You really can get audiophile headphones for less than $50

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Over the last year, I’ve really started to appreciate the simple pleasure of escaping into an album with an excellent set of headphones. I’d been searching for a quality set to enjoy between reviews, and kept stumbling upon an impossibly cheap pair with a near cult following on Reddit, YouTube, and various audio forums.

The headphones are the Superlux HD 681. Available locally for just $39, these headphones are praised for clarity, comfort and a well-balanced sound. At that price, they were worth the gamble.

The HD 681 look and feel a bit nasty, but they’re light and sound incredible.

The HD 681 look and feel a bit nasty, but they’re light and sound incredible.

When the package arrived I assumed they must’ve been counterfeits; the headphones were vacuum-sealed in thin plastic with a sliver of cardboard between the cups. But after checking forums I was assured that this is what a pair of Superlux look like; every corner cut to get these headphones under $50 is proudly on display.

Inside the plastic skin was the kind of tote bag an airline might give you to vomit in, with an airline adaptor and perhaps a warranty card or manual. It’s hard to say, since I’ve had these headphones for months now and I’m sure the bag was accidentally tossed the day they arrived.

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Open back headphones are quite bulky by design, and manufacturers will often lean in to this by adding superfluous buckles, stitching, or other items of flair. It makes the category a tad ostentatious, but even by these standards the Superlux HD 681 are easily the ugliest headphones I’ve ever bought. The Superlux have a cross-stitch leather look moulded right into the plastic, with highlights dipped in red, and a hideous font across the headband.

The design is heavily borrowed from the AKG K240, right down to the garish cross stitch pattern, with the Superlux coming in at a third of the price. Most Superlux models are based heavily on studio headphones from more expensive manufacturers, but it’s this AKG clone that is considered the model to buy. In fact, the go-to website for high end av equipment, rtings.com, rates the sound quality of the Superlux above the AKGs they are imitating.

They’re so unbelievably, proudly plastic. But that gives them a durability that means they might survive being thrown around by high schoolers.

After months of daily use there is no creak to the plastic when I move around, a feature of many cheap and some expensive headphones. The plastic makes these extremely light to wear, and thanks to the open back design that allows airflow, you can wear these all day with no fatigue.