Cheap headphones are often overlooked by self-respecting music lovers simply because of their price tag; but that’s really too bad for them because these Monoprice earphones, with their punchy bass, class-leading clarity, and solid construction are excellent headphones at any price, much less for less than shipped.
Buys you a pair of rather large 14.2mm drivers encased in solid, metallic-painted bodies from which extend a 48″ cloth-covered cord that leads to an aluminum reinforced yoke, and a similarly strengthened gold-plated headphone jack. Unfortunately, there’s no microphone for making calls but that’s not something you would find in headphones anyway.
Best bluetooth headphones
Professional reviews of cheap headphones are difficult to come by but you can always tell you’ve found a good product if people who spent their own, hard-earned money on something take time out of their day to convince others to buy it. This is the case with the 8320s. It all started when veteran Head-Fi user and headphone store owner Dsnuts started a thread last November entitled “The Monoprice 8320 (MEP-933).The club”. In it, he states in no subtle terms, “I am shocked at what level of sound these produce for the price of a bag o chips n dip. So why would any audiophile veteran take this thread or this product seriously? It is because to my ears on sound quality alone I have not heard anything better in an IEM.” This post spawned a discussion thread that’s now 2224 comments long, and growing. In it you’ll find lengthy reviews, comparisons to other cheap headphones as well as some not so cheap ones. Time and time again, the 8320s won out thanks to their exceptional clarity, full sound, large soundstage, and great build quality. One user even said they held their own against his Westone W4s.
With praise like that, we had to check them out for ourselves. In order to minimize the placebo effect, I compared these head to head with the Panasonic Ergofit RP-HJE120, which comes highly recommended from CNet with a 4 star rating, and and our previous recommendation, the MeElectronics M9P (3.5 star CNet rating). I used Rdio for source material because streaming music is the future and the 320 kbps VBR streams they offer are plenty enough for most people (here is my testing playlist if you’re curious).
I’m not an audiophile so I won’t pretend to know what I’m talking about in terms of jargon and detailed technical analysis but here’s what I found in plain english: the Ergofit’s sound and fit belie its price tag. Its clear treble, natural-sounding mids, combined with ample bass response and superb fit make for a nice sounding earphone and very comfortable earphone, truly deserving of CNet’s 4-star review.
The M9P was the most expensive of the bunch but sounded the worse than these other two headphones. In all fairness, it sounds good for what it is. To its benefit, the M9 had much louder bass, but this often came at the cost of clarity. That would be forgivable if the treble wasn’t so harsh. It made sibilants (“s” sounds) sound like whistling through a gap tooth. It was also difficult to fit comfortably in my ears and my friends’.
As for the Monoprices, they belong in a league of their own. Put simply, they live up to the hype. Highs were clean, mids sounded full and life-like, and the bass was punchy and clear. When I closed my eyes and listened to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, it was like hearing it for the first time all over again. I had always thought “soundstage” was just a term audiophiles threw around to confuse laymen but now I understand. It really sounds like there are instruments playing at you from different positions on a virtual stage. Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed. I also had several friends listen to the headphones, they all picked the Monoprices as the clear winner, followed fairly closely by the Ergofits. No one really liked the M9s except on bass-heavy tracks.
How about Apple’s new vaunted earpods, which took 3 years to develop, created from the commonalities between hundreds of 3d-mapped earshaped, over 120-something prototypes? Apple claims they sound better than earphones that cost “hundreds of dollars”. Through my testing and the testing of Geoff Morrison, who has worked in AV publications for about a decade, we found that the earpods sound much better than the old earbuds. After some break in time, Geoff said, “The old ones are almost all mid-range and very shouty–It’s like listening to AM radio. But the earpods are more balanced, tonally, than the old apple buds. I still wouldn’t consider them bassy compared to most in-ear earbuds. But what bass is there is fairly melodic. They’re light and comfortable, I’ll give them that. They’re unquestionably better than the old ones, but seems excessively steep.”
I found similar results, but I also tested these against the Monoprices. The Monoprices are a better value, but sound is more or less on par.
After an hour of burn in, my first impression was that they have a lot more bass than the Monoprices without overpowering trebles and mids. One hour into listening, I would say that the Monoprices have better detail and imaging but the Earpods have superior bass response which many people might prefer. They also stayed in my ears really well. Even with tugging. But they lack noise-isolation of any sort, which dramatically reduces bass-response and detail when you factor in any kind of background noise such as a crowd, car, or airplane. Overall, I’d say they’re probably worth the price tag and they’re definitely worth keeping, unlike previous iterations of Apple buds.
The bottom line between these two: Without a mic and remote, the Monoprices are still our pick over the earpods, but there’s no reason to swap between them. Apple’s headphones sound similar in quality (with more bass but worse detail) to our headphones.
It’s come to my attention that wearing the Monoprices isn’t too intuitive. Multiple readers have complained that they’re terrible, only to change their mind after learning the correct way to wear them. They’re technically “in-ear monitors”, which are typically worn “upside-down” when compared to normal earbuds. Also, you should route the cables behind your ears. The above picture should clear things up a bit.
