Can a $15 in-ear headphone sound better than good enough?

Audio-Technica's dirt-cheap ATH-CLR100 didn't make the Audiophiliac cry out in pain.

From left: V-Moda Remix Audio, Apple's earbuds, Audio Technica ATH-CLR100 headphones Steve Guttenberg/CNET

This blog is all about finding great-sounding audio products, in every price range. In June I reported on the best-sounding headphone I've ever heard, the Abyss AB-1266 , but not long after that I was knocked out by Sony's MDR-V6 , and now I'm auditioning these surprisingly decent $15 Audio Technica ATH-CLR100 in-ear headphones.

Introduced earlier this year, this all-plastic design is incredibly light, just 3.4 grams. It has 8.5mm drivers, sports small, medium, and large silicone eartips, and the headphone comes with a round plastic case. Amazon sells it for around $12, and even with that low, low price the ATH-CLR100 comes with a two-year warranty, which is at least double the coverage of most headphones, including some really expensive ones. The ATH-CLR100 is available in lime green, blue, red, pink, purple, black, white, and orange.

I like to start evaluating low-price in-ear headphones with a quick shootout with the headphone used by millions of people -- Apple's earbuds -- it's a good benchmark. I didn't have the latest version of Apple's $29 EarPods headphone on hand, so I used the ear buds that came with the iPod Classic I bought in 2011 (I don't think EarPods sound much better than my ear buds).

The Apple earbuds sounded hopelessly thin and lacking in detail. I tried to give them a fair shake, but I had to stop after a few minutes, the sound was that bad. Amy Winehouse's voice was stripped of its soul, and her music suffered for it. Bass isn't in this earbud's vocabulary, so out went the Apple earbuds, replaced with the ATH-CLR100s. The sound came roaring back to life; it was no contest. Winehouse sounded like one of the greatest singers of all time again, her band reappeared, and the music was fun to listen to. The ATH-CLR100 may be a $15 headphone, but the bass, midrange, and treble balance was in pretty good shape. True, the treble is a bit soft, which is not a bad thing for a $15 headphone, but it made iffy-sounding MP3s listenable.

OK, but how would the ATH-CLR100 sound pitted against a really nice headphone, like V Moda's Remix Audio in-ears ($59)? Well, it was immediately clear the Remix Audios were more detailed and alive. That was true across the frequency range -- bass, mids, highs. Winehouse's rhythm section grooved more, and they sounded like a better band over the Remix Audios. Then again, it's four times the ATH-CLR100's price, so it had better be better; but I can't say the ATH-CLR100 was embarrassed by the face-off.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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