Overall, none of our panelists were thrilled with any of the choices in this price range, so if you are someone for whom sound quality is a top priority, you’ll need to spend more money. Though you get a lot of extra perks for the extra cash, our upgrade costs a bit over twice as much as the Anker pair, which we realize could be too much for the truly budget-conscious.
If the Anker earbuds are sold out, or you prefer a necklace-style headphone, the Skullcandy Ink’d Bluetooth are also adequate for the price. They have more bass than the Anker IE20s, and are much more comfortable for long-term wearing. The necklace/halo feels flimsy, but is flexible enough that it coils up for storage. However, that extra bass can overpower the rest of the sound, and with only two sizes of included tips, those with larger ear canals will find getting a seal impossible.
Table of contents
Why you should trust us
In addition to researching what other professional reviewers had to say (in this case, not much) as well as consulting reviews on Amazon, Best Buy, and headphone enthusiast sites, I also hold a bachelor’s degree in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College and have tested literally hundreds of headphones while working for The Wirecutter.
I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles, a job I still do and love. In other words, I’ve been in and out of top recording studios for over a decade. I also have reviewed high-end home audio equipment for publications such as Home Entertainment, Home Theater Magazine, and Sound & Vision. My articles have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, and Time, and on Good Morning America and the BBC World Service. In other words, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s out there and what’s worth your time and hard-earned money, and I am committed to finding gear that will make you happy.
Then there’s our panel of experts: In addition to myself, Lauren Dragan, we had Brent Butterworth, a Wirecutter A/V writer with decades of experience in the audio field for publications such as About.com, Home Theater, Sound & Vision, and many others; John Higgins, a session musician, sound editor, and occasional Wirecutter writer with a music master’s degree from the University of Southern California; and Geoff Morrison, A/V editor here at The Wirecutter and writer for CNET, Forbes, Sound & Vision, with over a decade and a half of audio and video reviewing under his belt.
Who should get this
I occasionally get emails from people who tell me that they aren’t too picky about sound quality; they just want headphones that work well enough, don’t cost much, and can take a phone call without sounding terrible. These are the headphones for those folks. Maybe you just need something to listen to podcasts while walking the dog or doing housework, or a spare pair of headphones to keep in your bag. Maybe you have a loved one who loses their earbuds frequently and has just picked up a mobile device with no headphone jack.
If you can relate to any of the above situations, these headphones are for you. However, keep in mind that at this price range, the vast majority of the money you spend goes into making them wireless (e.g., Bluetooth tech, batteries). This means the costs are cut in other areas: the drivers (i.e., the sound), the build, and the extra features. In all of these aspects, you definitely get what you pay for. None of the headphones we tested were a slam dunk in all facets of our testing. If you keep that in mind when making your purchasing decisions, you’ll definitely be happier with what you ultimately choose.
How we picked
The vast majority of the under- options haven’t been professionally reviewed. For some reason, most pro reviewers consider “budget” to 0. Much as we did in preparing our cheap-earbud guide, we were pretty much left to rely on Amazon reviews and our own testing. Of course, we always look at Amazon reviews with a skeptical eye, to suss out what’s genuine and which smack of paid reviewing. In this category that skepticism proved to be especially important. We also shied away from brands that had no consumer support skullcandy and sell directly through Amazon, because if anything goes wrong, you have nobody to contact for warranty assistance. That left us with 11 headphones we thought looked promising.
After the delightful process of charging and pairing all of the contenders, our expert panel listened to each and evaluated them on fit, sound quality, ease of use, comfort, and overall appearance. Based on their experiences, each panelist chose their top three. We then took price into consideration, and from there selected an overall pick.
The little wings on the IE20 pair look odd, but offer most people a comfortable, secure fit. They’re also removable if you don’t like them.
If you want Bluetooth on a budget, the Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20 are the best option under. Though they have “sport” in the title, the IE20 are not listed as being water-resistant, so we would only recommend them for use in non-sweaty conditions. However, when using the included stabilizing wings, you could run to catch a train and they’ll stay put in your ears. Where many of the other options we tested had heavy earbuds or in-line widgets that dragged on the cord, the IE20 are lightweight and don’t tug or snag when you turn your head.
Additionally, the IE20 pair comes with three sets of different-sized wings, and five sets of tips to choose from. Anker lists two of the sets of tips as “semi-open,” but these dramatically affect the sound, most notably causing a loss of bass response. Keep that in mind if you find you aren’t getting an isolating seal you may just need to switch tips (take care because all of the tips are packaged together in one plastic baggie and aren’t that easy to distinguish at first glance).
The wings are soft, springy silicone, and they do a really good job of securing the earbuds in place. However, all of our panelists found the fit to be fatiguing at best, and uncomfortable at worst. Brent said that the sound of the Anker pair tied for top spot for him, but the fit for his ears was the worst by far. John said that the IE20 wouldn’t stay in his ears without the wings, and I felt similarly; although adding the wings made my ears feel stuffed like a fluffy pillow in too small of a pillowcase.
