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April 8, 2022
10mm, 11mm, 13mm
Scrolling through the assortment of cheap earbuds online to find a diamond in the rough is a challenge. You may have already heard of the Moondrop Chu as a bargain hunter’s pick for cheap in-ear monitors (IEM). Skeptics might cite the classic refrain, “you can get something cheap, fast, or good, but you can’t get all three.” As it turns out, the Moondrop Chu is a set of wired earbuds that ticks most boxes, questioning the wisdom of that maxim.
We spent over a week with Moondrop Chu and found out everything you need to know before you buy.
Editor’s note: this review was updated on September 18, 2023, to add updated charts, and to include the Moondrop Chu II, Moondrop Aria, and Aria SE to Alternatives.
Virtually anyone needing a set of earbuds with a headphone jack, or anyone giving a gift, will like the wallet-friendly price of the Chu earbuds. Travelers who still want good performance without concerns about lost or mishandled expensive earbuds can rest easy with the Moondrop Chu. Budget-conscious audio enthusiasts can get great sound quality without compromising too much.
What’s it like to use Moondrop Chu?
The unexpectedly moody manga-inspired box is a polarizing introduction to the Moondrop Chu, but different in a fun and daring way. The metal buds are elegant, although they feel a bit heavy for their size. They’re smaller and more smoothly finished than something like the bargain hunter mainstay TIN HiFi T2, for instance. The Chu buds fit smaller ears better than the HiFi T2, too.
The Moondrop Chu’s cabling is designed to wrap over the outside of your ear to secure the otherwise hefty earbuds, with an included set of hooked silicone cable sleeves to guide the cable. The sleeves are a little fussy, and it can take a couple of tries before you successfully get the right amount of cable lead so the earbuds naturally rest in your ear. You can wear the earbuds without the sleeves, but it feels pretty makeshift to do so. Sometimes, the cable can also partially pop out the top of the sleeve—it doesn’t inhibit use, it just looks a little less refined. Tracking down a replacement set of cable sleeves might also be a pain if you lose or tear one, as Moondrop doesn’t sell replacements, but that’s easy to get over, given the Chu hovers around the cost of a movie ticket.
Once you get sleeves sorted, the Moondrop Chu comfortably stays put in your ears, provided you’ve found one of three pairs of clear ear tips (10mm, 11mm, 13mm) to suit your anatomy. By hour two, I find there’s some slight discomfort from the back of the metal housing pressing against my concha and anti-helix, but where the ear tips and nozzle sit still feel good. This may vary depending on the shape of your ears. Large ears will probably not experience that.
Like any set of wired in-ear monitors, you need to remain mindful of the cable, and given that this one is permanently attached to the buds that’s especially true. It doesn’t feel delicate, and we have not encountered issues, but as a general rule, it’s best to avoid scrunching up the cable. The Moondrop Chu is also not waterproof or dustproof, so avoid taking the buds to the gym.
How do you control Moondrop Chu?
Featuring an in-line mic and control module, the Moondrop Chu functions basically the same as every other set of wired headphones or earbuds with the same configuration. In the center is a play/pause button, bookended by volume up and volume down buttons. Using a Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle with an iPhone 13, the commands work without issue.
The in-line mic sits below your mouth, but because the over-the-ear cabling dangles the remote a little high up for a wired set of buds, it still hangs nearby. You’ll have to feel around, rather than look at the controls, to operate playback and change the volume. It’s not necessarily inconvenient, just an adjustment.
How does the Moondrop Chu connect?
The Chu is a headphone jack-only affair. Its 1.2m (47in) cable terminates in a right-angled 3.5mm TRRS jack. With a 28Ω impedance and 120dB/Vrms(@1KHz) sensitivity, you won’t need a headphone amp to reach adequate listening volume. One downside, albeit a not unexpected one at this price bracket, is that the cable is not replaceable. If it breaks, the buds are toast, unless you know how to solder and are lucky with where it breaks.
