I've tested over 100 headphones in the past year, and I keep coming back to this $35 pair

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Last month I sang the praises of the Sony MDR-1A, a pair of full-size headphones that’s stood out from the manypairs I’ve tested for being smooth-sounding, good-looking, and so very, very comfortable. They’re not the best, but they’re the ones I’d be most likely to buy.

That said, they’re full-size headphones. Anything along those lines isn’t going to be all that portable. Sometimes, it’s good to have a pair of “beaters” on hand — cheap, secondary headphones you can stuff in a bag, toss on quickly, and wear on the go, without having to worry about busting your Very Nice Thing.

I’ve followed this setup for the past few months, and of the many inexpensive, beater-level pairs I’ve had lying around, the Xiaomi Mi In-Ear Headphones Pro have emerged as a personal favourite. Like the MDR-1A, they have a few clear flaws, but they still feel and sound better than I’d expect from a $US26 earphone.

The most immediately impressive thing about the Xiaomis is their build. Looks matter less when a headphone is jammed in your head, but the smooth, aluminium finish here is just of a higher quality than the plastic you’ll usually find at this price. Despite that metal, they’re fairly lightweight, and their angled eartips are nice and soft. All of that’s made them a breeze to wear for hours at a time.

Beyond that, the Kevlar-infused cable has shown no signs of wear after several months of use, and it’s fitted with both a mic and three-button remote. The earpieces isolate plenty of noise, as you’d expect from an in-ear canal pair, and they don’t leak any of their own unless you’re playing at max volume in a quiet room.

The sound here isn’t as easy to recommend to everyone, but it suits my tastes. It’s one of the cheapest earphones to use separate drivers for treble and mids/bass, which is theoretically supposed to make every part of the signature particularly potent. In reality, the bass and low-mids run the show.

It’s not that the highs aren’t crisp or detailed — they are, and impressively so — it’s just that the lows are that massive. If a track emphasises bass, it’s going to be big and bumping. If it doesn’t, the lower bits are still going to get a boost. What this means is that the Xiaomis are very fun with electronic, hip-hop, and poppier rock, and absolutely not for purists. When I’m not in headphone reviewer mode, that’s the stuff I go for, so it works.

To give you a better idea, I compared the Xiaomis to Apple’s EarPods, which are the closest thing most people have to beater headphones today. As expected, the tighter-fitting Xiaomis sounded much more aggressive, with deeper bass response, a wider soundstage, and more space to capture fine detail. That bass was boomier with more subdued tracks, but again, if you fit the same niche as me, you’ll probably enjoy how hard-hitting the whole thing is.

I’m not the first person to praise the Mi In-Ear Headphones Pro — reviewers from CNET, The Verge, and VentureBeat have shared similar sentiments. Try the RHA S500 if you’d prefer a brighter sound, or the Panasonic ErgoFit RP-TCM125 if you just want to pay as little as possible, but for $A35, this is a higher-grade everyday companion than the price suggests.

Xiaomi Mi Hybrid Earphone In-Ear Headphones, $A35, available at Amazon.

This article was originally published on 4/21/2016. Prices have been updated. 

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