With so many studio headphones on the market these days, one of the most common misconceptions is that they are all the same.
We’re here to shed some light on this matter.
While we can all agree that studio headphones should be able to provide natural and detailed audio, there are various specifications and features that make one very different to the next.
Ultimately, a pair of sharp ears will certainly need a pair of sharp headphones, even if you’re on a tight budget.
Whether you’re starting out or just looking for a reliable budget pair to accompany your collection, there are a few things you’re going to want to look out for when shopping for a wallet-friendly pair of studio monitor headphones.
These factors are:
- Sound Quality
It can be hard to sift through the different models and specs. Lucky for you, we went ahead and did all the work to filter through the abundant products on the market to find the best studio headphones under $100.
Our Top Choice!
While its older sister, the M50x, has received the spotlight with some top-notch reviews, the M40x seems to have been pushed in the background. The M50x has been praised as one of the best professional headphones on the market; however, the features and specs of the M40x have proven it has what it takes to be a true studio headphone.
Audio Technica has unapologetically made this pair out of plastic. Now this doesn’t mean that they’re not as tough as nails - because they sure are!
The earcups are designed in an oval racetrack shape featuring swivel hinges that you can adjust to the shape of your head, as well as synthetic leather-lined earpads for some serious comfort. The all-black matte look with a metallic silver design on the earcup gives the M40x an incredibly stylish and professional look.
As for the sound, they're very similar to their older sister when you start using them. However, after the 30-50 hour burn-in period, you’ll find the frequency response settles into a steady flat state. This is when you get to experience the sheer aptitude of these cans, considering the price.
They’ve got everything the M50x excels in, including the dynamic movement of the drivers, but with the M40x you get a sound that’s more fitting for the studio. The bass resonates with extension, giving your entire audio a rich low-end without any bass boosting. The intricate detailing, particularly in the midrange and treble, makes this a pair that can easily be leveled with more premium sets in the three-digit price range.
These headphones offer a few interesting additional features. Firstly, they have detachable cables -- one coiled and one straight. Both wires attach through a twist-and-lock technique to a single side. This mechanism is great for preventing the cables from popping out of the headphones if you move too far from your working station. As a result, the cables are exclusive to the M40x, so at least you’ve got an extra set as a backup. They also come with a studio adapter that you can link up to any of your studio equipment.
The M40x fulfills the comfort factor by being lightweight and providing all-around padding, meaning you can wear these for hours and not feel a thing! There’s nothing quite like the sheer brilliance of the M40x from its rich low-ends to the intricate audio detail. We found the detachable coiled and straight cables a great option whether you’re a fan of modern or retro-styled cables.
With so many great features, we did find the cable to be a little short. Also, the burn-in time on these cans takes a while (30-50 hours of usage) for you to get the real experience of them.
Bottom Line: The M40x delivers superior comfort, quality sound, and a great overall value for your money. It’s safe to say they are certainly one of the best studio headphones on the market in this price range.
Considering Sennheiser’s reputation for superbly balanced audio, it’s no wonder this set of cans made their way into our top picks. The HD280 stays true to their brand’s legacy at an affordable price.
At first glance, the HD280’s look rather business-like with an all-black finish and small branding stamped on the back of the earcups. However, they are deceivingly comfortable. The headphone headband features rich synthetic leather providing padding along the arch of your head. The earcups are designed with an oval shape that sits comfortably on a plush cushioning around the ears. With a closed-back design and light clamp pressure, it’s an excellent choice for those looking to listen or mix for long periods of time or in public spaces.
Aesthetics aside, when it comes to the actual audio, Sennheiser has packed quite an impressive amount of quality into the HD280s. With its superior noise cancellation capability, you can stay focused on the things that matter in your mixes and recordings.
While the nature of its sound may seem neutral, these headphones present a frequency range of 8Hz- 25 kHz and a certain liveliness to your audio, partially due to the bass. With power and extension in the lower frequencies, the experience is a solid base suitable for any genre. So whether you’re working with EDM or hip-hop tracks, these cans can handle the punch, and you won’t find any distortion seeping through to your ears.
