If I had $100 to spend on earbuds, I’d get the Sony XBA-C10IPs, which only cost $50 but beat competition twice as expensive. After researching dozens of headphones, considering 79 and testing the 15 most promising, our expert listening panel liked them the best. The Sonys fit everyone well, sound fantastic, and have both a remote and a mic.
Why Spend $100 on In-Ear Headphones?
When looking for in-ears, there are three things you want to take into account.
First, fit. Are they comfortable in your ear canal? Do they stay put or do they tug when you move? Do they seal off external sound? Do they chafe or irritate your ears? Good in-ear headphones should be light, easy to wear for long periods and fit comfortably once you find the correct tip.
Second, sound. How well do the in-ears reproduce sounds? Is there one frequency range that is over- or underrepresented? Are they so loud in one frequency range that it makes it uncomfortable to listen to music for very long? Music should sound warm and full and have a sense of space; voices should be clear and crisp.
Third, build. Headphones in this price range and size are generally used for commuting so it makes sense to look for something sturdy enough to survive the abuses of daily use. Things like a tangle-resistant cord and a well-designed carrying case are also good to look for as well.
You should also get something with a microphone and remote because having to take your phone out of your pocket/bag to answer a call while on the go (or even while sitting at a desk) can be really annoying.
Headphones in this price range will have better drivers and sound than models around $30 or less.
Why spend a little more? Headphones in this price range will have better drivers and sound than models around $30 or less. They’ll also have features like extra tips (to fit your ears properly), cable clips or a carrying case. While they won’t have the detail, sense of space and sonic clarity of $200 models (like our pick in that range, the RBH EP2) they will sound a darn sight better than the pair that you got with your mobile phone or that you snagged from that accessory kiosk at the mall. Not into in-ears? Take a look at our over-ear recommendations in the same price range.
How Did We Pick a Winner?
First I interviewed experts. Unfortunately, most of the experts I emailed haven’t done much in the way of testing in this price range. Steve Guttenberg of CNET’s Audiophiliac added a few potential favorites, including our previous winner, the V-Moda by Velodyne. I also read as many reviews as possible, including those by Tyll Hertsens on Inner Fidelity and In-Ear Matters’s List.
Once I had a grasp on what the pros were saying, I took to Amazon and Best Buy to see what customer reviews were saying. Anything with 4 stars or more was considered—79 models in total.
Once I had that list, I then weeded out anything without a remote or mic. In this price range, we felt it was very important that a day-to-day in-ear headphone have mobile phone capabilities. I then cross-referenced reviews and looked at new models on the market that had not been reviewed yet.
The best of the best were brought in for testing (15 pairs in total). We brought in a face-off panel consisting of Brent Butterworth, an A/V writer with decades of experience in the field including 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; Phil Metzler, a musician/keyboardist in the band Just off Turner, and me, Lauren Dragan, a freelance tech writer and voice actor with a degree in music and audio production.
The panelists separately listened to music of their own selection and took copious notes on their thoughts, each finally selecting a top 3. At this point I generally would need to weigh in price and ranking for each headphone. But amazingly, three of us selected the exact same top three, and the lowest our winner got was one second place ranking. It was easy, then, to name a victor.
Why Did The Sony XBA-C10IPs Win?
The Sonys took on some headphones that were double their price and sound-wise blew them out of the water.
Easy answer? For the price, which is an astoundingly low $50, they sounded the best. None of the panelists (aside from myself) had any idea of the cost of any of the headphones they tested and even still, the Sonys took on some that were double their price and sound-wise blew them out of the water. All of our panelists were surprised that they liked them so much.
Here’s what each of our panelists had to say. Brent found the listening experience “neutral with a refined high end.” And while he personally prefers his headphones to be a bit more bass-heavy, he said the Sonys would be his “number one recommendation” as they had “great balanced armature” (which refers to the mechanism by which these produce sound; see footnote 1). John also liked the even frequency response and the spatial sense they created. Phil put them in second place, but still asserted that he “liked them a lot.” I loved the warm, even sound, and while the bass definitely was more subtle than in other pairs we reviewed, the low-end was still very much present. It just wasn’t overpowering, which seems to be a default for many headphones in this price range.
As far as fit is concerned, everyone agreed that the Sonys fit comfortably, which is also a rarity (and one of the main reasons we think it’s a great buy for most people). In-ear headphones are often very difficult to get people to agree upon. But the Sonys are light, small, and they have 4 pairs of color-coded silicone tips in various sizes that isolate sound well. The cord is also light enough that it doesn’t tug on ears threaten to pull the headphones out when you are moving. Also included as a shirt clip, for those who like the cable to stay put.
