A good pair of in-ear monitors (IEMs) can be a revelation. They can take your music to truly incredible places, far beyond what regular earbuds can do. And whether your budget is large or small, whether you’re after a pair of true wireless IEMS or a set of high-end monsters, there’s something for you on our list. And if you’re looking to boost your portable audio game even further, check out our lists of the Best DAPs and the Best Headphone Amps.
Table of Contents
- Our In-Ear Monitor Picks
- In-Ear Monitor Comparison Table
- In-Ear Monitor Buying Advice
Driver Type: Balanced Armature
What We Like: Superb sound quality with easy filters that make a real difference to the audio.
What We Don’t: The soundstage isn’t as good as other IEMs.
It’s not easy to survey the crowded field of IEMs and choose the best overall model, but for 2020 we think the Simgot EK3s are king. In our opinion, they offer the perfect balance of powerful sound, sleek design, and well-implemented features, all at a price that won’t crack your wallet wide open. The filter switches on each bud are the best we’ve tested, with an effect that is far more noticeable than the filters on similar models like the $499 FiiO FA9. They also have the advantage of looking exceptionally cool, with transparent housing and a range of accessories that are comparable to some of the four-figure beasts below. Simply put, the EK3s offer just about everything we love about IEMs without any of the fluff.
One area where the EK3s fall short of other models is the soundstage. It’s good, but at this price point, we expected it to be wider and more engaging. In our opinion, less expensive models like the $300 Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2s have them beaten here—and of course, the Sennheisers are entirely wireless, in contrast to the wired EK3s. All in all, however, the EK3s are an outstanding and well-rounded pair of IEMs that will satisfy all but the most demanding of audiophiles...Read our in-depth review
See the Simgot EK3
Driver Type: Dynamic
What We Like: Brilliant sound quality and a long battery life.
What We Don’t: Poor microphone quality, microUSB charging.
You could have knocked us over with a feather when we heard that Cambridge Audio were making a pair of true wireless IEMs. They are known for making amps and DACs but had never attempted any sort of headphones before, and that’s why the Melomania 1s are so astounding. The sound quality of the Cambridge Melomania 1 is clean and punchy, easily besting similarly priced true wireless models like the Lypertek Tevis below, and they even give the $300 Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2s a run for their money. And with 45 hours of battery life (compared to 28 on the Sennheisers), the Melomania 1s will hardly ever need recharging. They may not offer the audio quality of more traditional wired IEMs, but are a great choice for budget-minded listeners.
Unfortunately, to keep the price point low, some sacrifices were made with the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1. One of these is the inclusion of micro-USB charging, which is more finicky than the far more common USB-C connection found on other true wireless buds like the Sony WF-1000XM3s, below. We also didn’t like the microphone, which muffled and distorted our voice on calls. That being said, very few IEMs can offer as much as the Melomania 1s for such a low price, which is why they are included here.
See the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1
Driver Type: Dynamic
What We Like: Technological superiority mixed with outstanding sound quality.
What We Don’t: The imprecise controls can be difficult to manage.
Sony must be staffed by wizards. That’s the only explanation we have for the Sony WF-1000XM3, which have technology so good that it sometimes feels like magic. These are earbuds that let you mix noise-canceling and ambient sound, meaning you’ll get crystal clear audio without being blocked off from the world around you. They can sense when you are walking, running, or sitting, and adjust the sound accordingly. And the WF-1000XM3s cap it all off by sounding superb. We use ours almost on a daily basis, and in our opinion, there are simply no better wireless IEMs available.
That’s not to say that the WF-1000XM3s are without fault. They are bulky and stick out from the ears, which can be a problem if you want something sleek and slim. If that’s the case, we’d recommend the less-expensive Lypertek Tevi below. We also had issues with the touch controls, which felt imprecise and floaty. That’s another area where the WF-1000XM3s are beaten by the Lyperteks and the the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1s above. But neither of those earbuds can compete with the WF-1000XM3s’ sound, noise-canceling, and unrivalled wireless performance...Read our in-depth review
See the Sony WF-1000XM3
Driver Type: Hybrid
What We Like: Unreal sound quality with stunning air and presence.
What We Don’t: They require careful pairing with your source.
Hybrid IEMs—which use a combination of driver types— are a relatively new development. While many companies have taken advantage of it, none have done it better than Romania’s Meze Audio. And their Rai Pentas are a stunning pair of IEMs. They go beyond what you’d expect from a regular hybrid, with additional elements like precisely calibrated tube bores which focus the sound. The audio quality here is sensational with an openness that stretches to the horizon. There are very few IEMs on this list that can compete with the Rai Pentas’ sound quality, including more expensive models like the $1,999 64 Audio U12t below.
That said, the Rai Pentas are not the most forgiving IEMs and that brilliant sound comes at a cost. Despite having a low impedance and relatively low sensitivity (in IEM terms), the Rai Pentas need very careful pairing with the source. A DAP or amp that is overly neutral simply won’t bring out the best in the sound quality (we strongly recommend starting with a tube amp, or a DAP that offers a little color). All in all, though, they remain an exceptional pair of IEMs and easily the best hybrid model we’ve heard to date.
See the Meze Audio Rai Penta
Driver Type: Dynamic
What We Like: Utterly absurd battery life.
