I don’t think earbuds are the ideal listening device. Honestly, the studio monitors on my computer (from M-Audio), or the speakers on my main stereo (from the now defunct Design Acoustics) provide a far superior listening experience. However, for portability and convenience earbuds win over headphones. Budget earbuds under 25 dollars were unthinkable a few years ago, but now they are an interesting (if not great) option.
The thing is, I have a tendency to go through anything that I carry for portable listening. Not necessarily a lot of them, I had my last pair for nearly five years until a recent emergency situation caused me to not pay attention to them, only to later pull them out of my pocket to find the left earbud completely non-operational. It’s those kinds of accidents that convinced me to stop carrying headphones too: I went through at least two pairs of Bose Tri-Port headphones (at that time the price was around $100-$120 USD for a pair) before deciding to get something less expensive.
I finally settled on a pair of Sony Earbuds for about $30. A price that wouldn’t break the bank if I needed to replace them, and still provided decent sound quality. It was a good price / performance ratio. Of course, I went through several pair of them. Only to find last time I needed a new pair, they had been discontinued, and the replacement version didn’t have good enough sound quality. I finally found another pair of Earbuds from Sony that were $35, sounded good (but not as good as the previous model), but had one improvement: a more flexible cable. I had those earbuds for nearly five years before their untimely demise.
So, with the death of those earbuds, I decided to look around a bit more before purchasing a replacement, and decided that my budget wasn’t quite as narrow as it had been in the past, but still shouldn’t exceed $50 USD. Finding earbuds for under $50 USD is easy. I gave up browsing the Amazon listings after the first 1200 (20+ pages of entries) knowing that I wasn’t even making a dent in the overall inventory. Filtering by rating didin’t help much: over 5000 rated three stars and up, and 2500 rated four stars and up.
So, I had to turn to the collective hive mind that is the internet to find information about budget priced earbuds, and I am glad that I did. While I have no doubt that several sites I looked at were nothing more than advertising via associate links, there were several that actually did a good job of writing full reviews of the products and providing rankings of them overall. When I looked at those sites, there were quite a few earbuds that stood out. From those lists I selected four to purchase and review.
Budget Earbuds Under 25 Dollars
Here’s how the reviews are going to work. I selected four earbuds, one from each major price category: under $10, $25, $35 and $50. Today I will write about the two pair that are under $25, and tomorrow write about the two pair that are priced between $25 and $50.
My primary focus is on sound quality. It seems strange to me that anyone would emphasize anything else when reviewing a piece of audio equipment. However, as I looked around on the internet, I found there were quite a few reviewers that paid little or no attention to sound quality at all (which was one of the reasons I had the feeling that these “reviews” were more advertisements than reviews). Secondary emphasis will be placed on specific problems with the products: I think that is an important point to emphasize — problems with these products will significantly diminish their usability. Finally we’ll talk about construction and any extras that come with the product. While the extras can be important or useful, deficiencies in this area can typically be worked around,
The review will be split into three articles. As I mentioned: today the under $25 earbuds, part two will be about the $25-$50 earbuds, and the third article will talk about some issues I had while reviewing these products (issues that were not related to the products themselves), talk about the method(s) used in evaluating the products, and finally give a summary and rating to all four products.
With all of this laid out, let’s get to our first two pairs of earbuds.
The Panasonic HJE12‘s are from the lined of earbuds known as the Eardrops, primarily because of the shape of the earbud. Panasonic has tried to make them a bit fashionable by providing them in eight different color combinations.
These earbuds, while not being great, were certainly an eye-opener for me. The stats on these earbuds alone should be a surprise to anyone looking at inexpensive earbuds (from the packaging):
|Frequency Response||20Hz – 20Khz|
|Power Handling Capacity||200mW (IEC)|
Of course, these stats don’t really give us the whole picture. One of the things that people who have been around electronics might notice immediately is the absence of Total Harmonic Distortion stats.
