Best cheap earbuds Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best cheap earbuds you can buy in 2022.
Earbuds rose to prominence in the 1980s and ’90s with the rise of portable music players. Since the 2010s, earbuds of the wireless kind have soared in popularity, thanks in no small part to Apple's AirPods. Whether wired or wireless, earbuds can vary wildly in price, from expensive high-end pairs to much more affordable options. And it's the best cheap earbuds that we're dealing with here.
Remember, 'cheap' doesn't have to mean 'nasty'. Some cheap earbuds pack many of the same features as their premium counterparts, for a fraction of the price. And while their sound quality won't be on par (and we wouldn't expect it to be), there are some serious value-for-money options out there.
Don't believe us? We've rounded up the best cheap earbuds we've ever tested that you can buy right now.
How to choose the best cheap earbuds for you
There are a few things to consider before you buy a pair of cheap earbuds.
First, do you want to go wireless, or wired? Wireless pairs are more convenient, as there's no cable to get tangled up in. But a wired pair will usually be cheaper, and you don't have to worry about the battery running out.
Speaking of which, if you're opting for a wireless pair, pay attention to the quoted battery life. Wireless earbuds give you some juice from the buds themselves, plus more from the rechargeable carry case. It's important to look at both stats and consider how you'll use them. If you're only ever listening in short bursts, the carry case stat will be more important to you. But if you want to use them on a long flight, you'll probably want a minimum of around six hours from the buds.
And just because they're cheap doesn't mean battery life will automatically be worse than more expensive pairs. You'll be surprised what you can get for not a lot of money. For example, the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus offer an impressive nine hours per charge!
If you're a fitness fiend who wants a secure fit and waterproofing, look for cheap earbuds that are sweat- and/or water-resistant. You should seek out an IP rating of at least IPX4, meaning they'll survive basic splashing but not a dunk in the drink.
You also might want to consider which version of Bluetooth they're running. We're currently on Bluetooth 5 (5.3 to be precise). Newer versions can offer better range and wireless stabiliy, so it might be worth digging into the specs.
If you think cheap earbuds won't have extra features such as active noise-cancellation (ANC), then you might be surprised to learn that some of our picks do include this too. It might not be quite as advanced as the tech in more premium pairs but it should do a decent job of blocking some outside noise.
You'll also want to consider comfort, especially if they're going to be accompanying you on that aforementioned long-haul flight. Finally, you definitely want decent sound quality for the money – rest assured that all of the below have come out of our test labs with flying colours.
The Earfun Air were one of the first cheap pairs of wireless earbuds at this price that we awarded five stars. And that's despite having tested models from all manner of well-known and better-established audio brands.
The Earfun Air are a well-built set of earbuds that are comfortable to wear and that perform brilliantly. They have wireless charging. They produce a spacious sound. And they're rated IPX7, so can be fully submerged in water, making them ideal for workouts in the rain (or even in the pool).
Total battery life (including the charging case) is also impressive, at 35 hours. They even have features usually reserved for much pricier models, like in-ear detection that pauses playback when you take them out of your ear. If you want some of the best cheap earbuds money can buy, the Earfun Air are among the very best.
Read the full Earfun Air review
When you think of the best cheap earbuds, you probably don't think of Panasonic. But maybe you should. The RZ-S500W are 2021 What Hi-Fi? Award winners after all...
You get noise-cancelling tech, an Ambient Mode, twin mics for voice calls, and a total battery life of 19.5 hours (6.5 hours from the buds and 13 hours from the charging case). Just 15 minutes of juicing up will yield 70 minutes of playback. The touch controls are a highlight, being responsive and intuitive, and they let you control your music and switch noise-cancelling modes in an instant.
They also come with five sizes of ear tips. You might need to experiment with mixing sizes, but there should be enough choice to secure a snug fit.
Sound quality is excellent, with an agile low end and plenty of detail across the board. Music sounds clear, with a good dose of refinement for the money. And at this price, that's nothing short of phenomenal.
Read the full Panasonic RZ-S500W review
Previous What Hi-Fi? Award winners, the SoundMagic E11C headphones are the latest addition to a range that represents one of the more surprising success stories of recent years. The E10 set the marker for affordable excellence for a number of years, and following an E10C in-line mic and remote control upgrade, the E11C equivalent arrived back in 2018. Four years on, we’re happy to report that they’re still pretty magic – exactly what the best cheap earbuds should be.
They boast an improved driver, and a silver-plated copper cable over their predecessors. The better driver means improved sound, but it still remains recognisably SoundMagic – there's ample bass and plenty of warmth and depth to the sound, while the top end isn't compromised. And the midrange has decent clarity and control too.
