It may not seem like it if you look at the sort of headphones we usually test, but we like a bargain as much as anyone. Oh, we’re all for the sort of pride of ownership and substantial boost in self-esteem a pair of Montblanc MB01 headphones, for example, can deliver – but we’re perfectly happy to pay less if we can buy similar performance.
On the other hand, we weren’t born yesterday. We realise if something looks too good to be true, that’s almost certainly because it is. So when we got around to thinking about the extraordinary number of affordable headphones that are for sale at amazon.co.uk, and then got around to thinking about just how many pairs of these headphones amazon.co.uk gets through, our initial reaction was to look (sort of) wise and (entirely) dismissive.
But this knowledge just kept nagging at us. If a pair of true wireless noise-cancelling in-ear headphones (for instance) costs £25, and then sells tens of thousands of examples in the space of a year, are all of those customers satisfied? Or are they all berating themselves for not spending more? Shouldn’t they all be reading our list of the best true wireless in-ear headphones and then spending somewhere between £80 and £300 on a proper pair?
Well, obviously there’s only one way to settle this. So we bought a dozen pairs of the biggest-selling headphones on Amazon (UK) to try and find out exactly what’s what. Amazon doesn’t publicly rank headphones by sales but WIRED used the number of customer ratings as a good estimate of popularity – Anker’s Soundcore Life P2 (reviewed below) has a whopping 67,574 ratings to date. We also put to one side more expensive bestsellers – such as Sony’s £226 WH-1000-XM3s (17,585 ratings) and Bose’s £195 QuietComfort 35 IIs (55,204 ratings) – which already feature or have previously featured in our WIRED Recommends headphones guides.
As for what was left, some are from surprisingly familiar brand names, some from brand names you’ve never heard of… heck, some are from brand names it’s a struggle to even pronounce. But they all have something in common: they all cost between £8 and £55 per pair, they all sell like hot cakes, and they all want to make our carefully tested and curated list of the best headphones you can buy look like the work of people with more money than sense.
How we tested
Those headphones with wireless Bluetooth connectivity were linked to an Apple iPhone X and/or a Sony Xperia 5 smartphone – this way we’re able to check out SBC and AAC performance, as well as finding out if any of our wireless contenders are being shy about aptX or even aptX HD capability.
Of course, it’s a different story with the hardwired headphones here. Nothing is less fashionable than a smartphone with a headphone jack, so the headphones terminating in an old-school 3.5mm connection were tested using an EarMen TR-Amp headphone amplifier with an Apple MacBook Air as a source. Our Apple EarPods showed up with an Apple Lightning connection (of course they did), so they were hooked straight into the iPhone.
We listened to lots of different music from lots of different sources, ranging from Spotify’s free tier to full-fat TIDAL Masters digital files, plus some downloaded favourites stored on the laptop.
Apple EarPods (£17)
Type: In-ear | Wireless: No | Bluetooth: No | Battery life: n/a | Remote: Yes | Finishes: 1 | Weight: 10g | Cable: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: 109dB | Style: Closed-back
It’s difficult to imagine a company with a) the resources and b) the obvious professional pride of Apple allowing a product of such mediocrity onto the market – yet here we are. There isn’t really anything about the EarPods that makes them a worthwhile option. From the hamfisted low frequencies to the neutered top end, the sound they make is dull and unmusical – and you’ll have to get past the ‘one size fits no one’ design to find that out for yourself.
Pros: A smooth, weighty listen
Cons: Unhelpful fit; blunt, inexpressive and ill-defined sound
Blukar 1 (£10)
Type: In-ear | Wireless: No | Bluetooth: No | Battery life: n/a | Remote: No | Finishes: 2 | Weight: 15g | Cable: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: n/a | Style: Closed-back
Metal driver housing? In-line remote control with mic? With a penny change from a tenner? What’s the catch?
