There's never a bad time to buy yourself a set of headphones, but I can tell from personal experience that it can be difficult to figure out the difference between the good and the overpriced rubbish. We're not all audiophiles either, and spending hundreds of pounds on a set of headphones isn't always viable. So let's figure out the good from the bad, with a selection headphones available for less than £100.
Just make sure to remember this, kids: headphones (and other audio devices) are only as good as the sound you pump into them.
All the headphones here vary in price, but that's not going to be a deciding factor. We all know that certain electronics are more expensive for a bunch of different reasons that have nothing to do with performance quality.
I'm primarily going to focus on the quality of audio that each set of headphones produces, along with how comfortable they are to use. Both of these are going to be considered in equal footing, but there may be a little bit of bias towards the comfort side. Audio quality is important, but when it comes down to it I'm sure most of us would much rather have lower-quality headphones that are comfortable to use than the other way around. Still, if a pair of headphones has a small amount of discomfort (something that can easily be ignored or dealt with) then audio will trump it.
I'm also going to check how much audio leaks during use, mostly for the sake of people who might be around you when you're listening to something. Build quality and and overall design will come into it, but for the most part they won't have as much control over the final result. Design mostly comes down to personal preference, and while I will be expressing my own opinions on each one the rest of the world might disagree.
For the audio I'm going to be listening to a number of different musical genres to try and gauge where each set of headphones excels. I've included metal/rock, electronic, orchestral, rap/hip-hop, and some recordings of live music for good measure. Since everybody's tastes are different, I'll point out which of these genres performed best.
The albums in question include Iron Man 2 by AC/DC, The Eminem Show, Miracles by Two Steps from Hell, We Are (Part 1) by Dash Berlin, and Live in Gdansk by David Gilmour.
For comfort I'll obviously be testing them on my own head, but thanks to a combination of an oddly shaped head and ears finding comfortable headphones has never been an easy task. My logic is that if I find them comfortable, the only people who won't are ones with stranger head shapes. People better known as the rest of my family.
It's worth noting that none of the headphones here offer noise cancelling, because they're in a league of their own and really should be compared as separate devices. You'll also find that these are all full-sized on-ear headphones, with no trace of anything that could be described as an 'earbud'. I'm being pedantic about that, because I'm of the opinion they're not deserving of the headphones title unless they go over your head.
First Place: Audio-Technica ATH-M50X, from £91
It turns out that sometimes paying more money can leave you with better quality products. Who knew? Audio Technica's ATH-M50X has pretty much everything you could ask for from a pair of headphones: great sound, a nice build, and design that isn't going to make you cringe by looking at it for more than half a second. These were the first pair of headphones I tested, and it really showed me what I've been missing all the years I've been buying cheap earphones.
It's worth mentioning that on the audio front, these are studio headphones so they're designed to ensure you can hear every little detail the sound they produce. While just labelling something as a pair of studio headphones means very little, the M50Xs do deliver. They produce a nice clear sound that lets you hear everything without having to put too much effort into it, have some pretty obvious stereo effects, and a nice mid-level bass. The bass feels important to me, because it's not pathetically weak and it's not overpowering. It's a nice comfortable level.
It's difficult to say what sounded best through these since everything came out sounding equally great, but I suppose that's the point of studio headphones. The clarity and balance are the key to the M50X's success, and out of all the headphones I tested it's obvious that these are the closest thing you're going to have to hearing the music as it was originally recorded. The downside though? Crap audio sounds a lot worse than it would from a pair of lesser headphones. So be warned.
They've also got a nice design and a good solid feel. Unlike some of the other headphones tested, I never once felt like I was going to accidentally snap these in half when I put them on my head. Despite that, the strength doesn't make them particularly heavy. Quite the opposite in fact, and there were a number of times where it almost felt like I wasn't even wearing anything on my head. It was only the cups that ruined the illusion, and wearing them for too long did make my ears hurt a little bit. Another plus was that they didn't try and rip hair out of my head on a regular basis.
Despite all the positives the M50Xs have, there are a few drawbacks. For starters there's a lot of leather here, and the smell of it was giving me a headache at first. That's a personal gripe, but like leather car seats (which I also can't stand) the smell quickly dissipated. Also the fact that the cable has a special locking mechanism seems handy, but in fact it makes buying a replacement cable more difficult because you have to make sure it'll fit inside the elongated socket. I tried it with the other two 2.5mm-3.5mm cable I had from other headphones to find that only one of them fit, and only because I pushed it in quite hard. Honestly, I feel that that's a pretty shitty tactic on Audio Techinca's behalf. In case you were wondering, the cheapest replacement cable Audio Technica sells is £14.
