There are a number of sub-$50 in-ear headphones available, including ultra-budget models such as the $20 Altec Lansing Muzx Mesh MZX106W ( ). However, most models in the sub-$50 price range are missing the useful inline remote/microphone module you’ll find on more-expensive models. And even among those models that do have a remote and microphone, such as the $40 Radius Atomic Bass 2 + Mic ( ), the remote itself often includes only a single (Play/Pause/Call/End) button, rather than the newer three-button style that includes volume controls. For that reason alone, the $50 iLuv iEP515 stands out—this is the least expensive three-button headset Macworld has reviewed. But the iEP515 is more intriguing when you consider that it’s frequently available for around $20, making it even less expensive than an extra set of Apple’s ubiquitous Earphones with Remote and Mic.
The iEP515 is a canalbud-style headset, which means it splits the difference in design between traditional earbuds and in-ear-canal (“canalphone”) models. (See our in-ear-canal headphone primer for more details.) Since they fit partially in the ear canal, canalbuds block some external noise and aim to form an acoustic seal that improves bass performance. However, they don’t block as much sound as true in-ear-canal models, and, as with those models, getting a proper fit can be tricky; the cord can produce unwanted microphonic noise in a listener’s ear; and using the headset function can be weird due to the occlusion effect of having your ears plugged while talking.
The iEP515’s spherical earpieces have a two-layer design, with a combination of chrome-finish plastic and clear-over-chrome plastic; each earpiece sports a protruding nozzle onto which the eartips attach. The look is a little dated—Apple stopped producing clear-plastic designs long ago—but not bad, and most people won’t spend much time looking at the earpieces. A black cable exits each earpiece from a gray-plastic piece that provides a bit of cable-strain relief. The earpiece cables differ in length—the right-hand cable is longer so it can be worn behind your neck, with the main cable routed down the left side of your body. Just below the left/right cable junction is the three-button remote module, which is a little larger than most I’ve tested but has buttons that are very easy to distinguish. The cable terminates in a straight 3.5mm (1/8-inch) miniplug. The iEP515’s included accessories are minimal: gray, silicone eartips in small, medium, and large sizes, along with a shirt clip.
In use, I found the iEP515 relatively comfortable, with a shallow fit that nevertheless allows for an easy—if incomplete—seal. The iEP515 provides less isolation than most in-ears, but still enough to help you tune out ambient noise when music is playing. I did find that microphonics were loud with the iEP515, though wearing the earpieces “up” with the cables routed back over my ears helped, as did the included shirt clip. My only other ergonomic complaint is that the cord is a little short, especially if you tend to keep your iPhone or other device in your right pocket or in a bag that hangs low.
Considering the $50 list price, I found the iEP515’s sound quality good. But for a street price of $20, it’s downright impressive. Balance is good overall, with a low-frequency emphasis that can be a bit bloated at times but doesn’t overwhelm the midrange. Audio detail is moderate, and although the high frequencies lack some energy and sparkle, they have a smoothness that keeps them from sounding harsh. In total, it’s easy to hear all the instrumental voices in music, but without some of the textural detail found in better headphones—the iEP515’s sound was always pleasant, if not truly high fidelity. On the microphone front, audio sounded somewhat distant and lacked body compared to the iPhone 4’s internal microphone, but it’s fine for phone calls.
Given its $20 street price, I compared the iEP515 to the aforementioned Muzx Mesh, and found that the iEP515 offers better balanced and tighter bass, superior midrange detail, and more-prominent treble—it’s a solid improvement over the Mesh. When I compared the iEP515 to the $40 Radius Atomic Bass 2, my observations were very similar—although the Atomic Bass is also superior to the Mesh, the iEP515 is better balanced and more detailed than the Atomic Bass. I also revisited the $70 Nocs NS200 ( ). The NS200 (now available at street prices just under $50) offers a better sense of silence between notes, as well as superior midrange and high frequency detail, but the NS200’s bass can be boomy and high frequencies can sound harsh compared to the iEP515. Overall, it’s not clear that the NS200 is worth the price premium over the iEP515.
Macworld’s buying advice
When I first received the review sample of the iEP515, I didn’t see much to be excited about, but the combination of a $50 list price and a three-button remote suggested that the product was worth a look. Indeed, my testing showed that while sound quality is far from perfect, it’s appropriate for a $50 pair of headphones, making the iEP515 a relatively inexpensive way to get a three-button remote and solid sound. But once I realized that the iEP515 can be had for an Andrew Jackson at street prices, I found it much more interesting: The iEP515 is a great candidate to replace Apple’s earbuds, or if you’re just looking for something that will be inexpensive to replace if lost or damaged. At $20, the iEP515 is very easy to recommend.
R. Matthew Ward lives in St. Louis and enjoys the finer things in life: food, drink, Apple products, and well-reproduced music. You can find his thoughts on these and other subjects on his personal blog.