What We Don’t: There are Bluetooth pairing issues.
The Lypertek Tevi true wireless earbuds can go for 60 hours without needing a charge. Frankly, that is absurd—even more expensive models like the Sony WF-1000XM3 can’t come close to it. There’s around nine hours of battery life in the buds, and an additional seven charges in the case. And it helps that you won’t want to stop listening to the Tevi, which offers sound that is sweet and balanced without being sterile. While there is no noise cancelling like you find on the Sony IEMs, the Tevis are still a good everyday choice.
One of the big problems we had was with the connection. There were frequent pairing and dropout issues with the Tevis: very often, only one bud would pair, meaning we had to start the whole process from scratch. These issues were frustrating, and a bit of a black mark against a pair of IEMs that are otherwise fantastic. Instead, they are merely very good.
See the Lypertek Tevi
Driver Type: Balanced Armature
What We Like: Outstanding isolation make these IEMs ideal for blocking out the outside world.
What We Don’t: Harsh highs and some comfort issues.
Noise-canceling tech can often adversely affect the sound of your IEMs. If you don’t want to disrupt that, another option is to go for a pair that offer excellent passive isolation, sealing off the ear canal. No IEM does that better than the Etymotic Research ER3XR. The precisely designed tips completely fill the ear canal, not only blocking out the outside world but delivering truly impressive audio. The mids in particular really shine, and we think they give more expensive IEMs like the $530 Simgot EK3 a run for their money. If you want a pair of relatively inexpensive IEMs that offer outstanding quality and isolation, the ER3XRs should be one of your top choices.
There are downsides to that perfect fit, however. Wearing these for hours at a time may prove uncomfortable— earache starts to become an issue, as well as an uncomfortable sense of pressure. And as good as the sound quality is, the highs can get harsh and fatiguing over long periods. Etymotic Research do offer two variations of this model that may compensate for this: the Studio Edition offers a more neutral and balanced sound, while the Extended Response has a small bass boost. Both cost $230, and if you’re prepared to spend that much money, we’d recommend getting the Sony WF-1000XM3s above instead.
See the Etymotic Research ER3XR
Driver Type: Balanced Armature
What We Like: Huge bass that is boosted by excellent isolation.
What We Don’t: The high-end can get very fatiguing over long periods.
There is a term in the world of IEM is that we both love and hate: ‘bass cannon’. It’s often used with a sneer by those who prefer a more neutral sound, but frankly, those people haven’t heard the Campfire Audio Polaris 2. These hybrid IEMs combine superb, powerful bass (down to 5Hz, among the best of any model here) with excellent isolation, which is a one-two punch that makes them one of the most exciting, lively, and enjoyable listens we’ve ever heard. While they don’t have the subtlety or finesse of the top-ranked Simgot EK3s, their outstanding low end makes them a contender. If you like your tracks big and heavy, then these are the IEMs to go for.
Unfortunately, that outstanding bass comes at a price. The Polaris 2s have slightly overcooked highs, which can feel rough and tiring over long listening sessions. Elements like violins and snares become sharp and unpleasant, instead of just precise. That’s a frustrating problem, and it does mean that the Polaris 2s, while fantastic, are flawed. Given that they cost around $270 more than the Etymotic Research ER3XRs above—which suffer from a similar issue—that brings their value down, in our opinion. If you’re looking for a more relaxed listen, try the aforementioned Simgots, which are only slightly more expensive...Read our full, in-depth review
See the Campfire Audio Polaris 2
Driver Type: Hybrid
What We Like: One of the most luxurious sound signatures we’ve ever heard.
What We Don't: The lack of listed specs makes pairing a problem.
If you enjoy hybrid IEMs, you are going to love the Noble Audio Khan. It uses three different driver types— balanced armature, dynamic, and piezo electric—in a six-driver arrangement. The result is some of the most luxurious, effortless, and clean sound quality we’ve ever heard. If you demand the very best audio quality available, and if that is your overriding goal, then you absolutely have to hear the Khan. They are just magical.
These IEMs do have one particularly puzzling aspect, however. Noble Audio does not list the sensitivity or impedance of the Khan on their website, which is the only place they are sold. That’s bizarre: if you plan to spend this much on a pair of IEMs, you will almost certainly want to know these specs to assist you with pairing. While Noble do say that the Khan are “sensitive enough for use with most smartphones as well as portable amps and DAPs”, that’s just not quite good enough. And with their huge price tag, they definitely aren’t for everyone— most people will be entirely happy with the Meze Audio Rai Penta above, which cost over $1,000 less and are still brilliant. But if you demand the very best and don’t mind the lack of specs, the Khans are tough to beat.
See the Noble Audio Khan
Driver Type: Balanced Armature
What We Like: Easy-to-drive, beautiful sound, iconic design.
What We Don’t: The Andromedas need a good seal to perform well.
The Campfire Audio Andromedas are a classic pair of IEMs that have become a firm favorite in the audiophile world. For the 2020 update, the Portland company have made only one real change: the housing is now printed as a single unit, with no seams or joining, which they say results in lower resonance. It’s a subtle change, but a good one, and Andromedas remain at the same price point as previous models. They are also supremely easy-to-drive with a friendly impedance of 12.8Ω. While we always recommend a separate headphone amp if you can, you will have no problems driving these with a smartphone, and that’s a rarity in this price range.
