$25 earphones sound like winners


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(Photo: Alex Washburn/Wired)

(Photo: Alex Washburn/Wired)

It’s criminal to charge $50 or more for earphones with only so-so sound — especially when somebody comes along and proves you can deliver a fantastic-sounding headset for half that price.

This is the second time I’ve been impressed by a pair of earphones from NuForce, a small California company that’s mostly known for making audiophile amps and digital-to-analog converters. Last year, I tested the company’s NE-700 M/X in-ears, and I found them to be pretty outstanding for a pair of $70 buds. They earned our Editor’s Pick award for the best earbuds under $100.

These newer earphones, the NE-600 M/X, cost only $25. Amazingly, they deliver a sound profile that’s almost as sweet as the 700s, and they do it for less than half the money. The 600s are shockingly inexpensive for how good they sound, and in my opinion, they blow away other in-ear headphones that run between $40 and $50. If you’re looking to replace the freebies that came with your phone, or just shopping for a backup set of earbuds you can wear everywhere without worry, these cannot be beat.

The build quality doesn’t look like much, with lots of plastic instead of the machined metal found on the 700s. This pays off not only in affordability, but also in weight. In-ear headphone manufacturers have been experimenting with titanium, aluminum and other metals of late, but sometimes, sturdy plastic like this wins out. And actually, I’m a fan of the design, which is simple, logo-free and unassuming — provided you choose the model with the black cable, as there’s nothing stealth about the bright green or red cables NuForce also offers.

The sound is in line with other lower-end earbuds in that the bass is exaggerated and the highs are rolled off. But NuForce has tuned the 11-millimeter drivers just right — the bass is big, but it’s fast and not flabby, and it’s assertive without being so overbearing that it crowds out the mids.

(See also: Best headphones for your workout)

There’s still plenty of detail in vocals, keyboards, melodic instruments, and everything important that lives in the middle bands. Of course, they are less detailed in the highs, but to my ears, they provided just enough isolation and high-end detail to keep me happy. The myriad little things you usually miss when you slip in a pair of cheap earphones? They’re all here. The overall sonic quality is admirable for a headset that costs only $25.

One quibble about the isolation: You only get three pairs of rubber tips in the box, and the sizing is rather extreme. I had a hard time finding a good seal using the tips in the box. But luckily, being the headphone lover that I am, I dug through my Giant Box of Rubber Ear Tips to find a set that worked with the 6-millimeter posts on the NE-600s. Your mileage may vary. Once I had achieved a Goldilocks-approved full seal, the isolation was great, with minimal cord noise from the flat cable (usually not a fan, but it’s fine here, and it comes with a chin slider). No leakage, either.

(See also: Review of Klipsch IMAGE S4 earphones)

Tips aren’t the only frills NuForce has omitted — there’s no carrying case and no collar clip. Also, the $25 version (NE-600X) doesn’t have an in-line remote/mic, so if you want to use it as a hands-free headset replacement, you’ll need to lay out an extra fiver for the $30 NE-600M model.

These issues aren’t deal-breakers, though. Just take a deep breath, slowly recite the words “twenty-five dollars,” and enjoy the music.

WIRED Great sound for a low cost. The best-sounding value-priced earbud you can buy. (Yes, better than Monoprice’s torture devices.) Light weight is perfect for runs or other sweaty shenanigans. Only took a few hours to burn them in. Bass for days, son!

Bass will be too much for some. Tough to find a good seal with the included tips. Plastic build doesn’t scream “durability.” Extra $5 for a mic. No box candy.

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