Sony nailed other aspects of their design as well. The mic sounds clear when used on calls, about the same as any other in-line mic we’ve used, including the Apple EarPods and RBH EP2s. The remote is placed well and functions with Apple products perfectly. In Android phones, the play/pause/call answer aspect works in our tests, but the volume control has to be done manually from the phone, which is sadly typical of most inline remotes, especially ones designed with iPhones in mind.
It also has what Sony refers to as a “serrated” coating to prevent tangles. The best way I can describe the cord texture: rubbery shark skin. What it seems to do is allow the cord to glide when it makes contact with itself rather than stick and potentially tangle. While there is no included case, a fabric pouch isn’t why anyone purchases headphones.
Oh, and then there’s the price. While the MSRP is $69, you can get the Sonys on Amazon for less than $50. When you consider that that’s not that much more than what replacement Apple EarPods cost, it’s a fantastic buy. And while the EarPods are cheaper, the Sony XBA-C10IPs are warmer, crisper sounding, more articulate, have far better isolation (which means saving your hearing by listening at lower volumes) and fit better. Not bad for an extra $20.
What Else Did We Like?
A strong second place went to the ME Electronics 151ps. (Make sure to select the “with mic” option before adding to cart if you need a microphone.) With clean highs and mids, and a generally nice sound field and depth, the 151ps were another favorite. The mids were a little forward for Brent and my personal tastes, but John described the sound as “great: it really blossoms as you listen to them longer.” The remote is universal but doesn’t offer volume control. However, they weren’t without controversy. While John liked the flexibility of the braided cord, Phil said it reminded him of “Christmas tree lights” and wondered if, like lights, it would unravel over time. Phil also had a difficult time getting a good fit, finding even the smallest tip didn’t fit properly, which was enough for him to knock the 151ps out of his top 3. That said, if the fit works for you and you like your mids emphasized the MEE151ps could be a good option for non-Apple users. They retail for around $80 with mic on Amazon.
Also universally liked were the AKG K376s. Brent called these his personal favorites, and all of our testers gave these a good score. With a little more oomph in the bass, the AKG K376s have clear mids and clean, crisp treble. But while Brent said these were the ones he would buy for himself, they “weren’t necessarily the ones [he’d] recommend to others.” The voicing is more intense in the highs and lows, which many people find exciting and appealing. After a while, however, this peaked voicing can be fatiguing to some more sensitive listeners, myself included. John, too, liked the fit and overall sound, but wished that the remote had a volume control (again, the price you pay for a universal remote). There was also division on the thicker cable. Phil found it stiff and wondered if it would break in over time or end up pulling the AKGs out of his ears. That said, if you like an exciting, dynamic sound (great for hip-hop, electronica, dance and pop); solid, classic construction; and like a universal one-button remote; AKG K376s sound great and are a good option, retailing for $100.
Our former pick, the V-Pulse by Velodyne, still holds up. Velodyne is known for bass, and the V-Pulse is a great example of why. While the bass is very forward, it avoids being muddy, and still voices mids and treble clearly. That said, all of our panel found the bass overpowering for long-term listening. Personally, I love a good thumping bassline, especially when I’m working out. But all that bass comes at a price. The build of the earpieces that affords such fine bass sticks out of the ear canal and weighs down the construction. On a 5-mile run, I couldn’t keep them in my ears for more than a few seconds; they kept popping out. Even walking with a bit of a bounce caused them to need adjustment. That said, your ears may be different and if you are sitting on the subway and want to bump a long day out of your mind, these are the in-ears for you. Snag them on Amazon for $99.
What Else Did We Test?
Beats Heartbeats--Considering our experience with other Beats products in the past, our panel was surprised that the Heartbeats were decent-sounding. But the treble can be overpowering and piercing, and the admittedly unique shape of the design pokes at your ear as you wear them. If you value form over function, these are the stiletto heel of headphones: gee, they look pretty, but after awhile they just plain hurt.
Beats UrBeats--“Muddy.” “Muddled.” “Exaggerated.” That about sums up the sound. The UrBeats lack definition, and the woofing bass completely smears the entire frequency range. The bass is even too much when listening to hip hop. None of our panelists liked them.
Bose IE2--The IE2s have a different kind of fit for in-ears. They don’t make a seal, but rather sit just outside the ear canal. This means there is no sound isolation, which, depending on your opinion, is either a good thing or a bad thing. Phil put them as his top choice. He liked the balance of the sound, and the fact that they didn’t need to be jammed into his ear. I could see his point. In certain circumstances, say, walking near traffic, or running in busy areas, awareness of your surroundings can be crucial. It’s something I struggle with when debating the merits of workout headphones all the time. But these aren’t Bose’s sport offering, and Brent detested the fit. The sound of the IE2s are obviously engineered to counter their fit, and to Brent the voicing sounded “crude” and the fit to him was “unusable.” John found the fit comfortable, and enjoyed the snappy highs, but he said he much prefers the isolated in-ears. That said, they are light and stay put. If you like hearing more than just your music, you can pick them up on Amazon for $130 with remote, or $99 without. Or, if you want to know what we recommend for workout headphones, you can read more here.
