Tara Moore—Getty Images
By Doug Aamoth
October 16, 2015

Q: Any suggestions for a good pair of headphones that are better than the ones that came with my phone but aren’t insanely expensive? Like under $100?

A: Oh man, I have at least a half-dozen followup questions as far as your personal recommendation goes, but this is actually a pretty good open-ended question that can hopefully help a fair number of people.

I have a handful of suggestions, which I’ll outline from cheapest to most expensive.

Cheap-o Earbuds ($20 or under)

I love, love, love the JVC Marshmallows as good all-around, cheap earbuds. There’s a $15 set and a $20 set. The $20 set features a mic so you can make phone calls; the $15 set are headphones only. Otherwise, they’re identical.

Quality-wise, they’re not much different than the earbuds that come with your phone, but comfort-wise, they’re incredible. The squishy foam used around the earpieces fits snugly into your ears and feels like a… you guessed it: marshmallow. They’re good at blocking out sound and you can wear them for hours on end without discomfort. I have a hard time wearing most standard non-cushioned earbuds for more than an hour, but I can wear these for long stretches.

Amazon also sells a nice pair of its own earbuds for $19. They’ve got a handy magnetic snap that keeps the two buds connected to one another while you’re not using them, and they sound pretty good for a pair of $19 headphones – better than the freebies that you get with your phone. There’s also a built-in mic for making calls. I don’t find them as comfy as the marshmallows – again, “hard” earbuds in general give me problems – but they definitely sound better.

I don’t recommend over-the-ear headphones in this category. There are just too many compromises.

Midrange Options ($20 to $60)

Staying with earbuds, the Shure SE112s are hard to beat from a value perspective. They’re $49 as headphones and $59 as a headphone/mic combo, but they hold their own against earbuds that cost twice as much. If you’re looking to step up from sub-$20 earbuds, my recommendation would be to skip the $30-$40 range and go straight for these since they provide so much value.

There’s also a nice pair of inexpensive over-the-ear headphones from Sennheiser – the $35 HD 202 II set. There’s nothing fancy about them, but they put out nice, warm sound for their price range and are comfortable to wear for long periods of time. If you work in a noisy open-concept office space, these are good for drowning out the chatter around you. You can find them for a steal from places like Amazon ($22) and B&H (also $22), so shop around.

Upper-Tier ($60 to $100)

If you don’t care whether you’re buying earbuds or over-the-ear headphones, then the Sony MDR-7506 headphones are the gold standard (I’m wearing a pair right now, as a matter of fact). They’re insanely comfortable, they sound great, and they fold up really nicely for traveling. No gimmicks: just nice over-the-ear headphones. The MSRP is $130, but they can be had for less than $100 just about everywhere – Amazon ($80), Best Buy ($88), Newegg ($99).

As for earbuds, I’m not thrilled with the options in this pricerange. Many of them tend to be from companies with big marketing budgets and should probably be selling for half of what they are. If you want to spend this much on earbuds, I’d go with the Shures I recommended in the previous section and pocket the rest.

Doug Aamoth lives in Boston and has spent more than two decades in the technology industry, working for consumer electronics retailers, support centers, startups, cybersecurity providers, and media companies.

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