Small Home Gift Ideas: Earbuds

Still looking for that perfect gift for the small-home dweller on your list? Think about giving them earbuds. (Yeah, I know. For all you experts out there, earbuds and in-ear monitors [IEMS] aren't the same thing, but I'm going to call them all earbuds just to simplify things. Thanks and Happy Holidays.)

With so many people staying home this year (us included), it's easy to go crazy, especially if you're living in a small space with other people. And even more so if those people are little. And loud. So loud.

I digress.

You may not have a place to go to find some solitude. To tune everyone else out and recenter yourself.

Enter...the earbud.

I've written about headphones before, and I love my over-the-ear bluetooth headphones, but my earbuds? Heaven in a tiny house. I can wear one and still hear the needy precious little voices clamoring for my attention. Or I can wear two and let dad get the bazillionth snack of the day. (I'll get number bazillion and one, I promise. I just need five minutes. Or ten. Or an hour.)

Seriously, though. I absolutely love my earbuds. I love how simple they are to use. I love the little pocket-sized case that keeps them safe and charges them. I love how fast the case charges. I love wearing them in the shower so I know how many songs I have until the tiny water heater starts shooting blanks and I freeze. I love being able to watch a video on my phone without worrying about whether the person talking is going to say something inappropriate for little ears. I love slipping one in my ear with my wake up playlist to get me moving in the morning. (You jump out of bed naturally ready to face the day?, too. Obviously.)

Now, I'm sure we've all heard of those ubiquitous AirPods. Disclaimer: I've never actually tried them. Or anything else that expensive because here's the secret: you don't have to spend that much on a decent set of earbuds. Maybe you want to, and that's cool. I myself really want to try a pair of Galaxy Buds Live that look like little beans. (The only beans you're allowed to stick in your ears.)

If a well known brand is important to you, go for it! There's a reason so many people own those little ear speakers with their spiffy white tails hanging out of their aural orifices. What that reason is, I'll have to leave for someone else to explain.

I'm here to talk about a number of specific products in the sub-$60 range: five we own and recommend, one we returned, and one I bought for someone on my own list this year and haven't tried myself. (Don't tell my dad he's getting earbuds for Christmas.)

Now, just a warning upfront for you all so you don't get taken in by Amazon reviews like I did: many earbuds on Amazon have amazing reviews. They are not all amazing. Many earbuds come with a little card inside asking you to leave a good review in exchange for reimbursement of some kind, be it a discount on a future purchase or straight-up Amazon credit. I'm sure this violates some Amazon rule, and it's likely a problem in many item categories, but it's horrifically bad with inexpensive earbuds. Why? I have no idea. But take Amazon reviews with a grain of salt and a pint of gravy on the side. If there are a lot of five star reviews and a lot of one star reviews and not much the one-star reviews.

These are the main things I look for in a set of earbuds:

  • Battery Duration (for both the bud and the case)
  • Sound Quality
  • Fit and Comfort
  • Connectivity
  • Fancy Features (touch vs physical buttons, water resistance, and battery level indicator especially)

1. My Daily Drivers: Back Bay Duet 50 Pro ($50)

Back Bay is a company of Bostonians who design their products with the athlete and audiophile in mind. Their earbuds are proudly tuned in Boston (made in China).

The battery life on these bad boys is phenomenal. Back Bay claims eight hours of continuous listening, and that has matched my own experience. I've used them every day since July, and I've only gotten a low-battery alert a few times. The charging case boasts an additional 122 hours (!) of listening time, and while I've never counted the hours myself, I only have to charge it every three weeks despite extensive use. (I usually only use one earbud at a time, so dual usage would obviously drain the case faster.) Back Bay also offers these earbuds with 40 and 30 hour total case options for $48 and $35 respectively as of this writing. The case charges via USB-C.

As for sound quality, my untrained ear thinks they're great, especially in the mid and upper ranges. Bass could be a little more punchy, but I'm happy with them.

The other area these excel is fit. Many earbuds come with three sizes of silicone tips. These come with six, and their tiniest size is truly tiny. They fit in Sunshine's ears, and she's only seven. If you need tiny earbuds, these are it. I also love that they're not shaped different for each ear, so if I'm only wearing one, I can pop it from one ear to the other whenever I want.