Sadly, the sound is the catch. Or, more specifically, the way the Blukar 1 deal with low-frequency sound is the catch. Bass is barely on nodding terms with the rest of the frequency information here – it’s like the party guest who’s shown up late and drunk, and then attempts to dominate the music system while everyone else stands there frowning hard enough to get a migraine. The midrange is reasonably poised, and the top end – though quite hard – does at least sound like it’s playing the same song. The bass, though: for all the relevance to the rest of the sound it has, it may as well be coming from next door.
Pros: Look and feel a wee bit more expensive than they actually are
Cons: Bass sounds utterly detached from the rest of the sound
Price: £10 | Amazon
JBL T110 (£8)
Type: In-ear | Wireless: No | Bluetooth: No | Battery life: n/a | Remote: Yes | Finishes: 3 | Weight: 13g | Cable: yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: 96dB | Style: Closed-back
The least expensive pair of headphones on the list comes from one of the single biggest audio companies around – and there’s no denying it, at £8 per pair the JBL T110 make a lot of sense. They look (relatively) stylish, the cable is (relatively) tangle-free and the construction is (relatively) durable. There’s even a little in-line one-button remote control with mic. Sound quality is perfectly acceptable, if somewhat on the blunt and tubby side – but, to be honest, if you want a pair of in-ear headphones you can treat as disposable, two pairs of these will treat you far better than a single pair of Apple EarPods.
Pros: Look and (to a lesser extent) sound the part; ludicrously affordable
Cons: Cable transmits noise; not the most comfortable fit
You should really buy
Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd
A widescreen, information-rich sound that’s miles from the narrow and selective presentation of these three cheap alternatives. More comfortable and better made, too.
Rapid, entertaining sound from one of the true savants of affordable, over-achieving headphones.
True wireless in-ear headphones
Anker Soundcore Life P2 (£30)
Type: In-ear | Wireless: Yes | Bluetooth: aptX | Battery life: 40hrs | Remote: No | Finishes: 1 | Weight: 6g | Cable: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: 92dB | Style: Closed-back
If this list teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t have it all. So you need to prioritise – and there’s plenty the Anker Soundcore Life P2 get right. So if big battery life, ease of use and understatedly smooth and detailed sounds like your sort of thing, it might be time for you to get your £30-40 out.
We’ve never stopped thinking this dangly stem design makes the wearer look a bit of a berk, but in this implementation at least it proves a) comfortable until at least the medium term and b) reasonably unobtrusive. Anker provides a choice of earbuds, which is just as well – even a slightly marginal fit plays havoc with the sound, and it doesn’t help that the controls are press- rather than touch-buttons. Get the fit right, though, and the Anker sound is just the right side of bland – which puts it well ahead of the majority of earbuds on this list.
Pros: Ample battery life; pretty easy to position comfortably; smooth, unthreatening listen
Cons: Sound is strongly fit-dependent; push-button control alters the earbuds’ position (see ‘cons’ 1)
Aukey EP-T21S (£25)
Type: In-ear | Wireless: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.0 | Battery life: 30hrs | Remote: No | Finishes: 4 | Weight: 6g | Cable: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: n/a | Style: Closed-back
There’s certainly nothing wrong with the first impression the Aukey EP-T21S make. The charging case is neat and tidy, and the earbuds (they’re of the ‘dangly stem’ type Apple is responsible for) feel cleanly made as well. Specification is very decent at the money too, with Bluetooth 5.0 and some touch-control among the highlights.
And in practice, the EP-T21S are a determinedly inoffensive listen (which is by no means a given with earbuds at this sort of money). Their sound is a bit two-dimensional, sure, and the midrange is squeezed awkwardly between bass and treble, but the Aukey extract decent amounts of detail and manage rhythms and tempos pretty well. ‘Not a disaster’ at this sort of money has to count as a small win.
Pros: Well made and finished; good battery life; detailed, fluent sound
Cons: Cramped presentation squeezes a lot of life from the midrange
Boltune BT-BH020 (£30)
Type: In-ear | Wireless: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.2 | Battery life: 40hrs | Remote: No | Finishes: 6 | Weight: 62g (inc charging case) | Cable: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: 105dB | Style: Closed-back
We’re aware that it’s no good expecting perfection from a 30-quid pair of true wireless headphones – but we don’t think it’s asking too much for the hard plastic they’re built from to be the hardest things about them, rather than the sound they make.