The competition has become fiercer since the green monster debuted. For example, IEMs like the Meze Audio Rai Penta offer significantly better sound for an identical price. And unfortunately, Campfire have not fixed one of the biggest issues of the Andromeda, which is the awkward fit. These IEMs require a solid seal in the ear to perform at their best, and this can often mean they are uncomfortable to wear for long periods. We hope that the next update fixes this while still retaining the iconic design—and that fabulous green color.
See the Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020
Driver Type: Planar Magnetic
What We Like: These IEMs can operate in both wired and wireless mode, with stunning planar sound.
What We Don’t: No USB-C charging and the open-back design leaks sound.
Planar magnetic drivers are usually only found in full-size headphones, but AUDEZE are one of the few companies who have managed to translate them into earbud form with the LCDi3. These remarkable IEMs are not only fully planar magnetic, with a typical open and airy sound structure, but have a unique feature that no other models on this list have. While they can operate in traditional wired mode, AUDEZE also offer a Bluetooth module in the package. That’s something that more expensive IEMs, like the more expensive Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020 above, don’t have.
There are two big downsides to the Audeze LCDi3. First, they have an open-back design, which means a grill on the outside of the earbuds’ housing allows the air to interact with the drivers. This boosts the sound quality, but at the expense of leaking music like crazy. Anybody around you will be able to hear what you are listening to, meaning the LCDi3s’ utility as a pair of wireless buds is limited (we can’t see you taking these on public transport). Second is the lack of USB-C charging on the Bluetooth module, meaning that you may want to think hard before you pick up a pair of these. All in all, they sound terrific but are far from perfect.
See the AUDEZE LCDi3
11. FiiO FA9 ($499)
Driver Type: Balanced Armature
What We Like: Super smooth and engaging sound quality.
What We Don’t: Filters don’t work quite as well as those found on other models.
FiiO are known for their excellent digital audio players, but less so for their IEMs. Perhaps that needs to change, because the FA9s are great fun to use. They have a particularly intriguing design element we haven’t seen on other models: a coiled internal tube that measures three inches in length, and which is (somehow) packed into the tiny housing. This tube alters the sound that passes through it, smoothing out the mids and highs. The result is an incredibly natural and engaging sound signature with a smoothness that we don’t think is beaten by any other IEM here.
The problem is that the FiiO FA9s go too far. They have the same type of filter switches on the outside of the housing as you’d find on the top-ranked Simgot EK3, but where the EK3s have two switches on each bud, the FA9s have three. This makes for a huge combination of filter options, including the ability to adjust the impedance and sensitivity slightly, but we have to be honest when we say that they don’t sound as interesting or impactful as the tuning you’ll find on the EK3s. Given that the Simgot buds are only fractionally more expensive ($530) and arguably sound better, we can’t recommend you get the FA9s instead. Consider them as an excellent alternative if you can’t find the EK3s.
See the FiiO FA9
Driver Type: Balanced Armature
What We Like: Some of the best audio quality money can buy.
What We Don’t: The emphasis on bass may scare off those looking for more balanced audio.
The Jerry Harvey Audio Roxanne Aion Series demand deep pockets. But if you have the money and want great sound, we can’t think of a better way to spend it. These have the best bass of any IEM we have ever tested, bar none. It’s incredibly rich and deep, and despite other IEMs going a little lower on the frequency spectrum (the Campfire Audio Polaris 2 and Empire Ears Legend X go down to 5Hz, versus 10Hz here) the bass is of infinitely higher quality. There even is a separate low-end tone control on the included cable, which is a feature we haven’t seen anywhere else. Were it not for the massive pricetag, the Roxanne Aion Series would be in contention for the best IEM ever made.
If you are looking for neutral or realistic audio, however, you may want to stay clear. These IEMs are determined to inject their own personality into the sound, so if you prefer to hear your music as the artist intended, we’d recommend the 64 Audio U12t, below. One other thing to bear in mind is that the Roxanne Aion Series are exceptionally sensitive, with 119dB per one miliwatt of power. That means they will benefit best from a great amp or DAP, which will power them without hiss or artifacts. No matter which source you use, keep the volume turned down very low to start with, unless you enjoy having your eardrums scattered over a ten-mile radius.
See the Jerry Harvey Audio Roxanne Aion Series
Driver Type: Balanced Armature
What We Like: Hugely detailed sound quality, especially in the mids.
What We Don’t: The included cable is poorly made and not worthy of the price tag.
The 64 Audio U12t are the IEMs you buy if you crave detail. If you want to hear every single thing going on in the track, from the vocalist’s lips parting to the sound of the guitarist’s fingers coming off the strings, these are your only option. They are impeccably made, packing a massive 12 balanced armature drivers into their robust housing. While the balanced, neutral approach won’t please everyone, these IEMs are very clearly worthy of their high price tag. And that price may turn some people off, so if you are looking for a more affordable option which still delivers balanced sound, try the Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020 above.
We do have to say that we were unimpressed with the quality of the included cable. A $2,000 pair of IEMs should not have a cable that feels as cheap as this one does. While there are several excellent third-party cables available to buy, it’s frustrating to have to do that when spending this amount of money. If you can live with it, however, you’ll find that the U12t IEMs are a hugely satisfying pair of IEMs.
