Best Headphones Under $100: 2013 Headphone Buyers Guide

Apartment Therapy's Annual Guide

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With the glut of headphones available on the market today, several pro audio brands are offering excellent headphone technology at reasonable prices. But which model to purchase on a non-hardcore-audiophile budget? Well, it all depends on what feels best on the ears and a few environmental considerations...

When trying on over-the-ear headphones for fit and comfort, be aware there are two main design types to compare:

Circumaural: This kind of headphone surrounds the ear in an ovular shape. For those not wanting pressure directly on their ear, this style may be preferred.

Supra-aural: headphones with supra-aural design offer ear pads which press directly upon the wearer's ear. This design may be familiar, as the supra-aural style was the same used with Walkmans from the 80's and 90's; high-fidelity versions are still available today.

With the shape/form of headphones explained, let's talk about sound isolation. The acoustic seal of the headphones will determine if music is audible by others, and conversely if the wearer can hear ambient noise around them.

Closed-Back: A closed-back seal offers passive noise isolation by keeping the back of the ear cup closed. With a sealed ear cup, wearers will experience less audible from outside the headphones, while those around the wearer won't be bothered by sound leaking out into the room. Sonically, the stereo image will the wearer distinct left and right sound localization. 

Open-Back: With an open-back design, vented ear cups leak sound out and in. Depending upon listening volume preference (hopefully not too loud), an open design can bother people nearby. These are probably not the best choice for use in communal quiet locations where others may be disturbed. Since the sound is not reflected back into your ears directly, the sense of stereo space can come across more naturally. Also, open-back designs allow the user to be at least partially aware of sounds around them, making them possibly a better choice for wearers who may need to be able to hear sounds near them (e.g. phone calls, co-workers, etc).

Here are our 5 top picks for headphones for under $100:

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Sennheiser 280 Pro
Price: $99.95
Ear Pad Design: Circumaural
Acoustic Seal: Closed 
Cable Type: Single coiled 
Weight: 0.5 lbs. 
Warranty: 2 years

From Germany with love comes the Sennheiser Pro 280. These headphones present audio with an even clean tonal response. For maximum noise isolation the ear pads fit around the ear, and these same models have been my go-to headphones for long listening session, as they provide comfort, and fatigue-free listening. The ear cups swivel side-to-side and fold in on themselves for easy storage and quick adjustments.

Good for: Accurate, even tonal responseListening to music where outside noise may bother your personal audio listening.

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Sony MDR-7506
Price: $79.95
Ear Pad Design: Circumaural
Acoustic Seal: Closed 
Cable Type: Single coiled 
Weight: 0.5 lbs.
Warranty: 1 year

The Sony MDR-7506 is a commonly used headphone in music and broadcast audio production. While these ear pads are sealed and surround the ear, some users have noted a constricting narrow fit, so these are recommended for smaller heads/ears. Producing a clean sound, these tend to be slightly more pronounced in the higher frequencies. Sound isolation from outside noises is decent, and clear articulate definition highlight the sound of these headphones.

Good for: Anywhere clean detailed sound is desired. 

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Grado SR80i
Price: $99.00
Ear Pad Design: Supra-aural
Acoustic Seal: Open 
Cable Type: Separate L/R 
Weight: 0.85 lbs.
Warranty: 1 year

Don't be fooled by the retro styling of the Grado SR-80i. While they may look like a vintage 70's headphone, the listening experience is truly high fidelity. Resting directly on the ears with a foam padded ear cup, the SR-80i provides defined high and low frequencies without any brashness to the sound. With the backside of the ear cup vented open, a gentler organic listening experience can be expected.


Good for: Listening in quieter, sound-isolated environments.

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Ultrasone HFI-450
Price: $74.43
Ear Pad Design: Circumaural
Acoustic Seal: Closed 
Cable Type: Single straight
Weight: 0.56 lbs.
Warranty: 5 years

These Ultrasone models employ an audio technology called S-Logic where the speaker drivers surround the ear rather than directly point into the inner ear canal. The S-Logic claims a more 3 dimensional sound with a fuller characteristic, even at lower volume settings. Further refinements include ULE-technology, or ultra low emission, from the magnetic field of the speaker drivers. Some of my friends have noted a natural sound with extended bass.

Good for: Those wanting closed back isolation with technologies employed to reduce the need for higher volume levels, and shielding to reduce magnetic radiation.

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Sennheiser PX-100 II
Price: $51.95
Ear Pad Design: Supra-aural
Acoustic Seal: Open
Cable: Single cable with volume Weight: 0.16 lbs.
Warranty: 2 years

The Sennheiser PX-100 II offers affordability with a minimal modern design. Stylistically, these remind of an old Walkman headphone. The collapsible headband makes them ideal when storage space is limited. Sound is reproduced with punchy bass and a satisfying tonal balance for the middle and upper registers. An open ear design permits users to hear outside sounds, particularly helpful if planning to wear headphones while walking around busy city streets. Additionally, an in-line volume remote on the cable provides a handy way to access level settings.

Good for: Portability, listeners looking for punchy bass with clear even tonal balance

Finding the perfect pair of headphones can be challenging. Some people will have strong feelings towards certain brands. But just remember headphone listening is a personal audio experience, so don't hesitate to audition several different models to discover which style and fit suits your personal listening preferences best, regardless of price.

(Images: as linked above)