones can range from a five-liter box of Franzia Sunset Blush to “surmountable college debt” level. Today, we’re here to talk about what lies between the two extremes. We understand that you may be thinking, “No headphone, no matter how good, is worth a large sum of my cash,” and you’re certainly not going to be hung out to dry for thinking that. However, there are still plenty of impressive, affordable options. In no particular order, we give to you the best headphones $100.
Over-ear headphones offer the best sound quality and soundstage, how headphones reproduce spatial cues, due to mammoth drivers.
The best headphones under $100 are the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x
The ATH-M50x are the top pick for many but their little brother, the ATH-M40x, easily keep up. Like the 50x, the 40x are designed with functionality in mind. From the enthusiast to the professional, the 40x will satiate your hi-fi appetite.
Out of the box, you’ll find two proprietary audio cables (straight and coiled). Audio-Technica’s site claims that these headphones are for in the studio and on the go. Yet neither cable has an in-line remote, and these are fairly large. Still, this is fine because many listeners would prefer to reserve a space at home for these rather than in a bag. Then you get the 40mm drivers which sit within swiveling ear cups.
Like the 50x, the 40x are designed with functionality in mind. From the enthusiast to the professional, the 40x will satiate your hi-fi appetite.
Thanks to the rotation the headphones may lay flat against your chest when inactive which is always handy. Generally speaking, the headband is quite comfortable with just enough padding. However if you’re not into the synthetic feel, you may have a differing opinion. As far as sound is concerned, I prefer the 40x over the 50x. More subtle bass reproduction makes them a pleasure.
The ATH-M40x have rightfully earned a 4.5/5 stars on Amazon and we’d be quite surprised if you found them to be a waste of $90. Audio-Technica designed these with one purpose in mind: listening to music. Overall, if you prefer a slightly skewed (v-shaped) response that stays true to neutral roots, the 40x is right up your alley.
Still want studio-worthy headphones with a timeless design?
In this corner, weighing in at 8.1 ounces, are the Sony MDR-7506. The 1985 inception of these classic headphones came out under the model number MDR-V6. Six years later we were met with the introduction of the MDR-7506, a slight aesthetic and functional change from the V6. The MDR-7506 have proven that they can keep up with modern standards and look pretty cool doing it too.
Although no one’s going to dissuade you from using these however you want, they’re really intended for studio monitoring. Fortunately if you do decide to let them see the light, folding hinges make transporting them a breeze. If you’re in need of a solid, reliable, and legendary pair of headphones the MDR-7506 have the “it” factor. The long 9.8-foot-long cable is great for studio use, but may need tying up to avoid comical unwieldiness while out and about.
If it seems like these headphones are a bit out of place it’s probably due to the fact that our staff has decades of experience with them, and they still hold up today. They can be found in classrooms, studios, and even some speech labs. If you’re looking for something under $100 that has proven many times over that it’ll last you years on end, this is the set of headphones you want.
The CB3 Hush are the best ANC headphones
All too often, headphones with sub-par ANC just get louder to block out ambient noise, undermining sound quality. Thankfully, that’s not a problem with the CB3 Hush. False advertising be damned! These cans do an excellent job at blocking out the office air conditioner and ground-level traffic. Now, they won’t block out Vociferous Vince or Loquacious Libby, but they get rid of the low hums that underscore our lives.
Based on October Twitter polling, when you guys are in the market for active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones, sound quality comes first and foremost, with noise cancelling just edging out over comfort. Well one of the best features of the Hush is its ability to effectively implement ANC technology without ruining audio quality.
Hey commuters! What’s the most important thing to you when buying Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) headphones?
— Sound Guys (@realsoundguys) October 25, 2017
These cans do an excellent job at blocking out the office air conditioner and ground-level traffic. They get rid of the low hums that underscore our lives.
Now if you’re like me and look for ANC headphones so cozy you could sleep in them, these are a serious candidate. Regarding noise cancelling headphones, the Hush are an insane bang for your buck. Cushy padding on the headband and ear pads allow for long listening sessions sans ear pain. And, if you want to take them out with you, folding hinges make transport hassle-free. That said they do suffer from sound leakage so if you’re going to be listening to these in a professional setting like in the office, it’s something to be aware of.