One final point on these, though, is that they are rather loud and when they get loud they do leak quite a bit of noise. Make sure you keep an eye on that out in public, because you don't want to be that person. [Buy here]
Second Place: Sony MDR ZX330BT, £60
Sony's ZX330BTs are the first of three pairs of headphones that I had trouble placing, simply because they were so very similar and any respective pros and cons seemed to cancel each other out in the long run. But the Sonys come in second because they have the most important feature of all: better sound quality. In terms of the audio they produce, there's nothing that you can really complain about. Everything comes out nice and clear, the bass is at the perfect level, and everything comes out the way it's supposed to.
Differentiating what sets them apart is tricky to do, but in the end the clarity of the audio trumps everything else. If you choose to buy yourself a pair of these then you're not going to miss out on anything. You might be able to pick up as many of the tiny details as the ATH-M50xs, but unless you're really fussy you're not missing out.
Another thing they have in common with the M50Xs is that that pretty much everything I pumped through them sounded good. What was interesting to note was that the rubbish quality music came out slightly better with the Sonys, so if you have an extensive collection of *ahem* questionably obtained music these are a good option.
Design-wise they're nice and light, and despite the fact that they're black they're fairly easy on the eyes. There's nothing really out there about the overall look, but at least they don't have huge obnoxious logos that you can see from the Intentional Space Station. Still, I'm not keen on the choice to go with a plastic frame. It makes them seem fragile compared to some of the stronger metal headphones like the Jabra Move or the ATH-M50Xs
Despite being in second place, there are a few things that irritate me about the ZX330BTs. For starters they're Bluetooth-only, which means if you run out of power you suddenly have no wired alternative to fall back on. Ditching wires is convenient, but it's certainly not infallible. I doubt it'll happen very often, but the 30-hour battery life will eventually run out.
I guess that's a minor grievance, but there are a few more practical concerns to worry about – like the fact that these things are a tad uncomfortable. They've got small ear cups which didn't feel that great to wear, and they did manage to grip hold of a few stray hairs which wasn't too pleasant when the time came to take the headphones off. They also irritated my ears a little bit, in the way that you can feel them warming up as they start going red. I suppose that stems from the fact that these seem to be designed for a better fit, but it's irritating none the less.
A couple of other very minor grievances include the fact that don't fold up, which means they're less portable than other headphones you can buy, and the buttons are a little bit confusing in comparison to the likes of the Panasonics and the Jabra Move (more on those below). It took me a while to get them to connect to my laptop because you have to hold down the power button for quite a long time before they enter pairing mode. It didn't help that the flashing red and blue lights look like they go into pairing mode a few seconds before, and require you turn them off and on again to start over.
But I'd like to end on a very positive note, and I can. These things leaked almost no sound during use. It was quite surprising really, given how small the cups felt, and I had to turn the sound up to full to before it was really noticeable. If you want something to use in public, I'd say that these are a very good option. [Buy here]
Third Place: Sennheiser HD 471, £90
I'll admit, it was a little bit difficult to decide between these and the Sonys, but in the end the Sony headphones came out on top. The audio has slightly stronger bass than the Sonys, but that had the downside of causing the rest to dip in quality. Nothing too extreme, and they still produced some great sound. The audio was clear and pleasant to listen to. Nowhere near as clear as the Audio-Technicas when it comes to the smaller details, but more than good enough. Similarly they performed equally well across all the genres, so whatever your music tastes they should prove to be a great purchase.
The amount of audio leakage, or lack thereof, was impressive too. There was a little bit more than the Sonys, which leaked virtually nothing, but nothing very serious. So little that you can here something, but can't make out any of the important details.
The clincher that caused the Senheisers to be bumped down to third was the comfort factor. Extended use caused them to start annoying my ears (or rather just my left ear, for some bizarre reason), and the headband was bugging my head quite a bit. Nothing headache-inducing like the AKGs or the Panasonics, but still annoying and slightly painful. Thankfully the ear cups really clamp down around the ears, which means the headband can be shifted around to somewhere more comfortable without risk of them falling off your head.
