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A lot of people used to be perfectly happy listening to their tunes on the earbuds that came free with cell phones and other electronics. But in recent years, headphones that cost hundreds of dollars have become a fairly mainstream purchase.
The second generation AirPods—the cheaper version without noise-canceling tech—cost about $160, and you could pay more than twice that for popular models from Bose and Sony.
Sometimes the performance justifies the price, but many people don’t have room in their budget to spend three figures on a new pair of headphones, especially when a lot of models aren’t built to last a lifetime.
These tips and tricks will help you shop smarter when it’s time for your next headphone purchase. We also have some strategies to keep your current headphones working longer, and even a tip to breathe some new life into headphones you might assume are broken for good.
Look Past the Brand Name
A few headphone brands like Apple and Beats are household names. Both companies make some good products, but our tests show that with most manufacturers, quality varies enough across various models that the brand name isn’t a reliable predictor of how well a particular headphone will perform.
When you’re on the hunt for your next pair of headphones, you have hundreds to choose from. The Consumer Reports headphones ratings are a great place to spot a deal, but we’ve also done a lot of the work for you in a variety of articles breaking headphones down by categories like price, style, and features. A few places to start are our list of the best headphones under $50, CR’s recommendations for AirPods alternatives, and this roundup of the best noise-canceling headphones for shoppers on a budget.
Consider a Refurbished Model
Some headphones that are returned to a store or a manufacturer are destined for a landfill. But in some cases, companies will fix models that get returned and resell them at a discount as refurbished models.
We’ve seen refurbished headphones sell for anywhere from 20 to 50 percent off the typical price. The options can include some of the most popular headphones on the market. These headphones may have needed repairs, but often they’ve just been cleaned up after being returned for other reasons. In some cases they don’t come in their original packaging; product listings should tell you.
We’ve found the widest selections at Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart—which all have return policies that guarantee your money back if you aren’t satisfied with your purchase. You can check their offerings yourself, but Consumer Reports scours the listings at these retailers periodically to find the best refurbished headphones deals. See our latest picks here.
Keep Your Headphones Clean
Like anything else you wear on your body, headphones get dirty. They can be magnets for dirt and grime, and all that debris can affect the performance of your headphones and even break them altogether. Dust, dirt, and oil from your skin can degrade rubber and plastic components, and even damage the internal hardware.
Cleaning your headphones is an easy way to extend their life and put off the need to spend money on a replacement. There are specific cleaning techniques depending on what style of headphones you’re working with, but a general rule of thumb is to use a clean, lint-free cloth, and never apply liquid directly to the headphones.
Pro tip: You usually don’t need to dampen your cleaning cloth with anything stronger than soap and water. Alcohol cleaners can cause some headphone components to break down. And make sure the cloth isn’t too wet—water and electronics don’t mix.
For detailed instructions for how to clean everything from AirPods to giant over-the-ear cans, check out Consumer Reports’ guide to cleaning your headphones.
Don’t Rule Out Repairs
You might not think to try getting your headphones repaired when they break down, but it is an option. You probably don’t want to pay to fix a cheap pair of earbuds you picked up at a gas station, but your pricey Beats or Bose headphones are another story.
Not all problems can be fixed for a reasonable price, but many repairs range from as little as $30 to around $70.
The first place to look for repair services is the manufacturer. Many headphones are covered by a warranty. In addition, well-known manufacturers—including Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Bose—all maintain repair centers.
There are alternatives. Do some digging, and you may find other services that are cheaper and just as reliable. Some local businesses steer clear of complicated jobs, but last year CR called local audio repair shops around the country and the majority said they would be happy to fix a cable or a jack. There are online repair services to try as well.
Check Out Drop.com
Drop (formerly known as MassDrop) is an online retailer with an unusual business model. The company does market research in online enthusiast communities—some of which Drop owns and operates.
Then the company makes its own, usually cheaper versions of popular products, in cooperation with the manufacturers. Drop covers everything from watches to camping gear, but the company has a particular focus on headphones and specialty mechanical keyboards. These aren’t knockoffs; they are specialized products made and manufactured by established brands.
For headphones, prime examples include the MassDrop x Sennheiser HD 6XX, a version of the German audio company’s HD 650, an icon among audiophiles. Drop also has a number of models based on headphones that do well in Consumer Reports’ ratings, such as the Drop + HiFiMan HE4XX, the company’s take on the HiFiMan HE-400i, which aced our audio quality tests.
CR hasn’t tested any Drop headphones, but Jude Mansilla, the founder of Head-Fi, a leading headphones review for audiophiles, says the company has a sterling reputation.
“The enthusiasts in our community are pretty jazzed any time they release a product,” Mansilla says.
Drop is a great place to dip your toes in the water if you want to try specialty high-end headphones at an entry-level price. Drop’s return policy makes it even easier to experiment: Customers in the U.S. can return most purchases in new condition for up to 30 days.
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