$100-headphone review: What does a Benjamin get you?

100 dollar headphones
At a Glance
  • Sony MDR-7506 Professional Headphones

    PCWorld Rating
  • Shure SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones

    PCWorld Rating
  • Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones

    PCWorld Rating
  • Monoprice Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone (8323)

    PCWorld Rating
  • House of Marley Rise Up Over Ear Headphones

    PCWorld Rating
  • Denon AH-D510R Over-Ear Headphones

    PCWorld Rating

Every type of electronic gadget has pricey, top-of-the-line models that provide phenomenal performance. But most of us have a gadget-shopping sweet spot: We look for the products that make us happy enough that spending more would be a waste.

Though many audio fans tout pricey audiophile headphones that cost hundreds of dollars (or more!), the sweet spot for full-size cans has, over the past decade, gotten less and less expensive. I tested five popular models that you can easily find for under $100, as well as one that competes with them for significantly less, to see what a reasonable budget gets you. All the models I tested use a full-size, closed design. Some are intended for home or studio use, while others include mobile-friendly features. (For more about the different types of headphones, consult our headphone buying guide.)

denon ah d510r over ear headphones
Denon’s AH-D510R Over-Ear Headphones

Denon AH-D510R Over-Ear Headphones

In the middle of Denon’s “classic” full-size headphone lineup sits the $109 AH-D510R Over-Ear Headphones. The earpieces are made of light metal, embossed with the Denon logo, and are suspended from gimbals that have L and R markings engraved in them. The earpieces rotate 90 degrees to lay flat, but the headband itself does not fold. There’s plenty of plastic in the construction, and picking up the headphone doesn’t impart a sense of quality.

The AH-D510R’s faux-leather earpads aren’t especially soft and don’t provide much noise isolation, but they fit nicely over the ears and remain comfortable thanks to the light weight of the headphone. The metal headband is covered in a brushed-metal-like plastic with thin, black padding around the top section—again, because the headphone is light, this thin padding isn’t uncomfortable, and I was able to wear the AH-D510R for extended periods.

A thin, non-coiled cable exits each earpiece, and a three-button, Apple-style inline remote/microphone module sits on the left cable. The remote’s buttons are small but easy to find and use by touch, and the inline mic produces better-than-average sound quality, though the output is a bit low.

I didn’t find much to like here in terms of sound quality. The AH-D510R’s sound signature is skewed heavily toward bass—so much so that the mids and highs, which already sound muted and veiled, get buried. And even the bass has issues: There isn’t much definition, and much of the emphasis is in the mid-bass region—response tapers off at the lower frequencies. While I admit to being generally critical of the current trend of over-emphasized bass, the AH-D510R all but abandons the upper two thirds of the audible frequency range. There’s also a significant lack of depth in the audio presentation.

I’m a pretty big Denon fan, and I’ve owned and loved some great Denon equipment, so it’s difficult to express how disappointed I was by the AH-D510R. It offers sufficient comfort and a decent remote/microphone, but lackluster build, appearance, and sound quality.

house of marley rise up over ear headphones
House of Marley’s Rise Up Over Ear Headphones

House of Marley Rise Up Over Ear Headphones

House of Marley offers headphones and audio systems, but also bags and jewelry. The company emphasizes sustainability and earth-friendliness, noting the extensive use of recycled and recyclable materials in its products. The Rise Up Over Ear Headphones exemplifies this corporate philosophy, and despite a $150 MSRP, it regularly sells for $90 or less.

The sustainability message comes through loud and clear even before you open the box, as the packaging shouts its recycled/recyclable nature, looking and feeling like rough, crude cardboard. No extras are included except a unique, semi-rigid carrying case that resembles a small portfolio. The Rise Up’s sturdy metal headband is sheathed in a minimally padded canvas cover, and the earpieces are hinged for folding. The Rise Up is available in several designs, including Blue Denim, Camo, Carmel, and Saddle; the Rasta model I tested sported earpieces with a green, yellow, and red canvas covering. The thin, fabric-covered cable on the Rasta version continues the tricolor scheme, but adds black to the striping, and is fairly resistant to tangling and kinking. An inline three-button remote/mic module sits on the cable.