Etymotic MC2/3--There’s probably a reason Etymotic has stopped answering my emails. None of my panel liked their $200 in-ear offering, and nobody liked these either. What was so bad, you ask? To start, the fit. Etymotic offers three different types of tips, but all in one size. There’s the suffocating take on Comply tips, the odd “ear violating” (as Phil put it) pine tree-looking tips and the tips that resemble the cheapo earplugs you buy at the pharmacy. Regardless of comfort, the MC2/3s don’t have any bass. At all. Brent probably described it best: “While the treble is smooth, the tonal balance is so far off.” It’s a shame, because the MC2/3s will put you back $89 to $99 depending on what type of remote you want. (Apple-compatible remotes are $10 more) And while the build quality seems solid, I know that a company like Etymotic can do better.
Klipsch S3m--The overall opinion on the S3ms was underwhelming. Klipsch has oblong tips that Phil couldn’t find a sweet spot for in the fit, and therefore felt he couldn’t fairly judge the sound. John and I found the bass to be overpoweringly voiced, and Brent couldn’t get them to fit at all, so he couldn’t even hear them. Apparently, Klipsch makes other tips, which Brent says he has gotten to use, but they don’t offer them with their headphones nor do they sell them. You have to contact Klipsch directly. With so many concerns, we just couldn’t recommend these overall.
Klipsch S4iII--Once again, the oblong tips stymied Brent’s attempt to hear these. Phil found the sound to be lifeless and unexciting, and John found the high frequencies to be too loud and fatiguing. I agreed that the highs were piercing, and the bass was muddy and lackluster. They weren’t as bad as the UrBeats voicing, but they still lacked the clarity one would expect for $100 in-ears.
ME Electronics MDuo--While the voicing on these is okay for rock and and hip hop, the overall effect is muddy in the midrange, and the bass is woofy and lacked definition. The build is nice and light, and they feel durable as though they will last, but because they lack versatility when it comes to the types of music they do well, we’d recommend to get ME Electronics’s other offering, the 151p, for around the same price.
Monster DNA with Control Talk--John described these as a “one note punch,” which is very apt. The low-end is bloated and dull, and the high-end is overly sibilant to overcome it. As a result, everything sounds masked. Brent suggested that they might only be good for listening to hip hop or metal with a driving bass. The external portion of the ear piece is large and plastic, and end up feeling cheap. Pass.
Paradigm Electronics E2i--These are another headphone with mixed reviews. Phil put them as his third place choice, saying that they have a pleasant fit, decent sound and that there was nothing offensive about them; they did their job. However, Brent, John and I found there to be a muffled quality to them, probably caused by a dip in the mids. Personally, I found that if I got the mids loud enough to hear properly, the bass and treble was uncomfortable. John said that if he wanted a bass-heavy pair, when compared to other offerings, he’d still stick with the V-Pulse. Ordinarily, I might chalk this up to a fit issue, but in this case, everyone agreed that the E2is fit well and comfortably. They are built beautifully. However, from a company that makes well-respected speakers, I know that Paradigm can offer far better, especially for $99.
Sennheiser MM70--The newest offering from Sennheiser, Brent found the sound of the mids and treble to be detailed and lush at the same time. Treble enthusiasts might prefer these, as mids and trebles are very heavily featured with bass frequencies lacking emphasis. The result is headphones that sound great and exciting in electronic music or acoustic guitar, but rock and hip hop lose their low ends. Unfortunately, there were some build design flaws that left our panelists confused. First: the remote placement. We presume that to keep the microphone up near the wearer’s mouth, the remote and mic are high up on the left ear’s cable. But to compensate for that, the right ear’s cable is significantly longer. This causes the left ear to get tugged constantly due to the shorter cable and the weight of the remote. Also, the remote itself has a slide volume control that can easily slip from normal volume to frighteningly loud if it catches on your zipper or collar. These flaws were enough to keep them out of our top three.
Thinksound TS02+mic--Personally, I was excited to include a company that is environmentally friendly. These in-ears are packaged in recycled materials, and have wood chassis. In general they look lovely. Sadly, the overall sound, while not offensive, is lackluster. All our panelists commented on the bloat in the mid/bass range, and while they were warm-sounding, they weren’t our overall favorite. That said, if you need a universal remote and want to make a statement with your headphones, you can get them on Amazon for $89.
