In Praise of the Elusive, Simple Earbud

I like earbuds. Not in-ear-monitors (IEMs) that go into your ear canal, which are often called “earbuds,” even though they’re not ­– at least they’re not to me. I’m talking about old fashioned earbuds, like the ones that came with your iPod or MP3 player in 2005. They have wires and just sit in your ear right in front of the canal. If they’re well designed they stay in place pretty well, without fully sealing you off from the outside world.

I like earbuds for watching YouTube or online video on my iPad – which has a headphone jack – ­where I don’t need the highest fidelity, and don’t need sound isolation. I also like them for monitoring when I’m doing various kinds of media production. Like plugging them into a video camera to be sure sound is coming through, or plugged into a DJ mixer to help me cue. Obviously this isn’t quite right for DJing in a loud club, but I’m not that kind of DJ. I work in radio or studio based mixing, where it should be quiet. I don’t use them for editing, or work that requires more attention to sonic detail. I just need the ability to check that sound is coming through and there’s no major problem.

I prefer earbuds because they don’t hurt my ears. No doubt, good IEMs sound better than most earbuds and are preferable for critical listening. I own a pair of Air Pods Pro that I love for air travel precisely because they have excellent isolation and noise cancellation. I also love them for phone calls, where I only use one so that I’m not isolated. I also think the Air Pods sound pretty great for music. But after wearing them for an hour or so, my ear canals get pretty sore.

On the other hand, earbuds sound just good enough, without fatigue.

But there’s a problem, and that is finding good earbuds.

You see, as IEMs took over, interest in earbuds waned. Even a few years ago I could go to any headphone section in a store and find at least a few decent examples, that window seems now to have closed. I still sometimes find very inexpensive earbuds from audio brands you don’t necessarily associate with headphones – like Maxell or Memorex – but they just don’t sound good. Tinny, or all midrange, with the fidelity of a 50 year-old pocket AM transistor radio.

If you buy an inexpensive radio or MP3 player online, they often come with a free set of earbuds included. But they also sound pretty poor. Fine, perhaps, for tuning in sports talk radio on AM, but otherwise very subpar.

At this point I’ve narrowed it down to just two good models that are still (mostly) available, and not just available as new-old-stock. My absolute preferred model is the brightly colored line of JVC Gumy earbuds. As I guess the name “Gumy” implies, they’re soft and very comfortable. Importantly the sound has no obvious or immediate flaws. Also the soft earbud body combined with a soft flexible cable means that cable friction doesn’t easily get transmitted into the bud. I don’t think I’d use them to master an album, but to my ears the deliver audio that’s close enough to what I think an album or video should sound like.

There are many versions of the JVC Gumy, with many more wireless and in-ear models, but only two that don’t go into the ear canal. Also, I prefer earbuds that don’t have an integrated microphone or volume controls. That’s because I’m mostly not using them with a smartphone – since iPhones lost the headphone jack many generations ago – and the three-striped TRRS plug doesn’t always work correctly with radios and other audio devices designed only for stereo. Simpler is better when it comes to earbuds.

The only issue I have with the JVC Gumy is that sometimes they’re hard to find, or the prices get jacked up. They really shouldn’t cost more than $10. Apparently they are also frequently counterfeited, so caveat emptor.

My second-favorite earbud is the VE Monk Plus.  When they first came out a few years ago these made- and designed-in-China buds were available for as low as $5 and were a bit of a sensation on headphone message boards. By and large, they lived up to the hype. They’re pretty neutral and with less bass boost than the JVCs, and are very reminiscent of a late 90s earbud you’d get with a mid-priced Walkman or discman.

That similarity includes having a harder plastic body and less supple cable, meaning that cable friction or movement definitely transmits more into the earbud than with the JVCs. The tradeoff is the sound is definitely more hi-fi, as long as you don’t move around too much.

Today the original VE Monk Plus are more difficult to find. And when I do encounter them, the prices have been pushed to $25 or more, which is harder to justify. There is a pile of knock-offs now, too, and maybe they’re good. But I don’t have the time and energy to buy a bunch and test them out. It’s simply not that important to me.

Having owned many good pairs of Sony Headphones I took a chance on a pair of recent vintage Sony “fashion earbuds” and was sorely disappointed. Slightly better than the cheap radio pack-ins, but far inferior to the JVC Gumy or Monk ‘buds, with a strange midrange response and mid-bass bump, but little low or high end otherwise.

Because I use them a lot, a pair of earbuds is good for about a year or so. Luckily right now I can pick up my preferred JVC Gumy ‘buds for about $10 a pair, which is a few bucks more than it used to be, but within my tolerance. So I’m going to spring for two and hope JVC keeps them in production to 2025.