Hi-Fi headphones can get pricey in a hot hurry. With premium over-ear designs starting at around $300 and skyrocketing into the stratosphere from there, the decision to step up to premium audio can be so intimidating, many dollar-conscious music lovers end up just sticking with their iBuds – and pretending they don’t suck.
But there’s one segment of the headphone world that offers both convenience and high performance at a price that’s more manageable: on-ear headphones. While they may be smaller in stature, on-ear ‘phones can be big on sound and style.
To help you with your hunt for the right pair of compact cans, we’ve put together this list of our favorite models, each of which offers excellent sound, convenient portability, and plenty of style for a manageable price. Dig in and enjoy!
Sennheiser Momentum on-ear ($200)
Was there any doubt Sennheiser would make the cut? One of the most talented headphone makers in the business, Sennheiser has plenty of models that could land you in debtor’s prison. But with the Momentum, the company leveraged its audio prowess into a more affordable package with good looks and great comfort to boot. Available in both on-ear and over-ear versions, the Momentum pairs a classic, old-school radio operator design, with a lush and vivid sound signature that magnifies fine details and balances sound just how we like it.
Read our Sennheiser Momentum on-ear review.
V-Moda XS ($200)
The V-Moda XS look like a miniaturized version of their big brother, the venerable V-Moda M100. But while the XS do borrow from the M-100’s rugged yet refined design, they definitely stand on their own, offering a sound signature that moves up and down the frequency spectrum with enough clarity and balance to rival anything in their class. Add in a light, supremely comfortable fit, as well as V-Moda’s notorious durability, and you’ve got a serious contender for best new on-ear of the year.
Read our V-Moda XS review.
Harman Kardon CL ($88)
What is it about classic design that seems to blend so well with modern technology? Whatever it is, we love it, and Harman Kardon’s CL (also known simply as the Classic) nails it. Crafted from a spindled metal frame that hosts a suspended headband and ergonomic, square-shaped earpads layered in leather, the CL’s design is just as impressive as their sound. As for the sonic goods, these babies dig into rich textures effortlessly, providing instrumental detail and balance to spare. Our only qualm with the CL is that they’re a bit delicate, but if you’ve got a soft touch, these will make a beautiful edition to your sonic arsenal.
(Note: at the time of writing this piece, the HK CL are being offered at Amazon for$88 with Prime shipping, making them an easy chart-topper.)
Read our Harman Kardon CL review.
KEF M500 ($300)
The most expensive of our selections, but arguably worth every penny, are KEF’s M500. When the storied audio company decided to get into the headphone game last year, it did so with certitude, crafting a stout design that blends form and function into a beautiful piece of hi-fi artistry. The frame’s thick slabs of aircraft grade aluminum are sleek and simple, while the rich leather ear pads are some of the softest and most inviting we’ve placed on our ears. To match their elegant design, the M500 serve up a warm, vivid midrange, a firm and full lower register, and lightning-fast treble precision. If you’re cool with letting go of $300, these are a prime choice.
Read our KEF M500 review.
Phiaton Fusion MS 430 ($150)
We’ve had plenty of good experiences with Phiaton, but the MS 430 in particular strike a fantastic balance of style, sound performance, and value. The headphones boast a bold, modern design, with slick lines of black leather, and translucent earpieces that look through into a sparkling carbon fiber backdrop. To go with that bold style is an equally bold sound signature that hits hard with rock tunes, and leaves some delicacy for the softer moments thanks to brilliant clarity and wide instrumental spacing. They MS 430 may not dig quite as deep into the details as others, but they’re also the most affordable pair of the bunch.
Read our Phiaton Fusion MS430 review.
Sol Republic Master Tracks ($150)
With removable modular earpieces that slide along a near-indestructible polymer headband, Sol Republic’s Tracks series has always been intriguing in form, but with the Master Tracks, Sol adds that extra burst of function that makes them an excellent value. The sleek earpieces are adorned with elegant metallic lines and plush ear pads, matched by a clean, dimensional sound signature underneath for a brilliant design that’s extremely portable.
Read our SOL Republic Master Tracks review.
Grado Labs SR60i ($80)
For under $100, you’ll have a hard time finding a better value than Grado’s entry level SR60i. One of the lightest headset’s you’ll put on, these airy ‘phones spell out the music with bright, punchy clarity, and a nice helping of rich bass that just seems to hit the spot. They’re light on frills, and Grado’s open-back design won’t provide you with any privacy (save the Britney Spears playlist for home) but the SR60i’s retro-design and quality sound spell out a great budget buy.
Read our Grado Labs SR60i review.
AIAIAI TMA-1 X ($130)
For the bass lover on our list, we just had to add these brand new ‘phones from our friends in Denmark. Like the rest of the TMA-1 family, you won’t find any symbols or flash on the X. The matte-black design is so brazenly simple, they almost standout from the crowd for their sheer minimalism. The sound is tight and refined up top, with a heavy punch of bass that is so smooth, it’s easy to forgive even when it gets a little out of balance. Tracks featuring busy bass players like Sting and Victor Wooten really pop, but the clarity above is never sacrificed, making the X a cleverly engineered take on an old trick.
Bowers and Wilkins P5 ($290)
File the B&W P5 under the growing list of headphones with chic elegance that kicks old school design into the 21st century. These ‘phones offer sexy lines of gleaming chrome, heaps of padded leather, and rich, luscious sound that’s clear up above, and warm and ruddy down low. The price is high, and some of that is clearly the Bowers and Wilkins name, but seriously, just looking at these things should be enough to get your attention, and a short listen just might take care of the rest.