The price of studio headphones has gone down steadily over the last few years, so much so that you can buy some of the best studio headphones under $100. In this guide, we’ll share our picks of the best options in this price range.
As I noted in an earlier article, buying studio headphones can be confusing. There is a surprising amount of nuance to buying the right pair. And the impact headphones will have on your music production can’t be understated.
At the same time, this is arguably the best time in the world to be buying studio headphones. Electronic music has never been more popular, and along with it, the number of people wanting to make music has never been bigger. A field that was once dominated by a handful of players is now flooded with competition. You can get an astonishing variety of studio headphones, often at throwaway prices.
I’ve tried to make sense of this wide variety in this guide. In the sections that follow, I’ll share a brief guide to buying the best studio headphones under $100. I’ll also share my review methodology before diving into the 10 best models on the market right now.
For a sneak peak, here are the best studio headphones under $100 in 2020:
- Best budget: Tascam TH-03
- Best open back: AKG K240
- Best overall: Audio Technica ATH-M40x
My Picks for the Best Studio Headphones Under $100 at a Glance
If you’re in a hurry and want to see the top results by category, check out the section below:
Best Budget Studio Headphones: Tascam TH-03 Studio Headphones
The Tascam TH-03 wins the top spot in the ‘budget’ category mostly because of lack of competition. It’s not the best pair of headphones on the market – far from it. But it is priced so deliciously cheap that you can’t help but take a look.
Serious musicians will find its lack of fidelity and sturdiness grating. But for beginners starting their first Ableton session, the Tascam TH-03 is more than useful.
Best Open Back Studio Headphones: AKG K240
AKG has long been a ‘gold standard’ brand when it comes to pro audio gear. As one of the cheapest – if not the cheapest – offering from the company, the AKG K240 ranks high on my list.
Although these headphones are semi open-back (more on that below), they perform up to, and even exceed the already high expectations in a studio setting. The audio is crisp and clear. And it comes with AKG’s history of performance guarantee.
For beginners looking for affordable pro-level studio headphones below $100, the AKG K240 can’t be beat.
Best Overall: Audio-Technica ATH-M40x
The ATH-M40x from Audio Technica is a beast. It is also the first “serious” pair of headphones most musicians buy when they graduate from 4-track Garageband demos to serious music production.
Just one grade lower than Audio Technica’s legendary M50x (which ranked at the top of my list of the best studio headphones), these are arguably the best sounding headphones you’ll get in this category.
At its price, you get a price-to-performance ratio that can’t really be beaten.
Why exactly did I rate the ATH-M40x so high? What makes the Sennheiser HD280 such a longstanding popular choice? If you’re on a budget, which studio headphone gives you the most bang for your buck?
I’ll answer all these questions, and more, below.
Let’s take a closer look at our top picks:
The M40x is the younger sibling of the uber-popular (and my favorite) studio headphones, the ATH-M50x. Like it’s elder brother, it has nearly the same design, features, and almost the same performance.
These are closed back headphones. Combined with the strong noise isolation and circamural design, they’ll nearly cut off all outside noise. Not great if you’re outdoors, but perfect for a studio setting. The cushioned headband and large cups are comfortable, though it can get a little hot if you use them for extended periods.
The 40mm drivers deliver a robust performance with a balanced audio profile. The frequency response is as flat as you can get in this price range. It can also get surprisingly loud without using an external audio interface or amplifier.
There are a bunch of extras such as a detachable cable (it ships with two types of cables), a carrying bag, and a portable, folding design. The ear cups also swivel away 90 degrees – perfect for one-ear monitoring.
It’s impossible for me to not be partial to the Sennheiser HD280.
After all, these were the first serious pair of headphones I ever bought.
It’s remarkable to me that after so many years, the HD280 still remains one of the best studio headphones on the market. It’s also the first pair most people buy when they graduate from “tinkering with Ableton” to “making music”.
Let’s look at what makes them great: the sound profile is well-balanced and neutral, the ear cups are comfortable, the noise isolation is exceptional, and they’re so durable that they’ll last you for decades.
That they come in at this price point is a testament to Sennheiser’s engineering.
If there are any complaints, it’s the lack of a few missing features. There is no detachable cable, nor do the ear cups swivel away. The large headband also reduces portability.
But apart from these minor complaints, the HD280 remains one of my favorite picks in this segment, and the headphones thousands of musicians across the world grow up on.
