Last Updated On: 3-5-21
Reviewing budget earbuds is a bid tedious – you generally get what you pay for, and most of the time the cheap stuff is underwhelming. And there’s now a lot of a lot of products in this category to sift through too.
That said, budget earbuds are probably one of the most popular products in the audio market – just about everyone these days likes to have an inexpensive pair for everyday use that they won’t have to worry too much about. And now with enough competition, there actually are some unexpectedly impressive diamonds in the rough.
Why Listen To Me?
I’ve independently conducted and published a lot of reviews of budget earbuds. If it’s currently a somewhat popular and marketed pair of earbuds, odds are I’ve listened to it. My review process is methodical and perpetually tinkered with the goal of making product comparison as realistically objective as possible. Furthermore, MakeItSoundGreat.com does not solicit or receive free “review” copies of products from manufacturers – we buy them exactly as you or any other customer would and thus have no reason to be biased.
What To Look For in Budget Earbuds or In-Ear Headphones
Here are the main things I’m looking for when taking a pair of budget earbuds for a test drive:
Good overall sound signature – I don’t mind something that’s biased towards a certain style one might like because no one is ever going to do any kind of serious monitoring with cheap earbuds. That said, they should have an overall decent/even response and minimize glaring flaws that are often attributable to cheap headphones: sibilance, thinness/hissyness, muddy/bleeding bass, the boxy sensation, etc.
Comfort – they need to fit nicely and securely and create a proper seal, and not move around or lose the seal when the head or jaw moves. Pads and tips need to feel nice and sturdy enough, or at least any replacements you might decide to use need to work.
A good wire – something that doesn’t feel flimsy and prone to tangles. Something that keeps microphonics (the sound of rubbing wire that goes into the earbud) to a tolerable minimum. Also a sturdy plug (if non-wireless) that fits securely into a jack, with no crackling and minimal background static.
Warranty – if cheaper buds are more prone to breaking/failure I want to be covered. A year at least, but there are some in this category that do offer longer. I also want the RMA process to be as quick and easy as possible so the effort of replacing them is worth it.
Features – adequate in-line controls, mic, Bluetooth connection, weather/water resistance, or any other such features if you want to have any of them.
Isolation – earbuds are typically used outside home, so they should provide enough isolation to block out however much ambient noise you typically deal with.
And with that, lets get to the actual selections.
If I were to recommend one overall best pair of earbuds available for $20 or less, it would be the FiiO F3:
These have been at the top of my list for a while now, and what I personally use for casual/commuter listening until I find something better. The F3s are well built and sturdy, they’re very comfortable, and for casual listening they sound all around better than anything else I’ve listened to at this price range. They sound better than a lot of ~$50 earbuds I’ve reviewed in fact. They also have a in-line mic and basic on-board controls which is a nice inclusion. These are the I use, until I find something better for the price.
If I were to recommend one best pair of wireless/Bluetooth earbuds available for $20 or less, it would be the Anker Soundbuds Curve:
They’re also well built and comfortable, they’re weather/water resistant, they have a solid ~14 hour battery life, and they have good sound for the modest price, better than any competitor that I’ve listened to so far.
If I were to recommend a basic pair of earbuds that’s as cheap as possible, it would be the Panasonic ErgoFit:
They’re light, small, comfortable enough, and have impressively decent sound for the bare minimal price.
There now is, as I said, a lot of products in this popular category. And while many of them are pretty clearly inferior, a good amount of them are quite comparable and perfectly viable alternative choices, or maybe are even preferable if you have particular preferences. Below is an alphabetical list of various competing products with short summaries and corresponding links to full reviews, which I definitely recommend reading if anything in particular interests you.
1More 1M301 – impressively good sound with particularly good clarity and separation. Isolation is lesser. Definitely a viable choice that remains in the best-of conversation (full review).
Betron B25 – nice build quality, fit, and comfort for the minimal price. Sound quality isn’t that great for critical music listening, but is however nice and soft and perhaps ideal for things like podcasts (full review).
Betron BS10 – very nice build quality, but fits poorly, and sounds generally inferior to all the recommendations herein (full review).
Betron DC950 – very nice build and fit, with good isolation. Sounds decent but the significantly emphasized bass is fairly resonant and fatiguing, and with recessed mids/trebles it feels kind of muffled (full review).
Betron ELR50 – decent build and fits very nicely, but overall doesn’t sound that great, lacks enough detail to sound muffled, bass is prone to significant bleeding (full review).