See the 64 Audio U12t
Driver Type: Hybrid
What We Like: Incredible technology that produces sound with beautiful timbre.
What We Don’t: The bass occasionally feels overcooked.
In the IEM technological arms race, few companies are further ahead than Empire Ears. Their Legend X series offers an almost embarrassing amount of proprietary tech. You get seven drivers, a ten-way crossover network, and ferromagnetic liquid compartments to dampen vibrations. The result is beautiful sound quality with stunning warmth and an engaging timbre. While we still prefer the 64 Audio U12t and the Jerry Harvey Audio Roxanne Aion Series overall, the Legend Xs are absolutely worth considering.
One thing to bear in mind is that the identically priced Jerry Harvey Audio Roxanne Aion Series has much better bass. While the low-end here is excellent, it can occasionally overwhelm the rest of the sound. It’s as if Empire Ears are trying a little too hard— as if they got a little too excited about all that technology. The result is that the Legend Xs probably aren’t the first choice for those looking to spend over $2,000 on a pair of IEMs.
See the Empire Ears Legend X
Driver Type: Hybrid
What We Like: Smooth, engaging audio matched with impactful filters.
What We Don’t: The sound quality is perhaps a little too laid back.
The BGVP ArtMagic ES12 4EST may have a mouthful of a name, but you be hard-pressed to find a more welcoming pair of IEMs. Uniquely among the models here, the BGVPs contain electrostatic drivers—a driver type most commonly found in expensive full-size headphones, and which usually requires special amps. BGVP have pulled this off by mixing them with more common balanced armatures, and the result is smooth and engaging audio quality that we would compare favorably to more expensive models like the 64 Audio U12t. It helps that the switchable filters make a real difference to the sound quality, which makes these IEMs a better option than something like the FiiO FA9, albeit a far more expensive one.
Our biggest problem with the BGVPs, admittedly, is slightly subjective. As easy as the sound quality is, it can be a little bit too laid back at times. It tends to lack energy and driving passages of music, which can be an issue if you like your IEMs to make their presence felt. For something similarly priced which is a little bit more assertive, try the Sony IER-Z1R below.
See the BGVP ArtMagic ES12 4EST
Driver Type: Hybrid
What We Like: Crisp treble with outstanding detail.
What We Don’t: Surprisingly heavy, and they require careful source selection.
Some music genres demand high-end perfection. Classical and jazz, in particular, require that an IEM be capable of producing crisp treble to capture them accurately. And if you enjoy those genres, we strongly recommend the Sony IER-Z1R. These IEMs certainly are pricey but they offer superlative audio quality, particularly with the detail found in the very upper reaches of the sound. We’ve already talked about how other IEMs are so-called bass cannons—the Jerry Harvey Audio Roxanne Aion Series is an excellent example. The Sony IER-Z1R are perhaps the opposite, and that means they deserve a place on this list.
With their relatively high impedance, the Sony IER-Z1R require decent source selection to draw the best out of them. It’s also worth noting that they are surprisingly heavy. While all the IEMs here clock in at under an ounce, the IER-Z1R are near the top of that ounce, and the heavyweight metal housing can certainly take a toll on the ear over long periods. And since we are nitpicking: Sony claim that this IEM can go up to 100,000kHz, which is several times more than a human being can hear. Remember: that level of pointless technological advancement is reflected in the price, which in our opinion, is too high right now.
See the Sony IER-Z1R
Driver Type: Balanced Armature
What We Like: Some of the best sound you can get in an IEM for under $1,000.
What We Don’t: Poor cable, and the design resembles a medical device.
If you want high-end sound from an IEM without the high-end price tag, give the Shure SE-846 a serious look. At $899, they offer superb value, and the clean, precise audio quality challenges IEMs that are much more expensive like the Sony IER-Z1Rs above. The dynamics, in particular, really shine. Movie soundtracks through these IEMs are wonderful, and it helps that they can be comfortably worn for hours. Shure are a venerable company, and while the SE-846 are relatively old now—they were released in 2014—they remain a viable option.
Unfortunately, the Shure SE846s have some issues. The cable is finicky and prone to tangling, which is never a good sign from a high-end IEM. It must also be said that the looks are somewhat akin to a medical device, in our opinion. The SE-846s sound great and are well worth considering, but they are the definition of function over form. Of note: Shure offers a Bluetooth variant of these IEMs, but we don’t think they are very good and recommend that you stick with the wired version for now.
See the Shure SE-846
Driver Type: Dynamic
What We Like: The best-sounding true wireless IEMS available right now.
What We Don’t: These IEMs are hellishly expensive.
The original Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless were a disaster. They sounded great but were hamstrung by poor battery life and some of the worst controls we’ve ever tested. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2s, fortunately, take care of these issues. The battery life has been improved to 35 hours from a paltry 11, and the controls are much improved. Even more importantly, the excellent sound remains. In the world of true wireless IEMs, these are unquestionably the ones that sound the best.
