I hate spending money on things that suck. Chances are you do too. When I wrote my packing list for a gadget junkie post a few weeks ago, I lamented on the fact that I traveled with cheap, near-disposable Apple ear buds and said that I was still looking for the ideal pair.

With that in mind, I went to work to provide you with a roundup of the best that I could find, under 50 bucks. I had only a few requirements:

  • They had to be noise-isolating. That means that I didn’t want earbuds that would just sit in your ear and fall out every time you turned your head.
  • Ideally, they’d come with a case of some sort.
  • Had to have multiple ear cushions for a more custom fit.

It’s worth noting that I had intended to do at least 5 different models, and I had contacted 8 different manufacturers. Of these, Klipsch was the fastest to respond, followed by Ultimate Ears and then Best Buy. Why Best Buy? Because I wanted to offer you at least 1 or 2 choices that you could go out and buy today, and not have to worry about shipping.

All that said, here you go:

Ultimate Ears 200

Price: $29, UltimateEars.com

Screen shot 2011 04 19 at 1.14.59 PM Four great in ear headphones, from $20 50If you’re not familiar with the name Ultimate Ears, just ask any professional musician. The company has been in the in-ear monitor business for a lot of years, creating arguably the absolute best solutions on the market. I have owned 3 different sets of UE ear plugs (from custom-fit to universal) and so I had high expectations of their product.

The 200’s come with a hard case, 5 sets of different ear cushions and a shirt clip. They are, hands-down, the most comfortable isolating ear bud I’ve ever used.

The sound? Solid overall, though I have some surprising finds with them. Ultimate Ears are made by Logitech, who I’ve generally been a fan of in the audio department since the release of their 4.1 THX-rated systems years ago. While I’m not trying to compare, I will say that there was a decided lack of accuracy out of the 200’s that I didn’t expect.

High frequencies were a bit too enhanced for my liking, while the lows were somewhat lacking. To clarify, low frequencies had a great punch, but no rumble. For those of you who listen primarily to rock or piano-based music, you’ll probably like these a lot. If you’re a fan of more electronic-based genres, you’re likely to be left somewhat wanting.

Skullcandy Ink’d

Price: $20, Best Buy

Mea culpa. I wanted to hate these. I’ve talked about Skullcandy products to many people in the past, and I think that they’re still overrated for their higher-priced models. The Ink’d line, however, is…surprisingly good.

For $20, you’ll get 3 different cushions on this molded-plastic set of earbuds. There’s no case included, but that goes in line with the price tag. They fit quite well and isolate outside sound nicely. The cord, which I’ve dinged Skullcandy over in the past, appears to be a much better quality now than the last time that I tested something from the brand.

The sound of the Ink’d line is admirable, if not incredible. These things can get wildly, painfully loud. Funny enough, it’s the same impedance carried by the 200’s above, but a boosted midrange gives an enhanced feeling of loudness.

Ink’d headphones are probably better suited to those who would go for the Skullcandy name. Fans of pop, rap and some hip-hop will probably enjoy the experience. Tinny, piercing highs will make those of us with broader musical tastes avoid them. Regardless, if you’re in a pinch and need a set of headphones for $20, it’s hard to go wrong here.

Sony MDR-EX58V

Price: $30, Best Buy

I had pretty high hopes for the 58V’s. Sony’s not breaking the bank with these $30 headphones, but you’re getting 3 ear cushions and an inline volume control (the only one in the lineup, mind you). The 58V’s have a soft, pliable cord and an I-shaped cord management (winder) system.

Screen shot 2011 04 19 at 2.09.43 PM Four great in ear headphones, from $20 50

Wearing the 58V’s is a joy. They’re a firm second place in the comfort realm, behind the Ultimate Ears offering. The volume control works well, and I love the visual volume indicator.

At this point, it becomes a very difficult toss-up between these and the Ultimate Ears. Both have an enhanced high frequency response, both are incredibly comfortable (though these still fall 2nd place) and they’re priced almost identically. The defining difference is in the customization with the ear cushions. If you have two different sized ear canals (it’s more common than you think) then go for the Ultimate Ears. If you travel and want a case, again, Ultimate Ears wins. If you want some of the best headphones that you can buy for $30 and you want to buy them today, head to your local store and buy the 58V’s.

Klipsch Image S3

Price: $49, Amazon.com

What can I say about Klipsch that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before? The company has been a standard in home audio for years and typically has the products to back up that reputation. The Image S3’s aren’t wholly an exception to that, but they do have a couple of things that I’d love to see them do differently.

First off, they fit nicely. There are three sets of ear cushions to accommodate different sized canals and they do an admirable job of blocking out unwanted noise. Of the 4 that I’ve tested for this roundup, they come in a firm second place for noise isolation behind the quiet-as-a-funeral Ultimate Ears.

Screen shot 2011 04 19 at 2.48.41 PM 600x282 Four great in ear headphones, from $20 50

Sound from the S3’s is admirable. In fact, they’re the most well-rounded set in the lineup. Accurate reproduction across the entire range of audio is important. Where every other set had increased output in the low, middle or high frequencies, the S3’s simply didn’t. Bass response was stellar, given their size and the highs were suitable to nearly any style of music. Volume for the S3’s only attained a comfortably loud range, which should be more than sufficient for the vast majority of users.

Now, the parts that I don’t necessarily like — Sound from the S3’s can be a bit tubular. That is to say that the sound stage (Close your eyes. Where is the sound coming from? That’s the sound stage.) is lacking. Instead of being well-presented in front and slightly above eye level, the S3’s tend to sound exactly as they are — like a tube pumping audio into your ears. There is also some sibilance (a harsh sound, predominantly on the letter “S”) in certain tracks that I can’t figure out as it doesn’t always appear.

Given these facts, for $49 it’s really hard to go wrong with the S3’s. Overall, they’re just a great buy.

As is common with anything in electronics, you will notice a quality difference as you go up in price. in-ear headphones are no different, but there are many areas where that quality doesn’t meet up very well with the wallet impact. These four choices should keep you happy, and the Klipsch S3’s are probably enough to make you dance a little bit longer.

I have some favorites that I couldn’t review, simply because they’re not in this price range. If you want to talk shop, I’m…all ears (no pun intended). Just hit me up in the comments.