$100-headphone review: What does a Benjamin get you?
- Sony MDR-7506 Professional Headphones $130.00
- Shure SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones $125.00
- Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones $100.00
- Monoprice Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone (8323) $24.00
- House of Marley Rise Up Over Ear Headphones $150.00
- Denon AH-D510R Over-Ear Headphones $109.00
Every type of electronic gadget has pricey, top-of-the-line models that provide phenomenal performance. But most of us have a gadget-shopping sweet spot: We look for the products that make us happy enough that spending more would be a waste.
Though many audio fans tout pricey audiophile headphones that cost hundreds of dollars (or more!), the sweet spot for full-size cans has, over the past decade, gotten less and less expensive. I tested five popular models that you can easily find for under $100, as well as one that competes with them for significantly less, to see what a reasonable budget gets you. All the models I tested use a full-size, closed design. Some are intended for home or studio use, while others include mobile-friendly features. (For more about the different types of headphones, consult our headphone buying guide.)
Denon AH-D510R Over-Ear Headphones
In the middle of Denon’s “classic” full-size headphone lineup sits the $109 AH-D510R Over-Ear Headphones. The earpieces are made of light metal, embossed with the Denon logo, and are suspended from gimbals that have L and R markings engraved in them. The earpieces rotate 90 degrees to lay flat, but the headband itself does not fold. There’s plenty of plastic in the construction, and picking up the headphone doesn’t impart a sense of quality.
The AH-D510R’s faux-leather earpads aren’t especially soft and don’t provide much noise isolation, but they fit nicely over the ears and remain comfortable thanks to the light weight of the headphone. The metal headband is covered in a brushed-metal-like plastic with thin, black padding around the top section—again, because the headphone is light, this thin padding isn’t uncomfortable, and I was able to wear the AH-D510R for extended periods.
A thin, non-coiled cable exits each earpiece, and a three-button, Apple-style inline remote/microphone module sits on the left cable. The remote’s buttons are small but easy to find and use by touch, and the inline mic produces better-than-average sound quality, though the output is a bit low.
I didn’t find much to like here in terms of sound quality. The AH-D510R’s sound signature is skewed heavily toward bass—so much so that the mids and highs, which already sound muted and veiled, get buried. And even the bass has issues: There isn’t much definition, and much of the emphasis is in the mid-bass region—response tapers off at the lower frequencies. While I admit to being generally critical of the current trend of over-emphasized bass, the AH-D510R all but abandons the upper two thirds of the audible frequency range. There’s also a significant lack of depth in the audio presentation.
I’m a pretty big Denon fan, and I’ve owned and loved some great Denon equipment, so it’s difficult to express how disappointed I was by the AH-D510R. It offers sufficient comfort and a decent remote/microphone, but lackluster build, appearance, and sound quality.
House of Marley Rise Up Over Ear Headphones
House of Marley offers headphones and audio systems, but also bags and jewelry. The company emphasizes sustainability and earth-friendliness, noting the extensive use of recycled and recyclable materials in its products. The Rise Up Over Ear Headphones exemplifies this corporate philosophy, and despite a $150 MSRP, it regularly sells for $90 or less.
The sustainability message comes through loud and clear even before you open the box, as the packaging shouts its recycled/recyclable nature, looking and feeling like rough, crude cardboard. No extras are included except a unique, semi-rigid carrying case that resembles a small portfolio. The Rise Up’s sturdy metal headband is sheathed in a minimally padded canvas cover, and the earpieces are hinged for folding. The Rise Up is available in several designs, including Blue Denim, Camo, Carmel, and Saddle; the Rasta model I tested sported earpieces with a green, yellow, and red canvas covering. The thin, fabric-covered cable on the Rasta version continues the tricolor scheme, but adds black to the striping, and is fairly resistant to tangling and kinking. An inline three-button remote/mic module sits on the cable.
The Rise Up headphone is about average in weight for a full-size headphone, and the earpads are firm with a soft-cloth covering that’s comfortable on the ears. The headband is a bit tight, even on my average-sized noggin; the resulting pressure on the ears might make extended listening sessions uncomfortable, though the tight fit does keep the headphone in place—a plus for mobile use. Despite the tight fit, sound isolation is only average.
The inline remote is easy to use, with a full-length rocker switch for volume control and a small-but-easy-to-find play/pause/call button in the center. The microphone’s output level is about average, but the sound quality of the mic is excellent. My only complaint here is that a non-removable cable is an odd compromise on a portable headphone in this price range.
