This post was updated on November 19th, 2018 to include updated pricing and new information.
The headphone jack may be under attack, but earbuds are still one of those useful things you can carry in your pockets. Whether you’re living the dongle life or not, it’s hard to beat the sound quality of a good pair of ‘buds you can just toss in your pocket and go about your day with. The best earbuds not only offer good sound quality but are also comfortable and durable enough to use every day. Now to be fair, in-ears can cost thousands of dollars and sound amazing, but you don’t have to spend that much to get good quality sound. Case in point: the 1More Quad Driver in-ears which are some of the best earbuds you can get.
The best earbuds are the 1More Quad-Driver in-ears
If you couldn’t tell by the name these contain four different drivers in each earbud, each tuned specifically to handle a different frequency range. This means there’s less overlap between different sounds, as there isn’t just a single driver trying to do everything at once. And sure, at roughly $199 these aren’t cheap, but if you compare them to other quad-driver in-ears on the market: you’re still saving a ton of money by opting for these.
Quad Driver in-earsFull Review
And that cut in price doesn’t come with any drastic sacrifices either. You’ll still get the same top-notch quality that was available in the previous Triple-Driver in-ears with an all-metal housing and Kevlar cable. Speaking of which the Triple-Drivers make a great pair of ‘buds too if you want to save some cash, but if you’re looking for the best, the Quad-Driver’s are the way to go. They have a more ergonomic control module that’s compatible with Android or iOS. The sound signature consists of a slight bump in bass when compared to the previous model.
Though the sound quality definitely favors the low-end, it’s not an overbearing experience. They keep the fun sound that many of us like without overdoing it—or forgetting about the mids and the highs. The treble, in particular, has good detail but they do get kind of harsh at high volume. Luckily they also get pretty loud, so don’t crank them up too often if you want to avoid noise-induced hearing loss.
Looking for a sleek design with good sound?
It’s rare that you find a product whose form perfectly matches its function, but that’s exactly the category that the Master & Dynamic ME05 in-ears fall into. The brass earbuds result in a slightly heavier pair of ‘buds but that doesn’t really matter once you put them in. They feel super light in the ears and if you add your favorite pair of ear tips for an even more secure fit, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Master & Dynamic ME05Full Review
The brass build doesn’t only mean that you’ll get a durable pair of headphones that can handle a beating, but the metal also has specific properties that help sound quality as well. There’s a reason so many wind instruments are made of brass. These sound as good as they look, thanks to 8mm titanium-coated drivers in each earbud. So, if you’re a sucker for good design and premium build, you can’t go wrong with these as some of the best earbuds available.
What are some other great options? For the most accurate sound, go with the Etymotic ER4SR
If you’re going to be monitoring or mixing (or doing any kind of professional work really) with audio, a pair of in-ears with a flat response might be a worthy investment to make. And if you want accuracy, look no further than the Etymotic ER4SR in-ears. These have a thin, smooth aluminum housing and triple flange ear tips so you can be confident that they won’t fall out. The minimalist design doesn’t allow any room for playback controls, but we’ll get these a pass. After all, these are specifically for professionals that work with audio, or anyone who doesn’t like to have emphasis on certain aspects of the frequency range.
The cable is braided for extra durability. Though because the earbuds connect via MMCX connectors, you don’t have to worry too much about breaking the cable because you can just get another one. It’s worth mentioning that, even though these end in a 3.5mm plug (which your phone may or may not have now), they also have an impedance of 45ohm, so while you don’t need an amp for these if you already have one it won’t hurt.
Bassheads should go with the Thinksound ts03+mic earbuds
Sometimes the best bass isn’t going to be the one that’s loudest. Though the Thinksound ts03+mic earbuds don’t have the strongest low-end you’ll find on the market, they still manage to offer an emphasized low-end. Yeah, it might get in the way of the vocals, but they’re still good enough to recommend to bass lovers. Plus, Thinksound has a thing for using natural or recycled materials in their products, and that’s on the display here. The ‘buds are made entirely of walnut, which the company uses to their advantage to help make the bass sound better than the 8mm driver would lead you to believe.
