There was a time when you had to splurge on expensive headphones and earbuds to get the absolute best sound quality. Not anymore.
For every luxury pair of over-ear headphones like Bowers & Wilkins PX8 or top-tier wireless earbuds like the new Sony WF-1000XM5 flagships, there are numerous bargain alternatives that deliver satisfying sound for a much lower price. Look at the recommendations on our best cheap wireless headphones and best cheap wireless earbuds lists. Many of these models carry impressive specs and sound customization tools via companion app that enhance audio output. However, certain accessories provide an upgrade path to help give a sonic boost.
You may be thinking, “must I go broke on professional audio gear to give my headphones and earbuds even greater sound performance?” Well, that is one route you could go. The other is investing in headphone accessories that can get the job done for under $50.
Here’s a breakdown of the most popular headphone accessories available at this price point, as well as our expert picks.
1. Portable DACs under $50
Perfect for computers, laptops, MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets, these portable hi-fi solutions significantly raise the sound on your go-to media devices via wired connection. Our audio editor found one that served as the best iPhone upgrade ever, sonically that is.
DACs convert a digital audio signal (like from a streaming service) and convert it to analog, which is then outputted to your wired headphones. They’re available in different sizes and at different price points, though you can find a few high-quality options for a fraction of what today’s best audiophile headphones cost.
Before grabbing a top seller from Amazon, know what you’re buying and what’s needed to get the most out of your wired headphones.
Look for DACs that support Hi-Res Audio up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM, DSD, and MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), the latter being a Tidal-exclusive format that plays CD-quality lossless audio up to 9216kbps. Multiple input ports should also be accounted for, including 3.5mm aux, Lightning, micro-USB/USB-C, and Optical.
2. External sound cards under $50
Experts have multiple products listed under this category, from amplifiers to audio control boxes to DACs. Many of these share similar features such as compact designs, multiple input ports, and noise-reduction technology. However, a noteworthy external sound card offers its own set of distinctive features that elevate headphone sound.
They come with a built-in DAC chip engineered to produce rich and immersive sound. Some models offer /24-bit/96kHz sampling rates for both playback and recording, and some come with EQ switches for bass and treble adjustment. Broad compatibility also comes part of the package, meaning you can connect these to different devices supporting different operating systems: Linux, macOS, Android or Windows.
Our top recommendations: Creative Sound Blaster G3 $44 at Amazon; Ugreen USB to Audio Jack Sound Card Adapter $13 at Amazon; StarTech.com USB Sound Card w/ SPDIF Digital Audio & Stereo Mic $33 at Amazon
3. Audio transmitters under $50
These Bluetooth devices do more than just grant you wireless audio access to out-of-date entertainment systems on flights or your gym treadmill. The latest models feature excellent audio codec support that isn’t even available on many of the best wireless headphones. We’re talking aptX Adaptive for 24-bit CD-quality audio, aptX HD for minimal sound distortion, and aptX Low Latency for improved audio and lip synchronization.
Products like the AirFly Duo also let you share audio between two sets of headphones or AirPods, creating a more intimate listening experience for couples flying out on their honeymoon. These might seem like small enhancements, but any listener with detailed hearing will appreciate the increases in sound and streaming quality that audio transmitters provide.
4. Headphone jack optimizers under $50
Adapters, attenuators, optimizers or whatever you choose to call them, these plug-and-play audio devices are the most portable-friendly accessories for your headphones. They’re compatible with everything and perform a variety of services. For instance, they can deliver up to 24-bit audio quality, expand volume range, and restore bits of resolution lost at regular/low volume. Some of them even work with MFi-certified Lightning headphones (e.g., Apple EarPods, Beats urBeats3).
Each headphone jack option offers their own set of audio advancements. It’s more a matter of preference and what you feel works best for your primary media player.
5. Memory foam ear tips under $50
Memory foam tips are an inexpensive must-have for music lovers that desire more bass from their wireless earbuds. Brands like ADV and Comply Foam built their businesses off this one product category and have performed enough R&D to determine whether foam tips improve true wireless sound.
We had a positive audio experience when pairing foam tips with the AirPods Pro 2. They not only provided a stronger low-end presence, but solid comfort and a strong seal that reduced the amount of ambient noise entering the soundscape. Comply Foam even developed WaxGuard technology to prevent earwax and debris from entering the sound port. These are pretty good perks from an accessory that costs as little as $11.
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A lifestyle journalist with an affinity for consumer products, Alex has over a decade of experience and has worked with popular publications such as Complex, Thrillist, Men’s Health, Gear Patrol, AskMen, and Hoop Magazine. He currently focuses on audio, reviewing the most coveted headphones in the market for both Tom’s Guide and Laptop Magazine.