You've had enough of those crappy earbuds you got for free with your phone. Not only are they cheap and flimsy, but they don't sound very good. You're ready for an upgrade. Luckily, there are plenty of options between $20 and $100. Escape from White Wire World!
The Cost of Sound
Most earbuds costing $30 and under sound pretty close to the freebies that came with your phone. The truth is, that's good enough for a large chunk of consumers. Once you get around $60, you start to really notice a difference. The sound gets fuller, there's less distortion when you crank the volume, and the bass is vastly improved. Models priced around $90 or $100 generally sound excellent to most ears. To get the absolute best sound from a pair of buds, you're going to have to spend between $200 and $300, but almost everyone can appreciate the richness and clarity of a $100 pair of earbuds.
Tight or Loose?
For most, the fit of an earbud is just as important -- if not more important -- than the sound. Traditional buds nestle gently into your ear-hole, and usually have some sort of rubber tip to secure them there. These are closest to the style that comes with the iPhone and other mobiles. More extreme are the in-ear style which actually insert into your ear canal, forming a very tight seal. They cut out most external noise and give you better sound, but some people find them uncomfortable -- both physically because of the way they put pressure on your ears, and mentally, because of the isolating effect. Others, particularly audiophiles, relish in that isolation.
Some earbuds have small plastic guides that route the cabling behind your ears (sometimes marketed as "sports" models), and some have a collar clip to keep the cable from bouncing around as you walk or run.
In-ear buds usually come with multiple tips -- rubber and foam -- that provide a range of fits. Foam tips are squishy and mold to your ear canal better. Rubber tips require you select the right size (there are usually three sizes in the box, and there's a chance none will fit perfectly). But rubber tips are easier to clean than foam, and allow for more breathability.
Dig the Dongle
Almost all earbuds now come with a remote built into the cable (wireless Bluetooth buds excluded, of course). This lets you change the volume, skip tracks, and answer calls easily -- there's a mic in there, too. This feature is a must if you spend a lot of time talking on the phone, or if you're a shuffle-jockey who's always skipping songs. It's common to put the remote on the cable under one of the ears, so it hangs close to your chin. Others put it where the two ear-cables meet, at the bottom of the "Y" on your chest. A few models skip the remote/mic entirely.
If you're shopping for earbuds under $50, there isn't much deviation in the sound quality. The main differentiators are the design and the fit, so you have to decide what style best suits how you'll use them. If you're mostly listening at your desk or walking around town, go for a regular earbud. If you spend a lot of time at the gym, a secure fit is paramount, so choose an in-ear model, or a model with behind-the-ear pieces and a collar clip.
If good sound is your primary concern, spend the extra dough on buds that emphasize audio quality. Also, go for an in-ear fit. The tighter seal not only cuts out the noise around you, but it gives you much better bass and more detail across all audio frequencies.
Are you the type who wraps your earbuds around your phone or just throws the buds into your bag? If so, get a cheap pair because you'll be replacing them often. Even the most rugged buds can't take extensive abuse, which is why they almost always come with carrying cases.