Controls are simple and intuitive. The right ear cup has three multi-function buttons allowing you to power the headphones on or off, begin pairing mode, skip tracks and control the volume. The left ear cup is more specialized with just the ANC toggle and a 3.5mm input for when the battery dies. Speaking of which, battery life maintains 15 hours of playback time while both Bluetooth and ANC activated.
Midas may not have touched the CB3 Hush, but at just under $100, you’ll have a hard time finding better ANC headphones.
Experience unparalleled comfort with the Bose SoundTrue II
Aside from being an audio powerhouse, Bose is renowned for engineering products that are comfortable and the Bose SoundTrue II are head and shoulders above the competition. As Adam Molina realized during testing, they “just disappear when you’re wearing them.” Why are they so comfortable? Well, aside from years of research and engineering magic, the headphones are constructed from flexible plastic.
Although this keeps the weight down, it also decreases durability and rotating points are subject to failure from too much tension. Bose recognizes the physical weakness of this model and decided to kindly throw in a hardshell case for consumers. Now, as far as other features are concerned, the mic and remote are compatible with either iOS or Android devices. So choose wisely to avoid buyer’s remorse.
Since the Bose SoundTrue II initially retailed for $180 and have dropped to $99, you’re paying bottom dollar for top shelf.
In typical Bose fashion, the bass could use a bit more oomph, but that’s not to say that the low end is absent by any means. Vocals on the other hand are excellent and easy to parse apart from underscoring instrumentals. Highs, as per usual, are oh-so-crispy and fortunately don’t experience much distortion (unless the volume is cranked to 11, Marshall Amps style). Since the Bose SoundTrue II initially retailed for $180 and have dropped to $99, you’re paying bottom dollar for top shelf.
The Grado SR60e bring music to life with the best soundstage $100 can buy
We flip our ear cups to the Grado SR60e, a great option to whet your appetite for open-back headphones. Its retro design harkens back to the 60 years of success that Grado celebrates in manufacturing reliable, high-end products out of their Brooklyn location. The meticulous sound engineering efforts make for a delightful listening experience.
Without sacrificing the integrity of the mids and highs, the SR60e do an fantastic job with low end response. I was pleasantly surprised by the dynamic form the lows took on in “Acid Rain” by Chance the Rapper. The soundstage is excellent as a result of the open-back build. This does mean that sound leakage is unavoidable. Thankfully, my office is full of placeholder cubicles, so it’s a nonissue.
However, these are not built for commutes, despite the fact that you see a bunch of kids wearing these outside nowadays. Because they don’t isolate, these are best used indoors where outside noise can’t mask your music.
The soundstage is excellent as a result of the open-back build. This does mean that sound leakage is unavoidable. Thankfully, my office is full of placeholder cubicles, so it’s a nonissue.
Prior to using these, I expected them to leave my head feeling pained. Quite the contrary. I was even able to wear them with glasses, albeit would have to take a break every hour or so. Although these aren’t as travel-friendly as the Koss PortaPro, the ear cups do rotate to rest flat in your bag or on your chest. Also, the thick audio cable is great. I have no worries about its longevity. Though none of us would encourage you to toss them in a rucksack without a case. But when it comes to bang for your buck, the Grado SR60e headphones, much like the Giving Tree, give a hell of a lot without asking for much.
What you should know
Just like us, headphones come in all shapes and sizes. That said, an uncompromising seal is what facilitates proper bass. We’ve laid out the most important points covering the differences between on-ear and over-ear headphones. For more in-depth information, make sure to clickity-clack on over to our Headphone Buying Guide.
- On-ear headphones sit directly on your ears. These are great since they negotiate a healthy balance between portability and robust sound. They rest neither around nor within your ears, so the seal isn’t the greatest. If you’ve ever used a pair for yourself, you know that comfort isn’t stellar with on-ears as it’s difficult to engineer a product that distributes weight and tension sufficiently.
- Over-ear headphones offer the best sound quality and soundstage, how headphones reproduce spatial cues, due to mammoth drivers. They also use the ears’ anatomy by sitting around them and using the entire pinna to funnel sound. Consequently, a better seal is created, and the sound is able to properly resonate within the space between our ears and the drivers. This produces a more realistic, dynamic experience.
