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The Best $150 Over-Ear Headphones

By Lauren Dragan, The Wirecutter

If you are looking to buy over-ear headphones for about $150, the Sony MDR-7506 are the pair I would buy. Here's why.

If you are looking to buy over-ear headphones for about $150, the Sony MDR-7506 are the pair I would buy. After researching literally every pair of over-ears in this range available (old and new), reading countless professional reviews, Amazon reviews, and conducting an actual listening panel consisting of audio professionals and lay-people, the Sony MDR-7506 are the clear winner. Not only did they finish first in our tests, they are also built to last, and are the least expensive (by a lot!).

Photo credit: Flickr user flavouz via Creative Commons.

Why $150? Why Over-ears?

This price range and headphone design is made for someone who is looking for a first purchase to immerse themselves in their listening experience. Over-ears should close out ambient sound, and a good pair at this price level should create a clear, balanced sound that accurately represents what the recording artist (be it music, movie, or game sound designer) intended. They should be built relatively solidly, and last for years. And at this price level, you can feel comfortable taking them for a walk, on the subway, or relax at home.

How Did We Choose a Winner?

First, I read reviews. Lots of them. I kept notes on what pairs got good reviews both in professional magazines, as well as on Amazon, Crutchfield, other stores, and enthusiast sites like Head-Fi. I emailed professionals in the field for their picks, like Steve Guttenberg of CNET, and Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity. From there, I chose five of the best reviewed products to bring in for a faceoff. I also brought in two pairs that are brand new on the market and hadn’t been reviewed yet. All the headphones chosen had an MSRP from $120-$190.

We listened to all of these headphones back-to-back to get a sense of sound, build quality, comfort, and features compared to each other.

The faceoff panel consisted of: Brent Butterworth, A/V writer with decades of experience in the field including Sound + Vision Magazine, Home Theater, and many other publications; Geoff Morrison, who has reviewed A/V gear for over 12 years for various websites as well as Sound + Vision, Home Theater Magazine, and CNET; John Higgins, a session musician, and music and audio teacher at The Windward School, a private high school in Los Angeles; and me, Lauren Dragan, voice actor with a bachelors in both vocal performance and audio production, and part-time audio writer/panelist for various sites such as Home Entertainment and Sound + Vision.

The idea behind the panel was this: listen to all of these headphones back-to-back to get a sense of sound, build quality, comfort, and features compared to each other. This last past is especially important, as generally headphone reviews are conducted one by one as they come out on the market. This is the first time many of these products were compared to one another at the same time. The panelists were asked to rank the headphones first to last place, and also discuss with me why each received the spot it was given. I then took into account all of the face off reviews as well as price point to choose a final victor.

What about microphones?

Unfortunately, microphones are severely lacking in this price range. The V-Moda and the Booms were brought in because they do have mics. However, they were so badly reviewed in terms of sound, I can’t in good faith recommend them, or any others that I’ve seen in the marketplace thus far. That said, there are some great in-ears in this range (including our pick for best $100 earbuds) that isolate out noise well and have mics, or, if you are willing to pay more, the PSBs we refer to in our $300 over-ear article are have a mic and are fantastic. Hopefully, as more people demand mics, more manufacturers will catch up. When they do, you can be sure we will update this piece accordingly.

Why Did the Sony MDR-7506 Win?

First: They have great reviews. CNET and Head-Fi users gush over them, as well as Amazon users giving them 4.5 out of 5 stars with well over 600 reviews. Every audio professional I wrote to spoke highly of them, even if they hadn’t reviewed the Sonys themselves. Also, speaking from experience, nearly every recording studio, radio station, etc. has a pair of these attached to the mixing board. And there are several reasons why below.

Nearly every recording studio, radio station, etc. has a pair of these attached to the mixing board. And there are several reasons why.

Second: They sound fantastic. Every panelist put these as their number one. Brent said the sound had “perfect tonal balance,” with “no flaws” sounding “like a headphone should sound.” John commented that he was able to hear nuances in the music that he was “unable to hear using the competing headphones.” Geoff commented on how good the bass sounded for the price range, and I loved how even the response is, with the highs attaching quickly and nimbly, and the lows having tone and good decay time. We listened to music ranging from James Taylor, to the Beatles, to Kanye West. I also gave them some time hooked to my receiver and found they handled dialog, music, and sound effects just as well. And as they have a ¼ phone adaptor and travel pouch included, you can go from iPhone, to home theater setup, to gaming, to mixing board easily.

Third: They have been around forever, and last forever. Seriously. These have great build quality, replaceable earcups, and a year warranty on parts. Some reviewers on Head-Fi and Amazon discuss having pairs over 10 years old and still going strong. I myself have seen DJs roll over the cord with desk chairs and voice talent drop them on the floor with no ill effects. They also fold over for easy travel and storage, and have a coiled cable that allows some give when you walk beyond the reach of your cord to your device.

