Home >Technology >Gadgets >Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones and earbuds from $50 to $130: Good sound with a trade-off

Headphones and wine have a lot in common. You can spend next to nothing or drop hundreds of dollars. And like wine, you can make a great headphone find without breaking the bank. You just have to know where to look—or whom to ask.

I’ve already covered some of the top Bluetooth over-ear headphones and in-ear earbuds on the market. Prices range from $200 to $500 for a decent set with noise cancellation and high-tech extras like fast-pairing and 3-D audio.

Many readers of those columns wondered: Does everyone need to spend that much? Are there cheap headphones and earbuds that are any good? For an answer, I turned to two companies that, in my experience, reliably deliver affordable products that don’t fall apart after a couple of months.

Anker, of battery-pack fame, makes some of the WSJ Personal Tech team’s favorite smartphone accessories. In 2018, the company, founded by a former Google software engineer, expanded into audio with a brand called Soundcore.

Monoprice is an online electronics retailer well-known to cable geeks. It earned its reputation selling high-quality discount HDMI cables and now stocks everything from keyboards to electric guitars.

Both companies keep prices low with direct-to-consumer business models and word-of-mouth marketing. “Consumers don’t have to pay a brand tax," said Eric Villines, Anker’s head of global communications. Another plus: Both offer fast shipping and a 30-day return policy.

I’ve spent the last three weeks with four different models from Soundcore and Monoprice, Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones and earbuds ranging in price from $50 to $130. I listened to Haim’s “Women in Music Pt. III" on repeat, dialed into video calls—and tried to drown out the neighbor’s leaf blower. I was pleasantly surprised by how decent the audio was. The headphones’ noise-cancelling abilities weren’t as great, but any of the four options I reviewed would be suitable for someone looking for an affordable alternative.

In the over-ear headphone category (the kind that sit on your head), I tried Soundcore’s Life Q30, which cost $80, and Monoprice’s $90 BT-600. They’re Bluetooth headsets that charge via USB-C, can fold up into a more compact shape and come with auxiliary cables for wired connections—nifty for travelers who like to watch in-flight movies.

One thing I noticed right away: Both pairs of headphones feel light. The build quality isn’t quite what you’d get with more expensive models, but some people might prefer the more lightweight hardware. Both were comfortable enough to wear all day long. Their batteries also endured several all-day stretches without needing a charge. (Both claim 40 hours of playback time.)

The Soundcore headphones are NFC-enabled for fast-pairing with Android phones, with volume, play/pause and noise-cancellation on/off buttons on the earcups. The Monoprice pair has a touch panel that senses taps and swipes. Double tap, for example, pauses a track.

The Soundcore pair produces better bass, with brighter and more detailed audio. I was really impressed, especially for the price. Using the Soundcore app, you can also customize the EQ and noise cancellation. However, while Anker says this model can be paired with two devices at once, the audio in my headset sputtered whenever I did that.

Both sets of headphones were comparable in noise cancellation. A whirring fan got quieter with the headphones’ active noise cancellation turned on—but not nearly as quiet as it gets with Sony’s $350 WH-1000XM4s. I wouldn’t recommend the Monoprice or Soundcore headphones for, say, subway riders looking for serious soundproofing, but they’re fine for working or studying in a relatively quiet home.

Both headsets also have similar microphones. Your voice will come through clear, but when there’s any background noise, such as the aforementioned fan, you might sound terrible.

In the earbuds category—the AirPod style that sit in your ears—I tested Soundcore’s Liberty Air 2 Pro ($130) and Monoprice’s TWE-ANC ($50). The pricier Soundcores definitely have a sleeker look. From far away, the titanium white model and its case might even be mistaken for AirPods. (Monoprice offers more expensive buds, the recently released $100 M-TWE. They’re made of higher-quality materials and work with a custom tuning app. They were out of stock during my testing but have returned.)

The Monoprice earbuds fit my ears perfectly out of the box. The Soundcore earbuds come with eight different ear tips to ensure a tight seal, and it took me a while to find the right size. And just when I thought I nailed it, one of the earbuds fell out on the floor when I bent down to tie my shoes.

I preferred the sound of the Soundcore earbuds, like their over-ear counterpart. They produced more prominent bass, warmer mids and distinct highs. They also did a better job of picking up clear vocals through the six built-in microphones when there was noise in the background.

While the Soundcore earbuds did a decent job eliminating background noise when I spoke into the microphone, I couldn’t even tell when its noise canceling was turned on. I had to double-check the app to make sure.

The Monoprice earbuds were much better at noise canceling, but their audio quality and Bluetooth connection were inferior.

Battery life on both is about the same as pricier models. With noise canceling on, I got seven hours out of the Soundcore earbuds and five hours from the Monoprice pair.

There are certainly compromises to consider if you’re thinking about saving money on headphones. The cheaper ones don’t look and feel quite as nice. The audio won’t be as well balanced, and the noise cancellation won’t be as complete.

But there are plenty of reasons to opt for a cheaper set. Maybe you’re prone to lose or break things, or are shopping for someone who is. (A single replacement AirPod Pro bud costs $89!) These earbuds are fine for working out, quick calls or listening to music.

If you want noise cancellation, you really should spend more. Samsung phone owners should get the $200 Galaxy Buds Pro and other Android users should get Jabra’s $230 Elite 85t. My top pick for Apple users is still AirPods Pro ($219 at Walmart and Amazon).

So, do you need to spend hundreds on headphones? No—unless you really, really need to drown out the world around you.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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