The Best Headphones For Students: Broke-Ass Edition

If you couldn’t tell, I’m a bit a of a music junkie. I’m always on the lookout for new bands, and I love blasting my favorites over my 5.1 system. However, it’s a sad fact of life that other people don’t always want to listen to the same music, so last year I went looking for some good headphones to invest in. Well, that little quest turned out to be quite the rabbit hole…

The amount of choices out there when shopping for headphones is daunting. I ended up researching different models for dozens of hours, continually upselling myself as I learned more and discovered what each model lacked (and how the next model up would make my life so much better). Eventually, I set a firm budget of $130 and made my pick.

Soon after, friends in my dorm started buying quality headphones of their own, and before long there were a bunch of different pairs of headphones floating through the rooms. Since I had so many pairs to try out, I decided to write a guide called The Best Headphones For Students. People really liked the guide, and it was even featured in StudentAdvisor’s Back-to-School gear guide.

As much as people liked it, though, there was one pervasive complaint. I had set a budget of $130 in the guide, and all the picks on it were over $90. Many students found this price point to be too expensive. Therefore, I’ve come back to do a follow-up. Here are the best headphones for the broke-ass students.

For this headphone guide, I went out looking for headphones that cost no more than $50. While instant recommendations and crowd favorites seemed to be harder to come by in this price range, I did end up finding some great headphones after lots of research. This is the culmination of that research; I believe I gathered a good variety of different headphones here. All are of the circumaural variety (simply because I prefer it to supra-aural types that sit on top of your ears), but you’ll have choices when it comes to other factors like cup type and portability. Do note that none of these headphones are built with portability in mind; because of this, I’ll be doing another guide sometime in the future that focuses on more portable options.

Note: All prices listed in this guide are accurate as of the time of this writing. Since prices often fluctuate, you may see a different price when you view an item. Before you buy, be sure and check the item’s price history to make sure you’re getting a good deal. If you notice an item is priced higher than normal, it may be worth it to wait for a while and see if it goes down.

2nd note: I now have an in-ear monitor guide out as well. If you fancy a smaller option, definitely check it out.

Samson SR850

samson sr850

  • Standout features: Open-back design, great soundstage, good bass
  • Recommended for: Gaming, movies, general at-home music listening

I got quite the shock when I stumbled across these ~$50, open-back cans – many people consider them to be better than the $90 Audio-Technica AD700s! The Samson SR850 has a wide, immersive soundstage like the AD700, but unlike the AD700, it has good bass. This makes it ideal for gaming; the wide soundstage will give you more directional cues, yet the nice bass will make gunshots, explosions, and other random shenanigans sound – and feel – better.

These cans also provide great mids and highs, so they’re good for listening to music in addition to gaming. Do keep in mind that they have an open-back design, which means they aren’t particularly good at keeping outside sound out – or inside sound in. Therefore, they may not be the best choice if you’re wanting headphones for a noisy environment – or a quiet, public environment such as a library. However, if you have a quiet dorm room or a study spot away from lots of people, these should be perfect.  The AD700 may be the crowd favorite for soundstage, but these cans have a small, dedicated following that loves them. Bottom line: if you’re gaming on a budget and have a quiet environment, get these.

Sennheiser HD428

Sennheiser HD428

  • Standout features: Closed-back design, stylish looks, great bass, all-around great sound quality, comfort
  • Recommended for: Noisy environments, rock/rap/techno, not looking like a dork (maybe)

The Sennheiser HD428 is an all-around great closed headphone that’s good for noisy environments. If you’re looking to block outside sound, you’ll want to stick with either these or the Audio-Technica cans mentioned below.

These headphones are built to have a great bass response, so you’ll want to get these if you’re looking for a closed headphone with good bass. Mids and highs are great as well. The soundstage is a bit more narrow, which makes these a more in-your-face type of headphone that’s great for aggressive music such as rap, rock, or techno.

In my opinion, the HD428 looks great. Out of all the headphones here, I think these look the best (although the awesomely retro Grado SR80i still beats it in my book). Also, as is typical of this style of Sennheiser cans, comfort is great. The clamping force these headphones exert isn’t to harsh, but they stay on your head nicely.

If your main concerns are noise isolation and listening to agressive music, you should pick these.

