If I wanted to buy headphones to replace the earbuds that came with my phone for around the same price, I’d get the AKG Y20U. After researching hundreds of headphones in this price range, seriously considering 244, and testing 108 with our panel of audio experts, we’re confident that the AKG Y20U is the best purchase for the money. The headphones are comfortable, have a one-button universal remote and mic, and sound a lot better than their price tag might lead you to believe.
This round of testing proved to be a bit more difficult than in years past, but that’s a good thing. While we found plenty of truly terrible cheap headphones, a number of decent-sounding in-ears pleasantly surprised us. Of those, the AKG Y20U came out on top because it hit the sweet spot: It fit every one of our panelists, sounded great (even better than our previous picks), and cost only $30 at the time of writing. For anyone paying attention, that’s the same price as a replacement pair of Apple EarPods—and the Y20U’s sound is vastly superior.
The Y20U has more depth to its sound than any of our picks in this category to date. It definitely has boosted bass, but the result is pleasant and doesn’t muddy up the mids or overwhelm the highs. You may notice a bit more oomph to an already intense bassline, but you won’t lose detail in the vocals or guitars—though that’s because the highs are slightly elevated, too. Unlike with a significant number of headphones we tested, the Y20U’s highs aren’t piercing or sizzling, nor do they make voices insanely sibilant. Many competitors in our tests struggled with that issue. Rock, pop, and hip-hop are really well served by the Y20U headphones, but I jammed out to some Strauss and they held up just fine.
The Y20U has more depth to its sound than any of our picks in this category to date.
The fit is secure and low-profile. Unlike many other earbud designs, which stick straight out from your ear, the Y20U earbuds curve slightly and tuck in against your outer ear. This means that the tips aren’t bearing the brunt of stabilization, and you won’t need to adjust the Y20U in your ears frequently when you’re walking.
The Y20U has a universal single-button remote/mic, comes with a small coin-purse-style case, and is available in a few fun colors (teal, yellow, and gray).
As panelist Brent Butterworth said last time, “These are the only headphones under $25 that don’t sound like cheap headphones.” The highs are clear and detailed, the bass is well-formed (with a slight bump in just the right area to add a lively kick to the beat), and the mids aren’t tinny.If you own an iPhone and need a cheap in-ear pair with an iOS-compatible mic, or if you’re an Android user and the absence of volume control is a dealbreaker for you, our previous pick, the Brainwavz Delta, is your best option. Every kind of music sounds good on these headphones.
Getting a good fit can be easier, as the Delta comes with three sizes of silicone tips and a pair of Comply foam tips, as well. Brainwavz offers separate Android- and iOS-compatible three-button remote options, so be sure to select the correct format when you check out.
What made this pair lose out to the AKG set this time? Mainly, the sound. The AKG set gives you a more three-dimensional sense of sonic space and depth. It’s not that the Brainwavz headphones are bad; it’s just that since they were released, the overall competition has improved. Additionally, while we never ran into breakage issues personally (we bought four pairs), and Brainwavz has made good on replacing every headphone that has ended up crapping out, we hear our readers who have experienced problems, and we completely understand how frustrating that is.
With headphones in this price range, as manufacturers compete to squeeze more performance out of cheaper components, maintaining build quality can be a challenge. We’ll talk more about this topic later, but in short, any inexpensive set of headphones may break. It’s just the nature of cheap electronics. But know this: If your Delta set dies, you will get a replacement pair from Brainwavz. It will take about a week, however, from first email to when you get your new pair. You should keep that in mind when deciding if you really need a volume control on your cheap headphones’ remote.
Sounding better than anything in its under-$15 price range, the RP-TCM125 ErgoFit is clear, mellow, and appropriate for any kind of music you love.
If you want to spend the absolute least amount possible and still get quality sound, you can’t beat the Panasonic RP-TCM125 ErgoFit. A former overall pick, these headphones still hold up really well and are now our budget choice. For every panelist, this pair was the favorite in the $13-and-under category. The RP-TCM125 has a nice overall balance with airy, mellow highs and present-but-not-dominating bass. It sounds just as good listening to acoustic guitar as it does with hip-hop and rock. Unlike with most competitors in this price range, nothing pierces, nothing muddies: Every frequency plays well with the others. This set doesn’t have the depth of field or bass quality of the AKG, but for $13 or so, it’s still great. The ErgoFit headphones have a single-button remote and mic and come in a variety of colors, too.
How we chose what to test
You’ll find few direct comparison reviews of headphones in this price range for one main reason: There are just so many of them. Researching and evaluating everything currently available is a daunting and unbelievably time-consuming task. And we’ve done it three times!
Fortunately, we at The Wirecutter aren’t afraid of hard work. So we got to work answering the questions anyone who has stood at a kiosk in the airport or browsed Amazon or Best Buy has wondered: “What the heck should I get? Are any of these really any better than the Apple EarPods?”
How we got those answers was a long process.
Phase one: research. As I mentioned before, there aren’t many professional reviews of low-cost headphones, and the ones that do exist are one-offs, full of seemingly random selections, or not set up to compare several headphones apples to apples, or even apples to Apple’s. But I found as many positive single reviews by professionals as I could and began a “to consider” list.
Next, I took to emailing several of my colleagues in the audio industry to ask for their favorites. Without naming names, I got more than one “I don’t know, but I heard the _____ sound pretty good” response. Not exactly hard evidence.
I then did what any decent tech upstart would do: I crowdsourced. Amazon, Best Buy, HeadFi, Newegg … if there were reviews, I read them. Whenever I found anything we hadn’t previously tested that was rated four stars or better , I added that set to the list. Since our original testing, we’ve seriously considered 244 headphones in this category.
Then I organized options with and without mic and remote, and found myself on a new quest: If I needed to replace what came with my iPhone, could I find a pair of in-ears that cost the same or less than the Apple EarPods that sound better?
And I made a final qualification. This is a practical category, so I looked at features. If a pair of headphones in this category cost more than Apple’s EarPods, they would be required to have a mic and remote option, like the EarPods. Pairs without mic and remote were acceptable at $25 or less. At last, we had our contenders.