Producing music with low-quality headphones is like trying to perform in a brass band with a plastic trumpet; it isn’t the right tool for the job.
Picking up both the rich, sonorous bass and the acute treble within your tracks can only be achieved with a sensitive piece of equipment. This is crucial when you’re mixing, mastering, and producing music, or you simply wouldn’t be able to tell what your songs sound like.
There is a vast range of different headphone options available on the modern market. Some provide a broad soundstage and an accurate reproduction of the audio they’re playing, while others are disappointingly flat.
You don’t need to spend a fortune to get your hands on a set of quality cans. I’ve tested a range of different options, and have found five of the best studio headphones for under 100.
Let’s dive in.
The Headphone Round-Up
The Sony MDR-7506’s predecessor was first released all the way back in 1985, and this set of headphones was called the MDR-V6. Little has changed about the design over the last 40-odd years, with many of the parts and features of these headphones being shared across the whole line.
While not strictly designed for music studios, the MDR-7506 are one of the single most popular sets of headphones around the world. Companies like the BBC use them for audio monitoring while recording video, while radio DJs will often put don these cans for their sets. Their success is largely thanks to the flat-frequency response they offer, meaning that they don’t alter the sound they playback to increase treble or bass; perfect for those who want their sound to be clean.
Key Features of the Sony MDR-7506:
- Comfortable, lightweight design with faux-leather ear cushions, at 230 grams without the cord.
- 10 foot coiled cable with metal 3.5mm connector (supplied with screw-on ¼” adapter).
- Repairable with replacements parts and built using standard screws, instead of glue or security bolts.
- 133 dB sound pressure level rated – that’s loud enough to cause permanent damage to your ears, so maybe don’t turn them all the way up.
- A 63 Ω at 1 kHz impedance means that they can be driven by phones, computers, and other devices without the need for an amplifier.
- Over-ear closed-back design for sound reduction and comfort.
- Comes supplied with a soft carrying pouch which the headphones can be folded into.
- Excellent sound quality across the whole frequency range.
Audio-Technica has become somewhat of a household name over the years, even amongst those who don’t know much about professional audio. The ATH-M40x is part of their studio line-up, but you shouldn’t be tricked by their low price-tag; these headphones can perform.
Unlike the Sony’s, these headphones aren’t flat frequency. Bass heads out there will be satisfied, with their 40mm drivers being punchy enough to provide rich bass tones. Unlike other headphones in this price category, though, the ATH-M40x’s don’t suffer on the high end, and will produce clear and distortion-free treble at all volume ranges. If you’re used to listening to music on regular commercial headphones, this pair may sound a little flat, though this can easily be tweaked with an equalizer.
Key Features of the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x:
- Lightweight and sturdy design, coming it at 240 grams without the cable, and including faux-leather ear cushions.
- Comes with two detachable cables – a 4 to 10 foot coiled cable, and a 10 foot straight cable, both with a 3.5mm connector and a ¼” adapter included.
- A 35 Ω at 1 kHz impedance makes it possible to drive these cans with phones and computers, though the best results will be found with an amplifier.
- Built with an over-ear closed-back design, these headphones will be comfortable during use and won’t leak much sound.
- Supplied with a nice carry pouch.
- Good sound quality at all frequency ranges, though better with mids and highs than bass tones.
Much like Audio-Technica, Sennheiser has exploded in popularity over the last few years. Both on the street and in the studio, plenty of people will have heard about the Sennheiser HD280 Pro headphones. These cans have proven themselves in a range of different listening environments, and are one of our favorites for everyday listening and music production.
These studio monitors produce a flat-frequency response, making them perfect for work in a studio. The bass and mid response is clean, while the highs are clear and don’t have the same harshness as other studio monitors. Even without active noise cancellation, these headphones do a remarkable job of cutting out sound from the outside, and I’ve gotten in trouble on more than one occasion when people have thought I’m not listening to them while wearing these cans.
Key Features of the Sennheiser HD280 Pro:
- Sturdy and strong design with a satisfyingly hefty weight, coming in at 285 grams without the cable.
- Comes with a 10 foot coiled cable with a 3.5mm connector and a ¼” adaptor to use the headphones with studio equipment.
- A 64 Ω at 1 kHz impedance makes using these headphones with any device a pleasure, even if they are low powered.
- 113 dB sound pressure level rated – that’s right at the level which will begin to cause damage to your ears.
- Built with an over-ear, closed-back design, while also gripping hard enough to cancel out most sound.
- Excellent performance at all frequency levels, though flatter than a lot of headphones designed for normal listening.
AKG have made a name for themselves over the last few years, being one of the few headphone manufacturers on the market to throw their time into making their headphones more affordable. This means that you tend to get great value for money with AKGs, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of music with their headphones in the past.
