Headphones (aka ‘cans’) are probably one of the most-often used items in the studio, essential for recording and sound design duties, as well as assessing the stereo image, low-end and fine detail within a mix. Any pro producer or engineer will tell you that they monitor their mixes through as many different monitoring systems as possible, such as a pair of nearfield monitors, a Bluetooth speaker, through a car stereo, or on a pair of headphones. But what if you don’t have huge amounts to spend? What are the best budget studio monitors?
No music professional worth their salt would contemplate mixing a project without referring to headphones at some stage and, like monitor speakers, getting the right pair is as personal a choice as you can get when buying studio gear. For studio use, the ideal set of ‘phones will be ones that you can mix on and produce a result that’ll sound good wherever you play it, and in this regard the choice will be entirely subjective.
Moreover, you may want a pair solely for mixing purposes, some may want something that can also cope with everyday music-listening duties, while others will need a pair of workhorse cans sturdy enough to cope with life on the road.
There’s no real need to spend megabucks on a good pair, though - some of the best budget studio headphones can be picked up for well under $/£150 which, if you’re a cash-strapped musician or studio owner, is literally music to your ears. So read on for our pick of the most affordable studio headphones for cash-conscious music makers.
With Black Friday on the horizon, it could be worth holding off on picking up a new pair of budget studio headphones until the Black Friday music deals start emerging. We'll be reporting on the best offers right through to Black Friday itself.
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Best budget studio headphones: MusicRadar’s Choice
Our choice for best budget studio headphones simply has to be the amazing Sennheiser HD-206. At under $/£40, these are bargain-basement cans, but they sound anything but. They’re fantastic for studio use, supremely light, comfortable and durable with a surprisingly flat response, and at this price you can afford to buy multiple pairs for your studio - if you can get your hands on them!
Up at the higher end, the choice is tougher, but we’d plump for the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x. Consistently top of the bestseller charts for good reason, these excellent and versatile reference cans deliver class-leading sound for an affordable outlay.
Choosing the best budget studio headphones for you
When choosing your ultimate pair of budget headphones, you’re entering what will hopefully be a long-running relationship between your ears and a trusted and reliable music-making companion. So there are plenty of things to consider when making your selection.
Budget studio headphones vs regular headphones – what’s the difference?
For monitoring while mixing, the ideal is to have as flat a response curve as possible, meaning that the headphones aren’t adding any extra volume to specific frequency areas. Many regular ‘hi-fi’ headphones emphasise the bass and treble regions, as this generally makes for a nicer listening experience.
If you were to plot this on a graph of volume against frequency, you’d end up with what’s known as a ‘smiley curve’ with a boost in the low and high frequency regions and a relative dip in the middle. So regular cans aren’t the most suitable for mixing, as they can make your bass and treble sound louder than it actually is, so that when you play your mix out somewhere else, you’ll find it sounds dull and lacking in bottom end.
Monitor headphones shy away from this by aiming to reproduce all frequencies at an equal volume, giving you an accurate picture of what’s going on in your mix so that you can focus on detail, balance out the levels of all frequencies and more easily correct any problem areas. They also tend to have beefed-up padding to both enhance comfort and exclude sound, ensuring that sound doesn’t leak out and bleed into microphones when tracking, or leak in and cause problems when mixing.
There are three main types of headphone design:
- Over-ear (circumaural), on-ear (supra-aural) and in-ear (intra-aural). Of these, circumaural and sub-aural headphones can both be split into two main subtypes - open-back and closed-back.
- Closed-back headphones are generally the best choice for recording as they fully enclose the ears with a hard plastic shell, and the padding around the ear helps to avoid unwanted traces of the backing track leaking out and ending up on your recording. Spill like this can be a problem if your performer likes to monitor loud, so when recording performers using microphones, closed-back is usually the way to go.
