Once upon a time, when the land was fresh and new, only suckers or serious audiophiles would consider spending more than about $20 on a set of earbuds. Now, there’s options out there that are many hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. This sometimes ridiculous market for in-ear headphones can make shopping and buying a quality set that isn’t grotesquely overpriced a little difficult. Separating the headphones that will give you quality sound from those with a lot of flash requires checking the drivers, impedance, sensitivity, and the frequency range. It’s a technical process which the average buyer doesn’t have time to do.
That’s why we simplified matters for you. We’ve not only gone through the rigors of exhaustive analysis, but have considered the slightly more human components that go into the headphones. We asked whether or not they looked good, felt good, and lived up to their hype. Were they worth more than standard headphones, giving you a lot of bass (and treble) for your buck, or were they just expensive showpieces? Any item that could ring our bell both technically and experientially became one of the 7 best earbuds under $100. The others…they’re gone now.
Sony MDR-EX650 B
Pro: 4 different tip sizes included
Con: Single-button remote
Brass Danglers: There’s a whole section for brass in an orchestra, yet few headphone manufacturers will touch the stuff because it’s notoriously hard to get the right sound. Sony has managed to crack the code with the MDR-EX650 B, and even though they’re a couple of years older, they still offer a rich, symphonic experience with a dense, weighty beat on their back end. Despite the metal build, they’re comfortable to wear and don’t feel weighty as you move your head. Tonal quality and sound staging is impressive, with vocals and instrumentals placed precisely for a complex, immersive audio experience. They’ll work with any kind of mp3/4 player or smartphone, but you’re only getting one button on the remote. The mic is good, but far from exceptional.
Pro: Do not require adjustment while jogging
Con: Mic and remote are oddly positioned
Hard to Kill: The nicest part about the Epic is their Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity that can reach from rooms away without going gacky and skipping like a girl with pigtails. That isn’t all they are, however. The Epic also throws down with more than 10 hours worth of battery life, and a comfortable over-ear fit that isn’t too stiff and painful. They have an IPX4 rating, allowing them to shrug off sweat and rain, but can also survive a quick dip, so long as your hands are fast enough. The cord doesn’t bounce on your neck too badly, but you may want to cinch it up. There’s a headphone tip to suit almost everyone right out of the box, and a nice neoprene carrying case. They’re made more for abuse than depth of sound, which means your Ave Maria is not going to bring tears to your eyes, but you’ll be able to hear it long after other headphones would have spit the bit and died.
Pro: Offset for an ergonomic fit
Con: Wire cuff tends to come loose
Showpiece: For starters, these are bloody gorgeous for headphones. CNC milled, full-body construction, and a body that is made to reduce the pull during use all come together perfectly in the EX1. They’re called “Nanotech Titanium Diaphragm In-Ear Monitors,” which is a lot of words that still doesn’t quite capture how artfully they’re made. Copper and kevlar intertwine to reduce signal loss and retain clarity while also making these hard to break, hard to cut, and difficult to damage. Using a larger on-ear housing for the drivers, FiiO has created a resonance chamber that adds to the intricacy of the sound experience. They aren’t meant for quick movement or exercise, but that’s one of a very limited number of flaws.
Klipsch Image S4i Rugged
Pro: Quality noise isolation
Con: Become slick with sweat easily
Rain or Shine: These use the same acoustic environment and drivers as Klipsch’s standard Image S4, but the S4i Rugged has spent some time in the gym, in boot camp, and in SuperMax to toughen them up. Rubberized and intended to withstand wind, rain, cold, and heat, if you plan on listening to Adele’s “Hello” while catching crab during a hurricane, these will let you do it. But toughness isn’t the whole story when it comes to headphones. The Rugged also managed to hold onto the award-winning audio quality of the original S4, meaning crisp highs and mids, with lows that are good and never overpowering. The remote is easy for anyone to use, and the fit is comfortable, so long as you don’t move too much.
Pro: Light, open structure
Con: Remote is spotty on Android phones (or anything not iOS)
Express Yourself: Not everyone desires exactitude in their music. Some want a harder hit, a stronger build, and more comfortable fit for excersizing. The body on the Freestyle is unusually expressive for Bose, and gives you a bouncier line of bass than is standard for the audio giant. The Freestyle also resists wetness and are made to stay in place, so you can stay on track and in the fight as you sweat away those extra LB’s. With their harder bump and enhanced body, the Freestyle doesn’t have the same depth as most Bose headphones, but they’re Bose’s attempt at reaching a younger audience and compete with brands like Beats, who prize quantity of sound over quality. These have sound in spades, and can damn sure give you a good beat for cardio, or a running rhythm if that’s what you want. They also won’t short out as they do it.
Pro: Won’t block ambient noise (could be a con while travelling)
Con: Not water or sweat resistant
Total Package: These are Bose, so it goes without saying that they’re top-shelf, but with these it isn’t the crisp highs and rich lows that make them stand out, but rather the small nuances. They come pre-equipped with your choice of a microphone for Android or iOS, depending on your device, so that they interface properly from stem to stern. The fit is dreamy with flanges on the top (Bose’s StayHear system) that keep them from sliding around as you move and prevent the tips from trying to stretch your ear canal. The cord is a nice medium 45.2-inches long, and for sound, these use a different driver from other Bose in-ear models. It’s smoother and silkier, with a complex stage, that doesn’t hit as hard as many earbud models.
Pro: Tremendous noise isolation
Con: Odd style and alien looks
Lockout: Sometimes it’s what you don’t hear that is more important. Earbuds, due to their size, often aren’t very adept at blocking the world around you, forcing you to hear things like conversation and whatever your ex is yelling at you now. Shure understands that you don’t need all that in your head, which is why they developed sound isolation that works to prevent dissonance from coming in. That way, you’re left with nothing but these lightweight, low-profile, detachable earbuds and the beautiful music they produce. Flexible and comfortable, we strongly suggest these for family road trips, plane rides, and marriage. Just know that the design takes some acclimation, so don’t give up until you’ve let these prove their point.
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