Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Big box earbuds put to a blind 'taste' test in the Engadget Labs

Engadget Labs EarbudsHello, and welcome to yet another installment of Engadget Laboratories. This time around we're taking a pseudo scientific look at sub-$100 earbuds. We've all been caught out, headphoneless, and desperate to put some tunes in our ears. So, the question is, what exactly do you get for your money when you stumble into a Best Buy and pick up whatever happens to be hanging on the shelves? Clearly you're trading convenience for selection when you shuffle into a big box shop for your audio needs, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should just grab the cheapest thing hanging by the register, or the most expensive for that matter. We randomly selected four sets of phones, at four different price points, and put it to a group of average Joes and Janes to see if they could actually tell the difference between a $100 pair of buds and a $10 pair (while blindfolded and trapped inside a booth).
We sent our crack team of researchers out to the nearest Best Buy, and they emerged with a sack of earbuds and, most importantly, the receipt (our budget wouldn't even allow us to buy new lab coats after all the blood, sweat, and champagne we spilled in our last experiment). A group of four individuals were ushered into our testing facility, treated to a musical selection, and asked to rate the sound quality of each of set of headphones, on a scale of one to ten. The test was performed blindfolded and without knowing how much the buds cost. For each evaluation we put our victims subjects inside a booth. Said contraption was not sound proof, nor would we want it to be (sound isolation is an important test criteria), we just did it 'cause it seemed like it would be fun.
Philips ratings
Philips earbudsThese basic buds probably don't offer any advantage over the ones that came packaged with your last iPod -- unless you happen to really like the color black. If you're not a particularly demanding listener, like David who awarded this set an eight, you may find they get the job done just fine. But the truth is, at this price point, you'll be dealing with tinny sound, poor fit, and little in the way of actual sound isolation. Two of our testers gave this particular model a six, while Jason gave it only a one. Will the sound you get for a Jefferson be passable? Sure -- but chances are you wouldn't want to make these your every day pair of headphones. Even at top volumes, which could potentially blow less durable drivers like these 13.5mm ones, loud conversations will be audible over your tunes and if you've got smaller ears, good luck getting these one-size-fits-all earbuds to stay in place.

Total score: 21 out of 40

iFrogz rating
iFrogzStepping up a notch might not actually offer much of an improvement over cheaper options. The representative $25 set we tested from iFrogz didn't fair much better than the Philips, and our subject Donna found them to be vastly inferior, giving them only a two. Though, Jason thought these buds were much better, rating them an eight. The drivers in the EarPollutions are small, only 9mm, but a tube feeding the sound into your ears improves bass response and sound isolation, allowing you to hear more of your music. The extra $15 also buys you a few nice extras like foam (or rubber in the case of the iFrogz) earpieces that improve fit and block out external noise as well as a microphone for use as a wired headset. However, David was unable to distinguish between the sound of our first two units and Chris actually thought the Philips were marginally better. It seems that the extra cash for this level of earbud is primarily buying you a slightly better design, but not necessarily better sound.

Total score: 23 out of 40

Kickers rating
KickersWith the jump up to $45 our tester Donna remained unimpressed, awarding the Kickers only a two but, overall the company's "premium" earbuds fared better with our testers. The slightly larger 10mm drivers produced a broader range of frequencies and deeper bass than the cheaper models. In addition, the Kickers were the first buds we encountered with a truly adjustable fit. Inside the package were three different sets of silicone tips and one pair of foam ones that would fit almost any ears. They also sport a thicker-gauge, cloth covered wire that, while not exactly "tangle-free," is certainly less likely to wind up a knotted ball. The Kickers are a little more gimmicky than some other headphones in this price range from companies like Sennheiser (which provide an even wider frequency response) but are still well reviewed. The $40-50 range is where you finally start seeing significant return for your audio dollar when it comes to sound quality and they often offer much more in the way of sound isolation.

Total score: 27 out of 40

Bose ratings
BoseThe most recognizable name on the shelves when you hit the $100 mark is probably Bose, followed closely by Monster's Beats. Both of these makers share something in common besides cost -- they're pretty universally reviled by audio purists. However, the largest jump in perceived quality came with move to these somewhat strange looking buds -- scoring a pair of tens and a nine. Only Chris didn't care for the IE2s, giving them just a three. The truth is, with Bose and Monster, you're paying almost as much for fancy marketing and "proprietary technologies" as you are for actual quality. That doesn't mean you're not getting a solid sounding pair of ear-speakers though. You're getting larger, higher-quality drivers and much better sound isolation when you hit this price range, even from a somewhat disdained brand like Bose. If you consider yourself a more serious listener with a distaste for the over-emphasized low-end of Bose and Monster there are comparably priced, but more balanced sounding buds from the likes of Shure and Sennheiser that sometimes sneak into large electronics chains. Some even pack higher impedance 20-ohm drivers.

Total score: 32 out of 40

When you walk into a big box store your options will be fairly limited but, unless you're looking for a toss away pair of buds just for the afternoon, it's worth the extra couple of bucks for a decent set of headphones. We probably didn't have to tell you this but, the more you pay for earbuds, the better they sound as a general rule. Now, that doesn't mean you have to slap a Benjamin on the counter, it just means you'll want to look for a basic features like sound-isolating tips and keep an eye on frequency response (most will list the range on the packaging). Having a broader response or higher SPL (sometimes called sensitivity) doesn't necessarily equal higher-quality, but it is a useful indicator, and watch out for marketing schemes -- Dr. Dre doesn't put his name on a pair of headphones for free. Ultimately though, as you can see by the sometimes wildly varying scores, earbud preference is largely a personal decision affected by every thing from ear size to how much bass you want for your face.


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