Fourth: They are strong, but also comfortable. All our reviewers commented on the fit being good, which is unusual when you consider the range of head sizes and hairstyles we have. Fit can make or break whether you actually use a pair of headphones regularly, so to have everyone relatively happy with the comfort is a big deal.

Fifth (and perhaps most importantly): Here is where the really amazing part comes into play. While the the Sony MDR-7506 have an MSRP of $130, they retail on Amazon for about $88. Yes, you read that correctly. $88! To put that in perspective, that’s a $61 difference in price from the second best reviewed pair in our faceoff, and $35 less than our third place finisher. And this was before we even took price into account. So the Sonys are a fantastic buy. You can feel very confident in your purchase.

What Else is Available?

Second place (and soon with a microphone)

If you're looking for a headphone with some style, and space in the sonic field that you get in more expensive headphones, consider the Onkyo. However, we like the Sony's fit, balanced sound, and price tag better.

A close second place went to the Onkyo ES-FC300. But these things aren’t as good and cost almost twice as much and don’t fit that well.

The Onkyo, retailing for $149, came in second place across the board in terms of sound, but there’s some catches. Right away, they’re almost double the cost of our pick, and aren’t better, so they’re out as a main choice. Brent called the sound “vibrant” and “fun sounding”, John appreciated the overall sound, but found the high end fatiguing to listen to at length. Personally, I liked the sound, although I agreed that the high end was too forward for my taste, I could see people who like more high end loving them. They had a feeling of space in the sonic field that you get in more expensive headphones, and the attack and decay was very delicate.

Worth noting, however, was the strange fit. Everyone had some issue with the fit, some saying the circular earcups did not fit over the entire ear, others with smaller heads feeling the headband was too loose over the top of the head, but pinched a bit over the ears. Geoff commented that if the fit were a bit better, they actually might have beat the Sony in his vote. Nobody outright hated the fit, but it was this small difference in fit along with price that put them behind the Sonys.

But, the Onkyo have some exciting features as well. The design is really the best of the bunch in terms of stylishness. They are available in three colors (white, violet, and black with red cord.) The flat, anti-tangle cord is removable and replaceable, and attaches to both sides of the headphone, akin to how earbuds attach. This is great if you tend to get snagged a lot (like me). Onkyo also has reportedly discussed a potential release of an in-line mic cord in the future, which would be fantastic, as only one pair in our review offered this as an option. And Onkyo, if you’re reading this, may I also request a remote iPhone control option as well? That is lacking in this price range too.

Third Place went to the Audio Technica ATH-M50.

These cult favorites have been among the top reviewed for a long time, and were our top pick at The Wirecutter until this very moment. Many who own them swear by their sound, including Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity. However, when compared apples to apples with our other picks, they turned out to be relatively lacking in sound as well as build quality. Brent found the high end “tizzy and buzzy” and a couple dB too hot for the mix (meaning they’re a bit over-emphasized). Geoff also agreed that the high end was too hot and also found the bass “loose and boomy” when compared to our top winners. He also commented on how heavy they were when wearing them. John was happy with the clarity of sound, but felt they didn’t have as even a frequency response as the Sony. He also didn’t care for the spring at the end of the cable next to the jack. Myself, I found the sound isolation good, and the fit rather comfortable, but they overall felt more fragile than our top two in terms of build quality. I also found the high frequencies tinny and lacking definition, and the bass painfully woofy when compared to the mids. Although they do retail less than the second place, I think the Sonys and Onkyos are better choices overall.

Although well reviewed, when compared directly, we'd choose the Sonys or Onkyos over these cult favorites.

Our fourth place finisher was the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro-250 Ohms. While Brent and Geoff liked the sound, the lack of power when using an iPhone put them out of recommendation range for them. For me, the bass was painfully loud when used with a receiver, and the earcups were so big on my small face, I found them uncomfortable to wear for any length of time.

Also considered were the cult-favorite Grado SR125i, which lost out due to an unwieldy umbilical cord-like cable, the lack of an 1/8th phone jack, scratchy “Brillo-like” ear pads, and a sound described by our panelists as “syballent, for a very specific target listening audience” that likes “hot highs,” with a “lumpy frequency response.” For $150, you can do a lot better.

We also looked at the V-MODA Crossfade LP, which all agreed has a beautiful build quality. They are solid, comfortable, and have a cool hardcore style. They even have a mic and remote controller! But once on, words describing the sound were “boomy,” “muddy,” and perhaps the worst, “sounds like you are listening inside a plastic trashcan.” Needless to say, they don’t make the cut.

And new on the scene are the BOOM Rogue R4a. Advertised by surfers, skaters, and DJs, these new headphones are described as being indestructible. And, to be fair, the chassis is innovative, and there are two cables included (one coiled, one with an in-line mic). But Brent actually commented that these were “the worst sounding headphones [he’s] ever heard,” qualifying that by mentioning the messy, boomy bass, and sloppy highs. And he’s not alone. Everyone in the listening panel put these dead last. Like the V-MODA, they had so much going for them on first impressions, only to disappoint us when we put them on. Truly a shame.