The AKG K240s stand out on list thanks to their unique design. Incorporating gold accents, circular patterns, and large, protruding headband supports, these headphones look quite odd compared to many others. Their looks aren’t just for show, though; their strange headband makes them incredibly comfortable, and perfect for long sessions in the studio. Like the MDR-7506s, these headphones have been on the market for several decades.
Key Features of the AKG K240:
- A lightweight and extremely comfortable design, coming in at 240 grams, but often feeling lighter than Sony’s MDR-7506s.
- Comes with a detachable cable at 10 feet, with a 3.5mm connector on one end, and a proprietary connector on the other. Like the other headphones, they come with a handy ¼” adaptor.
- A 55 Ω at 1 kHz impedance will make it nice and easy to drive these headphones, no matter the device you’re using.
- Only rated at 104 dB sound pressure level, these cans are quieter than a lot of their competitors, though you probably won’t notice this.
- Built with an on-ear, semi-open backed design. Unfortunately, this limits their isolation qualities, and they’re likely to leak a lot of sound.
- Good frequency response, though the bass lacks a lot of the punch some listeners will want. This shouldn’t be a problem in the studio, though.
Shure are best known for making high-quality microphones, and have been doing so for more than a century. This insight into the world of audio recording puts them in an excellent position to produce budget studio monitors which will perform in all environments.
The Shure SRH440s present an affordable option for anyone looking to get into music production. Their sonic signature is fairly similar to Sony’s MDR-7506, and though some people argue that it’s better, I’m not sure I can hear a huge difference. They’re great across the range, though listeners who like their bass may be a little disappointed, as these are flat frequency cans, afterall.
Key Features of the Shure SRH440:
- These headphones are the heaviest on the list, coming in at 311 grams. This is more than made up for with build-quality, though.
- Comes with a detachable 10 foot cable with a 3.5mm connector and ¼” adaptor to be used with studio devices.
- A 44 Ω at 1 kHz impedance makes them perfect for using with normal devices, though they will benefit greatly from the addition of an amplifier.
- Rated at 104 dB sound pressure level, these headphones will be plenty loud enough, without damaging your ears in short sessions at high volume.
- Built with an over-ear, closed-back design, these headphones will isolate sound, while also staying comfortable.
- An excellent frequency response across all ranges, but may need a little help with bass if you listen to a lot of electronic or dance music.
Which Studio Headphones Under 100 Come Out On Top?
Picking the best budget studio headphones out of this group is very hard for me. Ever since buying my first pair of Sony MDR-7506’s more than 10 years ago, I’ve been in love. And it isn’t easy to turn your back on something you’ve used for so long.
Having spent so long on the market unchanged, though, I feel like the Sony’s have become their own worst enemy in recent times. Other headphones offer the same or better features, sound quality, and build quality, while also coming in at a lower price. So, with Sony’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the other headphones.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M40x offers a beautiful sonic signature, though people who are interested in producing bass-heavy music may dislike the sometimes-flat sound which these can produce.
The Sennheiser HD280 Pros have become legends in this market, but it’s never worth picking a product like this based on popularity. In my opinion, these headphones offer the best isolation out of any of the headphones on this list, but this simply isn’t enough when you consider that they’re also one of the most expensive pairs.
The AKG K240s are also very popular. Thanks to their semi-open design, they’re able to produce a wide-soundstage, making it feel like you’re listening to speakers rather than headphones. Of course, though, this also means that they leak a lot of sound, and this can be a dealbreaker for a serious producer.
I didn’t expect myself to be so impressed with the Shure SRH440s. In fact, these headphones were first added to this list as the most affordable professional-grade studio monitors I could find. They have truly exceeded expectations, though. They beat the Sony MDR-7506 and Audio-Technica ATH-M40x, and I’d even go as far as saying that they’re better than the next pair up from Audio-Technica; the ATH-M50x. Their sound isn’t quite as rich as the AKG K240s or Sennheiser HD280 Pros, but this shouldn’t matter when you consider their low price.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in specifications and numbers when reviewing headphones. In reality, all of these cans offer pretty much the same thing; studio-quality monitoring at an affordable price. This makes it vital that the truly crucial factors are considered, and I simply enjoy listening to and producing music on the Shure SRH440s too much to place it any lower than first-place in this comparison.
The best studio headphones for under 100? Hands down the Shure SRH440s.
How To Choose Budget Studio Headphones
The market for budget studio headphones has been growing at a rapid rate over the last few years. More and more people have access to software like Fruity Loops, Logic Pro, and Ableton Studio, creating a need for low-price audio accessories at the same time.
