Great-sounding headphones have never been more affordable. Even the least expensive headphone model on this list, the Panasonic RP HJE 355 in-ear, has oodles of detail and decent bass punch. For me the most important thing when evaluating headphones is sound balance; no frequency range should call attention to itself, so I don't like overly bassy headphones, or ones that overemphasize treble. Headphones should sound clear, not muffled or fuzzy. I prefer spacious stereo imaging over sound that's stuck inside my head. Headphones that allow music's soft-to-loud dynamics to bloom are better than ones that constrict dynamics. I could go on, but that's enough for now; let's get started.
Panasonic RP HJE 355
When I first listened to the RP HJE 355 in-ear headphone I had no idea what it cost, but I knew it wasn't expensive. That said, the ear pieces looked and felt substantial and the sound was beautifully balanced. Bass was decent enough, but the clarity was excellent, the RP HJE 355 sells for under $13 on Amazon.
I doubt anyone will think this mostly black-plastic pair of full-size, closed-back headphones is a luxury design, but the 8323s aren't the least bit flimsy or poorly made. They feel more ruggedly built than Bose's $150 OE2 headphones. The Black Keys' full-on stomp-rock kicked like a mule over the 8323s. The headphones' bass-midrange-treble balance is nice and smooth, which makes it suitable for those with audiophile tastes. The design is closed-back, and while most really inexpensive closed headphones can sound canned or hollow, these suffer no such problems. MonoPrice sells 'em for $23.20.
Koss Porta Pro
The Porta Pro is a true classic; this lightweight on-ear headphone has been in production for 28+ years, and it's sold with Koss' no-questions-asked lifetime warranty. No need to include the original receipt, nor do you have to wait for an RMA! If it breaks, send it back to Koss and the company will fix or replace it. It has a nice, open sound. Street price hovers around $40.
AKG K 81 DJ
My friend Tyll Hertsens turned me onto the AKG K 81 DJ 'phones. It's a DJ model, so sure, bass is strong, and it's great for hip-hop, but the K 81 probably won't please audiophile ears. The headphones fold flat and rotate inward for compact storage. Street prices start for well under $50.
Philips CitiScape Downtown
The Philips CitiScape Collection Downtown headphones demonstrate the company's new commitment to providing outstanding sound in a competitive price range. The sound quality, design, fit and finish are above average for an under-$50 on-ear, closed-back headphone model.
Grado Prestige Series SR-60i
The $79 Grado is another headphone set with a long history; the original SR60 debuted in 1994. The SR60i came out in 2008 and its earcups are a little bigger, and the new driver makes more bass. It's a dynamically alive and vibrant-sounding set of headphones, and the full-size, open-back design lets you hear sound from all around you. Comfort isn't a strong suit, but legions of Grado fans don't seem to mind.
Audio Technica ATH WS55
The ATH-WS55 is an on-ear, closed-back design, with a midrange and treble that are just as pure and detailed as the bass. It's got that balanced quality I crave. Not supercomfy or easy to drive, it's more of a stay at home headphone. Street price is around $80.
Bona fide audiophile headphones are rare in this price class, but the Noontec Zoro's remarkably clear and balanced sound will wow the cognoscenti. Bass is very clear, but if you crave low-end thump, look elsewhere. Around $85.
Creative Aurvana Live!
The Creative Aurvana Live is a full-size, closed-back headphone model that blocks a fair amount of external noise. The bass, midrange, and treble balance is excellent; it's a true audiophile headphone, and it sells for around $100.
Obviously, there are lots of other great-sounding budget-priced headphones; share your favorites in the Comments section.