Do you get what you pay for? If you want great sound inside your ears, the answer is yes.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


It's all in your head: The best-sounding earbuds for personal listening

February 26, 2012

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2012, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2012, The Post-Standard

I used to hate earbuds, those little iPod-style earphones you see half the world wearing. They came with every iPod I've ever owned, and all of them fell out of my ears at the slightest hint of a jiggle.

They also didn't sound very good. Two strikes against something is bad enough, but I also felt that none of the expensive earbuds I tried sounded any better than cheap ones. As a result, I started recommending the $5 Sentry earbuds I found at Big Lots.

In the last few years my Sentry collection has become a badge of cheapskate honor. But the folks at my favorite big-honking-headphone company, AblePlanet, took pity on me and sent along some $190 earbuds, the model SI1050. (Check them on the web at http://tinyurl.com/85ya646.) In addition to impressive-looking custom-fit earpieces, the AblePlanet model has a microphone and a volume control that work with iPhones, iPads and iPods.

Crazed by the thought of all that wealth around my lobes and hoping for a good comparison, I asked TDK to send one of its best models, the BA 200 earbuds. They cost (gulp!) $60 more than the AblePlanet model. (Go to http://tinyurl.com/7lm7tuk.)

Whew! That's a lot of green just to hear "Yellow Submarine." But do $250 earbuds sound better than $5 ones? Is the $190 pair a sonic bargain? I decided to find out.

But wait. There's more. To add a little mid-price interest, I took a pair of highly hyped $44 a-JAYS Three earbuds out of my forgotten-things drawer and lined them up for the test also. (For more on the a-JAYS, go to http://tinyurl.com/35a4a3l.)

My four-way test gave some fascinating results. They all sounded good to start with, but when I ramped up the listening standards and raised the playback volume, the $5 Sentry earbuds made a graceful exit. They're fine for normal listening, but outclassed for really serious stuff like comparing one recording to another. They're surely worth $5, with only one disadvantage: They fell out of my ears easily.

The cool-looking a-JAYs sounded great (and pumped out enough low bass to power the Alaska Pipeline), but wouldn't stay put unless I pressed them into my ears really hard. Pipe organ fans would like these a lot.

The AblePlanet and TDK earbuds must have come from another galaxy. They were both shaped to fit nicely into my ear canals, sounded like a million bucks and blocked most outside noise. They refused to budge when I tried to shake them off and stayed comfortable for hours.

As a longtime audio nut, I've collected a lot of studio-quality headphones, some costing more than my Kia, but these two earbud models ranked with the best of those older styles. I was especially impressed with the great-fitting seal of both designs, which pretty much guarantees a near-perfect tone quality.

The results are in. The $5 earbuds are well worth $5. Maybe even $15. The $44 earbuds can be considered cheap if you really care about good bass. The two models in the high-priced lines were spectacular and clearly better, all things considered, than the others.

Do you get what you pay for? If you want great sound inside your ears, the answer is yes.