Best Budget Earbuds: Conclusion

Best Budget Earbuds: Conclusion

Introduction

So, I’ve reached the conclusion of my review of four earbuds under $50.  You can read part one here: Budget Earbuds Under 25 Dollars and part two here: Budget Earbuds Under 50 Dollars. So now on to Best Budget Earbuds: Conclusion.

In this article I will rate the earbuds, with a few final thoughts on why I chose them in each position. But before I get to the rating(s).  But, before I get to the ratings, I have a couple of mini-rants about stuff that happened while I was working on these reviews.

[su_note]Note: As with the installments of this review, I am using Amazon Associate links in this article.As previously noted, I feel this is fair for reviewing mass produced products from companies that primarily focus on the consumer for their profits.  Please use the links as this is a way to support The CerebralRift. Please also note that the links to the recordings used in the analysis of these earbuds are not associate links.  I receive nothing from the artists (except maybe some credit if they notice you being referred to their site from this article).  Any purchases made in support of artists mentioned here go to them, and only to them.[/su_note]

Reviewers

What the fuck has happened to the concept of reviewing products?  When I started researching earbuds to consider I was lucky to find a couple of sites that had lists of earbuds that were worth considering.  I stated at the beginning that I thought a few of these sites were basically just advertising for the products (using associate links, etc.) and I quickly wrote them off.

However, after I selected the four earbuds that I wanted to test and ordered them I started looking for specific reviews of each one.  What I found out there was, to say the least, atrocious.  Do we not have people that have any clue about how to do a review?  Do they not have a clue about what things to include in a review?  Do they not have an idea how to make comparisons that are informative and useful to their audience?  I mean seriously, I was baffled by the amount of bullshit that is floating around out there.  Here’s a few examples:

  1. A reviewer stated that the sound of one of these earbuds was horrible because it had no bass.  Realize, this was aimed at the Symphonized NRG or the SoundMAGIC E10, neither of which suffer from a deficit of bass response.
  2. This same reviewer compared one of these earbuds to earbuds that cost over $250.  What the hell?  How could that even be useful when examining a product that is around 1/10th of the price?  Does the reviewer seriously think that someone looking for a pair of $35 earbuds is going to put them in the same category as $250 earbuds?
  3. Other reviews I saw didn’t even talk about sound quality.  They listed off the specs on the package, talked about the features of the products, and then gave them a recommendation.  Was that even supposed to pass for a review?  Why did I spend ten minutes listening to someone parrot a sales brochure without having a single critical comment to make.
  4. Then there were reviews that were negative, but again didn’t talk about sound quality.  They just parroted the negative comments from Amazon.  Well, DUH, if I had wanted to read a bunch of uninformed consumer opinions I could have read the reviews on Amazon myself.  (Not to say I didn’t read them, but at least I knew which ones to take seriously and which ones to write off as stupidity.)

Seriously, especially on YouTube, I didn’t get the feeling there were any serious reviewers out there that put any of their own time or effort into evaluating these products.  It was extremely frustrating, and in fact was one of the driving forces for me writing these articles.  I wanted to contribute something that was actually based largely on my own independent evaluation of the products.

Sound Issues

As i mentioned during the review of the Symphonized NRG’s, I quickly realized there was something odd about the sound that I was hearing from my cell phone versus the sound that I was hearing when I plugged the earbuds into my computer (either into a direct port, or into my studio monitor).  Now at first I thought maybe it was something peculiar with the NRG’s, so I repeated the test with all of the earbuds, and all of them displayed similar issues: on my cellphone the sound quality was weirdly uneven (admitted some of the earbuds showed slightly different characteristics in the upper mid-range and treble range, but all of them had a consistent bass spike that caused other side effects).

At this point I was ready to blame the cell phone.  But, having just two devices for comparison I thought it was worth taking another step in the investigation.  So, I started using my tablet.  Guess what: I got a different set of results again.  The sound on the tablet wasn’t as flat as it was on my computer, but it wasn’t as schizophrenic as it was with my cell phone.

So, I decided there as definitely something odd about the cell phone’s sound.  So, I tried looking for some equalizer apps for the phone.  This went from frustrating to infuriating.  The majority of the apps out there promise “bass boost” for equalization.  WTF?  The phone’s default setting was already screwing around with the bass settings, and if anything they needed to be undone to get a smooth signal, not jacked up any more.  Of course, the phone itself didn’t come with any settings to turn off the atrocity that the manufacturer was inflecting on the masses.  And, when I did get some equalizer apps, they assumed that the phones default settings were “flat” and only allowed adjusting from there.

ARGH!  After spending several hours with a couple of equalizer apps, (including one that after you made a few adjustments started popping up full screen ads that were nearly impossible to close) I was about ready to commit hari-kari. So, I decided it was time to take a different approach.  Instead of trying to adjust the phone, I tried using the equalizer on my computer to see if I could emulate the sound settings of the phone, and convince myself that the problem was with the phone’s equalization and not the earbuds.  After about 20 minutes of tweaking, this is what I came up with on my computer:

Simulation of Cell Phone Equalization
Simulation of Cell Phone Equalization

Now, I won’t swear that is totally accurate to what is going on with my phone (for example, I think they have the 7.5K and 15K bands set higher, I happen to like them a bit lower), but it was close enough that I was able to replicate most of the problems I was hearing in the earbuds when they were attached to my phone.

That, to me at least, is insane. Why should any manufacturer of a portable device thing that equalization settings along these lines are appropriate?  Why would you want to present such distorted, un-balanced audio to your customer?  I could understand if the settings were adjust to make voice clarity for phone calls a bit better, or if there were some subtle adjustments made to smooth out the overall frequency response for most devices that can be attached to the phone.  But the above curve is far from any type of conservative, useful tweaking.

I also emulated what I was hearing from my tablet, and that made a lot more sense.  It was mostly flat through the middle, with a little bit of boost on the top and bottom end. Unfortunately I didn’t save the settings for my tablet so I could post a picture of them. However, I will say, the settings that emulated the tablet were more in line of what I felt would be a reasonable tweak to make the sound a little bit better than flat, without some weird curve like I found on my cell phone.  (I also didn’t bother trying to find an equalizer app for my tablet, given that both the tablet and cell phone are Android based, I figured I’d just find the same apps and the same set of frustrations I had with my cellphone.)

Given this situation, I carried out the evaluations of the earbuds for this review using my tablet (no changes to the default EQ), and the computer (with the EQ set flat).  By doing A/B testing between the computer and the tablet, I feel I was able to reasonably eliminate issues that might have been due to the slight tweaking of the EQ on the tablet.

None of the reviewers I mentioned earlier even seemed to have a clue that there could be any issues caused because of the devices they were using.  In fact, many of them didn’t even mention if they were using a cellphone, tablet, laptop or any device whatsoever.  I find it astonishing that anyone should take a review seriously without the reviewer making an notes about the devices used in the evaluation. (Sorry, I had to take another crack at those crappy crappy reviews.)

Analysis Methods

Something that I didn’t go into completely during my reviews was the method(s) I used for analyzing the earbuds.  Certainly any good reviewer will have a method that they use for analyzing a product…  Not that I could have figured that out from any of the YouTube reviews I watched,

In this case, I wanted to use a wide range of different audio styles and sources for comparison.  The tablet was primarily used with streaming mediate through Google Play Music and BandCamp.  On the PC I had access to Google Play Music, BandCamp, and local copies of the media (often in lossless FLAC encodings).

I specifically used a pretty wide range of recordings that had many different characteristics that would challenge each pair of earbuds.  Some of the recordings I used were:

  1. Daniel Estrem: Bach Cello Suites on 8-String Guitar (Vol 1 & 2)
  2. Michelle Cross – Adventures from The Ocean of The Dead
  3. Mark Ward – Nature / Nurture and Rampant Regardent
  4. Tunguska Chillout Grooves Vol. 12
  5. Weldroid – elektronVolt
  6. Bezdin Ensemble – Beethoven Symphonies 7, 8, 9
  7. The Young Novelists – Made Us Strangers
  8. Professor Kliq – The Teragraph EP
  9. Paolo Pavan – Looking For A Way Out
  10. Timezone Lafontaine – In Defiance of Indifference