Betron YSM1000 – very nice build and decent fit, but overall doesn’t sound very good, enough lack of detail to seem muffled. Prone to fatigue as well (full review).
Creative Outlier One – comfortable, water resistant, and has a great Bluetooth connection quality. Emphasized bass which might appeal to some, but both the Soundbuds Curve and Q30 plus sound better overall in my opinion (full review).
Edifier H210/P210 – significant enough lack of clarity and detail to sound muffled. Recessed trebles and muddy bass don’t help (full review).
Koss Plug – interesting unique design, but one that has a terrible fit that compromises already mediocre-at-best sound quality (full review).
KZ ATE – technically great sounding for the modest price, with impressive consistency, detail, clarity, and separation, but bright up top, with mids/trebles that are somewhat thin and harsh. Fit and comfort isn’t the greatest (full review).
KZ ED9 – sounds good overall, and has the switchable option of “bass” or “balanced” with two pairs of removable tuners. Buds are heavy and long and hang out and down as a result (full review).
KZ ED12 – sounds good overall, a bit bright and harsh with the V shape sound signature. Buds are a bit bulky and annoying to take on/off, woven wire isn’t the greatest (full review).
KZ ES4 – sounds good overall, bass is pretty emphasized and the driver design can make the lows and highs sound a bit disjointed (full review).
KZ ZS3 – sounds good overall. The buds are bulky and the ear wraps and wire aren’t the greatest though (full review).
KZ ZS5 – has very even response and great clarity and separation, but a little boxyness and sibilance. Also a bit bulky (full review).
KZ ZST Pro – excellent clarity and detail but very bright and harsh V sound signature (full review).
JBL E15 – decently good overall sound and have been significantly discounted from original MSRP. Lack a little detail all around and the bass is a somewhat boomy, muddy, and fatiguing (full review).
JBL Reflect Mini – very lightweight with decent overall sound, also have been significantly discounted from original MSRP. Might have issues with ear fit out of the box that requires separate tips to fix (full review).
JBL T110 – these sound very good for the minimal price, and might actually be better than the ErgoFit if you don’t mind paying a little bit more. Flimsy wire and don’t get loud as easily (full review).
JBL T210 – sounded decent, no specific flaws, just not particularly great. Bass was recessed despite these being advertised as bass headphones. Also a flimsy wire and don’t get loud as easily (full review).
JBL T290 – sounds very good all around for the current price, part in due to this one seeing some MSRP discounts. Slight harshness and bass boomyness. Also has flimsy wire and joints (full review).
MPOW Flame – sounds bad, overpowering bass that’s muddy and bleeds heavily into significantly recessed mids/trebles (full review).
Philips SHE3590/SHE3595 – a popular cheap-as-possible option, but I think the ErgoFit sounds a little better and is the same price (full review).
Senso ActivBuds S-250 – sounds bad exactly in the same way as the MPOW Flames do, and I’m suspicious these might just be the same hardware/manufacturer in different clothes (full review).
Sephia SP3060 – sounds surprisingly decent, is well built and comfortable, and has one of the nicest wires I’ve ever seen on inexpensive earbuds (full review).
Skullcandy Chops Flex – poor fit that results in bad enough sound quality to be non-passable (full review).
Skullcandy Jib (wired) – good comfort and seal for the bare minimum price with overall decent sound. Emphasized bass however is muddy and bleeds up, exacerbates already lacking detail and clarity (full review).
Skullcandy Ink’d 2 – good comfort and seal for the minimal price, sound is decent and technically impressive, with even response and good detail and clarity, but thin and harsh and significantly fatiguing (full review).
Skullcandy Method – lightweight and very comfortable, ideal for use with exercise or other activity. Sound quality is decent too. Wire is a little flimsy and these don’t have in-line tracking/volume controls despite being “sport” earbuds (full review).
SoundPEATS Q30 Plus – very good sound quality with a flat/neutral signature, and might actually sound better than the Soundbuds Curve if that’s what you prefer over bass emphasis. Fit isn’t great with included pads/tips and separate ones might be needed to fix that (full review).
Taotronics TT-BH07 – these sounded very solid, but the Soundbuds Curve sounds a little better and has better fit and comfort (full review).
Do keep in mind prices in the audio market are perpetually prone to change, so its possible that a superior product might suddenly get discounted into this price-tier. There’s also particularly high turnover in the budget earbud market. All our best of articles like this one are evergreen and regularly changed/updated to keep our recommendations current.