Testing revealed decent emphasis across the audio spectrum, acceptable balance of volume in the left and right channels, and a healthy rate of sound degradation. Isolation is a different story, however; these JVCs barely block any outside noise at all.

Searching for cheap, high-performance headphones? If you're willing to use in-ears, it's like shooting fish in a barrel!

Sadly, if you want the same qualities in a set of over- or on-ear headphones, it's more like searching for a wild unicorn. Decent sound quality in the aforementioned styles generally runs you at least 60 bucks or more.

Meet an exception to the rule: The JVC HA-S400 (MSRP $39.99) on-ear headphones offer audio quality that normally costs a lot more. From looks to audio quality, these JVCs are a fine bet for anyone in need of inexpensive on-ears.

Music listeners have all sorts of preferences when it comes to sound. Some people like really bass-forward audio, while others prefer a totally flat response for mixing with—and no single curve is necessarily the perfect one for everyone.

That said, we test each set of headphones to check for notable imbalances. Bass shouldn't be so loud that it overpowers detail elsewhere, for instance. By feeding the headphones a frequency sweep, we can then analyze data that shows us how the product allots emphasis across the audible spectrum.

In the case of the JVC HA-S400, sub-bass and bass notes receive a moderate boost, and most of the middle and high notes are emphasized enough that detail in those areas of the spectrum are clearly audible. The one exception is the upper midrange of 2kHz - 7kHz, where volume drops as low as 59dB; that's more than 20dB below bass frequencies, which means delicate overtones like high guitar notes are difficult to distinguish at times.

Affordable and fashionable, but far from plush

Petite price tags usually signal limited options and dull design, but the JVC HA-S400 on-ears actually dress pretty sharp.

I tested the white pair, which boasts rings of twinkling silver that encircle both ear cups. The white plastic sports a matte finish, and subdued gray pads cushion the interior of the matching band. The HA-S400s aren't the flashiest cans on the catwalk, but for sale prices around just 24 bucks, these look surprisingly sleek.

You can do way better for comfort by spending more or investing in over-ears.

The band clamps rather tightly, but foam pads along its interior keep the top of your head from aching with extended use. For on-ears, these really aren't as bad as most. Normally, the pressure that on-ears apply to the outer ear cause me pain—and though these are very far from luxurious, they're tolerable enough for an hour of listening or so. I just wish that the ear cups pivoted up and down as well as side to side. Bottom line: You can do way, way better for comfort by spending more or investing in over-ears, but as far as on-ear sets go, these are pretty decent.

Travelers probably need more than what the HA-S400 has to offer.

Travelers may need to ask their pockets for a bit more than what the HA-S400 has to offer, however; the band does collapse, but there's no carry case and JVC doesn't include a microphone or remote control of any kind. Aside from the sturdy, tangle-resistant cable, this is a very bare-bones product.

Sometimes, we find that headphones transfer more than just your music from your listening device to your ears. Using a robot and testing software, we hope to find no more than 3% total harmonic distortion (THD)—or added noise and altered sounds that an artist never intended for you to hear.

JVC's HA-S400 didn't quite dodge that threshold, with 3.7% THD across its spectrum. Luckily, most of that garbage plagues the sub-bass range, which human ears are least sensitive to. The bass, middle, and high frequencies meanwhile maintain less than 2% distortion—a terrific result. Be warned, though: If you crank your music to more than 110dB, distortion will leap up across the board. Since listening that loud isn't safe anyway, be sure to keep volume to a reasonable level.

Booming bass overshadows a swath of upper middle notes.

First, a reminder: Approach cheap headphones with reasonable expectations. Now that I've deflated your probably bloated hopes, I'll pump you back up a bit: For the price, the HA-S400 offers mostly satisfactory audio quality.

The HA-S400s produce thumping bass, clear vocals, and healthy high notes.

The HA-S400s produce thumping bass, clear vocals, and healthy high notes. Balance like this generally costs a good chunk more, so this is a big highlight for these JVCs.

The emphasis isn't flawless, of course. The prominent bass makes softer overtones tough to hear; overtones on guitar, cymbal taps, and snare drums don't sound out with enough clarity, for instance. Overall (and unsurprisingly), this product's audio quality sounds crowded and clumsy compared to high-end options.

Terrible isolation didn't help the HA-S400's overall score.

Terrible isolation didn't help the HA-S400's overall score. Unless you're listening to tunes at a hefty volume, outside noise has no trouble getting in—these headphones barely block any external sound at all. That's largely thanks to the build quality. The ear cups pivot a little bit, but not enough for a perfect seal.

In addition to the aforementioned flaws related to frequency response and distortion, the HA-S400 also tested with abominable isolation.

Many shoppers want headphones to help shut out the hubbub of the outside world—but the HA-S400 isn't equipped for this task. Wearing these headphones is almost like wearing nothing over your ears at all; they only block 2.7dB of outside noise! I wore them in my office to see if they could quell chatter from nearby coworkers—they don't. If you need good noise isolation, shop for in-ears or active noise cancelers.

Other Tests...

A prize kill for bargain hunters

The budget bin tempts all of us once in a while, and every now and again, its contents are rewarding. JVC's HA-S400 (MSRP $39.95) headphones didn't take my breath away, but this is one budget purchase that stands out from the rest: This level of audio and design generally costs much more.

Audio and design of this caliber generally costs much more.

The JVC HA-S400 isn't the only suitor vying for your wallet's heart. Monoprice has a 30-dollar heartthrob of its own, and Superlux wowed us with a great open-backed option last year—but those models don't look nearly as sleek as these JVCs.

To boil it all down, for sales prices as low as 24 dollars, the HA-S400 offers decently balanced sound, a moderately comfortable fit, and very spiffy design. The isolation is pathetic, there's no extras, and the bass is a bit much, but if those are your deal-breakers, you'd better make peace with a bigger price tag.

Meet the testers

Virginia Barry

Virginia Barry

Former Managing Editor

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Virginia is a former Managing Editor at Reviewed.com. She has a background in English and journalism. Away from the office, Virginia passes time with dusty books & house cats.

See all of Virginia Barry's reviews

Checking our work.

We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.

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