Great Headphones for Under $40


(L to R): SkullCandy Icon3, Panasonic HJE12 and Monoprice 108323

So you didn’t score tickets for Yahoo! On the Road. Watching live-stream concerts on your iPhone may be the next best thing, but you may have noticed that your headsets aren’t doing your music much justice. And these days, Dr. Dre has convinced the masses that they need to lay out anywhere between $200 to $1,000 for a set of headphones (a million, if you want yours diamond-encrusted) for seriously deep bass. But we understand, you may be prone to mutilating or losing your set, and, you’re saving up for a bikini wax for the summer season.

Our experts (plus average Joes) hold some strong opinions on earbuds under $40. The sound threshold, says Yahoo! technology editor Jason Gilbert, is usually around the $45 to $50 mark. “Once you get above $45, you start to get into the higher-quality headphones from the nicer audio companies,” he says. Under $30, the sound quality’s not as sick, the gear’s more fragile, and the cable’s more prone to rips and tangles. “You might not get headphones with a microphone if you want to talk through them,” Gilbert says, and you’ll miss out on the cordless models.

Fine, fine, so pricier is better — but we respect cheap and good enough. In fact, in a test conducted by “Upgrade Your Life!” host Becky Worley, you can buy a decent pair of buds for the price of two lattes: At $9.99 retail (and as low as $4.99 on Amazon), the Panasonic HJE12 did a decent job in both sound and fit. Consider getting a fistful to stow in random pockets and purses, which is what Worley did. “I always have a pair on hand when I need them,” she says.

Cheap also does a good job of holding its own against audiophile legends. Worley compared the noise-canceling Panasonic RP-HC200 ($79.99 retail, as low as $38.00) to the Bose Quiet Comfort II ($299.95 retail). Bose definitely had more swank than the Panasonic, which she says “look a little like the safety earmuffs guys at the airport wear to protect their hearing.” The higher-end headset also had better audio. But at a fraction of the price, the Panasonic worked well and its soft padding felt as cozy as leather. It sealed out ambient sound better than the Sony MDR-NC7 ($21), which sports a hard plastic headband that Worley feels is “incredibly uncomfortable.”

While the Sony set buckled in that test, the company makes respectable headsets in general, Gilbert says He notes that Apple’s new earbuds are better than they have been, and on the cheap he also favors brands like Klipsch, Razer, and SkullCandy — which has a great name and a good back story. “They’re this upstart company from Utah [founded by] a skateboarder guy who wanted to make headphones while skateboarding,” Gilbert notes. Plus SkullCandy offer a decent warranty, even if you break their products.

Your choice of headphones, Gilbert says, should ultimately depend on the kind of music you listen to and what else you want to do with them, besides listen to music. If you want to run with them, get a pair with earbuds with removable tips. Those with the rubber or silicone replacement tips allow for a better fit, as not all ear canals are built equally.

By the way, hold off on the Bluetooth headphones. Gilbert recommends waiting a year or so (although splurging on Bluetooth speakers is another story). “Bluetooth is a consortium of companies that come together and agree on standards for the next generation,” he explains. “People say that 4.0 is the first workable really high-quality, low-powered solution, and that was introduced last year.” Wait just a little longer, and the technology will catch up with what you want.Of course, by the time anyone even mentions a model, manufacturers will run out and sell the next, slightly tweaked version. Keep up on the leaderboards from review sites like Amazon, Consumer Reports (for subscribers only), CNET, Digital Trends, FindtheBest, Gdgt, Stereophile (although the under-$40’s hard to find), and the Wirecutter.The Panasonic models dominate the deals (especially among Amazon customers), but here’s what the frugal favors on these sites right now: