Yesterday I presented the first of a three part review of budget earbuds. Today, is part two: Budget Earbuds Under 50 Dollars. This is where I decided that I could up the game a little bit over my previous limit of $35. However, even with that being the case, one of the pairs of earbuds in this review is still under $35.
Budget Earbuds Under 50 Dollars
Today’s reviews follow the same format as yesterday: the primary emphasis is on sound quality first and foremost. Then any problems with the units, and anything extra that are included that makes them interesting or stand out from other items.
The third portion of this review will bring all four pairs of earbuds together for rating, and a bit of talk about some additional items that I am not bringing up in the reviews themselves.
So, with the frame all set, let’s get to the reviews.
The Symphonized NRG’s were the first pair of earbuds order that I decided to try out. I plugged them into my phone, and put on a recent EDM release from Tunguska EMS to listen to. I was, quite literally, blown away by the sound of these earbuds. They had a warm mid-range, clear top end and a tremendous amount of bass. I hadn’t expected to hear that kind of bass from a pair of earbuds (especially from units under $50), I thought I would only hear that type of sound from over-the-ear headphones, or the sub-woofer on my stereo.
But not all was perfect with the sound of these earbuds. I noticed that there was what appeared to be some extra resonance in the lower part of the mid-range when the bass was at certain levels. Certainly this is one of the problems with wood construction, as it frequently affects poorly designed loudspeakers. But the odd thing was it appeared to be selective, like some frequencies caused the issue, but not others, which is a bit uncharacteristic of this type of issue.
So, I plugged these earbuds into my computer, and tried playing the same release. This time the sound was completely different. The bass wasn’t as pronounced, and the resonance problem didn’t affect the earbuds at all. I thought that was weird, so I tried plugging them into another device: this time the sound was different again, there was more bass, but the resonance problem didn’t occur at all. At this point I ended finding that I needed to do some more investigation into why the earbuds were reacting differently to each device (which I will talk about more tomorrow).
So, before I get a little deeper into the sound quality, let’s look at the specifications of these earbuds from the package:
|Driver||Dynamic 8mm Neodymium|
|Sensitivity||101+/-3dB @ 1kHz, 1mW|
|Frequency Response||18hz – 22kHz|
|R & L Balance||<3dB (50Hz-6kHz, 1mW)|
|Total Harmonic Distortion||<3dB|
|Rated input power||5mW|
|Connector||3.5mm Gold Plated|
|Cable Length||48inches, Braided nylon|
So, unlike the Panasonic and Monoprice earbuds from yesterday’s article, these earbuds provide some additional information that helps discern some of their sonic qualities. While the <3dB THD is not ideal, it does point to a reasonable level of clearer playback through the devices. Plus, we can get an idea of the channel separation from the R/L Balance.
Notice that the driver is only 8mm in these earbuds, compared to the 14mm driver in the Monoprice earbuds. Remarkably, I would say that the Symphonized NRG’s have a larger sound than the Monoprice counter part. Which should really make you think twice about the Monoprice earbuds over any of these alternatives (even with the price difference).
Sound wise, these earbuds have a lot of presence. As I noted when I first put them on, I was blown away by them. The mid-range, in addition to being warm sounding, is big. This suggests that there is some frequency dip between the mid-range and bass. But the overall effect of any dip is not disconcerting overall, you won’t have a feeling that you are losing any detail with these earbuds.
Also the imaging and sound field are quite strong. Instrument separation and placement is excellent. The clarity of the instruments is precise, without feeling forced or sterile.
There were, however a few nagging problems with these earbuds. The first is the cable. As I talked about in the first review, braided nylon is used to cover the cable on these earbuds. The design is ideal for providing more flexibility in the cable. The downside to this is that they are more susceptible to tangling. In fact every time I pull them out of their carrying baggie I have to un-tangle them.
And, as with the Monoprice earbuds, the cable to does provide a lot of noise transference from the cable rubbing against clothing. This makes them a difficult choice for active use at the gym or other sports type activities.
Another thing that I actually find quite perplexing about these earbuds: the marking for the left and right earbud is all but impossible to find. I was literally lost trying to find the markings. Eventually I found they were located on the bottom of the plastic stems coming out of the earbuds themselves, but they are tiny and nearly impossible to read (and, to be frank about this: my eyesight has gotten worse in recent years — I hate to think how much trouble someone older than me would have finding and reading the markings).
With the earbuds in yesterday’s review I had a hard time imaging that they would come with any extras. But the Symphonized NRG’s do have a few extras with them over the others in this review:
- Microphone / media control It’s only a single button for stopping / stopping media, or answering calls, but it does work well. The microphone has proved quite functional in phone conversations.
- An eco-friendly carrying bag. It’s a nice touch.
- Small, medium and large ear pads. The ear pads are quite comfortable. They squish a little as a insert them in my ears, ensuring that they are making a connection to my ear drum
- A shirt clip for the cable. This is useful to keep the microphone from sliding around during phone conversations. However it doesn’t help with the noise transference issue.