The design on these is quite nice, especially the wavy pattern on the outside of the earcups. I can only assume those are meant to represent sound waves, but I do quite like them. Oddly, the plastic build isn't terrible here either. Unlike the other plastic-bodied headphones I tested, these had were made from thicker, more solid plastic. That meant it didn't feel like I could snap them in half accidentally. They also didn't trap any of my hair during the testing, but I wouldn't read too much into that – they always find a stray hair or two in the end.
What I found interesting was that the HD 471s had a removable wire that seems to be designed to look like it's built into the headphones. I'll admit, that's a little bit odd, but the way they're plugged in does mean they're not going to get ripped out if you catch the wire on a door handle.
It's worth mentioning, however, that Sennheiser has actually released two different 'versions' of the HD 471: the 471G for Android phones and the 471i for iPhones. The differences are negligible, and only matter if you plan on using the in-line remote for calls and media functionality. [Pre-order here]
Fourth Place: Jabra Move, from £56
Personally I think it's a serious shame that these were beaten by the offerings from Audio Technica and Sony, because the Jabra Move is probably the most comfortable pair of headphones I've ever worn. Seriously, if these had better sound they'd be in serious competition for one of the top two spots. The only thing I can complain about in terms of actually wearing these was that they didn't have much grip and kept sliding off my head when I tilted my head down to write notes.
I like the fact that the design seems fairly minimalist, and it's nice that they don't have any 'mechanical' parts for adjusting the headband. Simply because those parts always pull out a few hairs – a particularly unpleasant sensation. Plus the fact that they're made of metal didn't have me worrying that I might accidentally break them in half.
That minimalism comes with a price, however, and it means that there are no unnecessary moving parts. That means that aside from a small amount of movement to accommodate people's varying head sizes, the cups don't fold up and it makes the Jabra Move less portable than most headphones.
Audio-wise they're not quite on top of some of the others tested, and I'd say that the overall quality was a tiny bit worse than the Panasonics. I really mean a tiny amount, too. Worse to such an extent that the comfort factor makes up for it a few times over. I feel that there was something missing from the sound that was being produced. It all sounded good, but the clarity was just slightly off. I kind of have to put that into words, and I'd say it was best described as the aural equivalent of blurred vision. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed listening to them and I did appreciate the depth to the sound.
The bass was very apparent, but it still ended up falling a bit flat with the end result. It's really obvious with more bass-heavy genres, in this case electronic and rap, so if you're the kind of person that enjoys a heavy bass beat in your music you should probably avoid these. The audio comes out well, but it just seems more lacking than other genres.
It was tricky to decide just how different these were compared to the Sonys and the Sennheisers, and whether the extra comfort meant they deserved to come out on top. In the end, though, those two headphones still have much better audio than the Jabra Move and they're not so uncomfortable that the better quality isn't worth it.
What wasn't that great was that they did leak a fair bit of sound, particularly at the high volumes. Thankfully the audio is good enough that you don't really need to play them at a high volume to appreciate the music. Unlike some of the other headphones further down this list.
One final point is that these are Bluetooth headphones, but they don't have obnoxious buttons and don't require insane button combinations just to connect them to your phone. Oh and rather than throwing a confusing multi-lingual set of instructions with a layout that makes no sense, these actually talk you through the connection process. I like that, and I wish more Bluetooth devices would do something similar. [Buy here]
Fifth Place: Panasonic RP-BTD5, £55
The first thing I need to point out here is that the Panasonic RP-BTD5s have better quality audio than the Jabra Move (just about), but they're so insanely uncomfortable.
It doesn't even make sense either, because there's no odd design features that would explain why these headphones were pressing into my head the way that they were. The AKG Y50s (below) gave me a similar sort of headache to the Panasonic RP-BTD5, but at least there you can tell it comes from the weirdly shaped headphone. I have no idea why the Pansonics pressed in as much as they did. My best guess is that it's down to there not being any cushioning on the underside of the headband.
That, along with the fact that they could not stop ripping out strands of hair, really ruined it for me. Which is a shame, because these don't look half bad. They're fairly bland, but the 'arms' that attach the cups to the headband have a nice glossy finish, and there are no random attention-catching logos. The Bluetooth controls are quite neat as well, much less obvious and nicer to look at than the Sonys.
The sound was very dependent on the volume you're listening to, which is a little strange. At the low volumes everything is a little bit off. Vocals are great, bass is good, but the background instruments sounds very reduced and there is absolutely no depth to what comes through the cups. Most of those problems go away when the volume increases (though there is an echoing problem that lingers around), but that's ruined by the fact that there is quite a bit of leakage involved. It's not exactly apparent when you're actually using them, but it is enough to mean using them in public requires you to decide between lower audio quality and being a complete pain in the arse to the people around you.
