Virtual reality is more popular than it’s ever been, and as the technology continues to evolve, affordable VR experiences are more accessible than ever. For years, the common wisdom was that you needed an expensive VR headset and powerful gaming PC to have a great time, but that adage is ancient now. We’ve arrived at a point where you don’t need to empty your bank account to have your own small taste of Ready Player One.
It’s still true that you’ll need to pay up to see the best of what VR has to offer, but if you have a smartphone in your pocket, there’s a good chance you have all the processing power you need to try VR for yourself. The democratization of technology has led to a huge amount of VR headsets to choose from. So much so, that deciding which is best can be confusing and even a little overwhelming.
If you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, we’ve got the best choices for you. We’ve done the research to find the best VR headsets on a budget you can buy today. So, no matter what type of experience you’re looking for, we’ve got a choice that will let you slip on and slip away into your own virtual reality.
TL;DR – These are the Best Budget VR Headsets:
1. Meta Quest 2
Best Budget VR Headset
The Meta Quest 2 is all the headset you need and comes in at a surprisingly affordable price. Starting at $299, this headset has it all: a huge library of immersive VR games, and streaming apps that put you in your own theater or virtual concert. Of course, you can also dive into 360-video, and a surprising amount of educational content for students of all ages to learn in an enrapturing fresh format. The Quest 2 doesn’t rely on your phone or PC, making it a perfectly portable and completely standalone solution. The best part is that if you do have a gaming PC or laptop, you can connect it with a link cable and have access to thousands more PC VR experiences.
The Meta Quest 2 offers crisp visuals and minimal screen door effect thanks to its high-resolution displays (greater than 1080p per eye). It also wards off motion sickness thanks to a high 90-120Hz refresh rate and posts intensity rankings on its apps so you can know what to expect going in. Since it runs without cables, you can use it anywhere, and its built-in camera will warn you when you’re getting close to any obstacles in your environment. The Meta Quest 2 is one of the best VR headsets you can buy today, and even as its price scales up with more memory, it remains an incredible value.
2. PlayStation VR
Best Budget VR Headset for Console Play
If you own a PlayStation 5 or PlayStation 4, the PlayStation VR is the go-to choice for console virtual reality. Though it’s no longer sold as a standalone device, you can still pick it up as a bundle with one or more games for a surprisingly affordable price. Originally released in 2016, this headset has modest specs compared to other headsets today. The visuals aren’t the crispest, but it makes up for that with smooth gameplay and a library composed of some of the best VR experiences available. With that in mind, if you don’t mind waiting just a little bit longer, the PSVR 2 is expected to launch later this year.
The PSVR doesn’t boast room-scale tracking, but it does give you full motion tracking through its combination of headset, motion controllers, and visual tracking through the PlayStation Camera (which will need a free adapter for the PS5). The resolution is a touch soft at only 960×1080 per eye, but games feel smooth and lifelike thanks to its 120Hz peak refresh rate. The headset is also surprisingly comfortable despite its larger size. If you’re a PlayStation fan and have a VR itch that just can’t wait to be scratched, the PSVR is an excellent choice.
3. Nintendo Labo Toy-Con 04
Best Budget VR Headset for Kids
Rumors of a VR solution for the Nintendo Switch are older than the console itself, but that didn’t stop the Nintendo Labo Toy-Con 04 from being a surprise when it released in 2019. Depending on the kit you get, this cardboard-crafted headset allows users to craft a number of different playful headsets, including a blaster, camera, bird, and even an elephant that lets you use its trunk to reach into VR. Each headset is related to an experience, making them even more immersive. This playful VR kit adds physicality and creativity to virtual reality and it’s sure to please kids and kids at heart alike.
Since the Nintendo Labo VR kit uses the Switch for its screen, you’ll need to set your expectations accordingly when comparing it to other VR headsets. The total resolution between both eyes is only 1,280 x 720, so individual pixels are visible. The refresh rate is also only 60Hz, so action won’t be quite as smooth as other headsets on this list. Finally, it doesn’t include any kind of strap, so you’ll need to use one hand to hold the mask in place. Still, the blend of fun games and creative crafting lends Nintendo Labo Toy-Con 04 a particular kind of magic, especially for younger users.
4. BNext VR Headset
Best Budget Smartphone VR
The BNext VR headset offers a lot for a very reasonable price. It’s the first headset on our list that utilizes your smartphone to provide its VR experience, but it one-ups the competition in clarity, comfort, and field-of-view. It features high-quality blue-light filtering lenses to prevent eye strain over longer viewing sessions and has ample padding around the eyes and nose, to keep it comfortable on your face. The BNext also includes an adjustable strap to keep its weight secure and well distributed across your head. To top off this already high-value package, it even includes a Bluetooth controller (usually sold separately), so you can easily navigate and interact with VR apps.
What really sets the BNext apart is its attention to small details that enhance your VR experience. A pair of sliders on the top of the headset allow you to adjust focal and pupillary distances, so you can dial in the clarity for your individual eyes. Those lenses have a particularly wide field of view at 105-degrees, one-upping even pricier headsets like the Meta Quest 2 and PSVR. It also supports phones up to 6.3-inches, so all but the largest iPhones and Android smartphones will fit easily into its padded slot. The BNext VR isn’t the cheapest smartphone headset, but it definitely earns its asking price and then some.
