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. It’s a decent pair of headphones.
But if you've 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 just yet.
We’ve rounded-up the best of the budget buds around to get you a sweet upgrade to the pairs you'll find 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.
A strong 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 - so much so, they've 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 £15 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
Despite being the cheapest headphones that British company RHA make, the MA390 offer the premium build of pricier models, while still giving you change from £20.
That means aluminium housing over plastic for the earbuds, a fabric non-tangle cable that's built to last and a handy one-button inline remote, for controlling calls and music playback through a series of clicks.
Considering the MA390 sit at the cheap end of what we consider cheap, we approach them with expectations well and truly managed. But we needn't have. There is an awful lot to like about the MA390.
Bass certainly sits on the rich side, and is less defined than you'll hear on a pricier pair. However, it doesn't overpower the rest of the frequency range, and mids have enough clarity and expression to hold their own.
The treble isn't always the most refined though - particularly at volume - which means they're upfront and energetic rather than easygoing. You’ll get a wider soundstage from pricier pairs too, but getting change out of £20 for these is nothing short of a bargain.
Seriously cheap, stylish buds that offer plenty to enjoy when it comes to performance at this price
Sony's entry-level MDR-EX450P might not manage an all-aluminium shell like the Soundmagic E10C, but they still look the part, don’t they? Just check out those shiny embossed concentric circles on the back of each bud. Very smart indeed.
There's also an oddly textured, slippy cable, that seems designed to avoid ending up in a tangled mess and largely works. 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.
The A65s have found a good balance to their sound. No part of the frequency range steals the limelight from anywhere else, producing a fairly neutral response to suit most types of music.
That doesn’t mean they’re boring though. In fact, 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 - 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 too. There’s also a lack of refinement in the upper mids and treble that you won’t hear in the SoundMagic E10C – it’s not harsh, but there’s a graininess to the higher register 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