And I know there were more than those ten, however, I didn’t keep track of all of them.  However, those ten recordings were significant.  Besides listening to them all the way through on my tablet with all four earbuds, I used tracks from those recordings in my A/B testing.  How it worked was like this:

I selected a track from a recording.  I listened to it on my tablet with a pair of earbuds.  Then I listened to it on my computer (first through stream, then through a locally stored copy of the track) with the same earbud.  Repeat the process for each of the earbuds.  If I noticed anything of significant interest throughout the tests, I made a note (for example, this process pointed out the 4K spike that was notable on the Monoprice earbuds — although I didn’t have a frequency analyzer to pinpoint it, so the reviewer from Amazon who charted it has my gratitude for pinpointing what I was hearing).

Okay, having covered all that ground, it’s time to get down to the final rankings….

Best Budget Earbuds: Conclusion

The following are the choices I would make for these earbuds, in the order I would chose them along with a few notes as to why I would chose them.

4. Monoprice MEP-933

These earbuds just did not perform well in my opinion.  Yes, the imaging was decent and the sound field was pretty good.  But, the bass and treble roll-off, along with the weird spike in the 4kHz frequency band is a deal breaker for me.  On top of that, their odd design, and the noise from the fabric cover on the cable just makes them a poor choice for most usage.

3. Panasonic HJE12

These earbuds just don’t have the frequency response range to make for a really satisfying listening experience, especially when compared to the Symphonized NRG’s or SoundMAGIC E10’s.  However, they are still possibly one of the best choices out there if you want to spend less than $10 on a pair of earbuds.  My personal thought is to keep there here for use when I am on a podcast or some other situation that involves voice-only, and not intense music listening.  (And I can see giving the Monoprice MEP-933’s a shot at being used for this situation as well.)

2. Symphonized NRG

It actually pains me to rank these as the #2 earbuds. I really, really wanted them to be my #1 choice.  I am in love with the warmth of the mid-range, the deep bass, and excellent imaging of these earbuds.  In all respects they embody all of the qualities I like in a good sound system. However, they are let down by a  few things, the most important being the cable: the tangles were frustrating, the noise transference was really annoying.  The eco-friendly bag, while I neat touch, didn’t give me the feeling that the earbuds would be well protected when transporting them on a daily basis.

But I am going to be keeping my eye on Symphonized (in fact, I think they have a revised version of the NRG earbuds out now) to see if they improve the weaknesses, while keeping the things that I really like about the product.

1. SoundMAGIC E10

Yes, I called the sound from these earbuds things like “cold” and “sterile”.  But, I left out an important word that also comes to mind: transparent.  I can adjust to earbuds that are transparent and well balanced compared to the low-end Monoprice and Panasonic offerings.  I wish they were a bit warmer like the Symphonized NRG’s, but in the under $50 range, you can’t have perfection.  I think I can also put up with the curly cable fairly well, and at least the construction of these earbuds doesn’t cause me hesitation to use them in the gym.  I also really liked the case better than the Symphonized NRG’s eco-firendly bag.  I felt the case would do more to protect these earbuds while carrying them around, which gives me a bit more confidence that they will last longer (barring user errors in handling them).

The one thing that I wish they had was the microphone / media control that the NRG’s have.  However, as I noted, there is the E10S which does have these features.  I’ll be ordering a pair of them soon.

Summary

So, there we have it: four earbuds.  Two very inexpensive pairs, and two budget pairs.  I have to say, this was an ear-opening experience.  The low-end of the market has become extremely competitive, yielding products that I would have written off as just a bunch of gimmicky baloney five years ago.  Now, however, there is a lot to look for in these products, and any of them are major improvements over the default earbuds you get with your cellphone today.

5 thoughts on “Best Budget Earbuds: Conclusion

  1. So, without some equipment and test tones it’s can be a bit difficult to the determine if there is an issue — or failing that, having something that you believe is reasonably accurate to do a comparison.

    However, I will say this: if you are used to your phone the way it is now, a new set of earbuds would improve your overall experience. And, if you used them for a bit, your ears will likely adjust to them.

  2. I am intrigued by your reviews and I’m thinking I may have to pick up a new pair of earbuds. However, where does the quality of playback device fit in? My phone is low-end and I am concerned that perhaps even the best earbuds won’t improve the sound much.

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