The number one accessory for a phone or tablet is not a weird case that lets you watch Netflix with the screen on your belly. And it’s not a giant battery pack. It’s a decent pair of headphones.
But if you just spent hundreds on a phone, there’s a good chance you don’t want to fork out similar money for a pair of Bose or Beats cans. Not when even Marmite seems to be getting more expensive these days.
We’ve rounded-up the best of the budget buds around to get you a sweet upgrade to the pairs once wedged in the darkest recesses of your phone’s cardboard box. We’ve classed ‘budget’ as under £50, but some of our favourites are much cheaper than that too.
Additional words by Andrew Williams
One of the better-known quotes of romantic poet and king dandy Lord Byron is “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” Alas, that’s unlikely to happen to the Beyerdynamic Byron earphones, as you’re more likely to find them at a pro audio store than on the high street.
It’s a shame, as these earphones have a sound we defy you not to like. The Byrons aren’t like some of the company’s studio headphones, designed for sound engineers or home studio buffs looking for extreme accuracy - they’re for everyday folk - but they do come with a shot of that Beyerdynamic special sauce. That means that they’re the truest-sounding earphones in this test, with great mid-range detail that outdoes long-term Stuff favourites the SoundMagic E10C.
There’s good punch to the bass too, getting you full, engaging sound without any sense of slouchy sludge you’ll hear in some less capable affordable pairs. Their treble isn’t super-sparky but doesn’t lack detail either. These are the kind of earphones you can wear all day, and that can skip between genres like it’s no big deal.
Waving two fingers at headphone-hating iPhones, they have a 3-button remote that works perfectly with the Android phones we’ve tested: most remotes of this kind are, or at least were, made for iPhones. They also come with a basic felt carry pouch, three pairs of tips and a have a removable shirt clip on the cable. Despite looking a little plain, the design is good. The earpieces are metal apart from the easy-gripper ring of rubber at the back.
Ultimately, the Byrons are a good argument for the idea you don’t really need to spend more than £50 on earphones.
Seriously classy in-ear headphones with the detail to out-do the competition
We’ve loved SoundMagic’s E10 earphones for years. They set up camp in our hearts and claimed squatters’ rights. The newest version, the SoundMagic E10C, add something missing from most budget earphones. They have a three-button remote that automatically switches its compatibility mode to work with just about every phone under the sun. Apart from new iPhones, of course, but that’s their problem.
Other special moves include a funky braided-style cable less tangle-prone than most and full aluminium earpieces. Oh, and they also come with so many silicone tips you’ll be finding them under the sofa for years to come.
Sound per pound is the real reason to buy the SoundMagic E10Cs, though. They’re real crowd-pleasers, pairing chunky bass with good detail and enough restraint to make dance tracks sound fun rather than like your eardrums have been pinned to the bass bins of some dodgy club. The Sennheiser CX 5.00 sound bigger, and the Beyerdynamic Byrons are slightly more firmed-up, with better mid-range definition. But no-one’s getting flat-out KO’d in this fight, and the SoundMagic E10C are an alluring £20 less. They also come with a little carry case, which isn’t a given at the price.
Super sound and a clever remote at just the right price
A few years ago all the big boys of audio used to cast their cheap earphones in plastic. But these days even Sony uses aluminium for entry-level sets such as the MDR-EX450P. These aren’t all-aluminium earpieces like the SoundMagic E10C, as the front parts are plastic, but they still look the part, don’t they? Just check out those shiny embossed concentric circles on the back of each bud. Natty.
The Sony MDR-EX450Ps also have an oddly textured, slippy cable, that seems designed to avoid ending up in a tangled mess. On this cable sits a single-button remote. You can take calls, change tracks and pause your tunes, but you can’t change volume.
In this high-performing crowd, these Sonys like bass more than most. They have a thick, full sound signature with a fat low-end and mid-bass cushioning around the middle. It’s a less serious sound than some we have here, and there’s a sharpness to the treble — another reason why they can’t quite spar with the very best at under £50. However, they’re still a decent upgrade from the earphones that came with your phone. And they cost £20 less than the most expensive pairs here. That matters a lot in this class.
Bulkier sound than the very best, but a bit cheaper too
You might not have heard of Chinese brand Fidue, but the company has been making some serious moves over here in the last couple of years.
The A65s sit towards the bottom end of its headphones range at £40 (its top-end A83s sell for around £290), but they have a style-conscious audience in mind. Their all-metal construction makes them look much more expensive than they are, with the bronze and silver brushed-aluminium finish complemented by the hint of bronze running through the cable. Their design means they’re a bit heavier than others you’ll find, but we didn’t find them uncomfortable in use, and you get four different eartips included to help you find the best fit.
Behind those dashing good looks hides an 8mm titanium driver, which proves itself to be rather talented indeed. The A65s have found a good balance to their sound. No part of the frequency range takes the limelight from anywhere else, working together nicely to produce a fairly neutral response to most types of music. That doesn’t mean they’re boring though – quite the opposite.
