I bought dollar store earbuds just to see how good they sounded

The worst earbuds in existence?
(Image credit: Future)

I knew when I was standing in the checkout line that the Ear Buds I was buying weren’t going to be good - but I thought maybe, just maybe, they’d be a decent facsimile of some of the best earbuds I’d tested over the years. Honestly, I didn’t expect them to be awful - or dangerous - just unlikeable. 

I was absolutely wrong. 

These earbuds came from a dollar store - not The Dollar Store chain of shops, mind you, just a store where items are generally a dollar. I won’t name them outright because what I’m going to tell you about their Ear Buds very likely applies to all dollar store earbuds out there - though at the very end I will offer some super cheap alternatives that are 100 times better. 

Not only did the Ear Buds sound like I was listening to music playing down the street through a tin can but, after wearing them for an afternoon, also gave me some pretty severe ear pain that felt like the stirrings of an ear infection. They are easily - by a country mile - the worst earbuds I’ve tested in my last 10 years as a tech journalist and I wouldn't recommend them for anyone in any circumstance.

Are they actually that bad?

What the Ear Buds offer, according to the box, are tangle-free earbuds with a 48-inch cord that terminate in a 3.5mm jack. All of that is technically accurate. 

Open the plastic packaging and you’ll see that the Ear Buds even have one set of silicone ear tips attached. “Huh,” I thought, “This is off to a pretty good start.”

I looked at the nozzles of the Ear Buds and noticed that one of them was partially sealed, but I wasn’t going to let a little minor manufacturing defect stop me from the audio test. I should have because plugging them into my laptop for my standard lo-fi Spotify listening test, I was met with the first set of serious problems: the sound. 

The worst earbuds in existence?

This was a bad sign of what was to come... (Image credit: Future)

To describe it, the Ear Buds sound like you’re listening to music coming from someone’s house down the street. It’s still loud, but all the worst parts of it are being emphasized. The bass is rattly and distorted. The vocal range is sharp and piercing. Instrumentals in the upper-mids and upper treble barely come through. You know what song is playing, but all of the best parts of it are missing. 

Now, that sounds like I'm being nit-picky, but these aren’t the kinds of critiques that you need a trained ear to hear. I think it’s safe to say that almost anyone, having used pretty much any other pair of earbuds, would pick up on them.  

Speaking of picking up on things, the Ear Buds have almost zero passive noise isolation - you can hear practically everything that's going on around you. These would be the worst earbuds to take on public transit and I can't even imagine how awful they'd be on a plane. Bose QuietComfort Buds these are not.

If I were giving them a score based on sound quality alone, they’d earn themselves a zero. But somehow the audio quality wasn’t the worst part. 

Here's the real reason not to buy them

Bad-sounding audio should be a good reason to steer clear of these, but they actually have an even worse issue - they really messed up my ears.

After listening to as much as I could stomach of Chance the Rapper’s 2016 album, Coloring Book, through the Ear Buds, I attempted to play a little Stardew Valley on the Nintendo Switch OLED

Within the first five minutes of playing I felt something like a dull ache in my ear. The audio, I thought, was giving me a headache so after about 35 minutes of total testing, I decided that I had learned everything I needed to know to write this feature. I started writing down all of the funny ways I could poke fun at the cheap Ear Buds, but after writing for about an hour I had to stop. 

The worst earbuds in existence?

My left ear is still puffy today, but not nearly as bad as my right ear was that night. (Image credit: Future)

That night, my right ear felt hot to the touch and ached. I didn’t want to touch it for fear of making whatever it was worse, but it seemed clear that something was wrong. Sleeping on my right side was impossible, but even sleeping on my left side the pain in my ear kept me up most of the night.

Admittedly, I've never had an ear infection as an adult so I can't say with utter certainty that this was definitively an ear infection, but I'd argue that any pain caused by using electronics is reason enough to disqualify them. 

Based on the sound and the newfound pain I felt after listening to them, I'm completely confident in saying that these are completely worth avoiding. They aren't good backup earbuds nor are they earbuds you should pick up in a pinch. 

The worst earbuds in existence?

The Ear Buds right where they belong - the ecycling pile for my next trip to Best Buy. (Image credit: Future)

So what should you buy when you need cheap earbuds?

I'll start with the bad news here: I don't think there are any good earbuds for $1. Between the cost of components, proper assembly, quality assurance and shipping, there's just no way to get you a quality pair of earbuds for that price.

There are, however, a handful of extra-cheap sub-$20 earbuds that I've personally tested over the years that I feel comfortable recommending. 

Here's a small list: 

  • Apple EarPods with Lightning Cable ($20)
  • Sony MDREX15AP In-Ear Earbuds ($10)
  • JLab Go Air Pop True Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds ($20)

Without a doubt all three are easily worth their sticker price, and will perform way better than any pair of earbuds you could buy for a buck.

Nick Pino

Nick Pino is Managing Editor, TV and AV for TechRadar's sister site, Tom's Guide. Previously, he was the Senior Editor of Home Entertainment at TechRadar, covering TVs, headphones, speakers, video games, VR and streaming devices. He's also written for GamesRadar+, Official Xbox Magazine, PC Gamer and other outlets over the last decade, and he has a degree in computer science he's not using if anyone wants it.