As wired earbuds and headphones go, it’s certainly still portable, even if you have to plug it into your source. In fact, there are still plenty of products (like electronic instruments) that don’t have Bluetooth capabilities. Some tasks such as video editing and music production absolutely require the zero latency afforded by a hardwired connection.
How well does the Moondrop Chu block out noise?
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The noise blocking prowess of the Moondrop Chu is pretty good — and without batteries. A good in-ear fit coupled with a smart design equals decent battery-free noise blocking here. Typically, isolating earbuds and headphones tackle high-frequency incidental noises, oftentimes not even affecting the volume of low-frequency noise reaching your ears. Here the Chu earbuds remove some bass frequencies, hovering mainly between 5-10dB of attenuation and up to 20dB in the midrange.
This doesn’t supplant active noise canceling (ANC) headphones, but the isolation on the Moondrop Chu can help somewhat to keep your music volume down by reducing external sound competing for your attention. To achieve good isolation you’ll need to start with dialing in your in-ear fit.
How does the Moondrop Chu sound?
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Set against our headphone preference curve, the Moondrop Chu mirrors our ideal response quite well. Tests reveal it’s a touch under-amplified in the lows and mids, but shouldn’t stop you from considering the Chu. The earbuds slightly under-emphasize (by less than 5dB) bass and mids, though the jag in the response around 160Hz is a little troublesome. In the critical 1-7kHz region the frequency response is very close to our ideal. Our measurement shows a substantial 10dB drop at about 10kHz, indicating that the Chu was carefully tuned for a free-field type response. This means that rather than consciously “missing” those frequencies, it just affects your brain’s interpretation of how the stereo image is being presented.
No, you won’t hear more of anything with the Moondrop Chu based on that quoted frequency range. In fact, Moondrop even lists on the box, in addition to the full 10-35,000Hz frequency response, that the “effective” frequency response of the Chu is 20Hz-20kHz. This lines up with the best you can expect from your hearing.
Lows, mids, highs
Playing the dreampop track Wherever You by Star Horse, the Moondrop Chu reproduces the prominent lead guitar riff and accompanying male and female vocals excellently. The dynamically sparse verses of underlying modulated rhythm guitar play at a good volume, while quiet textural instrument parts sit at the edge of audibility (due to mixing decisions). In fact, these textural details could easily go unnoticed on buds possessing a wonky frequency response.
During the bridge and outro, I can simultaneously hear the loud guitar, fast cymbals, bass guitar, and kick drum. These are underscored by a trebly octave reverb and gentle wah-wah filtered guitar (or possibly synth.) Whatever it is, it sounds very good. The only alteration that could notably improve the sound would be a little more volume around 500-900Hz to get some more oomph on the bass guitar for the low-mids to jump out more.
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The Moondrop Chu exhibits excellently low distortion (THD). At under 1% THD across the frequency spectrum, the Moondrop Chu reproduces your music effectively free of added distortion. This performance, as shown, is great at nearly any price bracket. In addition, the left and right earbuds are similarly matched to perform about the same.
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It’s worth remarking on how even the channel balance is on the Moondrop Chu. Moondrop has managed to produce a set of cheap-ish earbuds with a very even channel balance between the left and right ears. We don’t often talk about channel balance, because unless it’s really uneven, most people don’t notice it. However, it’s worth noting that Moondrop appears to have good control of its process and quality control, which is no mean feat at this price point.
Can you use the Moondrop Chu for phone calls?
The in-line microphone on the Moondrop Chu is optional, and the company sells an identical version sans remote and mic. So make sure you’re getting the one with the mic if you’re planning to handle calls.
In ideal conditions, the mic on the Chu is reasonably good, although because it’s on a cable you’ll want to pay attention to which direction it faces — a problem not found with true wireless earbuds. As you can hear below, the Moondrop Chu mic handles ambient noise decently well.
