Save and Sound: The 6 Best Budget Earbuds

Aug 13, 2015

Category: Tech

The personal audio industry has gone mad. Drunk on power they have begun churning out more and more expensive headphones crammed with ever-increasing features. True, this is nice for the alpha consumer who has loads of disposable income and wants to buy some noise-cancelling headphones made of platinum for the best audio experience possible as he goes to Monte Carlo on his private jet. It is worse for the guy who just wants some earbuds that work well and don’t break the bank. Well, we’re here to stand up for the 99% with some incredible budget earbuds for the average buyer.

What we sought for this list was companies that could take one of two approaches. We started with designers who didn’t add a lot of frills and unneeded features and instead focused on great sound. Then, we looked at companies who had made earphones with solid sound that managed to cram in features and Easter egg extras without jacking up the cost. Once these had been parsed, tested, culled, and agreed on, we ended up with the 6 best budget earbuds.

Panasonic Ergo-Fit

Panasonic Ergo-Fit

Pro: Very comfortable
Con: Looks and feels cheap

Crisp and Cheap: Sometimes you need a pair of earbuds that you can lose. That doesn’t mean that just because you’re buying cheap headphones you want them to sound that way. For the best balance of comfort and quality sound for less than a sawbuck, you’re just not going to find anything that can top these comfort-oriented budget earbuds from Panasonic. These use a hybrid design that is part soft-bud and part standard in-ear headphone that offers a good seal in your ear canal for increased isolation and improved bass performance. For both bumping lows and detailed music in the upper register, these can compete with headphones twice and three times more expensive. When you get to really nuanced music like acoustic alchemy or smooth jazz, you’ll certainly find a few dropped notes and tinny response, but those flaws are hardly deal-breakers. Truly, the biggest issue isn’t with the sound quality or the fit, but the overall look and feel. These have a very cheap design, even if it hides an affordable audio miracle. [Purchase: $7]

Sennheiser MX 365

Sennheiser MX 365

Pro: Fits outside of ear canal
Con: Difficult to wear during exercise

No Penetration: Too often budget earbud manufacturers just slap some cheap silicone tips onto a weak-sauce, milktoast speaker and call it a day. These knock-offs are uncomfortable and give you almost no bang, tweet, or mid-range for your buck. That is why the best cheap earbud offering from Sennheiser isn’t a deep in-ear softbud but rather a more classic style that doesn’t violate your ear canal like a drunk prom date. The non-intrusive construction is more comfortable and allows for a greater ingress of ambient noise so that you can wear them without missing a baby’s cry or the buzz of high-velocity silenced rounds when the assassins come for you. Includes improved bass responsiveness thanks to the larger sound board and a two year global warranty that ensures a long-life at a low price. The larger size can be a turn-off for those with tiny or sensitive ears, so try before you buy. [Purchase: $17]

Brainwavz Delta

Brainwavz Delta

Pro: Full sound staging
Con: Higher register sounds can sizzle

Super Sound: Turn your favorite song up and try the Delta against any other in-ear headphone and you’ll be surprised at how well they hold up. Sure, they are going to be defeated by earbuds that are much more expensive, but they will not go quietly into that good night. Whatever kind of music you listen to, you’ll find these can give it its due and are one of the few affordable headphones that can easily be passed off as much more costly than they are. The sound quality can only be described as truly deep. Other cheap earbuds hit the same notes, but they’ll usually make them sound a little weak, soft, or muddled. With the Deltas, you are getting rich, beautiful music at every turn. The reason for their superior sound is the increased boost they give at certain levels. Sounds below 60Hz and those at 2kHz to 4kHz are all slightly amplified so the bass doesn’t run house nor do treble sounds become piercing or get lost. The fit is cozy and the build is sturdy with rubber and metal used conservatively throughout. Some higher sounds can be grating, but not nearly as bad as many cheap earbuds. [Purchase: $20]

Zipbuds JUICED 2 0

Zipbuds JUICED 2.0

Pro: Hard to damage
Con: A little heavy

Unknotted: One of the biggest sources of irritation among the cheap earbud set is the skimpy cords and cables they use that invariably turn into something your schizophrenic aunt would knit when the voices got too loud. Two minutes in your pocket and you have to spend half an hour getting them untangled. This is the problem that Zipbuds sought to solve and did so in a way that kept the price point reasonable. The cord is actually surrounded by a zipper that ensures an easy way to keep them from knotting up without time-consuming rolling or bulky cases. These are on their 4th generation and are lighter than ever yet still have military-grade cables that help improve their lifespan exponentially. The angled earbuds stay where they are put, though intense shock from running can dislodge them. The sound range is standard to high for affordable earbuds with a nice bell curve that includes some bass and plenty of highs. [Purchase: $25]

SoundMagic ES20

SoundMagic ES20

Pro: Braided cords offer more power
Con: Not good for movement

All By Yourself: The distinctive look of the ES20 not only make them one of the most noticeable and attractive budget earbuds, they also improve sound isolation and ambient sound blocking. These aren’t full isolation headphones, though they do a good job of keeping out noises that aren’t directed right at you and prevent bleeding both in and out. The responsiveness of these is exceptional and the sound stage gives you good audio framing that isn’t overrun with bass. Classical and acoustic music, as well as instrumentals all sound tremendous while R&B, rap, EDM, and other styles that rely heavily on hard-hitting bass response will sound muddy and a little lost. The ES20s leverage their power for clarity rather than thump which gives them a much better range instead of a deep low end. While the style is nice for sitting or strolling, trying to exercise with these is an uncomfortable endeavor. [Purchase: $25]

Skullcandy Fix

Skullcandy Fix

Pro: Stay in place during activity
Con: Good bass, weak highs and mids

Work It On Out: Since we’d already looked at the top-tier workout headphones it wasn’t difficult to find the best affordable earbuds for anyone looking to rack up some miles. We tried the Fix against a multitude of cheap earbuds and even some not-so-cheap models and these came out ahead every time. For a reasonable price point you won’t be able to get the same responsiveness and comfort from just about anywhere. The hidden bass port adds a little more bass response that is ideal for cardio routines or getting psyched up before hitting the free weights. The design looks as classy and stylish as they sound so you’ll never be embarrassed on the trail or at the gym, though we would have traded those runway good-looks for a little more clarity in the high ranges. Able to resist reasonable amounts of sweat and abuse these are pretty tough for the money, but far from truly bombproof. [Purchase: $36]

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