The Status Audio CB-1s might be the best headphones under $100


Vlad Savov

So who the hell is Status Audio? Well, it’s a US company playing the same game that many Chinese outfits have found profitable: selling direct to the consumer and thus cutting marketing and distribution costs to a minimum. The company’s founder is also its chief marketing officer, and its motto is “no logos, no celebrities, just sound.” True to its ideals, Status sells headphones that look perfectly anonymous.

The CB-1s resemble a de-badged pair of Audio-Technica M50s, which is appropriate because that’s the ultra popular pair of cans that they’re competing most directly against. Both are closed-back, over-ear headphones that fold down into a more compact shape for easy transportation. Both lay claim to producing studio-quality sound at a budget price, and both achieve their low cost by using lightweight, but hardy, plastics in place of fancier metals and materials.

But there are major differences between them, too, starting with the price, which at $140 for the current M50x model from Audio-Technica is almost double that of the CB-1s. The other thing is that Status Audio’s sound is much friendlier to the ear, lacking the strident highs of the M50s and delivering a tighter, more satisfying bass. For my tastes, and for anyone with a fixed budget, the CB-1s are simply a much better choice, retaining the M50s’ ruggedness, comfort, and practicality while improving on their sound and cost. And let’s be honest: unbranded gadgets are just inherently cooler.

Looking around the CB-1s isn’t exactly a safari into exotic materials. The ear pads look like they’re made out of leather, but are synthetic. There’s a breathable strip of similar material covering the padding on the underside of the headband — this too would be handcrafted leather on more expensive headphones, but there’s no room for such indulgences on these headphones to deliver “just sound.” The CB-1s’ construction isn’t the most impressive in the world, but that doesn’t get in the way of using them at all. The headphones flex open and closed with ease, each cup pivots and rotates smoothly, and the upside to using cheaper materials is that the headphones as a whole are extremely light.

Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

To be fair, once you actually pop these on your head and the ultra-soft ear pads engulf your ears, you’ll wonder why others bother with leather at all. These CB-1s are extremely comfortable, and we can thank their first users for that. Status Audio tells me that the pad design was updated this summer in response to user feedback.

Other than the relatively cheap construction components, the biggest issue with these headphones might be the Princess Leia look they impose upon the user. Those big and generous pads fatten out the headphone dramatically. I walked around London with the CB-1s on my head this week and caught a few people staring at them. That doesn’t trouble me, and in spite of their gold highlights, they don’t really look expensive enough to be worth stealing, but this may be an issue for more discreet music listeners.

Out on the street and down in the underground, the CB-1s did a commendable job of insulating external noise. I powered them with my Pixel XL at max volume and could entirely zone out my noisy surroundings. Most smartphone sources should be able to power these headphones quite adequately, but remember to have your dongle handy if you want to combine these with the latest iPhones. Also noteworthy on this front is the lack of an in-line mic or remote control with the bundled cable. But never fear, Status Audio sells super cheap, flat cables that add those options.

The default cable that comes with the CB-1s is actually pretty awesome. It has a coiled-up section, much like the aforementioned Sony 7506s, but that’s smaller on these headphones and makes them much easier to use on the move. If there’s any big issue with the Sonys, it’s that they’re only really suitable to use at a desk or at home, because of their fixed and unwieldy wire, but Status Audio has come up with an elegant solution to that problem.

So with all of those practicalities considered, what do the Status Audio CB-1s sound like? Well, they sound like a hell of a lot more than $79. Their soundstage is wide — wider than you have any right to expect from a closed-back headphone in this price range — and their stereo imaging is superb. On Tool’s “Aenema,” you can hear Maynard James Keenan’s voice at the center of the recording and the drums off to one side, the guitar to another, and the chanting “learn to swim” lyrics swirling around your head as if circling the drain of despair that the song’s about. That’s just one example of a very competent performance from headphones that make me forget I’m not reviewing some $600 or $1,000 set.

Of course, the CB-1s are not without their faults and limitations. They don’t always convey the tangible sense of an instrument rather than just a note, and they can sometimes make guitars sound digital and artificial. I find the sub-bass in most songs is merely hinted at, and there’s not much extension into the sparkliest high notes that lend music its most exciting moments and greatest dynamic contrast. But then that narrower frequency response is what makes the CB-1s more listenable. They have a slight, but detectable emphasis on bass and lower mids, and their bass comes out with a dry, assured thump and authority.

Nothing’s sloppy about this sound. Status Audio knows it isn’t working with the beryllium drivers of the $3,999 Focal Utopias, and so it hasn’t tried to do anything special with the tuning. The CB-1s offer a very appealing re-creation of most music genres, and I did find myself nodding along to them more often than I might have expected before picking them up. That subconscious review should speak for itself.

Overall, I feel like the practicality of these headphones nudges them ahead of the Sony 7506s, and their price and sweeter sound makes them an obvious pick ahead of Audio-Technica’s M50s. The CB-1s might be from a no-name company, but that company makes its no-name status (sorry!) a feature and turns them into an intentionally anonymous tool. I’m happy to affirm that the “just sound” standard has indeed been met by Status Audio, and I’m going to be recommending them to Andrew (along with the pro tip to sign up for their newsletter to get a discount when buying from Status’ site).