A decent set of headphones (aka ‘cans’) are a must-have purchase for music makers of all ilks. Whether you’re an electronic producer plugging into your DAW, a singer tracking vocal takes, a DJing cueing up a mix, or an electric guitarist who wants to practise without cranking your amp, a set of reliable headphones should be high on any studio shopping list. Not all headphones are created equal though, and even the best budget studio headphones need to be a cut above those you might use for listening to music on the go. A good set of budget cans need to be clear, honest and trustworthy, allowing you to A/B your recordings or mixes alongside a set of studio monitors, or pick out the nuances in your playing or performance.
Due to these demands, some studio-specific ’phones can be expensive. Models by companies like AKG can cost well into four figures for a precision set of cans that reveal the intricate detail of a mix. But luckily, as with studio monitors, headphone prices have been falling as their sound quality has been increasing and, as this guide proves, there are plenty of budget models out there in the low three and even two-figure price range that will deliver exceptional sonic results. In fact some of our choices are so cheap you might even consider buying multiple pairs; a set for the studio and one for life on the road perhaps?
If you want more advice on headphones before you decide which is for you, head to our buying advice section at the end of this guide. If you'd rather discover our top buys, simply keep scrolling!
Dave has been making music with computers since 1988 and his engineering, programming and keyboard-playing has featured on recordings by artists including George Michael, Kylie and Gary Barlow. A music technology writer since 2007, he’s Computer Music’s long-serving songwriting and music theory columnist, iCreate magazine’s resident Logic Pro expert and a regular contributor to MusicRadar and Attack Magazine. Dave has tested countless pairs of studio headphones over the course of his career.
Best budget studio headphones: Quick list
Want to cut to the chase and find out exactly which we think are the best budget studio headphones on the market right now? Below, you’ll find a round-up of our top choices. You can jump to a more detailed review of every pick, along with our price comparison tool to help you find the best deals.
Best on a tight budget
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.
Consistently near the top of the bestseller lists since their release, Audio Technica’s ATH-M50x model is a firm favourite in the MusicRadar office due to a combination of comfort and overall great sound that doesn’t compromise accuracy or break the bank. The earcups are fully articulated in both vertical and horizontal planes, and they’re comfortable to wear for extended periods.
Best for comfort
Few manufacturers come with more experience in the audio industry than AKG, and while the company's headphone range includes models like the K872 which cost over a grand, the K361s on test here are fortunately less than a tenth of the price, but still promise similar accuracy to that delivered by their elder K-sibling. They are light in weight and comfortable enough for long mixing sessions.
Best option for DJs
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. They're also a stalwart of DJ booths thanks to their split headband, rotatable earpieces and a solid reputation for durability thanks to replaceable components.
Best budget Sony cans
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. They're extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods and designed to expose what’s wrong with a recording rather than what’s right.
Best open-back model
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. Offering a natural sound stage and well-balanced frequency response that stretches well beyond the limits of human hearing, the DT990 Pro’s unique velour ear pads and lightweight design mean you can work comfortably well into the small hours.
The best budget studio headphones in 2023
MusicRadar's got your back Our team of expert musicians and producers spends hours testing products to help you choose the best music-making gear for you. Find out more about how we test.
Below you'll find full and detailed write-ups for each of the best budget studio headphones in our list. We've tested each one extensively, so you can be sure that our recommendations can be trusted.
Best for tiny budgets
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.
In our experience, 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
Consistently near the top of the bestseller lists since their release, Audio Technica’s ATH-M50x model is a firm favourite in the MusicRadar office 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 – we found 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
Best for comfort
Few manufacturers come with more experience in the audio industry than AKG, and while the company's headphone range includes models like the K872 which cost over a grand, the K361s on test here are fortunately less than a tenth of the price, but still promise similar accuracy to that delivered by their elder K-sibling.
Specs include a wide frequency range of 15Hz to 28kHz – and the phones adhere to the AKG Reference Response Curve, a measure of performance over frequency gained from AKG’s tests on hundreds of listeners over many years of testing; basically this means you get both accuracy and detail. The bass response, for example, is controlled and tight and you will be able to distinguish which parts of your mix, if any, are clashing down under. It’s the same story across the rest of the range which is flat and accurate with the kind of joined-up thinking you get from much more expensive phones.
