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3 in-ear headphones to avoid

Want some sound advice? Give these poor performers a miss.

in ear headphones to avoid
Last updated: 19 June 2021

Need to know

  • Our experts tested more than 55 earphones from brands including Apple, Sennheiser, Skullcandy, Sony and more 
  • Our tests find expensive premium pairs can often rate poorly too
  • CHOICE members can access our full reviews and test results

Poor-quality headphones can make even Led Zeppelin sound more like your kid brother's garage band. Whether you're enjoying your carefully curated Spotify lists or catching up on podcasts, decent earphones can make or break your listening experience. 

We always encourage you to sample a product before you buy it, but that's pretty hard with in-ear headphones because of health and safety rules. And let's face it – would you want to try a pair that have been in 100 other ear canals? 

We've seen $500 products that rate worse than cheaper pairs half their price

CHOICE expert Peter Zaluzy

Fortunately, we've done the hard work of testing them so you don't have to. Our audio experts have reviewed the most popular products on the market from brands including Apple, Sennheiser, Skullcandy, Sony, Beats By Dr.Dre, Bang & Olufsen, JBL, Jabra and more.

"Our sound tests always reveal some surprising results," says CHOICE's expert audiophile Peter Zaluzny. "We've seen $500 products that rate worse than cheaper pairs half their price – sometimes from the very same brand. Paying more doesn't guarantee a better quality product, so it pays to shop carefully."

Our tests uncovered some impressive performers and seriously poor pairs – we're talking terrible overall scores below 30%. So you don't cop an earful, here are the products that fell flattest in our latest lab tests. Consider becoming a CHOICE member to access our full reviews.

1. House of Marley Liberate Air (EM-DE011)

house of marley liberate air em de011
  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 24%
  • Sound quality score: 11%
  • Comfort and durability score: 31%
  • Price: $249

With their stylish faux-wood finish and $200-plus price, you'd expect premium performance from this pretty pair. Sadly, they're singing another tune all together.

They ranked rock bottom in our test overall, thanks to woeful scores for sound quality (11%!) and comfort and durability (31%). 

"It's like they forgot about substance when styling these headphones," says Peter. "Marley audio products look pretty cool, but fashion can only go so far and appearance doesn't justify these dud buds."

Luckily, we found far superior pairs for a fraction of the price, so do shop around and check out our full reviews

2. Sony MDR-XB50BS

sony mdr xb50bs
  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 25%
  • Sound quality score: 10%
  • Comfort and durability score: 29%
  • Price: $99

If you see these sporty little numbers from Sony, run! … in the opposite direction – because they did pretty poorly in our tests.

In fact, they scored even worse for sound quality (10%) and comfort and durability (29%) than the previous Marley pair. Their only saving grace? They did far better for passive noise reduction and audio enhancements, but even that isn't enough to forgive their sins. 

"It's a shame, because Sony has also released some really good headphones in the last few years," says Peter. 

"As a brand, Sony is weirdly inconsistent. Some headphones rank at the top of our tests and others, like these, are downright terrible."

3. Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H5

bang and olufsen beoplay h5
  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 25%
  • Sound quality score: 16%
  • Comfort and durability score: 22%
  • Price: $199

Even 'high-end' audio brands can make low-rating products, as our testers regularly find. Danish audio company Bang & Olufsen may boast a luxury reputation, but this pricey pair proved more bust than bang, ranking equal-second lowest in our tests. 

They received the same dismal CHOICE Expert Rating as the Sony above, but cost twice as much. Sound quality was slightly better but still sub-par (16%) while their comfort and durability rated worst (22%). 

On the bright side, they did offer excellent passive noise reduction and very good audio enhancements, but overall, your ears deserve a lot, lot better. 

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE