Who should get this
I occasionally get emails from people who tell me that they aren't too picky about sound quality; they just want headphones that work well enough, don't cost much, and can take a phone call without sounding terrible. These are the headphones for those folks.
Keep in mind that at this price range, the vast majority of the money you spend goes into making them wireless (e.g., Bluetooth tech, batteries). This means the costs are cut in other areas: the drivers (i.e., the sound), the build, and the extra features. In all of these aspects, you definitely get what you pay for. None of the headphones we tested were a slam dunk in all facets of our testing.
How we picked
The vast majority of the under-$50 options haven't been professionally reviewed. For some reason, most pro reviewers consider "budget" $70 to $100. Much as we did in preparing our cheap-earbud guide, we were pretty much left to rely on Amazon reviews and our own testing. Of course, we always look at Amazon reviews with a skeptical eye, to suss out what's genuine and which smack of paid reviewing. In this category that skepticism proved to be especially important. We also shied away from brands that had no consumer support and sell directly through Amazon, because if anything goes wrong, you have nobody to contact for warranty assistance. That left us with 11 headphones we thought looked promising.
After the delightful process of charging and pairing all of the contenders, our expert panel listened to each and evaluated them on fit, sound quality, ease of use, comfort, and overall appearance. Based on their experiences, each panelist chose their top three. We then took price into consideration, and from there selected an overall pick.
The little wings on the IE20 pair look odd, but offer most people a comfortable, secure fit. They're also removable if you don't like them. Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald
If you want Bluetooth on a budget, the Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20 are the best option under $50. The IE20 come with three sets of different-size silicone stabilizing wings and five sets of tips, sound decent for the price, and work very well for phone calls. They also have a battery life of about eight hours, which we confirmed in our tests, and a range of roughly 33 feet (assuming you're inside with nothing in the way).
As for the sound, it's not too bad. It's coarse, but the frequency response is relatively even, which means you can hear vocals, basslines, and guitars equally well in the mix. This is a dramatic contrast to some of the wildly peaked highs and lows of the competition in this price range. But as we've already stated, your money goes toward making the headphones wireless, not the drivers, so the sound quality is decidedly cheap. If you don't truly need Bluetooth, the wired AKG Y20U (from our cheap-earbuds guide) cost the same as the Anker but have much clearer highs and smoother lows.
The IE20 have a unique on-off method: magnets on the back of the earbuds. There is no other way to power them up or down. Separate the magnets, and the headphones link to the last paired device. Connect the magnets, and they shut off. Though this is a handy way to help save battery life, if the magnets separate in your bag, the earbuds automatically connect to your mobile device. Fans of the IE20 say that once you get the hang of putting them away in their included pouch a certain way, the magnets don't come apart too frequently.
Aside from not being able to power them down separate from the magnets, the IE20 have another odd quirk. The in-line remote handles all the usual functions: volume, voice commands, answer/end calls, skipping ahead a track ... but not skipping back a track. We have no idea why. But at a current price of under $30, it's definitely not the worst flaw we found among the headphones we tested for this guide.
Overall, for the price of a couple of burritos, the Anker IE20 are solid headphones. Are they perfect? Goodness no. But based on everything else we tested for the price, you could do a lot, lot worse.
Runner-up (with a collar)
The necklace on the Ink'd is light and flexible. The earbuds are comfortable—as long as your ear canals aren't on the larger side. If they are, these might not fit. Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald
If our pick is sold out, or you prefer a collar-style headset, the Skullcandy Ink'd Bluetooth are a decent alternative, with one major caveat: If you have larger ear canals, you probably won't get a seal with the included tips. For some reason, Skullcandy includes only medium and small. Why Skullcandy refuses to include large tips with all its headphones is beyond us—third-party tips (which can also be difficult to track down in larger sizes) will add additional cost.
That aside, the overall fit on the Ink'd Bluetooth is comfortable, and the collar is lightweight enough that you can forget it's on your neck. Unlike some of the other headphones we tested, the cords running from the earbuds to the collar don't poke your face or interfere with turning your head. The controls on the collar itself are easy to access and use for calls, volume controls, voice commands, and—unlike the Anker—can toggle tracks both forward and back.
So why didn't the Skullcandy end up as our top pick? First, the sound quality of the Ink'd Bluetooth is less balanced than the Anker IE20. The bass intensity can overpower and muddy the lower-mid guitar range, and the moderately coarse-sounding high-frequency range can leave strings feeling a little tinny. Additionally, phone calls are a bit muffled-sounding to the person you are calling, especially if anything on your shirt gets in the way of the mic on the collar.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
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