Our biggest issue with the Sennheiser is that they expensive for what you get. Yes, they sound great, but the $228 Sony WF-1000XM3 above sound almost as good but with a significantly cheaper price tag. In addition, the Sony IEMs have better battery life, a wider range of app features, and vastly simpler controls. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 are a significant improvement on the original and absolutely worth investigating if you want a pair of true wireless buds, but they struggle against the hefty competition.
See the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
Driver Type: Dynamic
What We Like: Ridiculous sound quality for the price.
What We Don’t: The flimsy and plasticky build quality can be a turn-off.
The dirty secret of the IEM world is that there are just as many great budget options as there are expensive ones. You don’t need to spend four figures to get quality, and you may even just need to spend one. The Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus are a downright brilliant pair of buds that deliver extraordinary sound quality for the price, despite costing less than a pint of fancy craft beer. The sound quality is surprisingly rich and detailed, with the liveliness and energy that brings to mind the far-more-expensive Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 (true story).
The VE Monk Plus are the definition of budget buds, so you definitely shouldn’t expect a high-quality build. The housing is made of flimsy plastic, and the only concession to comfort is the thin foam padding for the buds, which sit in the cup of your ear rather than in the canal. The good thing is, as flimsy as they are, the VE Monk Plus are surprisingly robust— we’ve had ours for months now, and despite rough treatment, they still work just fine. And even if they did break, it’s not as if they are costly to replace.
See the Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus
|Simgot EK3||$530||Bal. Arm.*||18Ω||115dB||Removable||20Hz-40kHz|
|Cambridge Audio Melomania 1||$99||Dynamic||Unavailable||Unavailable||N/A||20Hz-20kHz|
|Meze Audio Rai Penta||$1,099||Hybrid||20Ω||110dB||Removable||4Hz-45kHz|
|Etymotic ER3XR||$179||Bal. Arm.||22Ω||102dB||Removable||20Hz-16kHz|
|Campfire Audio Polaris 2||$449||Bal. Arm.||17Ω||105dB||Removable||5Hz-20kHz|
|Noble Audio Khan||$2,399||Hybrid||Unavailable||Unavailable||Removable||Unavailable|
|Camp. Audio Andromeda 2020||$1,099||Bal. Arm.||12.8Ω||112dB||Removable||10Hz-28kHz|
|FiiO FA9||$499||Bal. Arm.||32Ω||113dB||Removable||15Hz-40kHz|
|JHA Roxanne Aion Series||$2,299||Bal. Arm.||15Ω||119dB||Removable||10Hz-23kHz|
|64 Audio U12t||$1,999||Bal. Arm.||12.6Ω||108dB||Removable||10Hz-20kHz|
|Empire Ears Legend X||$2,299||Hybrid||14Ω||102dB||Removable||5Hz-40kHz|
|BGVP ArtMagic ES12 4EST||$1,500||Hybrid||30Ω||110dB||Removable||10Hz-40kHz|
|Sennheiser Momentum TW 2||$300||Dynamic||Unavailable||Unavailable||N/A||5Hz-21kHz|
|Venture Electronics Monk Plus||$9||Dynamic||64Ω||112dB||Fixed||8Hz-22kHz|
*Bal. Arm. = Balanced Armature driver type
**Imp. = Impedance
***Sens. = Sensitivity
****Freq. = Frequency Range
- IEMs vs. Earbuds
- Sound Quality
- Fit and Comfort
- Ear Tips
- Driver Types
- Hybrid IEMS
- Wired vs. Wireless IEMs
- Removable Cables
- Custom vs. Universal IEMs
- IEMs vs. Headphones
You might very well ask what the differences are between In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) and earbuds. If they both describe audio devices that sit inside the ear, then why are there two different terms? It all lies in where exactly the device sits. As you can probably tell from the name, an in-ear monitor is designed to sit inside the actual ear canal. It’s a device that has to be inserted, and which typically has smaller and higher-quality drivers to create the sound. An earbud, however, is designed to rest on the outside of the ear within the fleshy folds known as the antitragus and concha—the outer parts of the ear you can feel with your fingers.
If you’ve been through our list already, you’re probably thinking: there’s a mix of both IEMs and earbuds (like the $9 Venture Electronics Monk Plus) on this list, so why does this article classify them all as IEMs? The answer to that is a little bit complicated. In the world of audio, IEM has become shorthand for a device that prioritizes sound quality over other features, and that has grown to encompass both traditional IEMs and earbuds. We made the choice to include both types here. There are examples of each type that have superlative sound quality, and we wanted to be more inclusive, rather than less.
If you’re looking at investing in a pair of IEMs, chances are that you’re concerned about sound quality and extracting the very best you can. Given the prices of some of the models on this list, which can be upwards of four figures, you’d expect that higher prices guarantee better sound quality. But is that strictly the case?
There is certainly some truth to it, but only up to a point. Up to around $1,000, it’s broadly true that you will get more realistic and more enjoyable sound quality the more money you spend. But after that point, things tend to level off. Let’s use the examples of the $1,099 Meze Audio Rai Penta, and the $2,299 Jerry Harvey Audio Roxanne Aion Series. You would assume that the Jerry Harvey IEMs sound significantly better than the Mezes, but that’s not true—they just sound different. The Rai Pentas offer outstanding air and clarity, and in our opinion, have some of the most entrancing detail of any IEMs we’ve ever heard. The Roxanne Aion Series, on the other hand, trade off that detail for wonderful and rich bass and are significantly more powerful than that which you’d find on the Rai Pentas.
