Good headphones and earbuds (or earphones) have gotten pretty cheap of late. Unless you’ve got the platinum ears of a sound engineer (and maybe you should think about giving them back), sub-$100 earphones have gotten so good that for some people there is no reason to spend a dollar more than double figures for the best earbuds.
Why? Believe it or not, it’s simply because the Chinese factories that churn them out have become very good at churning them out. A number of headphone execs told us about how their sonic quality demands pushed the Chinese to hire more and better audio engineers, and with experience and increasing sales volumes increasing manufacturing economies of scale – well, that’s how you get cheaper, but better, earbuds.
Here are our choices the best earbuds under $100 (sometimes a lot under) with iPhone-compatible in-line controls of some sort.
The MEElectronics A151P are the least-expensive earbuds I’ve come across equipped with balanced armatures rather than drivers, and the results here are stunning for the price. The A151P do tend toward the bright side and are a bit light on the bass, but these are the best-sounding in-ears with in-line mic and volume/music controls I’ve heard for their street price, around $35. One caveat: MEElectronics has saved a couple of bucks by braiding the left/right cables instead of sheathing them in some other material; our first test pair unraveled after just a couple of days, but the second pair they sent have stood up to heavy usage. $79.99 (but found for half that)
Marshall Mode EQ
I was pleasantly shocked at how natural the Marshall Mode EQ sounded, with smooth highs and solid but not overwhelming bass, although I found the mid-range a bit dull. But the Mode EQs are equipped with a unique dual EQ toggle: EQ I provides a warm, bass-heavy sound, while EQ II creates brighter mids and highs. I preferred EQ 1 – I found EQ 2 a bit too warm. Unfortunately, the Mode EQs lack volume or music controls, and the in-line pause/EQ control is too low on the cable – if you’re wearing a winter coat, you can’t get at it without unzipping. But its metal-girded 90-degree jack ensures a long life from what is often an earbuds’ longevity Achilles heel. Available on Amazon for $99
The pure and pretty white Klipsch R6i present even-tempered tonality across the spectral range with plenty of detail on the highs and crisp bass below – although, there’s no comparison with the company’s spectacularly-light, spectacularly-sounding (and, at $349.99, spectacularly expensive) top-end X11i. Thankfully, the R6i include an in-line mic/pause/volume/track control placed conveniently on the left ear cable, and you get an alligator clip to anchor the main cord to your clothes to cut down on transfer noise or, as with all the phones here, drape them behind and over your ear to completely eliminate microphonics. Available on Amazon for $99.99
My choice for best low-priced earphone here is the Shure SE112m+, which are even more attractive now – the price has dropped $40 in the last couple of months. Unlike the swivel-to-fit earbuds on the company’s higher-priced SE-models, the actual earbuds on the SE112m+ are fixed, but are made to be worn behind the ear so transfer noise is no issue and are quite comfortable for lengthy listening jaunts. Aurally, they produce distinct highs and mids with solid bass that doesn’t monopolize the music, overall striking a solid balance between the bright and full. For 59 bucks, you will not find a better-sounding, more convenient or more comfortable earbud. $59 on Amazon
To learn more about how to pick the best headphones or earphones, check out this article.
This article was originally published on January 30, 2015 and was updated on June 14, 2015.