We’re often asked how we choose products to review, and the answer is pretty simple. We’re either approached by manufacturers wanting us to review their latest wares or we call in products ourselves based on what we’ve seen on the market. Therefore, an important part of our job is making sure we know what’s on offer and what people are buying. And when it comes to keeping an eye on the market, we’d be remiss not to check in on Amazon from time to time.
The online retailer reportedly sells $17 million worth of products every hour, with consumer electronics a considerable chunk of that number. So if it’s a big-seller on Amazon, it’s a big-seller full stop. Handily, Amazon has no qualms sharing the best-selling products with the world – “updated hourly” – even breaking it down by category.
The results are… interesting. Apple features even more heavily than you might expect, with three of the five top-sellers: the wired EarPods at number one, plus the AirPods Pro and the standard AirPods. And then you get the curveballs.
It’s not Bose or Sony (you have to scroll further down the hit list for those) but instead a £5.60 (around $7, AU$10) pair of in-ear headphones from a manufacturer called Blukar. Or, to give them their full name, the 'Blukar Earphones, In-Ear Headphones Earphones High Sensitivity Microphone – Noise Isolating, High Definition, Pure Sound for iPhone, iPad, Smartphone, MP3 Players etc.' (For the record, their price seems to fluctuate daily but sticks around the £5-8 ballpark – and £5.60 was the price we paid.)
And these Blukars aren't just selling; people really like them! Their average rating from 19,930 user reviews is 4.3 out of 5 stars. “The sound quality is really excellent”; “the noise cancelling is surprisingly good”; “very crisp and the bass is spot on”; “wow!!!!”. With reviews like these, we wanted to hear them for ourselves – we’re more than happy to highlight a bargain pair of earphones if they deserve it, after all. We bite the bullet and prepare for £5.60 to leave our account.
It's worth pointing out that these are far from the only example of super-cheap earphones, most of which are probably from China, with thousands of positive reviews. Amazon's algorithm may well surface another brand on another day for you, but for us, it was the Blukar earbuds that caught our eye.
The Blukar 1 buds, which are listed as the rather simple model number, arrive in understandably basic packaging. The box makes clear the headphones have been made in Shenzhen, China, where so many of our electronics are now made, while also making some bold claims around the quality of the headphones. "Noise Reduction Upgrade, Three-Dimensional Presence," says the box, while the Amazon page suggests we can expect "High Definition, Pure Sound". In fact, as we scroll down and check out the marketing material we see ‘Hi-Fi’ matter of factly stated on the page (pictured, above).
While all this bodes well, we of course take it with a pinch of salt. It's another reminder that products and services offering actual hi-res audio are easily lost in the confusion of marketing slogans casually pushing variations of “HD audio".
Out of the box, there’s certainly nothing wrong with the look and feel of the earbuds. There’s a silver, aluminium alloy driver casing and an in-line remote with mic for pausing playback (but not adjusting the volume). You also get three sets of different sized silicone buds, a cable clip for connecting the cable to your clothes and a pouch for keeping it all together. The “Hi-Fi Sound” comes courtesy of a 1.3mm driver and “composite diaphragm and neodymium magnet unit".
While we might raise an eyebrow at the bold sonic claims, the bigger point is these earphones cost less than the price of a pint round the corner from our London office, so we should manage our expectations – frankly, they shouldn’t be expected to do much more than work and not give you a headache.
And on that subject… we don't think they will give you a headache. But it’s close.
To cut to the chase, the SoundMagics deliver comfortably, comfortably better sound quality. If you can stretch to it, you should buy them instead. That’s the short version.
We can listen to the Blukar earbuds (it’s not a good name, is it?) without screaming in agony or being completely offended by our favourite tracks but they really don't sound great and it’s easy to find fault with pretty much every aspect of their audio performance.
The treble? It’s definitely a little too lively, so you have to contend with a tough edge to voices and some sibilance to crashing cymbals. Anything with crisp, punchy drums – say, Drake’s Laugh Now Cry Later – and they start to get a bit uncomfortable at high volume. Perhaps this is where the “very crisp” review came from.
At the other end of the sonic spectrum, you do get some bass (result!), assuming you get a good fit on the buds, but it’s not as tight or solid as the sound from the SoundMagic earphones. This means the overall timing of the track suffers and music can just start to sound a bit vague and forgettable. The SoundMagic E11C earphones deliver a noticeably fuller, more spacious sound, with a smoother treble and more satisfying bass. But of course, they are exponentially more expensive.
How do we explain the good reviews? Listening in isolation to the Blukar 1 earphones and without any immediate comparison, we can understand stumbling across the right track – where there’s nothing too tricky at either end of the sonic spectrum, and the mix is on the safe side – and you could find yourself simply enjoying your tunes and forgetting they’re £5 Shenzhen specials. But even if that does happen, it's only a matter of time before you're shocked out of it by the snap of a snare drum or a challenging vocal.
This serves to remind us why we test the way we do – always testing any new product against an existing one we know well. Without an immediate comparison, it can be hard to know what you’re missing. Ultimately, we think the Blukar 1 earbuds fall short enough for most discerning listeners to feel underwhelmed, even for such a low, low price, but hearing them against the SoundMagics would certainly seal the deal for anyone.
Of course, the other crucial element of how we review is our ‘performance per pound’ mantra and these earbuds are (we might have mentioned) incredibly cheap. The E11C earphones may be ‘only’ £50 in our world but that’s 10 times the price of these. We can’t help but think about star ratings and with all that in mind, these might scrape a 3 star. Might. We still think the sound quality might be too poor for us to call them "average".
All told, we understand why so many people have bought them: the price. And a host of good reviews. A powerful combination. And if you need a pair of earbuds and aren’t fussed about music quality for whatever reason, then go for it. They seem made well enough, they should take some wear and they look perfectly fine in your ears. There's a time and a place for cheap and cheerful.
But, we are very much sound quality first here at What Hi-Fi? and ultimately, to avoid doing your favourite artists, and your ears, a disservice, we’d suggest you spend a little more money. In our minds, this really is a case of getting what you pay for. Now excuse us as we eye up a pair of £25 true wireless earbuds...
Read our SoundMagic E11C review
Our pick of the best cheap headphones we've tested