We've all been there: You've lost or broken your ear buds, and now you need another pair. How do you choose from the avalanche of choices at every check-out counter? Do you buy the cheapest ones you can find, the first ones you see, the purple ones, or a pair that costs a little more because they sound better? Let's take a look.
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Should You Pay More for Sound Quality?
Let's start with your own ears, which is where the earbuds are going to live.
How well can you actually discern sound quality? NPR developed a super-fun simple online test that you can use to assess the quality your hearing.
As you can see from the test, sound is highly subjective, with many variables affecting how you "hear" sound. These boil down to personal taste as well as how sound degrades on the path from its source to your eardrums.
Generally, the more you pay, the more accurate sound you will get. But in headphones over $30, your ears might not be able to discern the difference.
Why is this? First, virtually all the audio you hear, from Netflix to CDs, has already been compressed and thus stripped of the nuances that create high quality sound. Also, your device that plays the sound--whether PC or phone--almost certainly doesn't have the drivers for rendering best sound. True audiophiles have set-ups that excel in fancy-sounding specs like impedance, sound staging, frequency range, and imaging, and they buy music in a specialty high-resolution format.
Personal taste also plays a huge role. Some people like heavy bass, for example, even at the expense of accuracy… just like how an Instagram photo can "pop" compared to the original image. Cheap headphones can even fool you into thinking they are better, since they use less power and hence produce comparatively more sound when used with a low-powered device like a phone.
Lastly, fit in the ear affects sound substantially. Your uniquely-shaped ear canal acts as a resonance chamber that affects sound.
What to do? If you don't require tip-top sound quality, get a $20 pair and you're done.
Otherwise, the best way to match your particular sound profile is to try different models at a "sound bar" in an electronics store, though they rarely have the lesser expensive models on display for testing.
InMotion Entertainment Store in an Airport
You should also consider which features are most important to you--your checklist of features, as it were.
Your Features Checklist
Basic features. Think about how you'll most commonly use your earbuds. For music, you'll probably want to ensure that they have volume and pause controls. If you want to make calls while wearing them, get an integrated microphone.
For a subway commute, consider noise-cancelling. And if you bike or jog, sweat-proof headphones that let in ambient noise (so you can hear vehicles approaching from behind) might be important to you.
Wireless. Wireless (specifically, Bluetooth) headphones make sense when wire-free audio is important to you. For some people, though, wireless can be a hassle. Bluetooth headphones generally need to be charged for every 8-12 hours of usage, and your phone battery drains faster when the Bluetooth is on. Sometimes apps can have trouble interfacing with Bluetooth, or won't synch if there is more than one Bluetooth device connected at a time.
Fit and Comfort. Fit is incredibly important for sound quality, particularly with in-ear headphones. As no two ears are alike, you just need to try different types. For in-ear headphones, the sealed type must be snug with no gaps, so they come with different sized molded tips to fit your particular ear canal.
The alternative is unsealed, like Apple's EarPods (the old standard for iPhones) where generally one size fits all, and ambient (surrounding) noise is allowed in. Other configurations hook on or over the ear to tackle the problem of loose ear buds. Figure out which style or brand works best for you. Does it stay put when you are moving? Does it feel like you have cauliflower ear after just a few minutes?
Noise-Canceling. NC, as it's often abbreviated, is handy when the ambient noise is disruptive--especially in locations like airplanes. But noise-cancelling technology can degrade sound quality. Note that "noise reduction" is not the same thing as noise-cancelling, and generally just means snug ear buds that seal the ear canal to muffle outside noise.
Warranty. You might want to buy headphones with a long warranty, because those manufacturers are more confident that their products will last longer, and even if they do break, you might get a replacement pair for free. Most manufacturers offer a 90-day warranty, but a few offer more, such as Skullcandy, which offers lifetime replacement on even its least expensive models. Here are the some the more popular brands:
- Skullcandy – lifetime
- Koss – varies by model up to lifetime
- Sennheiser – 2 years
- 1MORE – 1 year
- Sony – 90 days
- Panasonic – 90 days
- Philips – 90 days
The Best Headphones Under $100
Given these considerations, here are some of our picks that perform well in a range of scenarios.
Triple Driver Headphones
The 1MORE Triple Driver In-Ear Headphones, as the name implies, feature three distinct drivers--two balanced armatures and a separate dynamic driver.
Since each driver focuses on a narrower frequency range, you get more detailed sound. It comes in at the top of the price range at $99.
In-Ear Noise Canceling
Noise cancelling headphones use complementary sound waves to cancel out up to 90% of outside noise. Most headphones in this category are over-ear, but for people on the go, earbuds are the answer.
There's really only one real contender in the under-$100 category, the highly rated Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling In-Ear Headphone. They cost about $70.
According to the CDC, about 12% of young people suffer hearing loss from prolonged exposure to loud noise. The leading preventative measure cited in a medical journal is to control the sound from headphones.
The Puro Sound IEM-200 limits sound to safe levels, to protect kids' hearing and limit hearing damage.
Everyone has a favorite configuration for sports--wrap around the ear, lock into the lobe, collar-style, etc. Here's a model that tends to fly under the radar, but, but its fans--myself included--are avid, so it's definitely worthy of consideration. AfterShokz technology solves many of the problems with sports headphones, relieving the need for precise fit in the ear.
AfterShokz Bluez 2s uses bone conduction to carry the sound into your eardrum, without covering your ear. That means you can hear what's going on around you, such as cars or people approaching from behind. Also, with nothing plugging your ears, fit doesn't have to be so precise, and your ears don't grow sore. As an added bonus, it's less conspicuous to others, so you can surreptitiously listen to music while appearing to be attentive! Sweat-resistant, wireless range of 33 feet, good sound quality, 6+ hours of battery life, and a microphone that works for phone calls in a pinch. A newer $129 Titanium model has a thinner flexible frame for even better fit, and longer battery life.
While many experts point to other models for best sound quality, we're recommending Skullcandy for its good-enough quality and outstanding lifetime warranty and replacement deal. The styles are trendy and the construction is solid for the price range. Some models, such as the Dime, were engineered specifically to fit women.
Skullcandy's lifetime warranty is unmatched, and so easy with no hidden shipping fees. Just fill out an online claim and send back the headphones. If the company determines it was their defect (customers seem to get the benefit of the doubt), you'll get a voucher for a new pair with shipping included. If you clearly broke it yourself, such as snapping off the cable, Skullcandy will still give 50% credit toward your next pair, as part of its "Aggressive Enjoyment Program".
Last but not least, the Panasonic Ergo Fit RP-TCM125 is experts' favorite for budget sound quality.
It comes with a mic and a universal pause/answer button, a nice choice of colors, comfortable fit, and very competitive specs including large 9 mm drivers with neodymium magnets. The geeks that spend hundreds of hours testing such things have all ended up with this pair on their shortlist. Reach for it in the airport when you forget your own buds at home.