But still, I would say these earbuds are an eye-opener. Why? At under $7 for a pair, they actually commit themselves pretty well to producing decent quality sound. Yes, the bass is not as deep as any of the other products. The treble does have a tendency to be cut off on the top end, and the mid-range does lose detail in some cases and get smooshed together sometimes.
But, the fact is these earbuds had a surprising amount of presence with the music. There was a depth to the sound, and the ability to hear the stage of the sound that I wouldn’t have expected. And where channel separation was an important aspect to the sound, these earbuds did provide it clearly. And, despite the range not being the best of all the earbuds I’ve listened to, these were smooth and balanced over the spectrum they did produce: they weren’t too bass boomy, nor did they leave extra artifacts in the top end of the frequency range.
I have heard (heck, I’ve thrown out) earbuds for $20 that didn’t have this level of performance. Any phone I’ve purchased in the last ten years came with a pair of earbuds that didn’t perform nearly as well as these earbuds. If these had been the earbuds in the box with a cellphone, I might never have had to look for any others. I would have just stuck with these earbuds, blissfully unaware of anything else that was available on the market.
Another aspect of these earbuds is that they are comfortable to wear. I was able to easily spend several hours with them in my ears at a time. I had the feeling that I could wear them for a whole day without them becoming uncomfortable. Strike one up for Panasonic’s ergonomics design team. That’s something I can’t say for any of the ear buds I’ve gotten with my cell phones.
I can’t really say this is a problem, but this is the most logical place to talk about the non-sound oriented aspects of the product.
First, the construction isn’t much. These are completely rubber and plastic earbuds. Completely sealed, and not all that well manufactured. I am skeptical about the durability of this product. If you are just going to use them at your desk in your office, they will likely work well. However, if you plan to go walking, hiking, to the gym, or do any kind of activities with them I expect they will break fairly quickly. Also, I expect that if you try to carry them a lot, they will likely meet a fate similar to my last pair of earbuds (get snagged on something and pulled apart).
These didn’t have a microphone or media controls, something that some of the higher end products do have. But, I didn’t really concern myself with those features. As I mentioned earlier, the most important thing to me is sound quality. Also, didn’t come with anything to keep the cord from tangling, and that I will say was a bit of a surprise. As simple slide-up piece on the cable would not have brought any major additional manufacturing cost.
But how much can you expect for $7? The Panasonic HJE12’s are cheap enough that you could buy a couple of pairs of them and have them available at places where you need them, and still be ahead of the game over the higher priced earbuds in tomorrows review.
Again, what can you expect for $7? The only extra that comes with these earbuds are two pairs of earpads for fitting different sizes of ears.
The Monoprice MEP-933‘s showed up on several of the sites that I looked at for reviews of low priced earbuds, which was a surprise to me because the last place I would ever think to look for any kind of audio equipment is Monoprice. But, after looking at the Amazon reviews (there are over 1500 reviews split 1000 positive, 600 negative), I decided I had to give them a try as they seem somewhat controversial.
First let’s take a quick look at the specifications from the packaging:
|Sensitivity||96dB+/-3dB / 1mW (SPL @ 1k Hz)|
|Wire Length||1225mm (~48 inches)|
Again, we should note that there is no rating of Total Harmonic Distortion. It’s a measurement that could be wished for, but in low budget earbuds is understandable to be missing.
The overall sound quality of these earbuds is decent, however they don’t really improve on the Panasonic HJE12‘s. In fact, I have to agree with the reviewer on Amazon that took the time to measure and chart out the frequency response: they are “shouty” in the upper mid-range (his graph showed it to be around the 4kHz frequency), the bass and top-end do roll off quite a bit. The odd part is the reviewer found a way to improve the sound quality by covering up what appears to be a tuning port on the earbuds. I say this is odd because there is a grill on the back of them that I would have thought would be a tuning port (originally I thought the grill was for noise-cancelling technology, however the more closely I’ve looked the phrase noise-isolating is used as these do not have actual noise-cancelling). He also used some equalization and managed to improve the bass, remove the 4kHz shout, but not remove the top-end roll off.