The Rise Up headphone is about average in weight for a full-size headphone, and the earpads are firm with a soft-cloth covering that’s comfortable on the ears. The headband is a bit tight, even on my average-sized noggin; the resulting pressure on the ears might make extended listening sessions uncomfortable, though the tight fit does keep the headphone in place—a plus for mobile use. Despite the tight fit, sound isolation is only average.

The inline remote is easy to use, with a full-length rocker switch for volume control and a small-but-easy-to-find play/pause/call button in the center. The microphone’s output level is about average, but the sound quality of the mic is excellent. My only complaint here is that a non-removable cable is an odd compromise on a portable headphone in this price range.

The company’s online PR material frequently references House of Marley’s signature sound, and a brief listen makes it clear that this audio signature prizes bass above all else. Even at louder volumes, the mids and high frequencies never really make it past the strong bass emphasis. However, that bass is solid and clear, and it extends to the limit of my testing (20 Hz). Soundstage has decent depth, though the highs are muted to the extent that the breadth of the soundstage is compromised. I know there are serious bass fans out there, and the Rise Up offers powerful lows that are much less boomy than you usually find with bass-heavy headphones, but as someone who prefers a more-balanced approach, I personally felt as if there were cotton stuffed in my ears when listening.

The Rise Up is a well-built, apparently environmentally conscious headphone. It’s not a headphone for audiophiles or those who prefer balanced sound, but for bass fan who also want to make a fashion statement, The Rise Up is worth a listen.

monoprice premium hi fi dj style over the ear pro headphone 8323
Monoprice’s Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone

Monoprice Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone (8323)

When you hear the word “Monoprice,” you probably think of cheap cables. That’s likely to change soon, as the company has been steadily expanding into other electronics markets by using a unique business model: products that are good enough, at prices that are much lower than anyone else. The Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone (8323), which sits at the top of Monoprice’s full-size headphone lineup, is a prime example. It’s a solid headphone that lists—be seated, put down sharp objects, turn off machinery, remove liquids from mouth—for roughly $24. (Monoprice’s prices change frequently, so you may find that when you visit the product page, the price is $23.51, or $25.17, or $22.84.) More important, the sound and build quality is good enough to include in this group, despite the headphone’s low cost.

Of course, the packaging of the 8323, as I’ll call it from here on out, is minimal: a thin-cardboard box, with the headphones nestled in white, vacuum-formed plastic. (The upside is that there’s none of the dreaded hard-clear plastic to cut through.) Included are a 1/8-inch-to-1/4-inch plug adaptor and two non-coiled cables: a thin, three-foot one and a thick, ten-foot one. Neither includes an inline remote/mic module.

Except for the silver Monoprice logo on each earpiece, the MHP-839 is entirely black. The headband and earpieces are made of sturdy plastic, and the ends of the headband are double-hinged, allowing full articulation of the earpieces. The earpieces also swivel horizontally slightly, helping you get a flush fit. Overall, the build quality is solid, and the material appear to be of high quality. In fact, in both appearance and feel, the MHP-839 is quite similar to the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, below.

The 8323 isn’t light, but it’s about average for headphones of this type, and it’s pretty comfortable. The earpads are soft, with adequate padding covered in black faux leather. The padded headband provides a good range of adjustability, and its design is unlikely to snag loose hair.

The build of the 8323 is impressive given the price, but its audio value is even more striking: Put simply, no $25 full-size headphone should sound this good. You don’t get audiophile-level sound quality, but it’s far, far better than you’d expect at this price. The flaws? The soundstage is flat, and there’s a veiled, slightly cardboard coloration to the music. The low end is slightly boosted, giving the 8323 a “warm” character, though it’s not enough to upset the overall balance. The mids and high frequencies are pushed a bit to the background, with a corresponding loss in detail. But I’m going out of my way to point out the 8323’s flaws. For under $25, it sound great, especially at the low end, as bass is full and solid, with all but the lowest octave reproduced faithfully. When fed really low signals (20Hz), the 8323 just steps out of the way and produces no audible distortion.