In broad terms and after a brief listen, the Boltune BT-BH020 aren’t a catastrophe. But it doesn’t take long for them to be in your ears (where they stay nice and comfy, to be fair) for the problems to reveal themselves. The top end is hard enough to roller-blade on, bass is spongy and indistinct, and there’s simply no dynamism to the sound – ‘quiet’ and ‘loud’ are interchangeable. Overall, the sound they make is recognisably music – it’s just had all the joy sucked out of it.
Pros: Good battery life; decent midrange fidelity
Cons: Profoundly undynamic; unyielding treble response; hard plastic construction
EarFun Air (£47)
Type: In-ear | Wireless: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.0 | Battery life: 35hrs | Remote: No | Finishes: 2 | Weight: 5.3g | Cable: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: n/a | Style: Closed-back
The EarFun Air are the single most expensive pair of headphones in this entire group – and do you know what? When you listen to them, it’s obvious. We’ve found our hidden gem.
Yes, the top end could do with a little more refinement. But in every other respect, they’re a cut above anything else here. Detail levels are high, bass is hefty but well controlled, voices are filled with character, the soundstage is well laid out and spacious… it’s like listening to proper earbuds.
On top of this, battery life is decent, the earbuds (which feature responsive touch-controls) are comfortable and the charging case looks and feels good. It turns out you get what you pay for. Who’d have thought it?
Pros: Comprehensive spec; good build and finish; energetic, convincing sound
Cons: Could show a little more top-end decorum
Iporachx Q16 (£25)
Type: In-ear | Wireless: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.0 | Battery life: 18hrs | Remote: No | Finishes: 1 | Weight: 5g | Cable: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: n/a | Style: Closed-back
Quite a few of the very affordable pairs of headphones on this list have pleasantly surprised us one way or another. So to some extent it’s good to have one’s prejudices confirmed, at least up to a point, by the Iporachx Q16. The brand name is easier to say than the earbuds are to listen to.
The top of the frequency range is thin and zizzy, and the midrange has edges as serrated as a bread-knife. And below there, well… there just doesn’t seem to actually be any ‘below there’ to speak of. Bass sounds are little more than a rumour here, a sort of sonic absence where one might ordinarily expect to find low-frequency information. You are better off spending your commute humming to yourself than listening to the Q16.
Pros: Quite a nice tactile finish to the charging case
Cons: Stick-thin, poverty-stricken sound
Price: £19 | Amazon
You should really buy
Lypertek S20 SoundFree
Lypertek knows what it’s doing when it comes to striking a balance between price and performance – and until the EarFun Air showed up, these were by far our strongest sub-£100 true wireless in-ear recommendation.
Panasonic RP-HT225 (£13)
Type: On-ear | Wireless: No | Bluetooth: n/a | Battery life: n/a | Remote: Yes | Finishes: 1 | Weight: 190g | Cable: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: 100dB | Style: Semi-open back
Who knew there was anything in Panasonic’s colossal product portfolio as affordable as the RP-HT255? No, us neither.
The reasons these headphones are so very inexpensive are obvious in quite a few respects. The plastics from which they’re made feel hard and cheap, and the headphones fit, at best, only approximately on the wearer’s head. The earpads will have your ears sweating in no time. And the three metre-long cable actively wants to tangle.
And yet the sound they make is quite strongly at odds with the price. It’s not what you’d call exciting, but it’s balanced and pretty well judged – certainly the Panasonic resist the temptation to bludgeon you with bass in the name of ‘excitement’. There’s a deftness and a subtlety to the sound of these headphones that’s utterly alien to the majority of the others in this line-up – so, if you can bear how warm they make your ears, the RP-HT225 are well worth a punt.
Pros: Much more accomplished sound than the price might suggest
Cons: Far from comfortable; too much cable; make your ears hot almost immediately
You should really buy
Yes, they look a bit daft. Yes, they leak sound more than is ideal. But the SR80e are a battleship where the Panasonic are a pedalo.