That should be enough for you but the 361s go two further; they are light in weight at 219g, and comfortable enough for long mixing sessions. Their closed-back nature means less spill for recording vocals and less intrusion while working, and they are particularly suited to mobile listening, offering good isolation alongside ease of wearing/carrying. In short they have everything you need for headphone monitoring, and at an almost indecent price compared to their cousins. Ignore the plastic feel, as these are quality phones at a decent price.
Read the full AKG K-361 review
Best for DJs
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, in our experience 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
Best budget Sony headphones
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, we found the sound to be 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!
Read the full Sony MDR-7506 review
Best open-back cans
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.
Read the full Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO review
So those are our top picks, but there are may more great options to choose from that offer something a little different in terms of features and performance. We've selected some more of our favorites below.
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.
Read the full AKG K240 Studio review
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 opt for the 80Ω model as the best compromise, as in our experience 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.
Read the full Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro review
As you can see in this round-up, AKG headphones are a popular choice for studio users the world over and with good reason. But while the other two sets of phones here concentrate on sonic detail, the K72s are attempting to bring you the AKG quality at a bargain price.
Included in the box is the standard 3.5-6.3mm jack adapter and the ‘phones come with a 3m cable attached, which is nice and long for recording sessions. There’s no flashy case included here, but for the price the K72s are still a bargain. What these headphones do so right is they cover the bases that the majority will need. The sound is compressed in such a way that everything can be heard clearly, albeit without many subtleties, the build quality is solid and the purpose is fulfilled. Everything is good enough.
However, as there are no frills included here, some might find the absence of specific sonic definition a bit lacklustre. While not a game-changer, this might be the deciding factor between spending the bargain price on these, or going for something a little more detailed. With all that said, you need to reference your music on as many sets of phones as possible and these have a decent sound and one that could help you identify mix anomalies, so could be seen as a bargain route to better mixes.
Read the full AKG K72 review
When it comes to affordable monitors for home studios, KRK’s Rokit range are often considered the ones to beat. Though lesser known, the US brand has also been in the headphone game for over a decade now. KRK’s entry-level 6400 headphones have recently received an upgrade, now rebranded 6402.
The KNS 6402s have a very clear midrange, reasonably subdued higher frequencies and not too much bass. On paper this sounds unattractive, and it’s certainly not a profile you’d want for leisure use. However, in a tracking situation where you want to be able to get your pitch and timing right, this is an ideal frequency response.
There are probably better headphones at this price point for all-round production, but for recording and performance these are solid headphones for the price.
Read our full KRK KNS 6402 review
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.
Best budget studio headphones: Buying advice
How to choose the best budget studio headphones
Choosing one of our best budget studio headphones picks could well be the start of a long-lasting and fruitful relationship. You will be closer to this item of gear – and for longer periods of time – than any other piece of studio equipment, so you need to make sure you make the correct buying decision. So consider the following…
Budget studio headphones vs regular headphones – what’s the difference?
Just like monitoring through 'proper' studio monitor speakers, you want to hear an accurate representation of your music while using studio headphones. Many hi-fi headphones, used for listening to music, are coloured to emphasise the bass and treble regions, just to make for a nicer listening experience. This means they aren't suitable for mixing music as they are already emphasising specific frequency ranges – not telling you the whole truth, if you like!
Studio headphones are designed to give you an honest version of your music with no colouration in any regions. If they artificially emphasised the bass, for example, you might then reduce the bass in your mix to compensate, and the resulting mix would sound bass light on any other system.
Studio headphones therefore utilise this flat response, reproducing 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 focus on comfort, as you could be mixing for long sessions. Extra padding is great, as is a lightweight design to keep them almost invisible as you mix. You also want isolation so no sound gets in as you mix and you're not leaking too much out the other way either.
What are the three main headphone types?
