What even is an audiophile? For most people, it’s just a person who has a very expensive hobby. And for the most part, they’re not wrong. But an audiophile is formally defined as someone who loves Hi-Fi Audio or someone who is fascinated by pure audio.
The thing is, the audiophile community has grown significantly lately. That’s probably because of how easy and cheap it is to start nowadays thanks to the availability of budget audio devices.
However, it’s also easier to end up with a cheap and crappy pair of headphones if you’re not careful. As a budget-conscious audiophile myself, I’m going to recommend affordable but quality headphones that I’ve tested or owned over the years.
First, I’m going to define a few terms that you’ll hear getting tossed around on audiophile forums or listings. Let’s get started!
Terms You Should Know
Ear coupling typically refers to how the headphone fits your ears. The largest and most comfortable for me and most people is over-ear or full-size headphones. The earpads will rest around the outside of your ears making them more comfortable.
Some people prefer the lighter on-ear headphones which typically have smaller earpads that rest right on top of the ear. After a while, these can get uncomfortable.
The most common design is the earbud. A lot of people prefer these for their portability and great audio isolation, but you also have to lodge a device inside your ear, so this might not be the most comfortable option. For some people, finding an earbud shape that sits securely in your ear can also be a challenge, especially if you wear them while running or walking.
Enclosure refers to whether the headphones have a closed-back or open-back design. Close-back headphones are better for professionally mixing audio. They also offer portability and a ton of bass.
Open-backs have holes or vents, or just a mesh on the back so it will leak a ton of bass and volume away from you. Not only that, you’ll hear everyone around you, and everyone around you will also hear what you’re listening to. But if you’re indoors, it has a more immersive sound due to a better soundstage.
Soundstage or imaging is hard to explain. It’s more of a hear-it-to-know-it type of thing but it’s often described as 3D for your ears. When music is performed live in front of you, the sound comes at you from left, right, and center. While subtle, that surround sound feeling affects the depth and intensity of what you hear.
So a headphone’s soundstage refers to how effectively it preserves that spatial dimension of sound. Does it sound like it’s coming from multiple different angles or does it all mash together and come at you from the same direction?
Headphones with the best soundstage are open-back headphones.
Impedance is almost the same as resistance. Measured in ohms, all headphones have some impedance. But the general rule is the higher the impedance, the higher the power you’ll need to play sounds on it. So if you bought high-impedance headphones, you’ll need a headphone amp to run it, and I wouldn’t recommend that for beginners.
Sounds are generated by different frequencies. The lowest is bass, and the highest is treble. Headphones show their ability to play frequencies through a frequency graph, and I’ll show a lot of that later on. That graph will show how the headphone’s tuned, some are bass-heavy and some are full of treble that’ll pierce your ears.
Best Budget Audiophile Headphones
With those basic terms in mind, let’s take a look at how these budget-friendly headphones measure up to an audiophile’s Hi-Fi Audio standards.
First up, we have the Philips SHP9500. By the way, you better get used to products with alphanumerical codes for names since that’s how a lot of headphones are named. They’re annoyingly hard to remember. Just write it down to make sure you get the right model.
These headphones have an open-back, over-ear design so it’s comfortable to wear and has an immersive sound. While most open-backs will sound tinny or weak unless you have your volumes cranked up to the max, the SHP9500 is special since it still provides a great balanced sound even on fairly low volumes.
This graph shows that the SHP9500 has a fairly neutral response with a slight bass boost (which I know a lot of people will love) but if you want your music to sound as close as possible to the original recording, you might want to get something with a more neutral or flatter response graph.
The build quality on this pair is good. It has some steel on its headband, but the rest is mostly plastic. The earpads on this are humongous, which means your ears won’t get crushed — even if you have larger ears — and you will be able to listen to headphones like these for longer without your ears physically hurting.
However, your enemy when wearing larger earcups like this is heat. Your ears can get hot during extended listening sessions. Another thing worth mentioning is the sports mesh-like fabric covering the headbands and earcups. It definitely won’t feel like the most premium fabric ever, but it’s fairly comfortable.
Because the SHP9500 is a full-sized headphone that can’t fold, it’s not the most portable. If you do bring them with you, you won’t enjoy the experience especially if you use this in crowded areas. You’ll still hear everyone around you, and everyone near you will hear what you’re listening to.
Even so, it’s surprisingly amazing with FPS games or any game for that matter. Since it has an open-back enclosure, it has great imaging and soundstage. So, if you’re playing a competitive First-Person-Shooter game, you’ll hear where footsteps and gunshots are coming from in great detail so you’ll be able to pinpoint exactly where they’re coming from. Of course, that soundstage makes them great for watching movies as well.
