I’m not an audiophile, but I appreciate above-average sound quality. I have several headphones, but I wanted a new pair of cheap-but-good wired earbuds for watching tv in bed with my tablet. Enter, the vast world of cheap-but-good Chinese headphones.
My headphones are, ranked from best to worst overall sound quality:
Sony MDR-ZX600 cans
Sony MDR-NC13 noise-canceling earbuds
Sony MDR-G82 “Street Style” behind-the-neck cans from the year 2000 that I thought were super cool when I was a freshman in college and have somehow managed to hold on to through many moves since then
(Yes I brought them to work to take this picture. Don’t judge me.)
PowerBeats 2 bluetooth gym headphones that I didn’t want to spend this much on, but my ear sweat had already killed a few other pairs of supposedly-sweatproof bluetooth gym headphones, and the PowerBeats have lasted over a year now woohoo!
None of these are super high-end, but they all have what I’d say is above-average sound quality. All of them are wired, except my PowerBeats. And you know what? In the course of writing this post, I screwed around comparing my headphones, and I realized that even the sorta crappy MDR-G82 sound better than the PowerBeats 2, which are supposedly one of the better-sounding bluetooth gym headphones, and mine have a fresh set of Comply foam tips on them. Maybe they’d be better if they supported some kind of higher-quality bluetooth protocol like aptX. The headphonejackpocalypse doesn’t look so good, but that’s a nerdrant for another post.
My wife is an early bird, and I’m a night owl. Between this and my gym schedule, most of my weekday tv watching is with headphones. Either with the shitty-sounding headphone jack on my Roku remote, or through my tablet.
With the Roku, when I’m sitting on the couch, I tend to use the MDR-G82. Sure, when listening to music they’re the least good of my wired headphones, but somehow they work the best with the shitty output quality from the Roku remote, and they’re comfortable.
Except when I want to lie down on the couch, or in bed with my tablet, I don’t want a neckband between my head and the pillow. That’s not comfy. The MDR-ZX600 cans sound the best, but are also not super comfortable to lie down with.
That’s where earbuds come in. The MDR-NC13 can be used with the noise canceling off, and sound pretty dang decent. But they’re not perfect either. Their cord is overly fiddly. Instead of a simple Y-shaped split into individual cords for each bud, there’s a main cord that goes to the left bud, and then the cord for the right bud splits off almost at the end of it and loops under your chin.
As you can see here, the cord for the right bud hates to fully un-coil itself. It often pops up under my chin and I have to take out the right bud, twist the little under-chin cord around, and hope I’ve gotten it to lay a little flatter. It’s annoying.
Also, there’s a heavy box in the middle of the cord that holds the noise canceling circuitry (the mics are on the earbuds) and battery. This box has a little clip on it, but if I get up to walk around and I’ve forgotten to clip it to my shirt, the weight of the box pulls the left earbud out of my ear.
I realize that not liking any of the three pairs of totally nice and fine wired headphones I already own, for this one specific use case of lying in bed with a tablet, is the epitome of a first-world problem, so I decided that while I’d like some earbuds that have a regular Y-shaped cord, I shouldn’t spend a bunch of money on them.
Somewhere along the way, I stumbled onto a website called AudioBudget, where this dude reviews cheap random-ass Chinese headphones. He goes into exhaustive detail and provides links to buy them through AliExpress. A select few of his top-ranked options are also on Amazon. And since I’m spoiled by Amazon Prime shipping, I figured I’d try to pick from the options available there.
The AudioBudget dude’s current top 2 headphones, the MEMT X5 and ROCK Zircon, were both available on Amazon. But a bunch of the reviews say while they sound great, their cords often break. I know they’re cheap but I wanted something that at least isn’t likely to break.
Another highly-rated-by-AudioBudget pair, the VJJB K4S, didn’t come up when searching on Amazon, but these things tend to get rebranded a million different ways, so I decided to get clever and search for just any wood earbuds. I found a product on Amazon called the APIE Premium Genuine Wood Corded In-ear Headphones Earbuds Heavy Bass Noise Cancelling Earphones with Microphone, where the pictures looked very similar to the ones on the AliExpress page for the VJJB K4S. This guy posted an unboxing calling them the APIE K4 so that seemed to confirm they’re the same.
The APIEs arrived a couple days ago, thanks to that sweet, sweet Prime shipping. Sure enough, they say VJJB on the plug, and K4S on the little splitter deedlybopper that separates the cord for each bud. Just like in this picture from an actual VJJB K4S product listing:
When I first tried them with the Roku, they didn’t sound great, but the Roku remote sounds like shit anyway. I played around with some of the different tips that came with them, and listened to actual music on my phone (because SOME COMPANIES still put headphone jacks on phones, thankyouverymuch) and settled on the memory foam tips included in the box.
Last night, I decided to break out all of my headphones and swap between them for different types of music to see how the K4S compare. I’m not an audiophile, so I’ll spare you hyperbolic descriptions of the detailed intricacies of these headphones and the aren’t-I-so-cultured songs used to test them.
The MDR-ZX600 are by far the most detailed and accurate-sounding ones. For songs with lots of real, not-electronic instruments, they’re the most life-like by far. Their bass response is ok, but not very pronounced. The MDR-NC13 are pretty good, but lack the same level of detail and clarity. They do have a bit punchier bass. The MDR-G82 don’t really hold up in comparison, but on their own, they sound good. Their bass is kinda...crunchy? It’s not as precise as the others. But they still sound way better than the PowerBeats 2.
How do the K4S compare? Surprisingly well. Of all my headphones, they’re the loudest at a given volume setting on my phone. They also produce the most bass, although it’s not super thumpy skull rattling bass. Overall I’d rank them slightly better than the MDR-NC13, and back to back the extra bass is noticeable enough. While they still lack the clarity & detail of the MDR-ZX600, on bass-heavy electronic stuff like modern reggae, they might actually be my favorite.
They also look pretty cool with wood & metal build, and translucent cord. They even have a microphone for making calls, and the skinny plug is the only one of all my headphones that fits through my slightly bulky phone case and into my phone’s headphone jack with no fuss.
For 17 bucks, maybe you should pick a pair up too! Unless of course you’ve been robbed of a headphone jack. You have my condolences.
UPDATE: Upon further listening, I realized the one and only pair of memory foam tips that came with these are a little too big for my ears. I stepped town to a smaller pair of rubber tips that get a better seal in my ears. I’m actually a little more impressed with the headphones now. The sound on my Roku remote still sucks though.