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4 earphones to avoid

These earbuds performed so poorly they should be called ear-duds.

in ear headphones to avoid
Last updated: 05 April 2022

Need to know

  • Our experts tested more than 50 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 headphones expert Peter Zaluzny

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 35%. 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

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 altogether.

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. Jaybird X4

jaybird x4

Jaybird X4.

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 29%
  • Sound quality score: 21%
  • Comfort and durability score: 26%
  • Price: $199

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

Although they're not quite as ordinary as the previous Marley pair, they were still decidedly underwhelming, scoring just 29% overall. They do have very good audio enhancements, but no amount of enhancing can improve a sound quality score as poor as 21%. 

3. JBL Reflect Mini 2

jbl reflect mini 2

JBL Reflect Mini 2.

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 34%
  • Sound quality score: 25%
  • Comfort and durability score: 35%
  • Price: $99

These JBL earphones are half the price of the Jaybirds but scored five percentage points higher overall. But don't be misled: they're still not a good buy. 

The only positive comment our testers had about these is that they have left and right inscriptions on each earphone so you know which ear to put them in. But with sound quality and comfort this poor, it probably wouldn't make much of a difference if you did put them in the wrong ear. 

4. JBL Endurance Peak II

jbl endurance peak ii

JBL Endurance Peak II.

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 34%
  • Sound quality score: 24%
  • Comfort and durability score: 35%
  • Price: $199

Another pair of earphones that have great audio enhancements but terrible sound quality, these in-ear headphones from repeat offender JBL also deliver disappointing comfort and durability. 

You don't need to pay a lot for a good pair of earbuds: the two top performing in-ear headphones in our test come in at well under $300. And you can even pick up noise-cancelling earphones that outperform these but cost far less. 

So if you have $200 to spend on a pair of earbuds, do your research before you buy to make sure you don't get stuck with ear-duds.

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.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.