Earphones: Our buying guide

Canstar Blue research shows that when it comes to earphones (the little in-ear ones), about two in five consumers consistently buy cheap products and then replace them once they break. While this approach may work well for those on a budget – or those who don’t particularly care about sound quality – it could be a financially inefficient habit in the long term.

To help you decide what the best approach for your usage is, we’ve put together an earphone buying guide for three different consumer profiles – the budget buyer, the everyday listener and the ‘audiophile’.

The budget buyer (<$30)

Some people don’t view earphones as an important investment and that’s absolutely fine. For those more interested in audiobooks and podcasts, crystal clear quality may be less important than a lower price point. However, before resigning yourself to the $10 earphones in the tech aisle of the supermarket, know that better options do exist. And also keep in mind that spending an additional $5-$10 dollars could mean the difference between your new earphones lasting one month, or several.

When it comes to budget earphones, once you’ve found a product that fits your price range, the main thing you’ll need to consider is comfort (assuming sound quality is less important to you). Cheaper earphones can often be rather uncomfortable, and it’s important to understand that earphones aren’t like a pair of shoes – they won’t break in or eventually mould to fit your ears. If a pair of earphones hurt your ears when you first try them, that pain and discomfort isn’t going anywhere. Try to look for earphones that have soft silicone tips designed to slightly protrude into your ear canal (known as in-ear earphones or canalbuds) as these are generally comfortable and help with noise isolation (blocking outside noise in order to improve sound clarity).

If you can’t find earphones with soft tips within your price range and your only options are hard plastic earphones, a good rule of thumb is to try and avoid perfectly circular earphones. Your concha (the external part of the ear that earphones rest within) isn’t shaped to accommodate a flat round disk, which is why many earphones appear to be oddly shaped and asymmetrical. They’re shaped to fit better within the cartilage structures of your ear. However, the ‘avoid roundness’ rule doesn’t apply to smaller earphones designed to protrude slightly into the ear – roundness only presents a problem with larger earphones.

Suggested pick for the budget buyerPhilips In-Ear Earphones, priced $14.98.

The everyday listener ($30-$100)

Making up the majority of earphone users, everyday listeners are those who place value on higher sound quality, but don’t have the hundreds of dollars necessary to reach the upper echelons of audio tech. At this price range, comfort and durability are generally a given, with a few exceptions.

The everyday listener has a lot more to choose from than the budget buyer, in terms of both quality and feature. Whereas budget buyers are more or less stuck with basic, low-quality earphones, everyday listeners have the luxury of being able to consider what kind of earphones they want, including things like bass boosting, noise isolating and noise cancelling. Noise cancelling and isolating earphones become a viable option at this price range, so it’s important to explain the differences between the two.

  • Noise cancelling– Noise cancelling earphones use technology within the earphones to analyse external noise and then feed inverse waves into the earphones. This essentially means that these inverse waves are being played simultaneously with your music. While they don’t catch 100% of the noise happening outside your earphones (people’s voices are a notable example), they’re generally quite good at filtering ambient and background noises, like traffic.
  • Noise isolating– Noise isolating earphones are much less complex than their noise cancelling counterparts, but just as effective. These earphones have soft rubber tips which are designed to protrude further into your ear than regular earphones, and create a seal which prevents outside noise from entering your ears. Some people aren’t fans of noise isolating earphones because they can completely block out 100% of all outside sound, which in some people leads to feelings of claustrophobia.

Everyday listeners have a lot more to choose from in terms of how their earphones look, but when shopping around it’s important to understand that visual simplicity can be a good thing. Garish-looking products are often lower in quality with a disproportionate price-tag. In contrast, genuinely high-quality products can be relatively plain-looking and often just come in black or white – although some brands stock ranges with several different colours.

Suggested picks for the everyday listenerSony MDR-EX15AP Earphones, priced $49.95, and Sennheiser MM 30i Earphones, priced $79.98.

The audiophile (>$100)

With deep pockets and a desire for superior sound quality and comfort, audiophiles have the world at their feet – at least when it comes to buying earphones. Surprisingly enough, the range of products available for consumers in this group is much smaller than the range available to the everyday listener. This is generally because audio companies tend to focus their audiophile efforts on headphones (the big chunky ones that sit on your head) and leave earphones for the middle and lower ranges. That being said, audiophile earphones do exist and some of them are rather impressive.

Now at this price-range, high-quality sound is a cert. However, some of the more expensive earphones can be surprisingly flimsy, either because the manufacturers have prioritised sound quality over durability, or because there’s so much tech crammed into the earphones that it ends up being naturally more susceptible to bumps and cracks than a simpler, low-tech design. Or it could be both. The main point is that a big price-tag doesn’t guarantee your earphones will last forever. Try to do some online research about the durability of a pair of earphones before you drop big bucks on them, or you may end up regretting your purchase.

At this price-point, you will probably only consider in-ear earphones – because earphones that simply sit on the outer part of your ears can only provide a certain level of sound quality. The highest-quality earphones tend to be of the in-ear variety.

All that being said, there aren’t many more hard and fast rules about buying earphones in this price range. As long as you do a little research, you’ll more than likely end up with a pair of earphones that you’re really happy with.

Suggested picks for the audiophile Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Earphones, priced $399, and Shure SE846 Earphones, priced $999.

You can compare different brands of earphones using our customer satisfaction ratings.

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