3. Yamaha HPH-MT5
The Yamaha HPH-MT5 is a difficult headphone to evaluate. By itself, it is a perfectly competent studio monitor with a balanced sound profile and a comfortable, light-weight design. The circumaural ear cups do a good job of isolating outside sound. And the overall performance is consistent.
But when seen in comparison to the ATH-M40x and the HD280 Pro, the Yamaha appears less than perfect. The sound is a little less loud than the M40x. And the build quality is slightly worse than HD280s.
Given that it comes in at the same price point, I can’t really recommend the HPH-MT5 over these two. Unless you have a particular affinity for the brand or want something lighter, you don’t really have any reason to choose it over HD280 or M40x.
4. AKG K240 Studio
The AKG K240 is the only semi open-back headphones on this list. Only partially open, these headphones promise to deliver the best of both worlds – the intimacy of closed-back headphones and the openness of open-back ones.
At least in theory.
In practice, you get a performance that is reliable but with significant sound leakage. The mix is much roomier, which makes it great for mixing, but the lack of intimacy undermines the accuracy a bit.
I see the AKG K240 as a secondary pair of headphones. They won’t be your daily driver when producing music. But if you’re mastering a track and need to get your mix right, the open design will help a great deal (closed-back headphones sit too close to the sound to give you an idea of the final mix).
Besides the audio performance, the AKG K240 is also surprisingly light, perhaps the lightest studio headphones you’ll use. The strap doesn’t have a lot of padding, which can be uncomfortable for extended use. But this also makes it lighter and more airy – great when the weather is hot.
Is it the best sounding studio headphone on the market? Nope.
Is it the most comfortable studio headphone around? Nope to that as well.
But is it the most value for money studio headphones you can buy?
The M20x is the younger sibling of the top-rated M40x. It has the same design cues and nearly the same performance, but at a lower price point. The sound quality is nearly identical, except for a slight shrillness in the treble ranges. The bass is uniform and consistent and the mids never get muddy.
The big difference is build quality. Although well-made and robust, the M20x doesn’t have the finesse and durability of its elder sibling. The ear pads will get worn out after a year and the gold plating will wither away. Honestly, at this price range, you can’t really complain.
6. Presonus HD9
The PreSonus brand is known more for their studio monitors than their headphones. In fact, my very first monitors – Eris 4.5 – were from PreSonus.
Despite the lack of brand recognition, the HD-9 is a seriously good offering with great all-around performance. The sound is balanced and loud and the headphones have tons of cushioning for added comfort. The circumaural design covers the ears completely and delivers decent noise isolation. If PreSonus had added a detachable cable, it would have been a nearly perfect headphone.
Now for the downsides. Though well-balanced, these headphones rumble slightly at lower frequencies. The frequency response could be flatter.
All that cushioning also means that these headphones are particularly heavy and hot. Get ready for sweaty ears if you wear them in hot weather.
The Sennheiser HD 200 is a difficult headphone to review. It’s impossible to analyze it without comparing it to the much more popular HD 280.
The audio performance is well-balanced, but perhaps because Senneheiser was targeting a more casual audience, it suffers from a slight emphasis on bass and treble frequencies. Casual listeners and hobbyist producers won’t even notice it, but if you’re serious about music production, this will (and should) bother you.
On the plus side, these headphones look great. In fact, I can confidently say that these are the best looking studio headphones on the market right now.
The large ear cups also serve a functional purpose: they cover the ears completely and block out unwanted outside noise. I found their noise isolation to be better than the HD280 Pro’s, which is commendable.
There are a bunch of missing features – no detachable cable, no swivel ear cups, etc. – but these are minor.
8. Yamaha RH50A
The Yamaha RH50A gets a lot of things right. The large ear cups do a good job of isolating sound. The thick headband is extremely comfortable. And the retro design looks better in-person than you’d think.
What the RH50A gets wrong is the sound. Yamaha bills these as “professional” headphones, but the performance is closer to conventional consumer headphones. The sound is surprisingly bass-heavy and the trebles stick out. The frequency response isn’t nearly as flat as you’d want in a pair of studio headphones.
Since you’re looking at this category for studio use, this makes the RH50A a poor recommendation. They sound great, but just not neutral enough for a studio setting.
9. Koss Pro-4AA
The Koss Pro-4AA is a legendary headphone that was originally launched in 1970. It was massively popular for the first half of the decade but was retired in 1980 as demand waned. Koss brought it back recently to tap into the renewed demand for retro audio gear.