There are three main types of headphone: Over-ear (circumaural), on-ear (supra-aural) and in-ear (intra-aural). The first two, circumaural and sub-aural, can both be split into two main headphone subtypes: open-back and closed-back.
Closed-back headphones are usually seen as the best choice for the recording musician as they fully enclose the ears. The padding around the ear is designed to help to avoid any traces of the backing track leaking out when you are recording and monitoring a backing track with the 'phones. Spill like this can be a problem if your performer likes to monitor loud – the spill might be picked up and recorded along with their performance! So when recording performers with microphones, closed-back is usually the way to go. For mixing and mastering, the closed-back design also keeps sound out, so you can focus on the music.
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 that of the closed-back design. Indeed we have tested open and closed back versions of the same headphones and the open-back design tends to deliver wider and more immersive mixes – great for enjoying but less so for picking out the mix detail as they don't block out external noise quite as effectively as closed-back cans. There is a much higher risk of spill when recording too, so they tend to be more suitable for programming and mixing duties.
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.
Understanding frequency response
The headphone frequency response is simply the range of the sound frequencies headphones can reproduce. The wider the better, although 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. You are also looking for a flat frequency response – uncoloured as we discuss above – for extra accuracy.
How comfortable are budget studio headphones?
You could end up mixing a track for very long periods of time – but do take regular breaks – so you want your headphones to be comfortable. Padded ear pads are a must both from a comfort point of view and for acoustic isolation. They help to stop outside noise getting in so you can focus on the fine detail of what you’re listening to, and also stop it getting out (spill) when recording.
Lastly, 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. Lightweight phones help here – as they do with comfort.
What does impedance mean?
Of all the stats that come with headphones, impedance is the one that is worth knowing about (next to frequency response). Good ‘impedance matching’ will help your ‘phones work more effectively, so consider where you’ll be using your cans and what type of gear you’ll be plugging them into.
The higher the quoted 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. 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.
For everyday use, a 3m long cord might be a bit of a nuisance, getting tangled up in everything and in the way, whereas 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, so some headphones come with swappable cables for different use cases – two straight cables, in 1.5m and 3m lengths, plus a 1.5m coiled cable, for example. 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.
Wireless vs wired headphones: which is better?
When it comes to headphones aimed at home listening, gaming or other day-to-day uses, wireless Bluetooth connectivity is becoming a pretty much standard feature. So is it time to invest in a set of Bluetooth headphones for the studio too?
The short answer is no. You’ll notice that our guide here largely avoids wireless headphones, and the simple reason behind that is that wireless connections cause latency – i.e. a delay between the sound playing on your computer and you hearing it. For a whole multitude of reasons, tight timing can be key when recording and creating music, so latency is best avoided. Wireless headphones can also hinder the audio quality too.
While the technology is certainly improving, right now we’d suggest relying on wired listening in the studio. That said, an increasing number of headphones now let you have the best of both, with options for both wired and wireless operation, which could be a great option if you’re looking for a pair to use both in the studio and on the go.
How we test budget studio headphones
As with studio monitors, we test headphones with a variety of reference tunes – mostly very well produced standards, but some of our own trusted mixes as well. We use these to check frequency response and general overall quality in terms of spatial response and playback, and in terms of how good the phones are at delivering a response at low volume levels – the levels you should be mixing at to protect your ears.
We also test how good the isolation is. For mixing you might prefer less intrusion from the outside world so you can focus on the main elements in your music, so isolation is a key factor. The weight and comfort of the phones is also an important consideration, as you'll likely be wearing them for long sessions in the studio (although we obviously recommend taking regular breaks). Most of the time, the lighter the better but how the headphones embrace your head is important. Too loose is obviously not good, but too tight can mean too hot.
Read more about how we test music making gear and services at MusicRadar.
Related buyer's guides
- Make fire in the booth with the best DJ headphones
- The best studio headphones under $200/£200
- Practice more with the best guitar amp headphones
- Best headphones for drummers: for the studio, rehearsal room and stage
- The best podcasting headphones for your rig
- The best budget studio monitors: affordable studio speakers
- Best budget in-ear monitors: great cheap in-ears for musicians