One hundred fifty dollars is the sweet spot when it comes to headphones. At a hundred they’re just starting to get good, offering up more complex sound and putting in features that are notably absent in the double digits. When you hit two hundred you’re knocking at the door of the professional headphones and the average listener is still only getting about a hundred bucks worth of noise. There’s still another hundred plus worth of sound, features, and accessories, but unless you’re an audiophile pushing high fidelity recordings, you’re missing about half of what you paid. At $150 you’re getting semi-professional hybrids with loads of options and exceptional comfort without waste.
When you walk this budgetary line you’re able to pick from low to middle pro options that satisfy audio editors and sound producers, or you can get high-end consumer-grade pieces that are heavy with options and sound-staging. This price point is where we encourage serious shoppers to start. It’s the Goldilocks of the headphone industry; straddling the fence between the promised land and overkill. If you’re here for our 8 best headphones for $150, you’re ready for the big time, but smart enough to avoid throwing away cash.
Pro: Broad, open soundstage despite closed back
Con: Limited ventilation
Premium Portable: AKG’s new lifestyle line of headphones is starting off with a bang and plenty of booms, thumps, and melodic shrieks. Resilient enough to become your EDC headphones but still superior to earbuds in power, the Y50’s are able to make the 40mm drivers sound much larger than they are. The eye-catching, glance-garnering aluminum backs let the world know you’re on team AKG, which seemed gimmicky at first, until we heard what these can do. The Y50’s look far more fragile than they are, with the paper-thin headband appearing snappable and the rotating connectors seeming ready to fall to pieces at a moment’s notice. In truth, they’re startlingly strong in both build and noise clarity.
Pro: Bass is strong without being overpowering
Con: Grow uncomfortable during extended wear
Outsider: Using a highly science fiction aspect, it’s easy to discount the DNA as trying to get by on looks alone. Instead, they’re among the most striking supra-aural (on-ear) headphones you can buy. Keeping with the current trend of club culture, you’ll get a removable, replaceable cord with the DNA’s and the ability to reskin them as you see fit. At extremely high volumes you’ll get a little distortion, but before that happens the tooth-rattling bass comes across palpably for an experience that’s Beats-grade powerful for a fraction of the cost. Fans of modern and urban music will get plenty of use out of these as they’re tuned to pump up vocals, beef up the lower end, and keep pace with EDM. Those in the classical, operatic, folk, or jazz camps will want to give them a pass.
Pro: Likely to last for 20+ years
Con: Long cord is awkward for mobile use
Dance Mix: These came onto the scene in ’91 when Paul Oakenfold was more DJ than producer and the war between trance and house hadn’t yet begun in earnest. Rather than succumbing to obsolescence, the MDR7506 have proven to carry more staying power than many of the flashier, more stylized pieces that have come since. You can get a pair on the secondary market for a pittance, and they’ll already have a quality burn in, eliminating some of the work. Meant to be used by professionals these carry a 9 foot coiled cable complete with gold-plated jack and adapter. The 10Hz – 20 kHz response is plenty for casual listening, or for getting a DJ off the ground, but anyone heavy into any breed of electronica will notice a little missing from the higher end.
Grado Prestige Series SR80e
Pro: Exquisite comfort for an on-ear headphone
Con: Incoming noise bleed is distracting
Underpriced: The sound of the SR80e’s is nothing short of eye-opening, particularly considering these are sneaking in under a C-note. More than that, they bring the convenience of an on-ear style, but outshine many over-ear models for comfort. Those interested should note that Grado does much of its production right at home in Brooklyn, NY, so every cent spent on these stays at home. “Balanced” is the watchword for the kind of sound the SR80e pushes out, with a nice smooth tonal quality that makes everything feel a little less intense without being muddy. Turn up the volume and you’ll get a more lively feel, using the freedom of the open back to create a broader sound space that entices the way only a true siren can.
Pro: Sturdy and long-lasting
Con: Lack noise cancellation
Long Listening: No matter how good a set of headphones sounds, if they’re uncomfortable to wear you’re unlikely to be able to fully enjoy Air on a G String. The ATH-M50x slathers your ears in comfort with cups that breathe well, and bear more than enough padding for hours of audio bliss. It truly is bliss they provide with clean highs and mid-ranges that land with just enough bass to give you a solid lower end that isn’t overpowering. 45mm large aperture drivers provide the acoustics with stereo-imaging that is nearly flawless, considering the closed-back design. They block sound well despite any active noise reduction, and won’t add the pressure of electronic noise cancellation.
Pro: 18-ohm operating impedance
Con: Do not fold
Industrialized: A glance at the Momentum should give you a sense of exactly what Sennheiser was trying to do, and they did it with aplomb. The brushed metal framework bespeaks of quality that can hit concrete without flinching and still produce an intricate web of sound that accentuates subtleties for a more immersive listening experience. Even with the quality construction these aren’t weighty, tipping the scales at a meager 6.7 ounces. Constructed and engineered specifically for use with digital music players, the Momentum doesn’t make the same mistake that others of that ilk have. Rather than trying to boost the bass and mid-range they go for crisp sound, and hit the mark, allowing audiophiles to enjoy compacted recordings wherever they may roam.
Sennheiser HD 598 Special Edition
Pro: Difficult to damage
Con: Terrible for mobile listening
Everyday Wear: In a stroke of genius, Sennheiser chose to pad the earcups with velour, which rests comfortably against your skin with minimal sweating, even after a marathon listening session. They come out of the box without a carrying case, but bearing a 3.5mm jack adapter which makes these compatible with almost every audio device on the planet. Acoustic baffles are used to help direct sound into the auditory chamber of the ear canal, giving these a cleaner sound, untroubled by reverberation. Duofol drivers, neodymium magnets, and aluminum voice coils all backed by Sennheiser’s legendary German engineering reinforce the 598’s so they’ll give you exceptional acoustics for years to come.
Pro: Frequency range of 5 to 35,000 Hz
Con: QC tends to be heavily pass/fail (make sure they’re covered by a warranty)
Chart-Topper: At the extreme end of our price spectrum is the 32 ohm DT 770 from Beyerdynamic. These show what a set of budget studio monitors can do, and for those who feel like dropping a few more coins they also prove precisely what a set of not-so-budget monitors are capable of with their higher-end models. The impedance is meant for smartphones and mobile applications, as is the heavily padded headband and earcups, both of which distribute the 9 ounces of weight well over your cranium. The noise isolation is a little too good, meaning you shouldn’t wear these near trains or traffic where you’ll want to hear your environment, but for easy chair enjoyment or sound work there’s little to scoff at.