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What we bought: Why I still use a $15 pair of wired Panasonic earbuds every day

In praise of the "beater" headphone.

Jeff Dunn / Engadget

My best headphones aren’t always the best headphones for every situation. When I’m settling in to work for a few hours, then yeah, I’ll grab my old Oppo PM-3s or trusty Koss KSC75s to make streaming music more of a pleasure. When I’ve got a long plane or train ride ahead of me, I’ll bring the AirPods Max to block out the world more comfortably. (I own too many headphones, to be clear.) But not every instance calls for something nice – or, in the KSC75’s case, fragile – and I don’t want to run the gear I’ve paid good money for into the ground when I can avoid it.

That’s when I turn to Panasonic's ErgoFit earphones (or, “RP-PCM125 ErgoFit,” to use their proper name.) This is a basic, $15 pair of earphones that’s been around for the better part of a decade but continues to provide an unobtrusive fit, sturdy design and agreeable-enough sound.

Put another way, they’re my preferred set of beater headphones. Even if you don't know that term, you can probably guess what it means. These are the headphones you use when putting on your “good” pair is more trouble than it’s worth. When you need to make a quick run to the store but only have a few minutes left in your podcast, you bring the beaters and finish it up. When you see an amusing video online but you aren’t sure if it’ll be appropriate to blare over your speakers, you use the beaters to be safe. If, like me, you need to listen to something in bed before drifting to sleep, the beaters are the headphones that won’t get in the way but will survive your tossing and turning if you pass out with them still on. And if they don’t, who cares? They’re just your beaters.

There are a million different headphones that could make for good beaters, but when most people talk about them, they think of in-ear headphones that are cheap and durable. You can toss them in a bag or (larger) pocket and know they’re likely to survive. You never have to be delicate or deliberate with them the way you would with a good set of over-ears. You don’t want to accidentally step on them or leave them on the train, but it won’t ruin your day if you do, because buying a new pair won't bite a hole in your paycheck. They don’t sound as nice as your good headphones, but when you can’t sit and listen for a long stretch or truly savor a recording’s details, they’re there, and they work.

Panasonic's RP-TCM125 ErgoFit earbuds.
Jeff Dunn/Engadget

The ErgoFit earphones fit this description more or less exactly. Everyone takes to in-ear headphones differently, but the ErgoFit’s earpieces are small and noticeably lightweight, with soft silicone ear tips that, for me, don’t grate over time. Panasonic includes three different sizes of tips in the box, and with the right fit they seal a decent if not amazing amount of noise. (Voices are still likely to get through if they’re loud enough, though.) They come in a variety of colors, if that matters to you. And while there’s a bit of cable noise when they rustle against your chest — which can be irritating — I’ve never had to worry about them coming loose, either.

Unlike many earphones in this price range, there’s also an in-line remote and mic for pausing tracks and taking calls. The quality of that mic isn’t anything better than “usable,” but that it’s even there is a plus at this price. (If you don’t need a mic, Panasonic sells a variant without one for $10.)

These are simple wired earphones made at a time when 3.5mm jacks were still common, so you need a dongle to use them with most phones and tablets today. That is annoying, but for “beater” purposes, I’ll take the trade-off of not worrying about battery life (and degradation) or having to take a beat to ensure everything's paired first. When my AirPods died on an eight-hour flight to Europe earlier this year, the ErgoFit slotted right in as backup.

Most importantly, they’ve lasted. I’ve carried these earphones on my person constantly over the past four-ish years and straight up fallen asleep on them more times than I can count, but in that span I’ve only had to outright replace them once due to a frayed wire. The plastic-heavy design looks and feels cheap, but it’s been enough to survive.

These things are still old and $15, so I can’t say they sound fantastic. You won’t hear the sort of detail or treble sparkle that you can get from better-sounding earphones in the $30 to $50 range, and the sound profile might be a bit too boosted in the mid- and upper-bass range for some. This isn’t a Koss KSC75 deal where the ErgoFit outperforms earphones five times their price.

Still, what's here isn't bad. The low-end is emphasized but not overly boomy, and higher-frequency sounds aren’t piercing. The profile misses finer details, but it's usually smooth. With less intricate hip-hop and rock tracks, it’s fine. For $15 beater earphones, it’s good.

Really, any cheap set of headphones you like could work as good set of beaters. The general sound quality of inexpensive earphones has risen over the years, with sub-$40 pairs like the Moondrop Chu and BLON BL-03 earning praise from reviewers as of late. But if you occasionally find yourself not wanting to put your good headphones at risk, the ErgoFit earphones have given me peace of mind as a competent, comfortable, and hard-to-kill backup plan. They're anything but modern, but their utility is timeless.