When it comes to the mids, this is where Sennheiser shines. The HD280 provides a clean, assertive midrange. While it may come off as neutral and somewhat dull to the casual listener, they offer exceptional detail.
They also come with a fixed cable with a coiled cord that extends to 9.8 feet, and at the end, you’ll find a ¼-inch jack. You’ll also find a 1/8-inch adapter, which can easily screw onto the jack for extra versatility with different devices.
We found that the noise isolation in these cans was great. While the design is a bit on the basic side, Sennheiser has managed to tip the scale by offering some seriously comfortable padding in the HD280. The sound provides a neutral but clean output for your audio, with impressive detail in the mids.
One of our only issues with the HD280 is that the cable is fixed, which we didn’t like as headphones are prone to wear and tear (particularly the cables) and detachable ones are much easier to replace.
Bottom line: You look at them and you already feel the comfort of the surrounding padding. These are a fantastic pair of studio headphones offering superior quality sound at a great price.
Up next is one of the youngest members of audio giant Shure’s SRH series, the SRH440. While these cans look a little on the dull side, they pack in an impressive amount of quality, staying true to Shure’s audio legacy.
Right out of the box, they look a bit on the bulky side and aesthetically, they’re not all that. But as we’ve learned with the previous models, the chunkier, the comfier. The SRH440 presents an over-the-ear design with a closed-back earcup construction for that superb ambient isolation during commutes, casual listening, or mixing.
The earcups and headband are layered with synthetic leather and a soft plush foam core to ensure long periods of usage without discomfort. While they are rather large, these studio monitor headphones get points added for portability as they provide easy foldability for transit and on-the-goers.
When it comes to plugging them in, the sound appears quite neutral and balanced (maybe a little boring to some). While they don’t provide heaps of bass, they make up for it with rich quality. With a clean midrange and detailed treble, you’ll find that they work seamlessly with all types of musical genres. That said, the punch may not be as hard as other headphones, but they’ll be to par for most users.
These studio monitor headphones come with a replaceable 20-foot coiled cord with a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) gold-plated stereo plug at the end. For added versatility with studio gear, there is an additional ¼-inch stereo plug adapter.
We found the SRH440’s sound to being exceptionally balanced and clean with impressive noise isolation, which is excellent for any home studio work. Like most Shure headphones, the cables are detachable, and the earpads are removable, making it easy to replace any worn out parts.
While the coiled cord is a great addition for preventing those dreaded tangles and knots in your cables, we found the cord is a little too hefty and clunky, which can become uncomfortable after long-term usage.
Bottom line: While the SRH440’s may not be ideal for more premium gear users looking for that strong bassy punch, they have proven themselves as a great pair of cans for audio. Given the clean, balanced sound and superior comfort, we think these underdogs pay tribute to the Shure legacy at a great price.
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the market pioneers in headphones. Just ask any audiophile about AKG’s headphones, and you’ll know what we mean. The K240s are a pair of headphones offering stellar performance that stays true to AKGs reputation…with an even better price tag.
Regarding aesthetics, AKG has given the K420s that extra panache with the clean, retro look. With a simple yet elegant structure, these cans follow the signature design of most AKG headphones. The all-black exterior of the K420s is broken with golden highlights around the earcup.
The headband is designed to be adjustable to all head shapes and sizes, which means there are no risks of uncomfortable clamping. Unlike any of the other headphones we’ve introduced, these have a semi-open construction, which offers the best of both worlds. The earcups feature a grille in the back, with comfortable faux leather cushioning that can fit around even the largest of ears.
Putting looks aside, these headphones sound lively, dynamic, and fun. The frequency response of the K420 ranges between 13Hz to 27kHz with a mild but not too harsh rise in high frequencies. The low-end is deep and moderately accurate without any artificial enhancements or sweetening. With the volume turned up, you'll be sure to feel the initial thump.
The mids and treble are where these studio headphones truly shine. Thanks to the semi-open design of the K420s, the sound presentation is intricately detailed through a wide soundstage. Overall they supply a rich, detailed sound with no distortion at any listening level.