I have mixed feelings about the 4AA. The lo-fi, retro sensibilities sound great and the design draws your attention. But Koss calls these “studio quality” headphones, and not “studio headphones”. Which pretty much is the heart of my complaint: these aren’t true studio headphones. Rather, these are high-quality headphones that merely mimic the flat response of true studio gear.
In practice, this means that the 4AA adds its own color to the mix. The audio, while sounding great, has a distinct tone.
This wouldn’t be a problem for the vast majority of users, but since we’re looking at headphones for use while music production, this added color is a big issue. Simply put, you can’t rely on these for accurate sound reproduction.
10. Tascam TH-03
The Tascam TH-03 is far from the best sounding studio headphones on the market.
It is, however, one of the cheapest studio headphones around.
Any review of the TH-03 has to keep this fact in mind. You can’t really complain about its unbalanced sound without factoring in the nearly throwaway price it is sold for.
It’s not all negative (apart from the price). The noise isolation is good and the well-padded headband is comfortable to wear. The ear cups swivel away for one-ear monitoring.
The build quality isn’t exactly great. The plastic looks and feels cheap. But at this price point, you can’t really complain.
If you’re reading this article, you likely have at least some understanding of studio headphones. Since you’re searching for studio headphones, I also assume that you’re interested in music production. Or barring that, at least a more authentic listening experience.
Having said that, there is still an incredible amount of confusion and misinformation online about studio headphones. What makes a pair of headphones “studio” grade is up for debate, but there are clearly some distinguishing features shared across all such headphones.
Below, I’ll help you understand these distinguishing features and how to factor them into your purchase decisions.
Consumer vs Studio Headphones
One of the first things you need to understand is the difference between consumer-grade and studio-grade headphones.
Consumer headphones are exactly what you think they are: headphones designed for every day consumers. Think of your Skullcandys and Beats and Bose and Panasonics. The market is absolutely flooded with such headphones with new entrants seemingly launching every day.
The three key distinguishing features of consumer headphones are:
- Bass/treble heavy sound: Consumer headphones are designed for a pleasurable listening experience rather than accuracy. Since most casual listeners prefer their music to have loud bass and sharp trebles, the headphones tend to emphasize these frequency ranges.
- Design focus: Consumer headphones are meant to be worn in public. They’re as much a fashion accessory as a scarf or a watch. Brands routinely emphasize the design of their consumer headphones in their marketing.
- Wide price range: These headphones can be priced anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. The quality of offerings varies greatly across this range, but you can usually get a decent pair for under $50.
In contrast, studio headphones are meant for studio use. You buy them not because you want to listen to Ye’s latest album; you buy them because you want to produce your own album.
The difference in purpose and target market means that there are a lot fewer studio headphones on the market than there are consumer headphones. A few brands – Audio Technica, beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, AKG, Sony, Shure, etc. – dominate. Some of the top selling models have remained unchanged for decades.
Thus, the three distinguishing features of studio headphones are:
- Sound accuracy: Studio headphones are meant for music production, not casual listening. For producers, it’s vital that they hear a sound exactly as it is meant to be, without any color added by the headphones. This is why studio headphones have a flat frequency response range and high accuracy.
- Durable build quality: You wear these headphones in a studio setting, not on the subway. Hence, manufacturers emphasize build quality over design. Studio headphones might not look particularly good, but they can usually take a beating. I’ve had my Sennheiser HD280 for over 10 years, for instance.
- Higher price: Since studio headphones are uniformly higher quality and are mostly made by a handful of manufacturers, their price tends to be generally high. You can find some headphones under $50, but you’ll usually have to spend around the $100 mark to see anything worth using in a studio setting.
But perhaps the biggest difference between consumer and studio grade headphones is in their frequency response.
Frequency response defines the range of bass, treble, and mid frequencies the headphones are capable of reproducing. Headphones are often tweaked to emphasize or de-emphasize certain frequencies based on the kind of listening experience the manufacturer intends to create.
Think of it as an EQ built into the headphones.
Consumer grade headphones want listeners to hear the deep thump of the bass and the clarity of the trebles. The mids, where the bulk of the ‘action’ happens, conversely, is often boring. Hence, they often suppress mid-frequencies and amplify bass and treble frequencies.
This is often called the “smile” curve – high bass and trebles, low mids.
In contrast, the defining quality of studio headphones is their accuracy or fidelity. The best studio headphones are the ones that can help you hear a sound exactly as it was meant to be heard when recorded. If the headphones emphasize or de-emphasize any particular frequency, it wouldn’t be any good.
