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The Best Cheap In-Ear Headphones are $12

By Lauren Dragan, The Wirecutter

After sifting through literally hundreds of options, seriously considering nearly 150 models, testing the top 40, and calling in audio experts to blindly evaluate the top 20, we’re pleased to report that if you want to buy an inexpensive pair of in-ears, you should get the Panasonic RP-TCM125 Ergo Fit. They sound good, have a one-button remote and mic, fit well, come in a variety of colors and cost less than $15.

After sifting through literally hundreds of options, seriously considering nearly 150 models, testing the top 40, and calling in audio experts to blindly evaluate the top 20, we’re pleased to report that if you want to buy an inexpensive pair of in-ears, you should get the Panasonic RP-TCM125 Ergo Fit. They sound good, have a one-button remote and mic, fit well, come in a variety of colors and cost less than $15.

Who’s This For?

So you’re at the airport and realize you forgot to stuff your favorite headphones into your carry-on bag. Your kid asks you for a new pair of earbuds because they lost theirs (for the second time this month). Or maybe the Apple EarPods included with your phone got run through the laundry. Whatever the reason this time, we’ve all been there. Sometimes you just want a pair of headphones that cost as little as necessary to get the job done. But here’s the problem: which ones are worth putting in your ears? There are a million models out there, and nobody has really bothered to review them. Until now.

How Did We Choose Our Winner?

There is a reason there are no direct comparison reviews on headphones in this price range: there are just so many of them. Researching and evaluating everything currently in the marketplace was a daunting and unbelievably time-consuming task. Fortunately, we at the Wirecutter aren’t afraid of hard work. So we set out into uncharted waters to answer the questions that anyone who has stood at a kiosk in the airport or browsed Amazon and Best Buy have wondered: “What the heck should I get? Are any of these really any better than the Apple EarPods?” How we got the answers is a long process.

Phase one: research. As I mentioned before, there aren’t many professional reviews of headphones available, and the ones that do exist are one-offs that don’t compare several pairs apples-to-apples. But I found as many positive single reviews by professionals as I could, and began a “to consider” list.

Next, I took to emailing several of my colleagues in the audio industry to ask for their favorites. Without naming names, I got more than one, “I don’t know, but I heard the _____ sound pretty good” responses. Not exactly hard evidence.

Want to know the definition of tedious? Burning in 40 pairs of headphones.

So, I did what any decent tech upstart would do: I crowdsourced. Amazon, Best Buy, HeadFi, Newegg… if there were reviews, I read them. Anything 4 stars and over got added to the list. You’d think this would make for a small list, but that only got me to about 150 headphones.

I then organized those with and without mic and remote options and found myself with a new quest: if I needed to replace what came with my iPhone, could I find a pair of in-ears that sound better and cost the same or less?

A final qualification was made. This is a practical category, so I looked at features. If a headphone in this category was over $25, it needed to have a mic/remote option, like the EarPods. Pairs with no mic/remote were acceptable at $25 or less. We had our contenders.

Phase two: acquisition. Now that I knew what others liked, I needed to test for myself. But this isn’t as easily done as you’d think. Just because a model was made last year doesn’t mean it’s still being manufactured this year. I contacted each and every company on the list. (For those who like to keep score, that meant 53 separate corporations.) I spoke to dozens of PR reps about what was going to be discontinued, what was coming out that was new (adding to the list), and what I could get my eager little mitts on. And if we couldn’t get them sent out by the PR company, we bought them. That added up really quickly. But we love our readers and weren’t about to leave a stone unturned just because we couldn’t borrow a pair of headphones. After the shopping/borrowing spree ended, I had a stack of boxes containing 40 pairs of in-ears. Now the real work could begin.

Phase three: testing. Want to know the definition of tedious? Burning in 40 pairs of headphones. But I wanted to be fair, so I gave each pair their time hooked to a sound source. And then the listening began. I quickly found that a few pairs got good reviews based presumably on their looks alone. Others were more difficult to pass by, and after comparing and re-comparing, I came up with my top 10 with and top 10 without mic/remote. These were the 20 that I took to our expert listening panel. But just to be safe, if a panelist had a specific model from the top 40 they wanted to hear in the mix, I offered them the opportunity to listen, compare and make a swap. Even with that taken into consideration, a few pairs quickly rose to the top. And the results shocked even us.