These headphones come with a 9.8-foot removable cable which connects to a single earcup through an XLR port. The cord terminates in a 3.5mm jack suitable for listening on laptops and smartphones. The headphones are accompanied by a ¼-inch (6.3mm) adapter, which you can use when linking up any professional audio gear.
The K420 presents a highly detailed sound overall, with a lively yet flat frequency response. The self-adjustable headband makes these cans an excellent choice for any head shape or size. The cable is detachable, which was another great plus.
While the semi-open design is a great compromise between closed and open-back headphones, the K420 does have a moderate amount of audio leakage from the grilles. While the padding keeps your ears close to the monitors, they are not as thick as we would have hoped.
Bottom Line: Overall the K420’s are comfortable and versatile. With the semi-open design, they bring a large soundstage with great sound quality to your home studio.
Since the 90s, Sony has been one of the pioneering brands for producers and sound engineers alike. Anyone who knows anything about headphones is familiar with the brand. Sony has sustained a solid reputation for well-defined audio, durability, and superior comfort. With the MDR7506, Sony presents these three characteristics at an affordable price range.
These headphones are relatively classic in their design with the signature Sony look that stands out in a room full of headphones. The earcups feature synthetic leather on a plush cushion in an oval racecourse design with a metal backing, providing optimum durability and comfort for heavy users. They also offer metal support between the earcups and a wide headband that is moderately padded for that added sturdiness. With all the strength and durability that these studio headphones provide, it comes as a surprise that their weight is relatively lighter than the average pair on the market.
Concerning sound, this model presents a more lively and energetic audio than its predecessor, the MDRV6, which has a more laid-back sound. Sony has packed a decent frequency range of 10Hz to 20kHz in the MDR7056. While both models have an exceptionally flat frequency response, the 7056 generates a more upbeat and exciting energy in its sound. The audio response they give you is both detailed and accurate with an exceptional tonal balance. Regarding bass, they offer a tight and punchy low-end at all volumes with no distortion.
One thing to point out regarding these studio headphones is that they are not casual-listening friendly. If anything they will spot every blunder and flaw in a recording or mix, making it hard for casual listeners to overlook the imperfections of bad audio.
Unfortunately, they have a fixed cable, unlike other headphones on this list which feature a detachable cable. With one part coiled and the other straight, the wire extends a moderate 10 feet, making it short enough to be out of the way when sitting close to your workstation while providing enough space to move away as well. The cable terminates at a 1/8-inch jack, and for added versatility with your audio gear, these headphones also come with a ¼-inch adapter.
With all-around padding and a robust design, the MDR7056 is both a durable and comfortable choice for heavy users. The mid, treble and bass balance is accurate, with intricate detailing.
We found that the fixed cable in the MDR7056 made these headphones lose a few points in our book. The coiled-cable style is an additional disadvantage, particularly for mobile-friendly users, compared to the more modern straight styles.
Bottom Line: These cans have been around for quite some time, and for good reason. With an all-around sturdy build and crisp audio, they are one of the most durable and accurate studio headphones available in this price range. Even after two decades they remain a staple in Sony’s lineup.
With this list, we were hard pressed on choosing one out of so many valid options. Ultimately our verdict was the Audio-Technica M40x, and it came down to a few things.
The design of the M40x was one of the best on the list; we found the sleek black with a metallic silver lining around the earcup both tasteful and simple. As for the comfort, the headband features optimal padding all around the arch, and the replaceable earpads offered superior comfort with the plush cushioning. Basically, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll be enjoying these cans for long hours of comfortable listening.
When it came to sound, the low-end was deep and rich and there was no need for any boosting, while the midrange and treble were clean and accurate. The intricate detailing, especially in the midrange and treble, easily put these underdogs up to par with the premium range headphones on the market. Simply put, the sound that comes out of these cans is phenomenal!
Impeccable sound, tough as nails, easily replaceable parts, and bang for your buck!
While all the options on this list are truly exceptional, the M40x delivers great value for your money and are one of the best budget-friendly studio headphones to hit the market.