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Budget shopping tips: Headphones and earbuds

Senior associate editor Jasmine France shares some general tips on shopping for headphones on a budget.

Get the Grado SR60 for less than $75 out the door.

I swear: the next time I see or hear "in this economy" as an intro to an advertisement or buying advice article, I'm going to drop kick the responsible party out of the nearest window. Regardless of gainful employment, who doesn't want to spend a little less to get something cool? I don't know about you, but finding a great deal always puts a little bounce in my step. What I like even more is helping others find what they want without requiring them to drop a massive wad of cash. In that spirit, here's a collection of buying tips that will help you find a good set of earphones on a limited budget. Also, make sure to check out CNET's list of Best Budget Headphones.

  • Look at older models: Headphone technology changes over the past 10 years or so have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and as a result, sets that came out 5 or more years ago often sound just as good as their more-recently released brethren. And after several years on the market, the list price is often significantly lower than the original MSRP. For example, the Sennheiser CX 300 earbuds once sold for between $60 to $80 online, but now can be found for less than $30.
  • Keep an eye out for end-of-life products: If you're taking the above advice and checking out older products, keep your ears perked for news on pending-replacement models. When Grado first released its follow-up RS2i Reference Headphones, its predecessor (the $500 RS2) could be found for as little as $395 online.
  • Buy from giants: As much as it pains me to say it, purchasing from the big boys in tech will probably save you money. Bulk processing cuts down on the cost to manufacturers and that's often passed on to you. The company with the largest chunk of the headphone market is probably Sony, and it's true that the company has made plenty of solid earbuds that cost well under $100. Other biggies include Koss, Sennhesier, and JVC.
  • Shop the holiday specials: Nothing new here, really. Like just about every other consumer good, headphones tend to sport discounted price tags between the end of November and about the middle of January. Plus, you can often take advantage of the end-of-life deal mentioned above. Since most tech companies release new models in the fall, previous-generation earphones will often be even cheaper just before the holidays.
  • Consider eBay: I don't recommend purchasing used headphones (yuck), but eBay more often than not lists brand new products in this particular category. For the most part, the items on the auction site can be found for at least five-to-ten percent lower than the retail price. Even better, look for open-box purchases, which knock down the price even more. (This can be tough to find with earphones, but it's a good tip in general.)
  • Think long term: No matter how much you decide to spend, having to replace a product every six months is not an ideal scenario. Cheap headphones, particularly of the earbud variety, can suffer from durability issues, such as weak cables and poor overall construction. A good rule of thumb--especially if you're spending less than $100--is to make sure the earphones come with a decent warranty, preferably one that is at least one-year long and covers any damage caused from standard wear and tear. Some companies that are known for good warranties are Shure, which offers a two-year warranty and has a reputation for great customer service (often replacing damaged sets with brand new modes), and Koss, which offers a lifetime warranty on its headphones that has received much positive feedback. (Incidentally, Skullcandy also offers a limited manufacturer's lifetime warranty, though I haven't heard much about the company's customer service.) Another option: purchase with a credit card that offers an extended-warranty program for tech products.