Audio-Technica ATH-M35

Audio-Technica ATH-M35

  • Standout features: Closed-back design, folding ear cups, good soundstage
  • Recommended for: Gaming in noisy environments, classical/ambient/anything really

The ATH-M35 is the other completely closed-back headphone on this list (I don’t really count the Sony’s below, and you’ll find out why), so if you’re looking for noise isolation, you’ll be choosing between the HD428 and this. There are a few notable differences between the two headphones, so pay attention.

As I mentioned above, the HD428 provides great bass and a slightly narrow soundstage that’s great for rock and other agressive music. By contrast, the ATH-M35 provides a wider soundstage (though nowhere near the SR850), and keeps the bass tight and reserved. Therefore, these cans are better for gaming and listening to music outside of the rock/rap/techno arena.

Many people note that these have a bit more clamping force than the above headphones, so you may want to stretch them over a computer case or some books for a while if you find them too tight. Otherwise, they should be quite comfortable and are very similar to their big brother, the ATH-M50.

You’ll notice that I broke the $50 barrier with this pick. I could have picked the ~$44 ATH-M30 instead, but one feature persuaded me to let the extra $3 slip by – the ATH-M35’s ability to fold up. This is a really nice feature if you’re planning on throwing your headphones in your bag for trips to the library. I own the ATH-M50, which has the same feature, and I love having that option.



  • Standout features: Semi-closed design, amazing overall sound quality, great bass
  • Recommended for: Music, especially rock and more aggressive genres, in the dorm

While researching headphones for this list, one thing that bugged me is that I couldn’t seem a cheap, viable alternative for the Grado SR80i that I listed in my original headphone guide. I wanted to find something that could provide a similar in-your-face, narrow-soundstage, punchy sound in an open-back design – but I just couldn’t find anything that fit the bill.

In the end, it seems the JVC HARX700 is about the closest you can get. These cans certainly don’t look anything like the Grados – in fact, their large size and and big, round cups remind me more of the Audio-Technica AD700 – but they do have a nice, punchy sound. Many people believe these cans can beat out headphones several times their price, in fact.

The HARX700 is definitely the model to pick if you’re looking for semi-closed cans with bass. While the SR850 mentioned above does have good bass response, these cans will beat them out. Mids and highs are great as well. Do note that these aren’t completely closed, so the isolation isn’t the greatest – but the amazing sound quality makes up for that. Also, from what I’ve been reading, this is one pair of cans that can be modded quite a lot. If you decide to get these, you may want to look into just how much you can do with them.

These cans are actually pretty heavy, so that light-as-a-feather feeling you’ll get with some other headphones won’t be present here. Still, the cups are big and soft, and most people find them to be very comfortable.

Sony MDR-XB500

Sony MDR-XB500

  • Standout features: Ridiculous bass, closed-back design (kinda), poofy ear pads, comfort, did I mention bass?
  • Recommended for: Bass-heads.

I’ll give those Beats by Dre headphones one positive, and that’s their bass. If you’re a bass-head, they’re great. Still, they’re $300 mutha-truckin’ dollars, and the overall quality you get isn’t really that great. Therefore, if you’re looking for the absolute best bass possible but don’t want to be a huge tool, go for the MDR-XB500.

These ~$50 Sony cans back a big punch in the bass department, and cost a mere 1/6th the price of the Dre ‘phones. Most buyers note that the mids and highs are lacking a bit upon the initial listen, but add that some quick EQ work really brings these to life.

The big, poofy ear pads are a unique feature and provide great comfort; however, since they’re not shaped like true circumaural pads, they leak sound a bit more than regular closed headphones. Still, you can’t deny the comfort factor – wearing these is like wearing pillows on your ears.

If you’re coming from regular earbuds and want something with a lot of bass, these are the way to go. If you have a PC with a sound card good enough to include an EQ tool, you’ll have even more fun.

So there you have it – the best headphones for students with a light wallet. I think I’ll actually be picking up the SR850’s myself in the near future, as I’m curious to see how they’ll compete against my AD700’s in gaming. Hopefully you’ll find something to love here as well!

Are there headphones we missed, or that you think are better? Start up a flame war in the comments, bro!

[Photo Credit: See-Ming Lee]

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

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