Following the recent release of the Playback Guide to Earphones & Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors, some readers wrote to ask, “Which earphones would you buy in the sub-$100 price range?”
I suppose this is a fair question to ask, though I’ve traditionally been reluctant to reveal what my personal choices would be, given that I believe earphone selection is—or ideally should be—a personal choice that you make on your own.
Still, I have been fortunate enough to hear a very wide range of the models on the market, so that I may be able to provide a bit of perspective that can help listeners sort through the perhaps bewildering array of options available to them.
With that thought in mind, and with the usual caveat that “your mileage may vary,” let me share with you my top five Playback Editor’s Choice earphone picks in the sub-$100 class (along with one “honorable mention” entry for you to consider).
• Comfortable and affordable.
• Smooth and generally neutral sound with a touch of added mid-bass warmth. Though not Skullcandy’s most costly earphone, the Titan is without a doubt one of the firm’s best-sounding models.
• Easy to find in local stores, which will appeal to buyers who prefer not to shop online. Skullcandy ‘phones are carried by many different big-box retailers nationwide.
• Cool warranty provides discounts for users who accidentally destroy their Titans when listening while engaged in various extreme sports activities.
• Somewhat fragile: Past experience with the Titan suggests that signal cables are prone to accidental damage.
• Sound quality is good, but not quite as focused or refined as the class leaders.
• Arguably the best all-around choice for audiophiles on a budget, with particular appeal for those who prize sonic accuracy and finesse (these ‘phones could very nearly pass as models from the next price class up).
• Essentially, these are more neutrally and accurately voiced versions of NuForce’s acknowledged budget classic: the NE-7M earphone/headset.
• Available either as an earphone (NE-700X) or as a combo earphone/headset (NE-700M).
• Either way, a dynamite value.
• Robust build quality (solid metal earpiece housings) with excellent fit and finishes.
• Accuracy may not be what you’re after; some listeners might wish for a dab of bass enrichment (which, by the way, NuForce’s original NE-7M provides).
• Active noise-cancellation features for under $100 make the ATH-ANC23 a good choice for those who consistently listen in noisy environments.
• Sound offers good natural warmth, smoothness, and bass weight.
• Easy to use.
• Sound lacks treble brilliance and midrange refinement relative to the best in this class.
• If you don’t really need/want active noise cancellation features, you may be able to get better sound for less.
• The Image S4i channels much of the overall sonic “vibe” of Klipsch’s flagship Image X10i, but at a significantly lower price point. Offers a desirable quality of midrange openness—always a Klipsch hallmark.
• Offers headset functionality and Apple-compatible 3-button remote control.
• Klipsch’s patented oval cross-section eartips offers an incredibly comfortable fit. Even listeners who typically dislike most other earphones tend to find the Klipsch ‘phones easy to fit and comfortable to wear.
• Sound quality, though good, may seem a bit too “midrange-forward” for some tastes. Could use a bit more bass weight, too.