There’s a great sense of energy and attack to their presentation, with real drive and enthusiasm through the midrange, and clear and detailed vocals. The low end is capable of delivering some deep rumbling bass when required too, while staying agile and well controlled. It could be a little better defined, but for this money, it’s more than acceptable.
It’s not the widest or most spacious soundstage though, and instrument separation could be better at this level. There’s also a lack of refinement in the upper mids and treble that you won’t hear in the SoundMagic E10s – it’s not harsh, but there’s a definite graininess with certain recordings that means they’re not always as smooth as we’d like.
For a fun yet detailed pair of headphones with a full-bodied sound and snappy dress sense, the Fidue A65s are well worth considering
If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to £50, you can’t do much better than the Philips SHE9105 headphones. They’re tiny little no-nonsense IEMs that can be found for a few pence under £30, and will get you a big upgrade over most bundled trash buds. They’re pretty funky-looking too. While they’re not all-metal earphones, the shiny parts of the shell are real aluminium.
Right at the back there’s a weave-effect plastic end piece that hides a little bass port. It needs one of these because the Philips SHE9105’s drivers are tiddly little 8.6mm things. Despite the port, bass is still the one main weakness of the Philips SHE9105, though: if you want your grime bass drops to shake your cranium, you won’t get that here. But you do get very clean and clear sound, with less audio clutter than bassier pairs.
They’re hard to beat if you’d like a lighter tone. They have more pronounced treble than the SoundMagic or Beyerdynamic pairs and while there’s a hint of granularity, the SHR9105 are not harsh. They’re pretty smooth all-round, if anything. You get a one-button remote too, designed to work with just about any phone.
A top budget pick if you’d prefer a clean and clear sound over a bassy one
Rock Jaw Alfa Genus
Now here’s something a little different. These in-ears let you tune their sound. We’ve not seen that on a pair of budget in-ears before.
It works with a series of interchangeable filters. Take off the rubber ear tips: the bit behind can unscrew, ready to be replaced with one of two other sets in the box.
The changes are drastic. By default, there’s a lot of bass. It’s a little fat, but still with decent punch. The next filter goes for the other extreme, cutting out nearly all the bass, which leads to a detailed but harsh sound. The third filter strikes a nice balance - it does still lean a little towards the treble but it's definitely the best sound in our book.
With all of the fittings, instrument separation is good, and there’s plenty of detail. Timing is strong, and the soundstage is spacious. Dynamics could be a bit more powerful, though - hard-hitting songs feel just a little too gentle.
Only the Rock Jaws let you tune the sound to suit your mood - an audio fusspot's delight
Some wireless headphones cost £100 more than their wired brothers, so the fact that you can get a pair of wireless earphones this cheap is a bit of an eye-opener. The Urbanista Berlins are likely to be plenty of people’s first experience with wireless headphones - but will they put people off trying again?
Well, these aren’t a conventional wireless pair. They’re more like a pocket-money take on Apple’s AirPods, because they don’t use rubbery tips. Instead the earpiece itself rests against your ear. There’s a little rubbery skin for each to make sure the hard plastic doesn’t batter your ear cartilage too much. Make sure you’re ready for this harder feel, though, and that this kind of earphone doesn’t block out that much sound. Wear them on the train and you’ll have to crank up the volume.
AirPods comparisons made, we have to break it to you that the Urbanista Berlin aren’t that much like the AirPods, because they have a cable connecting the two buds together. It’ll be a while before we see true wire-free earphones this cheap. They last a solid 8hrs between charges as a result, though, and wireless reliability is surprisingly good for such a cheap set.
The big ‘but’ is that the Urbanista Berlin’s sound quality isn’t that hot. Basic, unrefined treble and mids are low on detail. They don’t exactly make music come alive, sounding simply like a wireless version of a bog-standard pair of earbuds. However, the bass is much better than the mids and treble, delivering a satisfying eardrum pound. Pity about the rest though, eh?
Sound quality could be better, but they aren’t half cheap for a wireless earphone
Sol Republic Relays Sport
The Sol Republic Relays Sport are sporty earphones good enough, and cheap enough, to be considered a decent buy even if you have no intention of going out for a run with them.
Their sporty angle stems from the bright colours they come soaked in — blue and a limey green — and the rubbery ‘wheel’ that sits around each earpiece. The idea is this adds a bit of friction, teaming-up with the silicone tips to stop the Relays Sport from jumping out of your ears. They won’t add that much stability for all ears, mind.
The Sol Republic Relays Sport are also water resistant, which is handy if you are going to use these for exercise rather than just listening to a few tunes on the way to work. Sol Republic makes versions of these earphones with a one-button remote for Androids, or a three-button remote for iOS devices. Sound quality is good, if not quite on the level of the best here. Bass is a little more reserved, giving you a leaner tone. It’s also a bit thinner as a result, and there’s a wee bit of hardness to the higher mids.
The Relays Sport could be a little smoother, a little more refined, but the impression they leave is still that of a clean and clear earphone. Take into account the £20 price they often sell for online and you have a versatile little pair of earphones for those who want to spend as little as possible.
Water resistant earphones with sporty features and, nowadays, a super-low price