Who were the panelists? Well, Brent Butterworth, an A/V writer with decades of experience in the field including work with Sound + Vision, Home Theater and many other publications; John Higgins, a session musician and music/audio teacher at The Windward School, a private high school in Los Angeles; and Geoff Morrison, who has reviewed A/V gear for over 12 years for various websites that include Sound + Vision, Forbes and CNET. Me? I’m Lauren Dragan, a freelance audio writer/panelist for various sites such as Home Entertainment and Sound + Vision and a voice actor with a bachelor’s in both music performance and audio production. We all entered the test kitchen with open ears and minds. We ranked our top two in both categories, then compared the mic versus non-mic winners to see what we liked listening to most. I took everyone’s votes into consideration. Fortunately, there was a lot of overlap. Usually, this is the point at which price comes into play, but in this case the best was a holy grail situation where the favorite was also one of the cheapest. I give you: the Panasonic RP-TCM125 Ergo Fit.

Why Did the Panasonic RP-TCM125 Ergo Fit Win?

The Panasonic won because they sounded the best. Hands down. They were everyone’s top choice in terms of sound fidelity.

The Panasonic won because they sounded the best. Hands down. They were everyone’s top choice in terms of sound fidelity. They have a nice overall balance with airy, mellow highs and present-but-not-dominating bass. They sound just as good listening to acoustic guitar as they do hip hop and rock. Nothing pierces, nothing muddies: every frequency plays well with the others. And as you’ll see with other contenders later, that’s not often the case in this price range.

While their plasticky design won’t be winning any awards for beauty or construction, they are light, come with three pairs of silicone tips (S,M,L) and have an oval, ear-canal-friendly shaping to the tips once you put them on the buds themselves. (Hence: “ergo fit.”) And they come in five colors. It’s worth mentioning that Brent took a bit to get the right seal for his larger ears, but everyone else was able to easily have a good listening experience with them.

They have a one-button universal remote and mic. The remote will play, pause, and activate voice control on your phone. Calls using the mic sound to the person on the other end of the call “like the built-in mic on the iPhone,” according to John.

But the most important factor is that they sound better than headphones three times their price, including the Apple EarPods. So if you’re looking for the best performance for the money, the Panasonic Ergo Fit are guaranteed to make you happy.

What Else Did We Like? (AKA: Alternatives for when our main pick goes out of stock)

If you want a slightly better build and don't need a mic or remote, these Sonys were a close second to the Panasonic.

For those of you who want a slightly better chassis and can forgo the microphone and remote, the Sony MDR-EX37B “Bumpin Buds” are also a good choice. Brent, for one, loved the sound of these, saying they had “everything you want in a headphone. A close second to the Panasonic.” Indeed, they do have a lovely soundscape, and they were the top non-mic choice for three out of four of our testers. However, they have a touch of sibilance to them, which is what caused Geoff to exclude them from his top two. Everyone was able to get a good fit with the included three sets of color-coded tips. The headphones themselves are available in four different colors and have a rubbery feel to them. That said, you’ll end up paying $18 and have no mic or remote to show for it.

These buds are bass heavy if that's your thing and are neatly designed; the cord has a "cable loop" attached and the earbuds snap together to minimize tangles.

The Urban Ears Kransen were well-received for their attractive design and clever touches: the backs of the buds snap together to avoid tangling and the jack has a small “cable loop” that wraps around the cord to keep it coiled neatly. The cord itself is wrapped in fabric and has a universal one-button remote and mic. There are three sets of tips to choose from, and everyone was able to get a good fit. They feel substantial and built to last. And they’re available in 10 colors. Beauty aside, the bass is very forward, so only bass lovers need apply. Brent liked them, saying that if he were to spend his own money, these are likely the ones he’d buy for himself. Geoff and John agreed with Brent on the design, but neither really loved the sound as much as their other picks. And while I agree that the sound may not be everyone’s cup of tea, we’d happily recommend them as a bass lover/design fan option for those prepared to spend $39. It’s worth keeping in mind that you could get our $100 in-ear top pick for only $11 more, but that our next bass lover’s pick, the Velodynes, are $99. Regardless, these are not for someone who needs a new pair every month.