Considering the price, these are nothing short of a miracle. If you're on a budget and want to go wired, we have no hesitation in recommending them.
Read the full SoundMagic E11C review
We know Sony can make awesome premium wireless earbuds (just look at the WF-1000XM4). But can it replicate that success with a cheap pair?
The WF-C500 boast Bluetooth 5.0, and can handle both SBC and AAC codecs, while the battery life is 10 hours from the buds and another 10 from the carry case. So far, so good.
Like Sony's pricier buds they work with the firm's Headphones Connect app, giving you greater control without crowding the buds with buttons. And they can upscale audio to near hi-res quality.
Don't want to dig out your phone? No problem. Voice controls come courtesy of Google Assistant and Siri, while the IPX4 rating means they'll survive being splashed with water – handy if you get caught in a downpour.
Of course, all this would be for nothing if they didn't sound great, which they do. Bass is ample, but never to the detriment of the other frequencies, offering a lot of what makes Sony's high-end earbuds such a great buy but without the price tag. Which makes them another great option on this list.
Read the full Sony WF-C500 review
The original Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 were a great pair of earbuds, but the 1 Plus do a very good job of following in their footsteps.
Above their predecessors, they offer app support, a customisable equaliser and a High-Performance Audio Mode. They also come in either white or black.
But the real highlight? Battery life. They run for nine hours from the buds, plus a staggering 36 hours from the charging case, making a total of 45 hours before needing a plug socket. There's no noise-cancellation, but many will find the marathon battery life more than makes up for it.
Sonically, they're up there with the best cheap earbuds. They're more dynamic than the standard Melomania 1, with a little more detail. Which is good news for anyone on a budget.
Read the full Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus review
The AirPods are made for iPhones, and the Pixel Buds A-Series are aimed at Android users. Owners of Google-powered smartphones will not be disappointed.
They have an impressive feature set, with a noise-isolating design instead of noise cancelling, IPX4 splash resistance, and they're a light, comfortable design which means they can be worn all day.
The five-hour battery life can be bettered, but add in another 20 from the charging case, and you've got a decent amount of time before you'll have to plug in to the mains. And Fast Pair makes it a cinch to pair them with an Android phone or tablet.
Like the AirPods, they offer a balanced sound representation that doesn't stress any part of the frequency range above others. In other words, they're great all-rounders, and a great proposition for the price.
Read the full Google Pixel Buds A-Series review
The CX 400BT are a great option for anyone in the market for a cheap yet extremely musical pair of Bluetooth earbuds.
They're neither water- nor sweat-resistant but the Sennheisers do boast Bluetooth 5.1 support and a companion app. This means you're guaranteed solid Bluetooth connectivity, while the latter gives you EQ adjustment and the ability to customise their touch controls.
Tap the right earbud once to activate your phone’s voice assistant or accept incoming calls, twice to jump forward a track or rejects calls, or hold it down to increase volume. Battery life is seven hours, which is decent for the money but not class-leading.
But it's the sound quality where these Sennheisers excel. They produce an insightful and entertaining sound with bags of enthusiasm. For the money, they're difficult to fault.
Read the full Sennheiser CX 400BT review
The main difference between these and standard Earfun Air (at the top of this list) is that these have noise-cancelling, a bigger 10mm diver and three mics in each earbud. These are all very welcome, as is the price, which remains very low indeed.
They're still solid performers, too. The fit is secure, they pair with no drama, have intuitive controls and numerous noise-cancelling profiles to choose from. Wearer detection pauses playback when you take them out, so you don't miss a beat, and the sound quality is – like the Earfun Air – very good for the money with a nice balance and good sense of musicality. In terms of features and performance, these are some of the best cheap earbuds around.
Read the full Earfun Air Pro review
How we test cheap earbuds
In order to put the best cheap earbuds through their paces, we use them as if we had bought them ourselves. That means minimal lab time, and maximum use outdoors in both built-up areas and open spaces to test the stability of the wireless connection (where applicable).
This also lets us test their noise isolating properties, and active noise-cancellation (ANC) if they have it. We try them with both a smartphone and computer, to see how well they stand up in different use cases. And if they're a sporty pair, we'll take them out for a jog or to the gym to check how well they stay in our ears while exercising.
Each pair is compared to the best in its price bracket. We're all about comparative testing, with a stockroom full of class-leading products to compare against.
Finally, our review verdicts are agreed upon by the whole team, not an individual reviewer. That means personal preference or bias doesn't come into it, while also ensuring we're being as thorough as possible. What Hi-Fi? has been a trusted source for consumers since 1976, and we're proud of our reputation as the home of honest, unbiased reviews.