The company’s online PR material frequently references House of Marley’s signature sound, and a brief listen makes it clear that this audio signature prizes bass above all else. Even at louder volumes, the mids and high frequencies never really make it past the strong bass emphasis. However, that bass is solid and clear, and it extends to the limit of my testing (20 Hz). Soundstage has decent depth, though the highs are muted to the extent that the breadth of the soundstage is compromised. I know there are serious bass fans out there, and the Rise Up offers powerful lows that are much less boomy than you usually find with bass-heavy headphones, but as someone who prefers a more-balanced approach, I personally felt as if there were cotton stuffed in my ears when listening.
The Rise Up is a well-built, apparently environmentally conscious headphone. It’s not a headphone for audiophiles or those who prefer balanced sound, but for bass fan who also want to make a fashion statement, The Rise Up is worth a listen.
Monoprice Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone (8323)
When you hear the word “Monoprice,” you probably think of cheap cables. That’s likely to change soon, as the company has been steadily expanding into other electronics markets by using a unique business model: products that are good enough, at prices that are much lower than anyone else. The Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone (8323), which sits at the top of Monoprice’s full-size headphone lineup, is a prime example. It’s a solid headphone that lists—be seated, put down sharp objects, turn off machinery, remove liquids from mouth—for roughly $24. (Monoprice’s prices change frequently, so you may find that when you visit the product page, the price is $23.51, or $25.17, or $22.84.) More important, the sound and build quality is good enough to include in this group, despite the headphone’s low cost.
Of course, the packaging of the 8323, as I’ll call it from here on out, is minimal: a thin-cardboard box, with the headphones nestled in white, vacuum-formed plastic. (The upside is that there’s none of the dreaded hard-clear plastic to cut through.) Included are a 1/8-inch-to-1/4-inch plug adaptor and two non-coiled cables: a thin, three-foot one and a thick, ten-foot one. Neither includes an inline remote/mic module.
Except for the silver Monoprice logo on each earpiece, the MHP-839 is entirely black. The headband and earpieces are made of sturdy plastic, and the ends of the headband are double-hinged, allowing full articulation of the earpieces. The earpieces also swivel horizontally slightly, helping you get a flush fit. Overall, the build quality is solid, and the material appear to be of high quality. In fact, in both appearance and feel, the MHP-839 is quite similar to the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, below.
The 8323 isn’t light, but it’s about average for headphones of this type, and it’s pretty comfortable. The earpads are soft, with adequate padding covered in black faux leather. The padded headband provides a good range of adjustability, and its design is unlikely to snag loose hair.
The build of the 8323 is impressive given the price, but its audio value is even more striking: Put simply, no $25 full-size headphone should sound this good. You don’t get audiophile-level sound quality, but it’s far, far better than you’d expect at this price. The flaws? The soundstage is flat, and there’s a veiled, slightly cardboard coloration to the music. The low end is slightly boosted, giving the 8323 a “warm” character, though it’s not enough to upset the overall balance. The mids and high frequencies are pushed a bit to the background, with a corresponding loss in detail. But I’m going out of my way to point out the 8323’s flaws. For under $25, it sound great, especially at the low end, as bass is full and solid, with all but the lowest octave reproduced faithfully. When fed really low signals (20Hz), the 8323 just steps out of the way and produces no audible distortion.
Not everyone needs (or wants) audiophile-caliber headphones—in fact, most don’t. Which means that for most listeners, the 8323 is unquestionably good enough. It doesn’t sound as good as the best full-size headphones that squeak in under $100, but the 8323 embarrasses many costing much more. It’s also a great option for situations in which potential loss or damage makes using expensive headphones unwise.
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro
Sennheiser has been making audio products since the smoke from World War II cleared, and it’s established a widely respected name, especially among audiophiles. The company’s current lineup includes headphones that range from budget portables to models costing well above $1000. The HD 280 Pro sits at the lower end of that range, but it’s no cheapie, and the Pro in its name isn’t merely marketing—this rugged headphone is equally suitable for home and studio use. It carries a list price of $100 to $150, depending on the current state of the ever-changing Sennheiser website, but it’s regularly available for for less than $100.