We only recommend these if you prefer the non-sealed style of Apple's EarPods, otherwise you'd be better off with a different pick.

If you are someone who does not like sealed ear canals and want to replace the Apple EarPods, the$15 Sennheiser MX365s do sound better than the EarPods and are cheaper. But that’s as far as the recommendation goes. Looking like a relic from the 90s, these old-school foam-covered earbuds were Geoff’s non-mic favorite. And they do sound pretty good; they have an even balance overall and not a lot of distortion. But that’s where the agreement ends. John and Brent found the foam odd and uncomfortable. I sat in the middle of the argument.

What about Monoprice?

The Monoprice 8320 Enhanced Bass Hi-Fi Noise Isolating Earphones were our previous winners and have a cult-like following. They range from $7-$11, depending on where and how many you buy (Monoprice has a bulk discount). I’ve even been asked by a reader to compare them to more expensive headphones. Here’s the scoop: they may have been good for what they were when they came out, but they don’t hold up at this point. The treble was way too much for everyone on the panel. They have a tube coloration to them, and Brent remarked that they are “cynically voiced to appeal to audiophile biases.” Geoff was the most generous: “not bad, but not great.” We all disliked the over-ear design and how it affected the fit overall. While it was nice to have a fabric-wrapped cord, you can do better for your money now, and in this price range you should.

What Else Did The Panel Listen To?

Apple EarPods- The general feeling with these is that they’re unremarkable but unobjectionable. They’re included with Apple products. But if they break or get lost and you need to replace them, we’d buy anything else listed above first before paying for a second set of these for $29.

No one had heard of elago (or their In-Ear Noise-Reducing Earphones with Superior Comfort EL-EA-E4R) before this test, but the buds’ surprisingly decent sound quality helped them emerge as a dark horse candidate. However, a small peak in the high end was enough to put them out of our top three. As Brent put it, “All the properties are there; they just need to be voiced. Good headphone, could have been great.” $12.

Audio Technica ATH-CLR100 “Clear”- Everyone found these uncomfortable to get to fit, and the treble had way too much sizzle for any of our testers. $15.

Audio Technica ATH-COR150- These were not well received by our testers. While the idea of removable over-ear guides was a neat one, panel quotes included “I don’t feel these were designed for human ears,” ”cheesy and cheaply made,” “can’t get them to fit: how many drugs did the designers do?” and “Hate. Total Hate.” Ouch. I think the fit impacted the overall sound, so nobody was happy. $20.

elago E520M- While not in the top two of headphones with remote and mic, these are still recommendable for certain listeners. We all agreed they could use a bit more bass, but overall the high end probably would appeal to treble-loving audiophiles. Those like John and myself with ears that are sensitive to high frequencies might find them fatiguing. They come with a little rubber carrying case. $29.

Human Toolz Soundbuds XST with Mic- Muddy bass, unrefined treble. Brent had a tough time getting a good fit (so folks with larger ear canals, take note). Not terrible, but at this price range why would you not get the best? Includes a rubbery cord organizer, velvet bag. These retail for $21, but we’ve seen them on Amazon for as low as $6.

JBuds J6M- These have a bit of a peak in the low mids, and while nobody found them overall objectionable, nobody found them remarkable either. Remote and mic optional, but for around the same $25 price tag.

JVC FR201- Let me begin by saying that these were better than some of the 40 we brought in. That’s how they ended up in the top 20. So keep that in mind when reading about the other headphones that didn’t make it. Still, the panel trashed them. Geoff said, “Very bad. Just. No.” John remarked, “There is not one aspect of these headphones that I like.” Brent painted a picture: “If someone were thrown from a plane, then were run over by a car after hitting the ground, and then an animal attacked them, it would be difficult to describe their injuries. Much in the same way it’s difficult to describe what’s wrong with these headphones.” So, yeah… No mic. $20.

Marley Uplift- I was hopeful for these headphones as there are others in their line that I’ve liked. They also use renewable resources and recycled materials, so they are karma-friendly. Sadly, the snare is extremely forward and the bass is “flappy.” (That’s how John put it; I’d just have said unrefined and messy.) Really lovely build, so I have hope for the company in the future. $29-$39 depending on whether you want a mic/remote or not.