- Closed-back headphones isolate fairly well, but can sometimes cause tiny echoes in your music. These are primarily used for commuting, travel, and use where outside noise would ruin your music.
- Open-back headphones do not isolate at all, which is find if you’re listening in a quiet room, but will sound terrible when traveling or commuting. If you’re in a quiet environment, your music will sound superb compared to closed-back headphones.
How we choose
Although we’ve reviewed a vast array of products here at Sound Guys, we haven’t gotten round to all of them. Since we’re only human and are inherently subjective no matter how hard we try, each review may be a smidge biased. To counteract that, we do quite a bit of research like reading others’ reviews, visiting discussion forums, carrying on internal debates and–admittedly–plenty of Googling. If a product made one of our best lists, you know it’s good.
I was fortunate enough to directly test the products listed here like the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x and and Grado SR60e and spend upwards of 200 hours with them. But I’m not the only one who decides what products make it to our list: it’s a team effort. This list is a living document, and we add to it periodically as we gain more experience with the headphones in this category.
If a product is on this list, it’s because we feel that it’s among the best options you can find in this category. That can mean that we’ve used it extensively, or that it’s an unquestioned industry leader with years of a proven track record. We do not recommend products that we have no experience with, or “paid placements” however.
Why you should trust me
Hey, I’m Lily. For three years in college, I worked for the radio station and racked up countless hours with studio-level microphones, headphones, speakers and recording software. All the while, deepening my understanding of the technical side of audio. Prior to that, my audio journey began in 2015 with skeletal YouTube reviews.
Of course, like anybody, my curiosity guided learning beyond work. I continued to self-produce YouTube videos, reviewing headphones from the Skullcandy 50/50s to the original Sennheiser Momentum. Hi-Fi Heaven reached out for my first collaborative project, and I got down to business. We teamed up to review Bluetooth, exercise, and consumer headphones.
Naturally, being the child of two lawyers–and with a brother finishing up his third-year in law school–I’ve learned the importance of seeking outside counsel and studying potential rebuttals. Often, I reach out directly to the manufacturer to clarify technical details. General research consisted of straining my eyes to read as many articles as possible from relevant sources such as Forbes, PC Mag, the Head-Fi, and CNET.
But most importantly, we have the combined experiences of several industry experts all working at the same site, allowing us to draw on a deep pool of expertise.
Who should buy these?
Funny that you ask! This list is for anyone interested in delving deeper into the world of audio, especially if your current drivers just aren’t doing it for you. Back in high school, I made the jump from standard Apple buds to the Beats Solos and was astounded. Yes, yes. Shame me all you want, but the Solos were my gateway headphone into this melodic world. Listening to them felt like wearing glasses for the first time. I could feel the lows and hear the highs in the same way that I could read street signs and see leaves from afar.
Hearing a song that you’ve heard your whole life in a brand new light can be a truly moving experience and I encourage everyone to give it a try.
If you’re on the fence about shelling out $100 for a pair of headphones, I respect that and my wallet is envious. Just like tattoos, once you get your first one, you won’t want to stop. Hearing a song that you’ve heard your whole life in a brand new light can be a truly moving experience and I encourage everyone to give it a try.
The Sennheiser HD 280 PRO are a dynamic closed-back pair of headphones that will run you $99.95 on Amazon. They have a fairly neutral sound signature with slight bass emphasis. They also passively attenuate a decent amount of noise, though their bulk and tight band are a bit to much for some.
Another great option that is more conducive to on-the-go listeners is the Noontec Zoro HD II. I was lucky enough to review the first iteration of these headphones and really enjoyed them. For a company that I hadn’t heard of before I wasn’t expecting much but the Zoro HD turned out to be a treat.
If the CB3 Hush isn’t your jam, you may want to look into the Monoprice SonicSolace Active Noise Canceling (ANC) wireless headphones. While they’re head and shoulders above the CB3 in terms of audio quality, their ANC unit does drop that quality noticeably. It would have taken the CB3 Hush’s spot, but it was too close to call.
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