Hence, most studio grade headphones have a “flat” frequency response. That is, they don’t emphasize any frequency; the bass, treble, and mid are all equally flat.
This leads to a “flatter” listening experience, but with greater accuracy. You won’t be wowed by the thumping bass on a pair of Audio Technica M50x. But you will get a much better listening experience.
This brings me to the question nearly everyone asks me about studio headphones:
Do you really need studio headphones to make music?
Yes and no. You can technically make music with consumer headphones, but since audio reproduction is neither accurate nor consistent, you – and your listeners – will never hear what you actually want to hear. Your music will sound completely different than what you intended.
So while you can make music without studio headphones, your results will be amateur at best. For anything more than tinkering around, you need accurate audio reproduction. And for that, you need studio headphones. I recommend buying them as soon as you know you’re serious about making music. No sooner. No later.
To sum it up:
- Consumer headphones focus delivering a more pleasurable listening experience instead of accuracy. Manufacturers routinely emphasize design over durability. The price range varies greatly and there is a large range of options to choose from. You can’t use consumer headphones for music production because the audio would be too inaccurate.
- Studio headphones focus on accuracy and fidelity over listening pleasure. Design is a secondary concern; sturdiness and durability are critical components.
Things to Consider When Buying Studio Headphones
The obvious question now is – what exactly should you look for when you’re buying studio headphones? What factors did I consider when I made this list?
Here’s a brief rundown of the top things to consider when you evaluate studio headphones:
- Audio quality & accuracy: The first, and most important element in any pair of studio headphones is the quality and accuracy of the sound reproduction. It’s not enough for a headphone to have loud bass or clear trebles; you also need it to be accurate. Look for a flat frequency response. The less ‘color’ the headphones add to the sound, the better it is for music production.
- Build quality: Studio headphones take a beating. You’ll wear them for hours while mixing and fine-tuning tracks. It’s not unusual for producers to carry them around from gig to gig and studio to studio. Sturdiness and quality of materials should be key factors. Also look for headphones with high-quality and detachable cables since that’s generally the first thing to break.
- Comfort: You’ll wear studio headphones for hours on end. Ear pads that are too stuffy or uncomfortable will make making music a chore. Look for wide, cushioned ear pads and light but durable headphone bands. The ideal pair of headphones should fit snugly without being uncomfortable.
- Noise isolation: Hearing ambient noise can make it difficult to pinpoint a sound and get your mix right. This is why most studio headphones offer some noise isolation. Look for a pair that will block unwanted noise and let you focus on the music.
- Price: As always, a perennial factor is price. There isn’t really a lot to choose from at the bottom end of the studio headphone pool. Be prepared to spend upwards of $50 to get anything worth your time. The good news is that the best studio headphones tend to fall between the $50-$150 range. You can get the same gear as the kind used by your favorite producers within this budget.
- Other features: Although not crucial, additional features such as detachable cables, portability, carrying cases, swiveling ear cups, etc. are nice to have. Don’t make your buying decision based on them, but if two headphones have the same price and sound quality, pick the one that will let you remove the cable or fold away easily.
Of course, the importance of these factors will vary depending on your budget. If you’re looking at the low-end of the segment, you have to be resigned to slightly lower audio quality and limited features. At the high-end of the segment, however, you can – and should – demand additional features, after sales service, warranty, etc.
After analyzing dozens of products based on my product research, personal experience, and recommendations from friends, I whittled down my list to 11 studio headphones under $100:
Most of these were from brands I know and trust. I intentionally removed offerings from no-name brands with limited reviews and few users. While I’m all for trying new products, studio headphones are so vital to the music production process that I don’t want to risk buying a cheap, untested pair of headphones.
Since you buy studio headphones primarily to produce music, I gave it the highest weightage by far. I also want my headphones to be durable, so I emphasized build quality. Since this isn’t a cheap category, I reduced the importance of value for money.
Lastly, features got a nominal importance in my review.
I used the following formula to calculate the overall score of each set of headphones:
Over to You
This wraps up a rather lengthy guide to the best studio headphones under $100 right now. Hopefully, this should have helped clear the air about studio headphones and will help you make a better buying decision.
For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Working without a fixed budget? Then you’ll want to read our guide to studio headphones
- Want more bass in your headphones? Check out our guide to the best bass headphones
- Want open back headphones? Here’s our pick of the best open back headphones right now
- Love Audio Technica? Then check out our guide to the best Audio Technica headphones on the market