The HD 280 is very sturdy, constructed mostly of a heavy plastic that offers a bit of a soft-touch finish. The design is utilitarian, with little concession to fashion. The earpieces are double-hinged to fold into the headband for portability. The headband is lightly padded and designed to make hair snags unlikely. The soft, well-cushioned earpads fully envelop the ears, and, with help from ample pressure from the headband, offer great sound isolation. (The strong squeeze might bother some, but it should loosen up a bit over time.) Despite the on-ear pressure, the HD 280 Pro is heavy enough to slide a bit if, for example, you’re lying on your back—or if your dancing gets too exuberant.
The only extra included in the package is a screw-on, 1/8-inch-to-1/4-inch plug adaptor. A long, coiled cable exits the bottom of—and is permanently attached to—the left earpiece. You get no inline remote/mic, befitting the intended home and studio use.
The HD 280 is a great-sounding headphone. Bass is solid, authoritative, and deep, with even extreme lows handled exceptionally well, and there’s no bass bleed into the lower midrange. The mids are full, smooth, and natural, with little coloration—male and female voices sound like male and female voices. And high frequencies are crisp, clear, and detailed. The HD 280’s studio aspirations are not at all unfounded, as this headphone lets you hear it all.
If I were pressed to criticize the HD 280 Pro, I would say that compared to the excellent bass and treble, the midrange frequencies can seem slightly recessed with some recordings, and there’s a slight V-pattern to the HD 280 Pro’s frequency response—the extreme highs and lows are slightly emphasized. With certain recordings, or music with emphasized low and high frequencies, listening through the HD 280 Pro might become fatiguing. Nevertheless, the HD 280 delivers all the sound, in precise detail, and its excellent isolation is useful not only in presenting solid bass but also in helping you appreciate a wide, spacious soundstage.
The HD 280 Pro is a great choice if you want to hear everything your recordings have to offer. It has the flat, accurate response and great detail needed by a pro in the studio, with just enough bass and treble emphasis to entertain the consumer. And it’s built to last.
Shure SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones
No one involved with audio is unfamiliar with the Shure name, which is synonymous with higher-end in-ear monitors, microphones, and phono cartridges. So I was interested to see what the company’s could offer in a serious under-$100 headphone. Slotted near the bottom of Shure’s headphone lineup, the SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones lists for $125, but has a street price of $99.
The SRH440 sports a simple, conventional—almost retro—design, but despite a bit of visible wiring running from the earpieces to the headband, seems solidly made. Much of the headphone is made of plastic, but it’s high-quality plastic that feels sturdy and is pleasant to the touch. The left and right earpieces are clearly labeled with small, blue and red plastic inserts, and a silver Shure logo is visible on each earpiece.
The earpieces are double-hinged, allowing them to fold into the headband for storage or transport. A nice touch is the capability for the earpieces to rotate in their mounts while maintaining contact with your head. The single-sided cable is terminated in a standard 1/8-inch plug, and though it’s detachable, the connection to the headphone itself uses a non-standard bayonet mount, which means you won’t be able to easily swap the long (and heavy) coiled cable with a shorter straight cable. On the other hand, the cable is reinforced nicely at each end—the spots where cables often fail. The cable doesn’t include an inline remote or microphone; the included extras are a 1/8-inch-to-1/4-inch plug adaptor and a soft, faux-leather carrying case.
I’ve read complaints claiming that the SRH440 has a tight fit, but my average-size head didn’t find that to be an issue—for example, it wasn’t tight enough to keep the headphone in place when lying on my back. (My test model was not brand new, so it’s possible that the fit has loosened up over time.) Partly because I didn’t get a tight fit, noise isolation was only average. The replaceable earpads are nicely padded and covered in faux leather, and they fit comfortably over the ears; the headband, on the other hand, offers very little padding. Still, as long as temperatures are low, the headphone is comfortable for long listening sessions—as with many headphones of this type, and especially those with “pleather” earpads, your ears will get warm after a while.
Like the HD 280 Pro, the SRH440 is a great-sounding headphone. Its audio output is flat and accurate with full, solid bass that’s well-defined with absolutely no bleeding into the midrange. The low frequencies are solid down to 20 Hz, without the over-emphasized low-frequency bump that bassheads crave (and, sadly, that many consumers have come to accept as normal). What I really like is the way the SRH440 plays the lower midrange strongly and cleanly but without a hint of bass until real bass is present in the recording, when it comes through appropriately. The midrange is also smooth and even, and highs also are clear and detailed, blending well for a very balanced presentation.