Small and comfortable where the Panasonic simply aren’t, the AKG’s fold flat, go anywhere and sound great.
Wireless on-ear headphones
Doqaus Care-1 (£33)
Type: On-ear | Wireless: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.0 | Battery life: 50hrs | Remote: No | Finishes: 5 | Weight: 254g | Cable: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: 118dB | Style: Closed-back
Here’s a game of any number of halves. For wireless on-ear headphones costing no more than £33 a pair, the Care-1 are nicely put together from plastics that don’t feel ready to splinter as soon as you look at them. The treatment on the outside of the earcups is genuinely pleasant and way more expensive-looking than that headphones actually are. But for some reason they say ‘wireless’ on each arm (like having a pair of trainers that say ‘trainers’ down each side) and the padding of the headband is so mean it’s almost like an instrument of torture.
Wireless connectivity is good and stable, and the sound the Doqaus make isn’t without positives – as long as you leave the ‘EQ’ control alone, anyhow. Position one (‘balanced’) is a bit blunt yet also a bit sharp, but it’s no disaster – unlike position two (‘extra bass’), which thickens and slurs bass to an almost comical degree, or position three (‘high definition’), which sharpens the midrange to the point it could be used as a weapon.
Pros: Quite nicely built and finished; big battery life; capable of fairly inoffensive sound
Cons: EQ settings flat-out ruin the sound; headband is desperate for more padding
Price: £28 | Amazon
Sony WH-CH510 (£36)
Type: On-ear | Wireless: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.0 | Battery life: 35hrs | Remote: No | Finishes: 3 | Weight: 132g | Cable: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Sensitivity: 102dB | Style: Closed-back
You might more ordinarily associate Sony with more expensive and more lavish wireless headphones than this – but the world of consumer electronics is a broad church. And so for an absolute maximum of £50 (shop around or catch them on the right day on Amazon and you’ll find them below £40), Sony will sell you a pair of wireless headphones with voice control and a 35-hour battery life.
Yes, the plastics used here feel nasty and no, the WH-CH510 don’t sound anything like as accomplished as Sony’s more celebrated and more expensive headphones – but that’s to miss the point a little bit. Get over the rather unpleasant way they feel (and the rather boisterous way they sound) and there’s stuff to admire here – not least Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity and that unstoppably perky sound.
Pros: Good battery life; light and comfortable; up-front sound
Cons: Feel even cheaper than they are; can sound rather relentless
You should really buy
Jabra Elite 45h
Massive battery life, decent comfort and balanced, well-judged sound. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Jabra knows precisely what it’s doing.
Wireless on-ear noise-cancelling headphones
Anker Soundcore Life Q20 (£50)
Type: On-ear | Wireless: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.0 | Battery life: 40hrs | Remote: No | Finishes: 3 | Weight: 263g | Cable: Yes | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Sensitivity: 101dB | Style: Closed-back
At a glance, the Soundcore Life Q20 compare extremely favourably to the similarly priced Sony WH-CH510 above. They feel better (although not exactly luxurious) and are more comfortable in situ, they have better battery life, and they have active noise-cancelling. At this price, Anker, you are spoiling us.
Well, up to a point. Running wirelessly with noise-cancelling switched off, the Q20 sound pretty passable – slightly sibilant, sure, but quite distinct and with decent low-end presence. Switch on the noise-cancelling, though – and bear in mind it’s this feature that really sets the Q20 apart at this money – and that sonic poise deserts them. There’s a mild hiss from the ANC circuitry, but more significant is the emasculation of the low frequencies and the complete skewing of the overall EQs. All this, and the ANC’s not all that effective anyway. If there’s a pair of headphones more compromised by their own feature-set, we’ve yet to hear them.
Pros: Great spec at the price; comfortable; good battery life; quite well-balanced sound (with ANC off)
Cons: Some hard plastics; sound falls to pieces when ANC is engaged
You should really buy
Yes, they cost twice as much as the Anker. But they are comfortably twice as good, minimum.
Price: £109 | Amazon