Nyrius NAEB500 Directly Angled Earphones- Maybe it was the way the “directly angled” fit affected the sound, but our panelists were not impressed. The lower mids were muffled, the upper mids too forward. The bass was mushy. The coated cord did feel sturdy, but overall we’d take a pass, even at $19.

Sennheiser CX200 Twist to Fit- Are you someone who liked the Denon Urban Ravers? Then you might like these. Intense treble and bass, which some folks might find to be too intense. They don’t by any means suck, but for $19, we’d still recommend our top choices over these.

Skullcandy Ink’d 2.0- Oh, Skullcandy. The brand is everywhere. They have a million colors and designs and sport and celebrity endorsements, so it makes sense that so many places carry them. And to be fair, they feel solid enough in build quality. But these are an overly treble-heavy mess. They only come with two tip sizes and Brent couldn’t even get a fit, saying, “Only two pairs? Why? Are they really that cheap?” And at around $22 depending on colors, they shouldn’t be.

Skullcandy Titan- These weren’t in my original top 20, but Brent wanted to hear them with the rest of the group. He recalled thinking they were pretty good when he’d heard them years ago. These had tips that fit him, (though still only two pairs) but upon hearing them among the other headphones, he stuck with his original top choices. Personally, I feel they lack clarity. They range in price from $24-$29 depending on color, remote and mic choices.

Sony MDR-EX10LP- The difference between these and the other Sonys we listened to is stark. It’s hard to believe they were made by the same company. Brent called them “garbage,” adding, “Do not buy. Except for someone you truly dislike.” Geoff said, “These just suck. And then there’s no bass.” John mentioned something about getting them for someone that hates sounds, and that they “lack soul.” They’re all right. It’s truly bizarre. They’re $10, but Brent said he’d pay someone just so he didn’t have to listen to them again. Yikes. Look elsewhere.

Soundmagic ES18- These are really only good at hip hop. If that’s all you listen to, you might like them. The bass is very intense, but the mids are lacking and the upper end lacks sparkle and presence. In a way, they reminded Brent and me of the Beats Urbeats. Frankly, I think the Urban Ears do bass-heavy voicing better. But if you can skip the mic, listen solely to hip hop and only have $12, go for it.

Subjekt Her Phones- Sigh. First of all, I’m not going to get into the issue of tech marketed for women here. Suffice it to say, I don’t know what having small ear canals has to do with being a woman. Ask Geoff. As a man with smaller ears, he’ll agree. But, at least they aren’t only available in pink. That said, Brent has larger ear canals, so I knew he might not be able to get the fit right with the included tips. He did appreciate how small and light the external earphone piece was, but the tips just didn’t work well enough for him to give a fair account of the sound. Geoff, John and I didn’t find them overly objectionable. They were a bit treble heavy for all of us, but John said he would put them as his fourth favorite overall. It really came down to the fact that there were other models that did everything a little bit better. And shockingly, despite their inherent manliness, both John and Geoff found the fit comfortable. Maybe “petite” would have been a better descriptor. If you like small and light with a treble kick, they’re $19.

What Else Did We Try?

Airbuds Most Comfortable Earbuds- Muddy sounding, lacking in any dexterity. A pity, as the build is solid.

Alpatronix High Performance Tangle-Free Earphones with Microphone for iPhone, iPad, iPod and BlackBerry- Another quality build with an inarticulate sound. Woofy bass, blah highs.

Audio Technica ATH-CKL202is- The bass is nonexistent.

Audiofly 33 series- Love the colors and overall design, but the thuddy, muffled-sounding bass and the overcompensating treble ends up being piercing. It’s a pity. Especially when you can get our $100 pick for $20 more.

ChicBuds Tangle Free Arts Earbuds- All our panelists actually remarked on the cool printed cord. The overall concept is based on fashion, and you can really tell that when you listen to them. Sadly, the voicing is tinny, and that means we have to say serious listeners should give these a pass.

Creative EP 630i- Muddy and generally unimpressive.

JLab Diego- Peaky, idiosyncratic sound. Plastic build.

JLab Fit- What a weird design. Bendy over-ear that pulls the earbud out of your ear. Not impressive sounding, hard to wear, and $30.

Marley Smile Jamaica- Such a great build, but the overall sound is lackluster, especially compared to the sister headphones, the Uplift.