Thinksound ts03+micFull Review
The build of these headphones is also worth mentioning because if you, like me, tend to just stuff your headphones in the first pocket you can find when you’re done using them then you’re going to want something that can survive that over and over again. Not only is it going to be hard to break those wooden earbuds, but the cable is also Kevlar reinforced. So rolling these up shouldn’t be a problem at all. Of course, the one downside is that you’re going to be untangling these quite often because even though Thinksound claims it’s a tangle-resistant cable, we didn’t find that to be the case in our review. The 3.5mm connector ends in a 45-degree plug which helps prevent fraying over time. To make things even better, they’re sweat-resistant. So, if you’re looking to hit the gym and don’t want to go with any of the wireless options we recommend, these will get the job done.
They also come with a few silicone ear tips to help you get the best fit possible but pro tip, you might want to swap them out with a pair of Comply memory foam tips in order to get some of the best isolation on the market (save for getting an actual pair of in-ears).
Looking to save some money on the best earbuds? Get the RHA MA390
RHA makes plenty of well-known earbuds, but the company tends to lean more towards the premium side of things. So when the RHA MA390 was announced at $29, we knew that we had to check them out. And we’re glad we did. Not only do these earbuds sound good, they look great. You can tell that the people at RHA learned a lot from the design of previous earbuds and incorporated it into these. So even though they’re only $29, they definitely don’t look or feel like it.
RHA MA390Full Review
The housing is made of a sleek 6063-grade aluminum, which means you won’t have to worry about crushing them when you toss them in your pocket. Similarly, the 3.5mm connector jack is well reinforced to protect against fraying. It’s worth mentioning that because these have universal compatibility to work with all smartphones, it’s lacking volume controls. You’ll only get a single button to handle playback controls. Microphone quality also suffers here, but if there was a place to cut corners, I’m glad that’s where RHA decided to do it.
As Lily said in the full review, the sound quality here may be frustrating if you spent money on a pair of more expensive ‘buds, but for the price these are impressive.
What you should know about the best earbuds
Chances are you’ve been using earbuds for years, but there are still things that you should be aware of when making a purchase decision. First and foremost: safety. Though we usually say you should try and get your hands on a pair of headphones to try for yourself before buying, it’s a little harder with in-ears. You don’t want to be going to local electronics and just sticking things in your ears. Who knows who’s tried them out before you. It’s kind of gross if you think about it too much, but there are also infections that can be passed along that way. So, while it’s usually okay to go trying out over-ear headphones, you should take some precautions when it comes to in-ears like alcohol swabs or even your own pair of ear tips.
Isolation plays an important role
Which brings us to the next thing that you should know when buying a pair of ‘buds: fit. Isolation is extremely important when it comes to enjoying your music and in-ears don’t have the luxury of large cups and leather to block out sound. If the earbud tip isn’t a good fit, you’re not only going to have a hard time keeping them from falling out of your ear, but you’re going to be letting in all kinds of outside noise. Luckily, earbuds usually come with a few different options so you can mix and match until you get the perfect fit, but one thing I’ve learned in my experience is just to invest in a good set of comply memory foam tips for yourself. Not only are they super comfortable and keep the ‘buds in your ears, they also do a solid job of blocking outside noise. This is of course not possible with true in-ears like the Etymotic ER4SR, but those also don’t have this problem because of how far into your ears they sit.
One thing about wired earbuds that gets overlooked is just how damn good sound quality is. Sure, Bluetooth is more convenient and has plenty of benefits but dollar-for-dollar, some of the best earbuds blow away their wireless competition. Bluetooth sound quality is OK, and there are plenty of options out there—but wired headphones aren’t limited by data transfer speeds in the same way that Bluetooth ones are. Plus if you happen to keep your source files on the device, it’s actually not limited by data transfer speeds at all.
