Is there really a difference between cheap and expensive headphones?
While it’s possible to find decent headphones at low prices, we still think highquality expensive headphones are worth it. Most people can tell the difference once they make the step up.
If you’re picking up a set under £20, it’s hard to view it as a longterm investment and you should be aware that it may not be built to last for a long time. On the other hand, the pricey pairs are more durable, deliver much better audio performance with a wider soundstage and have advanced features like impressive active noisecancelling, highquality smartphone apps, spatial and 3D sound support and better water, dust and sweat resistance.
It is also worth knowing that sometimes the price difference isn’t due to these improvements but more due to materials, branding or style.
Sometimes, as we hope this list proves, you can get great value headphones at a much lower price than you’d expect – but, if you have the ability to increase your budget, it’s worth looking at midrange and premium pairs too.
At what age can kids wear headphones?
There’s no specific recommended age at which kids can start wearing headphones, but it’s important to pay attention to how loud the volume is. This applies to adults as much as it does kids, but you don’t want children to be blasting the music so loud that it starts to damage their hearing.
We have a separate roundup of the best headphones for kids (all of which come with builtin volume restrictions) for this exact reason. If they’d prefer a pair with a more “grownup” design like those on this list, it’s worth knowing that you can also set a maximum level within your iPhone’s sound settings (look for the “Headphone Safety” section).
The location of this option may differ between various Android devices (and it isn’t available on some), but there should be an option to set a volume limit on the majority of handsets. We’d recommend not only doing this for kids but also for yourself – and we’d advise a limit of 85 decibels.
How to pick the best budget headphones
We’re sure you already know some of the key things you’re looking for in a new pair of headphones, but these are the most important specs that we’d keep in mind:
Of course, this is one of the major differences between more expensive models and budget pairs. But, having tried many of both categories, we can say that there are many less expensive pairs that deliver far better quality than you’d expect and that not every pair that costs hundreds of pounds sounds that much better.
The models on this list deliver better audio than we’d expect for under £50, and it’s worth remembering that it can be hard to tell the difference if you haven’t trained your ears to notice musical subtleties.
Mainly listening to podcasts and audiobooks? You’ll get on fine with affordable headphones.
Inear models are the most convenient and portable type of headphones. You insert them directly into your ear canal, and they come with a range of silicone ear tips. If you find inear headphones uncomfortable, though, overear headphones sit around your ears and have pads made of materials like foam or leather for added comfort.
Look for a pair of noisecancelling headphones if you’ll be using them in a loud environment, such as a busy train or when you’re on a flight. If you’re buying headphones for exercise, sweatproofing and water resistance are musthave features, along with a cable clip and ear hooks or wings that keep them secure when you’re moving around.
Wireless or wired
With smartphone manufacturers including Apple, Google, Sony and Samsung now having ditched the 3.5mm headphone socket on their products, there’s no doubt that wireless headphones are the future.
However, wired models do deliver less lag, better longevity (because there are no batteries to run down) and the potential for higher audio quality. We know most shoppers are looking for wirefree options, though, so almost all of the headphones on this list are wireless options.
The wireless models on the list all offer solid battery life, going for at least six hours on a single charge. The truly wireless earbuds that don’t have a cable connecting each bud will also recharge themselves whenever you place them back in their charging case, making it rare that they’ll run out unless you’re wearing them for a very long time between charges.
We’d recommend looking out for models that have a quick charge functionality, as this can be handy when you’re running low on juice. Just a few minutes connected to the mains or a portable charger can reward you with several hours of playback time.
The ability to fast charge via USBC is invaluable in our experience, and you’ll find those models that charge with an older USBA or MicroUSB cable can’t charge up as fast.
Also, for added convenience, it’s worth looking out for wireless charging. With these models, you can simply place the case on a charging pad (we recommend the EarFun Air, which costs £49.99) and it’ll start to top up with power.
You don’t want to have to reach for your phone to control music playback, so headphones and earbuds will come with builtin buttons or touch interfaces to skip backwards and forwards or play and pause your tracks. These can sometimes be customised within a companion app on your smartphone that offers you a range of extra features too.