As a regular I-Pod user, I've never been that unhappy with the standard Apple I-Pod earbuds -- they don't sit terribly well in the ear, but I find the sound and design to be adequate. I've wondered if there is a low-cost alternative, and my wife doesn't like them because they are too big and uncomfortable.
Here is a review of five low-priced alternatives bought on Amazon in March 2010. The story in a nutshell -- all the $8-$10 earbuds are a slight step up from the Apple buds, all the $6 earbuds are a big step down.
JBuds Hi-Fi Noise-Reducing Ear Buds (Black) (paid ten dollars) (Four stars)
Positives: Good sound, decent comfort, long cord
Negatives: Too long cord, no "slider"
A very solid sound -- much like the Apple buds. These are a great low-cost in-ear alternative to the Apple buds. The sound balance is similar to the Apple's, but a bit crisper and clearer, perhaps due more to the in-ear design than the actual technology. The JBuds ship with three sizes of silicone ear-inserts for different size ears, though I personally find the fit to be awkward and a bit slippery (see SkullCandy review below). A 54" cord was the longest of the ones I tested, and arguably too long. Also, there is no "slider" on the cord to hold the buds together when you are storing them (A very nice feature of the standard Apple buds and others).
Skullcandy INK'D Earbuds (White) (paid ten dollars) (Four stars)
Positives: Great bass, very comfortable, long cord
Negatives: Too much bass, line-rustle noise in cord
How it is possible to get so much bass into a tiny and cheap earbud I cannot imagine, but there it is. Really impressive, but it's actually a bit too much bass -- the balance is off. If you are listening to bass heavy music, it's overwhelming -- I had to try to adjust the EQ on the I-Pod to bring it down, and even then a bit too heavy. The sound is not mushy or distorted, just like the equalizer is shifted too much. These in-ears come with three sizes of silicone ear-inserts for different size ears, and I find the fit to be great. A long 52" cord, with a "slider" to hold the buds together when storing. A BIG concern -- there's a fair amount of cord-noise that rides in the line -- if the cord is brushing against your shirt or jacket when moving, you hear the rustling right in your ear. I've had worse cases of this in the past, but it is very noticeable in these, and makes them less ideal for walking or moving situations. (Is this a problem with all in-ear buds that have a snug fit?)
Sony MDR-E818LP Fontopia Ear-Bud Headphones with Acoustic Twin Turbo Circuit (paid eight dollars) (Three stars)
Positives: Good sound
Negatives: Even bigger than Apple buds, poor packaging, short cord
To my ear, the Sony's had the best sound of the five low-cost buds I tried -- a solid step up from the Apple buds, for people who don't like the in-ear style of bud. But a note of caution -- these are slightly *bigger* than Apple earbuds, even without the foam covering. In my ear, the foam cover makes them comfortable enough, but they are rather large. At the same time, the Sony Fontopia has an unusually short 40" cord (even shorter than the Apple 45" that bothers some people), but it's plenty long for typical uses (walking, etc.). There is no "slider" to hold the earbuds together when storing, which is a feature I like on the Apple buds. I have one big beef with these though -- the earbuds have a thin foam cover over the speaker that helps it hold in your ear more firmly and comfortably. I have no problem with that, but you have to put the foam pads on yourself, and it's very difficult. I ended up tearing one of them before I could even try them out. It's very frustrating to buy a new product that breaks before you can even use it. These deserve four start on performance, but gotta ding them on the design and packaging.
Panasonic RP-HV21Portable EarDrops Earbud Headphones (Black) (paid six-dollars) (one star)
Negatives: Huge earbud, terrible sound
I liked the look of these when I got them out of the package, but they are a bigger and worse alternative to the standard Apple earbuds. A very "tinny" and shallow sound compared with others at the same price point. They're too big for comfort in my ear, though that's always a personal consideration -- these Panasonics are larger than the Apple buds and equally hard surface.These Panasonics are about the same size as the Sony MDR-E818LP Fontopia earbuds, but those have a foam pad that helps hold them in and provide a little comfort. the "Clip" feature on these (the two buds can clip together, or clip to clothing or cords when not in use) is nice, but doesn't override all the performance downsides. I'm tossing them -- way worse than the basic Apple buds.
Coby CVE92 Isolation Stereo Earphones (paid six dollars) (one-star)
Negatives: terrible sound
These are cheap and I like the packaging (just in a plastic ziplock, not clamshells and fluff), but the performance is simply substandard for the pricerange, These Coby's have a very muffled sound, and don't come with different size silicone ear inserts (most people know these really aren't one-size-fits-all). I'm tossing them -- way worse than the basic Apple buds.