Last year we gave high marks to Panasonic's ErgoFit RP-HJE120 earphones, which can be had for less than $8 and sound surprisingly good with an excellent fit.
One of the minor gripes about that model is that it didn't feature an integrated microphone for making cell-phone calls, as a lot of earphones do these days.
Well, the good news is Panasonic does offer the ErgoFit RP-TCM125, a model that looks very similar to the RP-HJE120 but has an integrated one-button remote/microphone and only costs about $4 more.
The bad news is that while it sounds decent for an $12 earphone, it doesn't sound as good as the mic-less RP-HJE120.
Small design differences
Like the ErgoFit RP-HJE120, the RP-TCM125 looks like a cheap earbud-style headphone, albeit one with a bit of design flair and dash of cheerful coloring if you opt for something other than the simple black version I bought.
As you can see from the pictures, these are sort of a hybrid earphone, part hard earbud like your basic Apple earbud and part soft bud. They come with three different-size silicone eartips. At this price, you're more apt to see a hard-bud earphone, but being able to jam the soft tips into your ears helps with sound isolation and maximizes the bass output. I was able to get a tight seal with the largest of the eartips, and I actually thought the earphones were comfortable (in keeping with the ErgoFit name) and they stayed in my ears well.
I wouldn't speak too highly of the cord construction, and the wires leading up to each earbud are pretty thin. The cord does terminate in an L-shaped plug, which is good, although those with thicker "tough" cases on their smartphones may have some trouble getting the plug into the headphone jack.
Comparing the RP-TCM125 to RP-HJE120, you'll notice that the L-shaped plug on the TCM125 is different from the one on the RP-HJE120. It's a bit sleeker and more modern.
At first, I thought that was the only significant difference between the two models (aside, of course, from the inclusion of the remote/microphone), but upon closer inspection the housing for the driver on the step-up RP-TCM125 is slightly smaller.
I don't know if that means the two models have different drivers, but in the specs each are listed as having 9mm drivers.
In reviewing the ErgoFit RP-HJE120 earphones, what impressed was that they sounded decent and compared favorably with many earphones costing $25 to $30.
By that I mean you get a reasonable amount of both bass and detail, and they only tended to reveal their truly budget nature on quieter, more refined tracks (jazz, acoustical material), where they were apt to have a harsher edge. They also have their limitations with bass-heavy material.
I was hoping the step-up ErgoFit RP-TCM125 earphones would have the same sound. However, they don't. The bass is a little more hyped and they just don't have the same clarity. They still sound good for the money, but not as good as the RP-HJE120s. In that sense, they're more in line with the $7 JVC Gumy Plus I also reviewed. That budget earphone also wasn't a clean sounding as the RP-HJE120s.
On the plus side, I made a few calls with the RP-TCM125s and while call quality wasn't great, it was decent enough -- about on par with what you get from Apple's EarPods.
While the ErgoFit RP-TCM125 doesn't measure up to the RP-HJE120 in the sound quality department, it sounds decent enough for the money, is lightweight, and offers a comfortable fit for an in-ear headphone.
At $11 to $13, depending on the color, it's not quite the steal the RP-HJE120 is, but it makes for a cost-effective replacement for Apple's stock earbuds, and the inclusion of the remote/microphone is a plus for people who want to use their headphone as a headset for making calls.