Low End Theory

Cheap Headphones Final Four


By Brendan I. Koerner

In my forthcoming book Great Moments in Low-End History, to be published in 2019 by whoever's willing to pay me, the debut of JetBlue Airways is ranked way near the top. This has nothing to do with the airline's low, low fares, nor its brilliant, cost-cutting insistence on serving Terra Blue Potato Chips in lieu of warmed-over filet-o'-pigeon in glue sauce. No, it's because JetBlue gives away free headphones, and then doesn't ask for 'em back when the flight is over. They're throwing in a bit of consumer electronics and saying, "Here, you keep it—that's how much we like you, respect you, and value your every waking moment as a passenger on Spaceship Earth."

The not-so-hidden message in all this, of course, is that the JetBlue milestone represents the humble headphone's final slide into low-end paradise—they're now on a pricing par with those red-and-white mints you get at Red Lobster. I've seen bulk headphones selling for as little as 18 cents per unit, and I'm sure JetBlue gets an even better deal. Never again shall lack of money stop anyone from listening to their tunes privately. Amen.

Ah, but I know what you're thinking—you get what you pay for with those JetBlue headphones. Agreed—the sonic specs are abysmal. But how do they stack up against the lowest of low-end headphones you can find on my local retail strip? With $15 in my pocket and a mission in my heart, I endeavored to find out. The cheapo headphone tournament to end all tournaments after the jump, in which your humble narrator subjects his precious eardrums to some of the worst bass this side of Air Supply: The Definitive Collection.

The ground rules for this contest were pretty simple: purchase three sub-$5 headphones on or around Manhattan's 125th Street, then compare them to a JetBlue set I picked up on a recent trip to Buffalo. In the interests of fairness, as well as to create a tepid peg to March Madness, I decided to do two brackets: one for earbuds, the other for over-the-head models. Yes, I realize that having only four entrants in the tourney makes this format somewhat less-than-ideal. Keep in mind, though, that Gizmodo doesn't give me an expense account, and I suffer from Short Arms/Deep Pockets Syndrome (SADPS).

So here's what I was able to come up with on my little shopping spree:

JetBlue Headphones With which you may already be familiar—free and flimsy.

Coby CVH42 From one of our two favorite manufacturers of discount electronics (the other being jWin). An over-the-head unit with surprisingly chunky ear cups.

Maxell Eb-125 Skinny earbuds that are about as featureless as can be. The package did promise, however, that they are "ideal."

Panasonic RP-HV152 Earbuds with unusually large ear-canal bits (or whatever you call the part that actually sticks into your aural cavities).

In the JetBlue vs. Coby half of the bracket, the Coby won going away—like the Big East champ thumping the local Barbizon. Even when you factor in that the Coby 'phones cost me nearly $4, the sound quality and fit was just far superior to the JetBlue entrant, which lost points due to significant rattle and buzz in the left earpiece. The Cobys didn't have much response on either end of the register, but they were halfway comfortable, and you don't notice much distortion until you crank the volume beyond 8.

The earbuds bracket was a tougher call, if only because both the Maxell and Panasonic were so stunningly awful. Neither exhibited much bass, though I'll hand a slight edge to the Maxell on that score when you factor in price (it cost roughly $2 less than the Panasonic 'buds). But the fit on the Maxells was awful—they kept popping out of my ears when I made any maneuver that raised my overall speed above one mile per hour. Oh, yeah, and the treble on the Maxells made every piece of music sound like it was being played through a treehouse phone made of tin cans.

Low End Theory

So, onward to the final showdown. Fortified by three Yuenglings, I sat down with my second-gen iPod and pressed play on my test playlist—Mac Dre interspersed with Lightning Bolt. I listened intently, I moved about, I shook my head side-to-side. And at the end of the playlist, the winner was clear: the Coby CVH42, again in a landslide. Sure, there's some personal taste involved here, as I'm cursed with slightly misshaped ears. But the Panasonics were just too weak on the bass, and too tricky to wedge into my canals properly.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not advocating that y'all go out and invest in the Coby 'phones—if you're even a little bit of an audiophile, they'll make you blanch. But if you're headphoneless, broke, and really, really enthused about zoning out to music on the crosstown bus, I can honestly say you're better off with the Cobys than an even cheaper alternative. The Maxells are useful only for tying together bundles of recyclable cardboard, and the Panasonics not far off. As for those JetBlue cans, well, they're useful for one thing, and one thing alone: handing off to your budding geek of a 5-year-old nephew, who can crack open the earpieces and explore how headphones work. In other words, what JetBlue has given us is not so much a free audio device, but rather a free opportunity to introduce your young'uns to the fun of reverse engineering.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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