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What to look for when buying budget earbuds — 5 ways to help save money

The 1More PistonBuds Pro being held in hand over a ball pit
(Image credit: Alex Bracetti/Future)

We all want a great deal when it comes to making audio purchases, and value for money is something we consider very carefully when choosing the earbuds and headphones we recommend. We understand that sometimes buying cheap can mean making performance sacrifices you hadn't bargained for, and that's where Tom's Guide comes in.

As one of the biggest sectors in the audio market, we're continually testing earbuds of all shapes and sizes across all kinds of budgets to help you navigate the market and make the best buying decisions. We have the biggest overview on all the best models out there, and what designs offer the best balance of performance, features, and value.

There are plenty of low-cost earbuds with decent performance to had, so consider our advice before you buy and you won't end up making a bad decision and paying twice. 

With this guide we aim to help you make a great value buy and secure a pair of the best cheap earbuds or the best cheap wireless earbuds with confidence. 

Read on for our top 5 tips on what to consider before you buy to make sure you bag a great pair of earbuds with top performance at a great price.

1. Where will you use your earbuds?

It may sound obvious, but the first thing to consider is where you'll be using the earbuds. Are they for casual listening while out walking the dog or a morning commute into work, or will they be used to listen to motivational music while working out at the gym? 

Many earbuds are better for some activities than others, so it is important to consider the kinds of activities you plan on doing while wearing your new earbuds. From the best headphones for workouts or the best cheap running headphones that offer a durable design with sweat and water resistance to a minimum of IPX4 to help protect them from water splashes and perspiration, to the best cheap noise cancelling options built for shutting out the world on daily commutes, where you plan to listen to your new earbuds is a key consideration to factor in. Before making any buying decision, be sure to check out our specific guides for your particular activity when you've identified how you intend to use them. 

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Best value for active lifestyles: JLab Go Air Pop
The Go Air Pop mostly live up to the hype and are one of our best budget buys thanks to their strong audio, steady battery life, and durable design. Sound alone makes the buds worth owning, thanks to properly engineered EQs for different types of content. Playtimes are sufficient for all-day listening, too. Read the full JLab Go Air Pop review (opens in new tab).

2. How important is sound quality?

To some sound quality is everything, and we've even found ourselves wearing some curious-looking headphone designs over the years simply because we enjoyed the way they sound. Not every earbud maker gives the same emphasis to sound quality of course, and some low-cost earbuds tend to go all out with big bass that can compromise other parts of the frequency range and the overall sound experience.

Not everyone is bothered by this, though, and some music genres are 'tuned' to favor earbuds with big bass sounds. For example, Beats headphones used to be known for their excessively bass-heavy sound that meant they were better suited to some types of music than others, but today models like the Beats Fit Pro have a far more balanced sound signature. Be sure to check out our full reviews before you buy.

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Best budget earbuds for sound: Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus 

If you're looking for a balanced sound signature at a great price that works well with all music genres, look no further. Craftsmanship is sharp, plus having 45 hours of playtime at your disposal is awesome. Most importantly, the Melomania 1 Plus offers these hallmarks at nearly half the price of luxury options. Read the full Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus review (opens in new tab).

3. Do you need app support?

App support is very useful on cheaper earbuds designs where touch-sensitive controls (if you're lucky) and function buttons may be less successfully implemented. 

App support is usually more readily found on mid-market and flagship designs and, as a bare minimum, usually enables some form of EQ customization as well as keeping track on battery life. Special features such as ANC and transparency modes are usually reserved for up market models, but some brands have trickled down a basic version of their app support to their more affordable models. After all, the cost of adding touch or physical controls to a pair of earbuds and get them right is far more expensive than rolling out an already developed control app that's available on models further up the food chain, and makes greater economic sense.

Even if the app is a greatly slimmed down version of a more comprehensive version further up the model range, it is still a very worthwhile addition to have this kind of control on a pair of low-cost earbuds.   

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Best value with great app control: Sony WF-C500  
A great example of app control can be found on Sony's WF-C500. It delivers a similar app experience to that of its flagship models, and although it has good overall sound straight from the box, you can manually adjust frequencies or select from nine presets that prioritize different sonic elements, depending on the music genre. Read our full Sony WF-C500 review (opens in new tab).

4. Which earbud fit is right for you?

There are two main types of earbud design, Apple's AirPods with their drop down stems, or the more rounded designs by everyone else. Many will recognize Apple's white AirPods with their eye-catching look, and the distinctive design has now become so admired and popular that dozens of brands are emulating the overall style by replicating the look with low-cost versions like those covered in our best fake AirPods roundup. Even within Apple's drop stem styling, there are two versions — the standard AirPods sit 'loose' just outside the ear canal, whereas the AirPods Pro are designed to be partially inserted into the ear canal and feel more secure. 

Deciding on which type you go for will come down to how comfortable they sit in your ears, although your preference on the way they look may also have some influence. Many earbud models come supplied with different sized silicone eartips to help achieve the right seal when placed in your ear canal. Additionally, some come with a selection of Comply memory-foam eartips, which often offer better comfort and a more secure fit for some wearers, so make sure you check out the selection eartips provided before you buy. 

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Best fake AirPods overall: EarFun Air
The EarFun Air have the look of the AirPods but at a fraction of the price. They outperform the AirPods on battery life and offer decent sound, while also offering IPX7 waterproof protection and although they don't have ANC, they isolate ambient noise very well. Unlike the AirPods, they're available in black or white options.

5. What Bluetooth version do I need?

Making sure you choose a pair of cheap earbuds with one of the latest Bluetooth versions will help to make sure your earbuds are using their battery as efficiently as possible. It will also help achieve a greater wireless range, allowing you to roam free from your playback device without fear of dropout or complete loss of connectivity. 

Earbuds with Bluetooth 5.0 and higher are more likely to include features like multipoint connectivity, meaning you can pair to multiple devices, while 'find my' features are also more likely to be on board to locate your earbuds should they be mislaid.

Bluetooth 5.3 is the latest evolution of the short-range wireless standard. It introduces more efficient data transmission between devices, and new audio switching tech called Auracast to enable Bluetooth streaming “to an unlimited number of nearby audio devices." In short, this will allows listeners to invite friends and family to whatever they're listening to (or watching), and is being supported by the latest wireless earbuds and playback devices such as Samsung's Galaxy Buds 2 Pro.

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Best value with ANC and Bluetooth 5.2: 1More PistonBuds Pro
At $69, these are the best value wireless earbuds with effective ANC and top Bluetooth performance. These 'buds are currently discounted to $59 on the 1More website (opens in new tab), making them a win for consumers looking for top performance in a stylish and affordable package. Read our full 1More PistonBuds Pro review (opens in new tab).

Lee Dunkley
Audio Editor

As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.