When you decide to buy a pair of IEMs, think carefully about the kind of sound you enjoy. It’s all very well splashing out on an expensive pair, but there might be a more affordable option that offers something that suits your tastes a little better. And remember: less-expensive models may lose out on sound quality, but they will also come with a wealth of features that more expensive IEMs may not have. The Rai Penta and Roxanne Aion Series sound fantastic, but they do not have the convenience or the noise-canceling of the Sony WF-1000XM3 (full review here)
Next to sound quality, fit and comfort are probably the most important aspects of choosing an IEM. Think of it like choosing a pair of running shoes. It’s not just about finding a pair that feels comfortable in the store, it’s about finding a pair that will feel comfortable miles down the track, and one that won’t get in the way of your running. With IEMs, you want a model that will allow you to wear it comfortably for hours at a time, without making your ears ache. Fit actually has a direct correlation to sound quality, as well. The more secure the fit, the better the IEM will isolate, or block out the outside world. The key is in getting a snug fit that is still comfortable for long periods.
The problem is, ears are unique. There’s an adage among police sketch artists that if they can get an accurate picture of a suspect’s ears, the rest will follow. This applies to the inside of the ear as well, and it means there is no hard and fast set of rules regarding fit and comfort, no grading system you can rely on. But that doesn’t mean you have to go into this blind.
The first thing to look at is the materials that a pair of IEMs is made out of. Broadly speaking, heavyweight materials like metal tend to be less comfortable than plastic. While there are good acoustic reasons for choosing metal, it can often cause issues with comfort in the long term. A good example of this would be the $1,698 Sony IER-Z1Rs, which have an all-metal housing. They sound terrific, but you may struggle to wear them for long periods. If you’re after something softer, you may want to consider a pair made out of either plastic or a lighter metal. Something like the $1,099 Meze Audio Rai Penta, which are made out of lightweight milled aluminum, may be a better option.
The actual style of IEM is also important. It is a traditional IEM that sits directly in the ear canal? Is it a bud but you simply pop into the ear? Or is it an earbud that sits on the outside of the ear, like the Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus? IEMs that sit right in the ear canal will give you better sound, but may be uncomfortable over long periods. An earbud that rests on the outer ear can be comfortably worn for hours.
The final aspect to pay attention to is the sound itself. If the audio is tinny or the stereo image doesn’t sound as good as you’d expect to, then you may be dealing with a pair of IEMs that don’t fit especially well. Admittedly, you can’t change the structure of the IEM itself, but what you can do is change the tip size or type. This is such an in-depth topic that we have a separate section for it below, which is worth checking out if you want to get the best possible fit.
We’ve already talked about the importance of fit, and how isolation and build materials can have a real impact. But we haven’t yet touched on what is perhaps the most important part of the whole process: the ear tip. This is the soft tip at the end of the IEM, and ensuring you have the right size is absolutely crucial to getting a good fit. Virtually every IEM available will ship with multiple tip sizes, and the one thing you absolutely have to do when you unpack your new purchase is to experiment, and see which size is best for you. Be aware that you may need to use a different size on each ear. You are looking for a fit that is snug, but not uncomfortable, and which won’t come out with any vigorous head movements.
There are three main materials to choose from: silicon, foam, and rubber. We would not recommend using rubber tips as they tend to be hard and uncomfortable. Silicon tips are soft, flexible, and easy to clean. They tend to have less isolation than other tips, and aren’t comfortable with sweat, so may not be ideal if you plan on exercising. Foam tips, on the other hand, are arguably the most comfortable option and excel at creating a good seal. The downside is that they can often affect the sound quality by increasing the impression of bass. Generally speaking, IEMs always come with a range of silicon tips and may include foam tips as well. If they don’t, you can easily purchase your own, such as these Comply memory foam eartips.
If you go for a silicon tip, the next thing to pay attention to are the flanges. A flange is a projecting circular rib that juts out from the body of the tip. A tip may have one or more flanges and they are designed to aid isolation and fit. The number of flanges you go for is entirely a personal choice and dependent on what the inside of your ears look like. The number of flanges is a less important choice than the type of material, so don’t fret too much about this particular element of IEMs.
Since we’ve talked about how important comfort is, it’s worth discussing the best way to insert an IEM. You can’t just jam it in the ear. First, if you have a foam tip, you’ll need to roll and squash it in your fingers until it is as thin as possible. If your tip is silicon, you can jump straight to the next step. Grab the top of your ear, and pull it up and back, flattening it alongside your head. Insert the IEM and wait for around 20 seconds before letting go. If you have a pair of true wireless IEMs, however, like the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2, you can skip the ear tugging—all you need to do is insert the bud with a slight screwing motion. It should slide in naturally.
When you’re choosing a pair of IEMs, it’s worth knowing a little bit about the types of drivers contained inside them. Different driver types have different impacts on the sound quality, so let’s break down the ones you’ll find.