Soundstage is about average, with great left-right placement but not a lot of depth—not a surprise in this price range. One criticism (which for some people might be a strength) is that the overall sound character can seem overly subdued—whereas the HD 280 Pro presents a much more immediate, dynamic impact, the SRH440 is more laid back. Nevertheless, this is a very minor criticism of a very good sounding headphone. Its neutral-but-relaxed character makes it great for long listening sessions.
Overall, the SRH440’s solid construction and cabling mean that it should hold up over time, and its accurate, neutral sound won’t lose its appeal. At this price, it’s a steal.
Sony MDR-7506 Professional Headphones
Sony’s MDR-7506 Professional Headphones enjoys almost mythical status among headphone geeks, as it’s been on the market since 1991 and has earned a reputation among professionals and amateurs alike as an audio workhorse. (The MDR-7506 is externally similar to Sony’s MDR-V6; at times, it’s apparently been internally identical, as well, but that doesn’t seem to be the case currently.) The MDR-7506 lists for $130, but commonly sells for under $80.
Befitting its age, the MDR-7506 is a conventionally designed headphone that’s survived long enough to seem retro. The headband is metal, sheathed in what looks and feels like real leather, and lightly padded. Red and blue plastic inserts in the headband make identifying left and right sides easy, and the earpieces are double-hinged to fold nicely into the headband for storage or transport. Small wires are visible running from the earpieces to the headband, as are a few screws fastening the plastic and metal bits together. Beautiful it is not, but it truly looks like what you’d imagine a “studio-monitor” headphone to be. The long, coiled cable is not removable, nor does it include an inline remote or microphone. Included are a faux-leather carrying pouch and a threaded, 1/8-inch-to-1/4-inch plug adaptor.
The easily replaceable, pleather-covered oval ear pads are soft and comfortable, though as with the Shure model above, your ears will heat up after a while. (Velour earpads, available from third-party vendors, improve the 7506’s comfort dramatically.) The headband pressure is a little on the high side, but that pressure makes for a good seal and good sound isolation—and it does loosen up over time. Since the MDR-7506 is a bit lighter than most headphones of this size, it stays securely on your head without squeezing too much. Heat aside, this is a headphone that can be comfortably worn for long sessions.
The MDR-7506 is a great-sounding headphone. Solid bass extends cleanly to 20 Hz while never creeping into the lower midrange. The midrange itself is clear and natural, and the detailed, crisp highs bring out nuances in your music that you might not have heard before. Soundstage and instrument placement are very good, though better left to right than front to back.
Best of all, there is no “but”—there’s a reason this guy has been around more than twenty years. It’s of course not perfect—the design is ancient, in summer your ears will quickly sweat if you haven’t swapped out the earpads, the soundstage is merely good, and I’d love to see a replaceable cable—but the MDR-7506 will shame headphones several times its price. When asked, this is the full-size headphone I recommend most frequently.
While this article began with the premise of reaping the benefits of trickle-down technology, it’s remarkable that among the best headphones in the group is one that dates back to 1991. That doesn’t completely invalidate the hypothesis, however, as the $25 Monoprice 8323 is a truly astounding bargain—it’s difficult to reconcile this kind of quality with such a low price. The Denon and House of Marley headphones, on the other hand, miss the mark, plain and simple.
As for the remaining three, what’s noteworthy is not only how very good each is, but also how similar they are to each other. Each comes in relatively plain packaging, and the design of each is decidedly “old school studio”—almost enough to be retro hip. But what you give up in looks you reap in sound quality, build quality, and comfort. The Shure SRH440 has an unobtrusive, reserved output that’s reminiscent of what was once called the “New England Sound” of speakers from makers such as KEF, KLH, and Advent. Sennheiser’s HD 280 Pro spices things up a little, with a more dramatic soundstage, more kick to the bass, and more sparkle in the highs. It sounds great, but if the audio engineer mixing your music has also kicked up the bass and highs, you may end up with too much of a good thing. Sony’s MDR—7506, in my opinion, gets it right.
But the truth is that when it comes to sound quality, the Shure, Sennheiser, and Sony models are very similar to each other—and all very, very good. Unless you’re a perfectionist audiophile (and we know who we are), there’s a good chance that $100 really is the sweet spot for full-size headphones. And if even that’s too much for your wallet, the Monoprice 8323 is astonishingly close behind, making it the clear winner in terms of value.