Cheap Bests

The 9 Best Earbuds Under $50


June 11, 2018 Buying Guides By Photo by Hunter D. Kelley

This definitive guide to the best earbuds under $50 of 2018 explores everything you need to know before buying your next pair of affordable earbuds, including how you should pick, debunking common misnomers and the ranking our favorite earbuds under $50 of 2018 for every type of person.

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Table of Contents
The Short List

Introduction
How We Tested
Buying Guide

The Short List

Best Overall Sound: Brainwavz S0

Verdict: We came to love the way these headphones sound the more we listened to them, and the sonic leap when plugging them into our Meridian Explorer2 was dramatic. It’s frustrating that the overcooked product design of the S0s belies the sonic performance. If you just care about overall sound but don’t care about looks or brand pedigree you should put these near the top of your list.

Head down to read to our review, here.

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Runner Up: Shure SE112-GR

Verdict: If you asked us which pair we’d buy to keep at our desks or home then we’d select the Shure SE112-GRs. The design and cables may turn off the streamlined commuter unless you like to look like you work in the music industry.

Head down to read to our review, here.

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Introduction

With the growing number of smartphones that omitted the traditional headphone jack, there’s a line of thinking that wired earbuds, especially cheap earbuds (under $50), are growing extinct. They might become extinct one day, it’s true, but we don’t see that happening any time soon. Wireless earbuds are still very expensive, comparatively, and there will always be a simplistic beauty in a plug-in-play pair of headphones. No need to worry about charging it. No need making sure it’s the right Bluetooth device connected to your iPhone. It just works.

Cheap earbuds often with the stigma that they also sound cheap, and the reality is that the vast majority of them do. If you care about audio quality, you should do more than just grab the first pair you see in the airport’s electronics store or continue to use the ones given to you by a flight attendant. To help you make a decision, we’re rounded up our favorited wired earbuds, as well as others that have been well-reviewed, and tested them ourselves.

Remember, the sound quality is important, but so too is fit and price. Not every pair of wired earbuds fit everybody the same, and not everybody is willing to spend even $50 on earbuds. We recommend finding a decent pair that won’t disappoint you aurally or financially. If you’re a commuter or jogger or somebody who just doesn’t find over-ear headphones comfortable, and you don’t want to spend a pretty penny on something that you’re likely to lose or break, these budget earbuds are for you.

Additional contribution by Eric Yang.

How We Tested

Most people will listen to these wired earbuds using either their smartphone or laptop computer. So that’s what we did. Over the course of one day and several hours, we listened to all nine pairs of headphones on this list. We diversified the music, which ranged from Rock, Pop, R&B, Acoustic to Classic — you can see our Spotify playlists below.

Buying Guide

Honorable Mention: AKG Y20U

How They Sound: Listening to Running’ With the Devil by Van Halen or Punching Walls by Morning Runner, there’s a noticeable lack of bass and more bias towards treble than we’d prefer, but they’re clear and the distortion is under control. If you like jazz, lighter rock, or classical you’ll like the way the AKG’s sound – more so than the included set with your iPhone or iPod, but R&B or heavily produced music fans may want to look elsewhere. They also work well for listening to podcasts.

How They Fit: The fit is great right out of the box. These are the semi-sealing style of silicon tips so if you don’t like to hear yourself chewing or breathing then you might want to look for non-sealing headphones. The noise-reduction is nice for just sitting at your desk listening to music – or on the plane in a pinch.

What We Like: The fit, the clarity and simple controls. A mic is included. The plastics and coatings are finished nicely. They’re incredibly well priced at just under $25.

Watch Out For: Bass is weak. Only a few silicon tips are included.

Verdict: They cost less than the replacement EarPods sold by Apple, which is a great starting point. Our personal sound taste prefers the EarPods, but for jazz, classical, and vocals the AKGs sound great.

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Best Earbuds for Desktop Listening: HiFiMan RE-400

How They Sound: We like the mellow yet accurate sound of the HiFiMan RE-400. The bass isn’t spectacular, but they make up for it with a larger soundstage than a pair of headphones this cheap should have. We especially noticed when listening to Busy Earnin’ by Jungle and Jubel by Klingande. The midrange and balance in the HiFiMan’s are particularly good. We noticed even more improvement when listening to A Good Night by John Legend featuring Bloodpop on the HiFiMans over our Meridian Explorer2 (at CD quality) vs directly out of the headphone jack on the MacBook Pro.

How They Fit: They’re incredibly light and tend to fall out easily. You’ll need to try a few of the silicon pads to get your fit right but once you do (consider using a slightly larger size to help them seal better) they’re a great pair.

What We Like: Includes many silicon tips. A low key black carrying case is also included. The sound quality is a significant performance over their predecessor.