- Open-back cans tend to be lighter and therefore a bit more comfortable for long periods, but they’re generally not as common. Some prefer the sound of open-back cans to the closed-back design, claiming it provides a better balance and stereo image and is generally more transparent-sounding, but because of the higher risk of spill, they tend to be more suitable for programming and mixing duties, rather than recording. They also don’t block out external noise quite as effectively as closed-back cans.
- In-ear monitors (aka IEM’s) are usually reserved for on-stage monitoring environments, unless they’re extremely high quality, in which case they can also be suitable for use in a studio setting.
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Headphones’ frequency response relates to the range of sound frequencies they can reproduce. For most cans, this will be outside the range of human hearing, which tops off at around 20kHz and decreases further with age.
For studio use, you want to be able to hear crisp, clear detail at even volumes across all frequency ranges, so that you can accurately monitor everything that’s going on in your mix from low frequency bass sounds through to high end details such as vocal reverbs and hi-hats.
Comfort and joy
It goes without saying that anything you’re expecting to be wearing for extended periods needs to be comfortable, and budget headphones are no exception. Padded ear pads are a must both from a comfort point of view and for acoustic isolation, to stop outside noise getting in, and, if you’re going to be using them for studio recording, stopping noise from your backing track spilling out into the mics.
Having the ears comfortably surrounded by luxurious padding makes the listening experience profoundly inclusive, allowing you to block out extraneous noise from your surroundings and focus on the fine details of what you’re listening to.
Lastly, there’s the issue of hygiene - people tend to lose body heat through the top of the head, so make sure your headband and ear cups aren’t going to make you sweat excessively!
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One important aspect of budget studio headphone design that may influence your decision is impedance. Good ‘impedance matching’ will help your ‘phones work more effectively, so you need to consider where you’ll be using your cans and what type of gear you’ll be plugging them into.
Ear cups contain transducers which are made up of a coil of copper wire wound around a magnet, attached to a thin diaphragm. When you play music into it, the coil receives a signal and moves back and forth within the magnet, and this movement moves the diaphragm back and forth, producing the sound we hear.
Measured in ohms (Ω), impedance relates to the thickness of wire used in the transducer’s coil, together with the number of times the wire in the coil is wound around the magnets. The thicker the wire, and the more coils it has, the more the electrons are ‘impeded’ by the wire, so the harder the signal has to work to drive the transducer and produce sound. So essentially, the higher the impedance, the higher the level of signal needed to drive the headphones properly so that they sound good.
High-impedance headphones are designed for studio environments like a band recording setup, where you might find multiple sets of cans plugged into a splitter box that’s receiving a high-level input signal from a professional amplifier. Low-impedance headphones are designed to be plugged directly into a single source, like a laptop or mobile phone, so they’re able to generate sound more efficiently from the lower-level input signal these devices put out.
Generally, high-impedance headphones require higher signal levels to produce the same output level of low-impedance headphones. So broadly speaking, the higher a headphone’s impedance rating, the more ‘pro’ it was designed to be.
Most of the cheap studio headphones on this list are low-mid impedance models, ranging between 32-80Ω, although some brands – Beyerdynamic is the most notable example – offer a choice of different impedance ratings for their cans, so you can pick the one most suited to your needs. They range from a lowly 16Ω designed for smartphones and portable mp3 players, all the way up to 250Ω for professional studio applications with high-level outputs like dedicated headphone amps, audio interfaces and mixing desks.
Cord length is a consideration – for everyday use, a 3m long cord might be a bit of a nuisance, getting tangled up in everything and in the way, whereby in studio applications, a longer cord can be useful. Playing an electronic drum set, for example, or playing electric guitar while standing, you may welcome the extra length, as a 1.5m cable often won’t cut it.
One solution is a detachable cord that can be replaced with various lengths, like the ATH-M50x from Audio-Technica, which comes with three swappable cables for different use cases – two straight cables, in 1.5m and 3m lengths, plus a 1.5m coiled cable. Coiled cables are more versatile for studio use as they’re literally more flexible and less prone to tangling than long, straight cables. Due to their excess weight, however, they tend to be less suitable for everyday mobile listening.