Like most earbuds, the Back Bay Duet 50 Pro connects automatically when you remove the earbud from the case after initial setup with your bluetooth device. (I have an Android phone.) The only complaint I have is that occasionally the right earbud doesn't want to connect right away. I just stick it back in the case and try again, and that usually fixes the problem. The right earbud is the master bud, but you can use either one individually; you do have to set up the left earbud to connect separately from the right one if you want to use it alone, but that's only for the first time. After that, it will connect automatically.

These buds have a physical button rather than touch controls, which is a preference for the user. I prefer the physical button to make it harder to accidentally activate the controls, but others may prefer haptic touch instead.

The Back Bay Duet 50 Pro is IPX5 certified, meaning they are water resistant but not waterproof. Sweat and rain won't hurt them, but don't dunk them in the bathtub and expect good things to happen.

The case has a battery level indicator in the form of four lights that light up when your buds are charging so you know when you need to plug the case in again, and you don't ever accidentally run out of juice. The lid is translucent, so you can see what's charging and how much of a charge is left without even lifting the lid.

Overall, I love these earbuds. The only thing that would make them better for me is a higher waterproofing rating so I could wear them in the shower and perhaps a slightly punchier bass.

2. My Shower Earbuds: Beben X8 ($20-$30)

We have two pairs of these in our home, and we've been reasonably happy with them. They're cheap, but they get the job done.

I'm a little up in the air about the battery duration on these ones. Sunshine has her own. (Yes, we took volume controls and limits into account. Please do the same if you buy earbuds for your kids.) They seem to last her a reasonable amount of time, and we charge the case once a week or so after she uses them for an hour or two every day. They boast a six-hour play time with an additional 24 hours from the charging case. I only wear mine when I'm showering, and neither of us has received a low-battery warning.

That said, the case itself doesn't seem to hold a charge well if you don't use them often. I usually charge mine when the case gets down to one light out of four, and even at only two or three hours of use per week, I'm still charging mine every couple of weeks. So thirty hours total play time? I'm not buying it. If you only use them for a few hours a day, though, and don't mind charging every couple of days, the battery life is fine, and it's possible that more frequent use might have better results. They charge via USB-C.

I've been very happy with the sound for this price point. Like I said, I use these in the shower, and the passive noise cancellation from a tight fit in the ear canal is fantastic. The bass is stronger than my Back Bays, though the Back Bays have more clarity. I am not a audiophile, though, so as long as I can understand what I'm listening to, I'm pretty easy to please.

The Beben X8 earbuds come with three silicone tips, and I'm able to get a good, comfortable, secure fit, which is extremely important when you flip your head upside down to put in hair gel. They are larger than the Back Bays, but Sunshine still stuffs them in her ears well enough. Like the Back Bays, they fit the same in either ear.

I haven't had any connectivity issues with these earbuds whatsoever. They are solid in that regard, and you can use either one or both without having to do anything fancy.

The Beben X8 earbuds have physical buttons, which is almost a must-have for me to be able to use them while washing my hair without accidentally activating the controls. It's a small button, which makes it harder to accidentally push it.

Perhaps one of the biggest pros of these earbuds is the waterproof rating. At IP68, these babies will take it all. I even dropped one in my mousse once and rinsed it off with no ill effect. The case itself snaps firmly closed with a plug over the charging port, and it's waterproof, too, and it floats, so if you take them out in a boat and accidentally drop your case in the lake, you won't lose it.

The battery level is indicated by four lights inside the case like the Back Bays. The lid is semi-translucent, so you can see which earbud is charging, but the battery indicator lights aren't bright enough to see without opening the lid.

Overall I'm happy with these ones, and at this price they're hard to beat. I still use my Back Bays when I'm not in the shower because they're just higher quality with clearer sound and better battery life, but if I only had the Beben X8s, I think I'd be happy enough.

3. Chris's Work Knockoffs: ($20-$30)

I don't even know what to call these. They're everywhere on Amazon. (Here's an example that may or may not be there next time you look.) These are the wannabe AirPods that have a different brand name every time you look. Chris has oddly shaped, sensitive ears, and he can't do the earbuds that actually sit inside the ear canal. We didn't want to shell out the big bucks just in case he couldn't handle this style either, so we picked one of the knockoffs with decent reviews and gave them a try.