Not everyone needs (or wants) audiophile-caliber headphones—in fact, most don’t. Which means that for most listeners, the 8323 is unquestionably good enough. It doesn’t sound as good as the best full-size headphones that squeak in under $100, but the 8323 embarrasses many costing much more. It’s also a great option for situations in which potential loss or damage makes using expensive headphones unwise.

sennheiser hd 280 pro
Sennheiser’s HD 280 Pro

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro

Sennheiser has been making audio products since the smoke from World War II cleared, and it’s established a widely respected name, especially among audiophiles. The company’s current lineup includes headphones that range from budget portables to models costing well above $1000. The HD 280 Pro sits at the lower end of that range, but it’s no cheapie, and the Pro in its name isn’t merely marketing—this rugged headphone is equally suitable for home and studio use. It carries a list price of $100 to $150, depending on the current state of the ever-changing Sennheiser website, but it’s regularly available for for less than $100.

The HD 280 is very sturdy, constructed mostly of a heavy plastic that offers a bit of a soft-touch finish. The design is utilitarian, with little concession to fashion. The earpieces are double-hinged to fold into the headband for portability. The headband is lightly padded and designed to make hair snags unlikely. The soft, well-cushioned earpads fully envelop the ears, and, with help from ample pressure from the headband, offer great sound isolation. (The strong squeeze might bother some, but it should loosen up a bit over time.) Despite the on-ear pressure, the HD 280 Pro is heavy enough to slide a bit if, for example, you’re lying on your back—or if your dancing gets too exuberant.

The only extra included in the package is a screw-on, 1/8-inch-to-1/4-inch plug adaptor. A long, coiled cable exits the bottom of—and is permanently attached to—the left earpiece. You get no inline remote/mic, befitting the intended home and studio use.

The HD 280 is a great-sounding headphone. Bass is solid, authoritative, and deep, with even extreme lows handled exceptionally well, and there’s no bass bleed into the lower midrange. The mids are full, smooth, and natural, with little coloration—male and female voices sound like male and female voices. And high frequencies are crisp, clear, and detailed. The HD 280’s studio aspirations are not at all unfounded, as this headphone lets you hear it all.

If I were pressed to criticize the HD 280 Pro, I would say that compared to the excellent bass and treble, the midrange frequencies can seem slightly recessed with some recordings, and there’s a slight V-pattern to the HD 280 Pro’s frequency response—the extreme highs and lows are slightly emphasized. With certain recordings, or music with emphasized low and high frequencies, listening through the HD 280 Pro might become fatiguing. Nevertheless, the HD 280 delivers all the sound, in precise detail, and its excellent isolation is useful not only in presenting solid bass but also in helping you appreciate a wide, spacious soundstage.

The HD 280 Pro is a great choice if you want to hear everything your recordings have to offer. It has the flat, accurate response and great detail needed by a pro in the studio, with just enough bass and treble emphasis to entertain the consumer. And it’s built to last.

shure srh440
Shure’s SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones

Shure SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones

No one involved with audio is unfamiliar with the Shure name, which is synonymous with higher-end in-ear monitors, microphones, and phono cartridges. So I was interested to see what the company’s could offer in a serious under-$100 headphone. Slotted near the bottom of Shure’s headphone lineup, the SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones lists for $125, but has a street price of $99.

The SRH440 sports a simple, conventional—almost retro—design, but despite a bit of visible wiring running from the earpieces to the headband, seems solidly made. Much of the headphone is made of plastic, but it’s high-quality plastic that feels sturdy and is pleasant to the touch. The left and right earpieces are clearly labeled with small, blue and red plastic inserts, and a silver Shure logo is visible on each earpiece.

At a Glance
  • Sony MDR-7506 Professional Headphones

    PCWorld Rating
  • Shure SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones

    PCWorld Rating
  • Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones

    PCWorld Rating
  • Monoprice Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone (8323)

    PCWorld Rating
  • House of Marley Rise Up Over Ear Headphones

    PCWorld Rating
  • Denon AH-D510R Over-Ear Headphones

    PCWorld Rating
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