Finding the best studio headphones under $100 might be quite a task with so many options available many of which are not so “studio” suited.
A good pair of studio headphones is a must if you delve into making music, recording, mixing and pretty much anything that has to do with audio.
Part of the challenge in finding the perfect pair is that what works best for you might not be the best for the next person.
In this guide, we’re going to find out why that is, what makes a good pair of headphones and how to choose one for the budget at hand, in this case, limited to 100 USD.
Spoiler alert, you can get some good, professional headphones in this budget range.
In this guide
- What are studio headphones?
- Headphone types and cups
- Open back vs semi-open vs closed back headphones
- Do I need a headphone amplifier?
- AKG K240 Studio, Over ear, Semi-open
- Audio-Technica ATH-M30x, Over ear, Closed back
- Sennheiser HD280PRO, Over ear, Closed back
- Audio-Technica ATH-AD700X, Over ear, Open back
- Shure SRH440, Over ear, Closed back
- If you have a hard time deciding
What are studio headphones?
In a very simplistic way, studio headphones are like studio monitors when compared to regular speakers. They are the ‘studio monitors’ that you put on your head.
Both are tools you use in a professional environment where you need accuracy more than a pleasant listening experience.
It doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad time listening to them but they are optimized for accuracy.
Of course, there are some things you need to take into account when shopping for headphones.
Not only you need to be mindful of sound quality but there are headphones build for multiple purposes and with multiple environments in mind.
This means that one type of headphone will be more suited for one type of activity than another and their features and qualities will be slightly different.
So, we’re going to talk about various types of headphones you’ll find in a studio and we’ll also touch on some that you’ll find outside the studio in case you need a pair that can work in both cases.
Headphone types and cups
Circumaural, also knows as full size or over-ear headphones have large cups that fit around your ear resting directly on the head.
They usually come with plenty of padding and do a good job of isolating your ears from external sound, depending on the type of headphone.
Generally they a bit heavier than other types of headphones but with proper padding on the cups and headband that is generally not an issue.
Supra-aural or on-ear headphones are the types that sit on your ear. They are usually smaller in size and lighter so they might be a good choice for someone traveling a lot.
Other than size and weight they don’t have any particular advantages but they do have some disadvantages in terms of comfort.
For long use sessions, they are really uncomfortable due to the cups pressing directly on your ears. Even with good padding you still feel considerable discomforts after a few hours.
Sure, most are some that don’t feel that bad if you put them on 10 – 15 minutes, but longer than that and you’ll surely start to feel the need to take a break from wearing them.
For this reason, we’re not including any of these in our list.
Earphones are the small ones that sit in the outer ear. Not the best and not much in use these days since they have largely been replaced by in-ear headphones.
In-ear headphones are the type that goes into the ear canal and by doing so they provide better sound isolation than the usual earphone.
In a professional sense, you typically see these used as stage monitors in live performances but not so much in studio applications. They are probably not the best choice when it comes to sensitive work such as mixing, mastering and such.
As you might guess, as a very general recommendation, if there are no special requirements of some sort, I would suggest you go for a circumaural cup for the most comfort for the longest period of time.
If you are going to spend hours using headphones you don’t really have a choice really if you like your ears and don’t much appreciate pain.
Open back vs semi-open vs closed back headphones
Headphones are typically closed back meaning the case that holds the speaker only allows sound to go out of it through the opening that you place over your ear, the front of the speaker.
The advantage of this type of headphone is that it does a good job of isolating you from the sound around you and vice-versa.
That second part is really important when you want to record.
When you record vocals or an instrument you’ll typically have the rest of the track in your headphones but you don’t want that track to bleed into the microphone.
You want just the thing you want to record to end up in the mic, so a pair of good isolating headphones is a must in that scenario.
Open back headphones however let the sound escape into the world and vice-versa. The back of the headphone literally has openings to do that.
The effect of this is that the sound ends up a bit more natural and I would say ‘relaxed’.
The sound stage widens noticeably meaning you can better gauge distance between instruments and their location in a stereo spectrum a lot better, depending on the mix.
I would say it’s overall a more pleasant, natural sound experience and I think they also make a better choice for mixing work.
A note I would add here if possible don’t rely just on headphones for mixing. Use studio monitors as soon as your budget allows it.
Do I need a headphone amplifier?
You may have heard of headphone amplifiers and now you’re wondering if you need one.
We’ll go with the simple explanation here, probably not.
The gist is that if your headphones can get loud enough without an amp, then you don’t need an amp.
In terms of a studio setup, I would always recommend you get an external sound card so you can use that to power your headphones.
You’ll need an external sound card or audio interface to connect to your monitors and manage volume and also for any kind of recording with microphones or directly like with an electric guitar.
If you get a decent audio interface it can probably handle the headphones.
AKG K240 Studio, Over ear, Semi-open
AKG is a big name in the professional space for good reason and a part of the Harman family.
Luckily you can get one of their most popular headphones for less than $100 and it’s well worth the buy.
They feature a semi-open can design to give you that wide sound stage making it a good choice for tracking, mixing and mastering tasks.
It’s not as good for recording as it will bleed into the microphones but that is not an issue if you only care to record by wire like you’d do with an electric guitar plugged directly into an audio interface.
