Earphones Buyer's Guide

Right now we’re living in an amazing time for music. While we may not have the legendary acts of the past still performing, we do have tools to bring the best out of music from every era. We’ve talked about how to decide which pair of headphones are the best for you, but if you are more interested in in-ear earbuds, this guide is for you.

The market for earbuds might not be as varied as it is for headphones, but there are still some important factors you need to consider when making a purchase. Here are some things you should consider during your selection process.

Connectivity

We currently have three main standards for connectivity with earbuds. The first, and most popular, standard is the 3.5mm jack. It has been around since the 1800s and dominates the landscape. Almost all devices that output audio have a 3.5mm jack except some 2016 smartphones like the Moto Z Droid and Moto Z Droid Force and Apple iPhone 7. While these phones don’t have the jack, the standard is so ubiquitous that adapters are included with the devices to let you use your 3.5mm jack accessories. Other standards can put out better audio, but 3.5mm devices can put great sound and have the advantage of being accepted almost anywhere.

You may be familiar with the next connectivity standard: Bluetooth. We see a lot of earbuds that focus on workouts or heavy activity employ Bluetooth to remove as many cables as possible. These earbuds are routinely connected by a cable between the earbuds the rests behind the head and out of the way, but there are some truly wireless earbuds from companies like Bragi and Samsung that remove all wires. Bluetooth brings the convenience of fewer cords, but generally can’t produce the audio quality of wired earbuds. You also have to worry about keeping your earbuds charged, which can be a pain.

MPOW Cheetah Bluetooth Earbuds featuredThe last and most rare of the connectivity standards is USB Type-C. The USB Type-C port saw wide-spread adoption in 2016 with almost all flagship and most midrange phones ship with it. Unless you use an adapter, you won’t be able to charge your phone while you’re using USB Type-C headphones, but they can provide better sound. Using the Type-C port allows earbud makers to bypass converting the digital signal to an analog one like wired headphones must do. You can also find Type-C headphones and earbuds that have an amplifier in the headset instead of using the onboard amp from the phone (which can be subpar compared to ones in headsets). USB Type-C earbuds are a small segment of the population, but a growing one.

Usage

How you plan to use your earbuds will tell you a lot about the style you need to look for. If you’re just lounging around the house or at work with your earbuds plugged into your phone, any old earbuds will do. You can generally find no frills earbuds with quality sound for cheap.

Where you may want to step up your purchase is if you want to use your earbuds while exercising. Any runner will tell you that having your earbuds pull out of your ear due to cord tension is less than ideal. This can actually endanger your phone due to it being pulled out of whatever secure location you have it in and falling to the ground. No-one wants that. Bluetooth earbuds are the best option here to avoid any conflicts.

Another feature you’ll need to look for is water resistance or waterproofing. Since you’ll be sweating during your workout (hopefully), you need to make sure to pick up a pair of earbuds that won’t be ruined by liquids. If you plan to use them while swimming, look for a pair that has at least an IPx7 rating. This should ensure that they won’t be ruined in the pool.

bose-earbudsOne last thing to look for is the addition of either earhooks or eartips. Earhooks do exactly like you would imagine and go either over or around your ear to provide extra stability to hold the earbud snug in your eardrum. Eartips look like a little wing and fill up the rest of your ear that the earbud doesn’t take up. These also keep the earbud snug so they don’t fall out during periods of rapid movement.

Some earbuds will give you the option of earhooks or earbuds like the Parasom R2’s.

Price

Earbuds come at literally every price point from dirt cheap to utterly ridiculous. It’s all about what you’re willing to pay. While we generally don’t recommend grabbing a pair of $5 earbuds from the gas station, those can easily get you through a pinch if you don’t have your normal earbuds or they break.

A big, big segment of earbuds where we have seen a lot of growth is the $20-$50 price range. With known brands like Sennheiser, Sony, JBL, and others moving into this price range and pricing their earbuds aggressively, some great deals can be had.

