I have bought several earphones over the years (no pun intended) and will never be able to try every earphone on the market so rely on reviews from several sources for my purchasing decisions.
But to what extent do we trust received wisdom and the truths offered or perhaps even ‘sold’ (literally as well as metaphorically) to us? Just as history is said to be written by the victors, perhaps our perception of the present is equally manipulated by those with their own agendas to push. After all, every piece of information takes time, effort and hence money to be propagated.
I qualify and curate these sources based on the similarity of their descriptions of earphones I know to my own experience of those earphones, and the sound ‘signature’ preferences the sources express explicitly or implicitly. Some reviewers, like Super* Review and DMS for example, prefer a leaner bass and more open and less intimate ‘in your ear’ vocal presentation than I do so, while I respect their analysis, I know I may not necessarily enjoy the earphones they do (and vice versa).
Sources include YouTube reviewer videos and viewer comments against those videos, Amazon reviews, consumer websites like CNET and Rtings, enthusiast websites like Head-Fi and soundguys, Google searches for blog posts like the one you are reading and, most recently, the community around my YouTube channel.
So let’s start this investigation of the best sounding sub $50 earphones with a comment I posted against a video comparing several hyped budget earphones, that the reviewer agreed was a fair summary.
“Hi, very informative comparison..so trying to summarise the cons (-) and pros (+) does this look right:
- BLON BL03 $27: -cable/treble detail +bass/mids
- CVJ CSN $38: -bright +adequate bass/soundstage
- Moondrop SSR $40: -lean bass +comfort/treble
- Tripowin TC-01 $47: -weight +adequate bass/mids/treble/soundstage
- Tin T2 Plus $54: -fit +cable/tight bass/mids/adequate treble
- TFZ LIVE 3 $69: – boomy bass/mids/treble/soundstage +cable/sub bass”
So the winner from this bunch for my tastes looks to be the Tripowin TC-01, though I personally am not a fan of cold metal-bodied earphones such as that of the TRN v80 which was very widely recommended by the audiophile online communities in 2018 (and which, with a filter modification to reduce its exaggerated bright treble, becomes a very nice sounding earphone).
The group test reviewer, Ricky RDT, is less polished and articulate than some other reviewers however his less florid sound descriptions are often both much more quickly understandable and ring true with my own experiences.
Next stop, check out the Porta.Fi review of it. This is a reviewer who employs a consistent format and spends several minutes describing the sound of an earphone using a precise vocabulary of audiophile terms and through comparison to other known earphones.
So, he really likes it though keeps it real by saying there are earphones above $100 that sound better i.e. this isn’t a ‘giant killer’ which even the Blon BL03 has been touted as, e.g. by one of the most popular audiophile reviewers Z Reviews in this review.
Now the Honest Audiophile is someone I like the review style of. I don’t share his opinions of the Shuoer Tape and Monoprice Retro reviews, however, so take his often contrarian views with a large pinch of salt. He has a problem with the TC-01 bass (though video comments suggest he may benefit from better tips) and doesn’t rate them as anything special, or even beating the Blon BL03.
So we are starting to chase our tail and go in circles. Not unusual for this hobby.
Let’s take another starting point and check out $50 recs from inToit, an unusual reviewer who wears a mask but who I feel employs language and audiophile terms in a coherent way.
To summarise his video using the Head-Fi convention of ‘>’ meaning ‘has better sound quality than’:
Jade EA3 (musical and less technical but good to go cable and tips) > Jade EA1 (technical but ‘reference’ bass and poor tips) > Moondrop SSR (HD600 clarity, better soundstage, lean bass) > Tin T2 Plus (better extension, detail and clarity and less mid bass bleed than Blon BL03) > KBEAR Lark (treble rolls off)
Above $50 he recs Shozy Form 1.1, Tin T4, TFZ No 3, Final Audio A4000, IKKO OH10, Tanchjim Oxygen, Final Audio B3.
By contrast, employing one of my own YouTube channel viewers as a starting point, he recs the Blon BL03, Tin T2 and QKZ VK4 which has no overlap with the inToit recs.