Dynamic drivers are easily the most common driver type and consist of a simple diaphragm that moves in response to an electrical signal, creating the sound. Dynamic drivers are cheap to produce, and found in almost all IEMs below about $500. This does not mean they are of poor quality, as anybody who has heard the $99 Lypertek Tevi can attest to. Dynamic drivers tend to offer a good all-around sound that is relatively balanced and clean, but which may not have the subtlety and dynamism of other driver types. And because they rely on air movement to create their sound, earbuds that use them tend to have worse isolation than other models which can have an impact on the sound quality.
Balanced armatures consist of a coil suspended between two magnets. The coil is moved by the magnets thousands of times every second, which in turn moves a diaphragm to create the sound. Because there is limited air movement, IEMs with balanced armatures tend to have excellent isolation. Balanced armatures are often tuned to one specific area of the frequency spectrum, so it’s common for IEMs that use them to have multiple armatures inside the housing. What this means is that each armature can be tuned for a specific part of the frequency spectrum, which means better overall sound— and in particular, better treble, a hallmark of this driver type. They do tend to be a little more expensive than IEMs that use dynamic drivers. Go for this driver type if you want something a more nuanced and effective than a basic dynamic driver, but don’t mind spending a little money. Our top-ranked IEM, the $530 Simgot EK3 (full review here) uses balanced armatures.
This driver type is by far the least common one you’ll see in the world of IEMs. Only one pair of IEMs on our list actually uses it: the $899 AUDEZE LCDi3. Planars are typically used in full-size headphones and are exceptionally difficult to miniaturize—AUDEZE are one of the few companies to have attempted it. Planar drivers spread a magnetic current directly across the diaphragm, resulting in sound that is airy and wide. Models that use them tend to be relatively expensive, although not quite as much as models that use multiple balanced armatures.
In our section on driver types above, we list three main categories of drivers: dynamic, balanced armature, and planar magnetic. Each has their own pros and cons, so for some time now, savvy manufacturers have been combining them. These are known as hybrid IEMs and they contain different types of drivers. If you’re looking to get the absolute best sound you can, then it’s worth investigating a hybrid IEM.
Right now, we think the best hybrid IEM available is the $1,099 Meze Audio Rai Penta. The Rai Pentas use four balanced armature drivers paired with a single dynamic driver. In this way, they benefit from the power and energy of the dynamic driver, coupled with the multifrequency tuning and treble clarity from the balanced armatures. This kind of hybrid design is expensive to manufacture, as it requires careful tuning and research to get right. You can’t just shove a bunch of different drivers into a housing and call it good. That means you are unlikely to find hybrid IEMs for under $1,000, but if you’re looking for the best of all worlds in terms of sound quality, a hybrid IEM is the way to go.
Impedance refers to electrical resistance, and is probably one of the most important specs to be aware of when buying an IEM. It’s measured in ohms (Ω), and at its simplest, it tells you how much power an IEM requires to be driven to a decently audible volume. Anything with an impedance up to 32Ω can safely be connected to a smartphone. Impedance from 32Ω to 100Ω is something of a grey area— a smart phone may be able to power them, but you’d be better off with a dedicated headphone amp. Anything above 100Ω will definitely require external power. With one or two exceptions, all the IEMs on our list are below 32Ω. That’s good news, as it means they can be effectively driven from your smartphone. Keep in mind that impedance isn’t set in stone and tends to fluctuate depending on how much current is being delivered at any given time, although for simplicity, manufacturers often give a single impedance figure.
You might reasonably ask why it’s worth going for a pair of IEMs with higher impedance. If the goal is ease of power, then surely it is best to get a pair with the lowest impedance possible? The thing is, this is far more of an issue with full-size headphones that can often have impedances of up to 600Ω. With low-impedance IEMs, knowing the impedance is useful for what is known as impedance matching. This means you can essentially harmonize with your source device to get the best sound possible. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually very easy: all you have to do is make sure that the impedance of your IEMs is at least eight times the output impedance of your amplifier, digital audio player, or smartphone. So the $449 FiiO FA9, with an impedance of 32Ω, would be best matched with an amplifier that has an output of 4Ω. It doesn’t have to be exactly eight times the power, and we can assure you that nothing bad will happen if the match isn’t exact. But if you want to extract the very best from your new IEMs, it’s worth trying your best.
Sensitivity is a measure of loudness at a given power level. It essentially says: if you put a set amount of power through these IEMs (usually one miliwatt) how many decibels (dB) will they produce? Because of their small size and tiny drivers, IEMs are often able to get extremely loud. That sounds like a good thing, but it can be a problem. Not only can it cause trouble if you happen to have the volume turned up too high, but it can also expose the deficiencies of your source.
Here’s what we mean. Let’s say you own a pair of Jerry Harvey Audio Roxanne Aion Series— lucky you, because they cost over $2,000 and sound superb. They have a sensitivity of 119dB, which is enormous. That means they don’t require much power to get very loud. What that means is that even at low volumes, you’ll be able to hear not only the music, but also any electrical noise or imperfections in the source’s electronics. You’ll be hearing hiss, crackling, or even an unpleasant buzzing. High sensitivity IEMs can offer fantastic dynamic range, which is especially good on movie soundtracks and classical music, but they do need to be paired with a good amplifier to minimize the noise.