I got these earbuds because I was curious about their construction. The use of wood for the enclosures is something that I have been seeing a lot of recently for headphones. It seems to be a trendy choice that normally comes with a premium price (in other words, it seems to be more of a fashion statement than a sound audio choice). But for $25, these are earbuds that prove the choice of wood can be used to provide excellent sound quality, and not just look pretty or retro.
The frist thing I have to have to say is: I might have made a mistake with these earbuds. The SoundMAGIC E10’s also have a counter-part: the SoundMAGIC E10S which is only #5 more (but still under $50), and has a microphone and media control buttons. But since my first priority is sound quality, I was thinking more about earbuds than I was about other applications.
The first thing I noticed about these earbuds when I put them on after listening to the Symphonized NRG’s was they didn’t seem to have quite as much bass. But that isn’t to say they were thing in that area, only that the bass isn’t as pronounced. Let’s look at the specifications from the package to see if it hints at any reason:
|Transducers||Dynamic 10mm neodymium|
|DC Resistence (Impedence)||16 ohms (+/- 10%)|
|Max. Power Input||20mW|
|Connector||3.5mm, Gold plated|
Well, that doesn’t explain anything. In fact, it’s interesting that the range of frequency response allows for lower frequencies than the Symphonized earbuds, but doesn’t seem to have the same characteristics. There are possibly a couple of explanations: first these are metal enclosures, and they feel pretty solid. It could be that the characteristic differences are due to the difference in materials. Or maybe there is a difference in the sensitivity (which isn’t clear from the stats), or a difference in the Total Harmonic Distortion which isn’t available for the SoundMAGIC E10’s at all.
The description that many have ascribed to these earbuds is that they have a “narrow” bass field. I wouldn’t disagree with this statement, the bass is there and easily heard, it just doesn’t have quite the same impact as it does on the Symphonized NRG’s. Which might be a bit of a blessing, as the E10’s don’t suffer from the resonance problems that I noted with the NRG’s.
The rest of the frequency response of the E10’s is summed up as being precise. The mid range is solid, but doesn’t have any character. The treble is present and almost knife like at times, without being shrill or having any additional artefacts. It’s this kind of accuracy in a pair of sub-$50 earbuds that I didn’t expect to hear at all. In fact, it’s no wonder that these have been given high rankings from What Hi-Fi for three years running.
The imaging and sound field are excellent with these earbuds. I would say that they are the equal to the qualities of the Symphonized NRG’s in every aspect: instruments are located precisely. The channel separation is accurate. The depth of the sound is modeled extremely well. I would say, in fact, despite the fact that these have an almost cold sound to me, I could easily get used to them over a longer period of time. (Although in my several hour listening sessions, I did find myself missing the warmth of the NRG’s).
I have to offer that the construction of these earbuds is excellent too. Several places where the other earbuds used plastic, like on the connector or the Y-split grommet, SoundMAGIC went with metal instead.
It seems that there is one thing that I wasn’t really satisfied with in any of these earbuds: the cable. However, the good news is, in the case of the E10’s I have less of an issue than I did with the others.
The cable on these earbuds are coated with rubber. This allows them to be flexible, while not suffering from the noise transference issue that the nylon weave cables had. It also makes them more useful for activities like going to the gym, running, etc. However, the problem that I do have with them is that the cable never seems to completely un-coil. So trying to get the cable to lay flat is nearly impossible. I can’t comment how much of an issue this would be at the gym, but I imagine that it could cause problems.
I won’t say that the rubberized cable kept these earbuds from getting tangled at all, however because of the springy-ness of the cable, they were possibly the least tangle prone earbuds that I tested.
These earbuds did come with the most extras of any of the earbuds tested:
- Two type of small, medium and large earpads.
- Double flange silicon ear tips
- Cable clip
- Hard shell carrying case
Of all these extras, the one that makes the most difference to me is the carrying case. The fact that it is more solid than the eco-friendly bad that comes with the NRG’s is a bonus as it is more likely to protect them longer.
I didn’t experiment with the double-flanged ear tips. I probably should have to see if they sounded any better, or fit my ears more like the NRG’s ear pads. That is probably the one thing about the extras that I wish were a bit better — I really like the feel of the NRG earpads better. In fact, I have considered trying them on these earbuds just to see if they perform as well.
There is definitely a major jump between the quality of the devices you get for $25. These devices fit my definition of solid audio quality at a reasonable price. In fact, I am still surprised that the $25 Symphonized NRG’s out performed my previous $35 Sony earbuds. And then comparing $25 earbuds to $40 earbuds is something that I normally wouldn’t have though was appropriate. But the NRG’s are definitely in a class that does deserve to be compared to the SoundMAGIC E10’s.
In part three of this review I will talk about what I found when I started looking at some of the anomalies I noticed with the Symphonized NRG earbuds. Take a short excursion into some of the reviews I found of all of these products online. And finally summarize my choice of which earbud is the long-term winner for my personal daily use (which might be a bit of a surprise).