The pros and cons of each album were a little bit strange here, and it felt like volume changes had a huge impact on how the music sounded. Because of the obvious lack of depth at low volumes, the likes of electronic and orchestral music didn't sound great. That said, once I turned it up they sounded a heck of a lot better than the rest. That pesky echoing actually works in these instances, because it gave the music more of a surround-sound quality that most of the other headphones lacked. Bass-led music felt a bit lacking, though, so bear that in mind.
They're also another set of Bluetooth-only headphones, which I find annoying. [Buy it here]
Sixth Place: JBL Synchros E40BT, from £68
The first thing I did after taking the Synchros E40BT out of the box was put them on my head to see how they felt. My ears started hurting almost immediately, so it's safe to say that thing's didn't get off to a great start. They felt incredibly small round my head, and extended use caused them to really start hurting my ears. I think that's down to how narrow the headphones are, which means they clamp onto anything slightly bigger. I definitely wouldn't recommend these to people who also have large heads.
The audio wasn't much better, either. While they did offer superior audio quality to the JVC headphones, they were really lacking in comparison with the rest of the headphones I tested. The sound coming out sounded incredibly shallow, which meant it was a lot less pleasant to listen to than most of the others. It all improved somewhat when I turned up the volume, but that was countered by the serious audio leakage that was occurring. The leakage was fairly clear at low volumes, but once I turned it up then it got a bit out of hand. It's difficult to tell whether it's worse than the JVC, but it's incredibly easy to make out the specifics without any difficulty.
I wouldn't say that the audio is ear-bleedingly dreadful, but compared to the other headphones in this list, it's really quite underwhelming. I will say this, though, it's got fairly strong bass, and if this list was more in tune with that then they'd be a lot closer to the top. Probably something to consider before you drop a couple of hundred quid on a new pair of Beats. As you might expect, the extra bass made the bass-heavy music stand out a lot more. So if that's your thing, these might the headphones you want to look at. Comfort depending, of course.
I'm particularly fond of the design either. It doesn't help that the review model I was sent is white, since I despise white-coloured gadgets, but my issues come down to more than just the colour. For starters these are Bluetooth headphones, which means they need power. My issue there is that instead of using microUSB like every other non-Apple gadget maker on the planet, JBL chose to go with a 2.5mm-USB charging cable. I've only ever seen that kind of cable once before, on a dirt-cheap mini speaker I bought in Asda about four or five years ago. It's such a bizarre choice, and the only reason I can think that anyone felt it was a good idea was to minimise the number of ports and resulting internal components.
Similar to my feelings about the Sony and Panasonic headphones earlier, I'm not keen of the choice to make these out of plastic. It makes them seem fragile in comparison, and given how tight they were around my head I was sometimes worried that something would end up cracking. I'm also not too fond of the leatherette-covered padding. I hate new-leather smell, but leatherette just feels tacky. I will say this about the design, though, the Bluetooth controls here are probably my favourite of all the headphones tested. They're not too obvious, but you can still easily get to them when you need to. [Buy it here]
Seventh Place: JVC HA-SR525, £31
I'm going to be very up front about these, they don't have an awful lot of redeeming qualities and do kind of prove that you get exactly what you pay for. I knew that as soon as I put these on and hit play.
In fairness, there are a few good things that I noticed about JVC's HA-SR525s. For starters they are very light and remarkably comfortable to wear, and one of the cables (unremoveable, sadly) does have a built in microphone/music controller that should prove more beneficial than having all that stuff built into the actual headphones.
But down to business. In all honesty, there is very little about these that would cause you to mistake them for a set of premium headphones. They just scream cheap. From the audio quality to the actual build of the headphones themselves, there's no escaping it. In terms of the build I'd say that the thin plastic headband is mostly to blame, but the cups don't really do much to draw your attention away from it.
Similarly, the audio just sounds incredibly cheap. Not the cheapest (I had to compare them to a pair of £10 earphones I have to see), but still incredibly cheap. The bass was quite good, but the rest of it just seemed drowned out. Almost as if the whole track was quieter than it actually was. In fact, it made the audio I was listening to (FLAC-quality) sound like a cheap MP3 ripped from YouTube.