Panasonic RPHJ355- A weird fit that I couldn’t get to make sound good no matter how I tried.

Scosche Stereo Headphones with Tapline Music Control and Microphone - Blah sounding. They aren’t overly terrible, but rather lifeless and dull.

Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds- Lots of colors available for lots of different prices. The sound is muffled and lacks clarity.

Sony DR-EX12IP - The treble is piercing and overwhelming.

Sony MDR-EX100IP- iPod/phone specific remote, but the bass is completely lacking. At $32, go for something else.

Subjekt Amp’d- Lacks bass and clarity at the same time.

Urban Ears Bagis- We like the Urban Ears Kransen better. Not only do the Kransen have better little design features, we also like the voicing better. Spend the extra $4 for the Kransen.

Yamaha EPH-20BL- Yet another bizarre sounding headphone. Buzzy and tinny highs with bommy, muddy lows.

But What About…?

385 Audio P-Clip In-Ear Earbuds with Microphone – Not nearly enough reviews to convince me the good ones are more than just about looks.

385 Audio Trio In-Ear- See above.

Allen & Heath Xone:XD-20 Advanced Bass- No longer made.

Altec Lansing MZX436 Earbud Stereo Headphones w/Inline Microphone- No longer made.

ARCTIC E461-BM In-Ear Stereo Headphones, Neodymium Magnet Drivers, Total Linearity – Silver- No longer made.

Audio Technica ATH-CKL200- same as the CKL202 without remote- See above review.

Audio-Technica ATH-CK1- No longer made.

Audio-Technica ATH-CK313M- No longer made.

Audio-Technica ATH-CKS55BK- No longer made.

Belkin PureAV 002 Headphones with Built-In Microphone- No longer made.

Brainwavz M1- $40 and no mic put this out of the range.

Brainwavz M4- Again, price puts these out of this range.

Brainwavz M5- Meh Amazon reviews.

Creative EP-630- Same as the 630i without mic, see above.

Creative EP-650- No mic and $29.

Creative EP-660- Discontinued and replaced with 660i2 and these have bad reviews based on build quality on Creative’s site.

Creative Labs E-MU EP-630- No mic and $30.

GOgroove audiOHM HF- All of the GOgroove products seem to be praised as “for the price” and sold by third parties I don’t recognize. I also never managed to be able to get the corporate customer service to get back to me, so if you need replacements or tech support, proceed with caution.

GOgroove AudiOHM DX- See above.

GOgroove AudiOHM iDX- See above.

GOgroove DynaMIX Noise Isolating Earbuds Earphones with Hands-free Microphone & Anti-Tangle Cord- See above.

iFrogz EP-WBPM-NAT Timbre Pro EarBuds-Walnut- No longer made.

iHip IP-EPS41- No longer made.

iHip IP-PC-RAVE- No longer made.

iLuv iEP322SIL City Lights In-Ear Earphones – Ultra Bass – No longer made.

iLuv IEP335- Started at 4 stars, dropped to 3.5.

iLuv iEP515- Started at 4 stars, dropped to 3.5.

JAYS T00072 a-Jays One- Too expensive to not have a mic, and don’t sound that great overall.

JVC HA-FX35- Cost too much to not have mic.

JVC HAFX1X- No longer made.

Kicker 09EB101- Too few reviews and at $25 too much to not have mic.

Klipsch Image S3- Too much to not have mic.

Koss iL200w- Lackluster reviews on Newegg.

Koss PATHFINDR- no longer made

Koss RUK 30K- No mic at $26, and really better considered in a sport category.

Lenntek Sonix3S- $31 and no mic.

Logitech Ultimate Ears 500- $28 for no mic, and a mic is available for $40 more?!?

Me Electronics M2P- Serious build-quality complaints on Amazon.

Me Electronics sx31- More serious build-quality complaints on Amazon.

MEElectronics CW31- No longer made.

MeElectronics M9- No longer made, newer model is M9pg2 but more expensive.

Mizco EKU-CHA2-BK Ecko Chaos 2 – The good reviews only talk about Ecko design not sound.

NeoBuds Pro Musician Neodymium Noise-Isolating Earbuds- Only 10 reviews and all by people that received them for free? Not convincing.

NuForce NE-600X – Same as same as 600M with no mic, see above.

