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Published December 8, 2021
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When Apple ditched the headphone jack on its iPhones in 2016, I was annoyed. Don’t get me wrong—my wireless Bluetooth earbuds, with their breezy untethered liberation, will always have a place in my heart for jogging, working, and puttering about the house. But I deeply resent the need to fish out that 3.5 mm–to–Lightning adapter because I still love my wired headphones, too.
I’m not alone in my affection—wired earbuds are cool again. I see the appeal. Wired headphones are as timeless and uncomplicated as your favorite sweater. Wired earbuds don’t need to be charged, they sound better for the money, they’re more environmentally friendly, and they usually last longer. TikTok creators like them for their portable in-line directional microphones that require zero setup. Plus, nothing says “I’m busy” like a cable hanging from your ears (which is partly why I suspect they’ve become popular on what Teen Vogue calls “hot girl walks”). Using wired earbuds is the rare trend that is both a rejection of the status quo and a (mostly) less expensive option.
But if you, like me, have painful memories of money wasted on ill-advised fads that were not a good match long-term (I’m looking at you, velour tracksuits), you might hesitate to get “committed to the wire,” as Shelby Hull, creator of the Instagram account Wired It Girls, put it in an interview with Teen Vogue. Fortunately, I’ve tested a lot of headphones, so let me reassure you: Whether it’s for sustainable, practical, or fashionable reasons, you can get some seriously great earbuds that you won’t regret purchasing, even if trends change.
Fit is of utmost importance. Not only does the fit affect the comfort of your earbuds, but it also can affect how they sound. In our testing, we look for earbuds that come with a variety of tip sizes and fit all of our panelists well, although no single earbud will fit every person. If you find the included tip options uncomfortable, try replacement tips before spending the money on new earbuds. Sometimes a pair of tips with a different material or shape that better suits your anatomy can make all the difference.
A remote with at least a single button and microphone is key for day-to-day use if you want to take calls and record videos. We test our picks to confirm that they work well, without crackling, muffling, or distorting the user’s voice. If you usually hold a microphone up to your mouth to record a video, be sure to aim the mic at your face from about 4 inches away and off to one side. This avoids proximity effect (that weird muffled or distorted quality) and popping (the sound the mic makes when you say “b,” “p,” and other plosive sounds that blow air at the microphone) while still reducing room and background noise.
The earbuds should sound good! The entire point of headphones is to enjoy what you’re listening to. For example, the bassline shouldn’t overpower the lead guitar, and the vocals shouldn’t have consonants that are painfully, piercingly loud. Bass notes should have pitch and form—they shouldn’t just sound like “whump whump whump.” Rapid successions of notes should be individually audible and shouldn’t smear together.
Good earbuds should be built to last a few years. And the company that makes the headphones should be reputable. In a perfect world, nothing ever goes wrong, but if it does here in the real world, you deserve solid customer service that will take care of your needs.
Your earbuds should work with your primary music sources. Although it may be easier to use a set of Lightning-cable earbuds with your iPhone or iPad, that pair of headphones won’t work with anything else. And although there are adapters that convert 3.5 mm into Lightning—even some that allow for both listening and charging—you won’t find any input Lightning to 3.5 mm output adapters. Having a device-specific earbud is annoying if you want to switch to a laptop or another OS entirely. The most universal connector is 3.5 mm, followed by USB-C. I tether my adapter to my 3.5 mm earbuds with a hair tie when I’m using it, and I keep it in a little keychain pill container with my earplugs when I’m not using it.
You can find a lot of truly amazing-sounding earbuds (or in-ear monitors, as the audiophile set calls them), so as with any audio devices, you definitely have ways to upgrade should you want to go all-in on the wired life. But for a first pair, we recommend something affordable that suits your lifestyle. You can read more in our guide to wired earbuds.
The RP-TCM125 ErgoFit wired earbuds sound quite good for their super-affordable price, and they come with an optional single-button remote and microphone.
If you want to spend the absolute least amount possible and still get quality sound, you can’t beat the Panasonic RP-TCM125 ErgoFit wired earbuds. The RP-TCM125 pair has a nice balanced sound, with airy, mellow highs and present but not dominating bass. Every sonic frequency plays well with the others, so this pair sounds just as good with acoustic guitar as it does with hip-hop and rock music—which is uncommon among competitors in the sub-$30 price range. This set doesn’t have the depth of field (the sense that music emanates from performers located at various positions in a given space, rather than a flat wall of sound) or bass quality of the Marshall Mode pair (which you can read about below), but for the price, the RP-TCM125 set is still great. The earbuds have an optional single-button remote/mic on the cable, and they come in a variety of colors.
The Marshall Mode earbuds sound wonderfully rich and balanced. The fit is secure and comfortable, and the cable has a single-button universal remote.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $60.
The Marshall Mode set has a smooth sound profile that can handle any style of music, but it especially suits rock and pop. Bass frequencies are slightly boosted, yet there is no thudding or blurriness in the bass notes, and high frequencies are clear without the harshness that affects many earbuds priced under $100. The earbuds themselves are comfortable and low-profile, so they don’t stick out or dangle annoyingly from your ear canals. The single-button universal remote on the cable handles playback and digital-assistant activation, and the separate microphone sits higher up on the cable so you don’t have to hold it up to your mouth when you talk.
The EM205 is a rare affordable pair with volume buttons, great sound, and an option with a USB-C cable.
If you want an affordable wired pair with a three-button remote and mic, the Strauss & Wagner EM205 set is pricier than the Panasonic RP-TCM125 ErgoFit but has track and volume controls that function with most devices that have headphone jacks. The sound and microphone quality is as good as that of the Panasonic pair but has slightly boosted bass and a little extra spike in the highs; this effect can give strings a metallic edge and can make piano-key depressions sound a bit clicky. Although these earbuds sound very good, they don’t produce an improvement that’s significant enough to warrant the extra money in comparison with the $15 Panasonic pair, nor does this set offer the sense of space that the Marshall pair provides. (For folks who need a USB-C connector rather than a 3.5 mm jack, Strauss & Wagner also makes the EM8C, but that pair costs around $10 more.) One caveat: Strauss & Wagner is a newer company, so it doesn’t have a customer service track record. But with earbuds under $50, that may not be a factor for many folks.
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