So with all that to get your head around, here’s our round-up of the best budget studio headphones for music making available today.
Top 10 products
The best budget studio headphones right now
Consistently near the top of the bestseller lists since their release, Audio Technica’s ATH-M50x model is a firm favourite due to a combination of comfort and overall great sound that doesn’t compromise accuracy or break the bank.
The cable is detachable, which means that you get to use whichever of the three supplied cables best suits your needs. The earcups are fully articulated in both vertical and horizontal planes, and they’re comfortable to wear for extended periods in spite of their solid, chunky design.
While not totally flat – there’s a bit of a bottom end bump and a slight lack of detail in the highs, with little or no harshness in the mids – the result is a tastefully optimised listening experience that translates well to other systems, making it one of the best all-round studio pairs out there.
If your budget won’t stretch to these, there’s also the more affordable ATH-M20x, M30x and M40x models to consider or, if you fancy going wireless, try the ATH-M50xBT Bluetooth version.
Read the full Audio-Technica ATH-M50x review
If you’re in need of a cheap pair – or even several cheap pairs – of headphones for everyday studio use, you simply have to check out the HD-206. Extremely durable and bearing the well-respected Sennheiser name on the headband, the HD-206’s are remarkably accurate for the money, measuring up more than favourably to much pricier peers.
The bass response in particular is rich and crisp, with plenty of detail also to be found in the mids and highs. Comfortable to wear for long sessions, the hypoallergenic ear pads are more than adequate for blocking out extraneous noise whether in the studio or out on the move.
The 3-metre long straight cable does seem particularly prone to tangling, but at this price, you need never fear recklessly throwing these in your laptop bag. They’re starting to become harder to find, however, so grab a pair before Sennheiser discontinues them!
Read the full Sennheiser HD-206 review
An iconic studio and location-recording favourite, Sennheiser HD 25’s have long been acclaimed by pros for their ability to handle high sound pressure levels and deliver excellent sound reproduction evenly across the frequency spectrum.
A stalwart of DJ booths thanks to their split headband, rotatable earpieces and a solid reputation for durability thanks to replaceable components, the HD 25 delivers punchy and accurate sound in a lightweight yet robust package that will last for years.
Classified as an on-ear (supra-aural) design, because the circular pads rest on the outside of the ear rather than enclosing it fully, the HD 25 is currently available in three flavours – Light, Standard and Plus – at three price points. For general studio/DJ duties you really can’t go wrong with a pair of HD 25’s.
Read the full Sennheiser HD 25 review
Sony’s unassailable MDR series has been around for decades and has a solid studio pedigree, borne out by decades of daily use in the recording and broadcast sectors worldwide. The current incarnation, the MDR-7506, still represents a brilliant combination of comfort, practicality and value.
Extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods, these are designed to expose what’s wrong with a recording rather than what’s right. On a par with other cans costing twice as much, the sound is punchy and clear throughout the spectrum (with a moderate boost in the upper mids), while managing not to be overly-flattering.
All in all the fact that these workhorse cans are available for well under a hundred bucks is not to be sniffed at. Thousands of studio engineers, radio producers and location sound recordists can’t be wrong!
When we first encountered the CB-1 from newcomers Status Audio, we were truly impressed that such a premium-looking and sounding headset could be had for so little money.
Close up, build quality can be something of a mixed bag – the plastics are solid, the padding soft, thick yet lightweight and the gold rings around the ear cups are real metal, yet the headband padding can suffer from wrinkling. The thick ear padding also gives these cans something of a 50’s radio-operator look, but that shouldn’t put you off.
At this price, what’s really important is the sound, which in the case of the CB-1 is better than you’d reasonably expect from cans costing twice as much. If you still love a bargain but prefer an open-backed approach, the equally-impressive OB-1 model can be had for around the same money.
If you prefer to have some awareness of the world around you when wearing headphones, Beyerdynamic’s open-back model in the DT Pro range, the DT990 Pro, represents an excellent choice. At 250 Ω, these high-impedance cans will need to be driven by a high output device such as a headphone amp, mixing desk or audio interface for best results.
