You’ve had enough of those crappy earbuds you got for free with your phone. Not only are they cheap and flimsy, but they don’t sound very good. You’re ready for an upgrade. Luckily, there are plenty of good options between $25 and $100. And if you enjoy super-crisp, luscious sound, you can spend several hundred dollars on a pair of high-end earphones and have your face blown off (in a good way) on a daily basis.
The Cost of Sound
Most earphones costing $30 and under sound pretty close to the freebies that came with your phone. The truth is, that’s good enough for a large chunk of consumers. Once you get around $40 or $50, you start to really notice a difference. The sound gets fuller, there’s less distortion when you crank the volume, and the bass is vastly improved. Models priced around $90 or $100 generally sound excellent to most ears. To get the absolute best sound from a pair of buds, you’re going to have to spend $200 or more, but almost everyone can appreciate the richness and clarity of a $100 pair of earphones.
Tight or Loose?
For most, the fit of an earphone is just as important — if not more important — than the sound. Traditional buds nestle gently into your ear-hole, and usually have some sort of rubber tip to secure them there. These are closest to the style that comes with the iPhone and other mobiles. More extreme are the in-ear style which actually insert into your ear canal, forming a tight seal. They cut out most external noise and give you better sound, but some people find them uncomfortable — both physically because of the way they put pressure on your ears, and mentally, because of the isolating effect. Others, particularly audiophiles, relish in that isolation.
Some earphones have small plastic guides that route the cabling behind your ears, or stiff “memory wire” that conforms to the shape of that nook behind your ear. Some have a collar clip to keep the cable from bouncing around as you walk or run. In-ear buds usually come with multiple tips — rubber and foam — that provide a range of fits. Foam tips are squishy and mold to your ear canal better. Rubber tips require you select the right size (there are usually three sizes in the box, and there’s a chance none will fit perfectly). But rubber tips are easier to clean than foam, and allow for more breathability.
Dig the Dongle
Almost all earphones now come with a remote built into the cable — wireless Bluetooth buds excluded, of course. This lets you change the volume, skip tracks, and (since there’s a mic in there, too) answer calls easily. This feature is a must if you spend a lot of time talking on the phone, or if you’re a shuffle-jockey who’s always skipping songs. It’s common to put the remote on the cable under one of the ears, so it hangs close to your chin.
If you’re shopping for earbuds under $50, there isn’t much deviation in the sound quality. The main differentiators are the design and the fit, so you have to decide what style best suits how you’ll use them. If you’re mostly listening at your desk or walking around town, in-ear models will provide better isolation and prevent the sound from leaking. If you listen while running or while at the gym, a secure fit is paramount, so choose an in-ear model with behind-the-ear pieces and a collar clip.
If good sound is your primary concern, spend the extra money on earphones that emphasize audio quality. Go for a design with two or even four drivers inside — you’ll get a clearer separation between the bass and treble, as well as more detail across all audio frequencies.
Are you the type who wraps your headphone cable around your phone or just throws the buds into your bag? If so, get a cheap pair because you’ll be replacing them often. Even the most rugged earphones can’t take extensive abuse, which is why they almost always come with carrying cases.
Photo illustration by Simon Lutrin/get-gadget