They are an over-ear style of headphones with a self-adjusting headband. You just put them over your ears and they’ll auto adjust and be comfortable.
The pressure they clamp your head with is not too much and pads are quite good so they work well for extended sessions. I would even say they are probably the most comfortable in this list.
Another nice trick they have is that the cable is detachable which makes it easy to replace and less likely to break in traveling scenarios.
They do however have a proprietary connector so you’ll need to get the replacement cable from AKG as well. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just how the industry works.
The frequency response of these is 15Hz to 25kHz so you have plenty of everything but don’t expect that over the top bass that you might be used to from consumer headphones.
The bass is there but in a cleaner way that allows you to make better decisions when mixing.
Other than that there is not much to mention here, the sound is good.
Audio-Technica ATH-M30x, Over ear, Closed back
Another very well received pair of headphones along with the others in the series.
The closed back makes them very well suited for recording but they are doing a good job on the mixing or tracking side of things.
There are about 6 different headphones in the series and they are all good recommendations so depending on your budget and what features may appeal to you, you might what to grab a different pair.
In terms of comfort, they do a pretty good job, maybe not as good as some other headphones but good enough.
They have a nice trick up their sleeve in that they fold for easy transport and they also come with a nice pouch for that.
The sound is good with a frequency response of 15Hz to 20kHz which is good even though is not as high as some other headphones.
If you really need something that will go beyond 20kHZ you can look at their bigger brothers, the M40x or M50x which go up to 24kHz and 28kHz and also pack some extra features.
Among those extra features, you’ll find detachable cables as well as coiled cables which personally I’m a big fan of.
I chose to put the M30x here because they are the more affordable of the bunch but if you can add a few extra dollars be sure to also check out the M40x before making a decision. They are under 100 as well.
Sennheiser HD280PRO, Over ear, Closed back
Another one of the superstar brands in the music industry with affordable options for the aspiring professional.
These are marketed for monitoring applications and DJs and the features are centered around those areas.
For the price you get a foldable design for easy transport, 90 degrees rotating cups and coiled cable but not detachable which would have been nice.
The frequency response the headphones go from 8Hz to 25kHz so it covers all your hearing capabilities. Not only that but they also sound very good.
Another important aspect and one which they also promote as a selling point is the isolation from the outside ambient and they do a very good job of that.
Note that they do not have any active noise canceling, they rely on the cup design and pad around it for that as well as the pressure that they clamp with.
As you’d imagine there is also no sound leaking out in the environment making them a very good choice in the recording booth.
In terms of comfort they are very good, I wouldn’t say the best but you won’t feel the need to take them off after 30 minutes of use.
Overall a very good value for money option.
Audio-Technica ATH-AD700X, Over ear, Open back
There aren’t many options in terms of fully open back headphones in this price range but lucky there is this gem.
Now, I must mention, they are not the perfect headphones and they have their flaws but it’s a good value package.
There have been some compromises made with these but not in the sound department. Comfort is not that great.
The headband is not really a headband but rather a pair of flaps, they do the job but they don’t give you the feeling that they stay securely in place.
The ear pads are also not the best and some people really dislike them but that also depends on your ear shape. For me they are ok-ish.
The sound is where they do the trick. If you want a proper wide sound stage where you are able to pinpoint the position from where the sound is coming from, give them a try.
Being open back they don’t have any isolation from the outside so you’ll need to be able to use them in a quiet environment and they also don’t make good recording headphones ass all of your sounds will leak outside and into the mics.
There are still the only pair of fully open back headphones that I would recommend in this price range.
Shure SRH440, Over ear, Closed back
These are very good sounding headphones, unfortunately, let down by the build quality. Even more unfortunate that the build issues are the same with most of SRH series.
So then, how are they here?
Well, the reason is the sound. They sound very good, very accurate, with enough bass and overall balance. The frequency range on these goes from 10 Hz up to 22kHz which is more than you need.
Comfort is decent, not the best but good for a few hours of use at a time. And they clamp well enough to fell they stick securely on your head.
Being closed-back, they are great for recording as there is very little sound leaking out.
Other cool features include a removable coiled cable and foldable design for easy portability. Personally, I don’t care much about portability in studio headphones but the coiled cable is a killer feature.
Let’s get back to the build quality a bit. If you are careful with them, they’ll still last a few years. But not much more. Eventually, if nothing else the headband will start to wear out to the point it tears itself apart.
The more annoying thing is that as they get older they will start squeaking when handling them but that goes away once you have them on.
Also, not many headphones are built to last for ages and the way you handle them also has a great impact on their lifespan. If you know you are careless, these will not be the only headphones that will break on you.
Overall, use all this info and figure out what is more important for you, sound or build quality. If the build quality scares you off pick another one from the list and you’ll be fine but yes, the sound on these is quite good.
If you have a hard time deciding
Think about how you are most likely to use your studio headphones.
Do you live in a quiet place? Then you could take advantage of open back and semi-open back headphones.
Do you need to record with microphones? Then closed back is the way to go, unless you get multiple pairs.
Do you travel often? Then a foldable pair and maybe removable cable could be your thing.
These are pretty much the main factors between all the choices listed above.