So that resolves the cable routing issue, but there still remain a few other downsides that can’t be fixed with clever cable-routing; chief among them, the cables themselves. The cloth-covered cord is very durable, but also prone to tangling and knotting. This is odd, considering most cloth-covered cords I’ve encountered tend to reduce tangling. After a few months of regular use, the outer coating has frayed a little bit around the edges, but they’re as structurally sound as ever. There’s also noticeable cable noise when moving around, but not any worse than you’d find in other similarly priced headphones. Besides, these aren’t for working out. We have other, more purpose-built recommendations for that.
Other reviewers on Head-Fi complained of comfort issues but I personally found them to be pretty easy to wear when worn correctly as shown above. They can get bit heavy when worn for extended periods of time, but I’ve managed to avoid ear fatigue on all but the longest plane rides. The included tips aren’t very good either but they can be improved through a simple modification involving foam earplugs detailed in Dsnuts’s original post on Head-Fi. Or you can just use tips from another headphone. I went this route by installing some foam tips from an old set of Shures and the difference is huge. Not only are they a lot more comfortable, bass response and noise-isolation both increased dramatically. Users also didn’t like the fact that they’re packaged in nothing but a tiny, sealed plastic bag, but packaging is really just trash that has yet to wind up in a dump so really, less packaging a good thing.
There’s also no microphone or inline controls, which hurts its usability in terms of an everyday commuting headphone, but considering how poorly the M9P’s microphone performed in the phone and Skype calls I made with it, you’re probably better off without it at this price point. You could also argue that the Panasonics might be a better choice since they come from a more established brand, and you might be right, if these weren’t so cheap. For the money you’d spend on shipping to and from the warranty center, you could afford to just buy a new pair. Besides, Monoprice has excellent customer service. We received a reader email telling us that Monoprice offered him a free upgrade to 1 day shipping since his order was delayed due to a stock shortage.
If you must have an inline mic and remote, the Earpods are currently your best bet. Sure, is a bit on the pricey side, but we couldn’t find anything better for cheaper (those who don’t use Apple products should skip to the next pick below). We recently tested a pair of JVC HAFR36B Marshmallows against them. They were okay, and probably a good buy for, but the bass overwhelmed the mids and highs, ruining details. There were also strange fit issues that result in one ear sounding better than the other. At first, I thought this might be a result of my own physiology, but Head-Fi forum members have also reported the same problem. Build quality was also rather shoddy. They may only be, but with their split cable and cheap plastic casing, they feel like bargain bin earbuds. Call performance was likewise lackluster. Whereas the caller on the other end couldn’t tell the difference between the Earpods’ mic and the iPhone 4S’s built-in mic, they noticed a distinct drop in fidelity when I switched to the JVCs. Apparently, the rest of the Marshmallow lineup is a bit better sounding and feeling, but the HAFR36s just aren’t up to snuff. JVC does make a version of the better performing Head-Fi favorite HA-FX35 Marshmallow with a microphone and remote called the HAFR50, but they sell for about anyway (depending on color). Overall, we think it’s better to spend up front and have Apple’s generous 1 year warranty to back up your investment than to risk having to go through multiple pairs of the JVCs.
Engadget echoed our assessment of the Earpods saying, “The EarPods are possibly the best-sounding set of earbuds you’ll be able to find, but at the end of the day, that’s not saying much.” Macworld gave them a solid 3.5 Star rating, lauding their overall value: ” if you’re simply looking to upgrade from existing Apple earbuds, or to replace a lost or broken set, I can recommend the EarPods—they’re easily worth their retail price, especially considering that they include an excellent inline remote/microphone module.” iLounge goes even further in its praise, giving them an impressive A- rating, which is a bit high in our opinion, but only because they lack noise isolation.
Another microphone-packing option for the Apple-phobic is the NuForce NE-600M. These came highly recommended from Wired and although they’re pretty good, we didn’t like them as much as the Monoprices and the Earpods. Reviewer Michael Calore praises the NuForces for their exceptional price to performance ratio and their excellent bass response in a glowing 9/10-rated review. While we definitely agree that these buds have great bass and are a decent value, we found them to be a bit harsh on the treble and too quiet in the middle. That said, they sounded phenomenal when playing electronic music and top 40s hits. But that’s because modern music is mixed and recorded to sound better on cheap earphones.
When we tested them using Lossless recordings of yesteryear, songs that were supposed to sound silky smooth ended up sounding shouty on the high end and dull in the middle. Both the Earpods and Monoprices faired much better. That said, the NuForces have great build quality (including tangle-resistant flat cables) and were comfortable to wear for hours on end. Also, the inline microphone provided clear and understandable voice quality which is often an issue at this price point. Overall, I’d say that they’re definitely worth if you need a microphone and don’t use an iPhone. There’s also a version that doesn’t have a microphone but at that point, you might as well save and go with the Monoprices.
At less than, the Monoprice 8320s are one of the best deals in technology. If you want a sturdy pair of cheap headphones for enjoying music, these are the ones to get. But be forewarned, these headphones are like a gateway drug to full on audiophilia. Be careful or you might find yourself spending hundreds on Shures and Audio Technicas in no time.