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The Best Headphones for Under $50

You don't have to spend a lot to get decent sound quality, whether you want earbuds or an over-the-ear model

You don’t have to spend a small fortune to get a decent pair of headphones.

At $50 and under, the following headphones are well-suited for everyday audio consumption by most of us, whether that means grooving through your latest Spotify Discover Weekly playlist at work or tearing through an audiobook while you cook dinner.

Sure, you’ll give up some performance if you choose headphones under $50: You could spend several times that to get truly excellent sound quality, high-performing noise cancelation (which electronically dampens unwanted outside noise), and a companion smartphone app (to tweak equalizer settings), but lower-priced options abound and are almost certainly an improvement over whatever came packaged with your smartphone.

At Consumer Reports, we buy and test around 50 pairs of headphones every year, with our experienced research experts evaluating them across a range of criteria, including comfort and fit and sound quality. All these factors matter when you’re making buying decisions. After all, a pair of headphones may sound great, but if they’re bulky, they might not be the best pair for the gym.

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23

Noise-canceling technology is typically reserved for higher-end headphones, but you’ll also find it in the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23, which comes in just shy of $40 on Amazon. Despite the modest price, our in-house experts found these earphones—headphones with small buds that go directly into your ears—to be quite capable. They produce very respectable sound overall and reach satisfyingly loud volume levels even when paired with low-power portable devices.

So are these really as good as the best, and priciest, noise-canceling headphones? Well, no. A slight, yet audible, hiss occurs when noise canceling is turned on, and the noise-canceling function is controlled by a bulky inline unit that you’ll want to clip to your clothing to keep it from getting in the way.

Consumers who plan to primarily use the ATH-ANC23 with a smartphone should be aware that it’s a wired model: If your smartphone doesn’t have a traditional headphone jack, you’ll need to use an adapter.

    AKG by Harman Y23
    AKG by Harman Y23

    AKG by Harman Y23

    The AKG by Harman Y23 are a pair of wired earphones that come in at around $40 on Amazon. They produce good sound but lack many of the useful extras you might find on a more expensive pair. Noise cancellation? Nope. Integrated volume controls? Also nope. Integrated microphone so that you can take phone calls? Sorry, you won’t find that here.

    What you will find, however, is a lightweight design that’s perfectly suited to, say, marathon Beats 1 Radio sessions. Included in the packaging are multiple earphone tips, giving you an excellent chance of just the right fit—good for comfort as well as blocking external noise.

    Just be sure that the inability to make and take phone calls isn’t a deal breaker before you choose these.

      Skullcandy Grind
      Skullcandy Grind

      Skullcandy Grind

      Open the box of the $45 Skullcandy Grind and you’ll find a colorful pair of on-ear, studio-style headphones that border on the bulky—good for around the house but perhaps a bit cumbersome for a commute.

      The sound quality is quite good, though this model tends to pump up the bass artificially. These are “closed,” solid-back headphones, but they don’t form a tight seal with the ear. That means the experience is a lot like wearing a pair of “open” headphones—audio jargon that basically means you feel like you’re inside a room listening to music, as opposed to being cut off from the world around you.

      The Grind lets you make and take calls on certain widely used smartphone models, such as the iPhone.

        Monoprice HiFi DJ-Style Pro
        Monoprice HiFi DJ-Style Pro headphones

        Monoprice HiFi DJ-Style Pro...

        The Monoprice HiFi DJ-Style Pro headphones cost anywhere from $15 to $25 online, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a cheaper model worthy of your consideration.

        This is a studio-style model, making it better-suited for use on a sofa than a gym treadmill. They fit entirely over your ear, which helps block out some unwanted noise. True to its name, the cups of these headphones can swivel around, which is useful for any budding DJs learning how to beat match or for anyone who merely wants to hear the outside world for a second or two without having to completely remove the headphones.

        And how do they sound? Other models in this list do better in CR testing. But the Monoprice pair doesn’t sound bad at all, according to our experts, who note a neutral sound—the bass, midtones, and treble are all given the same weight, in other words.

        One quick word on comfort: Some users may find the pads to feel warm or sticky after having them on for a while.

          JVC Marshmallow Wireless HA-FX39BT
          JVC Marshmallow Wireless HA-FX39BT

          JVC Marshmallow Wireless HA-FX39BT

          Bluetooth headphones tend to cost more than their wired counterparts, so consumers working with a strict $50 budget have fewer choices if they want to go wireless.

          Enter the JVC Marshmallow Wireless HA-FX39BT, which can be found online for about $40. All the basics are covered: In addition to good (not great) sound quality you’ll find an integrated microphone for taking calls as well as volume and play/pause controls. The earbuds provide a degree of sound isolation, muffling unwanted external noise, but our testers noted that they also provide a slight sensation of pressure when inserted. A single charge should last you around 14 hours.

          While there isn’t a wire connecting these headphones to the audio source, such as your smartphone or laptop, there is still a wire—draping around the back of your neck in a sort of collar—connecting the two earbuds.

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            Nicholas Deleon

            I've been covering consumer electronics for more than 10 years for publications like TechCrunch, The Daily (R.I.P.), and Motherboard. When I'm not researching or writing about laptops or headphones I can likely be found obsessively consuming news about FC Barcelona, replaying old Super Nintendo games for the hundredth time, or chasing my pet corgi Winston to put his harness on so we can go for a walk. Follow me on Twitter (@nicholasadeleon).