I bought a pair of ear-buds the other day. They sounded awful. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I paid only $12 for them. At this point you’d be justified in wondering why the editor of a prestigious specialist audio magazine would be buying a pair of $12 ear-buds. It’s not a long story.

I was heading to Melbourne and on the way to the airport realised that I had left my noise-cancelling headphones at home. This was bad enough, because I like using noise-cancelling to cut out the noise during flight, even for a hop as short as Sydney–Melbourne. But the other problem was that I was conducting an interview and needed headphones to monitor the sound, and then to help me transcribe the interview during the flight back.

As I was walking past a Coles supermarket at the time, I thought to myself: ‘No problem, I’ll just pick up a pair of cheap ear-buds and throw them away at the end of the day.’ At the airport I unpacked the buds, which were branded ‘Liquid Ears’, and plugged them into my recorder to check everything was working. Doing so, I immediately discovered the plug was just a little under-sized, presumably to compensate for poor quality control during manufacture, so that the plugs would always fit, even if some were accidentally made bigger than usual.

This wasn’t a good start, because I then suspected I might get some crackles and dropouts while monitoring due to the loose fit of the plug, but at least I was getting sound, so I switched over to my portable audio player to listen to some music while I waited for my boarding call. I started with Simone Dinnerstein playing Bach. I was only about two notes in before I realised something was drastically wrong. The piano sound was completely unrecognisable, instead sounding a little like someone was playing a glockenspiel with cracked keys.

OK, piano is a difficult instrument to reproduce, and these were $12 ear-buds, so I switched to Paul Simon—vocal and guitar. What could go wrong? Oh dear. Just about everything. It was even difficult to tell that it was Paul Simon’s voice. So I put the buds in my pocket and spend the flight reading the newspaper… and observing, with some amazement, how many people on the flight were using Bose’s wireless noise-cancelling headphones.

On arrival at my destination in Melbourne, I tried to use the ear-buds to check recording levels only to discover they now didn’t work at all. Completely dead. Apparently the tough hour-and-a-half trip in my shirt pocket had been too much for them. So I just winged it on levels and made sure I took copious written notes.

At the end of the day, after landing back in Sydney, I had to walk past the same Coles store, so I stopped by with my dead buds and my sales receipt to request a refund. ‘No problems’, said the manager, ‘we also sell Sony ones, so maybe you should have bought one of those.’ As I walked out, I looked down at my computerised refund docket and in the spot marked ‘Reason for return’, he’d written ‘Quality’. # greg borrowman