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 the success of Apple's AirPods line. Whether wired or wireless, earbuds can vary wildly in price, from expensive high-end pairs to much more affordable options, but 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 a par (and we wouldn't expect it to be), there are some serious value-for-money options out there.
Considering the time and effort most companies now put into accessing this incredibly fertile market, it's little surprise that so many great-sounding and feature-laden earbuds are available for a pretty small outlay. While the general trend is for everything to get more expensive these days, audio brands have tended to add more and more to their (usually) wireless in-ear models in an attempt to lure customers away from the rest of the competition.
Don't believe us? We've rounded up the best cheap earbuds we've ever tested that you can buy right now, testing them for their features, comfort, design, build, and, of course, sound.
How to choose the best cheap earbuds for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi?
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. They also tend to sound quite a lot better due to the inherent sonic boost afforded by a wired connection.
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.
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. Newer versions can offer better range and wireless stability, 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.
We know Sony can make awesome premium wireless earbuds, but its equally adept at pulling out a cheap pair that caters for the budget end of the spectrum. If you want quality without a high price tag, this is the only place to start. Want proof? The C-500 won a 2022 What Hi-Fi? Award and have quickly become our go-to recommendation in the realm of cheap wireless earbuds.
Why? Firstly, the WF-C500 boast Bluetooth 5.0, and can handle both SBC and AAC codecs, meaning they sound far better than they have any right to at this price. 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.
Second, they don't skimp on the features. Battery life is 10 hours from the buds and another 10 from the carry case, and like Sony's pricier buds, they work with the firm's Headphones Connect app, giving you greater control without crowding the buds with buttons. They can even upscale audio to near hi-res quality, something we didn't expect to find for such a modest price.
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.
All in all, the best cheap wireless buds on the market.
Read the full Sony WF-C500 review
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 even rated IPX7, so can be fully submerged in water, making them ideal for workouts in the rain (or even a dip in the pool).
Total battery life (including the charging case) is also impressive, at 35 hours, while features usually reserved for much pricier models, like in-ear detection that pauses playback when you take them out of your ear, have impressed us hugely. If you want some of the best cheap earbuds money can buy, the Earfun Air are certainly in the conversation.
Read the full Earfun Air review
And they're a brilliant option that more than justify their price tag. The buds are impressively small, and their lightweight design helps make them even more comfortable than Sony's XM4. Battery life is competitive at seven and a half hours from the buds and a further seven and a half from the case.
They lack aptX HD and LDAC but do feature noise-cancelling tech, which the WF-C500 don't have. Adaptive Sound Control automatically switches listening modes depending on your location, and Sony's DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) upscales low-res digital audio files to higher quality.
The sound quality is superbly balanced too, with deep, detailed bass, expressive mids and engaging highs. They're a very musical listen for the money, and in terms of sound-per-pound sonic value, we really can't think of many better buds.
If value for money is your priority, the WF-C700N come highly recommended.
Read the full Sony WF-C700N review
Panasonic isn't a brand that immediately springs to mind when you think of cheap headphones, but just as the RZ-S500W wowed us enough to be included on our list of the best running headphones, so too do they earn a place here. The 2021 Award-winning RZ-S500W are the company's first foray into a wireless noise-cancelling model, and they're sensational performers at a low price.
Specs are thorough, with noise-cancelling tech, an Ambient Mode, twin mics for voice calls, and a battery life that totals 19.5 hours (6.5hrs from the buds and 13hrs from the charging case). They're built to withstand rain, and a 15-minute USB-C quick charge can deliver 70 minutes of playback. The touch controls on each bud are responsive and intuitive, allowing you to control your music and switch between noise-cancelling modes with zero fuss.
You also get five sizes of ear tips to help with fit. We found this a little hit-and-miss, so we would definitely experiment and consider mixing the sizes if it means getting a more secure fit.
Both noise cancelling and sound quality are excellent. Music sounds clear and there's a great deal of refinement on show, while bass is deep and detailed. To sum up, these Panasonic earbuds are superb for the money. A great buy for runners or casual users on a budget.
Read the full Panasonic RZ-S500W review
If you've got a decent-sized budget to play with but can't stretch to more premium options like the Sony WF-1000XM5 or the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II (soon to become the QB Ultra), then these JBL earbuds could be right up your street.
For the money, you get all the features you could wish for, including ANC, IPX5 water resistance, a thorough control app which offers some customisation, a good user experience, and a comfortable enough design. A few more ear tip options to help get the perfect fit wouldn't go amiss, though, but we're nitpicking by this point.
Battery life is good at eight hours with Bluetooth and noise-cancelling on, while the wireless charging case will top the total combined time to 30 hours. Touch controls are included at the top of each stem and you also have Multipoint Bluetooth so you can connect two sources simultaneously and then simply switch on the fly.
The excellent sound quality is the icing on this cake, with the JBLs favouring a lively and entertaining sound. Bass weight is nicely judged and there's good extension there too. Detail levels are excellent at this level as are the dynamics on offer. If you're looking to make the step up from a cheap pair of earbuds and want an entertaining sound these JBLs have to be on your list.
Read the full JBL Live Pro 2 TWS review
Previous and current 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. Five 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. Oh, 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
The AirPods are made for iPhones, and the Pixel Buds A-Series are aimed at Android users, so 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 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 into the mains, while 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. If you're keen on Google products and have a preference for Android, the Pixel Buds could be worth your consideration.
Read the full Google Pixel Buds A-Series 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.
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