Now considering his recs together with the inToit top rec, HiFi Dreams describes the Blon BL03 and QKZ VK4 as more even handed than the fun V shaped TRN v90 and Jade Audio EA3.
Furthermore, he has developed this impressively detailed and comprehensive spreadsheet
as shown in this video.
He strongly recs the KBear KS2 which he rates as competitive with earphones several times the price. He also likens the tonality of the VK4 to his $120 Thieaudio Legacy 3 (his 2nd favourite earphone after the $250 FiiO FH5) with the VK4 having a slightly lower technical performance.
In the search for independent verification, Ricky RDT compares the KBear KS2, which he characterises as v-shaped, to the inToit recommendation the Jade Audio EA1 (more resolution and without sibilance) and the KBear Lark, described as bass light and with a peaky and sibilant treble in this video.
Zpolt compares the KS2 (balanced with sufficient tight bass and some treble shimmer) to the KBear KB04 (brighter and more analytical) and Blon BL03 (boomy bass and smoother treble with less shimmer) and KZ ZST X (boomy bass and smoother treble with less separation and less revealing vocals)
But then Vortex, a British reviewer of almost every ChiFi earphone of note, describes the KS2 vocals as a bit thin with upper mids elevation and prefers the less bassy (but still v-shaped) KBear KS1, which he describes as having more realistic vocals and overall puts on par with the QKZ VK4. The BA on the KS2 gives that earphone apparently slightly better instrument separation on complex tracks where there’s a lot going on and more detail resolution but also results in a brighter and even more v-shaped sound with an unnatural timbre.
So, once again no unanymity of support for the KS2 and for the combination of natural tonal balance with technical detail I’m yet to find a common recommendation from these sources.
From personal experience, I highly rate the clarity of the Etymotic MK5 in the sub $100 range, however only once modified with (a) the introduction of tissue paper into the nozzle to allow the bass level to be brought up without the treble becoming unbearable and (b) a flange being removed from the triflange tips to improve comfort of their deep insertion design which prevents the natural bend in the human ear canal from compromising the sound. One of the longest serving audiophile reviewers, and former audio salesman, Steve Guttenberg is also a fan.
From the various sources above, it seems the Blon BL03 or KBear KS1 or Jade Audio (FiiO) EA3 may be a good choice for those who are happy to forego some detail resolution to obtain a natural tonal balance at an affordable ‘budget’ sub $50 price.
I still rate my TRN v80, which for me are like a more comfortable if brighter sounding MK5 (the treble brightness can be attenuated by putting tissue or foam in the ear tips), and HiFi Dreams rates their later TRN v90 successor up with the Blon BL03. He recs both and describes the Blon as being more coloured and warm sounding, like the audiophile reference Sennheiser HD650 headphone and the TRN as being less coloured and with a sparklier treble.
Vortex also rates these two earphones in this comparison so we have some commonality at last.
These two earphones then deliver different but equally enjoyable presentations of music. Perhaps in the search for one earphone to rule them all, in the budget sector at least, one may be better served by two, whose complementary qualities together provide an experience of what is possible with audio reproduction. Mellifluous, smooth and musical or clear, resolving and analytical.
While earphones come and go all the time, and we can expect further value and sound improvements from new materials and technologies and economies of scale, I suspect we will see no major sound quality improvements until new technologies, like the magnetostatic drivers in the Shuoer Tape with their highly realistic transient response, become more widespread and mature.
Previous earphone models, that are no longer being touted as the latest and greatest, may offer the highest ‘sound per pound’ value at any point in time, which is not dissimilar to other areas of HiFi.
I find it curious how much representation ‘ChiFi’ has in several reviewer recommendations. Is this a reflection of their value for money or some unrevealed reviewer allegiance or sponsorship – or perhaps Chinese bots are ‘viewing’ these reviews to make YouTube serve them up to us more frequently?
I’ll add to this post as the research continues and tentative conclusions form!