But What About…?

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: What about Monsters? What about Beats? Well, there are several good reasons we didn’t include them in this faceoff.

One: The only offerings by Monster and Beats even close to this price range are “on-ears” not “over-ears” which are a different listening experience and thus technically a different category.

When you can get the winners of this faceoff which sound fantastic, are built solidly, and are $111 less than the cheapest Monster or Beats headphones, we’d prefer to save you the money.

Two: The one pair of over-ears that are close to this price range are from Monster, with an MSRP of $230 and retail of $200. When you can get the winners of this faceoff which sound fantastic, are built solidly, and are $111 less than the cheapest Monster or Beats headphones, we’d prefer to save you the money. After listening to the offerings in this price range, and the next one up, if you are willing to spend $200+ on headphones, there are much better products available. Sound fidelity arguments aside, even glowing reviews of the Monster DJ headphones on Amazon complain of poor build quality. And in my opinion, if you drop two hundred bucks on a pair of headphones, they should last you.

While we’re on the subject, even the previously mentioned on-ears don’t get glowing reviews from audio pros. Read this article from Sound + Vision for info on the Beats on-ears as well as over-ears. To get even passable comments, you would need to drop over $400.

Or, in the Monster DNA’s case, PC mag gives them 3 out of 5 stars, and Amazon reviews give them less than 4 stars. So, when you can get the winners of this faceoff which sound fantastic, are built solidly, and are $111 less than the cheapest Monster or Beats headphones, we’d prefer to save you the money. And thus, we didn’t bother to put them in the faceoff.

What else did we look at?

- AKG K142HD - less than 4 stars on Amazon.

- AKG K618DJ - less than 4 stars on Amazon.

- AKG K619 – less than 4 stars on Amazon.

- Bose® AE2 – bad reviews on CNET and PC Mag.

- BRAINWAVZ HM5 - couldn’t find them for retail purchase anywhere in the US/Online.

- Denon AH-D1100stories of constant issues with build construction.

- Denon AH-D510R – very few reviews, and those less than glowing.

- Fischer Audio FA 004 – no overwhelmingly good reviews, marketed as being for “treble lovers,” a very specific market.

- Harman/Kardon CL – technically on ear, but the only offering from H/K, lackluster reviews compared to our top.

- JBL J88i – when the best praise I can find is “better than Beats…”, not enough to think anyone would consider them seriously.

- Klipsch Reference ONESteve Guttenberg of CNET gave 3.5 stars.

- Koss Pro4AAAT - ouch.

- Koss PRODJ200 – no great pro reviews, barely any user reviews.

- Logitech UE4000 – mixed online reviews when compared to others in category.

- Marshall Headphoneslackluster Amazon reviews.

- NVX Audio XPT100 – the first I heard about these was digging on Amazon. No reviews, no serious presence in the marketplace.

- Phiaton MS 400uninspiring CNET reviews

- Philips SHP3000/00 – no real brand support, not widely available

- Pioneer HDJ-1500 - under 4 star reviews

- Sennheiser HD 518 – open ear design is for a specific market and not the general audience this article covers/same with the 558

- Shure SRH440 – too many downsides to consider with the others in the field. That said, when I started researching the SRH840 Pro were out of the price range (over $200), but Amazon has had a sale recently that might make them worth consideration. However, even with the discount they are more expensive than our Sony winners.

- Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviatorpoor build quality, muffled sound

- Skullcandy SkullcrushersBest Buy and Amazon reviews are not great

- SMS STREET by 50 Cent – these started out at $250, and due to bad reviews have dropped and dropped in price. I’ve heard them. They’re terrible.

- Sony MDR-XB700 Extra Bass – fine if you only want to hear bass. Otherwise, stick to the other Sony offering.

- SOUL by Ludacris SL150CB – another celeb headphone that is terrible.

- SoundMAGIC HP100 – too expensive with too few great reviews to seriously consider.

A Step Up

If you are looking to go to the next level, for around $300 the PSB M4U-1 are a fantastic buy, and our choice for best $300 over-ear headphone. What does the extra money get you? First off, better sound. With the more expensive components, the PSBs have more depth and presence to the sound. In other words, music sounds like you are in the room and movies have a sense space around you. Highs are light and delicate, and lows have pitch and not just woof. You also get a better build quality, and extras, like an bonus cord with a built-in mic, spare foam ear cups, a solid case, and several jack plug tips.

The Best for Less

But if you are looking to get an introduction to high end sound, and want to do it without breaking the bank, the Sony MDR-7506 are the best bet. Great reviews, great sound, an impressive track record, and the best price. You can’t go wrong.

This story originally appeared in The Wirecutter, published 5/20/2013 and reprinted with permission.