Watch Out For: No controls or mic. The build quality isn’t as robust on these headphones as we would have liked and we’re not certain how they’ll hold up under long-term testing. Bass performs adequately but

Verdict: We wouldn’t commute with these headphones or put them under more stress than desktop listening. That said, you’ll probably want to skip these if you’re a bit city commuter. For more critical listening at your desk though, we came away loving the sound from the HiFiMan’s the most, especially with a small headphone amplifier in use. They sound great right out of a MacBook Pro’s headphone jack, too.

Best Designed Earbuds: Sony MDRXB50AP Extra Bass

How They Sound: The depth is more distinct, giving the music a better sense of space. The bass is strong, but not as much as you’d expect on in a pair of earbuds named “Extra Bass.” The drums on Kanye West’s Highlights, for example, have more personality and depth. Vocals and mids sound distinct and accurate, too.

How They Fit: The fit is pretty universal in that they come with swappable silicon ear tips. The shape and weight of them are similar, actually, to Apple’s EarPods — both fit securely in my ears.

What We Like: These earbuds sound accurate with fairly substantial bass. The design is professional and premium, like polished aluminum, and the build quality feels substantial. Swappable ear tips mean they can fit anybody.

Watch Out For: No volume control remote on the earbuds, although there is a Play/Pause button.

Verdict: Easily the best-designed earbuds on this list, the Sony XB50APs also have a versatile fit and have a well-rounded sound. You can’t really go wrong with these, although, for almost $50, there are other earbuds that sound better.

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Earbuds With Best Bass: Symphonized NRG

How They Sound: These earbuds are great for listeners who like pop, R&B and rap. Make Me Feel by Janelle Monåe and Must’ve Been by Chromeo featuring DRAM sounded punchy without any distortion. The upper ranges lack a bit of separation and there’s some reverb (echo) in the headphones that might annoy some. We noticed that the upper end and midrange gets a bit muddled when listening to the chorus of Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel.

How They Fit: The actual earbuds and cables are heavier on the Symphonized NRG than other headphones so there’s ever-so-slightly more weight hanging out of your ears so you’ll need to make sure you get the silicon tips correct. A few sizes are included.

What We Like: Excellent bass performance. Let Me by Zayn demonstrates the bass extension insofar as a small pair of headphones can sound. Nylon cabling is sturdy. Price is great.

Watch Out For: The design isn’t our favorite. It’s more artisan than we prefer in our gadgets, however, the wood and chrome design will appeal to some buyers. It’s difficult to tell the Left and Right markings. Hint: the mic and controls are on the left cable. A small linen bag is included as a proxy for a case, but it’s not robust.

Verdict: We wouldn’t make these our first purchase, but if you like your music loud and bass heavy then you’ll like the Symphonized NRG.

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Best Earbuds for Running: Yurbuds Inspire 400

How They Sound: Very strong bass, which at times can get in the way of the midrange. In Come Undone by Duran Duran, for example, the bass and drums are very pronounced, although the other instrumentals can take a background seat. These headphones have phenomenal noise-isolating, which also helps them sound very loud. At high-volumes, the audio starts to sound slightly distorted.

How They Fit: Extremely snug in-ear fit. The silicon ear tips really grip the inside of your ears and don’t move at all, which is why these would make great running earbuds.

What We Like: The right and left earbuds magnetically clip together, which is convenient for storing and traveling with. They come with one set of alternative silicon tips, in case the ones already on the earbuds don’t fit exactly the way you want. These silicon tips also make these earbuds sweat-resistant.

Watch Out For: The Inspire 400 look funky when not in your ear. Also, the bifurcation on the wire, which also acts as the volume control remote, is bulky and also a little alien looking.

Verdict: The Inspire 400 are firm front-runners when it comes to secure fit, and are noise-isolating and sweat-resistant. They’re one of the strangest looking earbuds, too, and the sound quality leaves something to be desired. The main reason to get these is if you want a form-fitting pair of workout headphones.

Runner Up, Best Sounding Earbuds: Shure SE112-GR

How They Sound: Right out of the box the Shure SE112-GRs are some of the best sounding headphones amongst this group. They’re also at the top of the $50 price range we limited ourselves too, but as you’d expect from a storied brand like Shure these in-ear monitors are pleasing to listening to. Clarity and separation is top tier. There’s not a great deal of bass, but even a mid-bass heavy song like Learn to Fly by Foo Fighters still sounded powerful. One of our favorite recordings, Your Precious Love by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell demonstrate the separation and soundstage. Our favorite sounding in-ear headphones amongst the group. Once you get the right sized silicon tip the noise isolation is admirable.

How They Fit: There are some complaints about the way these Shure cables, which after some testing we think boils down to get the tip right. You should size up and make sure you have a proper seal. The cables are also a bit cumbersome and heavy for in-ear monitors this size.