What Else is Out There?
AKGk328- Terrible Amazon reviews
AKGQ350- Lackluster reviews from pros and consumers.
AKG374- $80 for meh reviews.
Apple In-Ear Earphones- Even Apple store reviewers don’t like them.
Brainwavz M4 and M5- for around $50, we want a remote.
Fischer Audio Ceramique, Consonance, Paradigm, and Silver Bullet- these indie darlings are not available in the US, so I couldn’t test them, and can’t recommend headphones that aren’t readily available to all.
Creative Zen Aurvana- only 3.5 stars on CNET.
Harman Kardon Ni- While they are undeniably pretty, the sound is lacking. Plus they have three-star reviews on Amazon.
HiFiMan RE-400- While these have great reviews from both Steve Guttenberg and In-Ear Matters, for a price tag of $99, we really think a remote should be included. That said, if you really don’t need a remote, they are a well-reviewed pick.
MEElectronics 161p- Being discontinued.
Monster Gratitude- There’s a reason these $229 MSRP headphones are now down to $57 on Amazon. Lackluster reviews.
Nixon Microblaster- build and design issues.
NuForce Ne700m- users on Amazon complained of build issues, breaking quickly, and the mic sounding terrible.
Philips Fidelio S1- While Tyll Hertsens gave them a great review, Philips are no longer supporting them.
Phonak Audeo PFE022 Perfect Bass- another well-reviewed headphone no longer being made.
Red Giant A00 Malleus Prime- These boutique headphones are another bass-lovers option only widely available in Canada. Your gain, our loss, Canucks.
RHA MA600i- Beautifully constructed, these are lookers to be sure. But the mid/low range is muddy and overpowering, which bleeds into the other frequencies and leaves the sound inarticulate when compared to other headphones in this price point.
RHA 750i- Also gorgeous and solidly constructed, the 750is have a cord that wrap over your ear, and lovely small details like a spring-reinforced cable connection. Unlike their sister in-ears the 600i, they do perform well sound-wise, with intense highs and lows that sound exciting and on par with the AKG K376s. In fact, there’s nothing bad to say about them about them except the price. At $130, they are straddling the price point of the $100 in-ears and the next step up, the $179 RBH EP2s. That said, they do have a three-year warranty, and if you don’t mind shelling out the cash and want an iPhone-based remote, you can get them here.
Rock-It-Sounds R50- $119 and no microphone or remote. They are well reviewed by In-Ear Matters, but be sure you like an over-ear cord design before you buy.
Shure SE215- These deserve a special mention because they have the holy grail of in-ear headphones: replaceable cables. That said, we put them in second place after the Velodyne V-Pulse in our last piece, and with good reason. For $99, we still preferred our current 4th-place finishers, and to get a remote you need to spend $150. If you’re inching up into that price range, we’d suggest that you get the RBH EP2s. Or, save the money, and get the Sonys for a third of the price. That said, if you simply must have a replaceable cable, these are your best bet.
Sony XBA1ip- lackluster Amazon reviews and the standard XBA-1s have no mic.
Spider Cable Realvoice In-Ear Headphones- While considered good when released, they were considered subpar to others we considered, so we started with those models instead.
TDK EB950- We tried to get a hold of these, and a month after we ordered them, they still were unavailable. Unless you enjoy waiting rather than listening, we’d say take a pass.
V-Moda Remix- Build quality issues led to low Amazon reviews.
VSonic VC02- Again, low user reviews.
A Step Up
Not quite sure whether these are right for you? Also worth considering are the RBH EP2s, our pick for $200 and under headphones. What’s the difference (aside from the price tag)? Sound quality and build quality. The Sonys sound fantastic, make no mistake. But the RBHs are phenomenal. The RBHs sound cleaner, crisper and have a sense of acoustic space that rivals over-ear headphones. The RBH also have a fabric-wrapped cord, metal toggles and generally feel more sturdy and substantial. It’s the difference between a great meal at a lovely restaurant and being served by an Iron Chef. Are you the sort who needs that level of musical experience? If so, the extra cash is worth the investment.
Universally Loved for Less Money
When you look at everything available out there in the price range, the Sony XBA-C10IPs really are your best choice. A step up from the inexpensive options, but affordable enough for everyday commuting use, these $50 beauties really hit the sweet spot.
Footnote: In case you were wondering, balanced armature refers to how the sound is produced. In balanced armature, there are magnets on either side of a rod that moves the diaphragm which in turn makes the sound. The changes in the magnetic field are what moves the whole mechanism. This is as opposed to dynamic drivers, which are are like little speakers; the electrical impulses move the diaphragm directly, so it takes more power to make sound than the balanced armature.