The Best In-Ear Headphones Under $100
These in-ear headphones not only won by a landslide for comfort and sound, they rang up more than $40 shy of our price ceiling.
Some "what's the best" questions are easy to answer: Best rock group? The Beatles. Most romantic flower? The rose. Greatest baseball player? Babe Ruth. Most stylish first lady? Jacqueline Kennedy…er, um, maybe, Dolley Madison. No, wait – Michelle Obama?
Okay, some "best" questions aren't so easy to answer. But best sub-$100 earbuds? That's easy.
These buds check all the feature/function/quality/value boxes: great sound -- arguably best-sounding in this price range -- comfortable and solid noise-isolating fit, in-line mic/volume controls, high build quality.
The Shure SE112sm+ rose to the top of a group of worthy contenders, the Klipsch R6i ($99.99 MSRP), the MEElectronics A151P ($79.99 MSRP) and the Marshall Mode EQ ($99 MSRP). In narrowing down our field, we also listened to a host of other sub-$100 in-ear headphones, some with and some without the all-important in-line volume and music controls, including the Etymotics mc5 ($59 MSRP, without), the NHT SuperBuds ($99.99 MSRP, without), Paradigm's Shift-series e2i ($99.99 MSRP, with), the Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear i ($99.99 MSRP, with), the Skullcandy Fix ($49.99 MSRP, with) and the Yamaha EPH-M100 ($99.95 MSRP, with).
But the Shures at just $59.99? No contest. Here’s why.
Aurally, the R6i sounded slightly brighter with a smidge more soundstage and separation, but the differences are only noticeable in an intense A-B comparison. Rather than technical sonic properties, the primary aural differences between the Shure and the Klipsch are more tonal. One doesn't sound necessarily better than the other; just different.
Truth be told, arguably the best-sounding sub-$100 are actually Shure's previous entry-level buds, the SE215 ($99.99), which have been and continue to be my personal earbuds. The SE215s add a bit more separation and range, a bit more precision at the high end, and a bit more natural oomph at the low end versus the newer SE112m+ headphones. But, the SE215s lack in-line controls: you have to spend an extra $50 to get Shure's accessory cable with in-line mic/controls, which puts them out of our price range.
Fit and controls
Ergonomics is the other differentiator between the Shure SE112m+ and its competitors. The bud of the SE112m+ sits flat inside your ear – you can lie your head sideways on a pillow without impaling yourself as you would with most buds. The way the earbuds sit on and in your ears ensures a close fit which provides more sound isolation.
As with all of Shure's SE buds, the cables on the SE112s are designed to be draped over and behind the ear. This arrangement solves three problems: the in-line mic/controls are placed right at mouth-level – no more holding the mic in place for conversations; the cable isn't annoyingly in the way on the sides of your face; and, microphonics – aka touch transfer, that crackling noise you sometimes hear when your earbud cable rubs up against clothing – is eliminated. You can also wear the SE112s as usual, just dangling from your ears.
Ergonomically, the Klipsch R6i are also quite comfy -- just not as flat-to-the-ear comfy as the SE112m+ -- and are a bit more stylish. While not designed to be worn over the ear like the SE112m+, they should be. They're subject more to microphonics than the Shures, and wearing them over-the-ear solves the problem even if it does put the in-line mic/controls under your ear instead of under your mouth.
If wearing your cords over your ears is off-putting, consider the R6i's flat cables, which are nearly untangleable.
What other critics are saying
Critics who listened to both the plain SE112 and the SE112m+ agree with Shure's obvious sound-value conclusion. "This is now the best earphone under £50 I have seen and tested," notes Ed Selley of the U.K.'s AVForums web site when writing about the original SE112, "and really does represent remarkable value for money. The Shure SE112 is an ultra competitively priced earphone that still manages to hold with the values and qualities of the brand that makes it. If you need an affordable pair of earphones, stop looking; you've found them."
"[T]hese earphones definitely set the bar for low-cost performance," agrees Ryan Waniata at Digital Trends, also commenting on the plain SE112. "Pound for pound, Shure's SE112 are some of the best budget buds on the market. If quality audio is of a high concern, we don't normally recommend you pay less than $100 for a pair of earphones. But if you just don't have the cheddar, you should probably pick up the SE112."
Buyers on Amazon hold similarly high opinions, consistently rating the SE112m+ 4 and 5 stars.
All-in-all, the Shure SE112m+ are easily, hands-down, no-more-calls-we-have-a-winner, the best budget earphones you can buy for less than $100. They sound terrific, are exceptionally comfortable to wear and come with the convenience of in-line mic and music controls.