Of course, though, this list doesn’t cover every option you’ll find on the market, and this may not be enough for everyone. You need to be able to figure out how to compare these products for yourself, and that’s what the next part of this article is all about.
There are a lot of factors to consider, but you also have to be careful not to take some of the things these companies take serious. Remember; product information is written by marketing experts, not music lovers or audiophiles.
Jargon Busting: What Does It All Mean?
One of the biggest challenges you’ll find when you’re looking for the best studio headphones under 100 will be understanding the specifications which come with them. It can be a nightmare.
You can find a handy cheat-sheet below which will teach you what each of the phrases you will see means, along with how much they will influence your experience with a pair of headphones. Some things sound like a big deal when they’re not, while incredibly crucial specifications will often be ignored because they sound boring.
The driver is the small speaker which sits inside your headphones. Most studio monitors have one for each ear, though different types of headphones often have more.
Each pair of headphones on this list has 40mm drivers, though this particular spec means a lot less to consumers than it does to the engineers making the headphones. The size of the drivers will dictate how much power the headphones need, along with the tuning work which is done in the factory to ensure that they sound good. You can usually ignore this factor when shopping for headphones.
Impedance measures the electrical resistance inside the headphones you’re using. Higher resistance headphones, like the ones on this list, will need less power to operate at their peak volume than those with low impedance.
Some people argue that impedance is an important factor when determining audio quality, though I’ve found that the quality of the tuning and engineering is far more crucial during my time using different headphones. It’s worth being careful, though, as headphones with very low impedance will need an amplifier to be used, and will sound very bad with devices like phones.
Frequency range is a measure of the different pitches a pair of headphones can play music at. Thankfully, you can usually ignore this specification, as most headphones will have a broader frequency range than most humans can hear, meaning that they will be able to produce sounds which your ears simply can’t register.
Sensitivity is measured in decibels, and is the maximum volume level which a pair of headphones can reach. Like frequency range, this can usually be largely ignored, as the peak volume of most studio monitors will be enough to cause pain and damage to your ears. Unlike speakers, having headphones be able to perform at extremely high volumes isn’t really a feature which many people are looking for.
If you’d like to learn more about the headphone specifications you see around the web, take a look at this video.
Scouring The Specs: What Is Important?
So, you understand the specifications which come with your studio monitors, but how exactly does this apply to the experience you’ll have with them? In a lot of cases, the information above will be fairly irrelevant to the quality and performance of a pair of headphones. Instead, the work which is done in the factory is far more important.
When a pair of headphones is being designed and tested, companies like AKG and Sennheiser will use pre-existing models to build the sonic signature they’re looking for. This is a creative process, and not everyone will agree on what makes for the very best pair of studio headphones.
Some people will want a pair which produces a flat-frequency response, while others will be more interested in the isolation a pair provides. This means that you really have to try a set of studio headphones before you can decide whether or not you like them.
The First Listen: How To Test Studio Headphones
The headphones you choose are going to have a huge influence on the music you produce in the coming years. You need to pick the right pair, and the single best way to approach this is by sitting down and using the options you have.
You need to do this with music which you’re very familiar with, as this will ensure that you have some expectations when you first start to listen. You shouldn’t limit this to a single track, though, as different sets of headphones will produce a variety of results depending on the qualities found in the music you’re listening to. Ideally, you should spend at least an hour using each of the headphones you have on the table.
Along with this, it’s also worth testing your headphones in the environment which they will be used in. If you produce music in a busy house, you’ll need something which can block out enough sound to keep you from being distracted. You won’t be able to determine whether or not a pair has the right isolation without trying them, though. It doesn’t stop here.
It’s also worth thinking about the level of comfort a set of headphones offers before you buy them. Wearing them for a minute or two isn’t enough for this; some headphones can become very uncomfortable over time.
Who Should You Trust?
There are countless reviews around the web surrounding studio headphones. Most manufacturers will also market these products to make them look like the best of the bunch, and this makes it hard to know who you can trust when you’re buying headphones.
The answer is simple; only yourself.
Picking a pair of headphones is a subjective process, and while a lot of people claim to have the right pair for you, this is something you have to decide for yourself.
For example, I really like the Shure SRH440s. I could use these headphones all day, every day, and I doubt I’d get bored of them. Could this be the result of using the Sony MDR-7506s for so long, though? The SRH440s represent a value-oriented upgrade to a pair of headphones I already really like, and this means that I’m always going to be biased. And this isn’t something you can escape, as everyone has their own preferences.
You can still listen to people’s recommendations, but it’s also worth trying the headphones for yourself. Sound is subjective, afterall; if someone could pick the perfect headphones, they’d also be able to pick the perfect genre. And we all know that this simply doesn’t exist.