On the top end of the spectrum are In-Ear Monitors that can reach into the thousands of dollars. We suggest you do a ton of your own research into IEMs before you make a huge purchase like that due to it that being a high personalized purchased. No matter how much we know about IEMs, we can’t tell you which ones to buy because they’re so specialized.

Here are some of our picks for earbuds with excellent reviews in multiple price ranges.

Under $20

$20 – $50

Under $100

Under $200

Where to Buy

You can find earbuds just about anywhere, including local cellular stores. Some like T-Mobile and AT&T will even finance these earbuds at 0% just like smartphones. If you head to any brick and mortar store that sells electronics, you’re bound to find some smattering of earbuds on the shelves. It will be up to you to decide if the selection meets your level of expectations or if you need to move to an online outlet for a larger selection. Here are a few recommended sites to pick up earbuds:

Sound

Earbuds are more limited in the range of sound that they can put out compared to headphones, but they do have their strengths. If you’re a bass head, you can still find earbuds like the Sennheiser CX 300 II which provide “enhanced” bass.

Most earbuds provide a generally flat sound stage without much bass in the low end or height in the highs. Where earbuds do shine, however, are the seal we just spoke about in the previous section. Generally speaking, over the ear headphones will never provide as good of a seal as earbuds can provide.

In-Ear Monitors come in at the top of the spectrum and are generally used by musicians, audio engineers, or audiophiles. IEMs are best for getting an accurate representation of what the music is produced to sound like, rather than any artificial effects other earbuds can add. IEMs are also held in high regard for their audio clarity and wide sound stage.

Product Reviews

Build Quality

There are a couple of factors that play into the build quality of a good pair of earbuds. For wired earbuds, it’s very important you pick up a pair with a well-shielded cable that connects your phone to your earbuds. There are plenty of ways that companies have tried to innovate but generally speaking, if you’re picking up something with a braided cable like the Altec Lansing MZX736MIC Bliss you should be good to go. You can also stick with something like the Onkyo IE-CTI300 that has a copper cable with an elastomer cable sheath that should resist cuts that would otherwise kill the earbuds in all but the most extreme situations.

onkyo-ie-cti30-earbudsAnother area to focus on is the construction of the casing that holds the earbud. You’ll mainly see earbuds with hard plastic casing, but some have metal casing like the JLab Audio J4M, which also features other rugged design features like the previously mentioned braided cable. While metal or aluminum can be more susceptible to scratching, they should stand up better under extreme circumstances like being stepped on where plastic earbuds would otherwise break.

Accessories

An important part of determining if you’re getting a good deal are the accessories that come with your earbuds. If you’re happy to settle for just the earbuds, that’s fine, but many companies will provide extra eartips or other goodies.

Additional eartips serve a couple of purposes, the first being comfort. Eartips can come in different sizes since we all have different ear canals. I personally have different sizes on different sides of my heads so I have to replace one of the eartips out of the box or earbuds will fall out of my ear. On the other hand, my wife has very small ear canals and has to replace the standard tips with a smaller option for her to be able to use earbuds comfortably.

eartipsAnother factor in replacement earbuds can be sound quality. Generally, earbuds will come with one of three different types of tips, sleeves (soft silicon), foam, or hard plastic molds.

Sleeves come standard on almost all earbuds and provide decent sound and durability. They’re reusable for generally the entirety of the life of the earbuds and can be changed out at any time.

Foam tips provide more isolation and a more comfortable fit. Due to the better seal of foam tips, music can sound fuller and warmer, which may be more pleasing to the ear. Due to construction, foam tips will need to be changed out after a month or so and are not washable.

Hard plastic molded tips are custom to your ear and normally come on either the most high-end earbuds or separately from a kit you can buy. Molds can provide a perfect fit in your ear and thus provide excellent sound seal. You’ll normally only find these on high-end In-Ear Monitors, but some mid-range IEMs can be found that offer custom molds too.