Noise-induced hearing loss
Unfortunately, we as humans don’t hear perfectly. The typical human range of hearing is 20Hz – 20kHzm but depending on your age or how often you’ve been subjected to loud noises (like going to concerts), you might not be able to hear everything in that range. There really isn’t any way to avoid this as we’re surrounded by loud noises and are aging by the minute, but you can prevent the worst of it.
If the damage is done there’s nothing that can currently undo it. On the bright side, you can learn more about how hearing loss occurs by reading our explainer piece, and we also have a basic hearing test you can take to find out just how good your hearing is. If you’re like me and didn’t do as well as you’d like to, the good news is that you can still take care of your remaining hearing by limited volume to under 85 dB. That’s the recommended limit for safe-listening, and because earbuds are much closer to your ears than the speakers at a concert it’s even more important to keep that limit in mind.
Isolation is extremely important when it comes to enjoying your music
- KZ ATE copper in-ears: If you’re not looking to spend too much but prioritize sound quality over all else, then these might do it for you. The Kz ATE Copper in-ears are not going to outperform your favorite pair of expensive ‘buds, but for less than $20, they’re good enough. This means that you can leave your expensive headphones at home. Better yet, just leave these in your bag for when you forget your main pair and know that you have something solid to fall back on.
- 1More Triple-Driver earbuds: The 1More Triple-Driver in-ears have their faults, but for the price, they make one hell of a good pair of earbuds. You can use these every day to enjoy your music without worrying about whether they’ll survive your pockets. Full review
- V-Moda Forza Metallo: These are without a doubt an incredibly solid pair of all-around headphones. If you’re looking to make an investment on a pair of in-ears and have prioritized a fashionable design, it’s easy to recommend Forza Metallo ‘buds. Full review
- NuForce/Massdrop EDC in-ears: These may not be the be-all-end-all of in-ear monitors, but this collab between NuForce and Massdrop is certainly one heck of a bargain. It’s just gravy that their design is so smart; plus, they isolate sound really well. Full review
- Shure SE-215-K: Shure makes plenty of audio equipment, but the Shure SE-215-K ‘buds just might be a classic.
How we chose
Disclaimer: Regardless of what we put on this list, we definitely missed some great options. That isn’t because we decided to ignore them, but because there are hundreds of great ‘buds out there. Picking five came down to a few main things. First was affordability. You can go deep down the rabbit hole when it comes to in-ear headphones.
Spending hundreds of dollars on a pair of ‘buds isn’t an easy decision and we don’t take it lightly, but when the alternative is spending thousands on insanely high-end IEMs we consider these relatively affordable. At the same time, you’ll eventually get to a point of diminishing return. It’s true you’ll find some amazing headphones if you spend upwards of $1,000, but are they really $800 better than our top pick? We don’t think so.
After price, the most important feature quickly becomes sound quality. Luckily, there are plenty of options here. Unlike Bluetooth headphones, in-ears are all about the hardware rather than software. And companies have had decades to fine-tune the sound for the best experience, resulting in plenty of great sounding ‘buds that won’t cost you too much.
Comfort is important too, but there’s a lot of variability there. Not all of our observations are going to hold true for everyone. Consequently, we didn’t spend a ton of time waxing poetic about this feature, because your experiences will differ from ours; you have different ears, after all! Additionally, there remain some third party foam tip options for you to consider—offering even better isolation and fit than the standard silicone tips. Good ear tips will make even the best earbuds sound even better.
Why you should trust us
The team at SoundGuys come from all walks of life, but they involve audio. Chris spent years testing products for the likes of USA Today and Reviewed.com. Lily also spent years reviewing headphones independently on her own time before joining the team, as well as working in and out of radio stations where she was surrounded by equipment. Adam has been a SoundGuy for almost four years now and has tried or listened to most of the major products to come out in that time. Add all that together, we just might know what we’re talking about.
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