Creative Sound Blaster Jam V2
Top on-ear headphones for under $40
Full-size around-ear or over-ear headphones tend to be more more comfortable to wear and sound better than on-ear headphones, but not everyone likes them because they can be a little bulky and make your ears steamy on warmer days. On-ear models with smaller ear cups are more compact, travel-friendly and often cost less. While many can be fairly low frills, some on-ear models do feature active noise cancellation and other advanced features.
I’ve tested all the models on this list, evaluating their design, comfort level, sound quality, voice calling performance and quality of their noise canceling if they offer that feature. They’re all wireless headphones except for the Beats EP, which offer a wired connection. I’ll updated this list as new worthy on-ear headphone candidates hit the market — I recently added the Sony CH-520 to the list — and if none of these models piques your interest, you can check out CNET’s other headphone best lists, such as our best wireless earbuds list and best noise-canceling headphones list.
Sony released its new entry-level CH-720N noise-canceling headphones in 2023. They’re quite good, but if you can’t afford them (they list for $150), the company’s new budget on-ear CH-520 headphones are an intriguing option for only around $50.
They lack noise canceling and are pretty no-frills, but they feature good sound for their price, are lightweight and pretty comfortable for on-ear headphones, and also have excellent battery life (they’re rated for up to 50 hours at moderate volume levels. Additionally, they have multipoint Bluetooth pairing, so you can pair them with two devices simultaneously (such as a smartphone and computer) and switch audio. Voice-calling performance is decent, though not up to the level of what you get with the CH-720N.
Note that there’s no wired option — this is a wireless Bluetooth-only headphone. The CH-520 offers overall balanced sound with decent clarity. The bass has some punch to it but doesn’t pack a wallop, and you’re not going to get quite as wide a soundstage as you get from Sony’s more expensive over-ear headphones. But these definitely sound better than Sony’s previous entry-level on-ear headphones and sound better than I thought they would. I tried the white color but they also come in blue and black.
I was a fan of Creative’s original Sound Blaster Jam headphones that came out in 2015 and had a decidedly retro look and feel with good sound for the money. Now the headphone is available in a 2.0 version that has some key upgrades, including Bluetooth 5.0, USB-C charging, improved call quality and multipoint Bluetooth pairing that allows you to pair it to two devices simultaneously. Battery life is rated at up to 22 hours.
I was able to pair the headphones with a Mac Mini and an iPhone and then switch audio between them. Often when pairing Bluetooth headphones with Mac and Windows PCs, one can encounter some issues, but once I got the headphones paired with both my PC and phone, they made a good pair of work-from-home headphones. Also, the price is right for parents looking for a decent set of kids’ headphones for remote learning and everyday use.
Comfortable for on-ear headphones, the Jam V2 are lightweight and have nicely balanced sound with good detail and bass that’s ample but not overpowering. Call quality was good in my tests with callers saying they could hear me well even on the noisy streets of New York. No carry pouch is included, but you do get an extra set of foam ear pads, which is good because they will wear out over time.
The headphones have physical buttons for controlling volume and playback and there’s aptX support for devices that support the wireless streaming codec.
Released in mid-2020, the Jabra Elite 45h was essentially billed as the best on-ear headphone for the money. While there’s nothing terribly fancy about it is one of the best on-ear headphone values right now, with good sound quality, a sturdy design and comfortable fit (for on-ear headphones, anyway). Additionally, this Bluetooth on-ear headphone performs well as a headset for making calls and includes a sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the headphones so you don’t talk too loudly. Battery life is also good. Available in multiple color options, it lists for $100 but frequently gets discounted to $80 or less.
The last few years I’ve written up a fair number of new Sennheiser headphones, most of which have had more premium price tags. But now the company has released a new $70 on-ear wireless model, the 250BT, that should appeal to those on a tighter budget. Equipped with Bluetooth 5.0, its features seem pretty basic, but it does have 25-hour battery life, as well as support for the AAC and aptX audio codecs, and it also taps into Sennheiser’s Smart Control app, allowing you to customize the sound a bit.
Sennheiser describes the 250BT as having club-like sound, and that’s a fairly apt take. There’s lots of energy in the bass and some sparkle in the treble. This is what I like to call an exciting headphone — dynamic, fun. I can’t say it’s got premium build quality (it looks and feels like a more of a budget model). But it’s lightweight and comfortable for an on-ear model, though it lacks any padding on the inside of the headband so I occasionally had to make adjustments to relieve a little pressure on the crown of my head.
You can use the 250BT as a headset for making calls — it works reasonably well for that — but Sennheiser doesn’t really talk up the call quality, mentioning only that the headphones have a built-in microphone. The noise-isolating ear pads cut the background noise, giving you a better listening experience. This headphone is more about the sound and it did grow on me over time.
The Solo Pro has technically been discontinued by Apple (yes, Beats owns Apple), but you can still find it at a discount. It was first Beats on-ear headphone to feature active noise cancellation and the first full-size Beats wireless headphone to charge via Lightning. It remains a very good on-ear headphone but just didn’t catch on as Beats had hoped, partially because of its high list price of $300 (and like with the AirPods Max, the Lightning-to-3.5mm is an optional Bluetooth headset accessory that costs $35, which is ridiculous).
Available in multiple color options, the noise-canceling headphone is equipped with six microphones, two of which are beamforming mics designed to hone in on your voice when you’re making calls or talking to your voice assistant (Apple’s H1 chip is on board for always-on Siri).
Skullcandy’s Riff is the spiritual successor to the Grind Wireless, which I liked for the money. Available in multiple color options, it retails for around $50 and has puffy, pillowlike ear cups that make these comfortable headphones for an on-ear model. It also has great sound for its price, with open, detailed sound quality and plump bass that’s relatively well-defined. My only gripes about its ear cup design are that the top doesn’t feature a padded headband (at the crown of your head) and it feels a little cheap, with no metal parts. That said, it’s nice and light and has a dual-hinge that allows the headphone to fold up and fold flat. No carry pouch is included. Battery life is rated at only 12 hours, but a fast charge feature lets you get 2 hours of juice from a 10-minute charge (this has micro-USB charging not USB-C).
Beats makes plenty of Bluetooth headphones with high price tags, but its entry-level EP wired headphones are a surprisingly good listening experience value. The list price is $100, but you can find it online for closer to $90 and sometimes less. The EP is an on-ear model that isn’t as swanky as Beats’ somewhat forgotten on-ear Mixr, as well as the over-ear Executive and Pro models. But thanks to its reinforced metal frame, it reminds me of low-frills versions of those headphones. By low-frills, I mean it isn’t incredibly flashy and it doesn’t fold up or fold flat for travel (it has no hinges).
I liked the way they sounded and so did Steve Guttenberg, who once wrote CNET’s Audiophiliac blog. These open back headphones exhibit the traits of a good headphone: They’re clean and open-sounding, particularly for an on-ear headphone, and there’s enough treble detail to give them some sparkle. (In other words: They’re not incredibly dynamic.)
The bass is a little accentuated — this is Beats after all — but it’s not bloated or boomy. There’s enough bass here to satisfy a low-end audiophile headphone lover but not so much to turn off someone who’s looking for a more balanced, neutral-sound quality in a headphone.
Available in three color options, there’s nothing terribly fancy about the Edifier WH500 on-ear headphones. But they’re lightweight and relatively comfortable for on-ear headphones and sound decent for the money. These do have a companion app, so you can upgrade the firmware and customize their sound (there are some EQ settings to play around with). Battery life is rated at up to 40 hours, and the headphones work just fine as a headset for making calls (they work well, just not exceptionally so).