It seemed like a lot of this was due to the fact that the stereo was off, and the sound coming through the right ear cup was considerably quieter than other headphones I tested. There's every chance that this was down to an issue with the headphones themselves, but they were brand new when I opened them. I also couldn't swap out the wires to see if that was an issue.
Picking which genres work best was nearly impossible, mainly because individual tracks on the albums would sound wildly different from each other. It's seems to be down that stereo issue, and you don't get a very good surround-sound feel. When the audio coming through the right cup is so wildly different that the stuff coming out of the left, it just ruins pretty much everything. It's worth noting that Live music sounded more consistent, presumably because it's not recorded over multiple studio sessions. It's still going to vary from album to album, though.
To top all that off, there was a lot of sound leakage. As I said before, it's on par with the leakage from the Synchros headphones but it's difficult to decide which one is worse.
I will round off with this one final point. These are not for audiophiles, but I did find that it didn't take long for me to adjust and find myself ignoring the audio quality. Plus, remember how I said that they made the FLAC files sound like they were rubbish YouTube rips? As it turns out the rubbish YouTube rips don't actually sound that bad through these. So that's a nice silver lining for those of you who couldn't care less about the quality of your music to begin with. [Buy here]
Eighth Place: AKG Y50, from £49
AKG's Y50s are the perfect example of how a great product can be completely ruined by crap design. I'll get onto more specifics about the audio soon, but it really should be said that these are so fucking uncomfortable. As uncomfortable as the Panasonics were, they were nothing compared the the AKGs and their insanely weird headband design.
Looking at them, it should be obvious. While most headphones opt for a fairly neat circular headband, AKG seem to have decided to go for something a lot squarer. The best way to describe the shape is asking you to imagine someone filed down the corners of a square until they looks vaguely circular. Pretty much all of the headphones I tested had some sort of give between where my head ended and where the headband begins, but the Y50s just sat there pressing into my head like a helmet that's a few sizes too small. So much so that I could only wear them properly for about a minute.
I know I have a bizarrely shaped head, but it feels like the person who designed these has no idea what a human head actually looks like.
And don't get me started on the earcups. While the interior is quite well done, with a soft leather cushion, the outside just looks horrific. Earlier I mentioned large obnoxious logos, and the Y50s are exactly what I was referring to. I don't know who thought such a large in your face logo on each cup was a good idea, or even why they thought it would work. There are four colours of the Y50 available on Amazon, and the only one that looks half-decent are the black ones. A large black logo on black cups actually works. The rest? Bleh.
Sadly, the audio is quite decent. It's not the best, but if you can somehow manage the utterly ridiculous design these wouldn't be a bad purchase. The audio is nice and clear, even if the bass seems fairly weak in comparison to the likes of the Synchros and the Audio Technicas. Plus, they had rather low levels of audio leakage. Honestly, audio wise, I've got no complaints.
The weaker bass meant that they didn't perform quite as well with the bass-heavy tracks like those featured in electronic, and rap, but it's acceptable. If you can stand the shape, then these should be fine for whatever musical tastes you have.
The problem is that the design flaws totally overshadow the sound. They were just impossible to wear, which means it doesn't matter how great the sound is. A great sounding pair of headphone that you can't stand to wear is worse than no headphones at all. [Buy here]
The Wildcard: Steelseries Siberia V3 Prism Gaming Headset, £90
Before I go any further, the V3 Prism is the designated wildcard because it's rather unlike the other headphones in this list. It's not because it's a gaming headset, it's because it's USB powered, which means it can't be used with portable devices – only PCs, Macs, and PlayStation 4. You could use a normal set of headphones, of course, but there's no reason why you shouldn't consider these.
For starters, these were the most comfortable headphones I tested. The cups covered the whole of my bizarrely shaped ears, and the automatically adjusting inner headband meant that it fits snugly around any head without causing irritation or ripping out stray hairs. Considering you're not likely to be taking off your headphones during your marathon gaming sessions, all that makes sense.
In terms of sound, I can't complain abut the sound that the V3 Prism offers but I can't help but feeling that it's somehow 'off' in comparison to the ATH-M50Xs. There's nothing wrong, per se, but the audio being pumped out isn't as clear or deep as was being delivered with the M50Xs. To true audiophiles that might be a problem, but for everyday people who don't really require the fine quality of studio headphones it's absolutely fine. Plus, on a more positive note, the V3 Prism did offer much stronger bass and a more 'surrounding' sound. I found that this was incredibly advantageous with games and recordings of live music, but it wasn't quite there for studio tracks and Netflix. [Buy here]