KZ ZSN Pro
Have you ever seen those earbuds that artists or bands use when they’re performing on stage? Those are called IEMs or In-Ear Monitors, and man, audiophiles love these things. Despite being compact, they’re designed to give a fairly accurate sound reproduction.
The thing is, those types of earbuds are usually expensive. KZ is changing that, though. The brand makes a lot of affordable yet high-quality headphones and the best ones so far are the KZ ZSN Pro earbuds.
I’ve had these headphones for two years now, and they’ve been nothing but great and reliable. They have a mostly plastic build, but it also has a metal plate to cover everything up. Inside there are two drivers (which are essentially the speakers). There’s a dynamic driver which brings a powerful sound and a balanced armature that brings out a lot of hidden details from your music. Plus — and this was a big plus for me — the KZ ZSN Pro had a decent soundstage. I was completely surprised by that when I first got these.
I gave my KZ ZSN Pro to my girlfriend recently, and she’s not an audiophile at all, but she was amazed at how loud and clear these headphones get. I think most beginner audiophiles will be amazed as well.
The KZ ZSN Pro also has detachable cables, which means that you can change the cable if it ever breaks — instead of buying a whole new set of earbuds. You can also attach a separate Bluetooth Adapter for the ZSN if you want to go wireless.
Other than that, I have no complaints about the build quality. While this was not water-resistant, mine survived two trips in the washing machine, and they still work perfectly fine.
Since this is an IEM, I expect that some people will have problems with the ear fitment, and this has a bright sound profile which can be straining on high volumes. But other than that, if you want something that can do everything, this is the beginner audiophile headphone for you.
Anker Soundcore Life P2
Most decent AirPod Alternatives will cost a lot — typically upwards of $100. At that point, you might as well just buy the AirPods if you use an iPhone. Fortunately, the Anker Soundcore Life P2 earbuds are under $50 and they deliver a lot for that price.
The first thing that most people will consider on a pair of TWS earbuds is the case. For the P2, it’s built pretty well. Of course, you can expect it to be a bit plasticky, but it’s not too shabby, the magnets holding on to the earbuds themselves are also pretty good. Plus, the case has a pretty good battery life that’ll last you about four to six days depending on how often you use your headphones.
The catch is that it’s nowhere near having a neutral frequency response so it’s not an audiophile-grade headphone per se. But if you take a look at other earbuds at the same price point, I think the P2 is pretty close.
Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of people will enjoy this since this has a V-profile frequency response, meaning it has a powerful bass and a powerful treble to go with that.
It supports Qualcomm’s aptX codec so you can stream high-bitrate songs to your headphones. The only downside I can think of soundwise is its narrow soundstage. But out of all the other headphones and earbuds I mentioned, this was the most convenient one to use.
To wrap things up, I think these are a good all purpose, super low cost set of earbuds. The fit and comfort is good for most people since Anker includes eartips in the box. The battery life is great. The sound is a little below audiophile standards but still reasonably balanced and clear.
The Samson SR850 has a semi-open back enclosure, which means you’ll be able to get a great soundstage through these headphones, but you’ll also eliminate outside noise and sound leaks that you often experience on fully open-back headphones.
Build-quality on the Samson SR850 is admittedly not the best. It has an all-plastic build, but at least it’s not that rattly and brittle cheap plastic that you’ll find on other headphones in this price range.
Plus, it has velour earpads straight from the box, and those are way more comfortable than leather or mesh. It also has an automatically adjusting headband which further adds to the comfort.
It has a bright sound profile, which is not for everyone since it can be extremely tiring to your ears. But, there’s also a surprising amount of bass here considering that this is a semi-open back.
It also offers great soundstage. And really, for the asing price, there’s not much I can complain about other than that the earpads will get hot and uncomfortable after some time.
This is also not a foldable, portable design. It doesn’t even have a removable cable. So, you’ll get the bare essentials here, but man, I promise that you won’t regret getting this as an extra pair. The Samson SR850 headphones have been my go-to pair for my laptop, for around half a year now, and so far, I have no regrets.
To wrap up, I’d mostly recommend this option for gamers, casual listeners, or for people looking for a secondary pair of headphones since you really can’t bring these anywhere. Oh, and this is amazing for video and music editors as well. They’re not the absolute best reference out there, but they’re quite possibly the best at this price point.
Those are all the best budget headphones that I can recommend to all of you. If you want more of these lists or guides like these, do let us know. And if you want to snag some of these sweet headphones (and support our journalism at the same time) you can click on the affiliate links we provided on each headphone. Thanks for reading!