The sensitivity of these earbuds wouldn’t suggest that they would be an improvement over the Panasonic earbuds. However, they do seem to provide a bit better imaging than the Panasonic earbuds. I think there are a couple of factors to this: (a) the larger driver might be better at providing some more detail about the sound stage, and (b) the 4kHz spike might be fooling my ears into thinking there is a bit more presence to part of the audio spectrum. When it comes to the depth of the sound field these earbuds come up short. This is why I believe the 4kHz spike is playing a role in messing with the imaging. The depth of the sound field and the imaging are generally pretty closely related, so an improvement in one is likely to show an improvement in the other. Messing with the frequency response curve of a a pair of speakers (or in this case drivers) can, indeed, cause rather unusual effects in different parts of the sound field. Channel separation, isn’t improved at all. I can’t discern any difference between these earbuds and the Panasonic earbuds in this area.
The other interesting part I noticed about these earbuds: they have the largest driver of all the earbuds being reviewed here. All of the other earbuds have drivers in the 8-10mm range, these are a whopping 14.2mm. That, I expect, explains a few of the unusual aspects of these earbuds, in addition to the non-stellar overall sound quality.
My impression of these earbuds sound quality is that they were designed for either (a) listening to a lot spoken word type works (audio books, talk radio, etc.), or they were designed for people that have some hearing loss, where emphasizing the upper mid-range of the sound spectrum can improve clarity. Unfortunately for the rest of us the side effects of the choices are pretty horrendous. For my purposes these will probably end up being used for podcasting or audio conferences where I am only listening to or monitoring people speaking.
If the problems with the sound quality weren’t enough, there are still more issues with these earbuds. First, a lot of people have noted that the stock ear pads that these ear buds come with aren’t comfortable. Now, I noticed that most of the people that mentioned this seemed to have purchased them several years ago. The pair I just purchased weren’t uncomfortable, and I was able to wear them for several hours at a time.
There is also the odd shape of the earbuds. I have to admit, this one has given me a bit of trouble: the tabs sit on the ears in an odd way that is a bit annoying. It’s not uncomfortable for me, but it is a bit strange feeling. I think the idea was to use part of the ear to push the drivers in a bit tighter. But for many people it’s just uncomfortable. In some cases people have taken to modifying the enclosure: sanding down some of the edges to make them fit more comfortably. Personally, for a pair of $11 earbuds I wouldn’t go through too much trouble.
Perhaps the most egregious issue for me (because it affects the sound) is the cable. There is a lot of noise transference to the earbud enclosures when the cable rubs against your clothing. The cloth covered cable seems like a good idea since it allows the cable to be more flexible But aside from the noise transference issue I mentioned there have been other problems: for some people the cloth cover has frayed and come apart, and the extra flexibility has caused them to become more easily tangled when storing them (and I’ve cursed several times trying to get them untangled).
Like with the the Panasonic earbuds, the Monoprice MEP-933 don’t really come with extras. The cost of the materials, manufacturing overhead have these down to a price point that doesn’t really leave room for adding a lot of extras. Yes, the do come with some extra ear pads, which I believe was in response to the early reviews that pointed out how bad the ear pads were.
There is one improvement over the Panasonic earbuds: at the Y joint of the cable is a metal piece to keep the cable from sliding around. Like the Panasonic earbuds, this piece isn’t designed to slide up the cable to help with keeping the cord from getting tangled.
These two sub-$25 pairs of earbuds were ear openers. Surprisingly the $7 Panasonic HJE12‘s were a bit better than the $11 Monoprice MEP-933′s. However, I will say that either of these earbuds would be an improvement over what comes with most cellphones these days. But this is only the first part of the review. There are still two more pairs of earbuds to be reviewed, and there’s a bunch of things to talk about where these inexpensive devices are concerned.