He wears one for a few hours at work each morning, charging them in the case during his break, and they get the job done. We charge the case every week or so. The battery life has been acceptable in that regard. They charge via micro-USB, which is kind of a pain, and the battery level indicator is a flashing light on the outside of the case when you charge them. It works, but it's not as simple as the other true wireless earbuds we've tried when it comes to battery level indication.

I prefer my in-the-ear buds for comfort and adjustable fit, but Chris tolerates these just fine.

They have physical buttons and an IPX5 rating, so water resistant but not waterproof.

Overall they get the job done, but they're nothing phenomenal.

4. Kids' Earbuds (wired): More than Magic Wired Volume Limited Headphones ($8)

These are not wireless, but we tried these out with Sunshine before she graduated to truly wireless earbuds. I wish there were better options for volume-limited earbuds for kids. I haven't found any, so if you do, let me know!

Basically, these have two pros: they're tiny, and they are volume limited.

They come with two sets of silicone tips. The smaller tips fit Sunshine's ears perfectly. They still don't fit in Sweetheart's ears very well. (She's almost five.)

Sunshine wore hers a lot, but she hasn't touched them since we got here wireless buds. Truly wireless earbuds are just so much more convenient. But if you have kids who want earbuds, and you want volume limits, this is a decent option. At $8, you can't really go wrong. Plus they come in cool colors.

5. Bought for Dad: Vankyo X200 ($55)

Full disclosure: I haven't even taken these out of the box, so read this review with that in mind. I can only tell you what they claim and why I bought them. I can't tell you if they live up to their promises.

So why did I buy my dad a pair of earbuds that I haven't tried out myself? Because they tick off every box I wanted for him, they get acceptable reviews, and I've heard of the company before.

I wanted something with battery life to rival my Back Bays. These claim seven hours continuous listening with a total of 120 hours with the charging case, which unfortunately charges via micro-USB. You can't have everything!

I also wanted the ability to easily use either earbud alone, and these check that box.

A battery level indicator was an absolute must, and these earbuds knock it out of the park in that regard. There is a digital display on the outside of the case that shows not only the case charge but the individual earbuds' charge levels as well. That's hard to beat.

The one thing that I got hung up on, and the reason I didn't just order him some Back Bays and call it good, is the lack of waterproofing in the Back Bays. My dad always listens to something when he's in the shower, and usually it's a speaker on full blast where everyone in the vicinity of the bathroom can hear. Earbuds to the rescue! So the IPX8 waterproofing on the Vankyo X200s was the real clincher for me over a set of Back Bays for him. 

These have touch controls, which is a downside in my mind, but finding every other thing I wanted in one pair or earbuds was nigh on impossible, so hopefully my dad can deal with that!

6. What Not To Buy? Kurdene Wireless Earbuds ($20-30)

Don't fall for the reviews. These earbuds are truly terrible. They connect intermittently, and on my second attempt to use them they wouldn't connect at all unless I unpaired them from my phone completely and tried again from scratch. Then they did the same thing on my third use. That's a deal breaker for me.

The case is awful, almost impossible to open the way it's designed because it's smooth with no grip for the base. It WILL flip out of your hand if you're not careful. There's also no battery level indicator as far as I could tell, which I didn't realize was such a big deal until I didn't have it.

They also didn't hold a charge well. I would put them in the case, and they would charge, but the next time I'd go to use them, they'd be at 75% according to my phone.

The buds themselves fit fine, sound was all right, and they did work in the shower as they claim. But the touch controls are insanely sensitive, and once they got wet, the touch sensitivity went into overdrive.

I sent them back and bought the Beben X8 earbuds instead. They're worlds better for a similar price.

I absolutely love my earbuds. They make the boring parts of life so much more entertaining. (Music? Podcasts? Audiobooks? While I do the dishes? Yes please!) And they help give you space from the people around you when you (or they!) need it. I use my earbuds all the time, and I just wish I would have bought some sooner.