Ten Budget Earbuds

Earbuds to significantly improve your audio experience without a hefty price tag.

The earbuds that come free with most portable players and smartphones are basic, if functional. Happily, you don’t need to invest a fortune to significantly improve the sound.

RHA MA-350
★★★★★

Everything’s relative, of course, but the RHA  MA-350s look pretty bulky. Fortunately, the big aluminium enclosures (shaped aerophonically, in the manner of a trumpet’s bell) are lightweight and a comfy fit. And the MA-350s are a gratifyingly poised listen. The 10mm driver doesn’t place undue emphasis on any particular area of the frequency range, instead delivering an even, balanced sound – dynamism and punch are on the menu, certainly, but not at the expense of detail or subtlety. The RHAs sing in a natural, unforced manner, and consequently remain an easy listen even through the entirety of a long-haul flight.

Philips SHE9000
★★

There’s nothing wrong with the look or feel of the SHE9000s – the bevelled metal is a tactile treat – and they’re a snug fit. The cable is a mixture of rubber and cloth; the rubber bit tangles, the cloth section doesn’t. The most notable aspect of the Philips’ performance concerns the low frequencies: they’re miserably overstated and barely controlled. At the opposite end, treble sounds are splashy and insubstantial. Perversely the SHE9000s sound quite poised in the midrange, and other pluses include dynamism and outright volume. But the oppressive bass and rather mechanical overall sound means they can be safely ruled out.

Ross Reflecta

The Ross Reflectas are a cheaper option, and they do little to hide the fact. It’s not the garish lime-green finish that betrays them, nor the firm way they burrow into your ear. No, the real problems begin and end with the sound they produce. There’s no two ways about it, the Reflectas sound muddy and indistinct. Low frequencies bludgeon their way through tunes with scant regard for the beginning or end of notes, elbowing the midrange to one side and burying vocalists beneath ill-defined humming. Meanwhile, treble sounds are coarse and hard.

Sennheiser CX 281

At first glance, the CX 281s seem outsized: the enclosures look chunky, and the in-line volume control is bulky. In practice, though, they fit snugly and, with the exception of the slightly noisy cable, are a success. They produce a hefty, well-controlled but bass-forward sound. For once that’s not totally at the expense of the midrange, which is quite well separated and distinct. The top of the frequency range attacks crisply and avoids brightness, although it could be smoother. Detail and speed are where the 281s really score – though some will hanker after more out-and-out volume.

JVC HA-FXC51

Intriguingly shaped and blessed with a comfortable in-ear fit, the FXC51s feel good. With one caveat, these are quite nicely balanced and detailed. Presentation is (mostly) natural and enjoyably musical, and they handle rhythm and timing well. Low frequencies enjoy presence and solidity, and the midrange is open and revealing enough to make the most of a vocalist. It’s the top-end reproduction that spoils the party. Far too keen, much too thin and tiresomely prone to rattle and glare, treble frequencies are  never less than prominent – and crassly upfront on occasion.

Thinksound ts02

Wood and metal is a nice combination, and the "green" philosophy will score points with the eco-community, but we’re not so keen on the ts02s’ cable. It tangles too readily and transmits noise too easily. However, they are comfortable and produce solid low frequencies with a degree of detail and tonal variance. They also have one of the more revealing midranges here. Integration and separation are good too, as are dynamics. The top of the frequency range is unruly, though, with a tendency to bite at anything more than modest volumes.

Jays A-Jays Four

The striking A-Jays Fours sport a broad, flat cable virtually immune to tangling. The L-shaped plug is a thoughtful touch, as is the in-line three-button remote control/mic for iPhone. They’re light and comfortable and deliver an open, revealing sound. Detail levels are high, dynamic ability is strong and the 9mm driver serves up punchy low frequencies. The midrange is as neatly integrated as it is separated. Only the top of the frequency range, glinting dangerously and more than ready to show its claws when volume levels get serious, could be cause for concern.

Skullcandy 50/50

Skullcandy’s website might lead you to believe it’s preoccupied with courting the hipster demographic, but the 50/50s will appeal to anyone in the market for well-made, exciting-sounding and comfortable ’phones. There’s a caveat, though: a rather lop-sided sound. It’s bass-heavy, exerting a squeeze on the otherwise enjoyable midrange. There’s danger at the top of the frequency range too, where over-keen recordings can provoke splashiness and glare. A pity, because the 50/50s are an engaging listen
with plenty of drive and attack. 

Panasonic RP-HS200


In-ear headphones that are also over-ear headphones, the RP-HS200 might look a bit ostentatious but they’re more comfortable, and lighter, than they look. The cable is all-but silent, but it’s rather prone to winding in on itself and the overall sound  is a bit on the thin, lightweight side. Apart from that lack of substance, though, the Panasonics are nicely detailed and strike a good balance from the midrange up. Those who like it loud will look elsewhere, mind you: these are on the quiet side.

SoundMagic E10

These buds are a winner from start to finish. From the exemplary build and finish to the comfort of their fit and uncommon effectiveness of the noise isolation that results, they're a genuine pleasure to use. And they sound a treat, too. Fast and driving, but thoroughly controlled, they’re a detailed, dynamic and fully invigorating listen. Low frequencies punch with straight-edged precision, the midrange sings with a spacious, communicative voice and the top end shines benignly. The E10s are perfectly  realised, affordable in-ears. 
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Ten Budget Earbuds
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