For what it’s worth, most portable digital audio players are specifically designed to handle IEMs of almost all sensitivities, so if you do plan on buying a powerful IEM, it may be worth looking into one of these. In addition to that, sensitivity measurements are not standardized in the audio industry, so not all manufacturers use the same testing methods. Take all sensitivity measurements with a grain of salt.
There are very clear differences between wired and wireless IEMs. The first is that wireless models are obviously far more convenient. They don’t require external amplification, they can be taken anywhere, and most importantly, there are no cables at all. Every wireless IEM on our list is a true wireless type, which means the buds are not connected by any wires. All you need to do is slip them in, connect them to your source device (like a smartphone or a digital audio player) via Bluetooth, and you’re good to go.
The second difference is in sound quality. Wireless lovers will absolutely insist that Bluetooth audio has taken huge strides over the past few years—and they’re right. But despite the appearance of advanced Bluetooth software like aptX and aptX HD, wireless audio still has a way to go before it reaches the heights of high-end wired IEMs. The physical cables those IEMs have are usually made from a high-quality material like copper or silver, allowing a more accurate signal to be transmitted. The audio quality there is almost always better than regular wireless IEMs. Even the most expensive wireless model on our list—the $300 Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2— don’t sound as good as other wired models in the same price range. The bottom line is, if convenience is important to you, then a true wireless model is absolutely the way to go. But if sound quality is your primary consideration, you may want to cast a wider net.
If you’re going for a pair of wired IEMs, it’s worth thinking about the cable. We aren’t just talking about whether or not it tangles. The type of cable and its connector can have a huge impact on the sound quality and your overall comfort. If the cable is removable, it means you can replace it with a cable from a third-party manufacturer like Kimber Kable, a company that specifically focuses on developing high-quality cables with materials that benefit the sound. High-end IEMs tend to have excellent cables, but if you aren’t satisfied with the one you have, being able to remove the cable and swap it out for another one can be a real advantage.
More importantly, it’s worth noting the type of cable connector on your IEMs. The connector itself doesn’t have a huge impact on the sound quality, but it can make a real difference to your comfort. The two most common connections you’ll find are two-pin and MMCX. We always recommend going for the latter if possible, for the simple reason that they use a single-pin design that can rotate freely. That means there is no correct way to position the cable, which means you have more flexibility and versatility while wearing the IEMs. This is especially important if you have cables that are designed to fit over the top of the ear
Getting a good fit is such an important consideration with IEMs that some manufacturers take it a step further. If you have the funds, they will create a pair that is custom fitted to your ear canal—a CIEM, or Custom In-Ear Monitor. They do this by taking highly accurate measurements, using both digital devices and old-school physical techniques like creating a mold from sterile putty. While the best way to do this is in person, it’s often not practical, as manufacturers may be in different cities to you. Some companies like Ultimate Ears offer a hugely flexible service that will allow you to upload measurements taken by third-party professional close to you, as well as do the fun stuff like choose color, design, logo, and cable type.
Very obviously, none of the models on our list are custom. They are known as universal IEMs and they are designed for everyone who does not require a custom fit. If you do feel that the custom fit would benefit you, which may be the case if you had issues with comfort in the past, then it’s worth contacting manufacturers individually. While bigger companies may not offer custom IEMs, independent outfits like Jerry Harvey, Empire Ears, 64 Audio and Noble Audio certainly do. It’s a reasonably lengthy process and there is obviously something of a wait time while your IEMs are built. You will also need to pay significantly more than you would for a standard universal IEM, but the end product will be specifically tailored to your ears, which means an exceptionally comfortable fit and much less fatigue over long periods.
In theory, noise-canceling is brilliant. What could be better than completely removing the outside world from the equation, leaving you with nothing but the music? But there is a reason why very few audio-focused IEMs offer noise-canceling. As good as it is, it can often alter the sound in subtle but infuriating ways.
Noise-canceling works by capturing the sound of the world around you through external microphones on the IEMs, then applying a process known as phase cancellation. This essentially eliminates the sounding question, subtracting it from the sound you hear. But because of the nature of this process, it can often cause the audio to sound a little muffled. That’s why we almost never recommend going for noise-canceling if you’re buying a pair of IEMs specifically for great sound. You will never— and we do mean never— find it in a pair of high-end IEMs. Of course, if you do want to enjoy good noise-canceling, there are several options and they don’t always compromise the audio quality. The best ones right now are the $228 Sony WF-1000XM3s (full review here), which strike a good balance of cancellation and sound quality.
If you’re deciding whether to buy a pair of IEMs or a pair of full size, over-ear headphones, the one thing you should absolutely not consider is sound quality. Both IEMs and full-size headphones can sound fantastic at any price range, so sound quality should (we can’t believe we’re saying this) be a secondary consideration.
The primary consideration should be comfort and convenience. IEMs are unquestionably more convenient—they weigh less and take up less space. However, they can be uncomfortable for some people, and can often consist of multiple small parts which can easily be lost. You also have to worry about tangled cables, poorly fitting tips, and more careful source selection. Headphones may be bulkier and heavier, but in some ways are easier to manage. Even with traditional wired headphones, you usually only need to worry about two elements—the headphones and the cable. It’s also frequently easier to find high-end headphones that also have wireless Bluetooth functionality, which may be worth looking at if you intend to go wireless. Ultimately, as with so much in audio world, much of this comes down to personal preference.