5. Merge VR
Best Budget VR Headset for Students
If you’re a student looking to expand your horizons, or a teacher or parent looking to capture your child in an all-new way, the Merge VR is the choice for you. This headset is designed with education in mind and it’s built rugged for youngsters. Made from sturdy yet comfortable foam, the Merge VR uses the power of your smartphone to tap into a wide range of educational experiences, while also opening the door to all of the existing VR content for Android and iOS. It’s comfortable to wear thanks to its adjustable strap and it works well with eyeglasses too (a common complaint with other headsets). You won’t need to invest in a Bluetooth controller either, as there are two built-in buttons for easy navigation and interactivity in VR apps.
While the Merge VR is an appealing, if somewhat expensive, headset on its own, its biggest appeal lies in its Miniverse ecosystem of VR content. Dozens of curated virtual field trips, 360 videos, and experiences are available for free, including content from the likes of Brave Wilderness and National Geographic. It’s also compatible with the Merge Cube, allowing you to go hands-on with educational content. Of course, you can ignore all of these things and head straight for your standard VR apps, but this library of educational content makes it an outstanding choice for students and lifelong learners.
6. Google Cardboard
Most Affordable Budget VR Headset
When cost is a concern, look no further than Google Cardboard. This headset is literally made from cardboard, so while it’s not the most comfortable to use, it is the cheapest. It consists of a cardboard frame that holds your phone, a pair of lenses, and a magnetic button for some limited interaction inside of VR. Google has made the plans for the headset publicly available, so there are many versions available from other companies. Some include headstraps and interesting designs if “cardboard brown” isn’t your thing. You can even make your own, if you’re feeling crafty.
Like other smartphone headsets, the capabilities of Google Cardboard will depend on how powerful your phone is. It offers a 90-degree field of view, which is reasonably spacious for such an affordable design. It supports both Android and iOS but you’ll need to stick to phones six inches or less to fit in the fold-out slot. Since the official version of this headset doesn’t use a strap or padding around the eyes, it’s best suited for shorter viewing sessions. Even with its limitations, it’s hard to argue with such a cost-conscious design.
What to look for in a Budget VR Headset
Like other types of popular tech, finding the best budget VR headset can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t know what to look for. While there are a few headsets, like the Meta Quest 2 and PSVR, that have instant name recognition, most tend to come from small brands that you may never have heard of before. Here are the things to be on the lookout for to find the best VR headset for you.
Type of VR experience: Budget VR headsets come in all different flavors, so the first thing to consider is what type of VR experience you’d like to have. If you’re on the hunt for in-depth virtual reality gaming, you’ll want to aim high and pick up the Meta Quest 2, PSVR, or Nintendo Labo VR. If you’re more interested in movies and still-image exploration, phone-based VR is a safe and affordable bet. For smartphone-based VR headsets, we also recommend picking up a Bluetooth VR controller for easy and intuitive controls.
Platform: Investing in VR isn’t just about the particular headset, it’s also about the ecosystem of apps and experiences that are available on it. Most budget VR headsets work together with your smartphone, making iOS and Android their platform. The Quest 2, on the other hand, is fully standalone and has its own app store filled with content. It’s also able to connect to a PC, opening the door to even more experiences (if you have the hardware to support VR). PlayStation VR and Nintendo Labo VR both rely on their consoles, and won’t work on any other platform. If you’re not sure what’s right for you, look at the games and experiences you would most like to try and choose a headset that supports them.
Some, like Merge VR, also offer curated content ecosystems of their own. This can be an excellent value-add if you’re looking for a specific type of content the headset specializes in (like STEM experiences for students). These content hubs give you fast access to different apps that should work well with your headset right off the bat.
Design and comfort: Even the best VR headset will gather dust if it’s uncomfortable to wear. The best budget VR headsets are designed with comfort in mind. More affordable headsets often sacrifice comfort to keep prices low. Ultra-cheap options like Google Cardboard might be easy on the wallet, but they’ll be hard on the face.
Look for a VR headset that has ample padding around the eyes and that can be adjusted to fit comfortably. If you plan on watching movies or playing games with a controller, look for a headset with an adjustable strap. Short VR experiences can be enjoyed while holding the headset to your face, but anything longer or interactive is much better hands-free and hands-on with a controller.
Another consideration is how the headset handles your phone. The best budget VR headsets have padding around the edges to prevent your phone from getting scratched. Heat is another consideration. Running VR apps can quickly cause even newer phones to get hot. Simple vents can ward off thermal throttling and keep your games running well.
With all of that in mind, you don’t need to break the bank to have a great virtual reality experience. The most immersive games are still found on the most expensive headsets, but there are still great experiences to be had, even if you only have a moderately powerful smartphone. With these tips, you should be able to find the budget VR headset that’s right for you and experience the beginnings of what virtual has to offer.
Chris Coke is a tech critic that cares way too much about mechanical keyboards. Check him out at IGN, MMORPG.com, or PC Perspective. Follow him on Twitter @gamebynight.