What We Like: Sound quality is stellar for a pair of $50 headphones. Crystal clear highs and great separation. Bass can be heard, but it may be more subtle than some listeners like. You can improve the bass by making sure you have a proper fitting silicon tip. Our favorite sounding in-ear monitor on the list.

Watch Out For: At the top of the $50 price range. The design is a bit clunky and the cables are too large. No mic or controls.

Verdict: If you asked us which pair we’d buy to keep at our desks or home then we’d select the Shure SE112-GRs. The design and cables may turn off the streamlined commuter unless you like to look like you work in the music industry.

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Best Overall Earbuds: Brainwavz S0

How They Sound: If you gave these headphones to us blind we’d tell you that they were a higher end pair than Brainwavz markets themselves at. The first song we threw at it was The Mission: Gabriel’s Oboe by Ennio Morricone performed by Yo-Yo Ma followed by For – Peter – Toilet Brushes – More by Nils Frahm (yes, that’s the name of the song). I think both of these songs show off the sonic capability of the S0s. Morning by Beck sounded downright impressive and shows these headphones punch above their weight class. The accuracy of the Brainwavz S0’s also makes a dramatic jump when you listen to them over a headphone amp versus a standard headphone output, which makes us think that these in-ear headphones need more power (less efficient) than some of the others we tested. The noise isolation works very well on these headphones, but it took me a few tries to get the tips right and my sense is the flat cable design, though modern, will likely result in them being pulled out of your ears often (especially if you’re a runner).

How They Fit: These fit me very well but did not fit my co-tester at all, which really goes to show how important it is to get the silicon tips right. Luckily, Brainwavz includes plenty of options here.

What We Like: The sound. Full controls. A nice case and plenty of included accessories. You can listen to these headphones for a long time so long as you don’t look at them too much.

Watch Out For: The design lack something to be desired. The mic isn’t great and the flat cables make these headphones seem bulkier than they need to be.

Verdict: We came to love the way these headphones sound the more we listened to them, and the sonic leap when plugging them into our Meridian Explorer2 was dramatic. It’s frustrating that the overcooked product design of the S0s belies the sonic performance. If you just care about overall sound but don’t care about looks or brand pedigree you should put these near the top of your list.

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Apple EarPods (3.5mm)

How They Sound: The EarPods sound noticeably strong when it comes to mids and highs. The vocals of Hannah Reid on London Grammar’s Rooting For You are very clear, especially when played at loud volumes. The bass also is decent, too, and tracks like Trapt’s Headstrong sound punchy and sharp. Also, these EarPods get loud. The critique (soundwise) of EarPods is with the separation between the bass, midrange and treble; at the end of Lorde’s Green Light, for example, it can start to sound a bit muddled and flat, especially if you’re listening at higher volumes.

How They Fit: By now you should know how Apple’s EarPods and AirPods fit in your ears. Some people love how they fit. And for others, they simply don’t fit in their ears. Unfortunately, there aren’t any ear tips that come with these earbuds, so if they don’t fit in your ears, you shouldn’t get them.

What We Like: Apple’s audio engineering team has garnered more and more acclaim from the hi-fi community over the years. While the EarPods are by no means audio-grade earbuds, the audio quality that these little earbuds can produce is more than adequate.

Watch Out For: They only come in white. They won’t fit in some people’s ears. They’re not water-resistant, so if you run and sweat constantly wearing them, they will eventually die. Also, Apple makes these EarPods with 3.5mm and Lightning connectors — make sure you know which you’re buying. No travel case.

Verdict: Apple’s EarPods are all-around solid earphones, with above average sound quality, volume and features (like a volume control remote). If they fit in your ears, there’s not much more you ask from a pair of $29 earbuds.

Most Affordable Earbuds: Panasonic RP-TCM125 ErgoFit

How They Sound: The audio quality on these is decent but far from great, which you could probably expect from a pair of earbuds that cost as much as a New York City hoagie. The treble and midrange are pretty clear when listening at medium to low volumes. The vocals in London Grammar’s Rooting For You and Lorde’s Writer In The Dark sound clear, too. However, treble starts getting distorted and the overall audio sounds tinny when listening to at high volumes. Bass is generally weak.

How They Fit: No complaints on fit. The angled-tips and the interchangeable silicone tips mean that these earbuds can be customized to securely stay in any ears. These are the lightest earbuds on this list and, when wearing them, it’s easy to forget that you’re actually wearing them. Very comfortable.

What We Like: Lightweight, comfortable and very cheap. Play/pause remote on wire.

Watch Out For: They don’t come with a traveling case. They also feel cheaper than any other earbuds on this list, partly because they’re so lightweight, but mostly because the cord is so so thin. and could tangle more easily. Integrated one-button can control play/pause, but can’t adjust volume.

Verdict: Stacked up against other earbuds on this list, these Panasonic’s don’t cover themselves in glory. If you’re after lightweight, secure fit and decent audio, at the lowest possible price, these are a good option.

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