The IE20 have a unique on-off method: magnets on the back of the earbuds. There is no other way to power them up or down. Separate the magnets, and the headphones link to the last paired device. Connect the magnets, and they shut off. On one hand, this is a handy way to help save battery life. On the other hand, if they separate in your bag, the earbuds automatically connect to your mobile device. That happened a few times in my testing, and found myself fumbling to answer a phone call. Fans of the IE20 say that once you get the hang of putting them away in their included pouch a certain way, the magnets don’t come apart too frequently. Additionally, if you walk away, and there is no device connected, the IE20 shut off after two minutes of inactivity. Certainly, though, the magnets are useful when you want to hang the headphones around your neck for a period of time and have a conversation.
Oddly, the IE20 pair doesn’t let you rewind a track, only skip forward (along with volume and the normal voice-command button).
Speaking of battery life, Anker claims that the IE20 have about an 8-hour use time, and in our tests, that’s just about what they did (we got an extra 10 minutes). Depending on whether you take a lot of calls, and the volume of your music, the battery should last you a full work/school day, but if you use them frequently, you’ll want to remember to charge them every night. Time to a full charge is about an hour and a half.
As for the sound, it’s not too bad. It’s coarse, but the frequency response is relatively even which means you can hear vocals, basslines, and guitars equally well in the mix. This is a dramatic contrast to some of the wildly peaked highs and lows of the competition in this price range. As we’ve stated above, your money goes toward making the headphones wireless, not the drivers, so the sound quality is decidedly cheap. With the Anker earbuds it’s at least inoffensive because, boy, were some of the competition terrible sounding. As in, “get these off my head” terrible. So keep in mind there are a lot worse to choose from.
As for the sound, it’s not too bad.
The claimed range on the Anker is 33 feet, but that’s inside and with nothing in the way. In my testing I was able to leave my iPhone 7 on the coffee table in the living room and walk a room away (through one wall) without losing connection. Much more than that, and I started to experience little blips in the sound. On my person, though I’m not the biggest human, I found I could keep the phone in my pocket without the connection dropping. But larger individuals may have varying results. The best way to keep the connection strong is to keep your phone on the same side of your body as the remote.
Phone calls sound clearer to the recipient than one might expect. At least, when you call in a quiet room. The IE20’s mic is good, but it’s still susceptible to wind noise and other interference. We tried them out for a video chat, and they were fantastic, but if there are many background sounds the person you called might ask you to repeat yourself.
Overall, for the price of a couple of burritos, the Anker IE20 are solid headphones. Are they perfect? Goodness no. But based on everything else we tested for the price, you could do a lot, lot worse.
Flaws but (possibly) not dealbreakers
Aside from not being able to power them down separate from the magnets, the IE20 have another odd quirk. The in-line remote handles all the usual functions: volume, voice commands, answer/end calls, skipping ahead a track … but not skipping back a track. We have no idea why. So if you want to hear a song one more time, you’ll need to get out your phone. But again, at a current price of under, it’s definitely not the worst flaw we found among the headphones we tested for this guide.
And of course, there’s the sound. Really, any of our picks in other guides/categories will give you better sound quality than these. For example, if you don’t truly need Bluetooth, the wired AKG Y20U (from our cheap-earbuds guide) cost the same as the Anker but have much clearer highs, smoother lows, and are much more comfortable for long-term listening.
And if you’re willing to spend a bit more, you can get even better wireless sound and more features. If you need Bluetooth and just want better sound and durability, the JLab Epic 2 BT have far more depth, richer, deeper bass, and should stand up to just about anything you dish out. If you want wireless and noise cancelling and don’t want to shell out for our main picks, the Phiaton BT 100 NC sound quite good and are our budget pick for in-ear noise-cancelling headphones.
In other words, unless you absolutely need wireless headphones and can’t or don’t want to spend any more, or you’re otherwise married to the idea of super-cheap Bluetooth, a world of better sound quality awaits you.
Runner-up (with a collar)
The necklace on the Ink’d is light and flexible. The earbuds are comfortable—as long as your ear canals aren’t on the larger side. If they are, these might not fit.
If our pick is sold out, or you prefer a collar-style headset, the Skullcandy Ink’d Bluetooth are a decent alternative, with one major caveat: if you have larger ear canals, you probably won’t get a seal with the included tips. For some reason, Skullcandy includes only medium and small. To give you an idea of what that means, I (Lauren) usually wear a large tip in most brands, but the medium were able to seal for me. Brent usually uses large or extra large, and he couldn’t get a seal at all. Why Skullcandy refuses to include large tips with all its headphones is beyond us—third-party tips (which can also be difficult to track down in larger sizes) will add additional cost.
That aside, the overall fit on the Ink’d Bluetooth is comfortable, and the collar is lightweight enough that you can forget it’s on your neck. Unlike some of the other headphones we tested, the cords running from the earbuds to the collar don’t poke your face or interfere with turning your head. The controls on the collar itself are easy to access and use for calls, volume controls, voice commands, and, unlike the Anker, can toggle tracks both forward and back.