Basically, you’ll want to ensure you speak into the microphone, because your voice will get muffled easily if you’re off center. It’ll still pick up some external sounds besides your voice. Even so, the mic is useable, because the close proximity of your mouth to the mic ensures your voice will remain louder than the noise.
Moondrop Chu microphone demo (Ideal conditions):
Moondrop Chu microphone demo (Office conditions):
Moondrop Chu microphone demo (Street conditions):
How does the microphone sound to you?
Should you buy the Moondrop Chu?
These days you can barely buy anything for under $25. That’s about the price of a book, a solo trip to the cinema, or one cocktail (plus tip) at a (very) swanky restaurant. Now you can also buy a set of Moondrop Chu earbuds, which in many ways rivals offerings from big brands.
The earbuds sound great, and have an unusual aesthetic that’s fun, though possibly too decorative for some folks. The fit is reasonable and the audio is clear. It blocks out more lows and mids than plenty of non-ANC earbuds, and even the microphone works decently. The only real irritation with everyday use comes down to the cable guide sleeves, but even those are fussier, rather than a true impediment.
You don’t need an app that asks you to sign away your data in order to listen to music with the Moondrop Chu. You don’t need batteries, or to remember to keep it charged up — heck, even losing the earbuds doesn’t represent a big financial burden. A removable cable would have been great, but let’s not quibble. If you’ve been searching for your next bargain, grab the Chu.
What should you get instead of the Moondrop Chu?
First off, there’s a sequel to the Moondrop Chu, the Moondrop Chu II ($18.99 at Amazon). One of the major improvements is the removable cable which can prolong the lifespan of the earbuds.
Bargain hunters, it’s difficult to find a better deal than the Moondrop Chu. However, you may prefer the KZ ZSN Pro X with its removable 2-pin cable. KZ solves the wraparound cable quandary with a flexible, pre-molded over-the-ear “hook” instead of the Moondrop cable sleeve. Although the cable sleeves for the Chu feel better against your skin, they’re more fiddly by comparison. The sound of ZSN Pro X, while very pleasant, can lean towards trebly. It approximates our ideal curve well. Priced at $23.99 at Amazon this is a fantastic alternative to the Moondrop Chu.
It’s like the wild west out there when you look for budget-friendly wired earbuds. Search results populate with brands you’ve never heard of; you’ll encounter dubious snake oil claims, and reviews you can’t be certain are from real people. So, make sure you buy from a reputable dealer.
If you’re on the Moondrop train, but want a more upscale model, check out the Moondrop Aria ($79 at Amazon) and Aria SE ($79 at Amazon). These have a nicer finish, sound good, and have removable cables.
Frequently asked questions about the Moondrop Chu
The Moondrop Chu housing is made of a zinc alloy, so maybe you can wear the Chu buds with a metal allergy. Zinc alloys can be considered hypoallergenic, however, we don’t know to which metals you are allergic, or which other metals are in this particular alloy. Generally, zinc is one of the more neutral metals for sensitivities, unlike say, nickel, but apparently, it’s possible to become sensitive to nearly any metal. You know yourself better than we do.
That’s a complex question, and here’s a fairly simplified explanation. Moondrop doesn’t have a huge overhead with multiple departments and thousands of employees. Moondrop also doesn’t have a vast network of retailers and “middlemen” to split up profits, or loads of advertisements to pony up and pay for. In addition, the big brands get to set the pace of market prices. Niche companies need to either price lower, make a superior product, or ideally both, in order to compete.
As a specialized product, you mainly buy the Moondrop Chu directly or through a limited number of online retailers. This keeps down costs through a more centralized distribution system.
Realistically, the company is based in China where many major brands produce headphones these days, so labor costs are not necessarily that different. However, when perusing the Moondrop catalog you’ll notice its products aren’t actually that cheap. Rather, the Moondrop Chu is one of the cheapest. It’s a simple, well-executed set of drivers with a 3.5mm jack, meaning it’s relatively low tech, and priced low to compete.