Panasonic RP-HJE280- No longer made.

Panasonic RP-HJE295-A Deep Base- No longer made.

Panasonic RP-HJE350- No longer made.

Panasonic RP-HJE450- $27 too expensive for no mic.

Paradigm e1- At $50, too expensive to have no mic.

Philips SHE9000/28- Too expensive for no mic.

Pineapple Electronics PEH-BICBANG1- No longer supported.

Pioneer SE-CL721-K- In the process of being discontinued.

Pioneer SE-CLX40-K- In the process of being discontinued.

Radius Atomic Bass- 3.5 stars on Amazon and CNET.

Radius Atomic Bass 2- Needs to go down in price with no mic.

RHA MA 450i- Super noisy cord, and lackluster reviews on Apple site.

Rock-it Sounds R10/11- HeadFi readers not impressed with the 10 or 11. I’d need to hear more good things to want to bring them in.

Sennheiser CX 215- Too much for no remote: $40.

Sennheiser CX 275s- 3.5 stars on Amazon and over $50.

Sennheiser CX 300B – $36 and no mic or remote.

Sennheiser CX150- $27 and no mic or remote.

Sennheiser MM30i – No longer made.

Skullcandy Fix In-Ear Headphones w/ Mic3- Mixed Amazon reviews, 3.5 stars at press time.

Skullcandy Heavy Medal- Mixed reviews on Amazon.

Skullcandy INK’D Ear Buds- replaced by Ink’d 2, see review above.

Sony DRE10iP- No longer made.

Sony MDR-ED12LP- No longer made.

Sony MDR-EX210 Earbud Style Headphones- No longer made.

Sony MDR-EX33LP- No longer made.

Sony MDR-EX38iP – Complaints of not working with newer Apple products.

Sony MDR-XB21EX Extra Bass – No longer made.

Sony MDREX100AP- Few reviews, and limited availability.

Sony MDREX40LP- No longer made.

Sony MDREX58V- No longer made.

Sony MDRXB60EX/GLD Extra Bass In Ear 13.5 mm Driver Headphone, Gold- Too expensive, no mic.

Sony MH750- 3.5 stars at Amazon.

Sony XBA-1 Balanced Armature Headphones- Too much for no mic and 3.5 stars on Amazon.

SoundMAGIC E10- $34 and no mic, $44 with mic, and build-quality concerns on Amazon.

SoundMAGIC E30- $38 no mic, too expensive.

Soundmagic PL30- $28 and no mic.

Soundsoul S-018 – Too much for no mic.

Symphonized NRG Premium Genuine Wood- I couldn’t find a corporate site, so proceed with caution, knowing there may be no tech support.

TDK Life On Record MT300- No longer supported.

TDK MCG300- Too much for no mic.

Tweedz Braided Headphones- Loved the design, but again, too much for no mic.

Ultimate Ears 200- No longer made.

V-MODA Remix In-Ear Noise-Isolating Metal Headphone- Costs too much for no mic.

Yak Pak Remix Earbuds with Mic- I’m darn curious if there is substance with the style, but need more consumer reviews before I’d bring them in.

Yamaha EPH-30- $40 and no mic.

Yamaha EPH-c200- Cost too much for no mic.

Yamaha YER-500- Cost too much for no mic.

Yurbuds Ironman INSPIRE Duro- Mixed reviews on Amazon.

Zipbuds JUICED- Horrid CNET review.

A Step Up

If you’re willing to invest more, the Sony XBA-C10IPs are truly fantastic sounding. What does your money get you? A lot, actually. More clarity and sparkle in the highs, better pitched and defined bass, an even and warm overall sound, a volume control on the remote, better build quality and more pairs of tips. They’re our pick at under $100,and are available for around $50.

When You Absolutely, Positively Want to Spend Less Than $30

You just can’t beat the Panasonic RP-TCM125. They sound far better than their price would ever make you think possible. Heck, they sound better than some pairs three times their price, and certainly better than anything in their price range currently available. To find better, you’d need to spend at least $30 more. They fit well, you can use them to answer calls if you need to, and if your dog chews them into little plasticky bits you won’t cry because they cost $12! Seriously. $12. Why are you still reading? Buy them. Because: Twelve. Dollars. You’ll love them.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 11/9/2013 and is republished here with permission.