The Ink’d Bluetooth are water-resistant, so you technically could use them in a drizzle or at the gym, though they wouldn’t be our first choice for working out, as the collar can be annoying, bouncing when you run, or getting in the way when you lie down to bench press. However, it is nice knowing that a little water won’t kill them (provided you close the charge port door completely before use). If you want to know what we do recommend for the gym, check out our wireless exercise headphones guide. Additionally, the collar is flexible, so unlike the rigid plastic necklaces on many headphones of this style, you can fold up the Ink’d Bluetooth into a small pouch.
The control buttons on the Ink’d Bluetooth are large, and conveniently placed at the end of the collar.
So why didn’t the Skullcandy end up our top pick? First, the sound quality of the Ink’d Bluetooth is less balanced than the Anker IE20. The bass intensity can overpower and muddy the lower-mid guitar range. Plus, the moderately coarse-sounding high-frequency range can leave strings feeling a little tinny. If you are familiar with any other Skullcandy headphones, this is about the same sonic profile as the majority of their inexpensive earbuds. If you are already a Skullcandy fan, then you know what you’re getting with the Ink’d Bluetooth.
Phone calls are a bit muffled-sounding to the person you are calling, especially if anything on your shirt gets in the way of the mic on the collar.
So add up the sound, the mic quality, the lack of large ear tips, and the fact that the Ink’d Bluetooth are generally to more expensive than the Anker, and you can see why they’re second place.
| 1More iBFree || Our entire panel agreed that the highs were too sizzly and the mids too recessed to make the iBFree pleasant to listen to. Additionally, the hard plastic stem on the bottom of the earbud can jab into your cheek. |
| Brainwavz BLU-100 || The earbud design sticks way out of your ears, and larger ear canals will struggle to get a seal. Though the wings help to stabilize, the weight of the buds dragging down makes the BLU-100 uncomfortable rather quickly. Sibilant highs, a dip in the mids, and muffled bass give these an artificial sound that none of our panelists liked. |
| iClever ICBTH01 || A mixed bag. The ICBTH01 ended up in the middle of the pack. They have a metallic edge to the highs that bothered about most of the panel. Half of us found them comfortable, the other half felt they chafed. We aren’t happy with 50-50 odds that you’ll like them, so they ended up out of the top picks. |
| iHome iB29 || Muddy, muffled, and distant-sounding with a weird sibilant spike on consonant sounds. Nobody was into them. |
| MEE M9B || If you can get a seal on these, the bass is immense. Overpowering. In fact, on hip-hop, EDM, and anything with an already boosted bassline, the M9B actually sound overloaded and rattle. Though the design is great for smaller ear canals, the heavy-handed bass sound was just too much, even for bass lovers. |
| Monoprice 15273 || Everyone found them to be uncomfortable, and the bass sounded like it was coming from inside a wet cardboard box. A total miss. |
| Monoprice 15274 || The design of the earbuds is ridiculously huge. And because of that, the fit was affected and the opinions of the sound varied from “not bad” to “boxy and tinny at the same time.” It’s too much of a gamble that they’ll work for you, so we think there are better options. |
| Paww Dual Sound || Slightly out of the price range, but still out of the running due to: 1. the widget on the cable. It has a clip, but it’s still unwieldy. 2. The fit feels unstable on smaller ear canals, and the higher frequencies overpower male vocals. Flawed design + flawed sound = nope. |
| Scosche BT100 || Oh, Scosche. Everything about these is terrible. The remote is huge and sits behind your head, so you need to reach behind your neck to adjust volume, change tracks, etc. The sound is exceptionally sibilant in the highs, the bass blurry. As Geoff said, “My favorite part about these is that they have an off switch.” Sigh. |
What to look forward to
Anker has released the Soundbuds Slim, a pair of, IPX4-rated, Bluetooth, in-ear headphones. The set has a three-button inline remote for volume and playback controls plus magnets on the back of the earbuds for quick storage, and it reportedly lasts for up to seven hours on a single charge. We’ll compare the new model against our top pick, the Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20, soon.
Brainwavz has announced the Blu-Delta, a wireless version of the runner-up pick in our cheap-headphones guide. Brainwavz claims the Blu-Delta offers eight hours of continuous playback, a 30-foot range, and the same sound quality as its wired counterpart. We’ve requested a sample unit for testing, and we’ll update this guide with our findings.
JVC announced the Marshmallow HA-FX39BT at the CES 2017 trade show. This neckband Bluetooth headphone model has a mic and a three-button remote, plus a reported 14-hour battery life. The pair will be when it goes on sale in March, and we will test it then.
The Jam Audio Evo Bud, also announced at CES 2017, will be and is due out in the spring. Few Bluetooth headphones in this price range are made by reputable companies, so we’re looking forward to testing this set as soon as it’s available.
Wrapping it up
Dollar for dollar, the Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20 are pretty solid wireless headphones. Sure, they have some downsides. But when you want something that covers the basics for as little money as possible, and you aren’t expecting miracles, there really isn’t anything available that’s better.
(Photos by Kyle Fitzgerald.)
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