Offering a natural sound stage and well-balanced frequency response that stretches well beyond the limits of human hearing, the DT990 Pro’s relatively unique velour ear pads and lightweight, open-backed design mean you can work comfortably well into the small hours.
The higher propensity for spill inherent in open-back designs make these more suitable for programming and mixing rather than tracking, but the DT990 Pro's will find themselves at home in any studio due to their natural sound, super-wide stereo image and replaceable components.
AKG headphones can be found in countless professional studios around the globe, so you’d expect any of their cans to have a reliable pedigree. Featuring the classic AKG design with self-adjusting headband, the iconic K240 Studios’ unusual semi-open configuration makes them ideal for editing, mixing and mastering work.
Comfortable ear pads fully enclose the ears, while the semi-open design takes the hard plastic shell of a closed-back design and perforates it with several large holes to expose the transducer, resulting in less low-end buildup and a more transparent sound than a conventional closed-back design.
As a result, the bass remains solid, the mids are evenly balanced and the highs are clear, so if you like the idea of AKG’s classic heritage and can live with the tradeoff of a slight increase in sound leakage, the K240 makes a reliable and rugged choice for the studio.
When it comes to pro ‘phones, no-one can say that Beyerdynamic don’t offer enough choice, as you can pick from open, semi-open or closed-back designs. The classic DT770 Pro is their closed-back offering, with a selection of models at different impedances from a lowly 16Ω through 32Ω and 80Ω up to 250Ω. They’re pricier than most on this list, but we reckon they just about qualify as a pair of budget studio headphones.
For all-round studio use, we’d go for the 80Ω model as the best compromise, as they’re extremely well-balanced across the audible spectrum, with detailed highs and an innovative bass reflex system that delivers just enough weighty sub-200Hz punch for that feel-good factor when tracking.
Strong headband tension and velour earpads ensure a firm yet comfy fit, and the length and type of cable you get depends on the impedance model you go for – the 80Ω model ships with a 3-metre, straight cable. As a bonus for the hard-working studio owner, all parts are replaceable so you needn’t worry too much about giving them to accident-prone backing vocalists to use in session.
Of all the models in Sennheiser’s extensive range, these evergreen studio-centric cans stand out as a mid-priced favourite thanks to their long pedigree, rugged durability and balanced sound. The bass is clean and accurate, mids clear and detailed, with glossy highs that avoid any harshness.
Recently tweaked for a cleaner aesthetic and more comfortable fit, the HD 280 Pro’s foldable architecture and rotating ear cups make them both portable and versatile, able to turn their hand to any studio-based task with aplomb. Although they’re still not the most stylish of cans, even post redesign, the new headband padding in particular makes them extremely comfortable.
With the thick ear cup padding producing a more-than-respectable background noise exclusion figure of 32dB, the fact that the HD 280 Pro’s design employs replaceable components makes them an attractive prospect for budget-conscious studio owners. The added reassurance of the Sennheiser name across the headband only enhances the appeal.
Their yellow-woofered monitor speakers are beloved of project studios worldwide, but KRK aren’t so well-known for their headphones. So, do the range-topping KNS8400’s deliver the same appealing combination of good-quality sound and an affordable price?
Made of lightweight, impact-resistant plastic, the KNS8400’s soft ear cups are made of memory foam, which makes them supremely comfortable, even for glasses-wearers. There’s also an inline volume control built into the detachable cable, a pretty unusual feature for studio-grade cans. External noise exclusion rates well at a decent 30dB, and you also get a leatherette pouch and microfibre cleaning cloth.
The sound of these cans has been likened to having a pair of KRK’s strapped to your ears, the upside of which is dependent on whether or not you’re a fan of their monitors. KRK have deliberately voiced them like traditional studio monitors, so if you already own a pair of KRK’s (and many people do) the KNS8400’s might just be the logical move to take your sound from the studio into your headspace.